An introduction to basic Islamic belief and practices
by Dr. Ahmad H. Sakr, Ph.D.
I. Islam and Muslims
The name of this religion is Islam, the root of which, Silm or Salam, means peace. Salam is also part of the greeting of peace among Muslims. In addition, one of the beautiful names of God is As-Salam, meaning “The Peace”. The word, however, means much more than just “peace”. It means submission to the One God, as well as to live in harmony with other people and with the environment. A Muslim is, therefore, any person, anywhere in the world, whose obedience, allegiance and loyalty are to God, Lord of the Universe, and who strives to live in accordance with God’s laws.
II. Muslims and Arabs
The followers of Islam are called Muslims. We should not confuse Muslims with Arabs. Muslims may be Arabs, or they may be Turks, Persians, Indians, Pakistanis, Indonesians, Europeans, Africans, Americans, Chinese, or any other nationality. Islam is not limited to any nationality or race.
Arabs, also, are not limited to only one religion. An Arab may be a Muslim, a Jew, a Christian, an atheist, or part of any other belief system. Any person who adopts the Arab language as his or her mother tongue is called an Arab.
While there are over one billion Muslims in the world, there are about 200 million Arabs, among whom about ten percent are not Muslim. Thus, Arab Muslims constitute only about twenty percent of the Muslim population of the world.
The language of the Qur’an, the Holy Book of Islam, is Arabic. Muslims all over the world try to learn Arabic so that they may be able to read the Qur’an and understand its meaning. They pray in the language of the Qur’an, but supplications to God may be in any language.
III. Allah, the One and the Only God
Allah is the name of the One and Only God. Allah has ninety-nine beautiful names, such as: The Gracious, The Merciful, The Beneficent, The Creator, The All-Knowing, The All-Wise, The Lord of the Universe, The First, The Last, and many others.
He is the Creator of all human beings. He is the God for the Christians, the Jews, the Muslims, the Buddhists, the Hindus and all others, including those who do not even believe in Him. Muslims worship God, and put their trust in Him as they seek His help and guidance.
Muhammad was chosen by God to deliver His Message of Peace, namely Islam. He was born in 570 C.E. (Common Era) in Makkah, Arabia. He was entrusted with the Message of Islam when he was at the age of forty years. The revelation that he received is called the Qur’an, while the message is called Islam.
Muhammad is the very last Prophet of God to mankind. He is the final Messenger of God. His message was and still is to all of mankind, including the Christians and Jews. He was sent to those religious people to inform them about the true mission of Jesus, Moses, David, Jacob, Isaac and Abraham.
Muhammad is considered to be the summation and culmination of all the prophets and messengers that came before him. He purified the previous messages from adulteration and completed the Message of God for all humanity. He was entrusted with the power of explaining, interpreting and living the teachings of the Qur’an.
V. Sources of Islam
The legal sources of Islam are the Qur’an and the Hadith. The Qur’an is the exact words of God; its authenticity, originality and totality are intact. The Hadith are the reports of the sayings, deeds and approvals of the Prophet Muhammad. The Prophet’s sayings and deeds are called Sunnah. The Seerah is the writings of followers of Muhammad about the life of the Prophet. Hence, it is the life history of the Prophet Muhammad which provides examples of daily living for Muslims.
VI. Some Islamic Principles
A. Oneness of God
He is One and the Only One. He is not two in one or three in one. This means that Islam rejects the idea of trinity or such a unity of God which implies more than one God in one.
B. Oneness of mankind
People are created equal in front of the Law of God. There is not superiority of one race over another. God made us of different colors, nationalities, languages and beliefs so as to test who is going to be better than others. No one can claim that he is better than others. It is only God Who knows who is better. It depends on piety and righteousness.
C. Oneness of Messengers and the Message
Muslims believe that God sent different messengers throughout the history of mankind. All came with the same message and the same teachings. It was the people who misunderstood and misinterpreted them. Muslims believe in Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael, Jacob, Moses, David, Jesus and Muhammad. The Prophets of Christianity and Judaism are indeed the Prophets of Islam.
D. Angels and the Day of Judgment
Muslims believe that there are unseen creatures such as angels created by God in the universe for special missions. Muslims believe that there is a Day of Judgment when all people of the world throughout the history of mankind till the last Day of life on earth, are to be brought for accounting, reward and punishment.
E. Innocence of Man at Birth
Muslims believe that people are born free of sin. It is only after they reach the age of puberty and it is only after they commit sins that they are to be charged for their mistakes. No one is responsible for or can take responsibility for the sins of others. However, the door of forgiveness through true repentance is always open.
F. State and Religion
Muslims believe that Islam is a total and a complete way of life. It encompasses all aspects of life. As such, the teachings of Islam do not separate religion from politics. As a matter of fact, state and religion are under the obedience of Allah through the teachings of Islam. Hence, economic and social transactions, as well as educational and political systems, are a part of the teachings of Islam.
VII. Practices of Islam
God instructed the Muslims to practice what they believe in. In Islam there are five pillars:
A. Creed (Shahadah)
The verbal commitment and pledge that there is only One God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God, is considered to be the Creed of Islam.
B. Prayers (Salat)
The performance of the five daily prayers is required of Muslims.
C. Fasting (Saum)
Fasting is total abstinence from food, liquids and intimate relations from dawn to sunset during the entire month of Ramadan.
D. Purifying Tax (Zakat)
This is an annual payment of a certain percentage of a Muslim’s property, which is distributed among the poor or other rightful beneficiaries.
E. Pilgrimage (Hajj)
The performance of pilgrimage to Makkah is required once in a lifetime if the means are available. Hajj is, in part, a memorial to the trials and tribulations of Prophet Abraham, his wife Hagar and his eldest son, Prophet Ishmael.
VIII. Other Related Aspects
Islamic practices are based on the lunar calendar. However, Muslims also use the Gregorian calendar in their daily religious lives. Hence, the Islamic calendar includes both the common era and the migration (Hijra) year of the Prophet of Islam from Makkah to Madinah in the year of 623 C.E.
B. Celebrations (Eid)
Muslims have two celebrations (Eid): the Eid of Sacrifice and the Eid of Fast-breaking. The Eid of Sacrifice is in remembrance of the sacrifice to have been made by Prophet Abraham of his son. The Eid of Fast-breaking comes at the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting.
Islam allows Muslims to eat everything which is good for the health. It restricts certain items such as pork and its byproducts, alcohol and any narcotic or addictive drugs.
D. Place of Worship
The place of worship is called the Mosque or Masjid. There are three holy places of worship for the Muslims on the world. These are the Mosque of the Kaabah in Makkah, the Mosque of Prophet Muhammad in Madinah, and Masjid Aqsa, adjacent to the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
A Muslim may pray anywhere in the world, whether in a Mosque, a house, an office, or outside. The whole world is a place of worship. It is preferable that Muslims pray in a congregation, but he/she may pray individually anywhere.
The holy day of the Muslims is Friday. It is considered to be sacred, and the Day of Judgment will take place on Friday. Muslims join together shortly after noon on Friday for the Friday congregational prayer in a Mosque. A leader (Imam) gives a sermon (khutbah) and leads the congregational prayer.
F. Distribution of Muslims in North America
There are approximately seven million Muslims in North America and are distributed all around the continent, including major cities.
G. Contributions in North America
Muslims are now established in North America. The Sears Tower and John Hancock buildings in Chicago were designed by a Muslim chief architect, Fazlur Rahman, originally from Bangladesh. Muslims have established academic institutions, community centers and organizations, schools and places of worship. They live in peace and harmony among themselves and among other groups of people in the society. The rate of crime among Muslims is very minimal. Muslims in North America are highly educated and have added to the success of American scientific and technological fields.
The Muslims of the early period of the Islamic era were pioneers in medicine, geography, navigation, arts, poetry, mathematics, algebra, logarithms, calculus, etc. They contributed to the Renaissance of Europe and world civilization.
Muslims are required to respect all those who are faithful and God conscious people, namely, those who received messages. Christians and Jews are called People of the Book. Muslims are asked to call upon the People of the Book for common terms, namely, to worship One God, and to work together for the solutions of the many problems in the society.
Christians and Jews lived peacefully with Muslims throughout centuries in the Middle East and other Asian and African countries. The second Caliph, Umar, did not pray in the church in Jerusalem so as not to give the Muslims an excuse to take it over. Christians trusted the Muslims, and as such, the key of the Church in Jerusalem is still in the hands of Muslims.
Jews fled from Spain during the Inquisition, and they were welcomed by the Muslims. They settled in the heart of the Islamic Caliphate. They enjoyed positions of power and authority.
Throughout the Muslim World, churches, synagogues and missionary schools were built within the Muslim neighborhoods. These places were protected by Muslims even during the contemporary crises in the Middle East.