10 Common Questions About Islam, Answered

Muslim worshippers circle the Kaaba, Islam's most sacred sanctuary and pilgrimage shrine, within the Masjid Al-Haram mosque in December 2002 in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Reza/Getty Images

For many Westerners, the religion of Islam remains a mystery. In the United States, Muslims — those who follow Islam — made up only 1.1 percent of the population (3.45 million) in 2017, and while Muslim Americans live in every state, the most sizable communities are clustered in certain places like New Jersey and Washington, D.C. [source: Mohamed]. Since many Americans don't know any Muslims personally, they're likely to get all of their information about Islam from the news and social media.

And that's a problem.

If you just read the news headlines, you might think that one of the main tenets of Islam is terrorism. We hear about militant groups like al-Qaida and ISIS committing acts of atrocity in the name of Allah. And moments before the 9/11 attackers flew their planes into the World Trade Center towers they proclaimed "Allah Hu Akbar!" (God is great!) [source: Bergen].

But Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, is at its core a religion of peace and tolerance. Like every religion, the acts of a few people don't necessarily reflect the beliefs and the behavior of the majority. Allah, Muslims believe, is the same God who spoke to Moses and sent Jesus to the world. Muslims are found all over the globe -- in Asia, Africa and Europe, as well as in the Middle East and the Americas.

If you've always wanted to learn more about Islam, to go beyond the politicized rhetoric and get to the heart of the second-largest religious tradition in the world, this is your chance. Here are answers to 10 frequently asked questions about Islam. First, let's get to know its founder.

10
Who Was Muhammad?
Muhammad is depicted riding a camel, mostly likely during his flight to Medina in 622, an event known as the Hijrah, or Night Journey. Nastasic/Getty Images

Without Muhammad, there would be no Islam. Orphaned at a young age, Muhammad was a successful merchant before receiving the startling angelic revelations that would make him the first and last prophet of the Muslim world.

Muhammad was born in 570 C.E. in the Arabian town of Mecca, already a popular pilgrimage site. The people of Mecca belonged to familial tribes and mainly worshipped many different gods and idols, although there were also some Christian and Jewish settlements [source: Sinai and Watt].

Muhammad's father died shortly before his birth, and his mother passed away when he was 6. Muhammad was raised by other family members and trained as a merchant. At 25 years old, he married a wealthy widow named Khadijah who had hired him to do some trade for her. Together they had four daughters (and two sons who died in infancy) [source: PBS].

At the age of 40, Muhammad was meditating in a cave near Mecca when he was visited by the angel Gabriel, who commanded him to "read" or "recite in the name of your Lord." (This saying would become part of the Quran, the Islamic sacred book.) Muhammad fled the cave in awe and fear, and ran to tell Khadijah. She believed and comforted him, and took him to her cousin, a learned Christian, who confirmed that the angel's visitation qualified him as a prophet [source: Sinai and Watt].

Muhammad continued to receive revelations from God but didn't go public with them for three years. When he did, his monotheistic preaching angered the idol-worshiping tribes in Mecca, stirring up the first tensions between Muhammad's early followers and the leaders of those tribes.

Muhammad and his followers eventually fled to Medina, in North Africa, for refuge in 622, but only after Muhammad experienced what's known as his Night Journey. According to one version of the story, Muhammad was transported from Mecca to Jerusalem by the angel Gabriel on a mythical winged creature where he met with the prophets Abraham, Moses and Jesus, and briefly ascended to heaven to learn at the throne of Allah. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is believed to be the site of the Night Journey [source: Oxford Dictionary of Islam].

Muhammad was both a spiritual preacher and a political and military leader. After several battles and broken treaties with the tribes of Mecca, he eventually returned to Mecca triumphant and secured the town as a Muslim stronghold before his death from an unknown illness at age 60 in 632 [source: PBS].

Within the religious tradition of Islam, Muhammad is a spiritual giant and miracle worker on par with Jesus or Moses. The Quran is a collection of every revelation that Muhammad received from Allah. Examples and stories from Muhammad's life form the basis of the Sunnah, a collection of traditional social and legal customs in the Islamic community. This, along with the Quran, is the source for most of the laws governing Muslim life.

Outside of the Muslim religious tradition, Muhammad was for centuries dismissed as a power-hungry charlatan who invented the revelations recorded in the Quran [source: Sinai and Watt]. Considering the global spread of Islam, most religious scholars place him among the most influential religious and cultural figures in human history.

9
How Does Islam Differ From Judaism or Christianity?
This interior of the Hagia Sophia shows a mural of Mary holding Jesus Christ as well as inscriptions of Allah and Muhammad. Hagia Sophia was once a Greek Orthodox Christian patriarchal basilica, and later an imperial mosque. It's now a major tourist attraction in Istanbul, Turkey. HADI ZAHER/Getty Images

The major tenets of Islam have much in common with the two other major monotheistic religions, Judaism and Christianity, but there are also some key differences.

The greatest similarity is that Islam, Judaism and Christianity believe there is only one true God. (This is called monotheism.) In Arabic, the name for God is Allah, and Muslims believe he is the very same God who revealed his teachings to previous prophets like Abraham, Moses and Jesus (among others), but that his final revelation was to the Prophet Muhammad. Allah, as described in the Quran, is compassionate and merciful, among his many other attributes [source: ING].

As for holy scriptures, Muslims believe that God had previously sent divine revelation to Abraham, Moses, David and Jesus. But they don't believe that these revelations exist in their original form today [source: ING]. Similarly, while Muslims believe that Jesus was a prophet and was born miraculously of the Virgin Mary, they don't believe in his divinity as the son of God [source: BBC].

The core beliefs of Islam are contained in what are known as the six Articles of Faith. These are:

  1. Belief that Allah is the one and only God
  2. Belief in angels
  3. Belief in the prophets, 25 of which are mentioned in the Quran, including Adam, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Isaac, Ishmael, Moses, David and Jesus
  4. Belief in the holy books revealed to the prophets mentioned above
  5. Belief in the Day of Judgment
  6. Belief in predestination (that Allah knows all that will happen)

As we'll discuss next, the faith and practice of Islam is also guided by the Five Pillars. Several of these core teachings have strong parallels in Judaism or Christianity, like the injunction to give to charity, reflected in the Jewish practice of tzedakah, or providing for the poor. Islam and Judaism also share the practice of ritual circumcision of baby boys, refraining from eating pork and certain burial customs [source: Schneier and Ali].

8
How Do Muslims Practice Their Faith?
Pilgrims shield themselves from the sun with umbrellas during hajj in February 2003 in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Over five days, pilgrims walk for miles, resting and praying between religious landmarks. Muslims are required to perform hajj at least once in their lives. Reza/Getty Images

Muslims around the world live out their religion according to the Five Pillars of Islam, some of which concern daily spiritual practice like prayer, and others that aspire to once-in-a-lifetime experiences like the pilgrimage to Mecca.

The first Pillar of Islam is a profession of faith (shahadah). This two-part testimony is required for entry into the broader Muslim community [source: Oxford Dictionary of Islam]. The first part expresses faith in God: "There is no god but Allah." And the second part expresses faith in the Prophet Muhammad: "Muhammad is the messenger of Allah."

The second Pillar of Islam, ritual prayer (salat), is one of the faith's most visible and distinguishing practices. Muslims are required to perform ritual prayers five times a day facing in the direction of Mecca: predawn, midday, late afternoon, just after sunset and at night.

Ritual prayers involve a set of proscribed movements (standing, kneeling bowing), scriptural recitations, prayers for the prophets Muhammad and Abraham, and personal supplications. Before starting to pray, Muslims purify themselves through a ritual washing that includes one's hands, face, nose, arms and feet.

The third Pillar of Islam is charitable giving (zakah), a requirement that all Muslims not living in poverty give a small portion of their wealth annually to support those in need. The fixed amount paid annually to the needy is equal to 2.5 percent of the person's excess wealth.

The fourth Pillar of Islam is fasting from sun up to sundown during the month of Ramadan (sawm), which usually falls between May and June. Not only must Muslims refrain from eating or drinking, but they can't engage in any "sensual activities," which includes smoking and sex [source: BBC]. The intention of fasting is to learn self-discipline, develop more empathy for the poor and hungry, appreciate Allah's gifts, and celebrate the revelation of the Quran, which began on the 27th day of Ramadan.

Many Muslims wake before dawn to have a meal before beginning the fast (suhur). The daily fast is broken every evening after sunset (iftar) followed by the evening prayer and dinner. At the end of Ramadan is a community-wide celebration called Eid al-Fitr, or the Festival of Breaking the Fast, during which children often receive gifts, money and new clothes.

The fifth Pillar of Islam is to make a religious pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj) during the first 10 days of the final month of the lunar year, usually September or October. All physically and financially able Muslims must travel to Mecca at least once in their lives and complete the essential rites of the hajj, which Muhammad performed during his final pilgrimage to Mecca. The hajj represents the highest spiritual and communal experience in Islam.

7
Does the Quran Have to Be Read in Arabic?
A man reads the Quran, which has both English and Arabic translations, on his tablet. Ahmar Nadeem/Getty Images

To answer this question, you first need to understand what the Quran is and how it is viewed by most Muslims.

As we mentioned in our brief biography of Muhammad, the Quran is the written record of every revelation received by the Prophet Muhammad from Allah through the angel Gabriel. It's essentially the transcript of a one-sided conversation between Allah and his prophet. And as such, it is viewed by Muslims as the unerring, unchangeable word of God. While some verses, such as those prohibiting alcohol or pork, have a defined interpretation, there are others that are less clear.

Let's compare that to the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. While the Old Testament contains some direct quotations from God, such as the recitation of the Ten Commandments in the Book of Exodus, it's also considered by many to be an historic chronicle of a people. The four gospels of the New Testament (the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) are likewise presented as third-person accounts of Jesus' ministry. And while some Orthodox Jews and devout Christians claim that the Bible or the Torah are the inerrant words of God, many others believe they are inspired documents open to interpretation.

The Quran was originally written in Arabic, the language spoken by Muhammad and his early followers. Since Muslims believe the Quran to be the direct word of Allah, the holiest and most correct version of the Quran is in Arabic. While the Quran has been translated into hundreds of languages, the original Arabic is still used in prayers and religious services, much like Latin and Hebrew are the default liturgical languages in many Catholic and Jewish congregations [source: ING].

For non-Arab Muslims who want a deeper understanding of the Quran, there is no prohibition against reading the scriptures in translation for personal study.

6
What's the Difference Between Shiite and Sunni Muslims?
People enter the Al Rahma mosque for Friday evening prayers on June 22, 2018, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Most Saudi Arabians are Sunni. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The division between Sunni and Shiite Muslims is more political than religious but still fuels violent conflict across the Middle East.

It all started with the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 and a split over who should succeed him as the political and spiritual leader of the fast-growing Muslim people. One group believed that the leadership should stay in Muhammad's family, namely his cousin and son-in-law Ali. The other group backed Abu Bakr, a close friend of the prophet and the father of one of his wives [source: Harney].

Muhammad's father-in-law Abu Bakr won out, and the disgruntled supporters of Ali became known as the Shia, short for shiaat Ali or "partisans of Ali." Those who supported Abu Bakr eventually became known as Sunni or the followers of Sunnah, the prophetic tradition. Ali did get a chance to rule briefly as the fourth caliph or Muslim leader, but the feud between the sects was rekindled when one of Ali's sons, Hussein, was killed by a Sunni caliph in Iraq in 680 [source: The Economist].

The religious differences between Sunni and Shiite Muslims are less about doctrine than the source of that doctrine. All Muslims believe in the Five Pillars and the six Articles of Faith, but Sunnis view the Quran and the Sunnah (the prophetic tradition) as the definitive and final sources of enlightenment. Shiites, on the other hand, believe that Allah's revelations continued after Muhammad through a line of imams or holy leaders, and that it continues today in the form of Shiite religious leaders like the ayatollahs of Iran [source: The Economist].

Today, 80 percent of the world's Muslims are Sunnis, and in many places both sects live together in harmony. Yet much of the conflict in the Middle East is still fueled by power struggles between Sunni and Shiite-led forces. (In the Middle East and North Africa, 40 percent of Sunnis don't recognize Shias as fellow Muslims [source: Pew Research Center].)

Most observers agree that both Sunni and Shiite governments fuel sectarian resentments among the people to win support for pursuing political and military goals.

5
Do Muslim Women Have to Keep Themselves Covered?
Girls take a selfie during National Mosque Open Day at the Werribee Islamic Centre in Melbourne, Australia, 2014. On that day, mosques across Australia opened their doors to non-Muslims to dispel misconceptions about Islam. Luis Ascui/Getty Images

Modesty and chastity are important virtues for both Muslim men and women, and the Quran instructs both sexes to "cast down their glances and guard their chastity." But with regard to female modesty, the Quran continues, women should "not display their beauty except what is apparent, and they should place their khimaar over their bosoms" [source: BBC].

A khimaar is a veil-like head covering. Many Muslim scholars interpret the command to not display beauty "except what is apparent" as to mean covering only the hair, but not the face and hands [source: BBC]. Women who follow this tradition typically wear variations on the hijab, a scarf-like head covering.

Others interpret the command to place the veil "over their bosoms" to mean that women should cover much more than just the hair. In the time of the Prophet Muhammad, his wives were said to have worn head-to-toe coverings. This is believed to be the origin of the niqab, a full-body covering that reveals only the eyes [source: BBC].

Another Quranic verse commands that people who speak to the prophet's wives must do so behind a screen to ensure "greater purity for your hearts and theirs." Some have interpreted this to mean that even seeing a woman's eyes is an invitation for impure thoughts. That explains the burqa used by some women, which not only covers the entire body but also veils the eyes with a screen. Others point out that if women's faces were meant to be invisible, the Quran would not instruct men to "cast down their glances."

It's important to note that Muslim women are only expected to cover their heads or faces in public but not at home or in the presence of family members, including men [source: BBC].

4
Does Sharia Require Punishments Like Stoning?
An Acehnese woman gets a caning in public from an executor for spending time with a man who is not her husband, which is against Sharia in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, 2017. Indonesia's Aceh province is among the only place in the Muslim-majority country that implements a strict version of Sharia. More than 90 percent of the 255 million people who live in Indonesia describe themselves as Muslim, but the vast majority practice a moderate form. Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

Western critics of Islam decry the seemingly "medieval" punishments imposed by Islamic law like stoning for adultery and hand-cutting for robbery. But while these punishments are indeed mentioned in the Quran and other Islamic holy texts, they are not the essence of Sharia, or Islamic law.

First, it's important to know that the word Sharia does not actually mean Islamic law [source: ING]. Sharia is translated from the Arabic as "the clear-well-trodden path to water," and includes all teachings from the Quran and the life of the Prophet Muhammad that help guide Muslims down the straight path toward Allah. The legal interpretations of these teachings is called fiqh and largely follow the prophet's admonition to prize mercy over punishment [source: Brown].

Many Sharia teachings are designed to make life easier for the individual, the family and broader society. Those include prohibitions against adultery and premarital sex to strengthen the family, and admonitions against drinking alcohol or eating foods believed to be unclean to preserve health. Sharia teachings also include the ethical way to conduct business transactions to prevent fraud and promote justice.

The punishments for ignoring or flouting these teachings, some of which are laid out explicitly in the Quran and Sunnah, are meant to deter hurtful behavior that leads individuals and society away from God. Most punishments are mild and mainly focus on the right and wrong way to worship. But a small minority — 2 percent of Islamic law on the books — get all the attention [source: Brown].

According to the Sunnah, the prophet said that drunkenness should be punished by 40 lashings. Having sex before marriage, according the Quran, merits 100 lashings. Thieves are to have their hands cut off, and adultery is punishable by death by stoning.

It sounds cruel and unusual, but historians point out that stoning, flogging and other physical punishments were commonplace before the Western idea of prison took hold. Also, Islamic scholars and judges built layers and layers of "ambiguities" into the law to reserve such harsh punishments for only the most extreme cases [source: Brown].

For example, for someone to be stoned for adultery, Sharia courts require four witnesses to the actual sexual act. If someone makes a false accusation of adultery, they could receive 80 lashings — a major deterrent to making such a claim [source: Brown].

Stonings and floggings still occur in some fundamentalist corners of Islam (for instance Aceh province in Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Sudan), but these practices are not embraced by mainstream Islam. However, Sharia does form the basis of law for many Muslim-majority countries.

3
Does Islam Condone Terrorism?
The family of Iraqi Sgt. Maj. Haydar Fakhri Harbi hangs a mourning banner in a funeral tent to announce his death by an ISIS suicide car bomb in Mosul in 2016. The death of the Shiite officer fighting to liberate a northern Sunni city, the family says, indicates an Iraqi desire for secular unity. Scott Peterson/Getty Images

Like all other major religions, Islam prohibits the taking of innocent lives, and only allows warfare in the face of direct attack. And even then, according to the Quran, the moment an aggressor yields, all fighting should cease and be replaced with forgiveness and mercy.

But why, then, do groups like al-Qaida and ISIS, who claim to be believing Muslims, encourage their followers to commit horrendous acts of violence against innocent civilians?

In those cases, religion is used as an excuse for the violent pursuit of largely political goals. Religious scriptures have been cherry-picked by fundamentalists of all faiths to justify violence against nonbelievers, and the Quran is no different [source: ING]. If you pull certain verses of the Quran out of their historical context, they can be twisted to sound like instructions to kill non-Muslims "where you find them," as one verse puts it.

In the early years of Islam, the Prophet Muhammad and his followers were persecuted and attacked in Mecca, forcing them to flee to Medina. Although his supporters wanted him to fight back, the prophet refused until Allah gave him permission. And when that permission to "kill the disbelievers" finally came, it was in response to a specific attack under specific historical circumstances [source: Rashid].

Other Quranic verses about warfare make it clear that violence is allowed only in cases of self-defense, or when defending the lives of other believers, such as Jews and Christians. And the moment the enemy "desists," fighting should stop [source: Rashid].

It is often reported that people who join groups such as ISIS believe that if they die during battle or as suicide bombers they will go straight to heaven as martyrs. But when one digs deeper there is generally an economic, identity or other motivation for them joining as well [source: Simon]. Equating a just war to fight oppression and injustice with terrorism is a mistake made both by terrorists and critics of Islam.

2
Are Most Muslims Arabs?
Chinese Hui Muslims greet each other after Eid al-Fitr prayers marking the end of Ramadan at the Niujie Mosque in Beijing, China. Islam in China dates back to the 10th century, a legacy of Arab traders who came along the ancient Silk Road. There are 23 million Muslims in China. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Nope.

According to the Pew Research Center, only 20 percent of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims (as of 2010) live in the Middle East and Northern Africa, the regions most closely associated with Arab people. The place with the most Muslims, interestingly, is the Asia-Pacific region, which is home to nearly two-thirds (62 percent) of all Muslims [source: DeSilver and Masci].

More Muslims live in Indonesia (209 million) than any other single country, followed by India (176 million) and Pakistan (167 million). Egypt has 76 million Muslims, putting it sixth on the list, but No. 1 among Arab-majority countries [source: Pew Research Center].

The reason many Westerners associate Islam with Arab-majority countries is that the density of believers is highest in that region. In the Middle East and Northern Africa, 93 percent of all 341 million inhabitants identify as Muslim. Compare that to only 24 percent in the Asia-Pacific region [source: DeSilver and Masci].

Even though many more Muslims live outside of Arab countries and practice non-Arabic interpretations of Islam, they get far less attention from Western media than Muslims from the Middle East.

1
What Has Islam Contributed to Civilization?
An interior view of the beautiful Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. It's one of the largest mosques in the world and a center for Islamic culture and sciences. Achim Thomae/Getty Images

Islamic philosophers, scientists, poets and engineers have made tremendous contributions to both Islamic and Western civilization. When predominantly Christian Europe was mired into the Dark Ages of the medieval period, Islamic culture experienced its "golden age," producing and preserving knowledge that would shape the future of astronomy, medicine, education, chemistry and literature.

The world's first university and the oldest library in operation was founded by two wealthy Muslim women in Morocco in the year 859. The central importance of knowledge and education in early Islam led to the creation of several prominent universities in the Andalucia region of Spain between the eighth and 15th centuries [source: Considine].

These centers of learning, open to students of all faiths, were critical in preserving scientific knowledge and philosophical wisdom that would have been lost after the fall of the Roman Empire. Early Muslim scholars translated Greek texts by Socrates, Aristotle and Plato into Arabic, without which the eventual European Renaissance may never have been possible.

Algebra, trigonometry and chemistry were invented by Muslim scholars in the Middle Ages. The 10th-century surgeon Al-Zahrawi in Cordoba, Spain, is credited with inventing the syringe, forceps, bone saws and specialty scalpels [source: Al-Khalili]. And major advances in astronomy were discovered at large Muslim-built observatories in Baghdad as far back as the ninth century [source: Considine].

Some of the most influential and beloved poetry in the world has come from Persia, or what's now modern-day Iran. Ferdowsi, a 10th-century Persian poet, wrote the longest epic poem in history at 60,000 verses [source: Behrooz]. And Rumi, a 13th-century imam and mystic who wrote love poems to Allah, is still one of the best-selling poets in the United States [source: Moaveni].

Finally, coffee was first drunk in Yemen in the 1400s by an Islamic sect called the Sufis, as an aid to staying awake for prayer. From there, coffee houses sprang up in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East [source: McHugo].

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Author's Note: 10 Questions About Islam

I was a religion major in college, which consisted of taking at least one class in each of the major Western and Eastern religious traditions. As a curious person without a strong faith of my own, I found each of these religions fascinating, Islam included. I also realized that if you viewed each religion's supernatural claims as a nonbelieving outsider, they were all equally preposterous. And if you focused only on the ill that each religion had wrought in its long history, then they were all equally flawed. But if you read the scriptural texts and prophetic teachings at the heart of each one of them, you were inspired by repeated calls to live the golden rule, to treat others as you would want be treated, and love others as you would want to be loved.

Special thanks to Ameena Jandali, a founding member of the Islamic Networks Group (ING), for reviewing this article.

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