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Islam (ĭslämˈ, ĭsˈläm), [Arab.,=submission to God], world religion founded by the Prophet Muhammad. Founded in the 7th cent., Islam is the youngest of the three monotheistic world religions (with Judaism and Christianity). An adherent to Islam is a Muslim [Arab.,=one who submits].

Believers Worldwide

There are more than 1 billion Muslims worldwide, fewer than one fifth of whom are Arab. Islam is the principal religion of much of Asia, including Indonesia (which has the world's largest Muslim population), Malaysia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, the Arabian Peninsula states, and Turkey. India also has one of the world's largest Muslim populations, although Islam is not the principal religion there. In Africa, Islam is the principal religion in Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Djibouti, Gambia, Guinea, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Senegal, Somalia, and Sudan, with sizable populations also in Chad, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Tanzania (where the island of Zanzibar is predominantly Muslim), and Nigeria.

In Europe, Albania is predominantly Muslim, and, historically, Bulgaria, Bosnia, North Macedonia, and Georgia have had Muslim populations. Elsewhere in Europe, significant immigrant communities of Muslims from N Africa, Turkey, and Asia exist in France, Germany, Great Britain, and other nations. In the Americas the Islamic population has substantially increased in recent years, both from conversions and the immigration of adherents from other parts of the world. In the United States, the number of Muslims has been variably estimated at 2–6 million; 20% of the population of Suriname is Muslim.

Islamic Beliefs

At the core of Islam is the Qur'an, believed to be the final revelation by a transcendent Allah [Arab.,=the God] to Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam; since the Divine Word was revealed in Arabic, this language is used in Islamic religious practice worldwide. Muslims believe in final reward and punishment, and the unity of the umma, the “nation” of Islam. Muslims submit to Allah through arkan ad-din, the five basic requirements or “pillars”: shahadah, the affirmation that “there is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God”; salah, the five daily ritual prayers (see liturgy, Islamic); zakat, the giving of alms, also known as a religious tax; Sawm, the dawn-to-sunset fast during the lunar month of Ramadan; and hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. The importance of the hajj can hardly be overestimated: this great annual pilgrimage unites Islam and its believers from around the world.

The ethos of Islam is in its attitude toward Allah: to His will Muslims submit; Him they praise and glorify; and in Him alone they hope. However, in popular or folk forms of Islam, Muslims ask intercession of the saints, prophets, and angels, while preserving the distinction between Creator and creature. Islam views the Message of Muhammad as the continuation and the fulfillment of a lineage of Prophecy that includes figures from the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, notably Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus. Islamic law reserves a communal entity status for the ahl al-kitab, People of the Book, i.e., those with revealed religions, including Jews and Christians. Islam also recognizes a number of extra-biblical prophets, such as Hud, Salih, Shuayb, and others of more obscure origin. The chief angels are Gabriel and Michael; devils are the evil jinn.

Other Islamic obligations include the duty to “commend good and reprimand evil,” injunctions against usury and gambling, and prohibitions of alcohol and pork. Meat is permitted if the animal was ritually slaughtered; it is then called halal. Jihad, the exertion of efforts for the cause of God, is a duty satisfied at the communal and the individual level. At the individual level, it denotes the personal struggle to be righteous and follow the path ordained by God. Communally, it involves both encouraging what is good and correcting what is not and waging war to defend Islam.

In Islam, religion and social membership are inseparable: the ruler of the community (caliph; see caliphate) has both a religious and a political status. The unitary nature of Islam, as a system governing relations between a person and God, and a person and society, has contributed to the appeal and success of Islam.

The evolution of Islamic mysticism into organizational structures in the form of Sufi orders was, from the 13th cent. onwards, one of the driving forces in the spread of Islam (see Sufism; fakir). Sufi orders were instrumental in expanding the realm of Islam to trans-Saharan Africa, stabilizing its commercial and cultural links with the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and to SE Asia.

Holidays and Honorifics

The original feasts of Islam are id al-fitr, corresponding to the breaking of the fast of Ramadan, and id al-adha, coinciding with the pilgrimage to Mecca. Shiite Islam also celebrates id al-ghadir, the anniversary of Muhammad's declaration of Ali as his successor. Other Islamic holidays include al-mawlid al-nabawwi, Muhammad's birthday, and al-isra wa-l-miraj, the anniversary of his miraculous journey to Jerusalem and ascension to Heaven. Among the Islamic religious honorifics are shaykh, a generic term refering to a religious scholar or a mystic master; qadi, a religious judge (handling particular cases); mufti, a religious authority who issues general legal opinions; and mullah, a synonym of shaykh used in the Persian-speaking world.

Interpretation of the Qur'an

The revealed word of Islam, the Qur'an, in a formal Arabic which became more archaic with time, required explication. The Sunna, the spoken and acted example of the Prophet, collected as hadith, is an important traditional source that is used to supplement and explicate the Qu'ran. The Sunna is almost as important to Islam as the Qur'an, for in it lie the elaborations of Qur'anic teaching essential to the firm establishment of a world religion. There are disagreements in the hadith, and aspects of interpretations of the Qur'an and the Sunna have varied so much as to be contradictory at times. These situations are resolved by reference to one of the most important of the sayings attributed to the Prophet, “My community will never agree in an error.” This leeway also allowed Islam to expand by incorporating social, tribal, and ethnic traditions. For example, with the exception of inheritance and witness laws, Islamic rights and obligations apply equally to men and women. The actual situation of women is more a function of particular social traditions predating Islam than of theoretical positions. For more information on Islamic law, see sharia; for discussions of the major branches of Islamic theology, see Shiite, Sunni.


See F. Rahman, Islam (1966), M. Jameelah, Islam and Modernism (1968), P. K. Hitti, History of the Arabs (10th ed. 1970), M. G. S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam (3 vol., 1974), J. L. Esposito, Islam (rev. ed. 1992), A. Schimmel, Islam (1992), D. Waines, An Introduction to Islam (1995), J. I. Smith, Islam in America (1999), M. Cook et al., ed., The New Cambridge History of Islam (6 vol., 2009), S. F. Dale, The Muslim Empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals (2010), F. M. Donner, Muhammad and the Believers (2010), B. Tibi, Islamism and Islam (2012), and C. de Bellaigue, The Islamic Enlightenment (2017); C. Glassé, Concise Encyclopedia of Islam (1991), J. L. Esposito, The Oxford Dictionary of Islam (2003), and G. Bowering, ed., The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought (2012).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.


the second largest of the monotheistic world religions, deriving from the teachings of the prophet Mohammed in the 7th-century As the single all-powerful god, Allah is held to require from all believers absolute allegiance and worship five times a day. Other duties include pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, Mohammed's birthplace. Muslims, the believers in Islam, acknowledge Moses and Jesus as prophets, but Mohammed is Allah's final and supreme prophet.

An explanation of the origins of Islam proposed by Montgomery Watt (1961) is that Islam originated among previously nomadic tribesmen, who on moving on to an urban context acquired a more integrative and more universalistic belief system. Watt points out that Mohammed was a member of a relatively disadvantaged lineage within increasingly wealthy Meccan society. Ousted from Mecca and migrating to Medina (where he ‘ruled’, initially as an ‘outside’ arbiter – compare SEGMENTARY SOCIETY), one effect of his prophecy was to legitimize attacks (the first jihads, or holy wars) on Mecca's lucrative camel trains, at a time when political conditions were such as to force much formerly seaborne trade overland, making the rewards for attack larger than usual. On this basis, Islam came to espouse what MANN (1986) refers to as a ‘quasi-egalitarian’ doctrine.

In its Middle Eastern and North African homeland, Islam has been the basis of numerous theocratic political empires, beginning with the empire created by Mohammed, and continued to the present day in the Iranian Islamic revolution. Like Christianity, Islam has been riven by theological and political division, notably the division between Sunni, more libertarian, and Shiite, more authoritarian, forms.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
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A Muslim visitor to the Dar al Islam mosque near Abiquiu, New Mexico, prays east toward Mecca during the midday prayer. AP/Wide World Photos.


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

The call is heard five times a day, coming from the graceful tower of the minaret. At sunrise, noon, afternoon, just after sunset, and at dark, the muezzin calls the faithful to pray:

Allah is great! Allah is great! There is no God but Allah, And Muhammad is his prophet! Come to prayer! Come to prayer! Come to Abundance! Come to Abundance!

And to the dawn prayer is added:

Prayer is better than sleep! Prayer is better than sleep! Allah is great! Allah is great! There is no God but Allah!

Some 1.2 billion people in the world, almost one out of every five, claim Islam as their religion and, five times a day, hear the cry, face toward Mecca, and recite their prayers. They are called Muslims ("submitters") because they have "submitted" to the will of Allah (see Allah).

Muslims belong to the religious tradition that is probably, in the words of author Robert Ellwood, "the most homogeneous and purposefully international of the other two giant cross-cultural faiths—Christianity and Buddhism." From the very beginning, Muhammad (see Muhammad), the founder of Islam, set out to spread the word around the world. And Islam, youngest of the world religions, is quickly fulfilling his vision.

His beliefs were quite simple and straightforward. But carrying them out can be difficult, and the intricacies of Islamic philosophy can be quite bewildering to Westerners.

Simply put, Muslims believe there is one God, Allah. He is the same God worshiped by other traditions but under different names. Allah has made himself (Muslims always use the masculine pronoun) known through many prophets, including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. He has revealed himself through scriptures, such as the Bible. But the "people of the Book" (Christians and Jews) did not remain faithful. They didn't follow the directions. So Allah chose his last and greatest prophet, Muhammad, and dictated his final revelation, the Qur'an (see Qur'an), to give the world its final warning. People live only one life, and they will be judged on how well they submitted to the will of Allah.

That's all there is to it. There is good (submission) and there is evil (rejection). But to leave it there is to miss the subtlety and complexity of Islamic thought and practice.

There are five "pillars" of Islam—five requirements expected of all Muslims:

1. The Creed (Kalima)

La ilaha illa Allah; Muhammad rasul Allah—"There is no God but Allah and Mu ham mad is his messenger [or prophet]."

This is the shahadah, the "confession" that Muslims recite at least once every day and more frequently when necessary. They are often the very first words a baby hears whispered in his ear, and the last words to be uttered by a dying man. An action worthy of praise brings the response, Alhamduli-llah, "Praise be to Allah." Speculations about the future are always accompanied by the words, Insha Allah, "If Allah wills."

Allah is definitely center stage, not Muhammad. The prophet insisted he was never to be worshiped. "Muhammad is not more than an Apostle; many were the Apostles that passed away before him" (Qur'an 3:144).

At Muhammad's funeral, when some believers found themselves hoping for a resurrection or Second Coming, Abu-Bakr, caliph ("successor") to the prophet, was quick to remind them: "O ye people, if anyone worships Muhammad, Muhammad is dead, but if anyone worships Allah, he is alive and dies not...."

Christianity considers its founder to be God, the Second Person of the Trinity. Muhammad wanted no such designation from Islam. There is only one God in this solidly monotheistic religion. That is Allah. Muhammad, the Holy Prophet, was just the messenger.

2. Daily Prayer (Salat)

The faithful are called to pray five times a day, though in America, at least, the two afternoon prayers can be combined. They ritually wash themselves (sand can be substituted for water in dry climates), face toward Mecca, and recite the Arabic prayers they learned in childhood. Hands will be raised to the side of the head as the words, Allahu akbar, "God is great," are spoken. Then the first sura of the Qur'an will be recited, followed by prayers and other verses. The worshiper will then bow, placing hands on knees, declare "glory to God," and, after again praising God in a standing position, descend to a posture of complete submission with knees, forehead, and hands on the ground, praying, "Glory to my Lord, the Most High!" After sitting and then repeating the posture of submission, the worshiper will resume a standing position, completing one full cycle of prayer. Two cycles are offered in the morning, four at noon, afternoon, and night, and three at sunset. After prayer the Muslim will turn his or her head to both sides and offer a blessing of peace to other Muslims and all who need God's guidance.

Men will often go to the mosque if it is convenient, pausing at the entrance to remove their shoes. Women usually pray at home, but in these more liberated times there is a separate area for them at the mosque. The women will, of course, first cover their head. Modest dress is a requirement for both men and women. Shorts and Tshirts are very definitely out of order. If it happens to be Friday, the holiest day of the week, the Imam, or prayer leader (sometimes called a sheik), will deliver a sermon. In America, the Imam is usually the administrator of the community as well, much like clergy of other traditions.

3. Almsgiving (Zakat)

Between 2 percent and 10 percent of income is to be shared with the poor of the community. This pillar emphasizes the need to remember less fortunate neighbors. It is to be given voluntarily. But, as in other traditions, it is usually collected (in some countries it is an actual tax) and a record is kept. Wealth is not frowned upon in Muslim communities. After all, Allah blesses the faithful. But it is to be shared in a way that is not demeaning to the recipient.

4. Fasting (Sawm)

During the month of Ramadan, no food (even medicine), drink, smoking, or sex is allowed during daylight hours. The hours are computed and published these days, but it used to be understood that day begins when there is enough light to distinguish between a black thread and a white thread.

After the sun goes down, however, it's time to joyfully feast with friends and family.

During Ramadan, Muslims greet one another by saying, "Ramadan Mubarak," which means "A Blessed Ramadan," or perhaps "Salaam," which means "peace."

5. Pilgrimage (Hajj)

At least once during their lifetime, during the month of Dhu-al-Hijjah (the "month of pilgrimage"), Muslims are expected to make a pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Muhammad and a holy city even before his time. Leaving home represents a kind of ritual death in which the pilgrim enters into a spiritual state known as ihram. Upon returning the pilgrim may add the title hajji to his name, marking a great spiritual achievement and entitling the bearer to great respect in the community. On pilgrimage the Muslim will join perhaps one million other pilgrims wearing special garments and sandals. They will circle the Kaaba, the shrine, seven times in a counterclockwise direction; they will view, and perhaps kiss, the sacred Black Stone (see Black Stone) at the Kaaba. They will visit the sacred well called Zamzam, the well of Hagar and Ishmael (see Abraham), and throw forty-nine stones at the pillar representing Iblis (see Devil/Demons). These were customs practiced even before Muhammad was born, but he sanctified them and gave them new meaning within the context of Islam.

For their whole lives, the pilgrims have faced Mecca during prayer. They have visualized this sacred spot of ground. Now they travel, for perhaps the only time in their lives, to the place of their dreams. For most of them, it is an intensely personal, holy moment, the climax of a lifetime.

Correct Living

If a Muslim is asked, "What is the meaning of life?" he or she will probably respond by affirming the central fact of the creed. Allah is Creator and the essential unity behind all that exists. Creation thus has dignity and value. The purpose of humankind is to seek understanding while submitting to Allah. It is difficult to stay on the straight path. People can be weak. Obedience demands structure. Humans are not partners with God. Allah is not our "buddy." To doubt or reject belief, to lie, steal, or deceive, to commit adultery or forbidden sex, to gossip or do damage to anyone or their feelings—that is sin. "For the insolent awaits an ill resort, Gehenna, wherein they are roasted—an evil cradling! All this; so let them taste it—boiling water and pus, and other torments of the like coupled together" (Qur'an 38:55-58).

How do the faithful walk the other path, the path of iman ("faith")? Faith is not a blind leap or a hoping against hope. Faith is based on rational intelligence, the highest form of knowledge. Humans are not "compelled" to believe the Qur'an. "No compulsion is there in religion" (Qur'an 2:256). But for those who study, reflect, and meditate on its message, Allah will lead them into all truth.

So to be a Muslim, a submitter, is a constant struggle and striving. It is a jihad, a holy war fought within the spirit. Humans aren't evil by nature. But neither are they perfect. So to live correctly means to constantly strive for goodness. The prophet Muhammad once returned from a battle and said, "We have returned from the small jihad to the great jihad," from the physical battle to the spiritual one.

But there are those within radical Islam who choose to interpret the jihad in terms of warfare against those who have blatantly rejected Islam, most particularly those in the materialistic West who oppose the idea of Islamic states, especially when those states control oil supplies. For those Muslims, the jihad is a fight to the death by whatever means can be appropriated. The idea of willingly dying for the faith, suicide bombing, is not unique to Islam. Japanese kamikaze ("divine wind") fighters used the same techniques in World War II. But it has wreaked havoc and tragedy in the West, especially in the case of the tragedies of September 11, 2001. Those who strap bombs to their chests and blow themselves up, along with innocent victims, are sometimes viewed as heroes in the Palestinian territories. Many point to the Prophet's declaration, "Not equal are those who sit at home and receive no hurt, and those who strive and fight in the cause of God with their goods and their persons. God hath granted a higher grade to those who strive and fight" (Qur'an 4:95).

But it cannot be emphasized enough that not all Muslims, or even anything approaching a majority, share this view.

Islam shares other rituals in common with Middle Eastern traditions, and it does not practice others despite popular misconception to the contrary.

Circumcision is practiced by Muslims as well as by Jews and many Christians. But in some localities around the world it is the tradition to perform what is often called female circumcision, or clitoridectomy. This practice is highly controversial, but those cultures that do it claim it is a ritual of purification. It is by no means common and, although it is often associated with Islam, it is not a Muslim or religious practice but a social one. It is widely practiced, for example, in primarily Christian countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya.

Certain events have created a negative impression on the general public. When Salman Rushdie published his 1988 book The Satanic Verses, in which he dared suggest the Qur'an was not necessarily what Islamic doctrine says it is, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1900-1989) of Iran accused him of blasphemy, sentenced him to death, and offered what was, in effect, a "contract" on his life. Osama bin Ladin (b. 1957), leader of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, has called for a jihad, a holy war, against the United States.

While representative of the beliefs of a small minority, these kinds of very public actions have affected the perception of all Muslims among non-Muslims, straining relationships in pluralistic societies. What must be remembered is that these kinds of activities are not typical of a tradition that has contributed so much to human history. And Muslims around the world are just as angry as non-Muslims, perhaps more so, when their religion is abused or exploited by extremists.

Instead they would have the world remember the nature of Allah. "There is no God but he; that is the witness of Allah, His angels and those endued with knowledge, standing firm of justice. There is no God but he, the Exalted in Power, the Wise" (Qur'an 3:18).

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



one of the world’s major religions. Its adherents, called Muslims, constitute between 80 and 98 percent of the population of Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, the Sudan, Somalia, Niger, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, the countries of the Arabian Peninsula, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Indonesia. Muslims account for 60 to 80 percent of the population of Nigeria, Senegal, Guinea, and Mali. About one-half of the population of Lebanon, Nigeria, and Albania is Muslim, as is more than 30 percent of the population of Ethiopia, about 20 percent of the population of Liberia, the Ivory Coast, the Malagasy Republic, and Tanzania, and about 11 percent of the population of India. In the USSR, Muslims live in Middle Asia, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan; in the Adzhar, Abkhazian, Bashkir, Dagestan, Kabarda-Balkar, Severnaia Osetiia, Tatar, and Chechen-Ingush ASSR’s; and in a number of krais and oblasts in the RSFSR. In all, there are more than 570 million Muslims in the world.

Islam arose in the seventh century A.D. in the Hejaz (western Arabia). Its founder was Muhammad, whose teachings were a response to the acute crisis in Arabian society brought about by the breakdown of tribal relations and the undermining of corresponding moral-ethical and religious (polytheistic and fetishis-tic) concepts and by the emergence of early class society. The times required the creation of a stable state and social organization in Arabia, and it fell to the religious and political movement of Islam to accomplish this task. A theocracy was established that reflected and sanctified above all the interests of the new Muslim elite and of the part of the old ruling group that joined it.

The Muslim community (umma), which was both a political organization and a religious body, was united by a single faith rather than by ties of kinship. As the secular and spiritual leader of the umma and as a preacher, law-giver, and supreme commander in chief, Muhammad’s source of authority was not tribal tradition but god (Allah), who was believed to have endowed his “messenger” (rasul) with absolute religious prerogatives. The unification within a theological framework of the secular and religious spheres (of which the religious was dominant) and the amalgamation of morality and law made Islam an all-embracing, total system which, claiming to satisfy all spiritual needs, demanded man’s unconditional submission to and recognition of Islam’s right to control all aspects of his life.

In many respects the dogmas, ethics, rituals, and mythologies of Islam closely resemble those of Christianity and Judaism. Islam borrowed a considerable number of ideas and precepts from Christianity and Judaism, as well as from Zoroastrianism and certain other Middle Eastern religious-philosophical and political movements; but all these borrowings were transformed in the spirit of Islam, only then becoming elements of Islamic religious, political, cultural, legal, and other institutions. Islam as a whole is an independent religion, functioning in accordance with its own norms and principles.

Being from its very inception a synthesis of religion, political norms, and law—a synthesis in which religion served as a unifying and determining factor—Islam attained considerable stability both within Arabia, where it formed the basis of a centralized state, and outside Arabia. A vast Muslim empire, known as the Caliphate, arose as a result of Arab conquests. The need to unite the Caliphate’s various ethnic, racial, and cultural groups into a single political and ideological entity brought about the univer-salization of Islam. The religious-egalitarian ideal of Islam, the extreme ease of conversion, and the absence of an ecclesiastical hierarchy contributed to this universalization. Islam in principle excludes mediators between god and man. The professional jurists-theologians, known as fuqaha, were not bearers of “divine grace” and unlike the Christian clergy had no exclusive right to perform religious ceremonies, to excommunicate, or to pardon sins.

Islamic traditions were reinforced by the relentless insistence upon Islam’s messianic role and the supreme nature of everything Islamic, as well as by the essentially uniform system of education, a high degree of dependence of ethical, aesthetic, and political ideals on theological precepts, and the availability of uniform communication channels (primarily the use of Arabic as the language of religious practices, law, and learning). Islamic traditions fundamentally influenced the culture of the Caliphate, which in turn had a strong impact on European civilization.

In the ninth and tenth centuries, Islam became a complex system with refined philosophical-theological principles (ka-lam) and a thoroughly elaborated legal (sharia) foundation.

Islam’s basic tenets, which are said to have been communicated by god to Muhammad through the angel Gabriel, are found in the Koran. Reverence for the Koran played an important role in the establishment, consolidation, and unification of medieval Muslim civilization.

The Koran is the only source of Islamic theology, although in practice sacred tradition (sunna) is treated as essentially equal to the Koran or even—in cases of clear divergence from the Koran —as superior to it. Consisting of numerous canonical traditions (hadith) about the sayings and actions of Muhammad, the sunna has absorbed many elements of the cultural heritage of the countries within the Caliphate. Used in conjunction with fatwa and qiyas (the logical answer to a question based on analogies in the Koran or the hadith), the sunna made it possible to expand and develop Islamic religious dogma and law in new conditions.

Religious worship in Islam centers around the individual. Prayer, even when uttered by a group, is individual, as is pilgrimage. But orthodox Islam limited this individualistic tendency as much as possible and to a significant extent preserved and encouraged the individual’s extremely close dependence on the religiopolitical community, which was characteristic of the ideologies of the tribal societies antedating Islam.

Equally flexible was the Islamic doctrine of predestination, which arose during a bitter struggle between different religio-philosophical and to some extent also political schools of thought in the eighth and ninth centuries—the Murjiites, Jaba-rites, Qadarites, and Mutazila. A fruitful compromise between the proponents of absolute predestination and those who stressed the need to recognize the important role of man’s free will made it possible to combine Islam’s persistent fatalistic attitude with a measure of indeterminism, thereby allowing for certain voluntary actions by man, who must bear moral responsibility for them.

Islam derived much of its vitality from its emphasis not only on myth but also on strictly prescribed ritual and from its combination of a universal appeal with an ability to preserve its basic principles and to accept the values of other cultures only in accordance with these principles. To these factors Islam owed its permanent practical influence on all important aspects of social and individual life.

The religious structure of Islam is twofold, consisting of iman, or faith (in the truth of Islam), and din, or religious practice, including all rituals, morality, and traditions. The details of iman and din are defined in the Koran, sunna, and decisions of official religious authorities.

The essence of iman is monotheism and belief in the prophetic mission of Muhammad and the prophets who preceded him, belief in angels, and belief in the revelations of the Koran and in the Last Judgment. The Muslim affirms his adherence to his faith by the brief formula (shahada), “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet.” Although these words are not in the Koran, they are the basis of Islamic self-consciousness. Iman above all presupposes internal conviction as to the truth of the faith (itikad). To a degree not found in any other religion, Islam ascribes paramount importance to the omnipotence of god —the sole and eternal “creator, giver of life and death.” In Islam, god is not only jealous and chastising but also just and merciful; this makes it possible not only for the “good Muslim” (that is, one who sincerely believes in the truth of the shahada and performs the rituals derived from it) but even for the “sinful Muslim” (the fasik) to hope for eternal bliss, while non-Muslims are condemned to hell’s everlasting torments. This idea of the exclusiveness of Islam and its adherents is further strengthened by the belief that Muhammad is the “prophets’ seal,” the last prophet. The earlier prophets are divided into the messengers of god (rasul) and the “simple” prophets (nabi), who continued the prophecy initiated by the rasul. Besides Muhammad, Islam recognizes as the highest rasul Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus Christ. Islam has retained such pre-Islamic Arabian religious concepts as the belief in jinns, who are associated (sometimes very intimately) with human beings. (Jinns are divided into two groups, the “heathen” and the “faithful,” or Muslim.) based on the five “pillars of faith” (arkari): (1) the profession of faith, by pronouncing aloud and clearly the shahada, with a full understanding of its meaning and with sincere conviction of its truth; (2) the act of worshipping five times every day (Arabic salat, Persian namaz), the central part of which is the prescribed prayer accompanied by and culminating in many ritual ablutions and genuflections (although these can be modified during war or in other extreme circumstances);3) the observance of a fast (sawm) during the month of Ramadan (with voluntary fasts also acceptable at any time of the year); 4) the payment of an obligatory charity tax (zakai), in addition to which voluntary almsgiving (sadaka) is also recommended; and (5) the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca (not obligatory, however, for several categories of believers).

Islam is characterized by an extensive set of rituals meant to uphold not only faith in the almighty god but Muslim solidarity as well and to join all the faithful in a single idea and a single act. Islam ascribes primary importance to custom and tradition as the chief means of social control and of guaranteeing a high degree of unanimity of belief, based on pride in belonging to the umma, the “community of the faithful” led by god. (Of particular importance is the Friday namaz in the mosque, during which a prayer is said for the powers that be and for the entire Muslim community.)

The most important Islamic holy days include the end of the fast of Ramadan (id al-fitr, Turkic Uraza-bayram), the feast of sacrifice (id al-adha, kurban-bayram), the Miraj (connected with the myth of Muhammad’s ascension to heaven), and Mawlid (the day of Muhammad’s birth). The religious obligation of jihad (or ghazawaf), the “war for the faith,” or “holy war,” also acquired fundamental importance.

By declaring its indivisible bond with Muslim governments and rulers (first with the Medina umma and its sheikh Muhammad and afterward with the Caliphate and caliph) and by denying that its principles could be realized in any political organization other than a Muslim one, Islam proved to be closely joined to the political sphere, actively abetting the formation and consolidation of a unified religiopolitical system. But this tendency gradually weakened as a result of continually growing contradictions between Islam’s abstract universal ideal and the cultural and religious traditions that took root locally. The absence of an interregional ecclesiastical organization in Islam greatly favored the development of autonomous and separatist tendencies.

The growth of social contradictions, most often expressed in the form of a religious struggle, weakened Islam as a consolidating force. As a consequence, the once unified Muslim political organization dissolved into a number of hostile states only formally joined by a single ideological doctrine; a multitude of sects appeared, each creating its own doctrine even when not necessarily striving for complete independence within Islam. In the seventh century, Kharijism arose, advocating full equality within the Muslim community and election of the /mam-caliph.

The political struggle led to the appearance, also in the seventh century, of Shiism—next to orthodox Islam (Sunnism) the second main branch of the Muslim religion. Shiism in turn subdivided into a number of sects, such as the Zaidites, Ismailites, and Imamites, in the eighth and ninth centuries. The Shiites differ from the Sunnites chiefly in their conception of supreme power. With the exception of Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law, who is recognized as the only lawful successor to the prophet and as an interpreter of Islam, Shiites reject as usurpers all the Sunnite caliphs, to whom they oppose their dynasty of the 12 imams (Ali and his direct descendants from his marriage with Muhammad’s daughter Fatima). While Sunnism relies on ijma (formally “the agreement of the whole community” but in actuality a consensus among authoritative theologians competent to judge different religious, legal, and everyday questions not covered in the Koran and sunna), Shiism gives only to the imam and to the mujtahids (who act in his name) the right to interpret, apply, and even elaborate “divine law.”

The eighth century saw the birth of Sufism, a mystical current in Islam. Although it resisted the “leveling” tendencies of orthodox religious organization and emphasized the value of the individualist principle to a much greater degree than did the official view, Sufism was never the direct opposite of the official view. Striving to transform not the faith as such but the believer, Sufism still had a common aim with formal Sunnite and Shiite structures, and was therefore essentially their “uncodified” extension and supplement. Moreover, it was the Sufi orders that, often combining asceticism with militancy, repeatedly proved to be the most zealous defenders and expanders of the sphere of Muslim rule, the strictest observers of “original and pure” Islam, and the moving forces of missionary work. At the same time, however, Sufism gave support to humanistic and anticlerical thought and became the source of refined cultural movements alien to orthodoxy. With its distinct and unwavering mystical-ascetic orientation, Sufism also undermined the organizational stability of Muslim society and came into conflict with the spirit of orthodox Islam as a system based on the inviolable traditions that were embodied in the sharia.

In its efforts to regulate and regiment all individual actions and all spheres of social life, orthodox Islam proclaimed the sharia to be the fruit of divine precepts and therefore eternal and immutable. The sharia’s precepts ensured juridical unity throughout the vast territory of the Caliphate. The basic norms of Muslim law were completely elaborated by the tenth century. The founders of the four Sunnite schools of law (the madha-hib) that arose in the eighth and ninth centuries were recognized as incontrovertible authorities; in Sunnism they were regarded as the last permitted to authoritatively interpret (ijtihad) the main sources of Muslim law (the Koran and sunna), which in practice meant the right to interpret all important theological, juridical, and ultimately social problems. (In this, Shiism gives more freedom to its religious authorities, the mujtahids, by assuming (hat each of them has a direct spiritual link with a “hidden imam”) All this helped to reinforce orthodox Islam as a means of stabilizing and sanctifying the dominance of the exploitative elite.

The decidedly conservative nature of orthodox Islam, which tenaciously preserved the principle of the identity of its religious, cultural, and political institutions, reflected the stagnation of medieval Islamic societies, based on a natural and seminatural economy. On the other hand orthodox Islam significantly contributed to the considerable economic and cultural lag of the Muslim East, preventing its complete secularization.

At the same time, Islam, as a universal ideology of the peoples professing it, often objectively aided the rise of their national liberation movements, in turn assuring Islam’s great influence in Muslim social life and rendering Islam’s division into secular and religious spheres extremely problematical and uncertain. Nonetheless, there has been on the whole a noticeable decline in Islam’s traditional strength, a decrease in the amount of socially significant activity controlled by its religious institutions, and a gradual movement away from thinking in purely theological categories and from consistently theocratic models and ideals.

Attempts to transform Islam began in the late 18th and especially in the 19th century, associated with growing social, religious, national, and other contradictions in the Muslim countries arising from the emergence of bourgeois relations in Muslim society as a result of the pervasive influence of European culture. These attempts were aimed either at the decisive rejection of all the “distortions and accretions” accumulated over the years and restoration of the “ideal” form that Islam had in its early stages (the Wahhabites), or at bringing Islam into the greatest possible harmony with the basic tendencies of the new capitalist era. Such Muslim modernizers of the late 19th and early 20th century as Abdu, Rashid Rida, and Iqbal sought to revive Islam’s political and intellectual greatness in the spirit of contemporary scientific and technical progress. They argued that the real world could be comprehended, that the human mind had greatness, and that the free development of the human mind was compatible with faith in god. Vigorously defending the “harmony” between Islam and science, the modernizers demanded a considerable enlargement of the category of persons empowered to freely interpret the Koran and sunna “in the spirit of the times.” They also demanded simplification of rituals, softening of a number of ritual prescriptions and norms, improvement in the position of women (to whom traditional Islam accorded a place inferior to that of men), abolition of polygamy, and introduction of Europeanized educational and juridical systems.

But as a rule all the efforts of these ideologists were directed toward incorporating new elements into the traditional structure without sharply contradicting established principles and toward adapting Islam to modern times by reforming (or very cautiously and gradually eliminating) only its most archaic elements. Therefore the democratic, enlightened, and antifeudal demands of various modernizing projects often receded into the background in the face of the idea that Islam is indisputably superior to all other religions, sociopolitical doctrines, and cultures. Islam was still proclaimed to be essentially the most perfect way of life, to which European science and technology would have to be adapted. Affirmation of Islam as the eternal symbol of a unique identity and demands for the Muslim’s absolute dependence on the “supranational umma” retarded the total secularization of Muslim societies, hampered the development of national self-consciousness and national cultures, and deprived Muslim modernism of consistency and a firm social base. As a result, radical religious reformism had no success in the Muslim East.

Traditional Islam continues to play a prominent role in different spheres of the social life of Muslim countries outside the USSR, in the overwhelming majority of which Islam is not simply a state religion but an essential component of national culture, significantly determining norms of behavior, daily life, and attitudes toward other peoples and civilizations. In these countries Islam is often invoked to sanctify various government actions. Nevertheless, the secularizing tendencies already noted in the 19th and early 20th century directed toward drawing a boundary between social ideology and religion continue to grow in strength, with religion relegated to being a mere tool of national policy. Such, in essence, is the policy now pursued in almost all contemporary Muslim countries. The governments of some of these countries are attempting to transform all traditional religious organizations in accordance with their own aims. While the state may often identify itself with these organizations, it seeks to eliminate all sources of their real and potential autonomy (nationalizing the waqfs [religious endowments] and removing from the control of religious organizations and taking into its own hands the direction of public education and the selection, distribution, and supervision of religious functionaries).

At the same time the state attempts to unify the religious sphere in every way possible, combating various unorthodox but deep-rooted popular traditions such as the cult of saints, animistic and magical notions and practices, and all types of Sufi brotherhoods, which usually oppose modernizing reforms.

The direct collision between the openly traditionalist and the secularizing and modernist value systems is giving rise to a multitude of different schools and currents within Islam, ranging from the archaic and orthodox to the ultrasophisticated and flexible. The mosaic-like variety of modern Islamic intellectual life, demonstrating ever more convincingly the barrenness of pan-Islamism and similar doctrines, ultimately reflects the struggle to find the most effective means of achieving general progress that is now occurring in Muslim regions outside the USSR. In the USSR and other socialist countries, where the social foundations of religion have been undermined, Islam, like all other religions, is becoming more and more a relic of the past.

The continual affirmation of the idea of man’s eternal subordination to mythical divine powers, the orientation toward life in the next world and the contrasting pessimistic estimation of earthly life, and the absolute denial of man’s autonomy and intrinsic worth—all make Islam, like any other religious system, incompatible with a genuinely scientific world view.


Islam and the arts. Islam has exerted considerable influence on the art of Muslim countries. In architecture this influence was felt in the appearance and wide distribution of such new types of buildings as mosques, minarets, khankas, madrasas, and cara-vanseies. The prohibition against depicting god resulted in the absence of religious themes in pictorial art and led to restrictions in the depiction of man and other living beings. The idea that such representations were improper was derived from their condemnation in the hadith and gradually spread through the broad masses of the Muslim population. From the 11th century, Muslim theologians, Sunnite and Shiite alike, categorically condemned depictions of people and animals in public places although permitting their inclusion in the decoration of household objects (for example, on ceramics, bronze, and cloth). This prohibition did not have the force of a law and could be interpreted according to circumstances. In Iran, for example, where there was a strong national tradition of painting, representational painting (even on religious themes) existed throughout the entire Middle Ages. In the Arab countries and in Turkey the effect of the ban was stronger. In these countries, after the 14th century, depictions of living beings are seldom found even in the applied arts. In the early 20th century Muslim authorities, yielding to tendencies in modern life, reviewed their attitude toward pictorial art and officially declared that Islam prohibits only the making of idols and icons.



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In the Holy Qur’an, the angel Gabriel appears to Muhammad in a dream and reveals to him the mysteries of the universe.



Muslim civilization has shown considerable concern for dreams, which have influenced the spiritual life of Islam from its very beginning. Islam is fundamentally a prophetic religion based on a series of divine revelations given to the prophet Muhammad through an angel during the latter part of his life, around 610 to 632 C.E., and contained in the Qur’an.

The Islamic creed presupposes a cosmology that includes an invisible world, consisting of heaven and hell, as well as the visible one, populated by humans and other life-forms. According to Islam, a purposeful force created and now governs both worlds, and will ultimately judge them. This force is only knowable through human intermediaries, the prophets.

Muslim prophecy distinguishes the prophets according to degree of visionary perception, from the sights and sounds of a dream to the suprasensible perception in the waking state. According to this classification, which is probably derived from criteria suggested in Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament), there is the simple prophet, who sees or hears an angel in a dream. Then there is the envoy—to a more or less numerous group—who sees the angel while awake. Finally, among the envoys there are the six great prophets who were charged to reveal the new law and who received the dictation of the law from an angel while in a waking state. These six prophets are Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. Muhammad is the Seal of the Prophets, meaning that his revelation closes the cycle of the six periods of prophecy.

No distinction between the dream while asleep and the vision while awake was made at the time of Muhammad, who received spiritual instruction while in both states. Dreams played an important role in the life of Muhammad, who received his first revelation and became conscious of his vocation in a dream. His great dream of initiation into the mysteries of the cosmos, known as the “Night Journey”, began when the angel Gabriel appeared to him while he was sleeping between the hills of Safa and Meeva. Riding Elboraq, a half-human silver mare, Muhammad arrived in Jerusalem, the center of the world, where he conversed and prayed with Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Then he passed through the seven celestial spheres, each infused with its own color, to reach across the ocean of white light and, finally, to approach God. According to some versions of the “Night Journey”, Muhammad also descended to the depths of the Earth, thus encompassing all of human experience.

Muhammad experienced other dreams prior to the revelations given to him and recorded in the Qur’an. These dreams appeared in the form of isolated luminous and sonorous impressions that the prophet was unable to translate, and are placed at the beginning of many chapters of the Qur’an as isolated letters.

The Qur’an inherited several dreams from the Old Testament. For instance, although some details are different, the account of Joseph‘s dream reported in the Bible is very similar to the account in the Qur’an. It is often possible to find in the Qur’an the evidence of revelations announced in dreams, like the revelation to Moses’s mother to give her son to the pharaoh’s sister to nurse.

In Islam, it is believed that the angel Gabriel brings true dreams, whereas demons bring false ones. The validity of a dream is determined by the time it occurs, and it is believed that early morning dreams are true dreams. True dreams are generally believed to be those in which God, the prophet Muhammad, angels, or good Muslims appear, whereas dreams in which demons appear cannot be true, nor can those coming from desires and mental preoccupations, nor those resulting from the tricks of magicians.

According to Islam, it is possible for djinn (spirits inhabiting the earth) and Satan to give diabolic inspiration through dreams. Since Islam prohibits all representations of God, an image of the Deity can occur only in a false dream, as well as the image of an angel playing, or of the sky collapsing.

It is said that the ordinary person receives visions of portent only in dreams, whereas the mystic receives them in the waking state also or in an intermediate state between waking and sleep. Also, some particular dreams that occur naturally are believed to be a form of divine grace through which an individual can have a temporary taste of states above the material level.

Since it is difficult to distinguish between true and false dreams, dream interpretation is necessary in Islam, and it is often a very sophisticated process. Muslim dream codes give priority to the dreams of men, and, among women, to the dreams of married women who are considered chaste and dignified.

In late medieval Islam, dream interpretation was an accepted theological discipline. Muslim mystics of that period, who secluded themselves in gloomy cells to receive inspiration, believed there was a world situated between the material world and the world of intellect. This doctrine of a “realm of images” arose from the Muslim mystics’ attempts to establish a morphology (structure or form) for their prophetic revelations in order to establish the reality of their spiritual experiences in dreams and visions. According to this doctrine, the world of images can be approached only through a highly trained imagination. Once an individual has reached a sufficient level of spiritual development, and provided the person’s soul is pure and strong enough, he or she can visit and explore this world by means of a heightened spiritual understanding.

The Dream Encyclopedia, Second Edition © 2009 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.


religion permits four wives. [Islam: WB, A:549]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. the religion of Muslims, having the Koran as its sacred scripture and teaching that there is only one God and that Mohammed is his prophet; Mohammedanism
a. Muslims collectively and their civilization
b. the countries where the Muslim religion is predominant
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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