Frequently Asked Questions about Islam

What is Islam?

“Islam” means “submission” (to God). This is the religion of the Qur’an. One who submits to God is called a Muslim. Muslims believe that Islam did not begin with the prophet Muhammad, but rather was the religion practiced by Adam and all the following prophets. Muhammad is generally regarded as the “seal of the prophets” who brought the Qur’an, the last testament of God meant for all peoples.

What is the Qur’an?

“Qur’an” means “recitation,” and refers to the Islamic scripture recitations which Muhammad received from God. The Qur’an was transmitted through generations by both oral and written means. Oral transmission is generally considered the primary mode of transmission, as the original revelation to Muhammad through the archangel Gabriel was through oral transmission. The Qur’an is divided into 114 chapters, or sūras, which are arranged roughly according to length. The first sūra is an exception; it is a short prayer called “The Opening” (Al-Fātiha).

Muslims generally believe that the reciting of the Qur’an is a participation in God’s speech, and therefore put great emphasis on correct pronunciation of the words. It is often said that the Qur’an can only be truly understood and appreciated in its original form. According to many Muslims, only those who are ritually pure should handle copies of the Qur’an. Muslims also generally believe that the Qur’an is inimitable. The Qur’an’s significance is not limited to its sounds and meanings; Qur’anic calligraphy is the most important form of Islamic visual art.

Who is Muhammad?

Muhammad was born around 570 CE, and was a member of the Quraysh tribe. His father died before he was born, and his mother died when he was only six. His grandfather acted as his guardian until his death, two years later. Muhammad’s uncle, Abū Tālib, then took over his care. Muhammad began working as a manager of a caravan for Khadīja while in his twenties. Khadīja proposed to him and the two were married.

Muhammad had his call to prophethood when he was about forty years old, and received revelations from then until his death about twenty years later. Khadīja was the first to become a Muslim. (Muhammad did not take another wife until after the death of Khadīja approximately a decade later.) These early revelations speak of God’s coming judgment, as well as divine compassion and mercy. The revelations also focus on God’s singularity and unity.

The Quraysh did not all accept Muhammad’s revelations, and many Muslims were persecuted because of their faith. Eventually most Muslims migrated from Mecca to Medina in 622 in the Hijra. There, Muhammad was to serve as an arbitrator and religious leader. After a few years of tension, truces, and battles between Mecca and Medina, Muhammad led a force of ten thousand men to Mecca, whose leader surrendered without a fight. The conquest of Mecca is often regarded as a spiritual conquest, and Mecca has since become the center of the Muslim world. Revelations during this period reflect this new role of Islam in Arabia, concentrating on legal and social matters in addition to the themes of judgment, reward, and God’s nature and signs throughout human history.

What are the basic doctrines of the Islamic faith?

The basic doctrines of Islam constitute īmān (faith, belief).

  • Faith Muslims must believe in the absolute unity of God. God is one and transcendent, and the one unforgivable sin is shirk, or associating others with God.

  • Belief in Angels Angels are the messengers and helpers of God. They include Gabriel and Michael.

  • Belief in Prophets and Scriptures Muhammad was the “seal of the Prophets,” the last in a long line of prophets who brought scriptures to their people. The Qur’an is widely regarded as the purest scripture on earth, as it was preserved from tampering. It was sent that humans might be brought back to the true religion of Abraham. Some of the twenty-five prophets named in the Qur’an include Mūsā (Moses, given the Torah), Dāwūd (David, given the Psalms), ‘Īsā (Jesus, given the Gospel), Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Elisha, and John.

  • The Final Judgment The Judgment is portrayed as the denouncement of the historical process in many Qur’anic passages. It will come swiftly, turning the natural world upside down. All humans, alive and dead, will be assembled before God, and each person’s record books will be examined. The outcome is either paradise (the garden, or al-janna), where the righteous enjoy comfort and spiritual fulfillment, or hell (the fire, or al-nār), where the unrighteous are chastised. The Qur’an includes passages which imply predestination, such as “whomsoever God guides, he is rightly guided; and whom He leads astray, they are the losers” (7:178; as quoted in Denny 102), but passages also imply human choice. The sayings of Muhammad tend towards predestination, and many Muslims believe that God decrees all that happens from the beginning until the end of time, and records each person’s acts before they are committed. Many Muslims also hold a strong belief in human intelligence, knowledge of good and evil, and the responsibility of choosing their actions accordingly.

What are the Pillars of Islam?

The “Pillars of Islam,” or the ‘ibādāt, or “acts of worship” are the five basic acts of devotion to God. Physical and spiritual purification is important for performing these acts of devotion.

  • Shahāda The first pillar is the testifying (shahāda) that “there is no god but God” and “Muhammad is the Messenger of God” (as quoted in Denny 97). Muslims must believe in the unity of God and Muhammad’s role. It is sufficient to believe and say this testimony freely to become a Muslim.

  • Salāt The ritual prayer is called salāt, or the worship service. It is a highly regulated, formal observance which Muslims are required to perform five times daily (though some minority groups pray three times a day). Purification and the proper covering of the body, along with proper intention and facing the direction of Mecca are generally regarded as prerequisites for salāt. It is recommended that Muslims pray at the mosque, but it is permissible to observe salāt at home, work, or outdoors. The Friday salāt at noon also has a sermon.

  • Zakāt The zakāt is a legal almsgiving obligation and part of one’s service to God. It is computed as a percentage of one’s wealth and is paid once a year. Zakāt is applied to various types of property, such as cash, trade merchandise, minerals and treasure, crops, and cattle. Zakāt is given to the poor and the needy, as well as for good works (like scholarships, charitable institutions, or missionary projects). There is also zakāt al fitr, which is the cost of one day’s food for one needy person for the breaking of the Ramadān fast, which is paid by everyone who can during the month of Ramadan.

  • Sawm The sawm is fasting during the daytime in the month of Ramadān, the ninth month of the lunar calendar. From dawn until sunset, those Muslims who can observe the fast cannot eat, drink, or have marital relations. Fasting is not required for pregnant or menstruating women, and to women who have just given birth. These women can make up the fast later. Young children, the elderly, those who are mentally handicapped, and travelers are also exempt; travelers can make up the fast later. Ramadān is widely regarded as a joyful month, and friends and family often gather on Ramadān nights for food and entertaining. Ramadān is one of the most sacred times for Muslims, as it is the month during which the Qur’an was first revealed. Ramadān begins with the sunset immediately following the first appearance of the new moon.

  • Hajj The hajj is the pilgrimage to Mecca during the eighth through the twelfth days of the holy month of Dhū al-Hajja (“[the one] with the hajj”). The hajj is required for adult Muslims once in their lifetime, provided they are physically and financially capable of making the pilgrimage. All debts must be paid before one goes on the hajj, and zakāt must have been calculated on the money set aside for the pilgrimage. There are many rituals associated with the hajj, including the wearing of ihrām (a white two-piece garment) by all male pilgrims, the circumambulation of the Ka’ba (tawāf) couterclockwise seven times, and a standing ceremony (wuqūf) where pilgrims stand from noon until sundown on the ninth of the month in meditation of God.

Further Resources

  • Denny, Frederick Mathewson. An Introduction to Islam. Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2006.
  • Esposito, John L. Islam: The Straight Path. Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2005.