An Idiot’s Guide to Islam: Part 1

Words by: Freya Hall
Image credit: InIslam.com

PART 1: The Basics

Islam is the second largest religion in the world, but it is also one of the most misunderstood and complex faith systems. In recent decades, the religion has increasingly found itself at the centre of Australian media furore and debate.

Unfortunately, the exposure this religion receives is typified by assumptions, generalisations, and misnomers that have perpetuated the belief that Islamic faith is a singular, uniform entity that is incongruent with Australia’s predominantly Christian ideology.

In order to understand the complexities of the Islamic faith, I’ve put together some questions and answers that even an idiot could understand.

What is Islam?

Islam is a monotheistic and Abrahamic faith that is believed to have been revealed through Muhammad as the final Prophet of Allah (God) some 1400 years ago in Mecca. ‘Islam’ in Arabic means submission to Allah, and is the religion of Muslims.

How many people practice Islam?

Currently, Islam is the second largest religion in the world, following Christianity. A 2010 Report by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life projected that the number of Muslims in the world is set to rise from 1.1 billion in 1990 to 2.2 billion in 2030.

Who is Muhammad?

Muhammad was born in Mecca in around 570 A.D. Muslims believe that he was the last in a long line of prophets and credit him with restoring the unaltered monotheistic faith of earlier prophets such as Abraham and Jesus.

It is believed that Muhammad was called to prophethood when Allah dictated the Qur’an to him through a series of revelations with the archangel Gabriel. These revelations pointed to the existence of a single God, a belief that contradicted the predominating polytheistic beliefs of the pre-Islamic Arabian Peninsula.

Muhammad was initially persecuted for his monotheistic beliefs and fled to modern day Medina where the first Muslim community was formed. Later, with the help of nomadic clans and 10,000 Muslim converts, Muhammad returned to Mecca, stripping the city of all its pagan idols and iconography, seizing the city, and unifying Arabia into a single religious polity under Islam.

What is the Qur’an?

The Qur’an (or Koran in English) is the holy book of the Islamic faith and is believed to be the word of Allah as dictated to Muhammad. The Qur’an is divided into 114 chapters (‘suras’), none of which have been altered since they were written 14 centuries ago.

The Qur’an is the primary source of every Muslim’s faith and practice. It covers themes of wisdom, doctrine, worship, law, and the relationship between Allah and his creatures, as well as providing guidelines for a just society, proper human conduct, and an equitable economic system.

Are there any other sacred texts or teachings?

Yes, the Sunna and the Five Pillars of Islam are both considered fundamental to the practice of Islamic faith.
Sunna refers to the practices of Muhammad during his lifetime (what he did, said, or approved) and is considered the second authority for Muslims.

The Five Pillars of Islam are the framework of Muslim life and are observed by all sects of Muslims. The pillars are mentioned individually throughout the Qur’an and are listed together in the Hadith of Prophet Muhammad. They include:

  1. The testimony of faith, or ‘Shahadah’.
  2. Prayer, or ‘Salah’, five times a day.
  3. Supporting the needy, or ‘Zakat’.
  4. Fasting for the month of Ramadan, or ‘Sawm’.
  5. Pilgrimage to Mecca, or ‘Hajj’(a once in a lifetime obligation for those who are physically and financially able to perform it).

Are there different sects of Islam?

Yes, there are two major sects of Islam: Sunni and Shia. The Pew Research Centre estimated in 2009 that 87% to 90% of the world’s Muslims are Sunni, and approximately 10-13% are Shia.

Generally speaking, Muslim people live all over the world, but the vast majority (more than 60%) are found in Asia, with only 20% living in the Middle East. Interestingly, the majority of Shias (68-80%) live in only 4 countries: Iran, Pakistan, India, and Iraq.

The Sunni and Shia sects emerged when dispute arose regarding who should be named Muhammad’s successor after his death in 632 A.D. The Shia believed that only those with direct lineage to Muhammad could guide the Muslim community righteously, whilst the Sunnis believed that the Prophet’s successor should be determined by consensus.

 Although the sects share the same core ideology, the Islamic community remains largely divided along these factions. As a result, the sects have developed differences in worship, theology, doctrine, law, and political and religious views.

 The primary difference between the sects today is that the Sunni rely heavily on the practice of the Prophet and his teachings, and consider themselves the orthodox sect of the Islamic faith, whereas the Shia believe that their ayatollahs (religious leaders) are reflections of Allah on earth. The Shia, therefore, also make pilgrimages to the tombs of ten ayatollahs who are considered saints, whilst this is considered heretical by many Sunnis.

For more information on the distinction between Sunni and Shia click here.