Since there are more than a billion and a half Muslims in the world, it is not surprising that the beliefs of Muslims are quite diverse. Most Muslims accept the following six basic religious articles of faith.
The first basic belief is that there is no God but Allah. Before Muhammad came on the scene, the Arabs in that region were polytheists. Muhammad taught that they should devote themselves solely to the chief God of the pantheon whose name was Allah. To worship any other deity is considered shirk or blasphemy.
The second article of faith is a belief in angels and jinn. The Muslim belief in angels is in many ways similar to the Christian belief. According to Islam, two angels are believed to accompany every Muslim, one on the right to record his good deeds, and one on the left to record his evil deeds. Jinn is not the same as the belief in demons. Jinn is actually spirit beings capable of both good and evil actions. They also have the ability to take possession of human beings.
The third article is belief in God’s holy books. There are 104 holy books that are mentioned in the Qur’an. The major books include the Law given to Moses, the Psalms given to David, the Gospel (or Injil) given to Jesus, and the Qur’an given to Muhammad. Islam teaches that each of these communicates the same basic message of God’s will to man. But even a cursory reading of these will find major discrepancies between the Bible and the Qur’an. Islam teaches that these differences arose because the Bible has been corrupted in its transmission to us.
Muslims also believe in a number of God’s prophets. While they do believe there were many prophets, there is no agreement as to how many prophets there have been. Some writers say that there were hundreds of thousands of prophets. Some who are considered prophets are: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. All Muslims agree that Muhammad was God’s final and supreme prophet. He is referred to as the “seal” of the prophets (Sura 33:40). Though Muhammad even writes in the Qur’an that he was a sinner, there are still many Muslims throughout the world who come close to worshiping him.
Predestination is a fifth article of faith. A frequent expression among Muslims is inshallah, which means, “if Allah wills.” This is essentially a belief in predestination (qadar). Allah is the sovereign ruler of the universe. Whatever He wills comes to pass.
Allah is directing the fate of each individual according to his divine will. Although some Muslims have modified this doctrine of predestination in their teachings, the Qur’an appears to support the idea that all things (both good and evil) are the direct result of God’s will. Those who conclude that Islam is a fatalistic religion have a good reason for doing so.
On the other hand, the Qur’an also teaches that believers are to follow the straight path (Sura 1:6). Therefore they are responsible for their actions. They must do what Allah commands in order to please him and be admitted into paradise. Muslims must obey the five pillars of Islam in order to achieve this reward.
The final article of faith is belief in a final judgment. According to Islam, Allah will judge the works of all men at the end of history. Those whose good deeds outweigh their bad deeds will enter into paradise. All others will be consigned to hell. Essentially Islam is a works-oriented salvation where a person’s good works become the means to salvation.
The Five Pillars of Islam
Although the beliefs of Muslims vary, all believe in what is called the “Five Pillars of Islam.” These provide an accurate summary of the practices of this religion.
- Shahadah: The first pillar is recitation of the creed: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the prophet of Allah.” It can be found in many passages within the Qur’an (Sura 3:81; 5:83-84; 2:255; 3:18; 3:144; 4:87; 7:172; 33:40; 48:29; 64:8).
This statement is the foundation for all other beliefs in Islam. It is what makes someone a Muslim. These words are whispered into the ears of a Muslim both at birth and at death. Muslims repeat the Shahadah in prayer (spoken fourteen times a day in the ritual prayers). Those who convert to Islam are to recite the creed. It is generally believed that you must recite this creed in the presence of two witnesses in order to formally convert to Islam. But conversion involves more than mere intellectual assent to the creed. The devout Muslim must unite belief (imam) with practice (din).
- Salat: The second pillar is the daily practice of prayer. Muslim prayers are vocal, orderly, and directional. They may be done individually or in community, but they are required five times each day (dawn and sunrise, noon and mid-afternoon, mid-afternoon to sunset, sunset to twilight, and from twilight to dawn).
The daily prayers must be voiced in Arabic as the follower of Islam faces toward Mecca. Words and gestures are specific as Muslims line up in orderly rows (Sura 2:3, 117; 11:114; 17:78; 20:14, 130; 30:17-18). Men and women are segregated within the mosque. A Muslim stands and kneels during prayer, and these actions are called rakahs.
The central prayer for Muslims is the Fatiha, which many have compared to the Lord’s Prayer in Christianity. It is said out load during the daily times of prayer, as well as on special occasions. “In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Praise be to Allah the Cherisher and Sustainer of the Worlds. Most Gracious, Most Merciful; Master of the Day of Judgment. Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek. Show us the straight path” (Sura 1:1-6).
In Muslim and Western countries where there is a mosque, a prayer leader climbs to the top of the minaret in the mosque and calls the believers to prayer. He chants in Arabic, “God is great. There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah. Come to prayer. Come to prayer. Come to success in this life and the hereafter.” Within the mosque, there is water for absolution. Before prayer, Muslims washes their hands, forearms, face, and feet. They also clean the nose and rinse the mouth.
- Zakat: The third pillar is almsgiving which is mandated giving to the poor and needy within society (Sura 2:43, 83, 110, 177, 277; 9:60; 103; 24:56; 27:3; 57:7; 59:7; 98:5). Born an orphan himself, Muhammad was deeply concerned for the needy. A Muslim must first recognize that everything is the property of Allah. The Qur’an requires that each Muslim give 2.5 percent of one’s income to the poor or to the spread of Islam. The collected funds are used for building and supporting mosques, for printing the Qur’an, and for the advancement of Islam.
- Sawm: The fourth pillar of Islam is the fast during the month of Ramadan (Sura 2:183-185). This is during the ninth lunar month of the Muslim calendar. This is significant in the Muslim calendar for two reasons. First, this is the time when Muhammad is said to have received the first of his revelations from God. It is also the time when he and his followers made their historic trek from Mecca to Medina.
During this month, Muslims in good health are required to abstain from all food, drink, smoking, and sexual intercourse during daylight hours. In its place, Muslims are to read the Qur’an meditatively and introspectively. The Qur’an has been divided into thirty equal parts for reading during this time. This month-long fast promotes the Muslim’s self-discipline, dependence on Allah, and compassion for the needy. The festival of Eid al-Fitr (breaking the fast) is held at the end of Ramadan as a time of celebration for adhering to the fast. This includes visitations, meetings, and meals.
- Hajj: The fifth pillar is a pilgrimage to Mecca that occurs during the last month of the Muslim year. Every able-bodied Muslim is to make a pilgrimage to Mecca once during his life (Sura 2:196-201; 3:97; 22:26-29). Pilgrims travel to Mecca, which is the holiest city in Islam and the birthplace of Muhammad. Only Muslims may enter Mecca.
The focal point of Mecca is the Ka’bah which is an ancient stone building (thirty feet wide and forty feet long). A black stone (believed to be a meteorite) is set in the corner. The Ka’bah existed before the time of Muhammad. He taught that their worship had been corrupted and removed the 360 idols from the Ka’bah and instituted Muslim worship of Allah in its place.
Those who make the pilgrimage must circle the Ka’bah seven times, run seven times between the two hills of Mecca, as well as travel thirteen miles to the place where Muhammad preached his last sermon and throw seven stones at the Devil at another site. Many of these elements of the prescribed activity during the pilgrimage pre-date Islam and are of pagan origin.
A Sixth Pillar of Islam?
Many Muslims believe there are not five pillars of Islam but actually six pillars. That sixth pillar is jihad. There are over 100 verses in the Qur’an that call upon Muslims to wage a war of jihad against infidels.
The word jihad is actually the noun of the Arabic verb jahidi, which means to “strive hard.” This verse is an example: “O Prophet! Strive hard against the unbelievers and the hypocrites, and be firm against them. Their abode is Hell, and evil refuge indeed (Sura 9:73).
Although some Muslims understand this striving to be merely intellectual and philosophical, the usual translation of jihad involves a holy war. That has been the traditional interpretation since the time of Muhammad.
Bernard Lewis is the professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University and a leading authority on Islam. He says that “The more common interpretation, and that of the overwhelming majority of the classical jurists and commentators, presents jihad as armed struggle for Islam against infidels and apostates.”
Jihad was to be waged on the battlefield: “When you meet the unbelievers in the battlefield, strike off their heads and, when you have laid them low, bind your captives firmly” (Sura 47:4).
Consider some of these other passages concerning jihad. Faithful Muslims wage jihad against unbelievers: “O ye who believe! Fight the unbelievers who gird your about, and let them find firmness in you; and know that Allah is with those who fear Him” (Sura 9:123).
Muslims are also to wage jihad not only against unbelievers but against those who have strayed from the faith: “Prophet, make war on the unbelievers and the hypocrites and deal rigorously with them. Hell shall be their home: and evil fate” (Sura 9:73).
Ultimately, they are fighting against Satan and his allies: “Those who believe fight in the cause of Allah, and those who reject faith fight in the cause of evil: so fight ye against the friends of Satan” (Sura 4:76).
Often when these various verses of the sword from the Qur’an are cited, skeptics wonder if these are just a few isolated verses or if they are quoted out of context. How can we answer this question?
First, these are not isolated passages in the Qur’an, but can be found throughout the book. In fact, there are over 100 verses of the sword that advocate jihad in the Qur’an. Many of these verses are found in Sura 9. This was the last chapter communicated by Muhammad and illustrates his desire to use the sword and other forms of violence to spread the religion of Islam.
Second, let’s consider the context. While some will argue that these verses were intended only for the time of Muhammad, there is nothing within the Qur’an to justify such an interpretation. Nowhere within the Qur’an is there any restriction placed on these verses of the sword.
Third, these passages are used today by leaders of jihad warfare. They may call upon true believers to engage in warfare, terrorism, assassination, or persecution of unbelievers. For example, Osama bin Laden quoted from Sura 9:14 (“Fight them, and Allah will punish them by your hands, cover them with shame”) in a videotape found in Afghanistan by the U.S. Army.
While the Qur’an is the foundational book in Islam, there is also the Hadith. It is a collection of the sayings of Muhammad and is considered the second most important book in Islam. In the Hadith, we get additional perspectives on jihad. Here are four examples:
- “Allah’s apostle said, ‘Know that paradise is under the shades of swords.” – Hadith 4:55
- “Allah’s apostle said, ‘I have been ordered to fight with the people till they say, “None has the right to be worshipped but Allah,” and whoever says, “None has the right to be worshipped but Allah,” his life and property will be saved by men.’” – Hadith 4:125
- “It is not fitting for a prophet that he should have prisoners of war [and free them with ransom] until he has made a great slaughter [among his enemies] in the land.” – Hadith 4:161.
- “Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him.” – Hadith 9:45
Martyrdom and Suicide Bombers
In Islam, a martyr is called a shaheed (meaning witness). The concept of the shaheed is not found in the Qur’an but a discussion can be found in the Hadith.
Muslims who die in a holy war (jihad bis saif) are usually considered a martyr in Islam. This would be different than a suicide bomber. Some Muslims would consider a suicide bomber a martyr, but other Muslims would not consider them a martyr since there are strict admonitions in Islam against suicide. These Muslims would consider such actions as contrary to the teachings of Muhammad.
The Qur’an does teach that those who die in a holy war against infidels will be admitted into paradise (Sura 47:4-6) because Allah will not forget their deeds. The Hadith expands upon this and promotes martyrdom and promises rewards in heaven.
The Major Divisions of Islam
Islam is not a monolithic system. Though all Muslims draw their inspiration from Muhammad and the teachings in the Qur’an, there are many identifiable groups and movements within Islam.
The most significant division is between Sunni and Shi’a Islam. The Sunnis comprise about eighty to ninety percent of all Muslims. They draw their name from the fact that they look both to the Qur’an and to the “Sunna” in establishing proper Muslim conduct. The Sunna is the recorded behavior or example of Muhammad and of the early Muslim community. There are many sub-divisions among the Sunnis, but they all identify themselves as Sunni.
Sunnis currently control the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. They adhere to the five pillars of Islam and take a strong stand on the successor to Muhammad. They believe the successor must be a male from the Quraysh tribe. This leader will be the caliph who will govern Islam and provide theological direction to all Muslims, including the interpretation of sharia law. These caliphs have ruled continuously until the Ottoman Empire fell.
The other major group of Muslims is the Shi’ites. They comprise about ten percent of all Muslims. They reside mainly in southern Iraq and in Iran. The word Shi’ite means “partisan,” and refers to the fact that Shi’ites are “partisans of Ali.” As we have noted, Ali was the son-in-law and cousin of Muhammad and one of the early Caliphs. The Shi’ites believe that the leader of Islam should be a descendant of Ali, whom they believe possess a special divine anointing for this task. The Muslim leaders selected Abu Bakr as the first caliph. Instead, Ali was selected the fourth caliph, but Shiites consider him the first imam.
When conflicts arose, Ali was killed. His body is buried in Iraq and has become a great Shi’ite shrine. According to the Shi’ite teaching, pilgrimage to this shrine provides forgiveness for present and past sins.
Shi’ites are a majority in only a few Muslim countries (Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Bahrain). They are various sects of Shia including one branch known as the “Twelvers.” They believe in twelve imams who linked God and man after Muhammad’s death. The first imam was Ali, and the twelfth imam was Mahdi. According to the the Twelvers, Mahdi was taken by God into hiding from his enemies in 870. They also believe that the boy never died and will return to earth bringing justice at the end of days. Until his return, Shiites believe that an ayatollah may rule in his place. They also believe that the ayatollah is infallible. There have been a number of ayatollahs in the Shiite country of Iran.
There are a few other differences between Sunnis and Shi’ites. For example,
Shi’ites differ from Sunnis in the way they hold their hands during prayer. Shiites also commemorate the death of the third imam, Hussein, who was beheaded by the Sunni Army in 680. Some of the Shi’ite pilgrims visit his shrine and men dressed in white beat themselves until they bleed as penance for those who left him to be killed.
Some of the violence between Sunnis and Shi’ites in Iraq surfaced after the first Gulf War. The U.S. encouraged the Shi’ites to rise up against Saddam Hussein and the Sunnis. He retaliated by eradicating entire districts. Shiites believe they have a score to settle with the Sunni minority that oppressed them.
A third group of Muslims are the Sufis. They seek a mystical experience of God, rather than a merely intellectual knowledge of Him, and who also are given to a number of superstitious practices.
Sufi Muslims are the mystics in Islam. They believe that the soul can rise to Allah during prayer and other spiritual exercises. Although they also read the Qur’an, they read it in a different way than other Muslims. They believe that it is an allegory of our soul’s union with Allah. They, therefore, follow an inward path (tariqa) in their faith.
The word “sufi” means purity and comes from the fact that the first Sufis wore white, and they withdrew from society to practice their ascetic lifestyle. They use various spiritual exercises in an attempt to experience God directly. Perhaps the best-known example of Sufis would be the “whirling dervishes” who spin around and repeat the name of Allah as they dance.
Wahhabism is a movement within Sunni Islam that was founded in the eighteenth century by Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al- Wahhab who established a form of Muslim literalism that flourishes today in Saudi Arabia. He and his followers attempted to purify Islam and return it to its Muslim roots and pursue the literal interpretation of the Qur’an. Wahhab aggressively fought for purity within Islam by burning books, destroying Muslim holy places, and killing Muslims who disagreed with him.
The influence of Wahhabism on the Saudis provided a platform for this sect of Islam to gain national and international attention. When the Saudi forces conquered Arabia in 1925, they took control of Islam’s two most holy cities: Mecca and Medina. This provided them with a strong religious platform because of the annual pilgrimages to Mecca each year.
The oil money of Saudi Arabia provided the financial platform. Wahhabism became the “official, state-enforced doctrine of one of the most influential governments in all Islam.” The Saudi oil money helped to fund Wahhabi propagation of their views at home and abroad.
How influential is Wahhabism? It was the primary influence on Osama bin Laden and all of the 9/11 hijackers. It was also influential in the theology of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Bernard Lewis uses this analogy to illustrate the influence of Wahhabism. He says, imagine that the Ku Klux Klan or a similar group took control of Texas and its oil. Then imagine what they could do with this money to propagate their version of “Christianity” through heavily endowed schools and colleges.
During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the Wahhabi soldiers fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, with U.S. support. There, Wahhabis linked with radical followers of Sayyid Qutb. One commentator said that alliance was like “mixing nitroglycerin in a blender.” The result was a more militant strain of Wahhabism that had an emphasis on taking the fight to outsiders (e.g., the infidels and the West).
The Significance of Mecca
Mecca is the holiest city within the religion of Islam and is the place where the Sacred Mosque (al-Masjid al-Haram) is found. In fact, Mecca is considered so holy that non-Muslims are not permitted to enter the city. It is considered holy because it is the birthplace of Muhammad and the place where he first began to teach from his recitations (the Qur’an).
The Qur’an also teaches that it is the place where Abraham was supposed to sacrifice Ishmael. This teaching is contrary to the biblical teaching that he was supposed to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah.
Mecca is also the object of every Muslim’s prayer. Each day over 1 billion Muslims prays five times as they face in the direction of Mecca. All able-bodied Muslims who can afford to go are commanded to make a pilgrimage once during their lifetime.
The Ka’bah is a small cubical building within the Sacred Mosque. Muslims claim that Abraham built the Ka’bah. Even before the birth of Muhammad, religious activities took place at the Ka’bah. It was a shrine and trading center for many generations. When Muhammad returned to Mecca, he removed the religious idols from the Ka’bah and dedicated it as the center of worship.
Muslims gather for their pilgrimage to Mecca (known as the Hajj) during the month of Dhu al-Hijjah. The primary focus is the Ka’bah. While they are there, pilgrims must circle the Ka’bah seven times. Many will try to kiss or touch its cornerstone.
Pilgrims also drink from the well of Zamzam and often bring back a bottle of this water. The water supposedly has special properties and health benefits.
They also travel to a small village where there are stone columns that symbolize the Devil. They throw stones at these columns. They also travel to the Hill of Arafat for prayer. This is the traditional site of Muhammad’s farewell sermon.
Please Help Us Keep These Thousands of Blog Posts Free for All
 Bernard Lewis, “Jihad vs. Crusade,” Wall Street Journal, 27 September 2001.
 Bernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and the Unholy Terror (NY: The Modern Library, 2003), 129.