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What is Islam? | History of Islam


The religion of Islam dates back to the 7th century in the ancient city of Mecca on the Arabia peninsula. Today, it is practiced by about 2 billion people all over the world! Islam is the world's second largest religion and its followers account for about 25% of the world's total population. The word Islam means peace and submission to God. Followers of Islam are called Muslims. They believe in one God, called Allah in Arabic, and that the Prophet Muhammad was the final messenger from God, bringing a message of peace and justice to the world.

Student Activities for Islam



What Is Islam?

Islam is followed by about 2 billion people worldwide, which represents about a quarter of the world population. Followers of Islam are called Muslims. Muslims live throughout the world but are mainly found in the Middle East, West Asia, North Africa, Central Asia, India, China, Indonesia, the Americas, Australia, and parts of Europe. While Islam originated in Arabia, only 20% of the world's Muslims are Arab. About 30% hail from Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, while another 13% are in Indonesia. Islam is the world's second largest religion after Christianity.

Birth of Muhammad

Islam originated in Mecca (also spelled Makkah) in modern-day Saudi Arabia, where Muhammad was born in 570 CE. Muslims believe Muhammad to be the final Prophet or messenger from the one true God. It is important to note that many Muslims consider it disrespectful to draw or depict the Prophet Muhammad, therefore in these activities, he is only depicted by a silhouette. Muslims also say "peace be upon him" (PBUH) after saying the Prophet's name out of respect. In Arabic, it is "sallallahu alayhi wa salaam" (SAWS). You will often see an "*" after Muhammad's name in literature or "(PBUH)" to indicate this blessing. Muslims also use a phrase of respect and blessing after speaking or writing the names of other prophets they believe in.

Muhammad belonged to the Quraysh tribe, an Arab mercantile tribe that controlled the city of Mecca and the Kaaba, which is a sacred place of worship. Like other tribes on the Arabian peninsula, the Quraysh worshipped many gods. The Kaaba is believed to have been built by the prophet Abraham and his son Ishmael (in Arabic, the names are Ibrahim and Isma'il) to honor the one true God. Jews, Christians, and Muslims practice monotheism, which means they all believe in one God. They believe they are descendants of Abraham and consider him to be a prophet or messenger from God. This is why they are called the Abrahamic religions. Jews and Christians believe they are descended from Abraham's second son, Isaac, while Muslims believe they are descended from Abraham's oldest son, Ishmael.

The Quraysh profited greatly from controlling access to the Kaaba because they would charge pilgrims a tax to be able to worship there. In this way, they accumulated great wealth. The Kaaba was no longer dedicated to one God, but was surrounded by idols of many different gods. The society was oppressive, with a controlling and ruthless wealthy class and unjust treatment of women, orphans, and the poor. There was also ethnic strife and slavery. Muhammad was an orphan and was opposed to the injustices and inequalities that he witnessed around him. He is said to be filled with compassion and kindness for all living things and could not abide by such injustice and cruelty. Muhammad spent much of his time meditating in prayer in a cave called Hira, which is located on the mountain Jabal an-Nour or Mount Nur, near Mecca.

God's Revelation

In 610 CE, when Muhammad was about 40 years old, he received a revelation while meditating in the Cave of Hira. He was spoken to by the archangel Gabriel, or Jibril in Arabic. This is the same archangel Gabriel who is written about in the texts of Judaism and Christianity. The angel Gabriel told Muhammad that there was only one true God, Allah, and that Muhammad was to be his final prophet and messenger. The messages that Muhammad received were considered revelations that came directly from God. Muhammad would recite these revelations aloud, and his followers would then write his words down. These became the Qu'ran (also spelled Koran or Quran), which is the holy book of Islam. Muslims believe that Muhammad received many revelations from Allah throughout his life. Around 613, Muhammad began preaching throughout Mecca. While the Qur'an is a record of the word of God that was revealed to Muhammad, the sayings of the Prophet (hadiths) and records of his actions (sunna) are also considered sacred and important texts.

Muhammad's messages were radical for the time period. During this time, women were seen as inferior to men and infanticide was common for baby girls because boys were preferred. Muhammad preached against this practice, saying that all children were a blessing from God. He also preached against racial and ethnic division, saying that nobody was more superior than another based on race or ethnicity. Muhammad's message of peace and equality attracted many of the poor and oppressed, and thy became his followers. This angered the Quraysh leaders who profited from their control of the Kaaba and the hierarchical unjust system. Muhammad's followers faced persecution, torture, and death for converting. Despite this, Muhammad preached nonviolence. The Qur'an says: "Whosoever killed a person ... it shall be as if he had killed all mankind" (5:32).

The Hijrah

Muhammad was finally forced to flee Mecca in 622 CE when it was discovered that the Quraysh leaders had agreed to assassinate him. Muhammad and his father-in-law, Abu Bakr, fled to the city of Yathrib, some 200 miles north of Mecca, and led their many followers there. This is known as the Hijrah (also spelled hijra), which means flight in Arabic. In Yathrib, Muhammad and his followers were welcomed and the city was renamed Madinat Rasul Allah (The City of the Prophet of Allah), also known as Medina (Medinah). The Hijrah in 622 CE marks the first year of the Islamic Calendar and is noted as 1 AH (after Hijrah). For example, the year 2021 is considered year 1442 in the Muslim calendar.

Even though Muslims had fled to Medina, there were still conflicts with the Quraysh. Muslims believe that Muhammad received the divine messages from God saying that since he and his followers were being attacked, they could defend themselves and fight back. However, there were specific rules of warfare that were outlined that would protect innocent civilians and be in line with the tenets of compassion within Islam. For example, public spaces, farms, and herds were not to be attacked and no harm was allowed to come to women, children, the elderly, the disabled, animals, or plants. Prisoners of war were to be treated with kindness and no one was to be forcefully converted to Islam.

Return to Mecca and Muhammad's Successors

In 630, Muhammad marched to Mecca with an army of 10,000 and the city surrendered without a fight. Muhammad then "cleansed" the Kaaba by destroying the idols of the many gods that were worshipped there. The Kaaba was re-dedicated to the one true God and has been the holiest site for Muslims ever since.

After taking Mecca, Muhammad's influence grew and most of the Arabian peninsula became Muslim and was united. In 632 CE, Muhammad passed away and his successor was Abu Bakr, the first Caliph. Because of this, Islam split into two main sects: the Sunni and the Shi'a (Shi'ite), each with their own sub-sects. The Sunni believe that Abu Bakr was the correct successor to Muhammad after his death. The Shia believe that Muhammad's son-in-law, Ali Ibn Abi Talib, should have been the first Caliph instead and that Muhammad had chosen him to be his successor. The majority of Muslims around the world are Sunni at around 80-90%, while about 10-13% are Shi'a.

Main Beliefs in Islam

Islam is named after an action: submission to god. A Muslim is the person that submits to God. The root meaning of the word Islam means peace, safety, and security. The Arabic word for peace (salam) and the Hebrew word for peace (shalom) both come from this same root. Muslims believe that one will find peace by following God. Around the world, regardless of language, most Muslims greet each other with the Arabic greeting, "Asalamu ‘alaykum!" (peace be upon you). Muhammad believed in showing kindness towards all living things. Muslims are restricted in their diet to eat only halal meat, or meat that has been slaughtered in a humane way, as Muhammad believed in being respectful and compassionate towards animals as well as humans. Halal means allowed, while haram means not allowed or forbidden in Arabic. Some other core beliefs in Islam include:

Belief in one God

The Arabic word for God is Allah. Muslims believe that Allah is the most powerful and most merciful and the creator of all. They believe that Allah should be worshipped above all and that everyone can have a direct and personal relationship with God. Rather than priests, Islam has imams who lead Muslim worshippers in prayer and serve as exemplars, teachers, and community leaders. Like Jews and Christians, Muslims believe that God created the earth and all the animals in it as well as humanity, beginning with Adam and Eve.

Belief in the Divine Books, the Prophets, and the Angels

Like Jews and Christians, Muslims believe they are "people of the book". Muslims believe that the Qur'an is the word of God as it was revealed to Muhammad through the archangel Gabriel. Muslims believe that the holy texts in Judaism and Christianity are also divine and sent by God and that the prophets such as Abraham, Moses, Noah, and Jesus were all God's messengers. However, Muslims believe that Muhammad was the last and final messenger and prophet sent by God and therefore the Qur'an is the final divine book.

Belief in the Day of Judgement

Muslims believe that there will be a Day of Judgement where humans will be judged by their actions in life and will either be sent to Heaven or Hell.

Belief in the Qur'an

The Qur'an is the holy book of Islam and Muslims believe that the Qur'an is the direct word of God. It is about 600 pages long and is divided into 114 sections called Suras. The Qur'an was originally written in Arabic and it is memorized and recited in Arabic by Muslims in prayer all around the world. Muslims throughout the globe pray in the same way regardless of their home country. The Hadith are the books containing the life, actions, and sayings of the prophet Muhammad as passed down from those who knew him. These were passed down orally first before being written down, so there is debate about the reliability of some of the Hadiths compared to others.

Belief in Predestination

Muslims believe that nothing can happen without Allah’s permission and that the all-knowing Allah has chosen a path for people to follow. However, Muslims also believe that human beings have free will and make their own choices.

Belief in the 5 Pillars or Duties of Islam

  • Shahada is to declare one’s faith in God and belief in Muhammad. That "there is no God but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God."

  • Salat means prayer. Muslims are to pray five times a day facing Mecca: at sunset (Maghrib), at nightime (Isha), at dawn (Fajr), after midday (Dhuhr) and in the afternoon (Asr). Before prayer, a ritual called wudhu is performed. This involves washing the hands, arms, face, and feet so that one may be clean before presenting themselves to God. Prayers begin with "Allahu Akbar", which means "God is great".

  • Zakat means to give to those in need. Muslims believe they should give about 2.5% of their wealth to those less fortunate, as it says in the Quran, "Give money, cheerfully, to the relatives, the orphans, the needy, the traveling foreigner, the beggars, and to free the slaves." - 2:177

  • Sawm is the practice of fasting during the holy month of Ramadan from dawn until sunset. Children, the elderly, pregnant women, the sick, or the disabled do not have to fast if it is unhealthy for them. Fasting reminds Muslims to be grateful for what they have and to show compassion for those who are poor, suffering, and in need. It also allows Muslims to better focus on their relationship with God and their duty to help others.

  • Hajj means pilgrimage. All Muslims are supposed to make a pilgrimage to the Kaaba in Mecca at least once in their lifetime if they are able. More than 2 million people make pilgrimage every year.
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Other Important Features of Islam

A mosque (masjid in Arabic) is a Muslim place of worship as well as a teaching and community space. When Muslims pray, they face Mecca, Saudi Arabia, specifically toward the sacred Kaaba which Muhammad rededicated back to serve Allah in 622 CE. The Kaaba is considered by Muslims to be the Bayṫ Allāh ("House of God"). It is located in the center of the Grand Mosque of Mecca, the Masjid al-Haram.

Muslims gather at mosques to pray together on Fridays, which is considered the holiest day of the week. Mosques are also used for weddings, funerals, and Ramadan festivals. Other important Islamic holy places include the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and the Prophet Muhammad’s mosque in Medina. Mecca, Jerusalem, and Medina are considered the holiest cities in Islam. Some symbols associated with Islam include the crescent moon and star and the color green, which is said to be the Prophet Muhammad's favorite color. Oil lamps and dates are often used during Ramadan and commonly found in a Muslim home. Prayer rugs are as well, and are used 5 times a day during prayer.



Holidays in Islam

Islamic New Year: This is also called the Hijri New Year or Arabic New Year. The first day of the Islamic year is observed by most Muslims on the first day of the first month, which is Muharram. Muharram is the second holiest month next to Ramadan. In 622 CE, Muhammad and his followers emigrated from Mecca to Medina, which is known as the Hijra. This became the beginning of the Islamic calendar. Muslims celebrate differently depending on the country. Some celebrate with fireworks, some with parades, and some with fasting.

Mawlid: Also called Mawlid an-Nabawī, Mawlid is the observance of the Prophet Muhammad's birthday, peace be upon him. It occurs in Rabiʽ al-Awwal, which is the third month in the Islamic calendar. Because it is a Lunar calendar, the months fall at different times in different years. The day differs between followers of Sunni and Shi'a, with the 12th of Rabi' al-awwal being observed by most Sunnis and the 17th of Rabi' al-awwal observed by most Shi'a. Mawlid is usually celebrated with a carnival in the streets, decorated homes and mosques, charity, and telling stories about the Prophet Muhammad.

Ramadan: Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. It is observed by Muslims around the world as a month of fasting, prayer, reflection, and community. It is considered the holiest month of the year. During Ramadan, Muslims fast – no eating or drinking – while the sun is up. They eat before dawn and break their fast at sunset with a meal called iftar. Participating in fasting is a reminder of those less fortunate, the importance of being grateful for what you have, and the importance of offering charity to those in need. Fasting during the month of Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam and mandatory for all Muslims who are healthy and able. Children, the sick, or pregnant women are exempt.

Eid al-Fitr: Eid means festival in Arabic Eid al-Fitr is the Festival of the Breaking of the Fast. It is one of two main festivals in Islam. The end of the month of Ramadan is celebrated by the festival of Eid al-Fitr when friends and family get together and worship at the mosque, eat delicious food, give money to charity, and children receive presents.

Eid al-Adha: Eid al-Adha is the Festival of Sacrifice that marks the end of the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims are expected to perform at least once in their lives if they are able. It occurs during the 12th month of the Islamic calendar and lasts 3-4 days. The holiday relates to the story of Ibrahim (Abraham) who, through God's mercy, sacrifices a ram instead of his son. It is traditionally celebrated with the symbolic sacrifice of a lamb, goat, or other animal that is then divided into thirds to be shared equally among family, friends, and the needy. "Eid Mubarak" is a traditional Muslim greeting that means “Blessed feast / festival".


Islam and Modernity

As with all religions, there are many concepts, ideas, and practices within Islam that are considered controversial and are debated by both Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Some examples are the meaning of "jihad" and women's rights.

Jihad means “struggle” or "striving" in Arabic. Muslims believe it refers to the struggles within a person and in their society to defend and uphold their faith as well as striving to benefit the community and resist sin. However, in many cases now, jihad is portrayed as enacting a holy war.

While the nature of jihad is debated, the Qur'an teaches that wars that would force people to convert to Islam, conquer and colonize other nations, seize territory for economic gain, or are to demonstrate a leader's power would be unjust and against the teachings of Islam. Most Muslims do not feel that terrorist groups like ISIS (Daesh) or Boko Haram represent them as Islam and Muhammad's teachings espouse peace and tolerance. While these terrorist groups invoke their faith as a justification for violence, the vast majority of Muslims do not believe in violence and have negative views of these groups. In fact, Muslims are often victims of violence and discrimination themselves.

With regards to women's rights, there are some Muslim majority countries such as Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan that have discriminatory laws and patriarchal societies that create a culture of oppression and violence against women. In Saudi Arabia, women were only granted the right to vote in 2015 and were not allowed to drive until 2018. A landmark case in June of 2021 granted women the right to live alone without a male guardian. These examples lead some to believe that Islam itself is the cause of oppression of women rather than the governments and people interpreting it. What is interesting to note is that within the Qur'an, there are many verses in support of women's equality, such as, "Women have rights similar to those of men" (2:228) and "Be you male or female - you are equal to one another." (3:195)

Another topical issue is that of the hijab, or head scarves. The headscarf has been donned for millennia out of necessity, with men and women wearing head coverings across various Mesopotamian societies as protection, for better hygiene and as a sign of respect and modesty. Headscarves have been worn by Jews, Christians, and Muslims since ancient times. Many Muslim women were hijabs or scarves that cover their hair as a sign of respect and modesty and because it is part of their cultural identity. Not all Muslim women wear hijabs and the majority of Muslims around the globe believe it is a woman's personal choice. However, there are some countries where women are pressured by society or forced by law to wear face and body coverings, like a niqab or burqa, when in public. On the other hand, there are parts of the world where women are legally restricted from wearing coverings, such as in France, and women who choose to wear these coverings feel it is a violation of their rights to be restricted in this way.

While Muslims strive to dismantle misconceptions about their faith, they seek understanding and peace. Today, Islam continues to spread and is currently the world’s fastest growing religion. Islam is predicted to surpass Christianity as the world's largest by the end of the century.


Essential Questions for Islam

  1. When and where did the religion of Islam originate?
  2. What are some important beliefs in Islam and what holidays do Muslims celebrate?
  3. What objects or symbols are important or sacred in Islam?
  4. Where are its followers today and how many people practice Islam throughout the world?
  5. How do Muslims worship and who are their spiritual leaders?

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