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  The term ‘Islam’ means submission, and a ‘Muslim’ is one who submits. One submits to the will of God, of Allah, which was revealed to Muhammad, the last in the line of prophets, and is preserved in the Qur\'an, the Muslims\' sacred text. Islam has the second largest number of followers worldwide after Christianity. The predominantly Muslim regions are North and West Africa, Arabia and the Middle East extending through Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan up into the central Asian republics and down into Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, and finally Malaysia and Indonesia (the country with the largest number of Muslims in the world).

Muhammad was born in Mecca in Arabia in approximately  CE 570. Mecca contained an important religious shrine, a cube-shaped building called the Ka\'ba, and was also a prosperous trading centre. Muhammad was a merchant and married a wealthy business woman, Khadija. He was given to withdrawing from Mecca to reflect in the solitude of the surrounding hills. On one such occasion, in a cave on Mount Hira, he was overwhelmed by a sense of being addressed by the angel Gabriel, and was told to ‘read’ or ‘recite’. Other experiences of a similar nature followed and he began to preach in the streets of Mecca. He spoke of a coming Day of Judgement, of the resurrection of the dead, and of the need to obey God in a life of faith and good works. His ideas earned him the scorn of his fellow citizens, followed by anger when he criticized the affluent for neglecting their obligations to the poor, and warned them in dramatic terms of the fate which would befall them in consequence. Above all, he denounced the veneration of idols in the Ka\'ba and proclaimed that God is One. In 622, he and his followers were forced to move to Medina, an oasis town about 320 km north of Mecca. This year of the Hijra, or ‘Emigration’, later marked the start of the Islamic calendar.

After Muhammad\'s death in 632, the records of his revelations were collected to form the Qur\'an. Muslims believe this to be a perfect copy of an original in heaven and accordingly revere it as revelation. Such was the respect Mudhammad\'s first followers had for him that they also sought to preserve the records of his sayings and actions. These are called hadith. Unfortunately, countless fabricated hadith also appeared, causing great confusion, but eventually those judged to be authentic were brought together in authoritative collection. They show the believer the path or way (sunna) of the Prophet, and are second only to the Qur\'an in importance.

The emphasis in Islam on the one true God and, therefore, on the unforgivable nature of the sin of shirk (assigning partners to God) leads Muslims to stress the difference between their beliefs and those of Christians for whom Christ is divine. Nevertheless, Muhammad is the central figure in their faith and criticism of him is considered intolerable. (Hence the sensitivities aroused in the Salman Rushdie affair.) Although Muhammad is ‘just a man’, he is regarded as the perfect model to imitate. Many believers pray to him for miraculous intervention, or beseech him to intercede with Allah on their behalf. Such practices are frowned upon by the learned, but they continue, and have undoubtedly contributed to the spread of the faith.

‘The learned’ are known collectively as the ulama. They are not, except in Shi\'ism, organized in a formal, structured hierarchy, but an informal hierarchy exists based on reputation for learning. This learning in turn is based heavily on extensive study of past theologies and law, to the extent that the ulama are sometimes referred to as the lawyer theologians. Many are indeed judges (qadis) in Islamic religious courts, or legal experts (muftis) offering guidance on legal interpretations. In Islam as in Judaism, the law is of enormous importance.

The obvious authorities were first the Qur\'an and then the collections of hadith. From them Muslim thinkers evolved an authoritative system of Islamic law, shari\'a. The shari\'a is not a comprehensive legal code in the modern Western sense. In most Muslim countries today, a modern, Western-type code has been adopted to complement the shari\'a, and in some countries it has replaced it entirely, despite the objections of so-called Islamic fundamentalists. Yet historically, the ruler\'s (or state\'s) law has always existed alongside the shari\'a as its necessary complement. In Islam there is no clearly defined division between what is ‘religious’ and what is ‘secular’.

There is no contradiction in the fact that as well as being experts in law and jurisprudence, the ulama are trained in theology. Muslim theology developed in opposition to philosophy, rejecting the free play that the latter allows to reason. The early traditions of Islamic philosophy were eventually defeated, leaving theology, with its insistence on faith, supreme. Innovation was distrusted, or virtually excluded. The excitement of early explorations in theology was replaced with the safe rehearsal of tradition.

This development is of more than historical interest, because it is a major contributory factor to the contemporary ferment in Islam. Once the systems of law and theology had emerged, it was widely believed that the intellectual task for Islam was essentially complete. The view prevailed that the ‘gates of ijtihad’ were closed. Ijtihad is the exercise of reason and a spirit of enquiry, and this was no longer necessary.

Within the overall, central framework of the Qur\'an, Sunna, shari\'a, law and theology, the ‘ordinary believer’ had and continues to have a more immediate basis on which to practise his or her faith—the Five Pillars.

First is the shahada, the confession of faith. ‘I bear witness that there is no god but God; I bear witness that Muhammad is the Apostle of God.’ These words are breathed into a newborn baby\'s ear so that they may be the first intelligible utterance heard; and they are often a Muslim\'s dying words.

Second is salat, the set prayers said five times a day (as opposed to informal prayer which may be uttered at any time). They may take place at home, at work, in the mosque, in the street—wherever one happens to be at dawn, midday, mid-afternoon, sunset and at night. Believers all face Mecca to pray, symbolizing their unity with the umma and their recognition of the significance of Muhammad. Congregational prayer in the mosque at noon on Friday is a duty for men in particular, and is followed by a sermon.

Third is the duty of zakat, alms-giving. Detailed amounts are specified in the shari\'a; a figure in common use is 2.5% of one\'s savings over the year. This ‘pillar’ symbolizes the concern for the poor and underprivileged that is a recurrent theme in the Qur\'an, which also emphasizes the importance of purity of motive in giving.

Fourth is the fast of Ramadan, involving abstinence from food and drink between dawn and sunset for a month. This is obligatory for all healthy adults, but not for the old or pregnant women. The end of Ramadan is marked by one of the main Muslim festivals, \'Id al-Fitr, when presents are exchanged.

Fifth is the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. It is obligatory to make it once in a lifetime, if possible. In order to symbolize equality before God, pilgrims wear simple, white garments, which they may continue to wear afterwards. A person who has made the pilgimage may incorporate the title hajji into their proper name. For most of the hundreds of thousands who go, it is the event of a lifetime, but unfortunately excitement in Mecca has on occasion been difficult for the Saudi authorities to control, with tragic results. Since the Iranian revolution in 1979 there have also been political demonstrations in Mecca by Iranian pilgrims.

The end of hajj is commemorated by a four-day festival held worldwide. This is the \'Id al-Adha, the ‘Festival of Sacrifice’. Animals are sacrificed and the meat distributed to the poor.

There is considerable diversity of opinion and belief among Muslims. Roughly, fundamentalists differ from the conservatives (as typically exemplified by the ulama) in being willing to reject much of the tradition and go back to the Qur\'an and Sunna, and they differ from modernists in rejecting the West\'s preoccupation with reason and science. They advocate the establishment of Islamic states, with some version of Islamic law in place.

A controversial issue is the status of women. Liberal Muslims advocate equality of the sexes, sometimes arguing that just as the provisions in the Qur\'an concerning slavery need to be reinterpreted in support of abolition, so the teaching about women needs to be reassessed. Fundamentalists agree with conservatives that there is spiritual equality between the sexes, but say that this should not be translated into social equality. The roles assigned to the sexes are different, they claim, and it is part of the role assigned to men that they should exercise overall authority in society.

Contention also surrounds the use of violence and the right to freedom of religion. Muhammad used force, and holy war is a legitimate concept in Islam. It was invoked by both Iran and Iraq in their eight-year war (1980-88). In traditional Islamic law it is forbidden to renounce one\'s faith on pain of death. Apostasy invites the death penalty and is a crucial element in the Salman Rushdie affair. Clearly this view is incompatible with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which liberal Muslims would uphold and fundamentalists reject.

The division between Shi\'ite Muslims and the majority Sunni Muslims has been brought into prominence by events in Iran and Lebanon. The name ‘Sunni’ derives from sunna, ‘the way’ as set forth by Muhammad. The Shi\'ites also follow this way, but with their own traditions and laws. From one of the Shi\'ite sects the Baha\'is emerged and formed a separate religion. The Ahmadiya are an active proselytizing group with members throughout the world. However, they are denounced as apostates by other Muslims because of the claims of their founder, Ghulam Ahmad (1839 - 1908), to be a prophet. JS

See also Islamic political thought.Further reading A. Rippin, Muslims; , Rafiq Zakaria, The Struggle Within Islam: the Conflict Between Religion and Politics.



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Islamic Political Thought


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