Islamic Outreach

Islam: The Basics

In writing about Islam, there is always a need to state some basic principles and beliefs and clear up a few misconceptions. A colleague once asked me what ten things I would want every American to know about Islam, and this list was eventually developed.

1. There are two major sources of Islamic law and practices, the Quran and the Hadith. Muslims believe that the Quran (also spelled as Koran), is a book of revelation that contains the words of Allah (God) as conveyed to the Prophet Muhammad by the Archangel Gabriel. The Hadith is a collection of sayings, stories, and rules attributed to the Prophet Muhammad and inspired by Allah.

2. Allah means God and God means Allah. Allah is the Arabic word for God. Muslims believe He is the same God, whether it is Muhammad’s God, or a Christian God or a Jewish God. It simply means God. An Arabic Christian and Arabic Muslim both use the same word for God. For example, the common words said by Arabs “Allah Ma’ak” literally translate into “God be with you”.

3. Muslims do not worship Muhammad. He is a Prophet and a Messenger, chosen by God. He is not immortal or superhuman. He was born, got married several times, had children and died at the age of 63.

4. Jesus is an important figure in Islam. Muslims believe he is the Messiah. He is neither God nor the Son of God. God created him via a Virgin Birth. He is an important Messenger of God, with special powers to perform miracles. He never died, but ascended to heaven. Muslims, like Christians, are expecting his second coming.

5. Islam rejects the doctrine of the original sin, or being born into sin. In Islam, all individuals are born without sin. As individuals mature, their beliefs, deeds and behaviors will be judged by God alone.

6. Islam is based on five pillars (practices): Shahadah (declaration of faith), Salat (prayer), Sawm (fasting), Zakat (almsgiving) and Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca).

7. Jihad literally means ‘struggle’. There are different types of Jihad. The most important Jihad in Islam is the struggle to control the evil temptations of the self. Jihad can also mean self-defense. For some, Jihad also means holy war. However, many Muslim scholars do not accept the concept of Jihad as a holy war. Jihad is not one of the five pillars of Islam.

8. Shariah is Islamic religious law. It is, to a certain extent, similar to theology in Christianity or Judaism. Shariah deals with many aspects of religious and social life including worship, family relations, and community affairs. Shariah requires Muslims to deal with non-Muslims in a just and fair manner. Shariah does not command Muslims to overthrow a non-Muslim government or turn it into a Shariah state. In the same manner, Muslims are not commanded to forcefully convert Christians or Jews to Islam.

9. There are two major sects of Islam, Sunni and Shiite. Ninety percent of Muslims are Sunni. There is no governing religious body for Sunni Muslims (e.g. Pope). In Shiite Islam, there are Imams who are the spiritual and religious leaders of the community.

10. The word Imam has two meanings. An Imam in Sunni Islam is a community leader or leader in prayers. An Imam in Shiite Islam is a descendant of the Imam Ali, the fourth caliph. A Shiite Imam is the spiritual and religious leader of Shiite Muslims everywhere.