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Islam: Beginner's Guide to Understanding Islam - Discover the History, Beliefs, Practices, and Diversity of Islam

Islam: Beginner's Guide to Understanding Islam

Islam is one of the world's major religions, with over 1.8 billion followers. It is also one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented religions in the media and popular culture. Many people have misconceptions and stereotypes about Islam that prevent them from appreciating its rich history, diversity, and contributions to human civilization.

Islam: Beginner's Guide to Understanding Islam

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If you are curious about Islam and want to learn more about it, this article is for you. In this article, you will discover:

  • What is Islam and what are its main beliefs and practices

  • The history of Islam and how it shaped the world

  • The diversity of Islam and how it varies across cultures and regions

  • The benefits of learning about Islam and how it can enhance your life

By the end of this article, you will have a basic understanding of Islam and its significance for humanity. You will also have some resources and tips to help you continue your learning journey.


What is Islam?

Islam is an Arabic word that means "submission" or "surrender" to the will of God. Muslims are those who follow Islam, which means they submit to God's guidance and commands. Muslims believe that God (Allah in Arabic) is the creator and sustainer of everything in existence, and that he is the only one worthy of worship.

Islam is not a new religion, but rather a continuation and completion of the previous revelations that God sent to different prophets throughout history. Muslims believe that God sent prophets such as Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad (peace be upon them all) to teach humanity how to live according to God's will. Muslims also believe that God revealed his final and complete message to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) through the Quran, which is the holy book of Islam.

What are the main beliefs of Islam?

The core beliefs of Islam are summarized in the six articles of faith:

  • Belief in God: Muslims believe that there is only one God, who is unique, eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-merciful, and all-just. He has no partners, equals, or offspring. He is the source of everything that exists.

  • Belief in the angels: Muslims believe that God created angels from light to serve him and carry out his commands. Angels have no free will and cannot disobey God. Some of the most important angels are Gabriel (who delivered the Quran to Muhammad), Michael (who is in charge of rain and vegetation), Israfil (who will blow the trumpet on the Day of Judgment), and Azrael (who takes the souls of the dead).

  • Belief in the books: Muslims believe that God revealed his guidance to humanity through different books at different times. Some of these books are the Torah (given to Moses), the Psalms (given to David), the Gospel (given to Jesus), and the Quran (given to Muhammad). Muslims believe that the Quran is the final and unaltered word of God, and that it confirms and supersedes the previous books.

  • Belief in the prophets: Muslims believe that God sent messengers to every nation and community to teach them how to worship God and live a righteous life. Some of these messengers are Adam, Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, David, Solomon, Job, Jonah, Zachariah, John, Jesus, and Muhammad (peace be upon them all). Muslims believe that Muhammad is the last and seal of the prophets, and that he brought the universal and final message of Islam.

  • Belief in the Day of Judgment: Muslims believe that there will be a day when God will resurrect all people who ever lived and judge them according to their deeds. Those who believed in God and followed his commands will enter Paradise, a place of eternal bliss and happiness. Those who rejected God and disobeyed his commands will enter Hell, a place of eternal torment and suffering.

  • Belief in the divine decree: Muslims believe that God has full knowledge and control over everything that happens in the universe. He has predetermined everything according to his wisdom and justice. Nothing happens without his permission or against his will. However, God has also given humans free will and responsibility for their actions. Humans can choose to obey or disobey God, but they will face the consequences of their choices in this life and the next.

What are the main practices of Islam?

The main practices of Islam are summarized in the five pillars of Islam:

  • The testimony of faith (shahada): This is the declaration that "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his messenger." This is the basic statement of faith that makes one a Muslim. It expresses the belief in God's oneness and Muhammad's prophethood.

  • The prayer (salah): This is the ritual worship that Muslims perform five times a day at prescribed times. It consists of reciting verses from the Quran and making supplications to God while facing the direction of Mecca. It helps Muslims remember God, seek his guidance, and purify their hearts.

  • The almsgiving (zakat): This is the obligatory charity that Muslims pay annually on their wealth above a certain threshold. It is usually 2.5% of one's savings, assets, crops, livestock, etc. It is distributed to the poor, the needy, the orphans, the travelers, etc. It helps Muslims purify their wealth, share their blessings, and care for the less fortunate.

  • The fasting (sawm): This is the abstention from food, drink, sexual activity, and other worldly pleasures from dawn to sunset during the month of Ramadan, which is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. It helps Muslims develop self-control, discipline, gratitude, and empathy for those who suffer from hunger and thirst.

  • The pilgrimage (hajj): This is the journey to Mecca that every Muslim who is physically and financially able must perform at least once in their lifetime. It takes place during the twelfth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. It involves performing various rites such as circumambulating the Kaaba (the cube-shaped building that Muslims believe was built by Abraham and Ishmael as the first house of worship for God), running between two hills (to commemorate Hagar's search for water for her son Ishmael), stoning three pillars (to symbolize rejecting Satan's temptations), sacrificing an animal (to honor Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael for God), shaving or cutting one's hair (to signify renewal), and visiting other sacred sites. It helps Muslims express their devotion to God, unite with other Muslims from different backgrounds and cultures, and follow the footsteps of their prophets.

The History of Islam

The Prophet Muhammad and the revelation of the Quran

Muhammad was born in Mecca around 570 CE into a noble tribe called Quraysh. He was orphaned at a young age and raised by his grandfather and uncle. He was known for his honesty, integrity, generosity, and wisdom. He worked as a merchant and a shepherd until he was 40 years old.

One night in 610 CE, he was meditating in a cave near Mecca when he received his first revelation from God through the angel Gabriel. He was commanded to recite: "Read in the name of your Lord who created - Created man from a clinging substance. Read! And your Lord is This was the beginning of Muhammad's prophethood and mission. For the next 23 years, he received more revelations from God that formed the Quran, which covers various topics such as theology, morality, law, history, science, and spirituality. The Quran is considered by Muslims to be the literal word of God, and the primary source of guidance for their faith and practice.

Muhammad's message was simple: There is only one God who deserves worship, and he has sent prophets and books to guide humanity to the truth. He called people to abandon idolatry, injustice, oppression, and corruption, and to embrace monotheism, justice, mercy, and righteousness. He also warned them of the Day of Judgment when they will be accountable for their deeds.

However, Muhammad's message was met with hostility and persecution by many of his own people, especially the leaders of Quraysh who saw him as a threat to their power and privilege. They mocked him, abused him, boycotted him, and plotted to kill him. Some of his followers were tortured and killed for their faith.

In 622 CE, Muhammad and his followers migrated from Mecca to Medina, a city about 200 miles north of Mecca. This event is known as the Hijra (migration) and marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar. In Medina, Muhammad established the first Muslim community (ummah) and state. He became not only a spiritual leader but also a political leader, a judge, a legislator, a military commander, and a diplomat. He made treaties with other tribes and communities, including Jews and Christians. He also fought several battles against his enemies who attacked him and his followers.

In 630 CE, Muhammad conquered Mecca peacefully with a large army of Muslims. He forgave his former persecutors and declared amnesty for everyone. He destroyed the idols in the Kaaba and restored it as a house of worship for God. He also performed his first and only pilgrimage to Mecca.

In 632 CE, Muhammad died in Medina at the age of 63. He left behind a legacy of faith, wisdom, justice, compassion, and leadership that continues to inspire billions of people around the world. He is regarded by Muslims as the best example of human conduct and character.

The spread of Islam and its divisions

After Muhammad's death, his companions elected Abu Bakr as his successor (caliph). Abu Bakr was one of Muhammad's closest friends and earliest converts. He led the Muslim community for two years until his death in 634 CE. He was succeeded by Umar ibn al-Khattab, another close friend and companion of Muhammad. Umar ruled for 10 years until he was assassinated in 644 CE. He was followed by Uthman ibn Affan, who was also a companion of Muhammad and a relative of his wife Aisha. Uthman ruled for 12 years until he was killed by rebels in 656 CE.

Uthman's death sparked a civil war among the Muslims over who should be the next caliph. Some supported Ali ibn Abi Talib, who was Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law. Others supported Muawiyah ibn Abi Sufyan, who was Uthman's relative and the governor of Syria. Ali became the fourth caliph but faced opposition from Muawiyah and his supporters. They fought several battles until Ali was assassinated in 661 CE by a Kharijite (a radical sect that rebelled against both Ali and Muawiyah).

Muawiyah then became the fifth caliph and established the Umayyad dynasty that ruled from Damascus until 750 CE. The Umayyads expanded the Islamic empire to include North Africa, Spain, Central Asia, and parts of India. However, they also faced resistance from various groups who challenged their legitimacy and authority. One of these groups was the Shia (short for Shi'at Ali or partisans of Ali), who believed that Ali and his descendants were the rightful successors of Muhammad based on his appointment by God. The Shia consider Ali as their first imam (spiritual leader) and revere his family as the Ahl al-Bayt (people of the house) of Muhammad.

The Shia were persecuted by the Umayyads who saw them as a threat to their rule. The most tragic event in Shia history was the massacre of Husayn ibn Ali (Ali's son and Muhammad's grandson) and his companions at Karbala in Iraq in 680 CE. Husayn had refused to pledge allegiance to Yazid ibn Muawiyah, the son and successor of Muawiyah, who was seen by many as a tyrant and a usurper. Husayn and his small group of followers were surrounded and killed by Yazid's army. The Shia commemorate this event every year on the day of Ashura (the tenth day of the month of Muharram) by mourning, fasting, and performing rituals of self-flagellation.

The Umayyads were overthrown in 750 CE by the Abbasids, who claimed descent from Abbas, Muhammad's uncle. The Abbasids moved the capital from Damascus to Baghdad and ushered in a new era of Islamic civilization. They supported the development of science, philosophy, literature, art, and culture. They also patronized the Sunni (short for Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jama'ah or people of the tradition and consensus), who followed the majority opinion of the Muslim scholars and jurists on matters of faith and practice. The Sunni recognize the first four caliphs as the rightly guided caliphs and respect the companions of Muhammad as the best generation of Muslims.

The Sunni and Shia are the two main sects of Islam today, with about 85% of Muslims being Sunni and 15% being Shia. They share many beliefs and practices, such as the six articles of faith and the five pillars of Islam, but they differ on some issues such as the succession of Muhammad, the role and status of Ali and his descendants, the interpretation of the Quran and the Sunnah (the sayings and actions of Muhammad), and the sources and methods of Islamic law.

The golden age of Islamic civilization

The period from the 8th to the 13th centuries CE is often considered as the golden age of Islamic civilization, when Muslims made remarkable achievements in various fields of knowledge and culture. Some of the highlights of this period are:

  • The translation and preservation of ancient Greek, Persian, Indian, and Chinese texts into Arabic, which enabled Muslims to learn from other civilizations and contribute to their own.

  • The development of various sciences such as mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, geography, geology, etc. Some of the famous Muslim scientists include al-Khwarizmi (who invented algebra), al-Biruni (who measured the circumference of the earth), Ibn al-Haytham (who founded optics), al-Razi (who wrote an encyclopedia of medicine), Ibn Sina (who wrote a canon of medicine), al-Zahrawi (who wrote a book on surgery), al-Idrisi (who made a world map), etc.

  • The advancement of philosophy, theology, mysticism, ethics, law, politics, etc. Some of the famous Muslim philosophers include al-Kindi (who integrated Greek philosophy with Islamic theology), al-Farabi (who wrote on logic and political theory), Ibn Rushd (who commented on Aristotle), Ibn Sina (who wrote on metaphysics and psychology), al-Ghazali (who wrote on theology and mysticism), Ibn Arabi (who wrote on Sufism or Islamic mysticism), etc.

  • The flourishing of literature, poetry, art, architecture, music, etc. Some of the famous Muslim poets include Rumi (who wrote mystical poems), Omar Khayyam (who wrote quatrains or four-line verses), Ferdowsi (who wrote an epic poem on Persian history), al-Mutanabbi (who wrote panegyrics or praise poems), etc. Some of the famous Muslim artists include Ibn al-Bawwab (who illuminated manuscripts), Sinan (who designed mosques), Mimar Sinan (who designed mosques), etc.

Islamic civilization reached its peak under the Abbasids in Baghdad, the Umayyads in Spain, the Fatimids in Egypt, the Seljuks in Turkey, the Ghaznavids in Afghanistan, the Safavids in Iran, etc. However, it also faced challenges and decline from various factors such as internal conflicts, political fragmentation, foreign invasions, Mongol destructions, Crusader wars, etc.

The Diversity of Islam

The major sects and schools of Islam

As mentioned earlier, Islam has two main sects: Sunni and Shia. Within these sects, there are also sub-sects and schools of thought that differ on some aspects of doctrine and practice. Some of these are:

  • The four schools of Sunni jurisprudence: Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi'i, and Hanbali. These schools are named after their founders and follow different methods of deriving Islamic law from the Quran nah. They agree on most issues but differ on some details and rulings. They respect each other and accept each other's opinions as valid.

  • The two main branches of Shia Islam: Twelver and Ismaili. The Twelvers believe that there are twelve imams (spiritual leaders) who are the descendants of Ali and Muhammad, and that the twelfth imam is in occultation (hidden) and will return at the end of time as the Mahdi (guided one). The Ismailis believe that there are seven imams, and that the seventh imam's son Ismail was the rightful successor. They also believe that the imamate (leadership) continues through a living imam who is the spiritual guide of the community.

  • The Sufis, who are the mystics of Islam. They seek to attain a direct and personal experience of God through various practices such as meditation, chanting, dancing, etc. They follow different orders or paths (tariqas) that are named after their founders or leaders. Some of the famous Sufi orders are Qadiriyya, Naqshbandiyya, Chishtiyya, Mawlawiyya, etc.

The cultural and regional variations of Islam

Islam is not a monolithic or homogeneous religion, but rather a diverse and dynamic one that adapts to different contexts and cultures. Islam has spread to various regions of the world, such as Africa, Asia, Europe, America, etc., and has interacted with different civilizations, languages, traditions, customs, etc. As a result, Islam has developed various expressions and manifestations that reflect the diversity and richness of its followers.

Some examples of the cultural and regional variations of Islam are:

  • The African Muslims, who have contributed to the fields of literature, art, music, education, trade, etc. Some of the famous African Muslims include Mansa Musa (the king of Mali who made a famous pilgrimage to Mecca), Ibn Battuta (the traveler who visited many countries and wrote about his experiences), Usman dan Fodio (the reformer who established the Sokoto Caliphate in Nigeria), etc.

  • The Asian Muslims, who have contributed to the fields of science, philosophy, architecture, poetry, etc. Some of the famous Asian Muslims include al-Khwarizmi (the mathematician who invented algebra), Ibn Sina (the philosopher and physician who wrote a canon of medicine), Rumi (the poet and mystic who wrote mystical poems), Taj Mahal (the monument that was built by Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his wife Mumtaz Mahal), etc.

  • The European Muslims, who have contributed to the fields of astronomy, medicine, art, music, etc. Some of the famous European Muslims include al-Zarqali (the astronomer who made an astrolabe), Ibn Rushd (the philosopher who commented on Aristotle), al-Andalus (the name of Muslim Spain that was a center of learning and culture), Flamenco (the musical genre that has influences from Arabic music), etc.

  • The American Muslims, who have contributed to the fields of sports, entertainment, politics, social justice, etc. Some of the famous American Muslims include Muhammad Ali (the boxer and activist who refused to fight in Vietnam), Malcolm X (the civil rights leader who embraced Islam after visiting Mecca), Cat Stevens (the singer and songwriter who converted to Islam and changed his name to Yusuf Islam), Ilhan Omar (the first Somali-American and one of the first Muslim women to be elected to Congress), etc.

The contemporary challenges and issues facing Islam

Islam is not only a religion of the past, but also a religion of the present and future. Islam faces many challenges and issues in the modern world, such as:

The rise of extremism and terrorism: Some groups and individuals have distorted and misused the teachings of Islam to justify violence, hatred, and oppression. They have committed atrocities and crimes against innocent people, including Muslims, in the name of Islam. They have also tarnished the image and reputation of Islam in


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