Origins of Islam
- Over a period of twenty three years, from the age of forty, the Prophet Muhammad (570- 632CE) is believed by Muslims to have received a series of revelations from God through the Angel Jibreel (Gabriel).
- The founding event of the Muslim community or ‘Ummah, was Muhammad’s 622CE five hundred kilometer migration, or Hijra, from Makka in Arabia to Madina. This marks the beginning of the Muslim dating system, “A.H.” (after Hijra).
- From Arabia, Islam spread into the Indian sub-continent, Africa and Europe, growing especially strongly in India during the Moghul empire (1516-1707CE). From India, Islam spread to Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and beyond.
Central Aspects of Islam
- Islam is based on a belief in revealed truth. The revelations through Muhammad are not seen by Muslims as instituting a new faith. Muslims therefore affirm belief in the Torah of Moses and the Injil, or Gospel, of Jesus.
- Muhammad is seen as the “seal” of the prophetic succession, bringing a revelation in the Arabic language which both called people back to the original teachings of the previous prophets and fulfilled them.
- The core of Islam’s revealed message is seen as “submission” to God. Islam has seven fundamental beliefs, as follows:
- the oneness of God
- the books revealed by God
- the prophets
- the angels
- the Day of Judgement
- life after death
- the omnipotence of God
- The Qur’an is seen as a “miracle” and “sign” of God, containing the actual words of God. As the language in which it was revealed, Arabic is seen as very important for understanding its real meaning.
- The opening “surah” or chapter of the Qur’an, called the Fatiha, is seen as providing a summary of Islam. It reads: “In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate. Praise to God, Lord of the Worlds, the Merciful, the Compassionate, King of the Day of Judgement. You alone we worship, you alone we beseech. Lead us in the straight path, the path of those upon whom is your grace, not of those upon whom is your wrath, nor of those who have gone astray.”
- The Shari`ah (law) offers an integrated source of guidance for the daily life of Muslims. Together with the Qur’an, it has three other sources:
- The Sunna as model example of the Prophet’s life.
- The Hadith, which are collections of recognised traditions recording Muhammad’s words and actions, together with those of his companions.
- Ijma, which is the process of attaining consensus in relation to the interpretation and application of Shari`ah where it might otherwise be unclear.
- Ijtihad (the Sunni term) or `Aql (the Shi`a term) which refers to the use of reason. One form of this is Qiyas, or analogy. However, many Sunni Muslims argue that, in the tenth century CE, “the gates of ijtihad” became closed
The Five Pillars
- The essentials of Muslim practice are set out in what are known as the “Five Pillars of Islam”. These are:
- Shahadah, the declaration that there is no god except God and that Muhammad is his messenger.
- Salat, which is prescribed prayer conducted five times daily. These are:
- Fajr, at dawn
- Zuhr, at midday
- Asr, in the afternoon
- Maghrib, after sunset
- Isha, in the night
- Zakat, which is a contribution to the needy consisting of two and a half per cent of the total of an individual’s annual income and savings (an additional contribution, known as Sadaqa al-Fitr, is expected during the month of Ramadan, once fasting is finished.
- Ramadan, which is a month of spiritual dedication embodied in abstaining from food, drink and sexual intercourse from before dawn until after sunset.
- Hajj, a pilgrimage to Makka, required once in a lifetime of those Muslims who can afford it. It includes a visit to the Ka`bah (the House of God) and involvement in a range of rituals in the neighbourhood of Makka.
Diversity within Islam
- 90% of the Muslims of world are Sunnis. The name Sunni relates to the “sunna” of Islamic law, and “Sunnis” therefore see themselves as ones who “adhere to the sunna”.
- The Caliphate (vice-regency) was established to lead the Muslim community following the death of Muhammad. Sunni Muslims recognise Abu Bakr, `Umar, `Uthman and `Ali as al-khulafa ar-rashidun (the rightly guided Caliphs).
- The Umayyad (661-750CE) dynasty (centred upon contemporary Syria) was followed by the Abbasid dynasty (centred upon Baghdad), but with a rival, second Umayyad dynasty being founded in Cordoba in Spain from 929CE.
- This was followed by the Fatimid dynasty from 969CE, which was based in Cairo and survived into contemporary times with the Ottoman Empire.
- Among Sunni Muslims four recognised madhahib or madhhabs (schools of law for applying the common usul al-fiqh or principles of Islamic jurisprudence) can be found. These recognise each another as authentically Islamic. They are
- The Hanafi predominates in India and the majority of the former Ottoman Empire, and can also be found in Egypt.
- The Maliki predominates in West Africa and the Arab West, and can also be found in Egypt.
- The Shafi`i predominates in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, and is also important in Egypt.
- The Hanbali is found in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
- There are also a number of groups and movements, each with their own particular emphases, although those who identify primarily with one or another tendency may also relate to others.
- Among Muslims with connection to South Asian origins these groups and movements include:
- Tablighi Jamaat
- The Shi`a tradition emerged from those early Muslims who argued against Abu Bakr and for `Ali ibn Abi Talib’s appointment as the Prophet’s successor. The word “Shi`ite” comes from “shiat `Ali”, meaning “the follower of `Ali”.
- A series of disputes and wars developed until Husayn, who tried to lead a revolt to reinstate what he saw as the legitimacy of the Caliphate, was killed by the armies of the Caliph Yazid in the Battle of Karbala.
- Husayn is seen as a model in the struggle against injustice and his death informed the distinctive motifs of suffering and persecution which can now be found in the Shi`a tradition.
- The descendants of `Ali are seen as having special leadership roles. They are seen as Imams or Hujjah (Proofs of God), and are believed to be chosen by God to interpret the Qur`an and guide the community.
- The Shi`a tradition also includes a number of schools, based on differences concerning the succession of Imams following Ali.
- Twelvers (or `Ithna Asherites) are the majority grouping, who believe in a succession of twelve Imams. The last of these is believed to be still alive, although last seen in 873CE. He is thought to be waiting to appear as the Mahdi (Guided One).
- The Seveners. The Ismailis are known as this because, following the first six Imams, they then affirm the Imamship of sixth Imam’s eldest son. The Ismailis include Agha Khanis or Nizaris, who understand the Aga Khan to be their living Imam who will be succeeded by a member of his family.
- Tasawwuf or Sufism is the mystical strand of Islam with which both some Sunni and Shi`ia Muslims identify. It is thought to derive from the Arabic word “suf”, meaning wool.
- Sufism emphasises the inner aspects of Islam as well as the external aspects based upon Shari`ah. It find organisational expression in a range of Sufi Orders, each of which are led by shaykhs or pirs and are linked by lines of spiritual initiation known as sisilahs.
These Orders include the:
Written by Professor Paul Weller