To read more about the beliefs, practices, and history of Islam, check out Islam in our religions section or the article “The Basics on Islam”.
Islam is the religion of more than twenty percent of the world’s population. Beginning in Arabia in the seventh century, Islam has grown to become the second-largest religion in the world. The countries with the largest Muslim populations are in Southeast and South Asia: Indonesia, Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. However, the Middle East still contains the highest concentrations of Muslims: in much of the Middle East 95% or more of the population identifies as Muslim.
Islam sees itself as the original religion of humanity, revealed by God throughout history by his prophets. Muslims believe Muhammad to be the final and most important prophet, and the Quran the most perfect and complete revelation of God’s word, in contrast to the messages of other prophets which have been corrupted over time. As Islam spread around the world, Muslim missionaries often accepted certain aspects of local religions as vestiges of this primordial religion, so long as they were compatible with Islam’s basic message.
Muslims believe that Muhammad, being a particularly righteous man, was given the words of the Quran in a series of visions. The drama of the religion’s early days figure prominently in Muslims’ minds: how they overcame persecution to become the dominant religion in Arabia. Muslims today still revere this initial group of believers as more holy than those who came after them, and the Prophet himself is seen as the perfect example of what human life should be.
Islam places a particular emphasis on special revelation: Muslims believe the Quran to be not only infallible but the literal and unchanging word of God. All the different sects of Islam agree that the word-for-word text of the Quran, in its original Arabic, is the only true and certain revelation of God’s word. There are no alternate versions or disputed texts.
More variable are the collections of “hadith”: secondhand accounts of the life and sayings of the Prophet. Because Muslims believe Muhammad to be the perfection of human life, Muslim ethics are designed in imitation of his life. The hadith is therefore the basis of Islamic legal tradition, and various groups in Islam accept different canons and use different methods of interpretation.
Islam is emphatically monotheistic, perhaps even more so than other Abrahamic religions. Muslims view the indivisibility and uniqueness of God as their primary point of theology. This is why Muslims prohibit the depiction of God (or any of the prophets) in art, because the created image might be seen as divine, creating the possibility of idolatry. This uncompromising monotheism is seen as one of the most distinctive aspects of the Islamic worldview.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
Do you know any Muslims? How do they describe their faith?
How would you explain the Christian concept of the Trinity to a Muslim?
What are some common misconceptions about Islam, and where do you think these ideas come from? How do they compare to the common misconceptions about other religions?
Islam is a major world religion, and it’s important to have some familiarity with its basic principles and history.