Muhammad, the founder of Islam, was born in Mecca in the late sixth century of the common era. He preached the messages and revelations he believed he received from Allah (God), and these messages were later collected to create the holy book of Muslims, the Qur’an. Muhammad’s exhortations were focused on urging people to believe in the one, merciful, and all-powerful God and to follow the path of righteousness in order to be rewarded on the Last Day.

Muhammad eventually formed a community in Medina with his followers and their families; later, after his death, a series of caliphs headed the religious state he had founded. Through raiding expeditions the Muslim state expanded and eventually became an empire. The climax of their power came in the seventeenth century; meanwhile, since about 1500 European culture and economics had their affect on the Islamic world, especially through trade. Today, after the struggle against colonialism in many Muslim countries, Islam is marked by ideological divisions and yet continues to be the fastest-growing religion in the world.

The two main groups within Islam are the Sunnis and the Shi‘a. The majority, the Sunnis, follow the example set by Muhammad and the first four caliphs that succeeded him. The Sunnis are also known for their comprehensive legal system. For the Shi‘a, their leader, or imam, is known for his inspired and infallible interpretation of the Qur’an. They also believe in a spiritual cycle that will end with the messianic return of the twelfth imam.

A major spiritual movement in Islam, Sufism, has inspired interest in mysticism in Muslims and non-Muslims alike for centuries. Its core value is the love of God; Sufis are known for their wisdom that results from their mystical practice and for their devotion to religious purity. They follow a path of spiritual striving that ultimately leads to intimacy with God.

The Qur’an, divided into over one hundred surahs (chapters), presents a theology that governs all aspects of life and includes many stories of Muhammad’s revelatory experiences. The other major sacred writing for Muslims is the Hadith, or Prophetic Traditions. In addition, Muslims recognize elements of the Bible but believe that Judaism and Christianity have misinterpreted their meaning.

The oneness of God is the center of Islam. Angels act as God’s messengers, who have from time to time communicated with prophets, including Moses and Jesus. Muslims believe in a Day of Resurrection and Judgment, but only Allah knows when it will occur. Ultimately, submission to God is the Muslim’s charge in life.

Islam has five pillars: confession of faith, prayer, charity, fasting, and pilgrimage to Mecca. Communal worship is an important aspect, and even when Muslims pray individually, they express their connection with each other by always facing Mecca.

The Shari‘a, or code of law, is an important achievement by the early Muslim community that still has power in Islam today. While intended to cover all aspects of life, the law has been found to be overly burdensome or restrictive at times, and local communities have responded by creating less rigid courts for interpreting the law. In the modern world Western law has come to have influence in Muslim countries.

The foundation of a Muslim community is the family, established through marriage. The Qur’an allows men to marry up to four wives but cautions that it is an impossible task for any man to treat all his wives equally, as it is commanded in the sacred text. Children are treated with great care and seen as gifts from God.

Radical reformers of Islam have focused on making strong critiques of Western values, especially capitalism, and some have supported violent movements to attempt to achieve their ideological ends. In contrast, most modern reformers have focused on how individuals may interpret the Qur’an in light of the fast-paced changes and multiple challenges that society faces.

Wright, Beth. Introduction to World Religions: Study Guide. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005. 
“Kaaba, Masjid Al Haram, Mecca” (cropped) by Shahin Olakara licensed under CC BY 2.0.