Masjid Nabawi. Medina, Saudi Arabia. (Image by Ali Imran, CC)


International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North AfricaEncyclopedia of Russian HistoryMacmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying Further reading






Law and institutions

Unity and diversity

Islam and polity

Islam and society

Islam today


Islam (“the act of submitting [to God]”) is the proper and most widely used term for the religion of those who believe that the Qur’ān (Koran) is the true word of God transmitted to mankind as an ultimate revelation through the medium of his Prophet and messenger, Muhammad. Although the term was used in early periods in the more limited sense of “submission” and seems to have been generally equated with “belief” (imān), the meaning today to Muslims and non-Muslims alike is that of the definitive name of a specific religion. The practitioner of the faith is a Muslim, a term that also serves as an adjective, but the attributive adjective Islamic is preferable in social or cultural contexts, e.g., Muslim theology, but Islamic law and Islamic architecture. The terms Mohammedan and Mohammedanism are disliked by Muslims because they carry the implication of the worship of Muhammad as a more than human figure and thus contain the germs of polytheism.

The most recent of the three great monotheisms to have arisen in the Middle East and the last major universal religion to have appeared in history, Islam came into being in the early seventh century in west-central Arabia. Although a good part of the Quran records the preaching of Muhammad in Mecca in the first two decades of that century, the definitive outlines of Islam as a system of beliefs and as a political organization took shape in Medina after the emigration (hijrah) to that city of Muhammad and a band of his followers in 622. In recognition of the importance of this event, the Muslim calendar reckons events from the first lunar month of that year—July 16, 622, becoming the first day of Muharram, A.H. 1. Between that date and the death of Muhammad in 632, two years after a triumphal return to his newly converted birthplace of Mecca, the new religion established itself throughout most of the Arabian Peninsula, not only as a corpus of religious belief but equally as a political community (ummah) provided with its own laws and embryonic govern-mental and social institutions. The significance and uniqueness of this twin foundation structure is recognized in the well-known dictum, “Islam is a religion and a state,” which is interpreted, however, by Muslims in a unitary meaning rather than implying any dualism.

The century following Muhammad’s death saw a far-reaching series of conquests by the new Muslim armies. Their spectacular successes and the way in which ancient communities and seemingly powerful states succumbed with little resistance testify to underlying weaknesses in the existing order but also say something of the fresh appeal Islam had for peoples in the Middle East at a time when they were exhausted by internecine struggles and doctrinal quarrels. However, the large number of conversions to Islam at this period may be said to have stemmed more from socioeconomic causes than from religious motivation, although these in the end had repercussions on both the faith itself and the subsequent nature of the Islamic state. In the Fertile Crescent area and in Egypt the numerous Christian and Jewish communities were legally allowed to continue practicing their religion, but inequalities in taxation which favored Muslims, and the natural social desire to become full members of the body politic with all its advantages, furthered Islamization. In Iran multiple causes conditioned conversion: the desire of the bureaucracy to preserve its privileges, the reluctance of the landed nobility to pay the poll tax, and the wish on the part of the merchant class to have a full share in the material culture of the Islamic empire. In north Africa pagan or semi-Christianized Berbers were more often either genuinely influenced by the tenets of Islam or spontaneously gave their allegiance to the new religion rather than suffer the alternative, loss of life, reserved for those other than “people of the book,” i.e., monotheists who possessed scriptures.

In the centuries following its birth Islam was spread by conquest and occupation, organized and at times militant religious activism, and peaceful missionary work. The first wave of expansion was the work of Arabs, largely armies buttressed by new converts in the Middle East and north Africa. By the end of the Umayyad reign (A.D. 750), the frontiers of Islam extended to the Pyrenees in the west and the Indus River in the east. Included in Muslim domains were most of Spain, north Africa, Egypt, the Levant to the frontiers of Anatolia, the Arabian Peninsula, Iran, and part of Turkestan. Once this force had been spent there was relatively little fluctuation in the extent of the House of Islam (Dār ul-Isldm) until a second wave of military conquest was set under way in the fourteenth century by Turkic peoples who had migrated from central Asia to Iran and Asia Minor and been progressively Islamized over a period of several centuries. One of these groups, the Osmanli, destroyed the remnants of the Byzantine state, took Constantinople in 1453, and established Muslim rule in large areas of southeastern Europe, maintaining it until well into the nineteenth century. These two waves directed at Europe left important cultural legacies in Spain and Sicily and vestigial groups of Muslims in Yugoslavia, Albania, and Bulgaria.

The historical advance of Islam into south and southeast Asia, and later into tropical Africa, has been of another kind. The faith came to these areas at a comparatively late date and was spread more gradually, sometimes by force, but more often through the voluntary conversion of nonmonotheists. Muslim power gained sway in northwest India only after A.D. 1000, and converts in Bengal were not numerous until the sixteenth century. The force of Islam in south Asia in modern times is shown by the success of Muslim demands for the partition of British India and the establishment of Pakistan as a separate state for Muslims. In addition to some ninety million Muslims in that country, a large minority of over forty million is found in India. In south Asia as a whole, Muslims have increased their numbers at the expense of non-Muslims, not only because of the one-way nature of conversion but because of socioeconomic factors, including a greater life expectancy resulting from a higher protein diet, the urban nature of the Muslim population, which somewhat spares it from rural famines, and the fact that widows are permitted to remarry. Proselytization in southeast Asia was mainly the work of Muslim traders who established themselves in Malaya, Sumatra, and elsewhere in the fourteenth century. Gradually Islam spread inland in Sumatra and Malaya and penetrated the farther islands of Indonesia as far as the southern Philippines. Today the Malays of Malaya are overwhelmingly Muslim and the Indonesians are very heavily Muslim, while important minorities exist in Thailand, Burma, and the Philippines. The stronghold that Islam had early obtained in central Asia was the source for the considerable Islamization of Sinkiang and parts of northwestern China in later times. At present it is estimated that as much as one-tenth of the total Chinese population may be considered Muslim.

In Africa, Islam spread unevenly at different periods, but it has continued to make impressive advances in modern times. Although peoples living along the Mediterranean shores of northern Africa were converted in the first wave of Arab conquest, Islam spread more gradually up the Nile and across the trade routes of the Sahara to reach the Chad area and, eventually, in the fifteenth century, northern Nigeria. By sea it moved down around the horn of east Africa to the Somali coast and Zanzibar. An island of resistance exists in the Abyssinian highlands, but Islam is heavily predominant today in Somalia, Zanzibar, and the Sudan, while important minorities exist in coastal Kenya, Tanganyika, and Mozambique. Islamization in west Africa was furthered by brotherhood activity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Islam has a majority today in Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Niger, Chad, and probably Nigeria, large minorities in Guinea, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, and the Central African Republic, and numerous adherents in the other states of west and central Africa as far south as Zambia and Rhodesia.

In all, more than 500 million persons today, one-sixth of humanity, profess themselves to be Muslims, however nominal in practice. Of this number about 125 million are in Africa and almost 400 million in Asia, with scattered communities in Europe and the Americas. Of perhaps greater significance than its present numbers is the fact that Islam, of all the major religions, continues to show the most steady growth. Particularly noteworthy is its progress in regions previously dominated by pagan tribal cultures. Its strong appeal to under-privileged or minority groups everywhere, as has historically been evident in south Asia, is a further factor of political and social importance in this century.


The basis of Islam, and the heart of Muslim belief and thought, lie in its holy scripture, the Qur’ān, considered by Muslims to be the direct and true word of God, transmitted by the angel Gabriel to Muhammad (in Arabic) while the latter was in a state of divine inspiration akin to trance. In this state Muhammad was ordered to recite (iqrā) the word of God, whence qur’ān, a “recitation.” A supplementary source of faith began to emerge after the death of the Prophet as it became clear that the Qur’ān did not provide specific guidance for many of the questions faced by the growing community. In their search for additional guidance, Muslims turned to the life, the habits, and the dicta of Muhammad in given situations. There thus arose the practice of compiling, recording, and classifying the “tradition” (hadīth) of or relating to the Prophet. Out of this material, expressed in the form of short narratives relating specific acts and sayings of Muhammad through a chain of hearsay, grew the completed product: the customary way of doing (sunnah), which expresses the ideal of behavior for pious, orthodox Muslims, who style themselves “followers of the custom” (ahl al-sunnah)—whence the term Sunnites.

The central importance of Muhammad in Islam is thus evident. His position as the sole communicant of God’s word to man is attested in the basic Muslim profession of faith: “There is no God but God and Muhammad is His Prophet.” This credo, although it does not occur in a single phrase in the Qur’ān itself, has become the foundation of Muslim self-identification. It differentiates the believer from the nonbeliever and Islam from other religions by emphasizing that Muhammad is not one prophet among many but the seal of the prophets and that the revelation given to him was the ultimate and unchangeable exposition of divine will. The function of the hadīth reinforced this position, as may well have been one of its main purposes, by preserving for later generations a portrait of the personality of Muhammad in warm and simple details which link the believer to him in an atmosphere of pious affection that has grown through the centuries. Through the device of the hadīth, which contrasts strongly with the formalism and transcendentalism of the Qur’ān, Muhammad is kept from becoming a dim historical figure; he emerges as a venerable, just, but understandable human leader of his flock. In this way Islam maintains the principle of the strictest monotheism, while tempering it with a human touch which, to judge by the historical experience, has fulfilled the needs of ordinary Muslims in all ages. It is true that this devotion has sometimes seemed to approach adulation or even outright worship, particularly in the past century, when a new consciousness of Christianity led some Muslim biographers of Muhammad to present his life in ways that clearly reveal the influence of the story of Jesus. However, both orthodox Muslim thought and the practice of the masses have kept the fine distinction between ceremonial veneration and anthropolatry.

The Qur’ān is divided into 114 chapters, arranged in decreasing order of length. The generally earlier Meccan chapters are distinguishable by their apocalyptic style, their use of a strongly fashioned rhymed prose, their relatively simple subject matter, and their poetic expression of religious symbolism. In their imaginative grasp and their masterly use of Arabic they reveal a genuine prophetic genius. In comparison, the later Medinan chapters, which include moral maxims, legal proscriptions, and historical narratives that are sometimes taken from Christian and Jewish sources, suffer from a dilution of this vigorous style.

The essential dogma of the Qur’ān is that of the unity of God: “Say God is one, God the eternal. He hath not begotten nor was he begotten, and there is none equal to him.” The believer is enjoined to accept the envoys of God and the scriptures they have revealed, beginning with Adam and continuing with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, to the final revelation of Muhammad. Running through the entire work are two motifs: one envisions an impersonal, remote, and majestic deity, who evokes in the believer a sense of awe and humility; the other conceptualizes the Divine Spirit in terms of hope and mercy. Among the most numerous epithets for God in the Qur’ān are those describing him as compassionate and merciful, and while a theme of fiery destruction for the sinful is preached in some Meccan verses, others rank among the purest expressions of trust in divine love.

It has long been clear to non-Muslim scholars that to some degree Christian beliefs, Judaism, and the pre-Islamic tradition in Arabia all had a part in shaping Qur’ānic dogma. Contacts with Christian communities in western Asia and Abyssinia were numerous, and Jewish colonies were found throughout the peninsula; in the Yemen, Judaistic movements had held power shortly before Muhammad’s lifetime. Textual criticism of the Qur’ān reveals such borrowings in, for example, the doctrine of the Last Judgment, where not only the concept but the technical terminology is taken from Syriac Christian writings, and in Muhammad’s gradual incorporation into his revelation of Old Testament stories that would validate his teaching. In Medina, Muhammad found a large Jewish community, with which a dispute ultimately arose, the source of much of the anti-Judaist polemic in the Qur’ān. Early in the Medina period, however, Muhammad had incorporated several Jewish practices into Islam, notably ‘Āshūrā’, the holy day that corresponds to the Day of Atonement, and the direction of prayer toward Jerusalem. The Qur’ān stresses the alleged falsification of the Scriptures by both Jews and Christians but in a way that usually indicates a derivative or insufficient understanding of the original ideas or facts. Among these are the Incarnation, which is categorically rejected, and the Crucifixion, said to be a Jewish distortion of the true event. According to Islamic dogma, an-other figure was crucified in the place of Jesus, who was himself taken to heaven.

Of prime importance in the formation of Muhammad’s doctrines, however, was the existence of two intertwined strands of tradition in pre-Islamic Arab life. One was the animistic beliefs of tribal society, which ascribed powers to inanimate objects, stones, trees, etc., as well as to certain human categories (soothsayers, sorcerers) and to nonhuman elements (jinn). Entangled with this Arab paganism, however, there was an ill-defined monotheism, which may have owed something to Jewish and Christian influences. This was exemplified by prophets (singular, hanīf) who opposed a nativistic monotheism to the pagan polydemonism, which no longer satisfied the Arabs’ desire for a broader religious experience. The hanīf’s, despite their monotheism, were unwilling to accept Judaism or Christianity as such. The Qur’ān describes Abraham as a hanīf, and thus asserts itself as a restoration of the true, indigenous Abrahamic monotheism, which had been corrupted by Jewish and Christian beliefs.

The supreme accomplishment of Muhammad in the Qur’ān was to make use of these two elements but to disentangle them at the same time, thus opening the religious imagination of the Arabs to new horizons without too abruptly cutting away their old cultural and emotional roots. This delicate operation involved simultaneously banning most animistic associations but amalgamating others with the new religion by reinterpreting them in a monotheistic way. This restructuring of pagan practice and terminology can be seen most successfully in the incorporation of the earlier religious pilgrimage to the sacred region of Mecca and the circumambulation of the Black Stone, in the adoption of the ritual sacrifice of sheep, and in the new application of terms that formerly referred to pagan customs but that are clothed in richer and broader monotheistic meaning in the Qur’ān. In this reconstruction, by lifting Arab spiritual values out of the incoherence in which they were enmeshed and by focusing them on the concept of a supreme God who encompassed and stood above all previous formulations, Muhammad created a distinctive religious edifice. Although it contains elements of earlier faiths, it can be understood only as a unique, new entity possessing its own structure and dynamics.


The practice of Islam consists essentially of a small number of ritual obligations called the “pillars of the faith.” These include giving witness, ritual prayer, legal almsgiving, fasting, and the pilgrimage. To profess faith with intention is to become a Muslim and be admitted to all the duties and privileges of the community. While good works are considered to be as commendable as faith itself, orthodox opinion has generally held that testimony alone without any other deed during the lifetime of a believer is sufficient for ultimate salvation. Ritual prayer is formal worship, whose ceremony, postures, gestures, and verbal formulas are strictly laid down by law; it is designed to express adoration of God rather than personal communion with him or petition. It may be noted, however, that the period of meditation following upon the prostrations allows the worshiper an opportunity to enter into a relationship of communion with a spirit of humility. Ritual cleanliness is mandatory and is minutely regulated according to the circumstances. Although the Qur’ān is silent on the subject, five daily prayers have been standard since the earliest period of Islam. Their times vary somewhat but usually come before dawn, just after midday, in midafternoon, after sunset, and at night, usually in the first minutes of darkness—hours seemingly calculated to avoid any hint of sun worship. There is no requirement that ordinary prayer be carried out in the mosque, although it is recommended because ritual purity is better guaranteed within its precincts. The Friday midday prayer, however, should be kept in the mosque; it usually contains several sections and a sermon. Legal almsgiving is today in most Muslim countries an institution of only historical interest, having been superseded almost everywhere by modern legislation. Originally it was a religious tax levied on property according to a detailed formula and payable in kind. These three pillars of the faith (giving witness, ritual prayer, and almsgiving) have somewhat less influence on Muslim life than might be supposed. Witness is automatic and often unspoken throughout the lifetime of those who are born to the faith and can conceive of no other. Almsgiving is obsolete, and ritual prayer is to a growing degree slighted or ignored by many modern Muslims, especially in urban areas. This is not true, however, of the remaining two pillars: the fast and the pilgrimage.

Early in the Medinan period Muhammad instituted a fast on ’Āshūrā’, but later he abrogated this and instead ordained abstinence during the entire ninth month of the lunar calendar, Ramadan. During this month, from sunrise to sunset, the faithful must completely abstain from food, drink, tobacco, and sexual intercourse. The fast is compulsory only for adults in good health; pregnant women, children of prepuberty age, the aged and the sick, and bona fide travelers are specifically exempt, although the last must make up the broken fast days. Today the Ramadan fast is without doubt the one ceremony most strictly held to by believers, and it is a basic component of the social cement that holds the community together. While violations are found both among bedouin and rural elements, on the one hand, and in secret in a few modernist and intellectual circles, on the other, townsmen in most Muslim countries tend to keep the fast unanimously. Public opinion strongly reproves individuals who try to avoid the obligation in private and has, even recently, reacted violently to public disregard of it. There appears also to be a discernible connection between rigorous observance and modern nationalism in some countries where Islam was used as a rallying point in the struggle against foreign colonialism, and some states (e.g., Morocco) have inserted penalties for transgressing it in their modern penal codes. In a few Muslim states, however (e.g., Turkey and Tunisia), where the holy law (sharī’ah) has been abolished, the secularist orientation of their nationalism has led the governments to encourage fastbreaking in the interest of national economic imperatives or to consider it a matter of personal conscience.

The pilgrimage to Mecca incorporates in Muslim practice two pagan rites celebrated by the Arabs, one connected with the circumambulation of the Black Stone of the Ka’bah in Mecca, and the other the pilgrimage to the hill of ‘Arafāt outside the town. The rites are performed in the twelfth lunar month and now usually include a visit to nearby Medina. The pilgrimage may be described as a conditional obligation; it is incumbent only on Muslims with the necessary means and the physical ability to reach Mecca. Nevertheless, it has remained a vital element in Muslim life throughout the centuries and, even in the most difficult periods of history, attracted numerous pilgrims. Today, with improved communications, increased travel within the Muslim world, and security in the pilgrimage area, it has taken on new dimensions of cultural and even political significance. Mecca has become a meeting place for Muslims from the entire world, and a deep impression is made on many pilgrims by the reaffirmation of their faith in company with cobelievers of every color and nationality. The annual re-enactment of the ceremonies, with the pilgrims as active participants and not simple onlookers, gives them an especially moving character. The returning pilgrim, who is entitled to add the title hājj to his name, is the object of admiration and congratulations, but more important perhaps is the feeling on the part of those who have remained at home that he brings with him an atmosphere of holiness which is shared by all. At all times the social function of the pilgrimage to the sacred sites has been to serve as a journey to a common hearth fire from which the pilgrims could carry back the renewed and restored flame of faith to their own communities. In this sense, the pilgrimage may be looked on as the counterpart of the fast, for while the fast solidifies the bonds that hold together each community by a common sacrifice, the pilgrimage allows the members of the elites of widely different regions and groups to engage in a spiritual intercourse which strengthens the ties between the various communities of Islam.

Law and institutions

It is not certain whether the Qur’ān was written down during the lifetime of the Prophet. The tradition indicates that scraps of it were preserved, and an authoritative text was prepared by a com-mission appointed by the third caliph, ’Uthmān, and copies of this circulated throughout the empire. However, difficulties in reading the imperfectly developed Arabic script and hesitancies in interpretation caused a reform in writing and the adjustment to a standard pronunciation, as well as the recognition of a certain number of reciters whose readings were by compromise accepted as orthodox. Toward the end of the first century A.H. the text as now used was standardized in most details.

During this formative period the administration of justice was carried out somewhat haphazardly by Qur’ānic precepts as they were customarily interpreted by the Arabs, and with the incorporation of some elements of Roman and pre-Islamic law, administrative procedures were modified and more fully incorporated in the embryonic body of legal practice. Toward the end of the Umayyad period, between about A.D. 725 and 750, the Qur’ān and the sunnah had become established as the principal sources of Muslim jurisprudence, but there had also grown up a body of jurists and men interested in legal problems who in their experience were finding it necessary to go beyond these sources to devise laws for the community.

Up to this time law and religion were inextricably interconnected and rested upon the infallible revelation of the Qur’ān and its presumably infallible verification in detail by the tradition. The infallibility of these two sources, however, was not of the same order; in fact, the proliferation of narratives in the tradition was such that scholars were aware that many of them were spurious. In order to establish the veracity of the tradition beyond any doubt and reinforce its position as an anchor of the legal system, a science of hadīth criticism was introduced in the second and third centuries A.H. This placed stress on the reliability of each member of the chain of authorities cited. Biographies of transmitters were compiled and their subjects carefully investigated, after which each narrative (hadīth) was classified for legal purposes as sound, good, or weak. Many traditions that modern Western scholarship considers highly dubious were classified as sound in this process, for many theologians were at bottom less interested in the historical objectivities of a given tradition than in the practical consequences of its acceptance and application to community life. Later, in the ninth century A.D., hadīth study developed into a full-fledged scholastic enterprise; the great compilations of al-Bukhāri (d. 870) and Muslim (d. 875) have enjoyed almost universal authority in Islam.

The Qur’ān and the expurgated tradition, however, for all their infallibility, did not supply a definitive body of legal precepts for general use. The jurists of the so-called ancient schools in Iraq, Syria, and Medina devoted themselves to finding a way to generalize the specificity of the original sources, and in so doing they established the foundations of the four great legal schools of orthodox Islam and, more importantly, laid down the framework of Islamic law for all time. The concept of opinion, or common sense, had been applied for some time but was thought to contain the dangers of human irresponsibility. It was favored by the school of Iraq, however, while Medinan jurists, among them Malik Ibn Anas (d. 795), developed the doctrine of the “suitability” of one decision to a fixed point of reference and that of the “association” of one with an anterior case. The problem was resolved by al-Shafī‘i (d. 820), who completed the system by extending the use of the Prophetic tradition, as opposed to the narrower Medinan tradition, and introduced the more precise concept of analogical reasoning (qiyās), by which the principles that had governed decisions in previous cases could be applied to new situations. The actual difference between the schools was not overly great, but the reasoning of al-Shafī‘i established his work as the third source of Muslim holy law.

The construction of the Muslim legal edifice was completed by the introduction of the principle of consensus (ijmdā‘) as the guarantor of legal theory and beyond that of the integrity of the entire frame-work of Muslim religious thought. The doctrine of ijmā‘ has been subsumed in a tradition that relates the saying of Muhammad, “My community will not agree in error.” During the second century A.H. it had been established that the consensus of the community, which meant that of the jurists and scholars dealing with religious and legal matters, was binding. The extension of this concept by these very jurists, to stamp with approval the legal systems they had elaborated, removed the possibility of a revision of their work by later generations and gave final validity to the entire structure. Ijmā‘ verifies the authenticity and the proper interpretation of the Qur’ān; it guarantees the correct transmission of the sunnah tradition and the proper use of qiyās. It covers all aspects of the holy law and admits the validity of distinctions between the orthodox legal schools. Of the highest importance, however, is the fact that consensus itself becomes, as Gibb has noted, “a third channel of revelation” (1949) and is elevated to infallibility itself alongside the Qur’ān and the sunnah, which it sanctions. While it is often suggested that the principle of consensus was adopted as a device of convenience by the legal scholars, a broader view leads to the conclusion that the Muslim community’s sense of its own divinely instituted and rightly guided nature has always been so highly developed that it produced an unwavering belief in its own charisma and infallibility. The ideal of Islamic law taken as a whole is absolutist and charismatic at its roots and may be considered a reflection of the Islam which Muslims have brought into being, either, as they would believe, through their unerring understanding of God’s word or, as Western scholars believe, through their own will and actions.

Islam prides itself on the absence of clergy who might interpose themselves between God and man. While this is true in a formal sense, nonetheless from the earliest periods there have been, as seen, a large body of men dealing with religious problems and their interpretation. In time this turned into an identifiable body of theologians (’ulamā’) and jurists. The growth of this group is intimately connected with the development of the holy law and the appearance of the orthodox legal schools in the eighth and ninth centuries. At first they were individual members of the still informal religious institution of Islam, but as this solidified they tended to come together as the formal representatives of the community in questions of faith and, in so doing, often found themselves in positions of opposition to the state. From Abbasid times on, however (after A.D. 750), the political authorities attached theologians to themselves and gave many of them official positions, so that overt opposition by members of the religious establishment tended to be muted. With the establishment of religious colleges (singular, madrasah) in the eleventh century A.D., in which courses were given and degrees granted, there was a further formalization of the structure, which reached its height in the complex government-supported theological institutions of the Ottoman Empire. Such developments tended inevitably to limit the independence of the religious establishment with respect to the authorities, and there are manifold examples of subservience and abasement. Nevertheless, throughout Islamic history there runs the principle, however often violated, that the religious institution exists apart from and as a check on the ruling institution. The theologian and the jurist were in the end the guardians of the law for the state, although they were independent of it and at times in opposition to it. The most notable limitation on the power of the state at all times has been the theoretical inviolability of official members of the religious institution and of their property. A large quantity of mortmain property lay, and still lies, in their hands, and by these means mosques, schools, hospitals, and the like were supported, and to a certain extent the independence of the judge protected.

Unity and diversity

Almost from its inception Islam encountered difficulties in adapting the message of Muhammad to the changed historical circumstances in which the Muslim empire was developing and in formulating a theological statement that would satisfy the diverse elements that were becoming part of the community. The relationship between religion and politics has always been unusually intimate in the Middle East, and this was particularly true in the case of Islam. It is therefore often difficult to separate political from theological questions, and important to understand that the Muslims of the early periods did not consciously do so themselves. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that with rare exceptions conflicts in the formative first decades primarily reflected political and social considerations and the influence of the differing local environments in western Asia to which the faith had spread, rather than theological considerations. It was only later, toward the beginning of the Umayyad period, that religious factors first intervened significantly, and the practice of transferring sociopolitical grievances to the level of theological disputes and challenging the powers that be on those grounds—a practice which was to become a central theme of Islamic history—was initiated.

The first major example of this was the separation of the Kharijites, whose activities were closely linked with what later turned into the principal schismatic movement in Islam, the Shi’ite deviation from orthodoxy. Both groups were found as extremist elements among the fractious nomadic tribesmen who had been settled in garrison towns in Iraq and who made up the troops of ‘Ali, the son-in-law of Muhammad, during his campaign to claim supreme authority after the murder of the third caliph, ’Uthmān, in 656. The Kharijites represented discontented tribesmen whose anarchic spirit resisted being forced into an urban mold and to whom the end of the conquests in their immediate area meant a diminution of booty and of the satis-faction of raiding. The Shi‘ah, or “partisans” of ‘Ali, on the other hand, were composed of men from Kufa in Iraq who felt alienated from the caliphal establishment, which was the center of power in the Hejaz, and its emanations in Syria.

The quarrel of the Kharijites with the rest of the community lay in the domain of religious practice. They insisted that evildoers within Islam must be rigorously punished and that those Muslims who temporized on the extirpation of evil were themselves guilty of apostasy. This radical point of view led them to withdraw from the armies of ‘Ali and eventually, after a series of unsuccessful minor uprisings, to divorce themselves from the community, in which they had no further direct influence. Today they survive in isolated communities in Algeria, Oman, and Zanzibar, without political influence.

The Shi‘ite movement was more complex and permanent. Its psychological foundations seem to have been laid first in the personal devotion ac-corded to ‘Ali by his followers and, second, in the sense of rejection and bitterness which accompanied his defeat and death in 661 and the martyrdom of his son Husain in 680. At the same time, the political bases of the movement were strengthened by the opposition of the Arabs of Iraq to rule from Syria. The movement attracted many recent non-Arab converts, or clients, to Islam, who were seeking equality and fuller integration within the community and who came principally from among Persian and Aramaean elements in Iraq and Iran. From this period begins a cross-linkage of the political and social grievances of non-Arab Muslims with Shi‘ism, which culminates in the sixteenth century in the Shi‘ite nationalism of the Safavid state in Iran.

The earliest Shi‘ism had no distinctive doctrine, and in questions of theology and law individual Shi‘ites were indistinguishable from others in the community, with whom they lived, on the whole, harmoniously. However, the political insistence on the legitimacy of ‘Ali called into being a doctrine that refused recognition to the first three caliphs who followed Muhammad and thus challenged orthodox belief. Moreover, the elevation of ‘Ali to the position of an infallible and charismatic leader (imām) brought Shi‘ism, in later centuries, into sharper conflict with the Sunnite concept of consensus of the community. Gradually a polarization occurred in which Hellenistic remnants in formerly Byzantine areas attached themselves to and influenced the development of orthodox theology, while a variety of sects and ideas from the pre-Islamic Oriental substrata in Iraq, Iran, and later India were grafted onto Shi‘ism. Moreover, Shi‘ism served as a banner to cover social revolt against the orthodox establishment on more than one occasion.

The further development of Shi‘ism may be traced from its character as a volatile opposition movement dependent on strong personal leadership, which contained within itself the seeds of further splitting. Secrecy, concealment of one’s true beliefs, the possession of esoteric knowledge by the infallible imām, and a doctrine of messianic return and salvation became the hallmarks of the various Shi‘ite subsects. Of these there are three principal groups, each of which has erected the concept of divinely inspired leadership, or “imamism,” into basic doctrine, although with differences of interpretation. The Zaidi branch, which is prominent in the Yemen, attributes no superhuman qualities to its imām’s and is closest to Sunnite Islam. The majority Imami branch is the state religion of Iran and has many adherents in Iraq and India among other countries. The extreme Isma‘ili branch has contributed some of the most extraordinary episodes to Islamic history, among them the odyssey of the Fatimid caliphate in north Africa and Egypt, the activities of the sect of the Assassins (hashshashiri),and several revolutionary uprisings in the Middle Ages. The distinctive features of Isma‘ilism, which today has a following primarily in India and east Africa, consist of graded instruction in religious mysteries, a distinction between external and internal meaning in all their aspects, and the practice of dissimulation. Several offshoots of Isma‘ilism, such as the Druze, the Nusairi, and the Yazidi sects in the Levant, display such extreme syncretism that it is doubtful whether they should be considered fully Muslim.

Counterbalancing the tendencies toward sectarianism in Islam at all times, however, has been a broad current of tolerance which has permitted the main orthodox corpus of the faith to entertain, modify, and assimilate a variety of ideas and, having done so, to allow a wide latitude of diversity to flourish among the individuals and bodies that constitute the community. Historically it has been only those sects which have voluntarily excluded themselves from the orthodox community, like the Kharijites, that are considered heretical. Today, the position of the Shi‘ites, the only important heterodox body in Islam, is in general viewed with less rigor than previously. Conversely, Islamic history demonstrates the absorptive and integrationist character of the religion in many instances, the most outstanding of which is the Mu‘tazilite movement of the eighth and ninth centuries.

The Mu‘tazilah came to prominence about a century after Muhammad’s death in reaction against both the extremism of the Kharijites and the corresponding indifference to religious questions on the part of their opposites, the Murjri‘ites. Mu‘tazilism was an intellectual movement whose activity was stimulated by the translations of Greek thought then appearing and by the generally felt need to express and defend Muslim belief in rational terms, especially vis-à-vis recently converted scholars familiar with the canons of Greek logic and philosophy. The Mu’tazilah were the first to try to provide a sound philosophical basis for Islam through forthright discussions of the nature of God, of the Qur’ān, and of man’s relationship to God. While maintaining the purest monotheism and chastising any semblance of anthropomorphism, they held two tenets that ran directly counter to orthodox dogma. One was that the Qur’ān was created in time rather than being the uncreated word of God which had been in existence forever. The other, of more general philosophical importance, was a doctrine of free will, which held that it was inconceivable that God should decree the actions of man, induce him into error, and then punish him for it, as the orthodox doctrine of predestination and the unqualified omnipotence of God asserted. The dispute came to a head in the ninth century, when Mu‘tazilite influence held sway briefly. In the end the movement came to grief because of its own rigidity in the face of counterargument and its persistent attempt to force Muslim thought into Greek forms, an effort that was not only opposed by the orthodox theologians but that met with no response from the mass of believers.

The reaction to Mu‘tazilism led by al-Ashe‘ri (d. 935) consolidated the orthodox position and produced a new orthodox scholasticism, which has remained definitive until today. While setting a lasting dogmatic stamp on Islam, the reaction reconciled some Mu‘tazilite concepts with orthodox belief and thus strengthened and enlarged the area of consensus. Predestination was maintained, but a doctrine of “acquisition,” under which man has contingent responsibility for his deeds, was introduced. The dogma of the absolute omnipotence of God and the orthodox position that right is what God decrees it to be in the Qur’ān—rather than something independently ascertainable by man—were affirmed, but their rigor softened by stressing the intercession of Muhammad in favor of man, something which the Mu‘tazilah had rejected. Finally, the relationship of cause and effect propounded by the Mu’tazilah, which in orthodox eyes limited the power of God, was disavowed by means of an atomistic theory according to which all events and substances exist transitorily in time and space only through the inscrutable will of God and not through any inherent connection among themselves.

The intellectual consequences to Islam of the orthodox reformulation begun by al-Ash‘ari and completed two centuries later (by al-Ghazāli) were of the greatest importance. Ash‘arism marks a rejection of Hellenism and the victory of intuitive faith over rationalism in the struggle to shape Islam. The contribution of the Mu‘tazilah in raising the level of intellectual activity in Islam was important, however, as was the work of al-Ash‘ari, in finding a way to incorporate many of the basic elements of Greek thought introduced by the Mu‘tazilah without undermining the basic dogmas of orthodox Islam.

The will to catholicity in Islam was shown two centuries later in the synthesis achieved by alGhazāli (d. 1111) between philosophy and orthodox theology. In the intervening period, largely as another by-product of the importation of Greek thought, Islamic philosophy had come into flower and made a remarkable contribution to the growth of medieval sciences in Europe as well as in the Middle East. Beginning with al-Kindi (d. 873) and continuing through Avicenna (d. 1037) in the east and Averroës (d. 1198) in the west, Muslim philosophers evolved a philosophical interpretation of Islam within a Neoplatonic framework, which they seem to have felt existed outside the sphere of Islamic doctrine rather than in contradiction with it. There is no hint of a conflict in Avicenna, and one of Averroës’ most important works is the Faşl al-Maqāl (“Decisive Treatise [on the Harmony Between Religion and Philosophy]”), in which he states that philosophy is the companion and foster sister of the sharī‘ah. His answer to al-Ghazāli, Tahāfut al-Tahāfut (“Inconsistency of the Inconsistency”), reveals his conviction that although reason cannot attain a complete understanding of eternal truths, man has a duty to seek a rational explanation by demonstrative argument. Similarly, the work of Averroës’ contemporary Ibn Tufail (d. 1185), Hayy Ibn Yaqzān (“The Living Son of the Vigilant”), demonstrates that reason and revelation independently lead to the same belief.

Views of this kind were considered dangerously close to heresy by many, and by the eleventh century there was strong hostility on the part of theologians toward such philosophical constructions. The accomplishment of al-Ghazāli was essentially to dam this second tide of Hellenism by reconciling the positions of philosophy and theology, much as al-Ash‘ari had stemmed the first by synthesizing orthodox and Mu‘tazilite ideas. Moreover, just as al-Ash‘ari had defended Sunnite dogma by the use of intellectually superior Mu‘tazilite methods of logic, al-Ghazāli upheld it in his major argument against philosophy, Tahāfut al Falāsifa (“The Inconsistency of the Philosophers”), with Neoplatonic ideas taken from Avicenna and other followers of Greek thought.

Al-Ghazāli was important also as a living example of synthesis between theology and the mystic (sūfi) movement in Islam. Sufism had been, more than any of the other movements of diversity, an intuitive way of practicing Islam through the cultivation of personal religious experience, and Sufi mystics and ascetics are found from very early times. Some of them were considered orthodox, but others, like al-Hallāj (d. 922), were persecuted or even executed. For many, however, the personal communion which lay at the heart of the Sufi movement was felt as complementary to normal orthodox devotion and not contrary to it. Al-Ghazāli turned to Sufism in his later years and in some of his works illuminated the inner meaning of the obligation of Muslim faith. On the basis of personal experience he propounded the necessity of founding belief on the strict observance of these obligations before turning to seek the inner awakening for which Sufism characteristically strove.

The growth of Sufism had been accentuated in the period after al-Ash‘ari, in good part as a reaction to the austereness of orthodox Sunnism. Al-Ghazāli’s efforts were temporarily successful, but in the long run they had effects that were unexpected and unwelcome to the orthodox establishment. While orthodoxy was at first given fresh vigor by the new infusion, the acceptance of Sufism within its realm eventually produced a lowering of intellectual standards dealing with the purity of the doctrine. This led in time to a capitulation before the power of popular religion, on the part of both the ‘ulamā’ and many temporal rulers, unwilling to offend popular religious susceptibilities. The result was a final de facto separation of the two briefly joined streams of Muslim faith. The theologians retreated to the sanctuary of the mosque and the madrasah, where they perfected a pedantic system of rote education and intellectual sterility, divorced from the living forces of religion; in con-sequence, the energies that had been unleashed were left without the guidance provided by rigorous intellectual discipline and soon gave themselves over to excesses of mysticism, saint worship tantamount to pantheism, and cultism often having more to do with pre-Islamic animism than with Islam. In particular, the social evolution of Sufism was marked by the appearance of brotherhoods, associations of mendicants, dervish orders, and mystic fraternities, which since the thirteenth century have significantly changed the nature of Islam as popularly practiced. The subsequent development of Sufism influenced the Islamic world in other ways also. As a result of the devastation accompanying the Mongol conquest and occupation of most of western Asia in the fourteenth century, the orthodox establishment was disrupted and discredited. In these circumstances, in countries as different and distant as Persia and Morocco, it was the popular Sufi movement that upheld the unity of the community and resisted the invader. In so doing, the movement utilized efficiently the personal links cultivated by early Sufi circles, but at the same time it began to take on a more formal organization. Colleges were founded by Sufi sheikhs, and these in turn gave rise to a regular network of affiliated institutions, each called a tarīqah, or “path.” Many of these were regional in their influence, but others spread throughout the Muslim states and were a principal means of cultural interchange in the succeeding centuries. Finally, Sufism took root in the sociopolitical debris left in areas such as Asia Minor and Persia as Mongol rule waned. In the two great empires which from that period until the twentieth century dominated the heartland of the Muslim world Sufism played a significant role. In Anatolia Sufi sheikhs were politically active in the ghāzi states, which were organized in corporations often affiliated with a tarīqah, and it was out of one such ghāzi state that the Ottoman Empire grew. In Iran, Sufism along with Shi‘ism contributed to the Iranian national revival from the fourteenth century on, and the Safavid state was founded by Sufi sheikhs attached to the Suhrawardi tarīqah.

Islam and polity

The character of the political institutions of Islam was essentially determined during the lifetime of Muhammad by the simultaneous emergence of Islam as a faith and as an autonomous political community. In classical Islamic thought, government exists for no other purpose than that of up-holding the faith and guaranteeing service to God on earth, and political institutions are designed to safeguard the community in the widest sense from all the perils, spiritual and material, of this existence.

The principal institution by which this design has been carried out is the caliphate, which was instituted when the followers of Muhammad upon his death selected one of his companions as the rightful successor to the mantle of the Prophet. Since the divine will had been made clear to men in the Qur’ān and expatiated on in the sunnah and inasmuch as the correct path for the community is subsumed in the sharā’ah, the caliphate has ideally been an executive stewardship bereft of legislative prerogatives. In practice, however, especially in later times, both the use of administrative decrees and the doctrine of consensus became loop-holes permitting considerable legislative initiative.

In the first Islamic decades under the leadership of the “rightly guided” caliphs Muslims did not distinguish between the moral authority of the caliphate and the actual power it wielded in its own right. Beginning with the successional quarrel after the death of ‘Uthmān in 656, however, a train of events was let loose that greatly influenced Muslim political theory as well as practice. The disaffection of the Kharijites and the Shi‘ites called into question the legitimacy of the occupant of the office, and Shi‘ite insistence that only a descendant of the Prophet could be caliph was instrumental in forcing Sunnite theologians to work out theories of the caliphate that would withstand such attacks. By the early ninth century, moreover, the increasing fragmentation of the Muslim empire and the seizure of power by regional commanders and adventurers, first in distant provinces and finally in the capital itself, underlined the split between a limited caliphal authority and the new self-assertive power, which continued in varied forms and disguises from then until modern times. In succeeding centuries some of the greatest legal minds of Islam attempted to explain this divergence in terms consonant with the theological bases of Islam, and their reasoning had crucial consequences for Islamic political history.

The classical exposition of the Sunnite position was made by al-Māwardi (d. 1031), who formalized the legal fictions (hiyāl) of the Ash‘arites by admitting in cases of necessity the principle that the caliph, whose authority was of divine origin, might delegate this to temporary power holders. By so doing, al-Māwardi took the first step along a dangerous path which led to the collapse of the entire system. Later, al-Ghazāli moved further along it by legitimizing power holders who paid symbolic allegiance to the caliph in ritual prayer, coinage, etc. He tried to forge a synthesis between power and authority by making obedience to any but a manifestly anti-Islamic ruler a virtue because proper leadership was essential to the functioning of the community. The final step was taken after the destruction of the ‘Abbasid caliphate in 1258 with the legitimation of power in itself, on the grounds that all power comes ultimately from God and derives authority from that fact. In this way the difference between good and bad government was reduced through expediency to religious criteria alone; if the ruler protected the faith and carried out his executive responsibilities with respect to the holy law, he should then be obeyed. Such a justification of force offered great incentives to schemers, freebooters, and disgruntled military leaders, for the only criterion of a rightful revolution became its success. But for the mass of the community it eliminated, by its limited definition of injustice, the right to revolt and even the ability to protest effectively against harsh rule.

Having thus completely divorced the power of the emirate from the caliphate, Sunnite jurists were forced into further legal fictions, the most important of which was the doctrine, previously repudiated by the Ash‘arites, that the true caliphate had only lasted thirty years, after which there had existed a self-constituted imamate to which caliphal titles were given as pure form. The caliphate came to be viewed, then, like the sharī‘ah, as an ideal formulation to be constantly aspired to but seldom attained. Sunnite juristic theory was encapsuled by Ibn Khaldūn in the late fourteenth century and a century later by Jalāl ud-Din Dawwāni. They distinguished between secular kingship and the caliphate and insisted that only the righteous ruler who governs according to the sharāah is entitled to style himself caliph.

The caliphate instituted by the Ottoman Empire is thus in strict terms the equivalent of an imamate only, and its resuscitation in the late eighteenth century, after more than two centuries of Ottoman indifference to the title, occurred at a time of declining Ottoman power when the Porte was concerned with reinforcing its symbols of authority. With European encroachments on Muslim lands and the rise of Pan-Islamist sentiment in the nineteenth century, the position of the Ottoman sultan-caliph at the head of the only Muslim state possessing a semblance of power in world politics was reinforced, but its nature was changed. Islamic solidarity grew temporarily on political grounds rather than as the expression of any true revival of the community, and as a political force it had to contend, in the end unsuccessfully, with local or more secular nationalisms among the Turks, the Arabs, the Persians, and other Muslim peoples. Ottoman efforts to rally Islamic solidarity behind the nominal caliph during World War I were fruitless, and the formal abolition of the caliphate by the Turkish Republic in 1924 came during an era of nascent nationalism in many parts of the Muslim world and created little stir except among PanIslamists or politicians trying to capitalize on religious issues. A congress of unofficial delegations from many Muslim countries met in Cairo in 1926 but could not agree on the qualifications of a new caliph or the bases for the restoration of the institution.

Islam and society

The divine commands laid down in the Qur’ān and the sunnah not only concern God and man but also order the social relationships among men and are especially explicit about matters pertaining to the family, marriage, divorce, and inheritance. The Muslim family is the re-creation of the Arab family within the ethical confines of Islam. Thus it is authoritarian, patriarchal, polygamous, patrilineal, and largely patrilocal, with vestigial survivals of what appears to be an earlier matrilineal kinship system reflected in the prominent position of the maternal uncle. The role of women has on the whole, despite Muslim apologetics, been subordinate to that of men; this is attested by the Qur’ān, which ranks men above women and allows only half value to the testimony of the latter. The inheritance shares of female heirs are half those allotted to males. However, the counsel of moderation in the treatment of spouses which runs through the Qur’ān gives some weight to those who claim that Muhammad did in effect lighten the burden women bore in pre-Islamic times. In practice today many elder women exercise great authority over members of their household, and particularly in urban areas, working women of the lower and lower-middle classes have a considerable degree of autonomy. Nevertheless, in almost every Muslim country, the legal position of the wife is inferior to that of the husband and in many cases is precarious.

Traditional marriage is a contract arranged between heads of households. The consent of the groom is necessary if he is of age (formerly puberty, but now fixed almost everywhere by statute), but not that of the bride, except through her tutor for marriage. The right of compulsory marriage of a daughter by a male parent, formerly common, has been sharply restricted in most countries. Although Muslim law specifies degrees of kinship forbidden for marriage, the union of first cousins is sanctioned and often favored. Muslim males may marry non-Muslim women, but except in those countries where the holy law no longer exists (Turkey and Tunisia) Muslim women may not marry outside their faith.

Polygamy is expressly sanctioned by the Qur’ān, which allows the Muslim to take four wives, and has been widely practiced throughout Islam at all times, but with regional variations and under some social and ethical restrictions. Economic factors alone have always limited the number of polygamous families, most of which are found among the urban well-to-do. Peasants tend, through economic necessity, to be monogamous or to limit themselves to the taking of a second wife, often later in life. Under the influence of Western mores in this century plural marriages have come to be regarded by many Muslims as a sign of backwardness. Many Muslim reformers now claim that the Qur’ānic purpose was to limit the uncontrolled polygamy of pre-Islamic Arabia by imposing a limitation reasonable to the age. Today codes of personal status in countries like Syria and Egypt, which combine features of the holy law with European legislation, have made plural marriage increasingly difficult, although they have hesitated to outlaw it completely, as in Turkey and Tunisia.

Probably a greater impediment to family stability than polygamy has been the classical mode of divorce through repudiation. Traditionally, the husband may repudiate his wife in unilateral fashion by simple pronouncement and repayment of the balance of the dowry. The sharā’ah mitigates this somewhat by applying numerous conditions, but, in effect, the wife is subject to being divorced, with all the consequent stigma, without any effective legal recourse except under extraordinary circumstances. Successive repudiations are often equivalent to serial polygamy, and they have been and still are widespread in parts of Muslim society, particularly among the poor, where the dowry is inconsequential or nonexistent. In this domain, too, the law is gradually changing; in recent years Egypt, Morocco, and several other countries have made repudiation more difficult, while the more secularly oriented states have outlawed the practice.

Marriage is encouraged in the Qur’ān, and the Christian concept of celibate purity has always been combated; to Muhammad is attributed the phrase, “No monkery in Islam.” Procreation is held up as desirable, and children, especially boys, are welcomed. The male child is closely dependent on his mother and the women of the household. They take care of him until about the age of seven, when he begins his life as a young man, a step traditionally signaled either by his taking up work with his father or an uncle or by his starting religious instruction at school. Circumcision is normally carried out at this time, although in some areas it is practiced shortly after birth. It is not mentioned in the Qur’ān but has become a strictly observed rite throughout Islam, and the festivities surrounding circumcision make it a rite of passage equivalent only to marriage in popular Muslim custom. The traditional religious instruction of the mosque-school, usually limited to rote Qur’ānic studies and the rudiments of mathematics and civics, has been supplemented or replaced now almost everywhere by modern educational facilities, which attract a majority of the children of school age in many Muslim countries. These uniformly supply religious instruction, however, and thus young men even today, in contrast with modern Westerners, possess a detailed knowledge of their scripture, which serves as a further channel for maintaining Islamic solidarity. The education of girls, previously much neglected, has made great strides in recent decades. Nevertheless, many fewer girls than boys attend school, and even fewer go on to higher education. In some countries women are entering the professions in small numbers and working in salaried positions for the first time, but marriage and housekeeping are still considered their proper occupations.

The social ethic of Islam is founded upon a real sense of solidarity and brotherhood. The teachings of the Qur’ān have shaped an ideal Muslim civism rooted in humility before God, piety, frugality, charity toward the less fortunate, and an equality of believers in the face of the majesty of an all-powerful Deity. The transformation from the pre-Islamic Arab character, which laid emphasis on the blood tie, vengeance, and manliness, is complete, although much of the bedouin background persists under the Islamic mantle. A summary list of grave sins reveals the influence of both strains. Ancient tribal feelings about ritual cleanliness, the eating of carrion and forbidden food, sorcery and usury, unlawful sexual relations, and the blood price coexist with unbelief, refusal to pay legal alms, apostasy, telling falsehoods about the Prophet and his companions, striking a fellow Muslim without cause, not fasting during Ramadan, and the like. Throughout Muslim teaching and writing runs the thread of moderation in all things. The sharā’ah is, literally, the “straight path” not only in the sense of righteousness opposed to deviation but also as a golden mean. Moderation and abstinence are often recommended in the Qur’ān, even for acts that are permissible, and the balance they create is disturbed by the sins of greed and pride. Prodigality and lavishness of hospitality are tenacious pre-Islamic survivals in much of the Muslim East today, but they are not encouraged by the tradition. Finally, the doctrine of equality of all believers and frequent intermarriage with slaves and concubines have led to the relative absence of a color bar in Islam, a fact which today has great sociopolitical significance as well as ethical meaning.

Islam has in certain respects stamped its own image on economic institutions or at least emphasized certain characteristics of economic life to the extent that a distinctive coloration was given to them in the classical period within the limits of the Middle East and the Mediterranean.

Classical Islamic society is one of merchants and trade. The socioeconomic causes lying behind the origins of Islam itself concern the conflict of economic interests in Mecca and the question of the trade routes in western Arabia. The social background of Muhammad and the predominance of the Quraish clan in early Islam insured a continuing emphasis on mercantilism which has never been lost. The sūq, properly an assemblage of shops and ateliers and workshops in which the commercial life of the town is grouped, has Greco–Roman antecedents but has evolved in special ways. The economic geography of the city is arranged from the center out in a descending order of virtue: the cathedral mosque surrounded by those trades catering to it, such as candlestick makers, incense shops, booksellers, etc.; followed by the sūq, of luxury goods, imported wares, and silks; and ending at the gates of the city with the tanneries, slaughterhouses, etc. Extreme specialization and geographical grouping by occupation and organization into guilds or corporations are constants of a pattern that still exists in many areas. The guilds often have ties with Sufi religious orders, and it is common for each to have a patron saint for whom an appropriate annual festival is held. The social function of the guilds counterbalances and complements for the individual that of the extended family and, sometimes but not always, that of the brotherhood or religious order to which he may belong.

As might be expected, Muslim law regulates commercial transactions in detail. It puts its greatest emphasis on the immediacy of transaction, the lawfulness of the thing exchanged, and the good faith of the parties involved. It thus forbids lending for interest and in theory permits only the exchange of quantities and articles of equal value. In due course of economic life, as in other areas, Islam has had recourse to legal fictions in order to avoid the paralyzing effect of the more rigorous Qur’ānic prohibitions. As international trade became important from the ninth century on, double sales, deposit contracts, promissory notes, temporary transfer of property to avoid taxes, and other devices formerly condemned by the tradition were and are widely practiced. Many such commercial customs and banking procedures in fact became models for European financial practices in the Middle Ages.

Islam today

Since the late eighteenth century Islamic society, in common with other non-Western societies, has been undergoing an onslaught from Western civilization which is reflected in every aspect of its social, economic, political, and religious life. At the time the Western assault began in earnest, this society in its core area of western Asia and the Mediterranean was showing every sign of material and spiritual enervation. The internal and external tribulations of the Ottoman state were symptoms of a deeper illness reflected in the divorce between the medieval tradition and the most rampant elements of Sufism, the intellectual stagnation of the more rational forces within Islam, and an extreme subjectivism of the intuitive elements that had temporarily triumphed and threatened at times to lead Islam into a totally mystic pantheism.

In reaction both to these inner dangers and to the Western menace, Islam appears to have embarked upon a path of revival and restoration. This revival has developed over the past two centuries, hesitantly at first but with a growing sense of concern and self-awareness, accompanied by a still unformed and unformulated effort to search for solutions that will enable Islam to meet the challenges of the present age. The first such manifestation came in the fundamentalist Neo-Hanbalite Wahhabi movement of central Arabia, which arose in protest against the laxness and heresies of Sufi versions of the faith in the mid-eighteenth century and which flourished until it was defeated by Ottoman arms in the early nineteenth century. Its influence survived, however, and not only became the basis of the Sa‘ūdi state but has had profound repercussions among revivalist, purifying movements in India and Africa. Although Sufi orders continued to expand in some areas, such as India, Africa, and fringe Muslim territory, in the nineteenth century, the puritan streak embodied in Wahhābism has in the twentieth century taken strong hold in the more purely Arab countries, where in almost all instances the orthodox version of the faith has been reinforced with the encouragement of and sometimes pressure from the authorities.

The confusion of religious and political factors in the Islamic crisis of the nineteenth century gave birth to a revived form of Pan-Islamism, which reflected in part the influence of similar political movements in Europe among the Slavs and Germans. Its message was preached by Jamāl al-Din al-Afghāni (d. 1897) from Egypt but eventually had little impact. One of his pupils, Muhammad ‘Abduh (d. 1905), took that part of it which emphasized the need for a thoroughgoing reform of Islamic thought and intellectual standards and attempted a reformulation of basic orthodox beliefs in order to show that they were compatible with modern life. Although it is too early to assess the ultimate importance of ‘Abduh, he remains at this juncture the outstanding reformist theologian of modern times within Islam. One of his disciples, Muhammad Rashīd Ridā (d. 1935), continued his work but moved from rationalism to a more conservative literalism, while calling for a revived caliphate under Arab, and more specifically, Quraish, guidance. Within the past generation the reaction against Westernization has, if anything, grown stronger, and there has been a proliferation of apologetics among Muslim intellectuals and writers. Much of this has been directed at Christianity, which is seen in a dual light: as a rival faith and as the indirect promoter of Western socio-political infiltration into the Muslim world. A conscious sense of competition, as opposed to the medieval Muslim assumption that Islam was infallible and had no rivals, can be discerned today for the first time in Islamic history. Among its manifestations are defenses against alleged attacks on Islam, an extreme defensiveness with respect to social issues on which Islam takes stands different from Western norms—or about which it is felt, however unconsciously, to be backward—and attempts at emulation and justification, represented notably by the biographical literature centering on Muhammad and the historical literature emphasizing the past glories of Islam and the superiority of medieval Islamic civilization to that of Europe in the Middle Ages. Such attitudes, however, permitted the Indian Muslim reformer Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938) to expound the idea that Muslims were entitled to take the fruits of Western civilization because they originally grew out of Islamic soil. His writings and activities were instrumental in helping to create the state of Pakistan in 1947.

Although it is manifestly impossible to summarize the various trends in modern Islam in well over a score of countries, it might be said that the overriding problem is that of the confrontation of the faith with a secular nationalism which demands that the highest loyalties be given to the state. In its concept and function as a supranational solidarity ethos and as the bearer of an ultimate message to mankind, Islam has so far found it impossible to come to terms with secularist nationalism as it is found in many Muslim countries, just as it has with scientific materialism, whose tenets have made inroads throughout the Muslim world. Several solutions have been tried. The idea of an Islamic state was promulgated in Pakistan but subsequently abandoned. The creation of a secular state in Turkey after World War I was followed a generation later by concessions to religious sentiment of a kind that makes it impossible to consider Turkey fully secular today. And in modern Egypt there is a complex relationship between the religious institution and the state in which traditional religious education has been modernized and laicized while the orthodox institution has been incorporated into the state and made subservient to it for manifestly political ends. In all these endeavors Muslims are being forced to think in terms of an uncompromising dualism for which their previous theological constructions provide no adequate model. Inherent also in these efforts is the clear desire of modern Muslims, at almost any cost, to put a greater social content into their religious formulations. The outstanding examples of this trend may be the efforts being made in Egypt, Indonesia, Syria, Algeria, and other countries to reconcile various forms of socialism with Islam.

Charles F. Gallagher

[Directly related are the entriesAfrican society, article onnorth africa; Asian society, article onsoutheast asia; Historiography, article onISLAMIC HISTORIOGRAPHY; Near Eastern society.]


Anderson, James N. D. 1959 Islamic Law in the Modern World. New York Univ. Press.

Arberry, Arthur J. 1950 Sufism: An Account of the Mystics of Islam. London: Allen & Unwin.

Arnold, Thomas W. (1924) 1965 The Caliphate. London: Routledge.

Arnold, Thomas W.; and Guillaume, Alfred (editors) (1931) 1952 The Legacy of Islam. Oxford Univ. Press.

Brockelmann, Carl (1939) 1960 History of the Islamic Peoples. New York: Capricorn. → First published as Geschichte der islamischen Völker und Staaten. Contains a review of events from 1939 to 1947 by Moshe Perlmann.

Coulson, Noel J. 1964 A History of Islamic Law. Edinburgh Univ. Press.

Daniel, Norman A. 1966 Islam, Europe and Empire. Edinburgh Univ. Press.

The Encyclopaedia of Islam. New ed. (1913–1938) 1954—Leiden (Netherlands): Brill. → To be published in five volumes.

Ettinghausen, Richard (1952) 1954 A Selected and Annotated Bibliography of Books and Periodicals in Western Languages Dealing With the Near and Middle East, With Special Emphasis on Medieval and Modern Times. Washington: Middle East Institute.

Gaudefroy-Demombynes, Maurice (1921) 1950 Muslim Institutions. London: Allen & Unwin. → First published as Les institutions musulmanes.

Gibb, H. A. R. 1947 Modern Trends in Islam. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Gibb, H. A. R. (1949) 1961 Mohammedanism: An Historical Survey. 2d ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press. → A basic source.

Goldziher, IgnÀcz (1888) 1961 Muhammedanische Studien. 2 vols. Hildesheim (Germany): Olms.

Jeffery, Arthur (editor) (1962) 1963 A Reader on Islam: Passages From Standard Arabic Writings Illustrative of the Beliefs and Practices of Muslims. New York: Humanities Press.

KoranThe Koran Interpreted, by Arthur J. Arberry. 2 vols. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1955.

Levy, Reuben (1931–1933) 1957 The Social Structure of Islam. 2d ed. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Middle East Journal. → Published since 1947.

Rosenthal, Erwin I. J. (1958) 1962 Political Thought in Medieval Islam. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Sauvaget, Jean (1943) 1965 Introduction to the History of the Muslim East: A Bibliographical Guide. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press. → First published as Introduction à I’histoire de I’orient musulman.

Schacht, Joseph 1964 An Introduction to Islamic Law. Oxford: Clarendon.

Smith, Wilfred Cantwell 1957 Islam in Modern History. Princeton Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1959.

Von Grunebaum, Gustave E. (1946) 1953 Medieval Islam: A Study in Cultural Orientation. 2d ed. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Von Grunebaum, Gustave E. (editor) 1955 Unity and Variety in Muslim Civilization. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Watt, W. Montgomery 1961 Islam and the Integration of Society. London: Routledge.

Watt, W. Montgomery 1962 Islamic Philosophy and Theology. Edinburgh Univ. Press.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Islam." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. 1968. 30 May. 2016 <>.

"Islam." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. 1968. (May 30, 2016).

"Islam." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. 1968. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from



A strictly monotheistic faith, Islam is the religion of more than 1.2 billion people, or a fifth of the world population. Muslims can be found mostly in Western and Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and Africa. Only about 350 million live in the Arab world.

Pre-Islamic Arabia and the Rise of Islam

Islam appeared in the seventh century at a time of social and religious decay in the Arabian Peninsula. Arabian society was essentially tribal and the supremacy of tribal law encouraged warfare, raiding, and vendettas. Usurious economic practices led to the impoverishment and enslavement of a number of weaker tribes, and social ills such as alcoholism and prostitution were rampant. Associationism (or shirk, as the pre-Islamic religious tradition was referred to at the time) was the main faith, and it acknowledged a number of intercessory gods associated with the Creator, Allah. The representations of these gods were housed in an important shrine (the Kaʿba) in Mecca and attracted most Arabian tribes at the time of the annual pilgrimage (hajj). But Associationism was losing its appeal, as can be seen from the spread of Judaism, Christianity, and especially Hanifism, a local monotheism that took Abraham as its central figure and maintained a simple ethical doctrine and the inevitability of a Day of Judgment.

Islam arose claiming to be the embodiment of Hanifism and the continuation of earlier monotheistic traditions. Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, started preaching in Mecca in 611 c.e. and quickly gained a strong following. Worried that it might lose its profitable control over the pilgrimage, the leadership of Mecca launched a merciless war on the new faith, forcing the Prophet to seek refuge in 622 c.e. in a neighboring town, Medina, in an event known as hijra (migration) that marks the beginning of the lunar calendar of Islam. Having prohibited alcohol, gambling, prostitution, raiding, and usury, and prescribed zakah (alms-tax) to restore economic equality, replaced the tribal bond with the bond of faith, and instituted Islamic law as the sole reference in settling disputes, Islam spread rapidly throughout Arabia, despite the continuing hostility of Mecca. But since half of Mecca's population had already converted to the new faith, the surrender of the city was only a matter of time, and when the Prophet died in 632 c.e., most of Arabia was Muslim.

Under the first four rashidun (rightly guided) caliphs, the Islamic state spread quickly in the Near East, where it was welcomed by a local Semitic and Arab population that was only too pleased to be rid of the ethnically foreign and abusive rule of the Byzantines, as well as in Persia, where the Sassanid Empire had already started to crumble. Later, the Umayyad dynasty (661750), which followed the rashidun caliphs, spread the frontiers of the new empire from Spain to India.

Theology and Beliefs

Tawhid, the concept of the absolute unity and transcendence of God, forms the cornerstone of Islamic theology as expressed in the Qurʾan, the holy book of Islam, which the Muslims believe to be the verbatim word of God, revealed to the Prophet in successive revelations over the span of his prophetic career. Tawhid forms the content of the shahada (literally, "witnessing," the profession of faith that states that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is His messenger) which therefore constitutes the only requirement for conversion to Islam. The shahada and the four main rituals compulsory on the faithful (worshipping salah five times a day, fasting from dawn to sunset through the month of Ramadan, performing the pilgrimage to Mecca once in a lifetime, and paying the zakah, or alms-tax, annually) eventually became known as the five pillars of Islam.

The Qurʾan represents God as an omnipotent, all-powerful Creator, Master of the Day of Judgment. All of creation is created to worship God; humanity, which received lordship over creation when it accepted God's vice-regency (khilafa) on earth, is to account on the Day of Judgment for "what [they] did with the boon of life" (Qurʾan 102:8). All human beings are under the same obligation to obey the divine law ("Noblest among you is the most righteous" Qurʾan 49:13), and this equality is further expressed in the universality of the messages that God sends to His creatures throughout time and place, starting with Adam and concluding with Muhammad ("There is not one community wherein a warner has not been sent" Qurʾan 35:24). Other religions are therefore considered to be based on divine revelations that had been somewhat altered by oral transmission over time, but their followers (the People of the Book) can be ensured reward in paradise given belief in God and good deeds: "The Muslims, the Sabeans, the Christians, the Jews, anyone who believes in God . . . and does good deeds shall find their reward with God and will not come to fear or grief" (Qurʾan 2:62). Although the Qurʾan only mentions Semitic prophets (including Jesus, whom it celebrates as a human messenger of God, and local Arabian prophets), the designation of "the People of the Book" was later extended by the Muslims to all other main religious traditions they encountered, on the basis of the Qurʾanic affirmation
of the universality of prophecy. Muslims and followers of other traditions are exhorted to cooperate in establishing a moral society and prohibiting evil and mischief.


The Qurʾan exhibits a firmly actionalist system of ethics based on individual responsibility in the realization of the optimal social, economic, and political structure of the umma, the universal community of believers. Mutual consultation (shura) for the ideal political system, just and fair business practices in the economic system, and financial and moral responsibility to one's extended family members in the social system are to be supplemented by various safety nets for the more vulnerable segments of society, such as zakah (poor-tax) and mahr (the inalienable

dowry due the bride). Though no self-denial is advocated, the individual is urged to exercise restraint over his and her natural appetites and to show rahma (compassion, forgiveness) in all dealings with one's fellow human beings. Pride and greed are especially condemned, as they lead to injustice to others and hence to oneself (zulm al-nafs), ultimately leading to the path of self-destruction. There is no concept of sinful nature, but recurrent sin leads to the hardening of the soul and the eventual silencing of one's conscience. The partial rewards and opportunities provided in this life are considered to be just as much a test to the individual as the difficulties and hardships, and one is exhorted to exercise sabr (steadfastness) in the face of life's challenges.

The difficulty of the task is acknowledged by the Qurʾan, which expresses faith in humanity's ultimate success in carrying out God's trusteeship. The individual is urged to remain focused on his or her relationship with God and to never fail to seek Him, for He "hears the prayers of everyone who calls on Him" (Qurʾan 2:186). This intensely personal and spiritual relationship, which the Qurʾan tries to integrate in the individual's life through the five daily prayers, also expresses the human need for the presence and support of one's Creator and Sustainer, for only "with the remembrance of God do human hearts find peace and come to rest" (Qurʾan 13:30). Thus the Qurʾan postulates a direct and intimate relationship between the individual and God (hence the absence of clergy in Islam) and God is said to be closer to His creatures than their jugular vein.

Paradise and Hell are in the Qurʾanic view the consummation of the individual's life on earth. What is to come is therefore not "another world," but the response to what one has done in this life. This world is to be recreated in a different form at
the end of its time span, ushering in the Day of Judgment that will inaugurate punishment and reward; these are set along an absolute scale of justice tempered only by God's infinite mercy, which is assured to all those who genuinely seek it.

Political and Cultural Developments

Islam as a faith spread first in the Near East and Egypt, where in the first few centuries Arab Islamic civilization flourished. The caliphate split after the Abbassid takeover of the Near East and Egypt, while Spain remained under Umayyad rule until 1492. The Abbassid dynasty ruled until 1258, though in the latter part of their rule only nominal allegiance was given to the caliphs in Baghdad by the amirs and sultans who, in effect, governed the various provinces of the empire and fought each other over territory. The internecine war, partly caused by Sunni-Shiʿite conflict, allowed the invading Crusaders (eleventh through thirteenth centuries) to establish a state in Palestine. It was not until Salah al-Din (Saladin, d. 1193) that Egypt and the Near East were united under Sunni rule, which in turn helped to defeat the Crusaders and later to repulse the Mongols who had sacked Baghdad in 1258. But as the Arab world fell into decline, the Sunni Ottoman Turks swept through Byzantium and extended their rule over the Near East and most of North Africa, ushering in Ottoman Islamic civilization. In the East, the Shiʿite Safavid dynasty took over Iran at the end of the sixteenth century, helping to spread a highly sophisticated Persian culture throughout Central Asia and into Northern India, where a brilliant Indian Islamic civilization climaxed under the Great Moghuls between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries.

During this period Islamic arts, science, and technology flourished throughout the Muslim world, with contributions in astronomy (al-Biruni, d. 1048; Ibn al-Shatir, d. 1375), algebra and trigonometry (al-Khawarizmi, d. 850; Umar al-Khayyam, d. 1131; Sharaf al-Din al-Tusi, d. 1213), physics and chemistry (Ibn Hayyan, d. 815; Ibn al-Haytham, d. 1250), and biology and medicine (Abu Bakr al-Razi, d. 925; Ibn Sina, d. 1037, also known as Avicenna, whose Canon of Medicine remained the definitive reference book in the field until the seventeenth century in both East and West.)

Islamic Law

The emphasis on submitting to the divine will (the literal meaning of Islam ) and fulfilling the main Qurʾanic injunction, "to enjoin the good and prohibit evil" led to the rapid development of Islamic law (fiqh). In terms of legal sources, the Qurʾan was the first and absolute reference; and since it had mandated obedience to the Prophet, his sunna (ex-ample), which was provided in the reports of his sayings and deeds, naturally came second. Much of the law, however, had to be inferred, and the jurists turned to their own intellectual effort (ijtihad) expressed in the methodology of qiyas ("analogical reasoning," that is, finding a ratio legis parallel to one already identified in the Qurʾan or sunna ). Such individual opinions, however, did not become binding until they submitted to ijma, or consensus of the schools of law, though all parties acknowledged to the others the right to dissent (ikhtilaf). Eventually, the schools of law coalesced into four main schools. The processes by which laws may be derived became the subject of an extensive and separate discipline, usul al-fiqh (literally, the principles of fiqh ). Islamic law developed rapidly into an extensive field in the first few centuries of Muslim history, but innovation subsided considerably as a result of the reliance on precedents and past consensus.

Religious Schisms

The most important schism in the Muslim community occurred over a political split in the early community. After the Prophet's death, most Muslims supported the election of Abu Bakr and later of Umar ibn al-Khattab, the Prophet's closest companions. However, a small number known as the Shiʿat Ali (the party of Ali), insisted on keeping the caliphate within the Prophet's family and championed his cousin Ali. Eventually, the Shiʿa became a religious movement, basing their position on the claim that God would not leave His community without guidance, and justifying it through prophetic sayings and esoteric interpretation of the Qurʾan. The belief in the authority of the imams (the leaders who were entitled to rule) was made part of the Islamic creed and gave rise to a clerical structure in Shiʿite Islam. In all other matters of fiqh and dogma, the Shiʿa are similar to the Sunnis, though this applies only to the Ithnaʿashariyya ("Twelvers," who believe in a line of twelve imams), and the Zaydis (who recognize only five imams) and not to the other groups (the Ismaʿilis, the Alawis, the Druze, etc.) that split from them and whose beliefs ran contrary to the doctrines of tawhid and the finality of Muhammad's prophecy. Thus the main difference between the Sunnis and the Shiʿa lies more in the political issue of the community leadership (with the beliefs and practices that the latter entails) than in doctrinal difference of dogma.

Philosophical Developments

The philosophical developments in the Muslim world expressed the tension between the Islamic (Semitic) worldview and the Hellenistic heritage, which to some extent had become part of the Near East's cultural makeup. At one end stood the heirs of Hellenistic thought (called falasifa ) such as al-Kindi (d. 870), al-Farabi (d. 950), and Ibn Rushd (d. 1198, also known as Averroes) who used Greek logic and incorporated into their works Greek notions such as the eternity of the world, the distinction between essence and existence, and Hellenistic angelology.

At the other end stood the traditionists, staunch defenders of Islamic dogma and method, generally represented by the Hanbalis. Their greatest proponent was Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), who delivered devastating blows to the Greek logic used by the falasifa in his al-Radd ala al-Mantiqiyyin. In between the two groups were two theological Kalam schools; the earlier one, known as the Muʿtazila, was closer to the philosophers and upheld the independence of reason from revelation, the necessity for God to abide by justice, and the creation of the Qurʾan; such views prompted the rise of the later school, the Ashʿariyya, which restored the pre-eminence of revelation, the absolute omnipotence of God, and the uncreated nature of the word of God (making use of a somewhat revised Greek logic). Their greatest representative was Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali (d. 1111), who used his incisive analysis of causality to undermine the philosophers.


Mystical thought, which had a basis in the spiritual worldview of the Qurʾan and the simple and intense piety of early Muslims, became more formalized through the gradual absorption of Hellenistic, Persian, and Indian thought, and became known as Sufism. The main architect of the Sufi theosophy was Ibn Arabi (d. 1240). Sufi poetical expression of the divine love, articulated by Rabiʿa al-Adawiyya (d. 801) and Jalal al-Din al-Rumi (d. 1273), became very popular throughout the Muslim world. But its foreign elements led to opposition by the orthodox jurists and theologians, especially those whose strictly legalistic and ritualistic interpretation of the faith found no place for spiritual expression. Ironically, their opposition encouraged the spread of Sufism as a reaction to their impoverished representation of the personal relationship to Godas did the increase in worldliness and materialism spreading in the Muslim world as the empire expanded. However, most great theologians and jurists (e.g., alGhazzali, who silenced the critics of Sufism; Ibn Taymiyya; Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab) defended and indeed practiced the Sufi way, though all of them condemned in strong terms the philosophical expression of Sufism, which advocated a form of pantheism (wahdat al-wujud, the unity of being) and extreme asceticism. But Sufism spread widely, and the tariqas (Sufi orders, such as the Qadiriyya in the Near East, the Mawlawiyya (Mev levis and the Naqshbandiyya in Central Asia and Turkey, and the Shadhiliyya in North Africa) were the main impetus behind the spread of Islam in Africa and East Asia.

Reform Movements

The insistence on the importance of spiritualism over and above the law led on one hand to asceticism and withdrawal but also, on the other, to libertarianism, a trend that was accentuated in popular religion by the belief in miracles, superstition, and cultic practices into which the veneration of Sufi saints had slowly degenerated. In North Africa and India, the Sufi movements had also absorbed the cultural and religious heritage of their new converts, a syncretism that included at times non-Islamic beliefs and practices. Meanwhile, the law had become more and more reified as the need for innovation subsided and taqlid (imitation or reliance on past tradition) became the norm. The jurists' inability to respond to new needs became a problem as new challenges arose with the industrialization of Europe, which forced the Ottomans to adopt Western laws and institutions. All these problems set the stage for the reform movements of the eighteenth century.

The reform movements rejected consensus as a source of law as it had become a hindrance to change, and they advocated ijtihad instead. At the same time, they emphasized a strict interpretation of tawhid and repudiated the syncretic beliefs adopted by the Sufi movements as well as the morally lax social practices and the popular beliefs in magic, superstition, and saints' intercession. Building on the philosophical and political thought of Ibn Taymiyya, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792) started in Arabia the reform movement of Wahhabism, which then spread in the Near East as the Salafiyya movement. At same time, separate but similar movements spread in Africa under the leadership of Ibn Idris (d.1837) and al-Sanusi order (d. 1859), and in India under Sirhindi (d. 1624). These were Sufi masters who criticized the former excesses of the Sufi movements and used the tariqas to restore orthodoxy of belief and practice and to purge the movements of syncretic accretions.

However, the colonial ambitions of the European powers quickly changed the Muslim scene from one of reform to one of confrontation with a greater power that soon overcame most of the Muslim world and won from the ailing Ottoman Empire significant concessions. Instead of internal social change, the reform movements turned to armed resistance, and instead of focusing on doctrinal purity and legal tools, the new discourse centered on the necessity of resisting the West and on apologetics for Islam, for the defeat of the Muslims was contemptuously blamed by Western Orientalists on the backwardness and inferiority of Islam.

Islamic Modernist Movements

Islamic modern thought is considered to start with Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (d. 1897), a man with encyclopedic knowledge of both Western and Eastern disciplines who traveled throughout the Muslim world in hope of uniting it in the fight against Western colonization. He advocated reform of education and law and was followed in Egypt by one of his most famous students, Muhammad Abduh (d.1905), a jurist who became the head of the famed al-Azhar fiqh university. But few practical solutions were offered, and the problem was compounded by the call by some of his students like Rashid Rida (d. 1935) for compromise with Western institutions, such as interest and the creation of national entities separate from the Islamic Ottoman rule. In India, Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938) called for a return to the original ethos of Islam and the establishment of the independent state of Pakistan, while Sayyid Ahmad Khan (d. 1898) called for more drastic changes in Islamic thought and cooperation with the British colonial power. The compromises advocated by some led then to an attitude of general rejection of change on the part of most jurists and theologians, and although all had agreed on the necessity of reforming law and education and of adopting Western advances in science and technology, the discourse remained general and did not offer specific and coherent suggestions. In effect, the colonial powers, which by now had also taken over the Near East after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, had imposed their legal, political, and educational systems on their colonies. After independence, the local governments maintained the Western institutions they had inherited, leading to the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 and giving rise, throughout the Muslim world, to opposition movements (such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan, the Jamiʿat-e Islami in Pakistan, the Front Islamique du Salut in Algeria and the Rafah Party in Turkey) that called for the restoration of Islamic law and fought the adoption by Muslim elites of the Western ideologies of secularism, socialism, and nationalism. These ideological conflicts, which have led to tensions or all-out civil war in many countries, are exacerbated by the policies of autocratic regimes that do not tolerate opposition or democratic rule and by Western intervention (directly or in support of such regimes) to preserve Western interests in oil and to protect Israel. These interventions have become the focus of Muslim resentment and radicalism throughout the Muslim world.

see also abduh, muhammad; afghani, jamal al-din al-; alawi; allah; azhar, al-; druze; front islamique du salut (fis); hadith; iqbal, muhammad; iranian revolution (1979); ismaʿili shiʿism; jamiʿat-e islami; kaʿba; mecca; medina; muhammad; muslim brotherhood; naqshbandi; qadiriyya order; qurʾan; rida, rashid; salafiyya movement; shiʿism; sufism and the sufi orders; sunni islam; zaydism.


Arnold, Thomas W. The Preaching of Islam: A History of the Propagation of the Muslim Faith, 2d edition. Lahore, Pakistan: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 1961.

Al Faruqi, Lois. Islam and Art. Islamabad: National Hijra Council, 1985.

Gardet, Louis. L'Islam. Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1967.

Kamali, Mohammad Hashim. Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence. Cambridge, U.K.: Islamic Texts Society, 1991.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Three Muslim Sages. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964.

Rahman, Fazlur. Islam, 2d edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Rahman, Fazlur. Major Themes of the Qurʾan. Chicago: Bibliotheca Islamic, 1980.

Saliba, George, and King, David A. From Deferent to Equant: A Volume of Studies in the History of Science in the Ancient and Medieval Near East in Honor of E. S. Kennedy. New York: New York Academy of Sciences, 1987.

Smith, Wilfred Cantwell. Islam in Modern History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957.

tayeb el-hibri
updated by maysam j. al faruqi

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

El-hibri, Tayeb. "Islam." Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. 2004. 30 May. 2016 <>.

El-hibri, Tayeb. "Islam." Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. 2004. (May 30, 2016).

El-hibri, Tayeb. "Islam." Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. 2004. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from



From the beginning, Rus and its successors have interacted with Muslims as neighbors, rulers, and subjects. Long-distance trade in silver from Muslim lands provided the impetus for the establishment of the first Rus principalities, and Islam arrived in the lands of Rus before Christianity. The rulers of the Volga Bulghar state converted to Islam at the turn of the tenth century, several decades before Vladimir's conversion to Christianity in 988 c.e. The Bulghar state was destroyed between 1236 and 1237 by the Mongols, who then went on to subjugate the principalities of Rus. The conversion to Islam in 1327 of Özbek Khan, the ruler of the Golden Horde, meant that political overlordship of the lands of Rus was in the hands of Muslims for over a century. As the power relationship between Muscovy and the Golden Horde began to shift, Muscovite princes found themselves actively involved in its succession struggles. In 1552 Ivan IV conquered Kazan, the most prominent of the successor states of the Golden Horde, and began a long process of territorial expansion, which brought a diverse group of Muslims under Russian rule by the end of the nineteenth century.

the tsarist state and its muslim population

Muscovy acquired its first Muslim subjects as early as 1392, when the so-called Mishar Tatars, who inhabited what is now Nizhny Novgorod province, entered the service of Muscovite princes. The khans of Kasymov, a dynasty that lost out in the succession struggles of the Golden Horde, came under Muscovite protection in the mid-fifteenth century and became a privileged service elite. Nevertheless, the conquest of Kazan was a turning point, for it opened up the steppe to gradual Muscovite expansion. Over the next two centuries Muscovy acquired numerous Muslim subjects as it asserted suzerainty over the Bashkir and Kazakh steppes. In 1783 Catherine II annexed Crimea, the last of the successors of the Golden Horde, and late-eighteenth-century expansion brought Russia to the Caucasus. While the annexation of the Transcaucasian principalities (including present-day Azerbaijan) was accomplished with relative ease, the conquest of the Caucasus consumed Russian energies for the first half of the nineteenth century. The final subjugation of Caucasian tribes was complete only with the capture of their military and spiritual leader, Shamil, in 1859. Finally, in the last major territorial expansion of its history, Russia subjugated the Central Asian khanates of Khiva, Bukhara, and Kokand in a series of military campaigns between 1864 and 1876. Kokand was abolished entirely, and large parts of the territory of Khiva and Bukhara were also annexed to form the province of Turkestan. The remaining territories of Khiva and Bukhara were turned into Russian protectorates

in which traditional rulers enjoyed wide-ranging autonomy in internal affairs, but where external economic and political relations were under the control of Russia. The conquest of Central Asia dramatically increased the size of the empire's Muslim population, which stood at more than fourteen million at the time of the census of 1897.

The Russian state's interaction with Islam and Muslims varied greatly over time and place, and it is fair to say that no single policy toward Islam may be discerned. In the immediate aftermath of the conquest of Kazan, the state followed a policy of harsh repression. Repression was renewed in the early eighteenth century, when Peter and his successors began to see religious uniformity as a desirable goal. In 1730 the Church opened its Office of New Converts and initiated a campaign of conversion in the Volga region. While its primary target were the animists inhabiting the region, the Office also destroyed many mosques. As many as 7,000 Tatars may have converted to Orthodoxy, thus laying the foundation of the Kräshen community of Christian Tatars. For much of the rest of the imperial period, however, the state's attitude is best characterized as one of "pragmatic flexibility" (Kappeler). Service to the state was the ultimate measure of loyalty and the source of privilege. Those Tatar landlords who survived the dispossession of the sixteenth century were allowed to keep their land and were even able to own Orthodox serfs.

The reign of Catherine II (17621796) marks a turning point in the state's relationship with its Muslim subjects. She made religious tolerance an official policy and set about creating a basis for loyalty to the Russian state in the Tatar lands. She affirmed the rights of Muslim nobles and even sought to induct the Muslim clerisy in this endeavor. In 1788, she established a "spiritual assembly" at Orenburg. The Orenburg Muslim Spiritual Assembly was an attempt, unique in the Muslim world, by the state to impose an organizational structure on Islam. Islam was for Catherine a higher form of religion than shamanism, and she hoped that the Kazakhs would gradually be brought into the fold of Islam through the efforts of the Tatars. This was of course intertwined with the goal of bringing the Kazakh steppe under closer Russian control and outflanking Ottoman diplomacy there. Headed by a mufti appointed by the state, the assembly was responsible for appointing and licensing imams as teachers throughout the territory under its purview, and overseeing the operation of mosques.

While the policies enacted by Catherine survived until 1917 in their broad outline, her enthusiasm for Islam did not. The Enlightenment had also brought to Russia the concept of fanaticism, and it tended to dominate Russian thinking about Islam in the nineteenth century. Islam was now deemed to be inherently fanatical, and the question now became one of curbing or containing this fanaticism. If Catherine had hoped for the Islamization of the Kazakhs as a mode of progress, nineteenth century administrators sought to protect the "natural" religion of the Kazakhs from the "fanatical" Islam of the Tatars or the Central Asians.

Conquered in the second half of the nineteenth century and having a relatively dense population, Central Asia came closer than any other part of the Russian empire to being a colony. The Russian presence was thinner, and the local population not incorporated into empire-wide social classifications. Not only was there was no Central Asian nobility, but the vast majority (99.8%) of the local population were defined solely as inorodtsy (alien, i.e., non-Russian, peoples). The region was ruled by a governor-general possessing wide-ranging powers and answerable directly to the tsar. The first governor-general, Konstantin Kaufman (in office 18671881), laid the foundations of Russian policies in the region. For Kaufman, Islam was irredeemably connected with fanaticism, which could be provoked by thoughtless policies. Such fanaticism could be lessened by ignoring Islam and depriving it of all state support, while the long-term goal of assimilating the region into the Russian empire was to be achieved through a policy of encouraging trade and enlightenment. Kaufman therefore did not allow the Orenburg Muslim Assembly to extend its jurisdiction into Turkestan. The policy of ignoring Islam completely was modified after Kaufman's death, but the Russian presence was much more lightly felt in Central Asia than in other Muslim areas of the empire.

islam under russian rule

Islam is an internally diverse religious system in which many traditions and ways of belonging to the community of Muslims coexist. As Devin DeWeese has shown, Islam became a central aspect of the communal identities of Muslims in the Golden Horde. Conversion was remembered in sacralized narratives that defined conversion as the moment that the community was constituted. Shrines of saints served to Islamize the very territory on which Muslims lived. Until the articulation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries of modern national identities among the various Muslim communities of the Russian empire, communal identities were a composite of ethnic, genealogical, and religious identities, inextricably intertwined.

The practice of Islam, its reproduction, and its transmission to future generations took place in largely autonomous local communities. Each community was centered around a mosque and (especially in Central Asia) a shrine. The servants of the mosques were selected by the community, and the funding provided by local notables or through endowed property (waqf ). Each community also maintained a maktab, an elementary school in which children acquired basic knowledge of Islamic ritual and belief. Higher religious education took place in madrasas, both locally and in neighboring Muslim countries. Unlike the Christian clergy, Muslim scholars, the ulama, were a self-regulating group. Entry into the ranks of the ulama was contingent upon education and insertion into chains of discipleship. Islamic religious practice required neither the institutional framework nor the property of a church. This loose structure meant that the fortunes of Islam and its carriers were not directly tied to the vicissitudes of Muslim states.

The process of Islamization continued after the Russian conquest of the steppe and was at times even supported by the Russian state. The state settled Muslim peasants in the trans-Volga region in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but the main agent of the Islamization of the steppe was the Tatar mercantile diaspora. As communities of Tatar merchants appeared throughout the steppe beginning in the late eighteenth century, Tobolsk, Orenburg, and Troitsk became major centers of Islamic learning. Tatar merchants began sending their sons to study in Central Asia, and Sufi linkages with Central Asia and the lands beyond were strengthened.

varieties of reform

In the early nineteenth century, reform began to emerge as a major issue among Tatar ulama. The initial issues, as articulated by figures such as Abdunnasir al-Qursavi (17761812) and Qayyum Nasiri (18251902), related to the value of the tradition of interpretation of texts as it had been practiced in Central Asia and in the Tatar lands since Mongol times. Qursavi, Nasiri, and their followers questioned the authority of traditional Islamic theology and argued for creative reinterpretation through recourse to the original scriptural sources of Islam. This religious conception of reform was connected to developments in the wider Muslim world through networks of education and travel. By the turn of the twentieth century, Tatar scholars such as Musa Jarullah Bigi, Alimjan Barudi, and Rizaetdin Fakhretdin were prominent well beyond the boundaries of the Russian empire.

A different form of reform arose around the reform of Muslim education. Its initial constituency was the urban mercantile population of the Volga region and the Crimea, and its origins are connected with the tireless efforts of the Crimean Tatar noble Ismail Bey Gaspirali (18511914). Gaspirali had been educated at a military academy but became involved in education early on in his career. Muslims, he felt, lacked many skills important to full participation in the mainstream of imperial life. The fault lay with the maktab, which not only did not inculcate useful knowledge, such as arithmetic, geography, or Russian, but failed, moreover, in the task of equipping students with basic literacy or even a proper understanding of Islam itself. Gaspirali articulated a modernist critique of the maktab, emanating from a new understanding of the purposes of elementary education. The solution was a new method (usul-i jadid ) of education, in which children were taught the Arabic alphabet using the phonetic method of instruction and the elementary school was to have a standardized curriculum encompassing composition, arithmetic, history, hygiene, and Russian. Gaspirali's method found acceptance among the Muslim communities of the Crimea, the Volga, and Siberia, and eventually appeared in all parts of the Russian empire inhabited by Muslims. New-method schools quickly became the flagship of a multifaceted movement of cultural reform, which came to be called "Jadidism" after them.

Jadidism was an unabashedly modernist discourse of cultural reform directed at Muslim society itself. Its basic themes were enlightenment,

progress, and the awakening of the nation, so that the latter could take its own place in the modern, civilized world. Given the lack of political sovereignty, however, it was up to society to lift itself up by its bootstraps through education and disciplined effort. Jadid rhetoric was usually sharply critical of the present state of Muslim society, which the Jadids contrasted unfavorably to a glorious past of their own society and the present of the civilized countries of Europe. The single most important term in the Jadid lexicon was taraqqi, progress. Progress and civilization were universal phenomena for the Jadids, accessible to all societies on the sole condition of disciplined effort and enlightenment. There was nothing in Islam that prevented Muslims from joining the modern world; indeed, the Jadids argued that only a modern person equipped with knowledge "according to the needs of the age" could be a good Muslim. In this, Jadidism differed sharply from other currents of reform among the ulama. The debate between the Jadids and their traditionalist opponents was the defining feature of the last decades of the Tsarist period.

In Central Asia, the distinct social and political context imparted Jadidism a distinct flavor. The ulama retained much greater influence in Central Asia, while the new mercantile class was weaker. Central Asian Jadids, therefore, tended to be more strongly rooted in Islamic education than their counterparts elsewhere. Nevertheless, they faced resolute opposition from within their own society, as well as from a Russian state always suspicious of unofficial initiatives.

the "muslim question" in late imperial politics

For the Jadids, the nation was an integral part of modernity, and they set out to define the parameters of their nation. The new identity was not foreordained, however, for the nation could be defined along any of several different axes of solidarity. For some, all Muslims of the Russian empire constituted a single national community. Gaspirali argued that the Muslims needed "unity in language, thought, and deeds," and his newspaper sought to show this through example. In 1905 a number of Tatar and Azerbaijani activists organized an All-Russian conference for Muslim representatives to work out a common plan of action. The conference established the Ittifaq-i Müslimin (Union of Muslims) as a quasi-political organization. Delegates resolved to work for greater political, religious, and cultural rights for their constituency. During the elections to the Duma, the Ittifaq aligned itself with the Kadets. Two further conferences were held in 1905 and 1906, but Muslim political activity was curbed after the Stolypin coup of 1907, which reduced the representation of Muslims and denied the Ittifaq permission to register a political party.

Muslim unity was threatened by regional and ethnic solidarities. The discovery of romantic notions of identity by the Jadids led them to articulate the identity of their community along ethnonational lines. Here too, visions of a broad Turkic unity coexisted with narrower forms of identity, such as Tatar or Kazakh. The appeal of local ethnic identities proved too strong for broader Islamic or Turkic identities to surmount. This was the case in 1917, when the All-Russian Muslim movement was briefly resurrected and Tatar leaders organized a conference in Moscow to discuss a common political strategy for Muslims. Divisions between representatives from different regions quickly appeared, and the various groups of Muslims went their separate ways.

Although Muslim activists continually professed their loyalty to the state, their activity aroused suspicion both in the state and among the Russian public, which construed it as pan-Islamism and connected it with alleged Ottoman intrigues to destabilize the Russian state. The rise of ethnic self-awareness was likewise seen as pan-Turkism and also connected to outside influences. Russian administrators had hoped that enlightenment would be the antidote to fanaticism. Now the fear of pan-Islamism and pan-Turkism, both articulated by modern-educated Muslims, led to a reappraisal. The fanaticism of modernist Islam was deemed much more dangerous than that of the traditional Islam, since it led to political demands. This perception led the state to intensify its support for traditional Islam.

the soviet period

The Russian revolution utterly transformed the political and social landscape in which Islam existed in the Russian empire. The new regime was radically different from its predecessor in that it actively sought to intervene in society and to reshape not just the economy, but also the cultures of its citizens. It was hostile to religion, perceiving it as both an alternate source of loyalty and a form of cultural backwardness. As policies regarding Soviet nationalities emerged in the 1920s, the struggle for progress acquired a prominent role, especially among nationalities deemed backward (and all Muslim groups were so classified). Campaigns for cultural revolution began with the reform of education, language, and the position of women, but quickly extended to religion. The antireligious campaign eventually led to the closure of large numbers of mosques (many were destroyed, others given over to "more socially productive" uses, such as youth clubs, museums of atheism, or warehouses). Waqf properties were confiscated, madrasas closed, and large numbers of ulama arrested and deported to labor camps or executed. The only Muslim institution to survive was the spiritual assembly, now stationed in Ufa.

The campaign was effective in its destructiveness. Islam did not disappear, but the infrastructure which reproduced Islamic religious and cultural knowledge was badly damaged and links with the outside Muslim world cut off. Islam was forced into isolation. The most important consequence of this isolation was that "Islam" was rendered synonymous with "tradition". Official channels of socialization, such as the school system and the army, which reached very deep into society, were not just secular, but atheistic. With maktabs and madrasas abolished, the ranks of the carriers of Islamic knowledge denuded, and continuity with the past made difficult by changes in script, religious knowledge was vastly circumscribed and the site of its reproduction pushed into private or covert realms. The public sphere were stripped of all references to Islam.

During World War II, as the state's hostility to religion abated briefly, it sought to permit limited practice of religion under close supervision. To this end, it created three new Muslim spiritual administrations in addition to the one at Ufa to oversee the practice of Islam. Of the four, the one based in Tashkent and responsible for Central Asia soon emerged as the most significant. The spiritual assemblies had to tread a thin line between satisfying the requirements of the state and ensuring a space in which Islamic institutions could exist officially. A great deal of religious activity existed beyond the control of the assemblies, but it was at home in a specifically Soviet context. Islam in the postwar decades was subordinated to powerful national identities formed for the most part in the Soviet period. Islam and its rituals were celebrated as part of one's national heritage even as Islamic knowledge shrunk greatly.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Islam has become more prominent in public life as Muslims have engaged in a recovery of their national and cultural heritage. Mosques have been reopened or rebuilt and contacts with Muslims abroad established, and a there has been a general increase in personal piety. Nevertheless, the Soviet-era connections between Islam and national heritage remain intact, and as post-Soviet regimes undertake nation-building, Islam retains its strong cultural definitions.

See also: central asia; gaspirali, ismail bey; golden horde; nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist; religion


Bennigsen, Alexandre, and S. Enders Wimbush. (1979). Muslim National Communism: a Revolutionary Strategy for the Colonial World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Carrère d'Encausse, Hélène. (1988). Islam and the Russian Empire: Reform and Revolution in Central Asia, tr. Quintin Hoare. Berkeley: University of California Press.

DeWeese, Devin. (1995). Islamization and Native Religion in the Golden Horde: Baba Tükles and Conversion to Islam in Historical and Epic Tradition. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Frank, Alan J. (1998). Islamic Historiography and "Bulghar" Identity among the Tatars and Bashkirs of Russia. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill.

Frank, Alan J. (2001). Muslim Institutions in Imperial Russia: The Islamic World of Novouznesensk District and the Kazakh Inner Horde, 17801920. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill.

Gammer, Moshe. (1994). Muslim Resistance to the Tsar: Shamil and the Conquest of Chechnia and Daghestan. London: Frank Cass.

Geraci, Robert. (2001). Window on the East: National and Imperial Identities in Late Imperial Russia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Kamp, Marianne R. (1998). "Unveiling Uzbek Women: Liberation, Representation, and Discourse, 19061929." Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago.

Kappeler, Andreas. (1992). "Czarist Policy Toward the Muslims of the Russian Empire." In Muslim Communities Reemerge: Historical Perspectives on Nationality, Politics, and Opposition in the Former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, ed. Andreas Kappeler et al. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Keller, Shoshana. (2000). To Moscow, not Mecca: Soviet Campaigns against Islam in Central Asia, 19171941. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Khalid, Adeeb. (1998). The Politics of Muslim Cultural Reform: Jadidism in Central Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Khalid, Adeeb. (2000). "Society and Politics in Bukhara, 18681920." Central Asian Survey 19: 367396.

Ro'i, Yaacov. (2000). Islam in the Soviet Union: From the Second World War to Gorbachev. New York: Columbia University Press.

Steinwedel, Charles. (1999). "Invisible Threads of Empire: State, Religion, and Ethnicity in Tsarist Bashkiria, 17731917." Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, New York.

Swietochowski, Tadeusz. (1995). Russia and Azerbaijan: A Borderland in Transition. New York: Columbia University Press.

Adeeb Khalid

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

KHALID, ADEEB. "Islam." Encyclopedia of Russian History. 2004. 30 May. 2016 <>.

KHALID, ADEEB. "Islam." Encyclopedia of Russian History. 2004. (May 30, 2016).

KHALID, ADEEB. "Islam." Encyclopedia of Russian History. 2004. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from



Islam is an Arabic word meaning "surrender" or "submission." It is a faith that encompasses approximately one-fifth of humanity. Its adherents reside in almost every country of the world and comprise majorities in large segments of Africa, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, and Asia. Approximately 6 million Americans follow Islam.

The Origins of Islam

The historical origins of Islam date back to seventh century Arabia. The Prophet Muhammad, an aristocratic Arabian born and raised an orphan in the sanctuary city of Mecca, experienced a revelation in his fortieth year. He began to preach to his own people, most of whom initially persecuted him. After thirteen years of suffering with patience and endurance, he migrated to the nearby city of Medina. For over twenty-three years, beginning in 610 c.e., the Prophet orally transmitted the Quran (Koran). Muslims believe the Quran was revealed from God through the archangel Gabriel. In it, a cosmology, a theology, and an elaborate eschatology are described. By the end of the Prophet's life in 632 C.E., almost the entire Arabian Peninsula had converted from paganism to Islam, and within a hundred years, its followers stretched from France to China.

Although considered the youngest of the three great Abrahamic faiths that include Judaism and Christianity, Islam does not view itself as a new religion but rather as a reformed Abrahamic faith. Muslims believe that the Quran corrects distortions of previous prophetic dispensations while not departing from the aboriginal faith of humanity, which according to the Muslims is Islam, or sub-mission to one God. While Muslims believe all prophets have taught the unity of God and that their beliefs about God were the same, their actual practices have changed to suit various times and places. According to Muslims, this is why religions tend to differ outwardly, while retaining an essential inward truth common to them all. However, the Quran declares its message as uniquely universal applying to all people for all remaining time.

Basic Beliefs of Muslims

Islam is based upon five "pillars" that represent the bedrock upon which all else is based. The first pillar, which makes one a Muslim, is called the shahadah, meaning, "testimony" or "witnessing." It is fulfilled by declaring to two witnesses the foundational creed of Islam: "Ashhadu an la ilaha illa Allah wa anna Muhammadan rasulullah. " This means, "I witness that there is nothing worthy of worship except God and that Muhammad is God's messenger." The first part of the testimony is a belief that God is unique with no partners. Thus, nothing in creation can be associated with God, as creation has no real substantiation without the sustaining power of God. Indeed, creation is not God nor does it have any eternal qualities of the divine that are worthy of worship. Rather, creation is a theater of divine manifestations. Creation is seen as a place where analogies of the divine reveal themselves. The intellect of a person is the vehicle given by God to discern this truth about creation as indicated by several verses in the Quran.

The second part of the declaration, Muhammad is the messenger of God, acknowledges the means through which this understanding of God has come. All prophets are special human beings capable of refracting divine light, acting like prisms that allow others to see it. The intensity of direct divine light is something only a prophet can bear. Muslims believe that the revelation given to Muhammad is like refracted green light, which lies in the middle of the light spectrum. Muslims consider Islam to be the most balanced of the prophetic dispensations, the "middle way." The Prophet Muhammad's life is considered to be moderate and exemplary for both men and women. He abhorred extremes saying, "Beware of extremism in your religion." After the Quran, the Prophet's practice, or Sunnah, is the second most important authority in Islam.

The second pillar of Islam is prayer. While people may supplicate anytime they wish to do so, there is a specific prayer every adult Muslim, female and male, is obliged to perform five times a day. The times are determined by the perceived movement of the sun as a way of reminding people of the temporal nature of the world. Thus, each day is considered to be a microcosm of one's own life: the dawn prayer as one's coming into the world, the midday prayer as the end of youth, the afternoon prayer as old age, the sunset prayer as death, and the evening prayer as the beginning of the descent into the darkness of the grave and returning to the dawn prayer as the awakening and resurrection of the dead. After the testimony of faith, prayer is considered the most important pillar.

The third pillar of Islam is paying zakah, an obligatory alms given once every lunar year from the standing capital of every responsible adult. It is not an income tax, as income tax is prohibited in Islamic law, but rather a capital tax on wealth that has been stagnate for at least a year. It is one-fortieth of a person's liquid assets. According to the Quran, zakah is distributed among eight categories of people, the two most important recipients being the poor and the needy.

The fourth pillar is fasting the entire lunar month of Ramadan, and it begins with the sighting of the new crescent for that month. Fasting entails abstaining from food, drink, and sexual relations from dawn to sunset and is obligatory on adults healthy enough to do so.

The fifth pillar is the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. Muslims believe Mecca to be the site of the first house of worship built by the Prophet Adam and his wife Eve and then restored millennia later by the Prophet Abraham and his son, the Prophet Ishmael. At the end of his mission, the Prophet Muhammad restored its monotheistic purpose by destroying the 365 idols in it that the Arabs had been worshiping prior to Islam. The rituals performed in the pilgrimage follow the footsteps of Abraham and his second wife Hagar. The Hajj culminates on a vast desert plain where approximately 3 million pilgrims from almost every country on Earth gather every year and prepare for standing before God on the Day of Judgment.

Customs and Practices of Muslims

Due to the broad cultural diversity in the Muslim world, Islam is a quilt of many colors rather than a monolithic faith etched in stone. The majority of Muslims have never considered Islam to be "straight and narrow" but rather "straight and broad." The word in Arabic for the sacred law of Islam, shariah, literally means "the broad path to water." The shariah, rather than being a rigid and inflexible law, is governed by a fluid and elastic set of principles, and Muslim legal theorists consider it rationally comprehensible and thus capable of being altered when the rationale is absent or the circumstances warrant.

Most Muslim cultures manifest their own characteristics. For instance, the Islam of Indonesia, while essentially the same in its skeletal form, is quite different culturally from the Islam of Senegal. Muslims are required to wear modest clothes, and women are required to cover their hair and entire body except for the hands and face when in the presence of unrelated males. However, the bright colors of the women of Nigeria contrast sharply with the moribund black of the Arabian Peninsulaboth are considered acceptable. Food and merrymaking also differ greatly, and Muslims, like other peoples, have diverse ways of enjoying themselves and appreciating the milestones of life such as weddings, births, graduations, and religious holidays. Religious music and chanting are widespread in the Muslim world, and Quran reciters with beautiful voices have statuses in some Muslim countries.

Living and Dying in Islam

The German philosopher Goethe wrote, "If Islam means submission to the will of God, then in Islam we all live and die." This succinctly summarizes the goal of Muslims: To live and die in accordance with God's will as revealed in the Quran and practiced by the Prophet. Muslims attempt to adjust their view of the world with the lens of the Quran. The will of God is expressed in the Quran through both expectations and examples. The expectations are usually descriptions of how a believer should live his or her life, and various stories in the Quran provide positive and negative examples. The epitome of a positive exemplar is Moses, whose story is dealt with in great detail in the Quran. Struggle is at the root of life on earth, a spiritual survival of the fittest. The fittest are those closest to God; they are those who are "steadfast in prayer and spend out of what We have provided for them" (Quran 2:3; Ali 1999, p. 17). The negative prototype is embodied in Pharaoh, who elevates himself above God's law and makes his own law the only source of guidance. Moses is given the Promised Land for his perseverance and steadfastness, and Pharaoh is destroyed by his own hubris and rebellion against the divine will. The story of Moses is an example of submission (Islam), and Pharaoh's is of rebellion and infidelity (kufr ). Between these two lies the struggle of humanity.

Life is meant to be an arena whereby one struggles with good and evil. The Quran teaches that good and evil exist in the heart of every individual as well as in the society. The individual struggle is to act righteously in accordance with the Quran and prophetic example, and to shun one's own evil and its impulses. The collective struggle is to work with others to make the world a more righteous place. In Arabic, this inward and outward struggle is called jihad. While it can mean a militant struggle against those who attack the Muslim lands, it also signifies a person's struggle with the lower tendencies of the soul, the gravitational pull of self-destructive forces that lead to alienation from God and a state of spiritual disequilibrium. Because humans inevitably fall short morally and succumb to these destructive tendencies from time to time, a means of reestablishing spiritual balance is given, called tauba or atonement. This is done by experiencing a genuine sense of remorse for one's transgressions and a removal of the unhealthy effects of that state by turning to God and seeking divine grace through prayer, charity, and a sincere resolution not to return to the destructive patterns of the past.

While life is seen as a spiritual test and journey, it is also seen as being filled with blessings from God to be enjoyed: "Eat and drink, but waste not by excess, for Allah loveth not the wasters. Say: 'Who hath forbidden the beautiful (gifts) of Allah which He hath produced for His servants, and the things, clean and pure, (which He hath provided) for sustenance?" (Quran, p. 352). Thus, in Islam, marriage is highly recommended and celibacy is frowned upon. The Muslim savants of the past identified sexual relations between a wife and her husband as a foretaste of eternal bliss with God in the afterlife. The Prophet Muhammad encouraged marriage and stated, "There is no monasticism in Islam." In Islam, children are highly esteemed and seen as one of God's greatest blessings to humanity. The Prophet stated that humans were born innocent and later corrupted by their societies. Thus, parents are held responsible for maintaining that state of innocence and raising them with a sense of love and awe of the divine. Motherhood is highly regarded in the Quran and the prophetic tradition. The Prophet said, "Paradise lies at the feet of mothers." In most Muslim societies, adult women are still predominantly mothers and housewives during their productive years.

Death and Its Relevance to Muslims

Death is a question of ultimate concern for every human being, and Islam has a very vivid portrayal of the stages of death and the afterlife. Death is likened to sleep in Islam; interestingly, sleep in Arabic is called "the little brother of death." The Prophet spoke often of death, and the Quran is filled with warnings of the dangers of ignoring one's mortality and of not preparing for death before it is too late. In one poignant passage, the Quran reads,

And spend something (in charity) out of the substance which We have bestowed on you before death should come to any of you and he should say, "O my Lord! Why didst Thou not give me respite for a little while? I should then have given (largely) in charity, and I should have been one of the doers of good." But to no soul will Allah grant respite when the time appointed (for it) has come; and Allah is well-acquainted with (all) that ye do. (Quran, pp. 14731474)

Hence, the world is seen as an opportunity to cultivate for the hereafter, and time is seen as capital that human beings either invest wisely or squander, only to find themselves bankrupt in the next life. Muhammad said, "One of you says, 'My wealth! My wealth!' Indeed, have any of you anything other than your food that you eat and consume, your clothes that you wear out, and your wealth that you give in charity which thus increases in return in the next world?"

The idea of mentioning death and reflecting on death is very important in a Muslim's daily life, and attending any Muslim's funeral, whether known or not, is highly encouraged; for such attendance, one is rewarded greatly by God. Muhammad advised, "Make much mention of the destroyer of delights," which is death. He also said, "Introduce into your gatherings some mention of death to keep things in perspective." This is not seen as a morbid exercise, and Muslims surprisingly accept death, resigned to what is called "one's appointed time" (ajal ). Like the telemere in biology that dictates how many times a cell may regenerate before dying, an individual's appointed term, according to Islam, is inescapable and fated. When a Muslim survives a near-death experience, such as a serious car accident, an operation, or an illness, he or she will often remark, "My appointed time did not come yet."

After Death

Once a Muslim dies, the people left behind must prepare the body by washing, perfuming, and shrouding it. The funeral prayer is then performed, and the deceased is buried in a graveyard without a coffin, simply laid in the earth and covered. A person, usually a relative, informs the deceased of what is happening, as Muslims believe that the deceased can hear and understand what is being said. Muslims believe the dead person is not always aware of the transition, and so the one giving instructions informs the deceased that he or she has died, is being laid in the grave, and that two angels known as Munkar and Nakir will soon come into the grave to ask three questions. To the first question, "Who is your Lord?," the deceased is instructed to reply, "Allah." In answer to the second question, "Who is your Prophet?," the deceased should say, "Muhammad," and the correct response to the third question, "What is your religion?," is "Islam." If the individual passes this first phase of the afterlife, the experience of the grave is pleasant, and he or she is given glimpses of the pleasures of paradise. If however, the deceased does not pass this phase, then the grave is the first stage of chastisement.

After this, the soul sleeps and does not awake until a blast from an angel at God's command. According to Islamic tradition, this blast signals the end of the world and kills any remaining souls on the earth. It is followed by a second blast that causes all of the souls to be resurrected. At this point, humanity is raised up and assembled on a plain. The Quran states, "On that day We shall leave them to surge like waves on one another; the trumpet will be blown, and We shall collect them all together" (Quran, p. 735). From there, humanity will beg each of the prophets to intercede for them and hasten the Day of Judgment because the waiting is so terrible, but the prophets will refuse. Finally, all of humanity goes to the Prophet Muhammad. He will agree to intercede for them and ask that the Judgment commence. This intercession is granted to him alone. Then, each soul is judged based upon its beliefs and actions, which are weighed in the scales of divine justice. At this point, the two guardian angels assigned to all people throughout their adult lives will testify for or against them. According to the Quran, the limbs of each person will testify, and the earth herself is resurrected and bears witness against those who caused her harm. Next, a person will be given a book either in the right or left hand. For those given a book in the right hand, they pass the Judgment and are given the grace of God. For those given a book in their left hand, they fail the Judgment and are condemned to hell. However, at this point, prophets and other righteous people are allowed to intercede for their relatives, followers, or friends among the condemned, and their intercession is accepted.

Once the Day of Judgment is over, humanity proceeds to a bridge known as the sirat, which crosses over hell. The saved cross it safely to the other side and are greeted by their respective prophets. The Muslims who make it safely across are greeted by Muhammad, who will take them to a great pool and give them a drink that will quench their thirst forever. The condemned fall into hell. The Quran states that some will only spend a brief time there, while others, the unrepenting and idolatrous ingrates, are condemned forever. Muslims see death as a transition to the other side. Islam is seen as the vehicle that will take one safely there. It is only in paradise that the believer finds ultimate peace and happiness.

Common Misconceptions about Islam

Perhaps the most common misunderstanding about Islam is its attitude toward women. In light of modern sensibilities, Islam, as practiced by most Muslims, does retain some pre-modern attitudes. Much of this is cultural; however, some is not. For example, although the home is generally considered the best place for a woman, Islam does not prohibit a woman from a career in the outside world. In fact, many early Muslim women including the Prophet's wife, Khadija, were scholars and merchants. While Islamic law does legislate some differences between men and women, they are few in number. The majority of practicing Muslim women do not view them as demeaning because a woman is considered equal to a man before God. The Quran clearly states, "Whoever works righteousness, man or woman, and has faith, verily to him will We give a new life, and life that is good and pure, and We will bestow on such their reward according to the best of their actions" (Quran, p. 663).

Another aspect of Islam that tends to spark interest is the idea of Jihad, or holy war. Some people think Islam condones violence and even terrorism. In reality, Islam rarely permits Muslims to use coercive force and does so only for reasons such as self-defense. Moreover, with the exception of self-defense, only legitimate state authority can exercise coercive force. Although there is a religious duty to fight to defend the lands of Islam, strict rules of engagement apply. The Prophet specifically prohibited the killing of religious people, old people, as well as women and children. Later, Muslim legal theorists included any noncombatants in this prohibition. Sadly, like other religions, Islam has violent fanatics and extremists who justify their crimes by distorting Quranic verses and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad for heinous ends.

Muslims are a racially diverse community, the majority of which are non-Arab. Although Islam began in Arabia, Arabs comprise less than 15 percent of Muslims. The largest Muslim population is in Indonesia, and the second largest is in Bangladesh. There are estimated to be over 60 million Muslims in modern China. Largely due to high birthrates in the traditional Islamic world, Islam is considered to be the fastest growing religion in the twenty-first century. In 2000 it was the third largest religion in the United States and is expected to be the second after Christianity.

See also: African Religions; Buddhism; Chinese Beliefs; Hinduism; Zoroastrianism


al-Ghazali. On Disciplining the Soul and On Breaking the Two Desires, translated by Timothy J. Winter. Cambridge, England: Islamic Texts Society, 1995.

al-Ghazali. The Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife, translated by Timothy J. Winter. Cambridge, England: Islamic Texts Society, 1995.

al-Nawawi, Yahya ibn Sharaf. Al-Maqasid: Imam Nawawi's Manual of Islam, translated by Nuh Ha Mim Keller. Evanston, IL: Sunna Books, 1994.

al-Sadlaan, Saalih ibn Ghaanim. Words of Remembrance and Words of Reminder: Encompassing Important Dhikr and Important Islamic Behavior, translated by Jamaal al-Din Zarabozo. Boulder, CO: Al-Basheer Company for Publications and Translations, 1998.

al-Shabrawi, Shaykh Abd Al-Khaliq. The Degrees of the Soul, translated by Mostafa Al-Badawi. London: The Quilliam Press, 1997.

as-Sulami, Abu Abd Ar-Rahman. Early Sufi Women, translated by Rkia Elaroui Cornell. Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 2000.

Chittick, William. The Vision of Islam. New York: Paragon House, 1994.

Friedlander, Shems, and Al-Hajj Shaikh Muzaffereddin. Ninety-Nine Names of Allah. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1978.

Glasse, Cyril. The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam. London: Stacey International, 1989.

Helminski, Kabir. The Knowing Heart: A Sufi Path of Transformation. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1999.

Lings, Martin. Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources. Rochester, NY: Inner Traditions International, 1983.

Smith, Huston. The World's Religions: A Guide to Our Wisdom Traditions. San Francisco: Harper, 1994.

Stork, Mokhtar. AZ Guide to the Quran: A Must-Have Reference to Understanding the Contents of the Islamic Holy Book. Singapore: Times Books International, 1999.


Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

HANSON, HAMZA YUSUF. "Islam." Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. 2003. 30 May. 2016 <>.

HANSON, HAMZA YUSUF. "Islam." Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. 2003. (May 30, 2016).

HANSON, HAMZA YUSUF. "Islam." Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. 2003. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from

Islam and the body

Islam and the body As was the case in other pre-modern societies, the peoples of the Middle East conceived of the body in various ways, reflected in both popular perceptions and the formulations of formal intellectual disciplines. In early Islamic times, in the seventh to ninth centuries, Muslims displayed far more systematic interest in the body in religious and legal terms than in strictly medical affairs, and by the time a formal medical tradition began to emerge in Iraq, in the mid ninth century, there was already a copious literature on the subject in the religious sciences of Islam. This material continued to be extremely influential throughout Islamic history and remains so today.

Religious views of the body

The scholars who formulated the religious thought of Islam had definite views on the body. In some respects these views were also shared by Christians and Jews, but for Muslims the agenda was to uphold a strict and pristine monotheism that they considered the older faiths of Judaism and Christianity to have abandoned.

Where the body was concerned, the central argument was teleological. All things come from God, including the human body, which must therefore reflect God's merciful and beneficent plan for mankind. If this is so, then the body must reflect a principle of harmony and order in keeping with the unity and omnipotence of its author. The human body, it was maintained, works in harmony for the sake of the whole: fingers, for example, do not exist for their own sake, but for the sake of the whole body, which benefits from the grasping and manipulative functions that fingers perform. Some parts of the body, it is true, are not essential to life — blindness is a disability, for example, but one suffering from it can still lead a fulfilling life. But nothing in Creation can be superfluous, not even barren deserts or seas full of salt water, otherwise God would be either a trifler or a faulty planner and orderer of His creation, both of which conclusions were of course impossible in a monotheistic context. Thus nothing in the body is useless; all parts have a function that can be related to the functions of other parts. This notion — the so-called ‘argument from design’ — was of course already prominent in the traditions of peoples of the past. The Old Testament contains many examples of this, and in Greek medical thinking the idea is prominent in the works of the Hellenistic physician Galen 129–216 ad. But Islam promoted it in a major way, and his deployment of the argument from design, with a major role for the demiurge, was undoubtedly one factor that made Galen very attractive in the heyday of the translation movement (ninth to tenth century), when Greek texts were being rendered into Arabic as much for their disputational and didactic utility as for their medical content.

Islamic views of the body were also shaped by the fact that Islam, in contrast to Christianity, had no doctrine of original sin. The Qur'an states explicitly that all souls are Muslims from the moment of Creation — it is errant upbringing in human society that turns them to other religions. The God–man relationship is therefore an essentially positive one; man is fickle, weak, and unmindful and forgetful of his duty to God, but he is not encumbered by the burden of the sin of Adam.

The implications of such formulations for notions of the body were significant. Islamic social sensibilities and law have always placed heavy emphasis on the ritual purity (tahara) of the body and its preservation from pollution. A Muslim's preparations for prayer always include ritual washing, and the pristine state thus produced remains only so long as one avoids contact with ritually unclean things, such as blood, urine, faeces, semen, and unclean animals. On the other hand, illness in Islam does not imply sinfulness on the part of the sufferer, nor disapproval of him by God; on the contrary, the Qur'an repeatedly states that in the sick, the blind, the lame, and the weak ‘there is no fault’, and recommends visitation to those who are ill. In extreme cases, such as death from plague or in childbirth, sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad state that the victim's suffering earns him or her God's mercy and direct entry into Paradise. Law and society in the Islamic world have traditionally adopted an essentially lenient and compassionate attitude toward the ill. The madman, for example, was not held accountable for his actions since he was not in control of them, and the ill were excused from religious requirements, such as fasting during the month of Ramadan and attendance at Friday prayers. In most cases (leprosy being a notorious exception) physical illness did not result in ostracism from society, and the scenes that still appear in Mecca and Medina every year, when the pilgrims rally around the infirm and the elderly to assist them in their performance of the various rites of the pilgrimage, illustrate the extent to which medical disadvantage could make one a focus of communal solicitude.

A similar solicitude was also extended to children. Childhood was recognized as a period of growth and maturation distinct from adulthood, the transition to the latter for the most part being identified in and recognized through physical changes in the body. The Qur'an specified when a child should be weaned, and children seized as captives in war were not to be taken away unless they were a certain height (‘five spans of the hand’ was the measure most commonly cited). Children were expected gradually to assume more of the responsibilities of adulthood, such as attendance at prayers, but until sexual maturity they were not held legally or morally accountable for them. Once able to father or give birth to children, however, one became a full member of adult society and was responsible for his or her actions. Daughters were married off at a young age, based on the precedent of Aisha, who as tradition had it had been married to the Prophet Muhammad at the age of 9 (though it was apparently rare for girls to enter a consummated marriage at this age). Young men were regarded as adults at the age of 15 (made the ‘standard’ age for maturity already in early Islamic times), and it was not uncommon for youths to rise to great power: the author of the early Islamic conquests in India, for example, was Muhammad ibn al-Qasim (d. c.717), who personally led and directed the campaigns at the age of 17.

If Islamic law and social norms allowed the adult man instant and almost unlimited leeway for advancement, it also held him entirely responsible for the actions of his body. This was often enforced in a most particularist fashion. The canonical punishment for theft was amputation of a hand, for example, and the utterer of blasphemy could have his tongue cut out. The bodies of executed criminals were often subjected to further humiliation through public display of their remains, or dispatch of heads to the offended ruler, often with public processions along the way. Fire was believed to consume the soul as well as the body, and was in any case a punishment normally reserved for God to inflict through condemnation to Hell; but in extreme cases rebels and heretics were burned alive for their transgressions, the ultimate crimes being punishable by the ultimate act of destruction that could be visited upon the body.

There have at times been major trends toward the renunciation of the body. Extreme asceticism has never found particular favour in Islam, but various mystical and ascetic movements have viewed the body as a vehicle for the function of the senses and appreciation of the pleasures of the physical world, and hence as distractive of man's attention from God. A wide variety of trends collectively referred to as Sufism thus arose to address the problem of how this distraction might be suppressed or removed. Answers ranged from collective meditations and devotions in groups, sometimes involving swaying or whirling of the body, to extremely austere seclusion away from human society. A special sanctity often attached to religious hermits and saintly ascetics, who were revered for their piety and sought out for the healing abilities of the blessed power (baraka) attributed to them.

Social background

The religious manifestations of concern for the physically disadvantaged (children, the old, the ill, the insane, and so forth) are related in important ways to social considerations. Among the most important of these is the central role of the extended family, which is extremely solicitous of the welfare and reputation of its members. In time of illness, it closes around the sufferer for support and encouragement: an ill person is a family responsibility and concern, and to fail to offer assistance in any way possible would be to fail in a central obligation of kinship and call into question the honour and reputation of the family as a whole. It comes as no surprise to find that, in the medieval Islamic world, deathbed scenes and accounts of the demise of known individuals never took place in a hospital, which seems primarily to have been the recourse of those without family to attend to them — travellers, visiting merchants, and the poor. In modern times the same attitude can be seen in the generally negative attitude toward placement of the elderly in retirement and old-folk's homes. Threats to the body of the individual, in other words, comprise challenges to the body of the family.

The interplay between social and religious factors can be seen in the special status accorded in Islam to the dead. Death of the physical body called for specific rites of ritual purification involving washing and shrouding, and essentially inspired by references in the Qur'an to the ‘torment of the grave’, it was discussed whether or not a person can continue to feel pain after death. It was believed that on the Judgment Day the dead will be raised in their physical bodies, and in the condition in which they had passed from the physical world. A famous example is the tradition of the Prophet stating that those who die in the holy war (jihad) will appear before God still bearing their wounds, which will, however, smell as sweet as musk. A special problem was posed by the cases of those who had died in such a way that no physical body would remain to be called forth (e.g. a victim of a fire, or one drowned at sea and so presumably eaten by the fish). Like victims of plague or childbirth, these too were deemed to have won immediate entry to Paradise, thus precluding any need for a physical body for Judgment.

Such sensitivities over the dead, and considerations of what would occur after death, discouraged actions that involved the dismemberment of the body. Some were uneasy about amputations of limbs, even if necessary to save life, since one would still appear before God eventually, but bearing the proof of an earlier effort to escape His will. The mutilation of criminals certainly had this point in mind, and it is likely that it also discouraged an interest in autopsy or dissection of cadavers for medical purposes, which seems not to have been regarded by doctors as a source of useful information in any case.

There was also an important magical dimension to the body in Middle Eastern society. Continuing an age-old tradition of such beliefs, Muslims, Christians, and Jews all considered it a manifest fact that spirits of various kinds could and did interfere with human affairs and affect the body. Apart from the evil eye — a disembodied but willing malevolent power that could bring misfortune, once attracted to a victim by ostentatious good fortune or boasting, or by the jealousy or malice of others — there was a wide range of demons and spirits with which to contend. The most important of these were the jinn (sing jinni, hence the English ‘genie’), who, like man, were mortal beings and part of the physical world: human beings could benefit from their help or suffer from their mischief; see, talk with, and even intermarry with them, and outmanoeuvre and defeat them. Protection against such potential sources of harm was sought through sympathetic magic. Amulets or charms were calculated to defeat spirits in various ways, and were worn or kept on the body as protection. Illnesses in particular were regarded either as communicated to man by spirits, or as animate entities that could be tricked or compelled to leave the body.

Perceptions of the human body have also been profoundly influenced by a more general social attitude toward women which manifested itself at many other levels as well. As in other traditional societies, women have been regarded as weaker than and inferior to men, and are subject to male guardianship — either father, male relatives, or husband — at all times. A woman grew up under the authority of her father and moved to that of her husband upon marriage; if her father died she was subject to the supervision of her other male relatives, and if divorced she moved back to the home of her family or a male relative. A woman lived on her own only in the most extraordinary circumstances, and to choose to do so would have invited suspicion and gossip as to her moral character and would have brought her family into disrepute. Men enjoyed wide latitude in exercise of their authority over women, including beating (sanctioned in the Qur'an), but excesses and brutality were deemed reprehensible and in extreme cases comprised grounds for divorce.

The female body was primarily associated with childbearing; menarche marked the passage to full adult status, and society expected that as soon as she was able to do so a woman would marry and bear her husband's children. The role of motherhood was absolutely crucial. A barren wife was subject to summary divorce, and a woman who died a virgin was often considered a martyr since she had not fulfilled herself by bearing children.

As these examples indicate, the position of women was closely linked to that of sexuality in Islamic society. Intense sensitivities about nakedness and the honour of the individual and the family did not prevent the rise of a lively and often quite open attitude toward sexuality, at least among men. Sexual jokes and anecdotes, hilarious and often quite graphic, appeared in even very respectable literary texts, and sexual poetry was highly developed. Guides and advice manuals on sexual intercourse, many of them illustrated, were popular, and medical compendia routinely contained chapters advising on how to prolong or maintain erection, heighten sexual pleasure, and intensify orgasm. In general, the quest for sexual fulfillment lay within the purview of men, from whom vigorous sexual activity was anticipated as soon as maturity had been attained. Prostitutes, slaves, and concubines were all readily available; homoerotic experience was well known, and while they were frowned upon in some quarters as demeaning to one's manhood, no shame necessarily attached to homoerotic acts so long as one was the active partner. For women, however, sexual activity outside of marriage was entirely taboo, and much anxiety and effort was devoted by men to ensuring that the conduct of their womenfolk gave not the slightest grounds for suspicion. While there is no reason to believe that women were any less aware of their sexuality than men, overt interest in such matters by a woman was widely regarded as suggestive of promiscuous inclinations, and female circumcision — as opposed to male, which was performed for reasons of ritual purity — was often employed in efforts to curb sexual desires.

Developments in modern times

The Islamic views of the human body in social, religious, and legal terms prevailed in various forms until the nineteenth century. The steadily weakening situation of Islamic regimes throughout the Middle East, however, was highlighted by Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798, and Muslim rulers adopted varying degrees of Westernization in order to confront the threat of economic and political domination by Europe.

Views of the body have been no less subject to radical change than other aspects of traditional life. Western dress, beginning with military uniforms but spreading quickly to other areas, including the attire of women, has challenged centuries-old norms and sensitivities concerning the body. The sanctions of Islamic law and religious norms concerning the body have been undermined by modern law codes, and have been called into question more generally by endless exposure to Western values via media such as radio, film, television, and the press.

These challenges have never passed unanswered, and in the past twenty years particularly vigorous efforts have been made to revive traditional ways. Islamic dress, for example, has been promoted as an assertion of identity and a symbol of personal commitment to the faith, and in some countries Islamic law pertaining to the body — amputation of a hand as punishment for theft, for example — has been revived. Social and legal expectations of women have in some ways become more restrictive.

Informing all of these activities is a general awareness that the physical entity of the body is hedged about by, and ultimately is only meaningful in terms of, an enormous range of constructs defined, upheld, and promoted by the society in which one lives and to which one belongs. The current dialogue between Western and Islamic views of the body in the Middle East and the rest of the Islamic world, or wherever Muslims live as a community, essentially arises from a desire to benefit from Western advances in knowledge while still preserving the Islamic body both as an achievable reality and as a symbol of how the genuinely religious life should be lived.

Lawrence I. Conrad


Gil'adi, A. (1992). Children of Islam: concepts of childhood in medieval muslim society. Macmillan/St Antony's College, Oxford, Basingstoke.
Malti-Douglas, F. (1991). Woman's body, woman's word: gender and discourse in Arabo-Islamic Writing. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
Winter, M. (1995). Islamic attitudes toward the human body. In Religious reflections on the human body. (ed. J. M. Law). Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

See also Buddhism and the body; Christianity and the body; Islamic medicine; Hinduism and the body; Judaism and the body; religion and the body.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

COLIN BLAKEMORE and SHELIA JENNETT. "Islam and the body." The Oxford Companion to the Body. 2001. 30 May. 2016 <>.

COLIN BLAKEMORE and SHELIA JENNETT. "Islam and the body." The Oxford Companion to the Body. 2001. (May 30, 2016).

COLIN BLAKEMORE and SHELIA JENNETT. "Islam and the body." The Oxford Companion to the Body. 2001. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from



The religion of Islam is practiced by people from different ethnicities and nationalities throughout the world. People who adhere to the faith and practice of Islam are called Muslims. Traditional Muslims who practice as Sunnis and Shiites follow the teachings of the prophet Muhammad. From regions (e.g., North and Central Africa, Middle East) to various ethnic groups (e.g., Iranian, Egyptian, Malaysian), Islam encompasses vast multicultural groups of people (Al Faruqui 1978).

Background and Beliefs of Islam

The Islamic faith has served as the foundation for the moral and spiritual development of many generations of people. The word Islam literally means submission to Allah (Higab 1983). Islam is a monotheistic religion. Any person who makes a pledge to submit to Allah is referred to as a Muslim. Muslims display their Islamic beliefs through everyday practices, guided chiefly by the teachings in the Qur'an. The Qur'an is the holy book that serves as the blueprint for the life that Muslims believe Allah prescribed. The Qur'an, along with the Sunnah, and the Hadith, practices and traditions of the prophet Muhammed, provides guidance and direction for daily living. Each person is obliged to live his or her life in accordance with these traditions and practices (Al-Hali and Khan 1993). The Prophet Mohammed is believed to be the one true prophet who received the word of God in the seventh century as recorded in the sacred writings of the Qur'an. The religion of Islam has less formal structure than does Judaism or Christianity; there are no rabbis, priests, or ministers, for example. The imam of a mosque, the closest parallel to these roles, is considered to be more like a teacher than a leader or mediator. The other chief divergence between Islam and Judeo-Christian religions lies in the six articles of faith and the five pillars of Islam listed below. In addition to worshipping Allah (God), the practicing Muslim must pray five times a day, fast yearly during Ramadan, contribute to the poor, and make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in his or her lifetime. Due to the nature of these practices, Islam tends to be more visible, more daily, and more ritualized than other religions may appear to be (El-Amin 1991).

The Six Articles of Faith represent the necessary beliefs that undergird the religion of Islam. These beliefs support the core of Islamic faith. They are:

  1. Belief in the Oneness of God (Allah). This view stems from the belief that God is one being, and there are no other creators but God. Muslims believe in various prophets who were sent divine messages from God, but they worship only one God.
  2. Belief in the Holy Book. This concept pertains to Muslims' belief in the Holy Qur'an. This book serves as the blueprint for a way of life. Muslims believe that it contains all of the necessary elements for a productive life here on earth.
  3. Belief in the angels. This is the belief that angels are messengers sent from God. However, they should not be worshipped by humans and should only be viewed as messengers from God.
  4. Belief in the Prophet. Muslims believe that Muhammad was the last prophet sent by Allah. However, Muslims also believe that other persons such as Abraham and Jesus are prophets.
  5. Belief in the day of judgment. This stems from the Islamic belief that there is life after death and that one's actions as an earthly being shall be judged by the Creator (Allah).
  6. Belief in predestination. Muslims believe that Allah predestines one's life in reference to good versus evil.

The Five Pillars of Faith represent the fundamental practices necessary to incorporating Islam into a way of life. The five pillars are:

  1. Worship of Allah (God). This basic pillar incorporates the other four. To acknowledge Allah is to adhere to the messages sent to Muhammad as the Holy Word.
  2. Prayer. This pillar is viewed as one of the most fundamental practices of Islam. Muslims believe that praying five times a day serves as a daily vow of submission to Allah. Prior to prayer, cleansing is done (i.e., washing of hands/body) as a sign of purifying one's self in preparation for giving praise to Allah.
  3. Fasting. This Islamic principle serves as Muslims' vow of abstinence from food, drink, or sexual behavior for a period of time. This serves as a test of one's willingness to submit to Allah.
  4. Zakat. This principle refers to the donating of a portion of one's property/income to various areas of need within the Muslim community. These may include donations to the poor and maintenance of public facilities.
  5. Pilgrimage. When possible, this pillar is viewed as a sacred voyage back to the holy city of Mecca. It is believed that Mecca is the city where the Prophet Muhammad received his revelation from Allah. It is at this time when all Muslims can come together to pay homage to Allah.

Gender Relations

Relationships between men and women vary slightly by country of origin and governmental regulations but are nonetheless for all Muslims guided by Islamic law and practice, as specified in the Qur'an. The Qur'an sets the ideals that describe the relationship between men and women. It states, "[A]nd for women are rights over men similar to those of men over women" (2:226). This Surah (Qur'anic passage) supports the act of mutual submission of women and men to each other. The interpretation of this teaching varies. The independence and rights of women were originally supported by the prophet Muhammed, but Muslim scholars and governments have interpreted these rights in a variety of ways. History also notes that Muhammed began the practice of taking multiple wives and the obligatory veiling of women in public. Polygamy has fallen out of general practice and acceptance in most parts of the Muslim world but the obligatory veiling of women—called hijab— has remained. This veiling or hijab is practiced to some degree by virtually all Muslim women around the world. In some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, hijab is interpreted and regulated by the government as a total covering with black cloth of a woman's face, head, and body. In other countries, such as Iran, hijab is interpreted as a head covering with modest clothing to cover the body. The hijab is an identifying characteristic of Muslim women that renders them more visible in societies such as the United States, where head covering is not routinely practiced. Unfortunately, some Muslim women have experienced harassment or refusal of employment because of this visible requirement to cover their head or person.

Traditionally women and men are not free to date or intermingle, so the choice of a spouse is a more deliberate process. The vast majority of marriages are arranged marriages; that is, parents or guardians select appropriate mates for their offspring and bring them together for matrimony. The amount of choice and acceptance of these potential partners varies by culture and sometimes by class and educational status. Important characteristics in choosing a worthy mate are faith and chastity as demonstrated in this Surah (Qur'an 33:35): "For Muslim men and women, for believing men and women, for true men and women, for men and women who are patient and for men and women who guard their chastity, and for men and women who engage much in Allah's praise, for them has Allah prepared forgiveness and great reward."

As in most religions and cultures, marriage in Islam is a legal contract promoting love and harmony as well as procreation between a woman and a man (Higab 1983). This concept of commitment is strongly rooted in the Qur'an. The Qur'an gives a detailed account of the marital relationship and the responsibilities of each partner. Accordingly, it is stated that Allah believes that men and women are equal with no one person having precedence over the other. Nevertheless, it is believed that there are different functions of wives and husbands in regards to marriage. Note this Surah from the Qur'an (4:34): "Men are protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given them more physical strength than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore, righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in the husband's absence what Allah have them guard." Therefore, in Islam, the concept of marriage is viewed as a partnership with each person complementing the other (Lemu 1978). This means that the obedience required from Muslim women complements the role of the husband as the provider of the family. In other words, as long as the husband adheres to the proper Islamic teachings regarding his family, the woman's loyalty is supposed to be maintained.

Additionally, some basic fundamental ideas are recognized as central to a Muslim marriage (Sakr 1991). The family is recognized as the foundation of Islamic society. Husbands and wives are expected to produce offspring and maintain close relations with extended family members. Individuals are strongly encouraged to marry, and there is pressure on all single men and women to marry as soon as possible. Connected with this notion that Allah has established a mate for each individual. It is understood that these two persons should live together harmoniously in pursuit of a productive life. Premarital or extramarital sexual intercourse is prohibited. Men and women are expected to enter marriage in a virginal state and remain faithful. Marriage is regarded as an aspect of the Islamic faith that should be fulfilled with various benefits to the individuals involved (i.e., earthly and heavenly). Central is the custom that a groom provide a dowry (sum of money) to the bride or her family prior to marriage as a sign of commitment to the family. This dowry varies with cultures and traditions but is fairly universal in practice. Wives should expect to be supported by their husbands financially and are not expected to work outside of the home. In return, husbands can expect procreative and sexual access to their wives. When a couple marries, marriage should be publicized with a waleemah (reception) offered in celebration of the new marriage. Marriages should be celebrated publicly to announce to the world the beginning of a sacred commitment.

From an ecological perspective, Muslims believe that the marital dyad is crucial to the survival of the ecology of the family and the community. It is believed that these systems (i.e., family and community) are dependent upon the unity that is maintained in Muslim marriages (Sakr 1991). Additionally, the extended kinship established through marriage creates an even larger network that should enhance marital quality (Ninji 1993). Thus, the Islamic view of marriage identifies this institution as the central element of Muslim communities.

Family Relations

In addition to the responsibilities that men and women have in marriage, parenthood is central to Muslim identity and faith. As an Islamic parent, it is necessary to follow certain criteria when rearing children. These include maintaining an Islamic environment, especially in the home, and adhering to Islamic teachings regarding dress, diet, and prayer that are essential components of a household. The couple must educate the children with the understanding that Allah's teachings are the only acceptable principles for practicing a proper way of life. Providing religious education is the core responsibility of the parents. Often the father also takes on this more formally with older children, especially males. Parents must also serve as examples of the correct way of life according to Allah, and they must establish a sense of open communication among family members. The couple is expected to expose children to other Muslim families and children. This is especially important in countries in which Islam is only one of multiple practicing religions.

The role of motherhood is highly esteemed. Women as mothers are at the center of the family (Sherif 1999). The duties of motherhood are highly respected and considered a major responsibility and privilege of womanhood. Traditionally, the Muslim family is an extended rather than nuclear unit. The Qur'an supports respect for parents and elders and the necessary interdependence and mutual responsibility of young and old for the good of everyone. Extended family members offer guidance on childrearing and marriage and also provide support and mediation in times of need. Extended family participation and support is a welcome and common part of daily life.


Muslim individuals and families live around the world in many different countries and practice their faith in similar ways. Cultural variations such as type of dress and rituals for weddings may vary, but fundamentally Muslims are governed by the same principles found in the Qur'an. Of note is the fact that in the year 2000, the number of Muslims surpassed the number of Christians in the world. This may mean that Islam will be more visible in years to come in Western cultures. Insights and information about religions and practices can be a helpful way to facilitate more visibility and understanding.

See also:Afghanistan; Bedouin-Arab Families; Circumcision; Egypt; Ethnic Variation/Ethnicity; India; Indonesia; Interfaith Marriage; Iran; Israel; Kurdish Families; Kyrgyzstan; Malaysia; Religion; Senegal; Turkey


a-hali, t., and khan, m. (1993). interpretation of the meanings of the noble quar'an in the english language. kingdom of saudi arabia: maktaba dar-us-salam.

al faruqi, l. i. (1978). "an extended family model from the islamic culture." journal of comparative family studies 9:243–256.

cooper, m. h. (1993). "muslims in america." cq researcher april 30, 363–367.

el-amin, m. m. (1991). family roots: the quaranic view of family life. chicago: international ummah foundation.

higab, m. (1983). islam is the all-divine messages in one.lagos, nigeria: islamic publications bureau. lemu, aisha (1978). "women in islam." in the challenge of islam, ed. altaf gauher. london: islamic council of europe.

ninji, a. a. (1993). "the muslim family in north america:continuity and change." in ethnic families: strength in diversity, ed. h. p. mcadoo. newbury park, ca: sage.

sakr, a. h. (1991). matrimonial education in islam. chicago: foundation for islam knowledge.

sherif, b. (1999). "islamic family ideals and their relevance to american muslim families." in ethnic families: strength in diversity, ed. h. p. mcadoo. newbury park, ca: sage.

marsha t. carolan

monica mouton-sanders

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Islam." International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family. 2003. 30 May. 2016 <>.

"Islam." International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family. 2003. (May 30, 2016).

"Islam." International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family. 2003. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from



Any child of Muslim parents is considered a Muslim, and Islamic law contains precise and detailed provisions regarding children. Islam is the system of beliefs, rituals, and practices traced back to the Prophet Muhammad (c. 570632 c.e.), who reportedly started his mission in Arabia in 610 c.e. Islamic law is contained in the Muslim holy book, the Qur'an (or Koran), as revealed to Muhammad. The Qur'an contains 114 suras, or chapters, that were revealed to Muhammad over the course of twenty-three years. There are over one billion Muslims in the world, who inhabit forty predominantly Muslim countries and five continents, traversing a diverse geographical and cultural area. As Islam spread and established itself in these diverse areas, some of the many local cultures and customs became assimilated into Islamic practices. Thus, there may be slight variations on classical Islamic practices from country to country. There are also variations between the two major sects of Islam: the Sunnis and the Shi'is (also spelled Shiite ).

Islamic Law

Islamic life is determined by the Shari'a (the Way), which is Islamic law, although in the strict sense of the word it is much more than law, as it contains prescriptions for every aspect of life, ranging from rituals, customs, and manners to family lawincluding the treatment and rights of children. The primary source of the Shari'a is the Qur'an, which is considered to be the direct and unmediated word of God. Although there is only one Shari'a, there are slight differences in the constitution of the Shari'a amongst the Sunnis and Shi'is. These differences are due on the one hand to different interpretations of the Qur'anic text, known as tafsir (sing.), and on the other to legal interpretations, or fiqh (sing.), by the jurists. This exercise is known as science of the law (usulal-fiqh ).

According to the Sunni jurists, four principal sources (known as legal indicators) provide the basis for the Shari'a: the Qur'an (the word of God as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad); the Sunna of the Prophet (Muhammad's words, actions, and habits); ijma (consensus among Muslim jurists on a particular subject or the consensus of the Muslim community); and qiyas (reasoning by analogy), in which jurists develop new laws based on the Qur'an or the Sunna. The primary sources for the Shari'a used by the Shi'is are also the Qur'an and the Sunna of the Prophet, as well as the Sunna of the Imams, who are the descendants of the Prophet and who, for the Shi'is, also carry the spiritual mantle of the Prophet. The historical differences between Shi'i and Sunni Islam affect the structure and method by which they formulate laws from original sources. In place of qiyas, the Shi'i faqih, known as mujtahid, uses a method of legal inference called ijtihad, which is essentially a personal soul searching and reasoning. These variations are also due to the cultural differences of the diverse areas which Islam encompasses. However, the major provisions for the rights of children are the same within all the sects of Islam as they are based on the Qur'an and the Sunna.

Before the advent of Islam in Arabia, children not only had no rights but newborn babies were frequently buried alive, either because of poverty or because they were female and considered a burden. There are several Qur'anic verses on this subject: "And when the birth of a daughter is announced to one of them, his face becomes black and he is full of wrath." (Qur'an XVI: 58); "And kill not your children for fear of povertywe provide for them and for you. Surely the killing of them is a great wrong." (XVII: 31); "And when the one buried alive is asked for what sin she was killed " (LXXXI: 89). These verses support the fact that the custom of infanticide was practiced in pre-Islamic Arabia.

A Child's Upbringing

In Islamic societies the main purpose of marriage was, and still is, procreation, which is an obligatory religious duty. The advent of a child is not only welcomed and considered a blessing, it is also regarded as essential for strengthening the marriage bond, for the perpetuation of the line of descent, and for enlarging the community of the faithful. A house in which no child is born is seen to lack God's blessing. Childlessness frequently results in divorce, or at least the addition of another wife (as polygyny is permitted in Islam) who is able to bear children, as the inability to do so is always considered to be the fault of the woman.

There are various rituals associated with the birth of a child, and it is the duty of the father or legal guardian to see

that they are fulfilled. The first of these dictates that when the child is born the Muslim call to prayer is whispered in both its ears. The parents choose the child's name, but if there is a disagreement it is the father who chooses the name. On the seventh day after the birth a ceremony known as aqiqa takes place, during which a sheep is slaughtered and the child's hair is cut. Another rite, considered by some to be an aspect of incorporating the child into the community of the faithful, is male circumcision. This can take place at any age ranging from seven days to fifteen years, depending on the local culture, and is usually accompanied by festivities. Female circumcision does not exist in the Qur'an and there is no evidence that the Prophet recommended it. In the Muslim areas where it is practiced, as in parts of northeastern Africa, it is the consequence of local pre-Islamic practices.

In Islam, childhood is considered a special period in an individual's life. The different stages of childhood are well defined, and there is a rich vocabulary for them in Arabic. For example, the general term for the child is walad; the baby in the mother's womb is called janin (fetus); at birth, tifl; and at completion of seven days, sadigh. A baby who has not yetbeen weaned is called sabiyy if male and sabiyya if female. Aboy is called ghulam; a young man, habab. Once he attains the faculty of discernment and is able to differentiate between good and evil, he has reached the stage of tamyiz. There are other terms for the various stages until the child reaches maturity. For instance a child who dies before adulthood is farat.

Physical maturity in either sex establishes majority (bulugh ) in Islamic law. There is a difference of opinion in the legal schools about the exact age, but it ranges from nine for girls to eighteen for boys, although for girls the age of menstruation is generally acceptable. If there is doubt, however, a statement by the person that he or she has reached puberty is adequate. Before reaching majority, a minor is not legally recognized, does not have social responsibilities, and is under the care of a parent or guardian.

Duties of Parents

Islam considers children to be vulnerable and dependent beings. Therefore, Islamic law provides diverse rules for the protection of their body and property. According to these rules both parents have well-defined duties toward their children before they reach the age of maturity. In Islamic countries the patrilineal system of descent is the norm, so these duties are incumbent upon an established paternity resulting in mutual rights of inheritance, guardianship, and maintenance. Any child born within wedlock is considered legitimate, and provisions have been made regarding paternity in cases of divorce or the death of the father. Due to the importance of patrilineal descent, adoption is not permitted in Islam (Qur'an XXXIII: 45), although before the advent of Islam it was practiced in Arabia. Muslims are enjoined to treat children of unknown origin as their brothers in the faith.

The father of a child should provide the mother with the necessary material for the child's growth and survival. The baby has the right to food, clothing, and shelter (Qur'an II:233). The father should also see to the child's education (both secular and religious). Should the child's father be dead or unable to provide for the child, and if the child does not have any inherited property, then providing for the child becomes first the duty of the paternal grandfather, then other paternal relatives, and finally any other living relatives.

It is the responsibility of the mother to take care of the child during infancy. The mother must breast-feed the child at least up to the age of two (Qur'an II: 233), although even in present-day Islamic countries breast-feeding usually continues as long as the mother has milk. If a mother is unable to nurse, it is permitted to employ a wet nurse who is in good health and of good character (it is believed by some jurists that traits are inherited through human lactation)(Qur'an II: 233, LIV: 6). If the family cannot afford a wet nurse, frequently a neighbor or a friend who has recently given birth may fulfill the role.

If there is a dispute between parents, it is generally agreed that mothers have the right of custody for the first few years of a child's life. If a mother dies, custody reverts to a female relative, preferably in the mother's line. However, aside from these facts, the different schools of fiqh hold dissimilaropinions on this matter.

Children also have well-defined rights in respect to inheritance. Provisions have been made within the Qur'an and the Shari'a for the inheritance rights of both female and male offspring. In pre-Islamic Arabia, women and children had no inheritance rights. In Islam, boys inherit two times the amount that girls inherit. There are also provisions for the inheritance rights of parents (Qur'an IV: 11, 12).

The child is also entitled to a guardian. This may be the father, or it may be someone the father appoints to protect the child's property interests. Under Islamic law a child, as a minor, is not permitted to enter into any contractual arrangement. It is therefore the duty of the guardian to ascertain that any intended contract is to the child's advantage.

Religious Education

The religious education of the child is the responsibility of the parents, with boys being educated by their fathers, and girls by their mothers. Through the initial rituals at birth, the child is incorporated into Islam, and the basic principles of the faith are explained when the child starts talking. However, the systematic religious education of the child does not begin until the age of tamyiz. In the past, this education frequently began by sending boys to the maktab (Qur'anic school), where they learned the recitation of the Qur'an and instruction on the performance of religious commandments. Female children did not go the maktab, although female maktabs were available in some countries. Girls frequently received their religious instruction at home from their mother and were taught household work. However, although maktabs exist in all Islamic countries today, religious instruction is also incorporated into the general curriculum of modern state education, and special religious books have been written for children. In some Islamic countries, such as Turkey, schools are coeducational, while in others, such as Saudi Arabia, any kind of schooling for girls is of recent origin, and children are taught in separate male and female facilities.

The ritual five daily prayers, which constitutes one of the five pillars of Islam, do not become incumbent upon the child until she or he reaches his or her majority. (As explained above, although different schools of law hold diverse opinion on the actual age of majority, fifteen is generally considered the age that separates the minor from the major.) Corporal punishment is permitted for children who do not fulfill their religious obligations or who show signs of unacceptable traits or behavior. In addition, children have duties toward their parents. They are enjoined to be kind, obedient, and respectful toward their parents, and to look after them in old age (Qur'an: XVII: 23; XXIX: 8; XXXI: 14, 15; XXXXVI: 15).

The Family

It must be remembered that Islam encompasses many different cultures, so it is difficult to generalize about the rights of children in present-day Islamic countries. But it can be seen that within Islamic law there are definite rights and duties granted to children. Although most modern-day Islamic societies have incorporated parts of the Shari'a into their constitution, they have not necessarily incorporated all rights accorded to children by Islam. However, there is one institution in most Islamic societies that is of great importance in the upbringing of children, the extended family system.

The number of people living in one household varies according to the economic status of the family. But the minimum number would include grandparents in addition to the nuclear family and any unmarried siblings. This often results in early indulgence of the child. The child spends a considerable amount of time with its mother and is breast-fed on demand. It also receives much affection and pampering from its mother, father, older siblings, and other members of the extended family.

In spite of differences from country to country, there are certain cultural norms regarding children that are shared by most Islamic societies and have continued from the past to the present. These include the importance of the group over the individual, the importance of children (particularly sons) to continue the line of descent, and responsibility for parents in old age.

See also: Africa; Bible, The; Middle East.


Awde, Nicholas, ed. and trans. 2000. Women in Islam: An Anthology from the Qur'an and Hadith. London: Curzon Press.

Fernea, Elizabeth Warnock, ed. 1995. Children in the Muslim Middle East. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Holy Qur'an. Arabic text, translation, and commentary by Maulana Muhammad 'Ali. 1991. Lahore, Pakistan: Ahmadiyyah.

Momen, Moojan. 1985. Introduction to Shi'i Islam: The History and Doctrines of Twelver Shi'ism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Ruthven, Malise. 1997. Islam: A Very Short Introduction. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Shireen Mahdavi

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

MAHDAVI, SHIREEN. "Islam." Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society. 2004. 30 May. 2016 <>.

MAHDAVI, SHIREEN. "Islam." Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society. 2004. (May 30, 2016).

MAHDAVI, SHIREEN. "Islam." Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society. 2004. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from



Islam has, from its inception, placed a high premium on education and has enjoyed a long and rich intellectual tradition. Knowledge ('ilm ) occupies a significant position within Islam, as evidenced by the more than 800 references to it in Islam's most revered book, the Koran. The importance of education is repeatedly emphasized in the Koran with frequent injunctions, such as "God will exalt those of you who believe and those who have knowledge to high degrees" (58:11), "O my Lord! Increase me in knowledge" (20:114), and "As God has taught him, so let him write" (2:282). Such verses provide a forceful stimulus for the Islamic community to strive for education and learning.

Islamic education is uniquely different from other types of educational theory and practice largely because of the all-encompassing influence of the Koran. The Koran serves as a comprehensive blueprint for both the individual and society and as the primary source of knowledge. The advent of the Koran in the seventh century was quite revolutionary for the predominantly illiterate Arabian society. Arab society had enjoyed a rich oral tradition, but the Koran was considered the word of God and needed to be organically interacted with by means of reading and reciting its words. Hence, reading and writing for the purpose of accessing the full blessings of the Koran was an aspiration for most Muslims. Thus, education in Islam unequivocally derived its origins from a symbiotic relationship with religious instruction.

History of Islamic Education

Thus, in this way, Islamic education began. Pious and learned Muslims (mu' allim or mudarris ), dedicated to making the teachings of the Koran more accessible to the Islamic community, taught the faithful in what came to be known as the kuttāb (plural, katātīb ). The kuttāb could be located in a variety of venues: mosques, private homes, shops, tents, or even out in the open. Historians are uncertain as to when the katātīb were first established, but with the widespread desire of the faithful to study the Koran, katātīb could be found in virtually every part of the Islamic empire by the middle of the eighth century. The kuttāb served a vital social function as the only vehicle for formal public instruction for primary-age children and continued so until Western models of education were introduced in the modern period. Even at present, it has exhibited remarkable durability and continues to be an important means of religious instruction in many Islamic countries.

The curriculum of the kuttāb was primarily directed to young male children, beginning as early as age four, and was centered on Koranic studies and on religious obligations such as ritual ablutions, fasting, and prayer. The focus during the early history of Islam on the education of youth reflected the belief that raising children with correct principles was a holy obligation for parents and society. As Abdul Tibawi wrote in 1972, the mind of the child was believed to be "like a white clean paper, once anything is written on it, right or wrong, it will be difficult to erase it or superimpose new writing upon it" (p. 38). The approach to teaching children was strict, and the conditions in which young students learned could be quite harsh. Corporal punishment was often used to correct laziness or imprecision. Memorization of the Koran was central to the curriculum of the kuttāb, but little or no attempt was made to analyze and discuss the meaning of the text. Once students had memorized the greater part of the Koran, they could advance to higher stages of education, with increased complexity of instruction. Western analysts of the kuttāb system usually criticize two areas of its pedagogy: the limited range of subjects taught and the exclusive reliance on memorization. The contemporary kuttāb system still emphasizes memorization and recitation as important means of learning. The value placed on memorization during students' early religious training directly influences their approaches to learning when they enter formal education offered by the modern state. A common frustration of modern educators in the Islamic world is that while their students can memorize copious volumes of notes and textbook pages, they often lack competence in critical analysis and independent thinking.

During the golden age of the Islamic empire (usually defined as a period between the tenth and thirteenth centuries), when western Europe was intellectually backward and stagnant, Islamic scholarship flourished with an impressive openness to the rational sciences, art, and even literature. It was during this period that the Islamic world made most of its contributions to the scientific and artistic world. Ironically, Islamic scholars preserved much of the knowledge of the Greeks that had been prohibited by the Christian world. Other outstanding contributions were made in areas of chemistry, botany, physics, mineralogy, mathematics, and astronomy, as many Muslim thinkers regarded scientific truths as tools for accessing religious truth.

Gradually the open and vigorous spirit of enquiry and individual judgment (ijtihād ) that characterized the golden age gave way to a more insular, unquestioning acceptance (taqlīd ) of the traditional corpus of authoritative knowledge. By the thirteenth century, according to Aziz Talbani, the 'ulama' (religious scholars) had become "self-appointed interpreters and guardians of religious knowledge. learning was confined to the transmission of traditions and dogma, and [was] hostile to research and scientific inquiry" (p. 70). The mentality of taqlīd reigned supreme in all matters, and religious scholars condemned all other forms of inquiry and research. Exemplifying the taqlīd mentality, Burhän al-Din al-Zarnüji wrote during the thirteenth century, "Stick to ancient things while avoiding new things" and "Beware of becoming engrossed in those disputes which come about after one has cut loose from the ancient authorities" (pp. 28, 58). Much of what was written after the thirteenth century lacked originality, and it consisted mostly of commentaries on existing canonical works without adding any substantive new ideas. The lethal combination of taqlīd and foreign invasion beginning in the thirteenth century served to dim Islam's preeminence in both the artistic and scientific worlds.

Despite its glorious legacy of earlier periods, the Islamic world seemed unable to respond either culturally or educationally to the onslaught of Western advancement by the eighteenth century. One of the most damaging aspects of European colonialism was the deterioration of indigenous cultural norms through secularism. With its veneration of human reason over divine revelation and its insistence on separation of religion and state, secularism is anathema to Islam, in which all aspects of life, spiritual or temporal, are interrelated as a harmonious whole. At the same time, Western institutions of education, with their pronounced secular/religious dichotomy, were infused into Islamic countries in order to produce functionaries to feed the bureaucratic and administrative needs of the state. The early modernizers did not fully realize the extent to which secularized education fundamentally conflicted with Islamic thought and traditional lifestyle. Religious education was to remain a separate and personal responsibility, having no place in public education. If Muslim students desired religious training, they could supplement their existing education with moral instruction in traditional religious schoolsthe kuttāb. As a consequence, the two differing education systems evolved independently with little or no official interface.

Aims and Objectives of Islamic Education

The Arabic language has three terms for education, representing the various dimensions of the educational process as perceived by Islam. The most widely used word for education in a formal sense is ta'līm, from the root 'alima (to know, to be aware, to perceive, to learn), which is used to denote knowledge being sought or imparted through instruction and teaching. Tarbiyah, from the root raba (to increase, to grow, to rear), implies a state of spiritual and ethical nurturing in accordance with the will of God. Ta'dīb, from the root aduba (to be cultured, refined, well-mannered), suggests a person's development of sound social behavior. What is meant by sound requires a deeper understanding of the Islamic conception of the human being.

Education in the context of Islam is regarded as a process that involves the complete person, including the rational, spiritual, and social dimensions. As noted by Syed Muhammad al-Naquib al-Attas in 1979, the comprehensive and integrated approach to education in Islam is directed toward the "balanced growth of the total personalitythrough training Man's spirit, intellect, rational self, feelings and bodily sensessuch that faith is infused into the whole of his personality" (p. 158). In Islamic educational theory knowledge is gained in order to actualize and perfect all dimensions of the human being. From an Islamic perspective the highest and most useful model of perfection is the prophet Muhammad, and the goal of Islamic education is that people be able to live as he lived. Seyyed Hossein Nasr wrote in 1984 that while education does prepare humankind for happiness in this life, "its ultimate goal is the abode of permanence and all education points to the permanent world of eternity" (p. 7). To ascertain truth by reason alone is restrictive, according to Islam, because spiritual and temporal reality are two sides of the same sphere. Many Muslim educationists argue that favoring reason at the expense of spirituality interferes with balanced growth. Exclusive training of the intellect, for example, is inadequate in developing and refining elements of love, kindness, compassion, and selflessness, which have an altogether spiritual ambiance and can be engaged only by processes of spiritual training.

Education in Islam is twofold: acquiring intellectual knowledge (through the application of reason and logic) and developing spiritual knowledge (derived from divine revelation and spiritual experience). According to the worldview of Islam, provision in education must be made equally for both. Acquiring knowledge in Islam is not intended as an end but as a means to stimulate a more elevated moral and spiritual consciousness, leading to faith and righteous action.

See also: Middle East and North Africa.


Abdullah, Abdul-Rahman Salih. 1982. Educational Theory: A Qur'anic Outlook. Makkah, Saudi Arabia: Umm al-Qura University Press.

AL-Alawni, Taha J. 1991. "TaqlÅīd and the Stagnation of the Muslim Mind." American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences 8:513524.

Ali, Syed Ausef. 1987. "Islam and Modern Education." Muslim Education Quarterly 4 (2):3644.

AL-Attas, Syed Muhammad AL-Naquib. 1979. Aims and Objectives of Islamic Education. Jeddah, Saudi Arabia: Hodder and Stoughton.

AL-Attas, Syed Muhammad AL-Naquib. 1985. Islam, Secularism, and the Philosophy of the Future. London: Mansell.

AL-ZarnÜJI, BurhÄN AL-Din. 1947. Ta'alim al-Muta'allim: Tariq al-Ta'allum (Instruction of the student: The method of learning), trans. Gustave Edmund von Grunebaum and Theodora M. Abel. New York: Kings Crown Press.

Cook, Bradley J. 1999. "Islamic versus Western Conceptions of Education: Reflections on Egypt." International Review of Education 45:339357.

Dodge, Bayard. 1962. Muslim Education in Medieval Times. Washington, DC: Middle East Institute.

Husain, Syed Sajjad, and Ashraf, Syed Ali. 1979. Crisis in Muslim Education. Jeddah, Saudi Arabia: Hodder and Stoughton.

Landau, Jacob M. 1986. "Kutta Åb. " In Encyclopedia of Islam. Leiden, Netherlands: E.J. Brill.

Makdisi, George. 1981. The Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. 1984. "The Islamic Philosophers' Views on Education." Muslim Education Quarterly 2 (4):516.

Shalaby, Ahmed. 1954. History of Muslim Education. Beirut, Lebanon: Dar al-Kashaf.

Talbani, Aziz. 1996. "Pedagogy, Power, and Discourse: Transformation of Islamic Education." Comparative Education Review 40 (1):6682.

Tibawi, Abdul Latif. 1972. Islamic Education. London: Luzac.

Bradley J. Cook

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

COOK, BRADLEY J.. "Islam." Encyclopedia of Education. 2002. 30 May. 2016 <>.

COOK, BRADLEY J.. "Islam." Encyclopedia of Education. 2002. (May 30, 2016).

COOK, BRADLEY J.. "Islam." Encyclopedia of Education. 2002. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from



The fast of the month of Ramadan is one of the five major obligations of individual Muslims (the other four being the pronunciation of the confession of God's Unity, the five daily prayers, the religious tax, and the pilgrimage to Mecca). The Qur'an, the holy book of Islam, charts a middle position"Thus we have made you a community of the middle path" (2:143)between the ascetic ideal of Christian monastic practices and the more materialistic style of Jewish religion. Islamic fasting during Ramadan is quite harsh by Western standards and includes a full month of total abstinence from food and drink during the hours between dawn and sunset, although the evenings are a time of joy and celebration. The period of fasting during Ramadan is not an individual religious exercise, but part of a great social event that binds individual Muslims collectively.

The Qur'an explains the significance of this time of prayer and abstinence. During the Medina period, which marked the last ten years of the life of the prophet Muhammad (570632 c.e.), Muslims were instructed to join the Jews in prayer in the direction of Jerusalem, to the north. After the Jews of Medina refused to recognize Muhammad as a prophet and obstructed his ideal of an Islamic state, the Prophet received a revelation that his followers should turn to the Ka'aba of Mecca (to the south of Medina). The Qur'an (2:183187) prescribes fasting during the month of Ramadan, but prior to Muhammad's revelation, followers observed the fast of the day of Atonement or Ashura, as did the Jews. The institution of the Ramadan fast marked a return to an older Arab tradition that included abstaining from warfare and blood feuds. (In the same chapter of the Qur'an a third Arab institution was restored and reinterpreted: the pilgrimage to Mecca [2:196203].)

The fast of Ramadan was reinterpreted as an instrument for the forgiveness of sins. It was instituted in commemoration of the Prophet's first revelation, which occurred during that month (on the twenty-first, twenty-third, twenty-fifth, and twenty-seventh of Ramadan) and in awareness of God's decision about man's fate for the coming year. From dawnin fact, from the moment when a black thread can be distinguished from a white oneuntil sunset nothing may enter the body through any of its parts. Therefore, not only are eating and drinking forbidden, but also the use of fragrant perfume and even sexual intercourse. Women who menstruate during this period are not allowed to observe fasting but must make up for the days they miss by fasting later on.

In the first generations after Muhammad the basis was laid for what is known as the shari'a or Islamic law. Scholars during the first century after Muhammad developed the rules for determining the beginning and end of the month of Ramadan. It is commonly accepted that some part of the new moon must be "seen" (physically or intellectually, i.e., directly observed or by calculation), although there is a divergence of opinion among Muslim communities concerning the correct method for defining the start and finish of the month of Ramadan. Travelers and those who are sick are excused from the fast, but even these exceptions are disputed, as are the various compensations for some days of fasting or the alms given to the poor.

In addition to the month of Ramadan, there are voluntary days of fasting for Muslims, such as the tenth day of Muharam (Ashura, a continuation of the Jewish day of atonement, although the Islamic lunar calendar does not coincide with the solar calendar of Jews and Christians). For the very pious there is a voluntary fast on all Mondays and Thursdays.

Fasting not only constitutes abstinence from food. Pious Muslim preachers stress that fasting is more an exercise of the mind than of the body. The prophet Muhammad said, "He is not a good Muslim who eats his fill and leaves his neighbor hungry" (Glassé, p. 112). The mystical theologian al-Ghazali (d. 1111) proposed a category of fasting that included "other parts of the body" (besides the mouth and the sexual organs): The eyes and the hands should be kept under control and prevented from evil. Attention must be given to the poor during the month of Ramadan, and the special "alms tax" (zakat fitra ) or "gift of breaking the fast" consists of 2.5 kilograms of rice or the equivalent in money given to the poor. Slander and gossip in particular are forbidden during Ramadan, and a saying from Muhammad supports this admonition: "If one does not give up saying false words and doing false deeds in Ramadan, giving up eating and drinking means nothing to Allah" (Buitelaar, p. 22).

Some preachers suggest that the daily fast should be followed by a light meal only and by many prayers. A folk custom ends a day of fasting in the manner of Muhammad: Commonly, a Muslim eats a date first, following the example of the Prophet. In countries where fresh dates are not available, they are imported from abroad to facilitate this custom of the believers. It is also quite common for Muslims to invite friends and relatives to their homes on certain days so that they might experience this rewarding moment together after a full day of fasting: breaking the fast together with a first light meal (iftar, literally meaning the breaking snack), accompanied by the pious words of a preacher.

Local kitchens serve a great variety of dishes during the evenings of Ramadan. In the Indonesian province of Aceh, known for its devout Islam, believers eat beras tape, a porridge of fermented sweet rice, as their first snack after a day of fasting. Because of the process of fermentation, this snack contains a significant amount of alcohol, but it is considered a traditional food, not a drink, and is therefore acceptable to pious Muslims. Fish is not considered a good choice for Ramadan meals because it is too light and does not provide a good base for the next day of fasting. A tomato soup (harira ) that is prepared with a variety of vegetables and beef, buffalo, or lamb is much more substantial and provides longer-lasting nutrition. In countries of the Middle East it is closely identified with the celebration of Ramadan. Sometimes before dawn a heavy "breakfast" (sahur ) is consumed in preparation for a full day of fasting. Buitelaar mentions (p. 47) a daily meal of rabbit that is eaten at 3:00 A.M. in Morocco.

After Ramadan, on the first day of the month of Shawwal, the so-called small festival is celebrated. A major festival also occurs on the tenth day of the month of the hajj, when the sacrifice of Abraham is recalled, but the end of Ramadan brings the greatest joy to Muslims: Relatives are visited and many types of sweets are consumed. In Turkey, this celebration is known as the sugar festival, a celebration also marked in recent decades in parts of Europe where Turkish migrants have settled.

Some mystical or local groups have developed special kinds of fasting, which are either not generally accepted or even denounced by other Muslims. In order to obtain special favors from God, Muslims in Indonesia, especially on the island of Java, practice the mutihan, or "white fasting." Muslims there only eat white rice and boiled eggs, and they drink plain ("white") water during a certain period, often to implement a vow. Members of the Khalidiyah branch of the Naqshbandiyah brotherhood practice suluk (spiritual travel) or khalwat (loneliness), a forty-day period of abstinence from meat and some other dishes; believers also refrain, as much as possible, from talking. Their opponents blame them for introducing a Christian habit (forty days of fasting, and abstinence from meat) into a well-defined Muslim regulation.

The Islamic rules on haram (forbidden) foods and drink, such as pork and wine, are not considered akin to the pious acts of fasting or abstinence, but rather are part of the regular observance of taboos and are therefore beyond the scope of this entry.

In many regions and during different periods of Muslim culture, ascetic and mystical movements have introduced elements of abstinence, some from sexual intercourse, others from various luxuries such as perfumes during certain periods. For the especially pious and for those who make special vows, milk and meat are avoided, and there are even vows of abstinence from sleep.

In modern Muslim communities, both in countries with Muslim majorities and also in the new Muslim diaspora in Western countries, the fast of Ramadan is one of the most carefully observed aspects of Islamic custom. Even among secularized Muslims, who do not say their prayers five times each day or who only very seldom join the Friday prayers, there is an attempt to keep the fast for part of the month of Ramadan, as a way of keeping in touch with their spiritual and cultural roots. As with those who are more devout, the festive moment in which the fast is broken is a central element. In 1963 Ahmad Hasan al-Zayyat, the editor of the journal of the Al-Azhar mosque and university in Cairo, commented bitterly on the way of fasting: "We do not have any more thirty days of fasting, but thirty days of breaking the fast" (Goitein, p. 108). This comment may reflect the general practice of fasting and abstinence found in Islamic culture, where a middle path has been found: between strict religious and cultural interpretation, between individual piety and communal belief. The middle path of Islamic fasting and abstinence lies between ascetism and pure materialism.

See also Christianity ; Feasts, Festivals, and Fasts ; Islam ; Judaism ; Middle East ; Ramadan .


Buitelaar, Marjo. "Fasting and Feasting in Morocco. An Ethnographic Study of the Month of Ramadan." Ph.D. diss., Nijmegen University, 1991.

Glassé, Cyril. The Concise Encyclopaedia of Islam. London: Stacey International, 1989.

Goitein, S. D. Studies in Islamic History and Institutions. Leiden: Brill, 1968.

Parshall, Phil. Inside the Community. Understanding Muslims through Their Traditions. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1994, pp. 196201.

Qardawi, Yusuf. The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam. Indianapolis, Ind.: American Trust Publications, 1990.

Wagtendonk, Kees. Fasting in the Qur'an. Leiden: Brill, 1969.

Karel Steenbrink

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

Steenbrink, Karel. "Islam." Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. 2003. 30 May. 2016 <>.

Steenbrink, Karel. "Islam." Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. 2003. (May 30, 2016).

Steenbrink, Karel. "Islam." Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. 2003. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from



ISLAM. There are roughly six million Muslims scattered throughout the United States. By 1992 there were over twenty-three hundred Islamic institutions in North America, including schools, community centers, mosques, publishing houses, and media units. To coordinate activities of this dispersed, growing American Muslim community, Muslims organized conferences, the first of which was held in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1952. Succeeding conferences were coordinated by the Muslim Students of America (MSA), which held its first conference at the University of Illinois in 1963. The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the principal national organization for mainstream (Sunni) American Muslims, started in 1982 as an outgrowth of MSA. In 1993 the first Muslim chaplain began working with Muslims in the U.S. armed forces, who now number in the thousands. Although there are no reliable population figures for the Muslim community in the United States, the consensus is that by 2015 the American Muslim community will be the nation's largest non-Christian religion.

Muslims have been in North America since the sixteenth century. Isfan the Arab was a guide for the Franciscan explorer Marcos de Niza in Arizona in 1539. Nosereddine, an Egyptian, settled in the Catskill Mountains of New York State in the 1500s and was burned at the stake for murdering an Indian princess. As many as 20 percent of the West African slaves brought to the United States during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were Muslims. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the first Arab Muslims began to form communities in the United States. One of these Arab Muslims, Haj Ali, assisted the U.S. Army with camel-breeding experiments in the Arizona desert in the 1850s. He is remembered in folk legend as Hi Jolly. By the end of the nineteenth century, large numbers of male Muslim immigrants, mostly from the eastern Mediterranean, had come to the Midwest as migrant workers. Three thousand Polish Muslims and a small community of Circassian (Russian) Muslims settled in New York. The latest wave of Muslim immigrants, one that is continuing, began after the repeal of the Asian Exclusion Act in 1965. These immigrants, arriving from a variety of countries, generally are highly educated and have western educations.

Muhammad Alexander Webb, an American consul in Manila, converted to Islam in 1868 and opened a mosque in New York City in 1893. The next mosque was opened in Ross, North Dakota, followed by one in the Detroit suburb of Highland Park in 1919. By 1952 there were twenty mosques joined together by the Federation of Islamic Associations of North America. In 1957 the Islamic Center was dedicated in Washington, D.C., sponsored by fifteen Islamic countries. During the 1970s considerable mosque construction began and continues to the present day.

African Americans, who have been converting to Islam since the 1920s, make up 40 percent of the American Muslim community (with Indo-Pakistanis and Arabs each comprising about 25 percent of the community). In 1913 Noble Drew Ali founded the Moorish Science Temple of America, headquartered in Baltimore. His successor, Wallace D. Fard, probably of Turkish or Iranian descent, began the Lost-Found Nation of Islam in the Wilderness of North America in Detroit in 1930 (in 1995 the Lost-Found Nation had nineteen temples in the United States). He claimed that African Americans were really Muslims who had been denied their heritage. Designated by Fard as the "messenger of God," Elijah Muhammad became the leader of the Nation of Islam (NOI) in 1934. Members stressed education and black-owned businesses, with the goal of a separate black nation. When Elijah died in 1975, there were about seventy NOI temples and 100,000 members in the United States. Since whites were excluded from membership and since Elijah Muhammad was considered a prophet (the last prophet is the seventh-century Muhammad, according to Muslim orthodoxy), in addition to other beliefs unique to NOI, the larger worldwide Muslim community does not consider members of the NOI to be Muslims. The Ansaar Allah and Five Percenters are offshoots of NOI.

Malcolm X, the best-known disciple of Elijah Muhammad, left NOI in 1964 after experiencing the lack of racial and color distinctions during his pilgrimage to Mecca. The issue of joining mainstream Islam or of maintaining a separate African American community created leadership struggles after 1975 when Warith Deen Muhammad, Elijah Muhammad's son, succeeded his father. In 1985 he led most of the NOI members to merge with the larger mainstream Muslim community. Louis Farrakhan became the new leader of the NOI and continued the agenda of Elijah Muhammad, including organizational structure, racist ideology, and the goal of a separate nation. The merger of Warith Deen's community into mainstream Islam did not affect the sixty Clara Muhammad schools, which provide high-quality secular and religious education to elementary and secondary school students.

Ahmadiyya Muslims, believing in the prophethood of the northern Indian Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835–1908), began to proselytize in the United States in 1921 and achieved success in the African American community. As of 1992, headquartered in Washington, D.C., they had ten thousand members and active centers in thirty-seven cities. The Tablighi Jama'at, headquartered in Pakistan, has sent Muslim missionaries to the United States since 1952 to preach the creation of separate communities of observant Muslims. Since the 1970s the growth of Islam among New York City's Latin American population has been fostered by PIEDAD (Propagación Islámica para la Educación y Devoción de Ala' el Divino) and in California by ALMA (Asociación Latina de Musalmanes en las Américas). Among Native Americans, Islam is slowly gaining ground, as a mosque on a Navajo reservation demonstrates. Seminoles in Florida claim that escaped Muslim slaves converted Seminoles to Islam during the

nineteenth century. Cherokees state that their chief in 1866 was a Muslim named Ramadhan ibn Wati. Shia Muslims, who look for a descendant of the Prophet for leadership and form 10 percent of the Muslim community worldwide, have formed their own national organizations, the Shia Association of North America and the Ismaili Council for the U.S.A. In 1987 there were thirty thousand Nizari Ismailis in seventy-five centers around the United States. Shias usually worship in mosques separate from the mainstream Sunni Muslim community.

Caucasian Muslim converts in the United States often come to Islam through small groups of mystics, or Sufis. Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882–1927) of the Indian Chishti lineage came to the United States in 1910 and set up the Sufi Order. Its leadership was continued by his son, Pir Vilayat Khan, who has turned over the leadership of the order in the United States to his son, Zia Khan. One of the largest Sufi communities in the United States is that of Bawa Muhaiyaddeen (d. 1986), who came to Philadelphia from Sri Lanka in 1971 and whose tomb is becoming a place of pilgrimage. There are over three thousand people affiliated with this group.

There are clear ethnic, cultural, and theological differences between Muslims living in the United States. Due to the Wahhabi influence (a theological perspective named after an eighteenth-century Arab ideologue, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, whose followers teamed up with the first king of the Saudi dynasty to create Saudi Arabia), an extreme Arab form of Islam is increasingly becoming normative in the United States. In reaction to the self-declared authoritative Wahhabi stance that does not permit any other way of being a Muslim, ethnic mosques are continually being established. There appears to be minimal social contact between immigrant and African American Muslims—including separate mosques and celebration of holidays. Often African Americans are attracted to Islam by its ideal of genuine racial equality, only to find that the actual practice is far from the stated ideal.

American Islam—specifically MSA, ISNA, and ICNA (Islamic Circle of North America), its mainstream organizations—has received considerable funding from foreign donors who seek to further an Arab Wahhabi theological perspective in the United States. Some African Americans perceive these organizations as catering primarily to the needs of the immigrant community. The ideological, conservative, anti-Sufi stance promoted by these mainstream organizations has been influenced by political ideologues of the Jamaat Islami and Ikhwan al-Musilmin and often has been funded by Saudi Arabia. These groups have managed to control the Islamic symbols and belief systems (i.e., to define Islam) in American Muslim communities, because they have a long-term strategy (political control in majority Islamic countries) and an organization with ample funding. They strongly influence mainstream American Islam—the majority of the mosques in the United States are funded by Saudi Arabia and/or their imams are trained in Saudi Arabia. This Arab version of Islam, already the norm for most American Muslims, contrasts sharply with the actual pluralism of the American Muslim community. To what extent foreign political interests will influence funding of American Muslim activities is unclear, since Persian Gulf nations cut off aid to various American Muslim organizations when many immigrant Muslims did not support Saudi policies during the Gulf War. Clearly, as in other religions, common identity as a Muslim does not guarantee community. In view of the tragic events of 11 September 2001, it remains to be seen whether more moderate American Muslims will prevail over their more vocal and well-funded coreligionists in an ever-evolving mosaic of Islamic diversity in the United States.


Haddad, Yvonne, and John Esposito, eds. Muslims on the Americanization Path? Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1998.

———, and Jane Smith, eds. Muslim Communities in North America. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.

Melton, J. Gordon. Encyclopedia of American Religions. 6th ed. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 1999.

Smith, Jane I. Islam in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Arthur F.Buehler

See alsoNation of Islam .

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Islam." Dictionary of American History. 2003. 30 May. 2016 <>.

"Islam." Dictionary of American History. 2003. (May 30, 2016).

"Islam." Dictionary of American History. 2003. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from



Six centuries after Jesus Christ, the religion of Islam was born in Arabia. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, Muslims, as its followers have always called themselves, number more than 1.2 billion worldwide.

According to Muslim tradition, in 611 c.e. at the age of forty, Muhammad of Mecca received a revelation from God during a spiritual retreat in a cave on Mount Hira outside the city. God's special envoy who brought the message was the archangel Gabriel. At Gabriel's instruction, the illiterate Muhammad recited five short verses that portrayed the spirit of the new religion. In this first revelation, Muhammadthus by extension all humansis called upon to know the unknown in the name of God, whose nature is to create things. Humans are then reminded of how, from their lowly animal origin, they became thinking and knowing creatures thanks to God's generous gifts of instruments of knowledge that are best symbolized by the pen. Knowledge is the supreme symbol of God's infinite bounty and the key to his treasuries. Through sacred knowledgethat is, knowledge through and for the sake of Godhumans can attain salvation. In thus emphasizing the saving function of knowledge, Muhammad's maiden revelation as well as many other revelations that were to follow, clearly portrayed the new faith as a way of knowledge. As for Muhammad himself, as told by Gabriel, he had been chosen as the new messenger of God. Fourteen centuries later, Muhammad is widely regarded as one of the world's most influential persons.

Revelations came intermittently to Muhammad over a period of twenty-three years. All of these revelations were systematically compiled into a book known as the Qur'an. According to tradition, the precise arrangement of the Qur'an itself was divinely inspired. This book is central to the religion. It is the most authentic and the most important source of teachings of the religion. The Qur'an is the most influential guide to Muslim life and thought, both individual and collective, spiritual and temporal.

Submission and faith

The word Islam means "surrender or submission" to God's will. It also means "peace." In a sense, it is through submission to the divine will that a human attains inner peace. One who submits to the divine will is called Muslim. In the Qur'an, the word Muslim refers not only to humans but also to other creatures and the inanimate world. From the Qur'anic point of view, this is not surprising. The divine will manifests itself in the form of laws both in human society and in the world of nature. In Islamic terminology, for example, a bee is a Muslim precisely because it lives and dies obeying the shava¯rah that God has prescribed for the community of bees, just as a person is a Muslim by virtue of the fact that he or she submits to the revealed "shava¯rah " ordained for the religious community. In fact, the Qur'an maintains that "every animal species is a community like you," thus implying that God has promulgated a law for each species of being. From its beginning, Islam never made any distinction between what has generally been known in the Western tradition as the "laws of nature" and "the laws of God." In principle, there is harmony between the laws of natural phenomena (na¯mu¯s al-khilqah ) and the laws of the prophets governing human societies (na¯wamu¯s al-anbiya¯1 ) since both kinds of laws come from the same source: God the Law-Giver. In asserting such a view, Islam provides an illustrative example of how it seeks to establish points of convergence in the encounter of religion and science.

Islam is noted for the simplicity of its teachings. By professing the testimony of faith "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God," one enters into the fold of Islam. The whole teachings of the religion are summarized in the six articles of faith (arka¯n al-i¯ma¯n ) and the five pillars of submission (arka¯n al-isla¯m ). Muslims must believe in six fundamental truths: God, angels, revealed books, divine messengers, life in the hereafter, and divine plans and decrees. Necessary beliefs go hand in hand with necessary actions, since a human is both a thinking and a believing creature and a creature who acts and does all kinds of things. There are five fundamental obligatory duties for every Muslim, male and female:

  1. To bear witness that "There is no god but God," and to bear witness that "Muhammad is the Messenger of God";
  2. To perform five daily prayers;
  3. To fast from dawn to dusk during the month of Ramadan;
  4. To pay personal and property tax (zaka¯t, literally meaning purification);
  5. To perform pilgrimage (ḥajj ) in Mecca once in a lifetime, if possible.

The rest of the teachings of the religion are consequences and further elaborations of these pillars of the faith and devotional practices.

Allah and the Qur'an

God, or Alla¯h in Arabic, is of course the most fundamental reality on which the religion of Islam is based; God created the Muslim soul and shaped the Muslim's thoughts and consciousness. Islam has come to reaffirm the monotheisms of Adam and Abraham. God is absolutely one; the origin and the end of the universe; its creator, sustainer, and ruler. Allah has created the universe for the sake of humans, the best of all creatures. A human being's purpose of existence is in turn to know God. By knowing the universe, humans can know God. This is possible, since God has imprinted numerous signs in the universe. One can also say that God has imprinted "names" in creation, which are many. Muslim tradition speaks of ninety-nine beautiful names of God, the most mentioned in the Qur'an and the most uttered by the Muslim tongue being Al-Rahma¯n (The Most Compassionate). Muslims adore and celebrate these divine names in numerous ways. Children in kindergartens and Muslim schools called madrasahs memorize them by reciting them with melodious voices in a chorus. Artists visualize them with their beautiful Arabic calligraphies. Philosophers exert their intellects to penetrate the deeper meanings of these names through their profound conceptual analysis. Mystics or Sufis contemplate them in their spiritual retreats so that "the heart is empty of everything except God." Such is the profound impact of the divine names as conceived by Islam on the Muslim soul and intellect.

The role of the Qur'an in Muslim life is inseparable from that of Muhammad. He is seen as the perfect embodiment of the Qur'an. A husband and father, a teacher and a businessman, a leader in war and peace, and most of all a spiritual and moral guide, Muhammad is thus the role model for every Muslim of every generation. In Muhammad's own words, his community of believers will not err as long as they are guided by the Qur'an and his way of life.

See also AverrÖes; Avicenna; God; Islam, History of Science and Religion; Islam, Contemporary Issues in Science and Religion; Life after Death; Soul


azzam, a. rahman. the eternal message of muhammad. cambridge, uk: islamic texts society, 1993.

bakar, osman. classification of knowledge in islam. cambridge, uk: islamic texts society, 1997.

bakar, osman. the history and philosophy of islamic science. cambridge, uk: islamic texts society, 1999.

esposito, john l. islam: the straight path. new york: oxford university press, 1991.

gulen, m. fethullah. the essentials of islamic faith. konak, turkey: kaynak, , 1997.

hamidullah, muhammad. introduction to islam. gary, ind.: international islamic federation of students organizations, 1970.

nasr, seyyed hossein. ideals and realities of islam. chicago: kazi publications, 1997.

schuon, fritjhof. understanding islam. bloomington, ind.: world wisdom books, 1994.

osman bakar

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

BAKAR, OSMAN. "Islam." Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. 2003. 30 May. 2016 <>.

BAKAR, OSMAN. "Islam." Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. 2003. (May 30, 2016).

BAKAR, OSMAN. "Islam." Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. 2003. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from


Islam (Ĭsläm´, Ĭs´läm), [Arab.,=submission to God], world religion founded by the Prophet Muhammad. Founded in the 7th cent., Islam is the youngest of the three monotheistic world religions (with Judaism and Christianity). An adherent to Islam is a Muslim [Arab.,=one who submits].

Believers Worldwide

There are more than 1 billion Muslims worldwide, fewer than one fifth of whom are Arab. Islam is the principal religion of much of Asia, including Indonesia (which has the world's largest Muslim population), Malaysia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, the Arabian Peninsula states, and Turkey. India also has one of the world's largest Muslim populations, although Islam is not the principal religion there. In Africa, Islam is the principal religion in Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Djibouti, Gambia, Guinea, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Senegal, Somalia, and Sudan, with sizable populations also in Chad, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Tanzania (where the island of Zanzibar is predominantly Muslim), and Nigeria.

In Europe, Albania is predominantly Muslim, and, historically, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Macedonia, and Georgia have had Muslim populations. Elsewhere in Europe, significant immigrant communities of Muslims from N Africa, Turkey, and Asia exist in France, Germany, Great Britain, and other nations. In the Americas the Islamic population has substantially increased in recent years, both from conversions and the immigration of adherents from other parts of the world. In the United States, the number of Muslims has been variably estimated at 2–6 million; 20% of the population of Suriname is Muslim.

Islamic Beliefs

At the core of Islam is the Qur'an, believed to be the final revelation by a transcendent Allah [Arab.,=the God] to Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam; since the Divine Word was revealed in Arabic, this language is used in Islamic religious practice worldwide. Muslims believe in final reward and punishment, and the unity of the umma, the "nation" of Islam. Muslims submit to Allah through arkan ad-din, the five basic requirements or "pillars" : shahadah, the affirmation that "there is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God" ; salah, the five daily ritual prayers (see liturgy, Islamic); zakat, the giving of alms, also known as a religious tax; Sawm, the dawn-to-sunset fast during the lunar month of Ramadan; and hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. The importance of the hajj can hardly be overestimated: this great annual pilgrimage unites Islam and its believers from around the world.

The ethos of Islam is in its attitude toward Allah: to His will Muslims submit; Him they praise and glorify; and in Him alone they hope. However, in popular or folk forms of Islam, Muslims ask intercession of the saints, prophets, and angels, while preserving the distinction between Creator and creature. Islam views the Message of Muhammad as the continuation and the fulfillment of a lineage of Prophecy that includes figures from the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, notably Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus. Islamic law reserves a communal entity status for the ahl al-kitab, People of the Book, i.e., those with revealed religions, including Jews and Christians. Islam also recognizes a number of extra-biblical prophets, such as Hud, Salih, Shuayb, and others of more obscure origin. The chief angels are Gabriel and Michael; devils are the evil jinn.

Other Islamic obligations include the duty to "commend good and reprimand evil," injunctions against usury and gambling, and prohibitions of alcohol and pork. Meat is permitted if the animal was ritually slaughtered; it is then called halal.Jihad, the exertion of efforts for the cause of God, is a duty satisfied at the communal and the individual level. At the individual level, it denotes the personal struggle to be righteous and follow the path ordained by God. Communally, it involves both encouraging what is good and correcting what is not and waging war to defend Islam.

In Islam, religion and social membership are inseparable: the ruler of the community (caliph; see caliphate) has both a religious and a political status. The unitary nature of Islam, as a system governing relations between a person and God, and a person and society, has contributed to the appeal and success of Islam.

The evolution of Islamic mysticism into organizational structures in the form of Sufi orders was, from the 13th cent. onwards, one of the driving forces in the spread of Islam (see Sufism; fakir). Sufi orders were instrumental in expanding the realm of Islam to trans-Saharan Africa, stabilizing its commercial and cultural links with the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and to SE Asia.

Holidays and Honorifics

The original feasts of Islam are id al-fitr, corresponding to the breaking of the fast of Ramadan, and id al-adha, coinciding with the pilgrimage to Mecca. Shiite Islam also celebrates id al-ghadir, the anniversary of Muhammad's declaration of Ali as his successor. Other Islamic holidays include al-mawlid al-nabawwi, Muhammad's birthday, and al-isra wa-l-miraj, the anniversary of his miraculous journey to Jerusalem and ascension to Heaven. Among the Islamic religious honorifics are shaykh, a generic term refering to a religious scholar or a mystic master; qadi, a religious judge (handling particular cases); mufti, a religious authority who issues general legal opinions; and mullah, a synonym of shaykh used in the Persian-speaking world.

Interpretation of the Qur'an

The revealed word of Islam, the Qur'an, in a formal Arabic which became more archaic with time, required explication. The Sunna, the spoken and acted example of the Prophet, collected as hadith, is an important traditional source that is used to supplement and explicate the Qu'ran. The Sunna is almost as important to Islam as the Qur'an, for in it lie the elaborations of Qur'anic teaching essential to the firm establishment of a world religion. There are disagreements in the hadith, and aspects of interpretations of the Qur'an and the Sunna have varied so much as to be contradictory at times. These situations are resolved by reference to one of the most important of the sayings attributed to the Prophet, "My community will never agree in an error." This leeway also allowed Islam to expand by incorporating social, tribal, and ethnic traditions. For example, with the exception of inheritance and witness laws, Islamic rights and obligations apply equally to men and women. The actual situation of women is more a function of particular social traditions predating Islam than of theoretical positions. For more information on Islamic law, see sharia; for discussions of the major branches of Islamic theology, see Shiite, Sunni.


See F. Rahman, Islam (1966), M. Jameelah, Islam and Modernism (1968), P. K. Hitti, History of the Arabs (10th ed. 1970), M. G. S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam (3 vol., 1974), J. L. Esposito, Islam (rev. ed. 1992), A. Schimmel, Islam (1992), D. Waines, An Introduction to Islam (1995), J. I. Smith, Islam in America (1999), M. Cook et al., ed., The New Cambridge History of Islam (6 vol., 2009), S. F. Dale, The Muslim Empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals (2010), F. M. Donner, Muhammad and the Believers (2010), and B. Tibi, Islamism and Islam (2012); C. Glassé, Concise Encyclopedia of Islam (1991). J. L. Esposito, The Oxford Dictionary of Islam (2003), and G. Bowering, ed., The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought (2012).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Islam." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. 2016. 30 May. 2016 <>.

"Islam." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. 2016. (May 30, 2016).

"Islam." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. 2016. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from


Islam (Islām). The religion of allegiance to God and to his prophet Muḥammad, the religion (dīn) which God always intended for his creation, but which is derived in its present form from the prophetic ministry of Muḥammad (c.570–632 CE), and from the revelation mediated through him, the Qurʾān. The verbal noun islām appears eight times in the Qurʾān: derived from the same Semitic root as Heb. shālom (peace), it means ‘entering into a condition of peace and security with God through allegiance or surrender to him’.

Islam began historically in the quest of Muḥammad to find the absolute truth of God in the midst of the many conflicting claims which he encountered in his environment about the nature of God. Muḥammad went off for periods of increasing isolation during which he struggled in prayer to find al-Haqq, the true One; and in a cave on Mount Ḥirāʾ, there came to him the overwhelming sense of that reality pressing upon him, and the first of the utterances that later became the Qurʾān were spoken through him (96. 1). From this absolute sense of God, Allāh, derived the insistence which is characteristic of Islam, that if God is indeed God, then there can only be what God is, the One who is the source of all creation and the disposer of all events and lives within it. The life of Muḥammad and the message of the Qurʾān then become a working out and application of that fundamental vision: all people (divided as they are from each other at present) should become a single ʾumma (community), and every action and every aspect of life should become an act of witness that ‘there is no God but God’ and that ‘Muḥammad is his messenger’.

Those latter affirmations, making up the basic witness (al-Shahāda), form the first of the Five Pillars of Islam. Muslim life and belief are derived directly from the Qurʾān, but since the Qurʾān does not deal with every issue or question which a Muslim might wish to ask, authoritative guidance is derived also from the traditions (ḥadīth) concerning the words, deeds and silences of Muḥammad and his companions. Even so, there remains much scope for application and interpretation. Methods of such interpretation emerged (see IJMĀʿ; IJTIHĀD; QIYĀS), as also did major schools of interpretation, which drew up law-codes to govern Muslim life: see SHARĪʿA.

When Muḥammad died, no exact provision had been made for any successor to lead the new community. Those who looked for the most effective leader chose Abu Bakr, known as caliph or khalīfa. Those who looked for the closest relative of Muḥammad supported ʿAlī. Although there were four immediate successors (al-Rāshidūn; see KHALĪFA) before a final split, the strains were too great, and the party (shīʿa) of ʿAlī broke away from those who claimed to be following the custom (sunna) of the Prophet, thereby creating the divide between Sunni and Shīʿa Muslims which persists to this day.

The spread of Islam was extremely rapid. Within a hundred years of the death of Muḥammad, it had reached the Atlantic in one direction and the borders of China in the other. It now amounts to about a billion adherents, and is found in most countries of the world. At one stage (from the 9th to the 13th cents. CE), the Muslim delight in creation led it into a passionate commitment to knowledge (ʿilm), which in turn led Muslims into spectacular achievements in philosophy (falsafa) and the natural sciences.

There were two major reactions to the achievements of Muslim philosophy and science. The first was a growing suspicion that perhaps the achievements of the human mind were taking priority over the revelation from God. ‘The Incoherence of Philosophy’ was exposed by al-Ghaz(z)ālī (1058–1111 (AH 450–505)), and since that time the prevailing tendency has been one of giving priority to revelation (and the sciences associated with it of exegesis) and obedience.

The second major reaction was a reinforcement of that style of Muslim life and devotion which is known as Sufism.

Islam is necessarily a missionary religion, since entrusted to it is the revelation of God's word and will for the world. The world is divided into three domains (see DĀR AL-HARB), with the clear expectation that in due course all will be unified in the single ʾumma of God's intent. In the mean time, that quest for community is much complicated by the imposition, during the colonial period of European expansion, of nation-states. The caliphate, which had created the great dynasties of the past (e.g. the Umayyads, the ʿAbbasids, culminating in the Ottomans) lingered on in Turkey, but was abolished in 1924 during the attempt to establish Turkey as a secular state. The resulting ambiguities in countries where Muslims are in a majority (e.g. over the extent to which sharīʿa law should be introduced or extended), and the many problems for the recovery of authentically Muslim life in a world of rapid change, have not yet been resolved.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

JOHN BOWKER. "Islam." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. 1997. 30 May. 2016 <>.

JOHN BOWKER. "Islam." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. 1997. (May 30, 2016).

JOHN BOWKER. "Islam." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. 1997. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from


Islam One of three great monotheistic religions of the world (the others being Judaism and Christianity). It originated in seventh-century Arabia with the prophet Muhammad, who first converted the trading cities of Mecca and Medina, and then rallied the hitherto polytheistic tribal population. Within a century Islam had spread through conquest to Persia, much of the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain. It is represented by a succession of great empires: Ummayad to 750, Abbasid to 1258, and Ottoman to 1918. Today it encompasses around 45 countries and one billion or so people.

Islam is based on the principle of submission to Allah or God, its holy texts are the Koran (the word of God as revealed to Muhammad by an angel), and the Hadith or sayings of the Prophet. There are five main principles or ‘pillars’ of Islam: the affirmation that there is no God but God, and that Muhammad is his prophet; prayer five times a day; zakat, the giving of alms; fasting in the month of Ramadan; and hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime. Jihad, or holy war, is sometimes regarded as another obligation of Muslims, but it does not have the same status, and is often interpreted as referring to a process of spiritual improvement rather than combat with non-Muslims.

Islam differs from Christianity in having no clerical hierarchy, in enforcing a number of prohibitions to do with diet, and in paying special attention to the status and clothing of women. Since the seventh century, it has been divided into a Sunni faction and a minority Shi'ite school, the latter dominant in Iran. The interpretation of Islam in the contemporary world has ranged from those who want to harmonize it with Western economic and political values to those who seek a return to the model of the seventh century. The Islamic revolution of Iran (1979) represented an attempt to pursue the latter path.

Sociological analysis of Islam began with Max Weber who identified two principal differences with Christianity: the lack of an ethic of this-worldly asceticism, and the domination of patrimonial or prebendary relations, through which the state inhibited the growth of private property. Both served to prevent the development of capitalism. This interpretation was later challenged in several works by Maxime Rodinson, who saw Islam as continent and its failure to evolve to capitalism as due to other factors, including international pressures. Later work on Islam focused on the debate between those who identified a distinct sociology of Islam derived from the Koran and other texts, and those who stressed the variety and contingency of Islamic social and political practices. A third area of interpretation was that of the rise of Islamic political movements in the 1970s and 1980s. Some saw this as a popular mobilization, using an Islamic idiom, against foreign domination; others viewed it as a retrospective usage of Islamic symbols by certain social groups (particularly clergy, merchants, and intellectuals) threatened by the processes of secularization and modernization.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

GORDON MARSHALL. "Islam." A Dictionary of Sociology. 1998. 30 May. 2016 <>.

GORDON MARSHALL. "Islam." A Dictionary of Sociology. 1998. (May 30, 2016).

GORDON MARSHALL. "Islam." A Dictionary of Sociology. 1998. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from


227. Islam

See also 151. FAITH ; 183. GOD and GODS ; 349. RELIGION ; 392. THEOLOGY .

a strict follower of the Koran.
Babism, Babiism
the doctrines and practices of a 19th-century Persian sect that formed the basis for the current Bahai organization, regarded as heretical by orthodox Muslims because its leader proclaimed himself to be the Imam Mahdi, the expected twelfth Imam of the Shiite sect, who would establish justice on earth. Babist , n.
the activities of the Ghazis, fanatics sworn to destroy all infidels.
a member of the Shia sect of Muslims, who believe in a succession of twelve divinely inspired imams, from Ali to Muhamad al Muntazar.
Islam, Islamism
the religion of Islam; Muhammadanism. Islamist , n. Islamitic , adj.
the tradition in Islam of venerating a shrine in Mecca through pilgrimage and prayers made after turning in its direction. Kaaba , n., adj.
an adherent of a heretical 9th-century Muslim sect that considers the Koran as mere allegory and is opposed to prayer, fasting, and revelation.
the belief in Mahdi, the Muslim spiritual guide who, on Judgment Day, will lead the faithful to salvation. Mahdist , n.
Muhammadanism, Mohammedanism
the doctrines and practices of the religion founded by the prophet Muhammad and set forth in the Koran. Also called Islam , Islamism . Muhammadan, Mohammedan , n.
the doctrines of Sultan Abdul-Hamids 19th-century political movement that was against the westernization and unification of Islam. Pan-Islamist , n. Pan-Islamic , adj.
Senusism, Sanusism
a 19th-century Islamic brotherhood observing a strict and ascetic religious orthodoxy and practicing militant political activity. Also Senusiya, Sanusiya . Senusi, Sanusi , n.
the doctrines and practices of Shia, one of the two major branches of Islam, regarding Ali, the son-in-law of Muhammad, as the Prophets legitimate successor. See also Sunnism . Shiite , n., adj.
Suflism, Sufism
the beliefs and practices of an ascetic, retiring, and mystical sect in Islam. Sufi , n., adj.
the doctrines and practices of the larger of the two major branches of Islam, regarding as legitimate the first four caliphs after Muhammads death and stressing the importance of the traditional portion of Muslim law (the Sunna). See also Shiism . Sunnite , n., adj.
Obsolete, a Muslim holy man.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Islam." -Ologies and -Isms. 1986. 30 May. 2016 <>.

"Islam." -Ologies and -Isms. 1986. (May 30, 2016).

"Islam." -Ologies and -Isms. 1986. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from


Islam (Arabic, submission to God) Monotheistic religion founded by Muhammad in Arabia in the early 7th century. At the heart of Islam stands the Koran, considered the divine revelation of God to Muhammad. Members of the faith (Muslims) date the beginning of Islam from ad 622, the year of the Hejira. Muslims submit to the will of Allah by five basic precepts (pillars). First, the shahadah, “there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet”. Second, salah, five daily ritual prayers. At a mosque, a Muslim performs ritual ablutions before praying to God in a attitude of submission, kneeling on a prayer mat facing Mecca with head bowed, then rising with hands cupped behind the ears to hear God's message. Third, zakat or alms-giving. Fourth, sawm, fasting during Ramadan. Fifth, Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. The rapid growth in Islam during the 8th century can be attributed to the unification of the temporal and spiritual. The community leader (caliph) is both religious and social leader. The Koran was soon supplemented by the informal, scriptural elaborations of the Sunna (Muhammad's sayings and deeds), collated as the Hadith. A Muslim must also abide by the Sharia or religious law. While Islam stresses the importance of the unity of the summa (nation) of Islam, several distinctive branches have developed, such as Sunni, Shi'ite, and Sufism. Today, there are c.935 million Muslims worldwide.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Islam." World Encyclopedia. 2005. 30 May. 2016 <>.

"Islam." World Encyclopedia. 2005. (May 30, 2016).

"Islam." World Encyclopedia. 2005. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from


Islam the religion of the Muslims, a monotheistic faith regarded as revealed through Muhammad as the Prophet of Allah.

Founded in the Arabian peninsula in the 7th century ad, Islam is now the professed faith of nearly a billion people worldwide, particularly in North Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia. The ritual observances and moral code of Islam were said to have been given to Muhammad as a series of revelations, which were codified in the Koran. Islam is regarded by its adherents as the last of the revealed religions, and Muhammad is seen as the last of the prophets, building on and perfecting the examples and teachings of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. There are two major branches in Islam, Sunni and Shia.

The name comes from Arabic 'islām ‘submission’, from 'aslama ‘submit (to God)’.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

ELIZABETH KNOWLES. "Islam." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. 2006. 30 May. 2016 <>.

ELIZABETH KNOWLES. "Islam." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. 2006. (May 30, 2016).

ELIZABETH KNOWLES. "Islam." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. 2006. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from


Is·lam / isˈläm; iz-/ • n. the religion of the Muslims, a monotheistic faith regarded as revealed through Muhammad as the Prophet of Allah. ∎  the Muslim world: the most enormous complex of fortifications in all Islam. DERIVATIVES: Is·lam·ic / -ik/ adj. Is·lam·i·ci·za·tion / isˌlämisiˈzāshən; iz-/ n. Is·lam·i·cize / isˈlämiˌsīz; iz-/ v. Is·lam·ism / ˈisləˌmizəm; ˈiz-/ n. Is·lam·ist / -ist/ n. Is·lam·i·za·tion / isˌlämiˈzāshən; iz-/ n. Is·lam·ize / ˈisləˌmīz; ˈiz-/ v.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Islam." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. 2009. 30 May. 2016 <>.

"Islam." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. 2009. (May 30, 2016).

"Islam." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. 2009. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from



This entry includes three subentries:
Shiʿite Islam
Sunni Islam

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Islam." Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. 2003. 30 May. 2016 <>.

"Islam." Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. 2003. (May 30, 2016).

"Islam." Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. 2003. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from


Islam XIX. — Arab. ‘islām, f. ‘aslama resign oneself (to God).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

T. F. HOAD. "Islam." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. 1996. 30 May. 2016 <>.

T. F. HOAD. "Islam." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. 1996. (May 30, 2016).

T. F. HOAD. "Islam." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. 1996. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from



This entry includes four subentries:

Southeast Asia

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Islam." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. 2005. 30 May. 2016 <>.

"Islam." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. 2005. (May 30, 2016).

"Islam." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. 2005. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from


Islamalarm, arm, Bairam, balm, barm, becalm, calm, charm, embalm, farm, forearm, Guam, harm, imam, ma'am, malm, Montcalm, Notre-Dame, palm, psalm, qualm, salaam, smarm •yardarm • sidearm • gendarme •wind farm • Islam • schoolmarm •tonearm • napalm • firearm •underarm • short-arm

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Islam." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. 2007. 30 May. 2016 <>.

"Islam." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. 2007. (May 30, 2016).

"Islam." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. 2007. Retrieved May 30, 2016 from

Facts and information from other sites