More than one out of every five people on earth considers themselves
Muslim. With only 20% of the worldwide Muslim community living in the Middle
East, the great majority of Muslims do not speak Arabic. In fact, the largest
Muslim countries are found outside the Middle East: Indonesia is the largest
Muslim country, followed by Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh.1 Understandably, the way Islam is interpreted by these
of 1.57 billion Muslims is not always the same. There are basic similarities,
but also important differences.
Every Muslim (“one who is submitted to God”) tries to follow the five
acts of worship. The first is the Shahadah, which is the basic creed of
Islam: “I testify that there are no gods other than God alone and that Muhammad
is the Messenger of God.”2 The second pillar is Salat, which is the performance of the
prayer ritual five times a day. It can be prayed almost anywhere, as long as
the direction is towards Mecca. The prayer is intended to remind Muslims of God
throughout the day. The third pillar is Sawm, fasting, during Ramadan.
Once every year for thirty days Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset while
expressing their gratitude to God, asking for forgiveness of sins and taking
extra care of the needy. Almsgiving, Zakat, is the fourth pillar. And
lastly, Muslims are expected to try to go on pilgrimage, Hajj, once in
their lifetime to Mecca, where they walk around the Kaaba seven times,
among other rituals.
Besides the five pillars, Islam also has six statements of faith: belief
in (1) Allah, (2) his angels, (3) his divine books, (4) his messengers (among
whom are Adam, Noah, David, Jesus, and John the Baptist), (5) the day of
Judgment, and (6) divine destiny.3 The third statement regarding the divine books is of particular
significance. Muslims do not believe in merely one book, the Qur’an, but also
other Kitab al-Moqaddis (holy books). The first is the books of Abraham,
which they believe are extinct or lost, the second is the Tawrat (Torah)
of Moses, the third the Zabur (Psalms) of David, and lastly the Injil
(Gospel) of Jesus.4 Although they are a part of the Islamic Creed, these three books are
generally not given as much weight as the Qur’an. Disagreements between Islamic
groups ensue because some, although not all, Islamic scholars believe these
books have been altered and the original versions were lost.
As far as
“denominations” within Islam, there are two major divisions: Sunnism and
Shi’ism. The division originated with the debate as to who was the right successor
of Muhammad. Shi’ites believe it to be Ali ibn Abi Talib, and the Sunnis
believe it to have been the four Caliphs that followed Muhammad. Sunnis comprise
85% of Muslims worldwide and can be subdivided into four major schools of
thought: the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanbali. Shi’ites comprise about 13%
of Muslims.5 Shi’ites can be subdivided into three major schools of thought,
each being distinct from Sunnism primarily in that they put a higher trust in
the interpretations and revelations coming from a line of imams (religious
leaders) since Muhammad. Sufism is a form of Islam that has a higher focus on
seeking personal experience with God (mysticism). Some categorize it under
either Sunni or Shi’ite, but others say it is a third stream within Islam.
2Frederick Mathewson Denny, An Introduction to Islam,
2nd ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1994), 118.
3Y. I. al-Siekh, The Pillars of Islam (El-Mansoura:
Dar Al-Manarah, 2006), 14.
5Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islam: Religion, History, and
Civilization (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco), 2003, 10.
Edited by Cory Willson and Matthew Krabill