Islam: beliefs and practices

This weekend, Muslims around the world mark the holiest month of the Islamic calendar as they begin the fast of Ramadan. On this occasion, the Monitor takes a brief look at the foundational beliefs and practices of the world's second-largest religion, which has about 1.2 billion adherents.

It was during Ramadan that the prophet Muhammad received the first of what are believed to be his revelations from God, later written down in the Koran. The Islamic holy book calls on the faithful to fast for the entire month to learn self-restraint, and to gain spiritual guidance.

Beginning Nov. 17, Muslims will be expected to abstain from all food, drink, and conjugal relations from the first light of dawn until sundown. Those who are sick, elderly, pregnant or at war, however, may fast at another time. At the close of each day, families and friends gather to break the fast together with water and dates and a special dinner.

Ramadan is also traditionally a time to extend forgiveness and to reach out with charitable acts. The good gained from fasting can be lost, though, if one engages in such acts as lying or slander. The month will end Dec. 16 with communal prayers and one of the two cherished Islamic holidays - the feast of Eid al-Fitr.

Fasting is one of the "five pillars" of Islam, the special obligations expected of all Muslims.

The Five Pillars

In Islam, practice is of greater importance than doctrine, and the "five pillars" represent the framework for a responsible and good life.

1. The declaration of faith - the shahada: "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God." One becomes a Muslim by formally making this declaration, which represents the belief that the purpose of life is to serve and obey the one God, and that it is achieved through the teachings and practices of Muhammad.

2. Prayer (salat). Muslims are to perform formal prayers five times a day, involving verses in Arabic from the Koran, thus structuring their lives around God. Congregational prayer is traditionally on Friday. Personal prayers are offered at any time.

3. Almsgiving (zakat). A principle of Islam is that everything belongs to God, and wealth is held by people in trust. Muslims also have a responsibility to care for the less fortunate. The zakat calls for annual giving of 2.5 percent of a Muslim's capital, calculated by the individual.

4. Fasting during Ramadan.

5. Pilgrimage (the hajj). The pilgimage to Mecca is a once-in-a-lifetime obligation for every Muslim able to do so. During 10 days of rites, pilgrims from around the world don simple garments to remove distinctions of class and culture, showing that all stand equal before God. The close of the hajj is marked by the other major festival celebrated by all Muslims, Eid al-Adha.

Five articles of faith

Islamic teachings include five foundational beliefs:

1. One unique, infinite, all-powerful and merciful God (Allah) is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. Everything is contingent upon God, including all of nature. Yet there is nothing like Him - an unqualified difference exists between the divine and the human. Man is God's creature, created out of clay, and orthodox Muslims have criticized Islamic mystics for affirming their experiences of oneness with God. The Koran gives 99 names for God, but His essence is unknowable.

2. The angels of God play an active part in human life. Muhammad received the revelations in the Koran through the angel Gabriel.

3. God's revelations have been sent to humankind through prophets and messengers. He has spoken through prophets to all peoples in history, but messengers - such as Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad - have universal significance. Jesus is revered as the greatest of all before Muhammad, but he is not the son of God. Muhammad did not preach a unique faith, but summed up all previous revelations, and is thus the Last Prophet for all humanity.

4. God has spoken His eternal message through holy books, to Jews and Christians as well as Muslims. Jews and Christians have special status in the Koran as "people of the book." The truths in those books included some distortions, however, and the revelation had to be sent one last time in the Koran.

5. With the Day of Resurrection and Judgment, God will hold every individual accountable for his or her actions. Bodies will be resurrected, and individuals will receive their "book of deeds." If put into the right hand, the reward will be the gardens of paradise; if put into the left, the eternal fires of punishment.

Other Islamic teachings

According to the Koran, man was created to be God's viceregent on earth and has been given free will and great potential. His mission is to create a moral and egalitarian social order.

Human experience is a test in which each individual is constantly called upon to choose between right and wrong.

There is no original sin, but Satan attempts to seduce human beings from the straight path. Yet God is with every individual who makes the necessary effort (jihad), and salvation lies in keeping to the right path.

The family is foundational to Islamic society and is seen as essential for its members' spiritual growth. Marriage is a legal agreement, not a sacrament, and either partner may include conditions.

Muslims are taught to value many kinds of knowledge, and to travel "even to China" to seek it, but its use must always be tempered with moral perception.

As Islam is a way of life, the Koran provides guidance on what constitutes a just society and places particlar emphasis on equitable economic relationships.

When Muhammad and his followers fled persecution in Mecca for Medina in 622, he became the political as well as religious leader for the first Muslim community (umma), which serves as a model for Muslims. Some Muslim scholars, for example, point out that women participated fully in the life of that community.

Islamic law (sharia)

Within a century of the prophet's death in 632, Islam had spread through conquest and conversion into Asia and Africa, and as far west as Spain. The need for a unified system of law became apparent. The sharia developed out of the work of religious scholars and judges on the basis of the Koran, the other words and practices of the Prophet (the sunnah), analogical deduction, and community consensus. It was originally an attempt to counter what had become the aristocratic and sometimes corrupt rule of the caliphs.

Since the end of the Ottoman Empire after World War I and colonization by the West, various movements have developed for a return to Islamic law as the basis for society in the Muslim world. There are strict schools of interpretation and others seeking to reinterpret Islamic law to meet the needs of the 21st century.

Islamic community (umma)

A prime aim of the Koran is the establishment of a just, ethically based social order on earth, and Muslims are to strive to bring this about. A high value is thus placed on the community of the faithful and on propagating the faith (da'wa). Some political and religious groups active in many countries are working to bring nonobservant Muslims back to active practice and to make conversions. Other Muslims see da'wa as their responsibility simply to lead moral and exemplary lives.

Religious pluralism

On the various religious communities, the Koran says, "If God had so willed, He would have made all of you one community, but [He has not done so] that He may test you in what He has given you; so compete in goodness. To God shall you all return and He will tell you [the Truth] about what you have been disputing."

Pluralism is a challenging issue within Islam today. In some historical periods, people of other faiths lived harmoniously under Islamic rule, but today the status of religious minorities is threatened in some countries. Some Muslims preach a strict division between "believers," and "nonbelievers" while others are actively involved in interfaith relations.

Sources: "Discover Islam," Transcom International; "Major Themes of the Koran," Fazlur Rahman; "Islam in America," Jane I. Smith, Columbia University Press.

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