An Introduction to Islam
History of Islam
The Birth of Mohammed: 
Mohammed was born in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, c572 A.D. His father, who died two months before his birth, was a poor man but belonged to the Koreish, one of the distinguished Arabian tribes. While still a young man, Mohammed married a wealthy widow and was thereby relieved of the necessity of daily labour. Mohammed found himself with enough leisure time to indulge in religious contemplation. At that time, although Judaism and Christianity had been adopted by certain Arabian tribes, idolatrous worship had supplanted most of their ancient rites. 

Mohammed would annually go to Mt. Hira to meditate and pray. One year, upon returning from the mountain, Mohammed declared himself a chosen prophet of God. Mohammed claimed that he had his first vision while in a cave on the mountain. On return to Mecca, he preached his message for nine years, and gained a number of adherents. As one might expect, this caused friction with other established beliefs. Finally, in 612 A.D. he was warned by his followers that his enemies intended to murder him and he was forced to flee. This flight marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar and is called 1A.H. (after Hejrat meaning "after the flight or migration"). His flight allowed him to gather his followers and in 630 A.D. he returned to wrest Mecca from the hands of the Koreish. He was then acknowledged "the prophet" by all Arabia.

During his lifetime (Mohammed died two years after his return to Mecca), his followers carefully transcribed his words and visions, as he himself did not know how to write. In 645 A.D. (about ten years after his death, 'Ali (Mohammed's brother in law) and other leaders collected together all these transcriptions, collated them and created the book of the Qur'an, which has 114 chapters, and 6236 verses. This became the Holy Book for the followers of Islam.

The Formative Years:
The Hajj: Ramadan - pilgrims at the Kaaba in MeccaSince the time of Mohammed, the Muslim community has tended to split up into various groups. Often political and cultural factors were as significant as theological and philosophical ones in this process. The formative period in the development of Islamic thought was an exciting battleground of ideas, and culminated in what generally became known as Sunni orthodoxy, the established doctrines of the vast majority of Muslims. The main issues involved faith and works, predestination and free will, revelation and reason, the implications of the unity of God, the eternity of the Qur'an, and whether or not the Qur'an must be taken literally.

Mohammed's flight to Medina in September 622, marks the initiation of the Islamic era, and his death in June 632, succeeded in founding a state of considerable power and prestige according to Arabian standards of the time. During this short ten year period, most of the desert dwelling Bedouin tribes of Arabia had pledged their allegiance to the Prophet of Islam, who thus laid the foundation for the subsequent expansion of the new faith in Allah beyond the Arabian peninsula.

However, the death of Mohammed presented the infant Islamic community with its first major crisis. The crisis of succession marks the beginning of what was eventually to develop into a permanent Sunni Shi'a division in the Islamic community.

The First Major Crisis:
As long as Mohammed was alive, Muslims had taken it for granted that he would provide them the best guidance according to the revealed message of Islam. His death in Medina left the Muslims in a state of serious confusion, because (at least in view of the majority), the Prophet had left neither formal instruction nor a testament regarding his successor. In the ensuing discussions, there was immediate consensus of opinion on one point only. The successor of the Prophet could not be another prophet as it had already been made known through divine revelation that Mohammed was the "Seal of the Prophets". However, it was still essential to choose a successor on order to have effective leadership and ensure the continuation of the Islamic community and state.

Consequently, amidst much debate, one of the earliest converts to Islam and a trusted companion of Mohammed, Abu Bakr, was elected as successor. He took the title of Khalifat Rasul Allah (Successor to the Messenger of God), a title which was soon simplified to Khalifa ("Caliph" in English). Thus by electing the first successor to the Prophet, the unique Islamic institution of the caliphate was also founded. From its very inception, the caliphate came to embody both the religious and the political leadership of the community. The early Muslims recognized neither distinction between religion and state, nor between religious and secular authorities and organizations. Indeed, a strictly theocratic conception of order, in which Islam is not merely a religion but a complete system ordained by God for the socio-political as well as the moral and spiritual governance of mankind, had been an integral part of Mohammed's message and practice.

Abu Bakr's caliphate lasted just over two years, and before his death in 634, he personally selected 'Umar as his successor. 'Umar who was assassinated in 644, introduced a new procedure for the election of his successor; he had decided that a council of six of the early companions was to choose the new caliph from amongst themselves. In due time, 'Uthman b 'Affan, an member of the important Meccan clan was selected and became the third caliph.

The Beginnings of Shi'a Islam:
Najaf / An Najaf (An Najaf province, Iraq): Ali ibn Abi Talib / Ali Ibn Alib Talib mosque - founder of the Shia / Shiite sect, cousin of Mohammed (photographer: Alejandro Slobodianik / the meantime, immediately upon the death of Mohammed, there had appeared a minority group in Medina who believed that Ali ibn Abi Talib, first cousin and son in law of Mohammed (married to Mohammed's daughter Fatima), was better qualified than any other candidate, including Abu Bakr, to succeed the Prophet. This minority group came to be known as the Shi'at 'Ali (the party of Ali) and then simply as the Shi'a. 'Ali's candidacy continued to be supported by his partisans in Medina, and in due time the Shi'a developed a doctrinal view and their cause received wider recognition.

The Shi'a believed that Mohammed did in fact appoint a successor, (or an imam as they have preferred to call the spiritual guide and leader), and that person was in fact 'Ali. As such, 'Ali and his friends became obliged to protest against the act of choosing the Prophet's successor through elective methods. It was this very protest which separated the Shi'a from the majority of the Muslims.

Kerbala - Iraq: Shiite mosque - Iman Hussein mausoleun (photo by Alejandro Slobodianik / the contention over the rightful order, the first four caliphs (known as the al-khulafa' al-rashidun or "Rightly-Guided Caliphs") were considered to be the orthodox maintainers of the all embracing regulations of the message of Islam as expressed in the revelations contained in the Qur'an. (It was this orthodoxy that became known as Sunni Islam.)

According to Shi'a doctrine the imams ('Ali and his direct descendants) were the only source of religious instruction and guidance, and the most important question regarded the elucidation of Islamic teachings and religious tenets. This was because they were aware that the teachings of the Qur'an and the sacred law of Islam (Shari'a) came from sources beyond man and therefore contained truths that could not be grasped through human reason. Therefore in order to understand the true meaning of the Islamic revelation, the Shi'a had realized the necessity for a religiously authoritative person, namely the imam.

Iraq - Najaf / An Najaf (An Najaf province): portrait of Iman Husayn / Hussein ibn Ali - son of Ali, grandson of Mohammed (photo (c) Alejandro Slobodianik  / 'Ali eventually succeeded as the fourth caliph, the Shi'a believe he was really the first true caliph, followed by a succession of 11 others. In the eyes of the Shi'a, 'Ali's unique qualifications as successor held yet another important dimension in that he was believed to have been nominated by divine command as expressed through Mohammed's testimony. This meant that 'Ali was also divinely inspired and immune from error and sin, thus making him infallible both in his knowledge and as a teaching authority after the prophet. The Shia branch broke away after the killing of 'Alis's son Husayn at the battle of Karbala in 680 AD.

Because of their beliefs, these Shi'a became known as the "twelvers" (based on the number of imams). When the twelfth imam mysteriously disappeared in 878 the Imamate came to an end and the collective body of Shi'ite religious scholars or ulema assumed his office, awaiting his return as the 'rightly guided one'. The present Ayatollahs (Signs of God) see themselves as joint caretakers of the office of the Imam, who is to return at the end of time.

However, the succession was not totally agreed upon by all Shi'a and another group broke away and became known as the "seveners" or Ismaelis, because of their contention that the rightful seventh (and last imam) was not Musa al Kazim, but his elder brother Isma'il who died as a child.

As a result of this aspect of the "division", it can generally be concluded that orthodox Sunni Islam basically believes that the Qur'an is the final authority and there is no further revelation. Shi'a Islam believes that the rightful Imam has both the divine inspiration and authority of Allah to add to the message of the Qur'an. Thus Shi'a Islam is seen as the more radical of the two main branches, and throughout the centuries many have claimed to be the next 'imam', attempting to rally Muslims to their particular cause which has unfortunately often been expressed as a Jihad (Holy war against infidels).

Divisions and sub-divisions of Islam:
During these early years further divisions were made in the Muslim community. 

  • The Kharijites (secessionists) withdrew from the "party of 'Ali" because they claimed that the Muslim leaders at that time did not follow the Qur'an strictly and leave the major decisions to God. These Kharijites (who have continued as a small sect in North Africa), also conclude that Islam should be a community of saints and that those who commit grave sins forfeit their identity as Muslims. Those who differed on this point, emphasizing the importance of proper faith over works and arguing that the decision on grave sinners should be deferred to God at the Judgment day, came to be called Murji'ites (postponers or those who hope). Those who emphasized human responsibility over predestination came to be called Qadarites (determiners).
  • Lisbon: Ismaeli centre / Nizari Islam - Aga Khan followers on avenida Lusiada (photo (c) by Miguel Torres / Ismaelis developed their own distinctive ideas, and flourished in the tenth century, influential in establishing the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. They have also been active missionaries for Islam and have spread especially to southern Arabia and East Africa. The main body of Ismaelis is divided into two branches, the Musta'lis (whose headquarters are in Bombay), and the Nizaris (led by the Aga Khan). Other offshoots include the Nusayris and the Druze.
  • The Druze are an esoteric sect, meeting on Thursdays instead of Fridays, holding firmly to monogamous marriage, having their own strict code and distinctive beliefs such as that 'Ali was an incarnation of God.
  • The Hashshashin (Assassins) also broke away from the Ismaelis in Syria during the period of the early crusades on the eleventh century. They received their name from their use of hashish, and became famous for their seizing of Crusader forts and assassinating the Christians. Today, they are known as Khojas or Mawlas, and live mostly in the Bombay area of India, but some also live in Syria and Iran.
  • One of the earliest Sunni schools was that formed by Abu Hanifah (d.767), which became known as the Hanafi rite or school. It is considered to be one of the more liberal schools, when compared to the fundamentalists. The school is dominant among Turkic peoples in Central Asia, Turkey, the Arab countries of the fertile crescent, lower Egypt, and India.
  • Malik ibn Anas (d.795) founded another school which became known as the Malakite rite. This rite developed around the concept that it was more important to depend on the traditions of the Companions of Mohammed than with the prophet himself. When it came to conflicting traditions, Malik and his followers simply made an arbitrary choice. Adherants to this rite are very strong in North Africa, particularly Algeria.
  • The Shafi'ites take their name from Al Shafi'i (d.820), who had been a follower of Malik. During his life, he had a remarkable impact on the development of Islamic jurisprudence, having a lot of input into the defining of the Shariah (fundamental law), and the establishing of the Hadith (book of sayings of Mohammed) as an authoritative document. Members of the Shafi'ite school can be found in lower Egypt, Syria, India, and Indonesia.
  • Mystical ideas began to flow into the stream of Islamic thought as early as the first century A.H. However, the origins of the Sufi orders are just as mystical as their practices. Some claim it comes from the word "suffe", a sitting platform used by Arabs. As Mohammed's close supporters would regularly come and sit on the suffe and listen to his words and learn from his wisdom, they gradually became known as Sufis. Most of these Sufis left their homes and went into the mountains, deserts and peninsulas in search of solitude and closeness to Allah. 



    Abandoning the physical comforts of the world and pursuing silence prayer and meditation, their ultimate goal was to transcend worldly life and reach an eternal celestial tranquillity in union with Allah. Others claim it comes from the Arabic word suf which literally means wool, referring to the material from which the simple robes of the early Muslim mystics were made. 

    Despite problems with origins, the Sufis can generally be regarded as Muslim mystics, although many Sufis would argue that Sufism is in fact the real basis of orthodox Islam. The central doctrine of Sufism is wahdat al-wujud (the oneness of being), and they teach that the relative has no reality other than in the Absolute, and the finite had no reality other than in the Infinite. In Islam, man has access to the Absolute and Infinite through the Qur'an. They also hold the belief that, in addition to the guidance offered to them in the Qu'ran, they must receive instruction and help in their quest for spiritual purification from a wise and experienced "master" or guide. Calling for a life of love and pure devotion to Allah, the Sufis developed a spiritual path to Allah, consisting of various stages of piety (maqamat) and gnostic-psycholigical states (ahwal), through which each Sufi has to pass. This concept of stages of piety led to a concept of sainthood in Islam, along with the related belief that saints could perform miracles.

    While strict orthodox Islam frowns on any use of music in religious rituals, Sufi orders have developed a wide variety of ritual observances involving singing, drums and other musical instruments. These rituals often include some form of dance, the best known in the West being that of the Turkish Mevlevi order, often called the "whirling dervishes".

    Today there are many Sufi orders throughout the length and breadth of Islam, taking their name from both the school's teacher and its city of location. For example, you may have a Shi'a Sufi from the Oveyssi school at Karaj.

  • Besides these clearly defined sects, and numerous others like them, there is a wide variety of other groups involving Islam. In some cases, both Islamic and non Islamic elements have been combined to form syncretistic groups, the most notable being the Sikhs of India, who combine Islamic and Hindu beliefs and practices.

What do Muslims believe?
Muslims believe that their salvation depends upon their own efforts. To become a Muslim, the individual must first repent, especially of idolatry, and then acknowledge that there is no God but Allah, and that Mohammed is his messenger. Having done this, an individual's salvation depends on how the weight of his sins compares to the weight of his good deeds at the day of resurrection.

Muslims live and die without any assurance that they will be saved, and they are driven to perform good deeds in hopes of outweighing their sins. Their God - Allah is far off and uninterested in their personal well being. They know very little of forgiveness. Perhaps Romans 10:2-3a aptly describes them: "For I bear them record that they have a zeal from God, but not according to knowledge. For they be ignorant of God's righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted.."

Major Muslim People Groups

  • Acehnese - 3.1 million on Sumatra, Indonesia.
  • Algerian Arabs - 18.3 million in Algeria, and France.
  • Azerbaijani - 18.1 million in Azerbaijan, Iran, and Turkey.
  • Bosnians - 1.7 million in Bosnia.
  • Bugis - 3.1 million on Sulawesi, Indonesia.
  • Deccani - 11.7 million in India.
  • Fulani - 15 milion in Niger, Mali, and Benin.
  • Hausa - 22 million in Niger and Nigeria.
  • Hui - 9.1 million in China.
  • Madurese - 11.2 million on Madura and Java, Indonesia.
  • Makassarese - 1.7 million on Sulawesi, Indonesia.
  • Malays - 12+ million in Thailand, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore and Indonesia.
  • Minangkabau - 7 million on Sumatra, Indonesia.
  • Moroccan Arabs - 11 million in Morocco.
  • Palestinians - 5.3 million in Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon.
  • Sindhi - 18 million in India and Pakistan.
  • Somali - 10 million in Somalia, Ethiopia, Djibouti.
  • Sundanese - 27 million on Java, Indonesia.
  • Turks - 42 million in Turkey, and Germany.
  • Uighurs - 7.6 million in Northwest China.
  • Uzbeks - 21 million in Central Asia and Afghanistan.
  • Wolof - 2.9 million in Senegal.

Further Reading

  • Farah, Caesar E. Islam

  • New York. 1994 Baron's Educational Series 
  • Guillaume, A. Islam

  • London. 1956 Penguin Books
  • Parrinder, Geoffrey (Ed). World Religions

  • New York. 1971 Hamlyn Publishing
  • Weekes, Richard V. (Editor) Muslim Peoples. A World Ethnographic Survey

  • London. 1978. Greenwood Press.
  • Johnstone, Patrick. Operation World

  • Seattle. 1993. YWAM Publishing.
sources:  Bethany WPC, Oxford reference dictionary
see also: Eid-al-Adha, religion, Eid-al-Fitr, Ramadan, islamic countries (Umma), summay, culture, images of mosques
A to Z of Azerbaijan / A dan Z ye Azerbaycan