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United by Faith

Understanding Islam

By Times Staff
Published May 17, 2004

The crescent and the star have become common symbols of Islam and appear on the flags of many Muslim countries. The Islamic calendar is based on the cycles of the moon.

The Arabic word "Islam" simply means "submission" and is derived from a word meaning "peace." In a religious context it means complete submission to the will of God. "Mohammedanism" is thus a misnomer because it suggests that Muslims worship Mohammed rather than God.

Sunnis and Shiites

Islam has two major divisions - Sunnis and Shiites - based not on major fundamental issues of belief, but rather on who was the rightful successor to the prophet Mohammed.

Sunnis hold that Mohammed designated no one to be the caliphate, or leader, of the Muslim people. Shiites, a large number of whom live in Iraq, hold that Mohammed designated his cousin and son-in-law - a man named Ali - as his successor.

Most of the world's Muslims are Sunnis, including those who attend the mosque in Hernando County. Only about 10 percent of the world's Muslims are Shiites.

Five Pillars of Islam

1. The declaration of faith: Muslims must declare that: "There is no deity but God, and Mohammed is the messenger of God."

2. Prayer: Muslims must perform five prayers each day facing in the direction of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, just before dawn, at noon, at mid afternoon, just after sunset, and later in the evening. If, for some reason, a Muslim is unable to pray one of the five prayers, he is obligated to make it up later.

3. Zakat, or charitable giving: Based on the idea that all things belong to God and that wealth is held in trust by human beings, Muslims give the needy 21/2 percent of their standing capital each year.

4. Fasting: Every year in the Islamic lunar month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from first light until sunset as a means of self-purification. The daily fasts are broken each day with feasts just after sunset, often held in large community gatherings.

5. Pilgrimage, or hajj: Muslims who are physically or financially able are supposed to journey to Mecca at least once in their lives. A number of rituals must be performed during the hajj, including walking in a circular path around the Kaaba, animal sacrifices, casting stones at pillars that represent the devil and spending a night in the desert.

The Kaaba

The Kaaba is the cube-like structure in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, to which all Muslims direct their daily prayers. During their pilgrimages to Mecca, Muslims walk in a circular pattern around the Kaaba. The structure's significance comes from the belief that it is the place of worship that God commanded Abraham and Ishmael to build more than 4,000 years ago. The building was constructed of stone on what many believe was the original site of a sanctuary established by Adam.


Mohammed was born in Mecca in the year 570. His father died before his birth, and his mother shortly afterward, so he was raised by his uncle. Muslims believe that, at age 40, while engaged in a meditative retreat, Mohammed received his first revelation from God through the angel Gabriel. This revelation, which continued for 23 years, is known as the Koran. Mohammed died at age 63.

The Koran

The holy book of Islam, Muslims believe the Koran is a record of the exact words of God revealed through the angel Gabriel to the prophet Mohammed. They believe Mohammed memorized it and then dictated it to his companions. There are translations of the Koran in various languages, but Muslims believe the essential Koran can be understood only if read in Arabic. The Koran is divided into 114 chapters, or surahs.

What the Koran says about:

Alcohol: "They ask you (O prophet) concerning drinking and gambling: Say: "In them is great sin, and some profit, for men; But the sin is greater than the profit.' " Koran 2:219

Homosexuality: "We also (sent) Lut (Lot): He said to his people: "Do you practice indecent acts that no people in creation (ever) did before you? Because your (sexual) desires on men in preference to women: you are truly a people going beyond bounds.' " Koran 7:80-81

Pork: "O you who believe! Eat of the good things that we have provided for you, and be grateful to Allah if it is he whom you worship. He has only forbidden you dead meat, and blood, and the flesh of swine, and that on which any other name has been invoked besides that of Allah. But if one is forced by necessity, without willful disobedience (of Allah's word), and without transgressing due limits - then is he guiltless." Koran 2:172-173.

Other sacred sources

The practices and examples of Mohammed, known as the Sunna, are considered a second authority for Muslims. Hadiths are a collection of things Mohammed said, did or approved that are frequently referred to by Muslims. Belief in the Sunna is part of the Islamic faith.

Sources: Council on American-Islamic Relations; The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam, by Suzanne Haneef; The Oxford History of Islam, and Interpretation of the Meaning of The Glorious Qur'an, by Syed Vickar Ahamed.

[Last modified May 17, 2004, 07:56:31]

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