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What is Islam?

By Times staff writer

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 14, 2001

Followers of Islam, called Muslims, believe their religion was founded in the seventh century when God revealed their holy book, the Koran, to the prophet Mohammed in Mecca and Medina in what is now Saudi Arabia.

Muslims believe in one God, and Islam has many of the same traditions as Judaism and Christianity. They believe that Jesus was a prophet, not the son of God. Islam rests on five practices, or pillars: profession of faith; prayer, performed five times each day; giving to the poor; fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, the month when the Koran was revealed to Mohammed; and hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, birthplace of Mohammed, expected of every adult Muslim who is physically and financially able.

Muslims may worship anywhere but typically gather at a mosque on Friday, which is equivalent to the Christian Sunday or the Jewish Sabbath.

Muslims are taught to be gentle and polite when speaking to people of other faiths. Men are permitted to marry outside the faith; women are not. Islam considers motherhood to be women's true calling, though in some countries women may also work at professions. The Koran teaches women to dress modestly so that people will treat them as humans and not merely as sexual beings.

There are two major branches of Islam, based largely on the the divisions between successors to the Prophet Mohammed: Sunni, with the most followers, and Shiite.

Islam forbids suicide and warns against killing civilians. But Islamic groups that train suicide bombers focus on verses referring to the glory of dying for God in the Koran and the Hadith, the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed that form the basis of Islamic law. A suicide bomber's death is described by Muslim militants as "the martyr's wedding," an occasion of joy and celebration.

With about 1-billion followers, Islam is the world's second largest religion after Christianity. About 45 nations have majority Muslim populations and roughly 30 other countries have sizable Muslim populations. Not all Arabs are Muslims, and not all Muslims are Arabs. The largest Islamic country is non-Arab -- Indonesia. And there is a sizable population of Christian Arabs in the Middle East.

Muslims are the fastest-growing religious minority in the United States.

- Sources: Times files, New York Times, The Middle East, 9th ed.

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