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284 pages
Nov 2003
Bethany House

The Illustrated Guide to World Religions

by Dean Halverson

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Islam Among the Nations

Islam makes up around 20% of the world's population. It is the second largest religion in the world, trailing only Christianity.

Muslims (followers of Islam) are spread primarily over the areas of North Africa, the Middle East, South-Central Asia, and Indonesia.

Although Islam began in Saudi Arabia, non-Arab Muslims now outnumber Arab Muslims by a ratio of almost three to one. Also, the four nations with the largest number of Muslims today are all outside the Middle East. Indonesia--166 million, 88% of the population; Pakistan--111 million, 97%; Bangladesh--97 million, 87%; India--93 million, 11%.

Roughly one-fifth of the more than 530,000 international students in the United States come from 40 Islamic countries. Most of these countries have a minimal number of Christian in their populations (0-2%). Moreover, governments have either closed the countries' borders to missionaries, or have made evangelism illegal, or both.

The Founding of Islam

In A.D. 570, Muhammed was born into an Arabian tribe called the Quarysh. The Quarysh were influential because they controlled the city of Mecca. Mecca was important economically because it served as a convenient resting place for trading caravans. It was important religiously because the Ka'bah was located there.

The Ka'bah is a cubic structure that, at the time of Muhammad, contained 360 deities. Each Arabian tribe and hand-picked its own deity and came to Mecca each year to pay homage to its god.

It was the custom of those who were spiritually-minded to retreat to a place of solitude once a year. Muhammad observed this practice for several years in a cave in Mount Hira. In the year 610, at age 40, Muhammad received his first revelation from the angel Gabriel. This was the beginning of a series of revelations that were eventually compiled in Islam's sacred scripture, the Qur'an, which means "recitations."

Muhammad is said to have doubted initially the origin of these new revelations. He thought that perhaps he had been possessed by jinn, or demons. His wife Khadijah, however, reassured him that his visions were of divine origin, and she encouraged him to teach that which and been revealed to him.

As Muhammad began to preach more publicly, the leaders of his own tribe pressured him to keep quiet bout his message of strict monotheism. They viewed such a teaching as a threat to their polytheistic religion and especially to the source of their livelihood, since they benefited economically from the pilgrimages the tribes made to the Ka'bah. Muhammad, however, refused to stop preaching, and he began to accrue a significant following.

As he continued to preach against polytheism, persecution increased against the followers of this new religion. Eventually, around 100 Muslim families were forced to flee to a city named Yathrib (now called Medina), which is around 200 miles north of Mecca.

Muhammad followed these families shortly thereafter, fleeing Mecca in the year 622. Muslims now look to the year of his flight to Yathrib as the beginning of the Muslim calendar. This event is known as the Hijrah (also spelled Hegira), which means "a series of migrations."

After several successful sieges and military victories against Mecca, and after making treaties with the Quraysh tribe, Muhammad and his army took control of Mecca in 630 without a struggle. Upon entering the city, he personally destroyed the idols in the Ka'bah. Within a year of Mecca's submission to Muhammad, he was able to unify all the tribes of the Arabian peninsula under the religion of Islam.

On June 8, 632, Muhammad died.

The Sects of Islam

Two major sects of Islam, Sunni and Shi'ite, were divided originally over a dispute as to who should serve as the first caliph, or successor, to Muhammad, who had failed to appoint one before his death. The Sunni Muslims insisted that Muammad's successor should be elected. The Shi'te (or Shia'h) Muslims thought he should come through Muhammad's blood line, which would have meant that Ali, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law would have been his successor. The Sunnis were the ones who got their way.

The Sunnis now comprise 80% of the Muslim population, and they differ from the Shi'ites in other ways besides that of a dispute over who was to be the original successor.

For example, the Sunnis and the Shi'ites differ with respect to their source of authority. The Sunnis emphasize the authority of the written traditions, which include not only the Qur'an but also the Sunna ("custom") from which the Sunnis derive their name. The Sunna includes the Hadith in which the sayings and conduct of Muhammad and his companions are recorded. The Sunna fills in many areas where the Qur'an is silent. The Sunnis also receive guidance from the principles arrived at by a consensus of the elders, or religious scholars (ulama), who derive their decisions based on the Qur'an, the Sunna, and subsequent rulings.

The Shi'ites, on the other hand, are more authority-oriented (rather than consensus-oriented). When their movement began, the believed that God spoke through an Imam, the Muslim equivalent of the Catholic Pope. In the ninth century, however, the twelfth Imam occultated, or became hidden, and the source of authority was passed on to the ulama, who considered themselves collectively to be the general representatives of the hidden Imam. The Shi'ites await the return of the twelfth Imam, called the Mahdi, similar to the way Christians look for the return of Christ. Shi'ites are typically more authority-oriented than consensus-oriented -- the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran, for example, was a Shi'ite leader.

Another difference between the two sects is that the Sunnis believe there should be a separations between civil and religious authorities, whereas, the Shi'ites maintain that the religious authorities should exercise both political and religious power.

Sufism is the mystical third wing of Islam. The goal of the Sufi is to renounce worldly attachments, to see only God in all things, and to attain assimilation of the self into the vast Being of God.

There are also several minor Muslim sects, including the Wahhabis (primarily in Saudi Arabia), the Druze (primarily in Lebanon, Syria, and northern Israel), the Alawites (primarily in Syria), and the Ahmadiyas (primarily in Pakistan). Beyond the major and minor sects, Islam has also been a contributing factor in two religions: Sikhism and Baha'i.

Excerpted from:
The Illustrated Guide to World Religions, Dean Halverson, General Editor
Copyright 2003, Angus Hudson Ltd/Tim Dowley & Peter Wyart
ISBN 0764228382
Published by Bethany House Publishers

Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.