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Author: Ted Fairchild

This lesson discusses Islam from a historical and religious standpoint, tracing its origin in the 7th century Middle East to the present day, while introducing its main divisions and sects.

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Hello. Welcome. Today we're going to talk about Islam-- its history, a brief outline of its significant figures and core beliefs, it's different sects, and how it is recognized and practiced.

The historical chronology of Islam goes back to the seventh century in the calm of the Common Era. It is the last of the three monotheistic Abrahamic religions after Judaism and Christianity. And the formal unification of the Arabian Peninsula under Islam occurred under the organization and leadership of the prophet Muhammad in the seventh century of the Common Era. Muslims, practitioners of Islam, believe that the divine revelation that gave rise to the Islamic faith is the ultimate and the final, the perfect revelation.

Islam recognizes the Jewish and the Christian prophets but believe that their prophet Muhammad is God's greatest prophet. Firmly in the Abrahamic tradition, Islam recognizes Abraham as the first historical patriarch and as God's prophet, along with Moses and Jesus. However, Muslims consider their prophecy and revelation to be preparations-- the prophecies of Moses and Jesus-- to be preparations for the Seal of the Prophets, the human person of Muhammad. In other words, that God had chosen Muhammad to receive the last and the most complete revelation of truth.

As he was approaching 40 years old, Muhammad was known to retreat to the hills and the caves surrounding his home city of Mecca to meditate and contemplate on the problems of justice and inequality in the world. Among other things, he would contemplate and meditate on these things.

During these times, he received a series of revelations from God's angel, Gabriel, carrying the message that there is only one God, Allah, the name for the one God. This and other revelations during these times form the verses of Islam's central sacred text called the Koran, in which there are at least 99 other names for God.

According to Islamic tradition, he also received divine insight into God's unity, God's perfection, and God's incomprehensibility. Stories and sayings about the life of Muhammad, which are based on this revelation and understanding of Allah are called hadith, or tradition, and together they form the other sacred piece of literature in Islam.

The word Islam itself means surrender, which is generally understood to mean surrender one's will to God. To authentically do so aligns the practitioner with the will of Allah and the teaching of the Koran. Muslims do not believe that Allah is some representation of some other force or power of God, but Allah is God, himself, for a Muslim.

Every religion has different denominations, schools, or sects In Islam there is one primary division and parting of ways that can be traced back to the year 632, the year of Muhammad's death. It concerned the dispute over the legitimate successor to Muhammad, and it caused a great schism forming two primary groups-- the Sunni and the Shiites.

The Shiites believe that Muhammad also received divine revelation informing him that Ali, his cousin and son-in-law, would succeed him as caliph, or religious head of state. The Sunnis believe that Muhammad's father-in-law, Abu Bakr, was the legitimate successor and would be determined by consensual agreement among the community.

Looking at the entire Muslim population, at least 75% are Sunni, and approximately 20% are Shiite. In addition to the issue of succession, there are some practical differences among these groups. For example, certain customs are related to prayer, methods of dress including the hijab, and certain laws that pertain to temporary marriage.

But the most consistent difference, and perhaps the most difficult one to reconcile, is the Sunni-Shiite disagreement concerning the hadith, the Islamic tradition that refers to the actions, the sayings, approvals, and disapprovals of the prophet Muhammad.

One thing that all Muslim groups agree on, however, is the truth of the Koran and the importance of following the Five Pillars of Islam. The Five Pillars outline the duties and responsibilities that every Muslim must adhere to. The Five Pillars of Islam are the shahada, which is the profession of faith. The second one is the salah, which are prayers. Third one is zakat, which is almsgiving. The fourth is the sawm which is fasting during the month of Ramadan. And the fifth one is the hajj, which is a pilgrimage to Mecca. Pilgrimage to Mecca.

The Five Pillars allow one to live a life devoted to Allah, and therefore progress to a state of greater spiritual purification. Each of these pillars supports that process. The first one is the ground of the faith. One must profess one's wholehearted belief in the truth of the oneness of Allah, the truth of the Koran, and the truth of Muhammad, God's seal of the prophets.

The second pillar, salah, is daily prayer, and it has many different interpretations among different Muslim groups. But generally, daily prayer is obligatory. Any belief in Allah cannot be supported without practice, and daily prayer is the most direct and demonstrable way to do so. One who doesn't might be considered a non-believer at worst and a sinner at best.

Zakat is the idea of almsgiving, and it's very common in many of the religions of the world. In Islam, one must give 2.5% of one's savings to the poor and needy. This action is, in fact, a form of worship and supports a spiritual purification of anything remaining after the act of giving. Sawm is the idea that one must fast during the month of Ramadan. Ramadan is the month, the holy month in Islam, that marks the time when the prophet Muhammad received the revelation of the Koran.

For Muslims, fasting and abstaining from food during this time allows one the opportunity to get closer to God, and also to have more self-control with regard to one's desires. And finally, the hajj. This pillar doesn't affect life on a daily, monthly, or even an annual basis for most people. The obligation of the hajj as the fifth pillar of the faith is to go on pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, which is the site of Muhammad's birth and revelation. If one has the health and the finances to support the journey, it is prescribed in the Koran to do so at least one time in one's life.

So that's a brief, very brief overview of the third of the Abrahamic religions. Why don't we review now?

So Islam is the third of the monotheistic Abrahamic religions after Judaism and Christianity. And Muslims do recognize the prophets that came before-- Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. However, the Prophet Muhammad is considered to be the seal of the prophets with the final and the perfect revelation. And that final perfect revelation is the Koran, the sacred text of Islam.

And also, the second sacred text that is honored and recognized is the hadith, which is the tradition that often oral accounts and that have now been written down, but they're oral accounts and stories of the prophet's life, his sayings and actions, as well as his approvals and disapprovals of things in the world.

There's great variance as far as how this is interpreted, and we noted that there is a division within Islam between Sunni and Shiite that dates back to 632 when Muhammad-- the death of Muhammad, but it has to do with the succession and who would inherit the caliphate, the head of state role.

We also noted that the difference has some practical manifestations as far as prayer and dress code and marriage. We noted that there are five pillars in Islam that are requisites for following the faith, and they are supports for the process of spiritual purification.

Terms to Know

Identifying Abraham as a founding descendant, as e.g. in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.


A religion founded in the present-day Middle East by Muhammad, whom Muslims regard as God's last and greatest prophet.

Koran, Qur’an

The principal holy book of Islam, given to Muhammad as a perfect revelation from God (Allah).


One chosen by God to speak and/or teach on his behalf.