Primer on Islam
Islam is the religion of over 1.2 billion people in the world, including Americans, Europeans, Arabs, Africans, South and East Asians, and people of many other ethnicities. It is currently the fastest growing religion on the planet, and the one with the second largest number of followers after Christianity.
The Arabic word islam means voluntary surrender to the will of Allah (the Arabic word for God). A person who practices Islam is called a Muslim.
According to Muslims, God revealed the Qur'an (the holy book of Islam) to Muhammad via the angel Gabriel. Muhammad then transmitted it to his followers in the Arabian peninsula, and it is said to have remained unchanged to this day, thus representing the exact words of God. Muhammad, who lived during the 6th-7th centuries, is recognized as the final prophet in a line which included Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.
Although there are several branches in Islam, the two main ones are Sunni and Shi'a. For a description of the origins of the split and the nature of the differences between these two sects, see here.
Five Pillars of Islam
Although these vary depending on an individual's sect or socio-cultural background, the five basic pillars of Islam involve:
1. SHAHADAH, the first of the five basic foundations, is the declaration, knowingly and voluntarily, of: La ilaha illa Allah, Muhammad rasul Allah. “There is no god except Allah, Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.”
2. SALAH is the prayer offered five times a day by Sunni Muslims (or three times a day by Shi'a Muslims). Although encouraged to pray in the mosque with a group, Muslims are allowed to perform salah alone in their own homes or workplaces. During prayer, Muslims face towards Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the holiest city in Islam. On Fridays, a special congregational prayer known as juma'a is offered. A mosque, or masjid in Arabic, is the place where Muslims go to perform the daily prayers.
3. ZAKAH is a welfare donation from a Muslim’s annual savings. It can only be spent on helping the poor, the needy, and the oppressed, and for the general upliftment of society. Zakah is one of the fundamental principles of Islamic economy, which insures an equitable society where everyone has a right to contribute and share.
4. SAWM is the annual obligatory fasting during the month of Ramadan - the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. A Muslim, every day of this month, refrains from eating, drinking, smoking, and sex, from dawn to sunset. Persons exempt from this requirement are young children, the elderly, women who are pregnant or menstruating, or others who are physically unable to perform the fast.
5. HAJJ is an annual event, obligatory for those Muslims who can afford to undertake it, at least once in their lifetime. It involves a pilgrimage to the Ka'aba, a black edifice in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, said to be built by Abraham.
The Hadith is the collection of sayings, actions, and silent approvals of the prophet Muhammad. It explains the Qur’an, and how to practice it. The Hadith are said to have been recorded by the Prophet’s companions.
Islamic law requires an animal to be slaughtered while invoking the name of Allah, thus making the meat halal, similar to the Jewish concept of kosher. All varieties of alcoholic drinks are prohibited. Pork and blood are also forbidden.