A Brief Introduction to Islam

The book of genesis, like the Quran, narrates the story of Abraham’s servant Hagar, who gave birth to his first child Ishmael. Abraham’s first wife Sarah gave birth to Isaac and then asked her husband to send Hagar and her child away.

Abraham took Hagar and Ishmael away to a valley which is today known as Mecca. It was not long before both mother and child were overcome by thirst. Seeking help, she passed between two eminences seven times in total, and as she sat for rest, God, according to the words of Genesis said, “...God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water.”

The water was a spring which God caused to well up from the sand, which is referred to as Zamzam. The Quran tells us that God showed Abraham and Ishmael where to build a sanctuary called the Ka’bah (near Zamzam), and how it must be built. God then spoke to Abraham again and commanded him to institute the rights of the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Centuries went by and Mecca became a place of pilgrimage, but also a marketplace and a trading centre. However, as time passed idolatry became more prominent and only a small number of individuals remained who were committed to the worship of the One God. They were known as hunafa and identified with the Abrahamic monotheistic tradition.

One of the most powerful Arab tribes of Abrahamic decent was Quraysh and Prophet Muhammad  was a descendant of this great tribe. Muhammad  was born into a respected family in Mecca. However, his father died before he was born and his mother died when he was six years old. Nevertheless, he grew up to become a respected member of the community. When he was twenty five years old, he was given a marriage proposal by his wealthy employer, a widow known as Khadijah. He accepted and they lived happily together until she died about twenty five years later.

Muhammad  was a contemplative individual who preferred to follow a monotheistic Abrahamic tradition. He would regularly go to a nearby cave to meditate, and it was in this cave that a hugely significant event was to occur. An angel came up to him whilst he was meditating and told him that God had chosen him as his messenger, and revealed to him the first few words of the Quran.

At first Muhammad  went through a period of self doubt. However his wife provided him with vital support, and after further confirmations from the angel, he submitted to God’s will and began to proclaim his mission.

What he told his people was simple: God had chosen him as His messenger to warn people about the day of judgement and that they must mend their ways. The religion which the Prophet  had now established was known as Islam.

Islam is an Arabic word that means “submission to God’s will.” Islam comes from a root word which means peace which in turn comes from a root word which denotes wholeness or completeness. For example when you have a headache or some other ailment, you have an element which is causing a problem, so because there isn’t completeness, you won’t feel at peace. This concept fits in well with the following quote from the Quran, “Verily in the remembrance of God do hearts find peace.” In other words, in the Islamic view, real peace results when one follows the commands of God.

Many individuals today may fail to comprehend how people could have taken the Prophet’s message seriously. But the thing to note is that the Arabs lived in a society where poetry could be stronger than swords. Even though the Quran is not considered to be poetry, everyone who heard it was overwhelmed by its power. The language in the Quran is highly imagistic- each word has great richness due to the genius of the Arabic language. This served to convince many individuals, and so little by little, people began embracing Islam. Furthermore, Muhammad  was a fair and trustworthy individual. When he attained the age of maturity he became a trader and went on expeditions to the Middle Eastern countries. He traded with other people's money with great prudence and made large profits. The people of Mecca were extremely impressed by his trading skill and fair dealing. Gradually he became well-known and the people trusted him. It was his honesty and fair dealing in business that impressed Khadijah, who first entrusted her enterprise to him and later married him. The point being that the character of Muhammad  was also another reason why many individuals took what he had to say seriously.

Furthermore, there were Christians and Jews in the in the local environment. What Muhammad  was saying was not unfamiliar to these groups; they could relate to it. However others were not so convinced and so began persecuting Muhammad and his followers. So after preaching for thirteen years in Mecca, Muhammad  and his followers immigrated to Medina. The Prophet’s  move to Medina, called al-hijrah, was a major turning point. From then on the religion flourished and a new civilization had been born.

From immigrating to Medina until the point of his death, Muhammad  laid the foundations for the ideal society. At the heart of this vision lay the Five Pillars. A pillar is a support, something that holds up a structure. The implication is that everything depends on the Five Pillars of Islam.

First Pillar: The Shahadah

This pillar forms the foundation of all other Islamic activities. It is to acknowledge verbally that one accepts Muhammad  as his Prophet and the reality of God. Shahadah means “to testify” or “to bear witness”. The significance of reciting the Shahadah is that it is the ritual whereby one becomes a Muslim.

Second Pillar: Salat

The Prophet  called the Salat (ritual prayer) the centerpole of the religion. The Quran commands the performance of the salat more than any other activity. The five daily prayers are incumbent on all Muslims who have reached puberty. Before performing the prayer, Muslims must be in a state of ritual purity, which is achieved through wearing clean clothes and performing ablution (washing body using water). Each prayer consists of a number of specific movements (such as standing up straight, bowing and prostrating) and the recitation of a certain amount of Quranic text and traditional formula all in Arabic. The act of prostration is quite interesting. During prostration, the heart is above the brain. The implication here is that we need to know our lord through our heart and not our intellect.

Third Pillar: Zakat

This is defined as a certain percentage of one’s acquired property or profit for the year that is paid to the needy. The root meaning of Zakat is “purity”. The idea is that by giving money to the poor, ones wealth is purified. Just like ablution purifies the body, Zakat purifies the soul. Paying Zakat also has social significance. In order to pay it, one has to concern oneself with the situation of others.

Fourth Pillar: Fasting

This Pillar involves fasting during the month of Ramadan; the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. The month of Ramadan begins when the new crescent moon is sighted. Fasting begins at dawn the next morning. Fasting consists of refraining from eating, drinking, smoking and sexual activity. The fact that Ramadan is a lunar month has some interesting implications, namely if all Muslims around the world fast over a thirty three year period, then at the end they would have all fasted for the same amount of time; something which would be impossible to achieve using solar months.

Fifth Pillar: Hajj

The fifth pillar is to make the pilgrimage to the Ka’bah (House of God) if you are able. The Hajj consists of a set of rituals that take place in and around Mecca every year. As we alluded to earlier, Mecca was a sacred place long before Islam. Muslims are required to make Hajj at least once in their lifetime. One of the conditions of Hajj is that people have to pay off all their debts. Furthermore, if a man wanted to make hajj but his family did not want to accompany him, then he would have to ensure that his family would be provided for before he went. The significance of the Hajj lay in the fact that it was seen as a kind of death, whereas the return from Hajj was a rebirth.

References & Further Reading

  1. Hodgson, M. (1974) The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, The University of Chicago Press.
  2. Lings, M. (1991) Muhammad: his life based on the earliest sources, Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society.
  3. Murata, S and Chittick, W. (2006) The Vision of Islam, London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd.
  4. Ramadan, T. (2008) The Messenger: The Meanings of the Life of Muhammad, London: Penguin Books.

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