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Discover Islam Reader
Author: Discoverislam.com

The Reader

In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful.
All praise be to God, Lord of the Universe; the Compassionate, the Merciful, Sovereign of the Day of Judgment! You alone we worship; and to You alone we turn for help. Guide us to the straight path; the path of those whom You have favored; not of those who have earned Your wrath, nor of those who have gone astray.
Amen.

Islam is not a new religion but the final culmination and fulfillment of the same basic truth that God revealed through all His prophets to every people. A way of life symbolized by peace - peace with God, peace within oneself, and peace with the creations of God through submission to God and commitment to His guidance.


Who are Muslims?
What do Muslims believe?
Muhammad, the Seal of the Prophets
How did the spread of Islam affect the world?
What is the Qur'an?
What are the "Five Pillars" of Islam?
Muslim family and social life
How does Islam guarantee human rights and equality?
What does Islam say about war?
How does Islam elevate the status of women?
How does Islam relate to Christianity and Judaism?
Why is Islam often misunderstood?


Who are Muslims?

Over a billion people from all races, nationalities and cultures across the globe are Muslim - from the rice farms of Indonesia to the deserts in the heart of Africa; from the skyscrapers of New York to the Bedouin tents in Arabia.

Only 18% of Muslims live in the Arab world; a fifth are found in Sub-Saharan Africa; and the world's largest Muslim community is in Indonesia. Substantial parts of Asia are Muslim, while significant minorities live in India, China, Russia, North and South America, Eastern and Western Europe.

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What do Muslims believe?

Muslims believe in the One, Unique, Incomparable, Merciful God - the Sole Creator and Sustainer of the Universe; in the Angels created by Him; in the Prophets through whom His revelations were brought to humankind; in the Day of Judgment and in individual accountability for actions; in God's complete authority over destiny, be it good or bad; and in life after death. Muslims believe that God sent His messengers and prophets to all people and God's final message to humanity, a reconfirmation of the eternal message and a summing up of all that had gone before, was revealed to the Last Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) through the Archangel Gabriel.

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Muhammad, the Seal of the Prophets

Muhammad was born in Makkah in the year 570, during the period of history Europeans call the Middle Ages. As he grew up, Muhammad became known for his truthfulness, generosity and sincerity, earning the title of al-Amin, the trustworthy one.

Muhammad (peace be upon him) was of a contemplative nature and had long detested the decadence of his society. At the age of 40, while engaged in a meditative retreat, Muhammad (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him) received his first revelation from God through the Archangel Gabriel. This revelation continued for twenty-three years and is known as the Qur'an.

Muhammad (peace be upon him) began to recite the words he heard from Gabriel, and to preach the truth that God had revealed to him. The people of Makkah were steeped in their ways of ignorance and opposed Muhammad and his small group of followers in every way. These early Muslims suffered bitter persecution.

In 622, God gave the Muslim Community the command to emigrate. This event, the hijrah, 'migration', in which they left Makkah for the city of Madinah, some 260 miles to the north, marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar.

Madinah provided Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the Muslims the safe and nurturing haven from where Islam grew.

After several years, the Prophet (peace be upon him) and his followers returned to Makkah, where they forgave their enemies and established Islam definitively.

Muhammad (peace be upon him) died at the age of 63 and was buried in Madinah. At the time of his death, the greater part of Arabia was Muslim, and within a century Islam had spread to Spain in the West and as far east as China.

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How did the spread of Islam affect the world?

Within a few decades of Prophet Muhammad's (peace be upon him) death, the territory under Muslim rule had extended onto the three continents of Asia, Africa and Europe.

Among the reasons for the rapid and peaceful spread of Islam was the simplicity of its doctrine - Islam calls for faith in only one God worthy of worship. Islam also repeatedly instructs humans to use their powers of intelligence and observation.

As Muslim civilization developed, it absorbed the heritage of ancient peoples, like those of Egypt, Persia and Greece. The synthesis of Eastern ad Western ideas and of new thought with old, brought about great advances in the various fields of study. Scholars working in the Islamic tradition developed and excelled at art, architecture, astronomy, geography, history, language, literature, medicine, mathematics, and physics.

Many crucial systems such as Algebra, the Arabic numerals, and the very concept of the zero (vital to the advancement of mathematics), were transmitted to medieval Europe through Muslim scholars.

Sophisticated instruments that were to make possible the great European voyages of discovery were developed, including the astrolabe, the quadrant, good navigational charts and maps.

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What is the Qur'an?

The Qur'an is a complete record of the exact words revealed by God through Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad.

The Qur'an is the principal source of every Muslim's faith and practice. It deals with all subjects that concern us as human beings - wisdom, doctrine, worship and law - but its basic theme is the relationship between God and His creatures.

At the same time the Qur'an provides guidelines for a just society, proper human conduct and equitable economic principles.

Apart from the Qur'an, Muslims also refer to the life of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) as a secondary source of guidance.

Belief in the sunnah, the practice and example of the Prophet, is an integral part of the Islamic faith.

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What are the "Five Pillars" of Islam?

These are the foundation of Muslim life: declaration of faith or belief in the Oneness of God and the finality of the Prophethood of Muhammad; establishment of the daily ritual prayers; concern for and almsgiving to the needy; self-purification through fasting; and the pilgrimage to Makkah for those who are physically and financially able.

Shahadah or Declaration of Faith
   "There is none worthy of worship except God and Muhammad is the messenger of God." This declaration of faith is called the shahadah, a simple formula that all the faithful pronounce. The significance of this declaration is the belief that the only purpose of life is to serve and obey God, and this is achieved through the teachings and practices of the Last Prophet, Muhammad (peace be upon him).

Salah or Prayer
   Salah is the name for the obligatory prayers that are performed five times a day, and are a direct link between the worshipper and God. These five ritual prayers contain verses from the Qur'an, and are said in Arabic, the language of the Revelation. Personal supplications however, can be offered in one's own language and at any time.

Zakah or Almsgiving
   An important principle of Islam is that everything belongs to God, and that wealth is therefore held by human beings in trust. The word zakah means both "purification" and "growth." Setting aside a proportion for those in need purifies our possessions, and like the pruning of plants, this cutting back balances and encourages new growth.

Sawm or Fasting
   Every year in the month of Ramadan, all able Muslims fast from dawn until sundown - abstaining from food, drink, and sexual relations with their spouses.
   Although fasting is beneficial to health, it is mainly a method of self-purification. By cutting oneself from worldly comforts, even for a short time, a fasting person focuses on his or her purpose in life by constantly being aware of the presence of God.

Hajj or Pilgrimage
   The pilgrimage to Makkah - the hajj - is an obligation only for those who are physically and financially able. Nevertheless, over two million people go to Makkah each year from every corner of the globe providing a unique opportunity for those of different nations to meet one another.
   The annual hajj begins in the twelfth month of the Islamic lunar year. Pilgrims wear special clothes: simple garments that strip away distinctions of class and culture, so that all stand equal before God.
   The rites of the hajj originate from the time of the Prophet and Patriarch, Abraham (peace be upon him). These rites include going around the Ka'bah seven times, and going seven times between the hills of Safa and Marwa as did Hagar (Abraham's wife) during her search for water. The pilgrims later stand together on the wide plains of 'Arafat (a large expanse of desert outside Makkah) and join in prayer for God's forgiveness, in what is often thought of as a preview of the Day of Judgment.
   The close of the hajj is marked by a festival, the 'Id al Adha, which is celebrated with prayers and the exchange of gifts in Muslim communities everywhere. This and the 'Id al Fitr, a festive day celebrating the end of Ramadan, are the two holidays of the Islamic calendar.

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Muslim Family and Social Life

The family is the foundation for Islamic society. The peace and security offered by a stable family unit is greatly valued and is considered essential for the spiritual growth of its members. A harmonious social order is created by the existence of extended families; children are treasured and rarely leave home until the time they marry.

Parents are greatly respected in the Islamic tradition and caring for one's elderly parents is considered an honor and a blessing. Mothers are particularly honored: the Qur'an teaches that since mothers endure so much during pregnancy, childbirth and child rearing, they deserve a special consideration and kindness.

It is stated in the Qur'an:
   "And We have enjoined upon man to be good to his parents. With difficulty upon difficulty did his mother bear him and wean him for two years. Show gratitude to Me and to your parents; to Me is your final goal." (Qur'an 31:14)

Marriage is greatly encouraged in Islam. A Muslim marriage is both a sacred act and a legal agreement, in which either partner is free to include legitimate conditions. As a result, divorce, although uncommon, is permitted only as a last resort. Marriage customs vary widely from country to country.

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How does Islam guarantee human rights and equality?

The Qur'an prescribes freedom of conscience:
   "There is no compulsion in religion. Truth stands out clearly from falsehood; whoever rejects evil and believes in God has grasped the strongest rope that never breaks. And God is All-Hearing and All-Knowing." (Qur'an 2:256)

The life, honor and property of all citizens in a Muslim society are considered sacred whether the person is Muslim or not. Racism, sexism and other forms of bigotry and prejudice are incomprehensible to Muslims, for the Qur'an speaks of human equality in the following terms:
   "O mankind! We created you from a single soul, male and female, and made you into peoples and tribes, so that you may come to know one another. Truly, the most honored of you in God's sight is the greatest of you in piety. God is All-Knowing, All-Aware." (Quran 49:13)

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What does Islam say about war?

Like Christianity, Islam permits fighting in self-defense, in defense of religion, or on the part of those who have been expelled forcibly from their homes. It lays down strict rules of combat that include prohibitions against harming civilians and against destroying crops, trees and livestock.

As Muslims see it, injustice would be triumphant in the world if good people were not prepared to risk their lives in a righteous cause.

One reads in the Qur'an:
   "Fight in the cause of God against those who fight you, but do not transgress limits. God does not love transgressors." (Qur'an 2:190)
   "If they seek peace, then you seek peace. And trust in God for He is the One that hears and konws all things." (Qur'an 8:61)

War is therefore the last resort, and is subject to the rigorous conditions laid down by the sacred law.

The often misunderstood and overused term jihad literally means "struggle" and not "holy war" (a term not found anywhere in the Qur'an). Jihad, as an Islamic concept, can be on a personal level - inner struggle against evil within oneself; struggle for decency and goodness on the social level; and struggle on the battlefield, if and when necessary.

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How does Islam elevate the status of women?

According to the Qur'an, men and women are equal before God; women are not blamed for violating the "forbidden tree," nor is their suffering in pregnancy and childbirth a punishment for that act.

Islam sees woman, whether single or married, as an individual in her own right, with the right to own and dispose of her property and earnings. A marital gift is given by the groom to the bride for her own personal use, and she may keep her own family name rather than adopting her husband's.

Roles of men and women are complementary and collaborative. Rights and responsibilities of both sexes are equitable and balanced in their totality.

Both men and women are expected to dress in a way that is simple, modest and dignified. Specific traditions of dress found in some Muslim countries are often the expression of local customs rather than religious principle.

Likewise, treatment of women in some areas of the Muslim world sometimes reflects cultural practices which may be inconsistent, if not contrary, to authentic Islamic teachings.

Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said:
   "The most perfect in faith, amongst believers, is he who is best in manner and kindest to his wife."

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How does Islam relate to Christianity and Judaism?

Muslims, Christians and Jews all trace their origins to the Prophet and Patriarch Abraham and their three Prophets are direct descendants from Abraham's sons - Muhammad from the eldest, Ishmael, and Moses and Jesus from Isaac (peace be upon them all).

Muslims particularly respect and revere Jesus. They consider him one of the greatest of God's prophets and messengers. A Muslim never refers to him simply as "Jesus", but always adds the phrase "peace be upon him." The Qur'an confirms his virgin birth, and a special chapter of the Qur'an is entitled "Mary" in honor of the mother of Jesus.

Jesus was born miraculously through the same power that had brought Adan (peace be upon them both) into being without a father:

"Truly the likeness of Jesus with God is as the likeness of Adam. He created him of dust and then said to him, 'Be!' and he was." (Qur'an 3:59)

During his prophetic mission, Jesus (peace be upon him) performed many miracles. The Qur'an tells us that he said:

"I have come to you with a sign from your Lord: I make for you out of clay a figure of a bird, and breathe into it and it becomes a bird by God's leave. And I heal the blind, and the lepers, and I raise the dead by God's leave." (Qur'an 3:49)

Neither Muhammad nor Jesus (peace be upon them) came to change the basic doctrine of the belief in One God, brought by earlier prophets, but to confirm and renew it.

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Why is Islam often misunderstood?

Islam is frequently misunderstood and may even seem exotic in some parts of today's world.

Perhaps this is because religion no longer dominates everyday life in Western society; whereas, for Muslims, Islam is life. Muslims make no artificial division between the secular and the sacred.

For quite some time Islam was thought of as some "Eastern" religion, but with the increasing number of Muslims living in the West, Islam is gradually being perceived as a global faith. Muslims are no longer thought of as strangers with unusual practices, but are being welcomed as part of the mosaic of life in the West. In many cases, Islam is not just viewed as an acceptable religion, but as a desired way of living.