Learn about Islam. Primary beliefs, symbol, founder, sacred texts, branches, major holidays, and key terms.


Name:  Islam

Worldview category:  Monotheism

Symbol:  Crescent



Islam is one of the three major monotheistic religions, along with Christianity and Judaism.  It is the world’s second largest religion behind Christianity.  There are an estimated 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide.  The country with the largest number of Muslims is Indonesia.  Most Muslims are non-Arabs.

Islam is the Arabic word for "submission".  “Islam” is taken from an Arabic root word which means “peace”.  Islam refers to the complete submission to Allah.  A “Muslim” is a follower of the religion and refers to a person who submits to Allah.

Islam has incorrectly been referred to as Mohammedanism, which suggests that Muslims worship Muhammad. Although Muhammad is highly revered as the Final Prophet, he is not worshipped.

Founder:  Muhammad (570 CE - 632 CE).  Muhammad had a series of visions from Allah over a period of 22 years starting in 610 CE.  He is referred to as the “Seal of the Prophets” and the “Final Prophet”.

Date founded:  622 CE.  In 622 CE Muhammad and his followers migrated from Mecca to Medina (formerly known as Yathrib) as a result of threats from Meccan leaders.  

Place founded:  The Arabian Peninsula (modern day Saudi Arabia).  Mecca and Medina are the cities in which significant events in the development of Islam occurred.

Number of adherents:  1.5 billion (source:

Countries with largest number of adherents:  Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh

Sacred texts:

The Qur’an is the primary sacred text of Islam.  The Qur'an (also known as the Koran) contains the revelations to Muhammad from Allah through the angel Gabriel.  The Hadith is a collection of sayings of Muhammad.  The Sunnah (which is oftentimes used synonymously with Hadith) is a record of the practices of Muhammad, whose way of life is to be emulated by Muslims.  Muslims also revere the sacred texts of Judaism and Christianity - both the Old and New Testaments.


Sunni – About 90% of Muslims are Sunni.  The guiding principle of Sunnis is consensus (to find agreement).  Sunni Muslims believe that Abu Bakr was Muhammad’s successor because he was chosen by consensus of the community.

Shiite – About 10% of Muslims are Shiite (Shi’i).  Most Shiites live in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine.  Shiites believe that Ali, Muhammad’s close relative, was Muhammad’s successor.

Sufi – A form of Islamic mysticism.  Rumi was a famous Sufi poet who lived from 1207 to 1273 CE.

Wahhabi – An ultra-conservative branch of Islam that strives to return Islam to its roots as taught in the Qur’an and Haddith.  The Wahhabi movement was started by Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab, who lived from 1703 – 1792.  It is practiced widely in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

Primary Beliefs:

Supreme being – Allah is the one true God.  “Allah” is derived from the Arabic word for God.  He is the creator and judge.

View of reality:  The world consists of both the physical and spiritual realms.

Man’s primary problem:  Sin

Solution to man’s primary problem:  Adhering to Allah’s commands and Allah’s mercifulness.

Afterlife:  All people will be resurrected for the Day of Judgment, where Allah presides as judge.  Based upon the person’s beliefs and deeds, he/she will either go to Paradise (heaven) or Hell (fire).  If a person’s good deeds outweigh the bad, then he will go to Paradise (Sura 23:102-103).

Five Pillars of Faith:

The Five Pillars of Faith are central to Islam’s belief system. 

Profession of faith: "There is no true god but God (Allah), and Muhammad is the Messenger (Prophet) of God."  This is known as the shahada.  A person becomes a Muslim by saying the shahada with sincerity.

Prayer – Muslims are to pray 5 times a day, each time facing Mecca.

Charity (also known as alms-giving or zakat) – Muslims give 2.5% of their wealth each year to the community.

Fasting – Muslims must fast every day during the month of Ramadan from sunrise to sunset. During the fasting hours Muslims are to refrain from eating, drinking liquids (including water), smoking, and sex.

Hajj – A pilgrimage to Mecca once in a Muslim’s lifetime, if they are physically and financially able.  The Hajj is held once a year at the end of Ramadan.

Major Holidays: 

Ramadan – Ramadan is the ninth month of the year on the Islamic calendar.  Muslims fast for the entire month.  From sunrise to sunset Muslims refrain from eating, drinking liquids (including water), smoking, and sex.

Eid Al-fitr – This holiday follows the month of fasting during Ramadan.  It is a celebration of the end of the fast, which includes a daytime meal.

Eid al-Adha – This holiday takes place at the end of the Hajj, which is the pilgrimage to Mecca.  It commemorates the life of Abraham. The highlight of Eid al-Adha is the sacrifice of an animal (such as a sheep or goat), during which Allah’s name is recited.

Place of worship:  Mosque – A mosque serves as a place of worship and a community center.  Muslims go to a mosque on Fridays for prayer and a sermon.

Rituals:  Daily prayer, weekly prayer at the mosque, fasting during Ramadan, and the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Key Terms:

Abrogation  A pronouncement from Allah in the Qur’an that supersedes a previously-revealed pronouncement. 

Al-Aqsa mosque – Located in Jerusalem, the Al-Aqsa mosque is the third holiest site in Islam.  The Al Aqsa mosque, which includes the Dome of the Rock, is located on the Temple Mount.  It is where Muhammad was taken to heaven during his night journey.

Burqa – A garment worn by Muslim women that covers the entire body

CAIR – The Center for American Islamic Relations.   A Muslim advocacy organization in the United States.

Calendar – The Muslim calendar begins on July 16, 622 CE and corresponds to the date of the Hijrah.

Fatwah – A legal ruling based on reasoning from the Qur’an and Haddith.

Hijrah – The Hijrah was a pilgrimage of Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina in 622 CE.  The Hijrah is sometimes referred to as “the Flight”.  The Muslim calendar begins on this date (it is considered year 1).

Imam – A prayer leader and teacher.

Jihad – Means striving or struggle.  There are several types of jihad, including jihad of the pen, jihad of the tongue, jihad of the mind, and jihad of the sword.

Kabba – A cubic structure in Mecca, around which the Hajj is celebrated.  It is believed that Abraham and his son Ishmael constructed the Kabba.  Before Islam took root, many gods were worshipped at the Kabba by pagan and polytheistic worshippers.  The Kabba is considered the first mosque.

Mecca – A city in Saudia Arabia, which is the holiest city in Islam.  Mecca is the birthplace of Muhammad, the location of the Kabba and the city in which Islam began.   

Medina – The city in Saudi Arabia to which Muhammad and his followers migrated in 622 CE.  Medina (formerly known as Yathrib) became the primary city of refuge for Muhammad’s followers.  In Medina Muhammad gained new converts to Islam and established political power. 

Muezzin – The man who calls Muslims to prayer each day.  A muezzin calls from the mosque, oftentimes from the minaret.

Nation of Islam – An African American religious organization founded in 1930 in the United States.  It mixes traditional Islamic teaching with African American nationalism.  Its adherents include Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan.

People of the Book – A reference in the Qur’an to Jews and Christians.  The “Book” refers to the Bible.

Prophets – The three most important prophets in Islam are Moses, Jesus and Muhammad.

Shari’ah – A system of law based on the Qur’an and the Sunnah.

Taliban – A sect of Islamic fundamentalists with a strict code of ethics and laws.  Women have few rights under Taliban rule.  The Taliban ruled in Afghanistan before the most recent war in Afghanistan.


Sources: –

Encyclopedia Americana International Edition. Danbury:  Scholastic Library Publishing, 2004.

IslamiCity –

Smith, Huston.  The World’s Religions.  New York:  Harper One, 1991.

Wikipedia -