The followers of Islam are called Muslims or Moslems; the archaic term "Mohammedan" is rarely used today, and Muslims do not use it to describe themselves out of fears of idolatry. Muslims follow the teaching of Muhammad, whom they believe to be God's last and greatest prophet. The faith teaches that the Archangel Gabriel appeared to him.
Muslims believe that God ("Allah", الله in Arabic) revealed the Qur'an to Muhammad and, despite his illiteracy, caused him to transcribe it . The Qur'an is considered to be the pure and holy word of God. Like Christianity and Judaism, Islam originated in the Middle East. Islam claims to trace its roots back to Abraham. Muslims do not believe that Muhammad was the founder of Islam, rather that he restored the original faith of Abraham and the prophets, which had been corrupted and/or misinterpreted over time. Based upon this belief, the Bible, Old and New Testament, is believed to have become corrupted as well.
Islam is the second largest religion in the world, with over 1.4 billion followers, the number of Muslims is rapidly growing, mainly due to high birth rates in Muslim countries. Both Christian and Muslim sources agree that conversions to Christianity outnumber those to Islam. 
- 1 Historical Background
- 2 Divisions Within Islam
- 3 Religious Guidance
- 4 Other Aspects of Islam
- 5 Islam and Christianity
- 6 Islam and Paganism
- 7 Sharia
- 8 Ex-Muslims
- 9 See also
- 10 External links
- 11 References
According to Islamic belief, in 610 A.D., Muhammad, a 40-year-old merchant of the Quraysh tribe in Mecca, in the Arabian desert (now eastern Saudi Arabia), was commanded by the angel Gabriel to "recite" the message of Allah (Arabic for God). Gabriel said mankind had lost sight of Allah's previous messages to earlier prophets, Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Solomon, and Jesus, among others, and that Muhammad was to spread Allah's message to all people so that mankind would know how to live, how to show respect for Allah, and how to prepare for the judgement day. The message to Muhammad was to be God's last; Muhammad was the "seal of the prophets." Muhammad won some converts to Islam in his local area, but his monotheist preaching threatened to undermine the profitable polytheist pilgrim traffic supporting many Meccan merchants. In 622 A.D., the merchants drove Muhammad and his followers out of Mecca to the city of Yathrib (later renamed Medina, or city - as in the city of the prophet). This flight (hijra) from Mecca to Medina marks the beginning of the Muslim lunar calendar, and is celebrated each year in the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. Muhammad's forces starting attacking the trade carvans going in and out of Mecca, cutting off its economic lifeline. After a series of battles between the Meccans and Muhammad's forces, Mecca finally accepted Muhammad's ultimatum to succumb and convert to Islam. The city welcomed the prophet back in 630. Muhammad died in 632. Tribal elders elected Abu Bakr to be Muhammad's successor, or Caliph (Khalifa). Abu Bakr united the tribes of the Arabian peninsula during his two years as head of the new faith. Upon his death, the elders elected Umar ibn al-Khattab the next Caliph. During Umar's ten year reign, Islam invaded and spread through the sword into Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, and parts of Iran. Umar was assassinated by a Persian (modern day Iran) in 644, and was succeeded by Uthman ibn Affan, who continued the invasions to spread Islam into North Africa, Cyprus, the rest of Iran, Afghanistan, and parts of India and Pakistan. Over the next two centuries, Islamic armies continued to expanded Islam's empire into sub-Saharan Africa, Spain, Southeast and Central Asia, and Turkey.
Divisions Within Islam
Uthman was assassinated in 656 A.D. by soldiers who then installed Ali ibn Abu Talib, Muhammad's son-in-law, as Caliph. Ali's followers believed Muhammad had chosen Ali to be Muhammad's heir, and had disagreed with the selections of Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman as Caliphs. Ali's claim to the position was challenged by Muawiyah, a kinsman of the murdered Uthman. Five years later, Ali was assassinated by Kharjites, religious dissidents who broke away from the main body of Muslims because they rejected Ali's accepting arbitration to resolve his leadership dispute with Muawiyah. Ali's supporters, or the Shiah al-Ali (or Shiat Ali, partisans of Ali) believed that Ali was the true Caliph and was, in part, divinely inspired. Ali's sons, Hassan and Husayn followed as Shia Caliphs, Hassan dying in 669 or 670 A.D., possibly by poisoning, and Husayn slain by soldiers of his rival, the Sunni Caliph Yazid, in 680 A.D.
The Shia Muslim community has divided further as followers coalesced around several of Ali's descendants or successors, called Imams. The "twelvers," predominant in Iran, believe the twelfth Imam is in hiding and will reveal himself just before judgement day. Ismailis rejected the seventh Imam and practice a spirituality that seeks hidden meaning in scripture. Ismailis ruled much of North Africa as the Fatimid dynasty of Egypt in the tenth through the twelfth centuries, and today are found primarily in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India. The Sunni majority reject the premise that men can be divine, including Muhammad, Ali, or Jesus, and did not accept any of the Imams who followed Ali. Sunnis remain more committed to traditions and less inclined to accept Shia mysticism. Today, about 15% of the world's one billion Muslims are Shia and 85% are orthodox Sunni.
There are other factions within Islam. Sufis, a name apparently taken from the wool garments they wear, developed around mystical practices and trance-induced revelations. Sufis are found today in Turkey, Syria, and parts of Africa. Other movements have taken reform tracks, such as the Unitarians of Saudi Arabia, also called Wahhabis after their 18th century reformist founder Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. The conservative Wahhabis are found today in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Some critics would argue that the Taliban of Afghanistan took conservative reform to an extreme. Other sects or break-away groups include, among others, the Alawis found in Syria and Turkey, the Druze in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Israel, the Ibadhis (Kharjites) in Oman and Africa, the Ahmadiya of Pakistan, and the Zaydis of Yemen.
During his lifetime, Muhammad's companions memorized and later transcribed the verses (surrahs) of the Quran as they had been dictated to Muhammad. The Caliph Uthman collected and codified the various versions of the surrahs into one written Quran that became the standard Arabic text used by the world's Muslims today. Present-day Muslims look first to the Quran as a guide to life, then to the Sunnah, or the way of the Prophet (his life as an example for others) as recorded by his early companions, and then to the Hadith, a collection of the Prophet's sayings, comments, advice, and descriptions. Frequently, Muslims disagreed over how to interpret certain passages in the Quran, the Sunnah, or the Hadith in their search for the ideal life and perfect path to heaven. From these interpretations Sunni Muslims developed four schools of law, or interpretations of law, named after their founders or early leaders: the Hanbali, considered the most strict school and predominant today in Saudi Arabia; Shafi, the school of widest acceptance, found in Egypt, parts of Palestine-Syria, south Arabia, and the Far East; Maliki, prevalent in North Africa, Sudan, and Nigeria; and Hanafi, considered the most moderate school, predominant in Ottoman Turkey and today found primarily on the Levant and Indian subcontinent. Frequently, Muslim countries have two separate legal systems, one for civil, criminal, or commercial law, and a second, and separate, system for religious law. Religious courts and their judges (qadis) might handle issues dealing with marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, religious education, charitable or religious property (Waqf), or family matters. Among Middle Eastern countries, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Amirates, and Yemen have Shariah courts serving alongside their secular courts or have adopted Shariah (Islamic law) as the basis of their legal systems.
Sunni Islam does not have a priesthood or clerical hierarchy to conduct religious services or interpret scripture, but it does have prayer leaders, called Imams, and religious scholars, called Ulama, who often are educated men familiar with the Quran and able to offer commentaries on Quranic verses. Sunni Muslims also respect the teachings and interpretations of scholars, judges, and academics who may interpret laws, write treatises on Sharia (religious law) or Hadith, and issue Fatwas, religious declarations intended to enlighten or guide Muslims.
Shia Islam has a hierarchy that resembles a priesthood. Mullahs are prayer leaders, but usually do not interpret religious law. Mujtahids are religious scholars who may interpret law or passages from the Quran or Hadith. The lower order of Mujtahids are called Hojjatolislam. Ayat Allah (literally sign of God, also Ayatollah) is a higher order of Mujtahid who may issue Fatwas, or religious edicts, in addition to leading Islamic schools, interpreting religious law and the Quran, and offering sermons or discourses on proper Islamic behavior.
Five Pillars of Islam
- Shahadah (Profession of Faith) -The Shahadah is the Muslim profession of faith. 'ašhadu 'al-lā ilāha illā-llāhu wa 'ašhadu 'anna muħammadan rasūlu-llāh, a loose English translation reads "There is none worthy of worship except God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God" This testament can be seen as the foundation of all of the other tenets of Islam.
- Salat (Ritual Prayer) -All Muslims are required to Pray to God five times each day while facing Mecca.
- Zakat (Charity) Able Muslims must donate to the poor based on the wealth one has accumulated. In current usage it is interpreted as 2.5% of the value of most valuables and savings held for a full lunar year.
- Sawm (Fasting) All able-bodied Muslims (children, the elderly, and the ill are exempt) must fast during daylight hours during the daylight hours of the entire month of Ramadan. According to Muslims, this purifies the body and soul. Some Muslim sects allow military, police and emergency services personnel to receive an exemption from fasting from an imam, on the grounds that their work supports the community or national good.
- Hajj (Pilgrimage) All able-bodied Muslims must make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lives.
Other Aspects of Islam
Jihad is the "effort" or "struggle" each Muslim faces in the everyday trials of life, such as the effort to get better grades in school, or the striving to achieve better results from a job, or the struggle to avoid sinful temptations. Jihad also can be applied to warfare; participating in jihad in Allah's cause was the third most important good deed listed in the Hadith, after prayer and honoring one's parents. Jihad often was a rallying cry for the military spread of Islam in the seventh through tenth centuries. Many Westerners are familiar only with the characterization in the popular press of jihad as warfare against Christians and Jews. Most Muslims would not apply jihad to Christians and Jews, believing them to be "people of the book" (see below) rather than infidels.
Osama bin Laden and Fundamentalists
Bin Laden has stated that Islam is at war with the United States and its allies. Some observers maintain that the number of Muslims who believe as bin Laden does is growing, and others go further to suggest that all "fundamentalist" Muslims are enemies of the West. But other observers differentiate between the very conservative "fundamentalists" and the "extremists" who follow bin Laden or other terrorists. These observers suggest that the fundamentalists disagree with bin Laden as much as do Westerners.
People of the Book
Christians and Jews are called "people of the Book" (the Old and New Testaments) and are accorded protection, respect, and consideration as the predecessors to the Muslims. Many have noted Islam's connections to Judaism and Christianity, how closely many Quranic passages follow similar passages in the Old and New Testaments, and some suggest that Muhammad and the early Muslims borrowed much of the faith from its two monotheistic predecessors. Muslims do not deny the close ties between the Quran and the Old and New Testaments and suggest that the ties further demonstrate that Muhammad extends the line of succession that began with the prophets of Judaism and Christianity.
Women in Islam
For the most part, the Quran treats men and women equally, applies the same injunctions and prohibitions to men and women, and grants many of the same privileges and benefits, such as divorce, property ownership, or inheritance. But women are treated separately in certain instances. For example, women are required to "... draw their outer garments around them ... that they may be known (to be Muslims) and not annoyed (by men)." (Quran 33:59) Covering the head and body in public (hijab) is viewed by many Muslim women as a protection of their modesty, a way to discourage men's covetous eyes. The principle of hijab is applied in different ways: a small scarf around the head and regular "street clothes" may be voluntary and acceptable in Cairo or Damascus but a full length opaque "Burqa" was enforced in Taliban Afghanistan. The treatment of women may depend upon rural or urban settings, educational level, society norms, tradition, or other factors. As of 2008, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are the only two Middle Eastern countries where the government requires women to wear some form of modest garb.
Muslim women's status is controversial. Some critics claim that Muslim men oppress Muslim women by compelling them to remain hidden behind the veil, sequestered in the home, and ignorant of the world by denying them access to education and worldly opportunities. Defenders of some practices suggest that many of them, such as the veil, are cultural traditions that pre-date Islam and are intended to protect, not constrict, women, or that many Muslim women adopt the life style of the veil voluntarily. There are Muslim women who agree and disagree with the critics.
Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem
Muhammad's home city of Mecca was the site of his earliest preaching and conversions, and is the location of the Kaaba, traditionally held to be the foundation stone of the first mosque built by Adam and later restored by Abraham, and now the focus of the annual pilgrimage (hajj). Some historians suggest that the Kaaba, a black stone probably meteoric in origin, was venerated by pre-Islamic polytheistic religions.
At first, Jerusalem was Islam's holy city and the focus of prayers, but Mecca became the center of Islam after Muhammad's return in 630. Medina, because of its early association with Muhammad and as the site of Muhammad's tomb, is second in importance to Mecca. Jerusalem is revered by Muslims as the site of Solomon's temple, Abraham's near sacrifice of his son Ismail, and the scene of Muhammad's miraculous midnight journey, the latter two now enshrined in the Dome of the Rock mosque. According to the Quran (Surrah 17:1, Isra) and Hadith, Muhammad and Gabriel were taken on winged mules from Mecca to Jerusalem, where they ascended through the seven heavens to the presence of Allah. During the visit, Muhammad learned, among other points, that Muslims were to pray five times each day and to honor Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and the other prophets.
Observant Muslims are not supposed to eat pork and in general do not have dogs as pets; both swine and canines are considered unclean. Muslims are proscribed from drinking alcoholic beverages. Observant Muslims do not collect or pay interest.
Some practices have been associated with Islam because they occur in Islamic countries, but actually are not a part of Islam. For example, female circumcision is not mentioned in the Quran, but is mentioned in Hadith as an "honorable" but not obligatory condition. It is a pre-Islamic tradition in parts of sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab world, notably in Eritrea, Yemen, and Egypt. Another example of a practice that has been associated incorrectly with Islam is honor killing, in which a brother, father, or uncle "restores" or "defends" a family's honor by killing the sister, daughter, or niece that dishonored the family through unmarried pregnancy or promiscuous behavior. The "honor killing" is more ancient and possibly tribal in origin.
Islam and Christianity
While Muslims do not believe Jesus to be the Son of God or in the resurrection, they consider him to be one of God's most important prophets. However, the Qur'an warns against worshiping Jesus, Muhammad, and other humans for fear of idolatry.
The Qur'an states that Christians will be punished, though the nature of the punishment is not specified:
"Surely, disbelievers are those who said: 'Allah is the third of the three (in a Trinity).' But there is no god but One, Allah. And if they cease not from what they say, verily, a painful torment will befall the disbelievers among them.
Will they not repent to Allah and ask His Forgiveness? For Allah is Oft Forgiving, Most Merciful.
The Messiah , son of Mary, was no more than a Messenger; many were the Messengers that passed away before him. His mother was a Siddiqah (i.e. she believed in the words of God and His Books ). They both used to eat food (as any other human eat). Look how We make the signs clear to them, yet look how they are deluded away (from the truth)."
However, Islam does recognize Christians and Jews as "people of the book" since both refer to one God only, and recognize Abraham (Ibrahim in Arabic) as a founding prophet.
Islam and Paganism
Although Muslims profess belief in a single God, some believe Islam has its roots in an earlier polytheistic system. By this thinking God is linked to an earlier moon deity, although it should be brought up that there is no mention of this in the Qur'an, where Allah is cited as the God of Abraham.
Sharia is the body of Islamic law. The term means "way" or "path"; it is the legal framework within which public and some private aspects of life are regulated for those living in a legal system based on Muslim principles of jurisprudence. It is not actually part of the canonical Qur'an; that is to say, it is not believed to be the direct word of God by Muslims, but rather the interpretation of it.
Sharia deals with many aspects of day-to-day life, including politics, economics, banking, business law, contract law, sexuality, and social issues. Some Islamic scholars accept Sharia as the body of precedent and legal theory established before the 19th century, while other scholars view Sharia as a changing body, and include Islamic legal theory from the contemporary period.[Citation Needed]
- ARTICLE 3:
- (a) In the event of the use of force and in case of armed conflict, it is not permissible to kill non-belligerents such as old men, women and children. The wounded and the sick shall have the right to medical treatment; and prisoners of war shall have the right to be fed, sheltered and clothed. It is prohibited to mutilate or dismember dead bodies. It is required to exchange prisoners of war and to arrange visits or reunions of families separated by circumstances of war.
- (b) It is prohibited to cut down trees, to destroy crops or livestock, to destroy the enemy's civilian buildings and installations by shelling, blasting or any other means. 
Michelle Malkin highlights a group of Ex-Muslims hoping to change the terms of debate about Islam in Europe. Maryam Namazie, the head of the British group said "Too many things in the media and government policies have been geared to pandering to the political Islamic movements and Islamic organizations." 
Some of the text for this article was taken from "Islam: A Primer", Congressional Research Service Report for Congress (2003), a work in the public domain 
- Islam and Christianity - excellent article comparing and contrasting the two.
- Schimmel, Annemarie. Islam: An Introduction. State University of New York Press, 1992.
- Proclaim! (or read!) in the name of thy Lord and Cherisher, Who created- Created man, out of a (mere) clot of congealed blood: Proclaim! And thy Lord is Most Bountiful,- He Who taught (the use of) the pen,- Taught man that which he knew not.(Surah 96:1-5)
- World Christian Encyclopedia
- Translation of AL-Jazeerah interview between Maher Abdallah and Shiekh Ahmed Katani
- Christian Churches of God Articles on Islam, March 10, 2007
- The Qur'an, Sura 37 
- Abramahov, "Islamic Theology". Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh, 1988. 
- Ex-Muslims stand up in Britain