The word “Islam” literally means “surrender” or “resignation,” and Muslims take it as their primary religious responsibility to surrender to the will of Allah, the Arabic word for God. Muslims, who are monotheists, believe that Muhammad, a merchant who lived in the 6th and 7th centuries in the Arabian cities of Medina and Mecca, was the last of God’s prophets (the first was the original man, Adam). Muslims worship five times every day. On Fridays, Muslims gather in mosques for communal prayers led by religious leaders called imams. Muslims follow the Five Pillars of Islam: shahadah, or faith (a declaration that there is no god worthy of worship except God, and that Muhammad is his messenger); salat, or prayer (five times a day, at prescribed times); zakat, or charity (giving a set percentage of one’s income to those in need); sawm, or fasting (during the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims refrain from food, drink and sexual relations during the day); and hajj, or pilgrimage (all Muslims who are able are required to travel to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, once in their lifetime).
The Quran, which Muslims believe God revealed to the Prophet Muhammad through the Angel Gabriel. It is written in Arabic. Muslims also refer to the Hadith, the collected sayings of Muhammad, as authoritative. While not regarded as scripture, the sharia system of jurisprudence contains teachings, proscriptions and rules governing everything from permissible food to marriage and divorce.
Ramadan commemorates the time during which the faithful believe Allah sent the Angel Gabriel to Muhammad in Mecca and gave him the teachings of the Quran. During this monthlong observance, Muslims fast from sunup to sundown. Eid al- Fitr marks the end of Ramadan. The hajj is the annual period when many Muslims journey to Mecca; doing so at least once in life is one of the Five Pillars, or requirements, of Islam. Eid al-Adha marks the end of this period.
- The Islamic Society of North America promotes unity and leadership among Muslims.
- The Islamic Circle of North America is a grassroots organization working to establish Muslim identity and to further good works.
- The Council on American-Islamic Relations is the largest advocacy and civil liberties group for Muslims in the U.S.
- The Muslim Public Affairs Council is a Muslim public policy advocacy group with offices in both Washington and Los Angeles.
- The Mosque Cares is headed by W.Deen Muhammad.
U.S.Muslims face a range of issues:
- The most high-profile are related to fallout from terrorist attacks, in the U.S. and worldwide, carried out by Muslims who claim to be acting in the name of God. Civil rights, immigration rules, travel restrictions, investigations of Muslim charities and public perceptions of Islam are of deep concern to Muslim communities. As a result, Muslims are becoming increasingly engaged in politics.
- Muslims often require special accommodation in order to follow Islam’s rules on prayer, dress and eating. When refused by schools, workplaces or prisons, these requests can lead to conflicts and sometimes lawsuits. Muslim communities also struggle with engaging youth and young adults in a faith whose practices — from modest dress to certain foods — are often at odds with U.S. culture.
- As their numbers increase in the U.S., Muslims are creating an infrastructure of Muslim schools, health services, civic organizations, banks (Islam forbids collecting or paying interest) and more.
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- There is no worldwide leader of Islam, or even the major branches of the religion. In addition, imams and other local leaders serve different functions from most pastors and rabbis and often focus most of their work on interpreting Islamic law. Because there is no central authority, theological and legal interpretations can vary by region, country or even from mosque to mosque. There is no one Muslim leader or even group of leaders who have the responsibility or authority to speak for Islam, or even a branch of Islam, in the United States or worldwide.
- Islam split into two major branches after Muhammad’s death in 632 C.E. His followers disagreed about who should succeed him and formed the two main branches, Sunni and Shiite. These are not easily characterized, and reporters should be careful not to make generalizations. Both sects, for example, have given rise to extremist leaders;Osama bin Laden is Sunni and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is Shiite.
- Sunnis make up an estimated 85 percent of all Muslims and are the predominant branch in the United States, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and most other Arab nations, as well as Turkey and Afghanistan. Sunnis also make up most Palestinian andWest African Muslims. A subgroup of the Sunni branch is the fundamentalist Wahhabi sect, and most of its adherents are found in Saudi Arabia.
- Shiites are a majority in Iran and Iraq. Lebanon also has a large Shiite population.
- Sufism is a mystical tradition in Islam that includes both Sunnis and Shiites. It is known for poetry (by such writers as the 13th-century Persian writer Rumi),worshipful dancing (such as whirling) and music.
- Islam is very diverse, and there are many misperceptions about who is Muslim. Many Arabs are Muslims, but many are not. In addition, many Muslims are not Arab, including the growing number of African-American Muslims and Muslim converts (although Muslims believe people “revert” to Islam instead of ”converting” to it). Some U.S.mosques are dominated by Muslims from a particular country or region, but many mosques draw worshippers from dozens of countries.
- Muslims do not engage in rigorous historical-literary criticism of the Quran as Christians and Jews do with their scripture, and Muslims consider it inappropriate to do so. Trained Quranic scholars interpret the Quran’s teachings for application in modern life but do not question what is true or analyze how the Quran was assembled.
- While Islam is known for its rules about how women dress and act, there is a wide range of acceptable behavior. Women within the same mosque or family may follow different interpretations of the Quran’s command that women be modest, for example. Some women wear hijabs, or head scarves, while others do not. In some cultures, women cover their entire bodies. Some U.S.Muslims who call themselves “progressive” are urging that women should be allowed to lead prayers or sit with men during prayers.
- Muslims revere Jesus as a prophet but do not believe he is the son of God.
- When you visit a mosque, dress conservatively and take off your shoes.Women should cover arms and legs and bring a headscarf. Avoid wearing clothes with photographs or images of faces.
- Avoid luncheon meetings during Ramadan,when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. Also, many Muslims follow dietary laws,which prohibit eating pork, its byproducts, blood and the flesh of animals that died without being ritually slaughtered.
- The Nation of Islam is an organization of African-Americans led by Louis Farrakhan. It does not follow mainstream Islam. The Nation of Islam was founded by Elijah Muhammad in 1930. The black separatist organization preached against Christians, Jews and others. When Elijah Muhammad died in 1975, his son W.Deen Muhammad took over and began moving the organization toward mainstream Sunni Islam beliefs. He eventually changed its name to the American Society of Muslims. Farrakhan disagreed with this new direction and restarted the Nation of Islam in the early 1980s. While he has moderated its views somewhat, the Nation of Islam, based in Chicago, is still associated with intolerant views toward some groups. Farrakhan organized the Million Man March in 1995. W.Deen Muhammad now heads a large black Sunni Islam organization called the Mosque Cares, in Calumet City, Ill.
- See “Islam: A guide to U.S. experts and organizations” from ReligionLink.
- The Pluralism Project posts links to Muslim organizations and religious centers.
- Numerous Web sites offer information on Islam including IslamiCity, Islam 101, Islam.com and Beliefnet.