A brief History
The advent of Islam took place at a time in Arab when people worshipped idols made of wood and stones. The concept of unity of God had vanished since Christianity also believed in Jesus as son of God. Christians and Jews also lived in Arab along with idol-worshippers. The city of Mecca was the social and business hub of Arab. All tribes swore not to fight in its premises (Tribal fights were frequent and common in Arab). All trade was done with Mecca as the center. People from all across Arab came to Mecca to pay homage to the house of God, Kaaba. Kaaba was first built by Abraham thousands of years ago, who was ordered by God to take his wife and son to the desert of Arab. There he built Kaaba with his son and called people to it. Ever since then, Kaaba is believed to be there in some form. It is believed to be rebuilt and renovated by different prophets over time. The city of Mecca developed around Kaaba over the years and became religious center of whole Arab.
Kaaba was filled with idols since long. The people had many customs and norms that were based on cruelty, barbarism and inequality. Killing was frequent on small reasons, and women were treated as animals. Islam brought the long forgotten idea of unity of God. It challenged the existing social and ethical degradation of the society, and above all, polytheism. Islam was introduced by the Prophet Muhammad. He was born in Mecca in 571 AD and received his first revelation at the age of 40. For ten years Muhammad preached Islam to the people of Mecca; then he was forced to leave Mecca to settle in Medina with his followers. Within twelve years Islam became the greatest force of whole Arab.
Islam has five basic beliefs; belief in Allah (God), belief in His messenger Muhammad (and all other messengers including Jesus and Moses), belief in His book Quran, belief in His angels and finally the belief in the Day of Judgment. Anyone who accepts from heart the Oneness of God and finality of His messenger his considered to have become a Muslim. The primary belief that has been point of tension between Islam and other religions is Oneness of God. Islam rejects the idea of any relationship of God like son and father. Secondly, believing that Muhammad is the last messenger of God and that Quran is last divine book are defining traits of Islam. Quran is believed t be the direct word of God, His address to man. Quranic instructions for man cover many aspects of life. From social and political life to private life, Quran gives very clear instructions to the followers.
Quran tells the stories of messengers that came to world prior to Muhammad. Islam demands belief in all of these Prophets and in their true teachings. But Islam says that the teachings of prior religions were mended by its followers and divine books had been tempered with to fit the needs and desires. God defines Quran as His last book and promises to protect it Himself. The history is conclusive on this point that Quran has been transferred down the generations very carefully that leaves no chance of changes.
Islam demands from its followers to believe and prepare for the Day of Judgment. That day every human being will be judged on his or her deeds done in this world irrespective of color, race, language, and worldly posts. For those who did good deeds and followed orders of God and His Prophet there is ‘Janna’, or paradise; and for those who neglected the message of God and his instructions there is Hell. Every human dead or alive will be brought to face this assessment on the Day of Judgment.
Islam makes five basic obligations for any Muslim; prayers, fasting, ‘Hajj’ or pilgrimage to the Kaaba once in life, ‘Zakat’ or alms to poor and needy, and ‘Jihad’, fighting against one’s false wishes and against enemies of God. Prayers are to be offered five times a day at defined hours. Males of the community gather in the Mosque and offer combined prayers (females can also offer combined prayers but usually this is not common). A Muslim recites verses of Quran in prayer and makes prostrations.
Fasting is practiced as the state of keeping oneself from eating, drinking, any sins and false thoughts, touching opposite sex, and any other act of violence, from dawn to dusk. The time of fasting starts at Dawn, before first light and end at the Dusk. Muslims as a custom and Sunna (practice of the Prophet) start fasting at the time of Dawn by eating some food and end fasting at dusk by eating. Fasting is to be done in the month of Ramazan; tenth month in the Islamic calendar. There are 30 or 29 fasting days, depending on the lunar month. These days of fasting are obligatory on every Muslim. (Exceptions are granted in case of illness and journey) Apart from them, optional fasting is also observed among Muslims for purity of soul.
Hajj or pilgrimage to Kaaba is obligatory on every Muslim once in life who can afford the expenses of journey. Every Muslim who is able to travel and can afford to do pilgrimage becomes liable to do so. Every year, on tenth of the month of ZilHajj(last month of Muslim calendar), Muslims from all around the world gather in Mecca and perform rites of Hajj. Apart from Hajj, Muslims can also offer optional pilgrimage at any time of year.
Zakat is alms giving to poor and needy. Quran gives seven categories of people who can be helped with Zakat. Zakat is to be given as fixed portion of one’s wealth each year.
The fifth obligation that has got world attention is Jihad. Jihad is primarily defined as fighting against one’s own false desires and wishes to keep a pure soul. Secondary Jihad is physically fighting in order to ensure the safety and well being of Islam and Muslims. In the recent past, many violent activities that do not meet the criteria of Jihad have been claimed as Jihad. The situation is worsened due the limited knowledge and misconceptions in the West. Also, many acts of violence and terrorism have been carried out by non Muslim elements while Muslim groups are wrongly accused of doing them. Terrorism and Jihad are now frequently and wrongly connected.
Customs and Cultures
The basic unit of a Muslim community is house. Man and woman united by the sacred bond of Marriage are pillars of this community. The social hub of the community is Mosque, where Imam is the spiritual and social leader of Muslims. He leads prayers, delivers speeches and solves their social issues.
In the past the Islamic society had a Khalifa (or Caliph). Khalifa is a ruler who is modest and pious of all men. He was chosen with the consent of men of knowledge, piety and wisdom. Khalifa had a advisory council called the Shu’ra. The Caliph could take advice from council but he used to hold authority in decision making. Islamic state by definition is a welfare state where lives, property and honor of all citizens are protected and needy, orphans, widows and poor are taken care of. Such was the ideal Islamic society built by the Prophet in Medina.
Esposito, John L. What Everyone Needs To Know About Islam. Oxford University Press US, 2002.