Understanding Islam

Islam is a monotheistic religion following the traditions of Abraham as best explained by the Qur’an and the teaching and example of Muhammad. The followers of Islam, called Muslims, consider Muhammad to be the last prophet of Allah, the Arabic word for God.

About 13% of all Muslims live in Indonesia, 25% in South Asia, 20% in the Middle East and minorities in Europe, China, Russia and the Americas. Converts to Islam can be found in virtually every part of the earth. With about 1.6 billion followers, Islam is the second largest religion behind Christianity, touching about 23% of the earth’s population. With high birthrates in Asia and the Middle East, Islam is the fastest growing religion worldwide with a growth rate of 1.84%.

Islam Beliefs & Sects

The Islamic religion teaches that God is one and nothing or no one else compares to him. Muslims understand the purpose of man’s existence is to worship God. They teach that Islam is the complete and universal version of truth which has been revealed across the centuries through a variety of prophets, including Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus.

Most Muslims are a part of the two major denominations of the Islamic faith: the Sunni group or the Shi’a group. The Sunnis are by far the most widely accepted with 75% or more of the believers a part of this group. When Muhammad died unexpectedly from an illness in 632, divisions formed over the question of who was to succeed the prophet as the leader of the religion. The Shi’a group believes that Muhammad did not name a successor and that his companions have authoritative leadership in the religion. The Sunni sect believe that Muhammad named his cousin and son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib, and his descendants as the only legitimate leaders.

Both groups follow the Qur’an and observe many of the same traditions and holy days. Both adhere to the Five Pillars of Islam.

  • The Testimony of Faith is the first and most important of the Five Pillars. This testimony is the ability to say without reservation “There is no true god but Allah, and Muhammad is the Messenger or Prophet of God.” Islam explains the first part of this testimony to say that nothing has the right to be worshipped except God alone, and that God has no partner or son. The second part identifies Muhammad as the only person able to correctly interpret what God has revealed to mankind. The testimony of faith is called the Shahadah.
  • Prayer is the second of the Five Pillars of Islam. Muslims say five prayers a day, each structured and regimented. Prayers are performed at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, and night. Muslims may pray almost anywhere. When praying a Muslim should feel inner happiness, comfort and peace because prayer is the direct link between the worshiper and God.
  • The third of the Five Pillars of Islam is Giving Zakat (support for the needy). Since all things belong to God, humans are simply those who are left to care for all the wealth and material of the world. The term literally means to set aside a certain percentage of possessions to give to others. Muslims are generally expected to give two and a half percent of gold, silver and cash that they have possessed for one lunar year. In addition a person may give any amount over and above this to charities or religious organizations.
  • Fasting During the Month of Ramadan is the fourth of the Five Pillars. Every year all Muslims fast from dawn to sundown each day during the month of Ramadan. They are to abstain from food, drink and sexual relations during this time. A fasting Muslim will often eat a light meal right after sunset called Iftar, which means breakfast. Most will also eat a light meal right before dawn called Sahur. Muslims see the fasting as having some health benefits, but it is primarily used to perform a spiritual purification. The fasting person also gains a new and deeper sympathy for those who are hungry. Muslims will often have dinner invitations with family and friends for the light meals. The poor and needy are among the first to be invited to the dinners.
  • The final pillar for Muslims is the Pilgrimage to Mecca (Makkah). The annual visit, called a Hajj, is to be performed during the last month of the Islamic calendar. It is an obligation for every Muslim to achieve once in a lifetime, if the person is physically and financially able to do so. About two million people travel to Mecca each year from around the world. Male pilgrims are to wear simple clothes keeping away any class and cultural distinctions. It is to symbolize that all stand equal before God.

Death & Suffering

Faiths that are based on the worship of one God have to explain suffering and death within the context of the purposes and power of their God. In Islam suffering is either the result of sin or it is a test of belief or character.

Muslims believe that some suffering is allowed by God to determine the true nature of the individual and measure the depth of a person’s faith. Suffering has a purpose and is meant to open up the soul and reveal itself before God.

Suffering can also be the result of sin. Suffering can be painful both physically and spiritually. Suffering to the Muslim is associated with unbelief. People who are not Muslim are in a state of unbelief. But unbelief can also come when one has surrendered to Allah, but then fail to serve him in their daily life. This state of unbelief is called kufur, which literally means to forget the truth.

Muslims see death as a natural gateway between life on earth and eternity. Many believe that once death occurs, the person remains in the tomb or grave until the day of judgment. Most understand that during this time, those heading for paradise will experience some sort of tranquility and those heading for hell will receive an uneasiness or suffering.

After Life

Muslims believe in a final day of judgment and an afterlife of either heaven or hell. A person’s eternal destiny depends upon the degree to which the person acted as God desired. They believe that God is a just and merciful God and that his followers should exhibit the same characteristics.

The Qur’an has many names for the final day of judgment – Last Day, Day of Reckoning, Day of Distress, Day of the Gathering, the Great Announcement, and very simply, The Hour. At the end God will resurrect the dead and each person will be judged individually for the intentions and actions of life.

Islam teaches that God is more merciful than he is wrathful. The deeds of each person’s life will be considered and weighed on a judgment scale. If a person’s evil intentions and actions outweigh the good, the person will be condemned to an eternal flame. If the good outweighs the evil, the person will be rewarded with eternity in paradise.

Traditions, Customs & Rituals

The Islamic faith has a variety of traditions, customs and rituals associated with death. Funerals in Islam are called Janazah and follow very specific rites. The body is to be buried as soon after the death as is possible. Funerals and burial services have specific rituals that are to be performed. Some of these rites are interpreted differently, depending primarily upon location and culture. Sharia, or religious law calls for several specific practices.

Burial rituals are to take place within hours of the death unless circumstances prohibit it. The practices would include a collective bathing of the deceased’s body, covering the body with white cotton or linen clothing, funeral prayers, burial in a grave rather than cremation, and positioning the body so that the head of the deceased is facing toward Mecca.

Grief & Mourning

It is acceptable to show grief over the loss of a loved one through death. Crying and sadness at the funeral and burial are natural and expected. Loved ones and relatives are expected to observe a three-day mourning period. Widows have a longer period of mourning, usually lasting four months and ten days. Specific practices are required during this time, while certain activities are forbidden.

Mourning in the Islamic tradition is observed by increased prayer and devotion, receiving visitors wishing to express condolences, and avoiding clothing or activities which would be considered decorative or drawing attention.

Islam expects the expression of grief to remain dignified. Sharia law would prohibit loud or boisterous demonstrations of grief like wailing, shrieking, uncontrollable crying, beating the chest, tearing clothing, or breaking objects. All of those expressions would actually demonstrate a lack of faith in Allah and his ability to sustain and comfort. Practically, each case is handled with care and compassion, realizing that emotion and stress can affect one’s behavior in an extreme way.