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Islam Overview

After Christianity, Islam is the second largest religion in the world. It has about 1.6 billion followers. The word Islam means “submission to the will of God.” Islam is the name of the religion. People who follow Islam are called Muslims.

Like Jews and Christians, Muslims believe that there is only one God. Islam is therefore a monotheistic religion. In the same way that Christianity developed from Judaism, Islam developed from both Judaism and Christianity. Therefore, Islam is also an Abrahamic religion. The Islamic language is Arabic, and the Arabic name for God is Allah. Allah created everything and is the ruler of everything. Muslims believe they should not worship anything or anyone other than Allah. For example, we should not worship a mountain. Instead, instead we should worship Allah who created the mountain.


Muslims believe that Abraham, Moses, and Jesus were sent by Allah to teach us how to live according to Allah’s laws. However, unlike Christians, Muslims do not believe that Jesus was the son of God. Instead, Muslims believe that Muhammad – “the praised one” – is Allah’s final prophet, and provided us with his final instructions.

Muslims believe that Islam has always existed. However, they believe that the teachings of Islam were revealed over time by a series of prophets. Abraham, Moses, and Jesus are all prophets of Islam. The final and complete revelation of Islam, however, was given to us in the 7th century CE, by the prophet Muhammad.

Muslims believe that Allah gave his final revelation to Muhammad, who recorded them in the Qur’an (Koran), the Islamic holy book. Muhammad is therefore the most important person in Islam, though Muslims don’t worship him. To show respect for Muhammad, Muslims call him “The Prophet”, and always say “peace be upon him “in Arabic after saying his name.

A very important Muslim belief is about what happens to us after we die. Muslims believe in the Day of Judgement. On this day, Muslims believe that the universe will be destroyed, and the dead will be resurrected. Each person will then be judged based upon how they lived their life. People who believed in Allah are rewarded with eternal life in Paradise. Those who did not believe in Allah will suffer for eternity in Hell.


Muhammad was born in Mecca in Saudi Arabia in 570 CE. One night in 610 CE, he was meditating in a cave when he heard some words being spoken. Muhammad believed these words were revelations from Allah, and so had his friends write them down. These revelations continued for 23 years, until Muhammad died in 632 CE. Put together, the revelations make up the Holy Qur’an. The simple message of Islam is that there is no God but Allah, and that people should live their lives in complete obedience to Allah.

Muhammad began to teach Allah’s message in Mecca, which is in modern day Saudi Arabia. This message became very popular. However, it threatened the authorities who had power in Mecca. Because of this, Muhammad and his followers had to leave Mecca in 622 CE. They went to Medina, another city in Saudi Arabia, on a journey known as the Hijrah (the migration). The Hijrah is considered very important by Muslims, and the Islamic calendar begins from this date. On the Islamic calendar, 2017 is the year 1439 AH (AH = in the year of the Hijrah).

Within 10 years, Muhammad had gained many followers and was able to return to and conquer Mecca. In Mecca, Muhammad was the spiritual and political leader of the Islamic community until he died in 632 CE.


After leading his people for over 20 years, Muhammad died in 632 CE. However, he did not give clear instructions about who should be the next Muslim leader. People disagreed about who the right leader should be. This disagreement has led to two main groups in Islam.

The first group are called Sunni Muslims. After Muhammad’s death, this group believed that Abu Bakr, a close friend of Muhammad, should be the leader. They decided this using the Arab tradition of making decisions by consensus. Today, 85% of Muslims are Sunni. Sunni Islam does not have a central organization or authority. Instead, each Sunni community has local leaders, called imams, who make decisions. Imams make their decisions by reading and interpreting the Qur’an. They also lead people through community prayers. Sunni Islam is found in most Islamic countries except Iran.

The second group are called Shi’a Muslims. This group believed that the next leader should come from Muhammad’s family. They thought that Ali, his cousin and son-in-law, should be the leader. Shi’a Muslims believe that revelations ended with Muhammad. However, Shi’a Muslims also believe that Allah sends more teachers to help people understand Islam. These people are imams, and they speak with Allah’s authority. About 15% of Muslims are Shi’a, and they live mostly in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon. This area is sometimes known as the Shia Crescent.Both Sunni Muslims and Shi’a Muslims believe that one day a Mahdi (a messiah) will bring peace and justice to the Earth. After the Mahdi comes, the Day of Judgement will happen.


Muslims know how to live good lives by following the Qur’an and the Hadith. The Hadith is a collection of Muhammad’s sayings, and is used to help understand the Qur’an. The Qur’an and the Hadith together form the basis of Shari’ah law. Shari’ah is the sacred law of Islam. Shari’ah teaches about proper worship and good behaviour. Some laws are negative, telling people what NOT to do. For example, Muslims shouldn’t drink alcohol, gamble, or have sex outside of marriage. Other laws are positive, telling Muslims what they should do. For example, things like justice, kindness, and charity are good.

Halal is the Islamic word for things that are good or permissible for Muslims to do. Halal is often used when speaking about food that Muslims are allowed to eat. Some foods that are non-halal include pork, alcohol, foods containing blood, and meat that comes from animals not killed in a proper way.

The struggle to live a good life is known as jihad. Some people think that jihad means fighting a holy war against people who don’t believe in Islam. Most Muslims, however, believe that jihad refers to the spiritual struggle of trying to live a good Muslim. Practicing the Five Pillars (see below) is a type of jihad, since Muslims believe they get closer to Allah by performing them.

Practices / Rituals

The most important Muslim practices are the Five Pillars of Islam. The Five Pillars are spiritual practices that all Muslims should try to do.

  1. Shahadah: Believe in the unity of Allah and Muhammad as His messenger.
  2. Salat: Pray five times a day (before sunrise, in the middle of the day, late afternoon, after sunset, before midnight), in the direction of Mecca.
  3. Zakat: Give to charity to help the poor.
  4. Sawm: If you’re an adult, fast during the month of Ramadan (see below). This means don’t eat or drink from sunrise to sunset (old people, sick people, and pregnant women are exceptions). Also, no one should smoke or have sex for the whole month.
  5. Hajj: Make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once, if you can physically and financially do it.

The Five Pillars are important because Muslims believe that faith (religion) must be lived, not just believed. Doing the Five Pillars is a way for Muslims to show that religion is the most important thing in life.

The month of Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic (lunar) calendar, and is important to Muslims because this is when the Qur’an was first revealed to Muhammad. Doing good deeds during Ramadan brings greater spiritual rewards. Muslims fast during Ramadan, and try to give up bad habits. They also try to become better Muslims by praying more and reading the Qur’an.

The end of Ramadan is celebrated by a festival called Eid – “the breaking of the fast.” Muslims give thanks to Allah for Ramadan, and celebrate by wearing new clothes, decorating their homes, and sharing a special meal with family.

Muslims pray at home, or in a temple called a mosque. Men and women worship separately, but everyone sits on the floor and faces in the direction of Mecca. Before entering a mosque, you must take of your shoes, and wash your face, hands, and feet. Many mosques have a minaret attached to them. A minaret is a tall tower. At the top of the minaret, a man called a muezzin calls to Muslims five times each day when it is time for them to pray.


Because Muslims believe that the Qur’an is the direct word of Allah, they have great respect for it. The Qur’an’s original words cannot be changed, and Muslims believe it should be read in its original Arabic. Memorizing the Qur’an is considered a great act. Because the Qur’an is the direct word of Allah, destroying a copy of it is blasphemous. It is also blasphemous to create any images of Allah or Muhammad. This is because Allah is greater than any image could show. Also, Muslims think that Allah should be worshipped, not human-made.

Mecca is the most sacred city in Islam, and the Ka’bah at Mecca is the most sacred place. The Ka’bah is located in Mecca and is visited by pilgrims on Hajj. Pilgrims walk around the Ka’bah seven times saying prayers. The Qur’an says that the Ka’bah was built by Abraham, and Muslims believe that it is where Adam first worshipped when he left the Garden of Eden. It is a stone building, and inside there is a special black meteorite.

– written by Christopher Johnson with help from Morksensei

Read more about Islam in Wikipedia and check out this fact sheet on Islam.

The bolded words in the passage above are available as a study set on QUIZLET. Click the bottom, right button in the section below to choose a study/game mode for review of the vocabulary.