Islam is Arabic for "submission", referring to submission to the will of God.
The Muslim holy book is traditionally called the Koran in English, and we use that term here. Qur'an or just Quran are closer to the Arabic and are becoming more common in recent writing.
The Arabic word rasul, usually rendered as prophet in English, translates literally as "messenger".
Although the Arabic word jihad is often translated as "holy war", the actual meaning is much broader, closer to "crusade" or "struggle", which can include things like a crusade against corruption or a personal struggle against evil in one's own heart.
Islam is one of the world's most important religions, second only to Christianity in number of adherents. Its followers are called Muslims and their houses of worship, mosques.
Islam is the main religion of most of the Middle East, North Africa, the Sahel and Central Asia, and is also widespread in South and Southeast Asia, West and East Africa. Today there are Muslims in most of the world's countries, mainly due to immigration but also some converts.
Many sites built in the name of Islam are on the UNESCO World Heritage List. As Muslim congregations have had a significant role in most communities where they are present, a traveler will learn much from visiting a local mosque, regardless of what s/he believes.
|“||There is no god but God. Muhammad is the messenger of God.||”|
—Shahada, the creed of Islam.
Should you visit an Islamic country?
Given that within the last two decades no part of the world has been scrutinized as much or stereotyped as heavily as the Muslim world, many people may ask themselves whether they will be safe traveling in a Muslim country or should they simply avoid them.
There are countries which are better avoided for the time being due to ongoing armed conflicts but there are Muslim countries that are worth visiting if you ignore media hype. One reason is that you are likely be welcomed as a revered guest almost anywhere as Islamic society puts a tremendous emphasis on the tradition of hospitality. Another is that you won’t have to deal with tourists, as many Muslim countries are largely untraveled. See also our article on traveling during Ramadan, the holy month when Muslims fast.
Islam is a monotheistic religion (that is, believing in one God, called Allah, Arabic for "The God"). It is an Abrahamic religion like Judaism, Christianity and the Baha'i Faith, tracing its spiritual heritage through Abraham's son, Ishmael (Ismail in Arabic). Unlike Jews and Christians, who believe that Isaac was the son that Abraham was commanded to sacrifice, Muslims believe that it was Ishmael.
The first prophet of Islam, according to Muslims, was the first man, Adam, and many of the prophets mentioned in the Bible, as well as Jesus and several others who are not mentioned in the Bible, are also regarded by Muslims as prophets, with Muhammad being regarded as the final and most important prophet of Islam.
The key doctrinal difference between Islam and Christianity is that Islam rejects the claim that Jesus was divine and with it the whole idea of God as a Trinity. In Islamic belief there is only one God, indivisible, and Jesus was one of his prophets and the Messiah, but no human can be God. Jesus deserves a great deal of respect, as does any other prophet, but no man deserves worship. Muslims also reject the notion that Jesus was crucified (though this view is generally rejected by historians), and instead believe that he was raised bodily to heaven by God, where he awaits his return during the apocalypse.
Do not refer to Muslims as "Mohammedan". Many Muslims are deeply offended by this name, since it seems to imply that they worship their religion's founder as Christians worship Jesus.
Because the word Islam means "submission to the will of Allah", Muslims consider all the prophets starting with Adam to have been Muslims.
The Prophet Muhammad
The man regarded in orthodox Islam as Allah's last Messenger, and by all as the first person to preach Islam using the word Islam as such, is the Prophet Muhammad (also transliterated as Mohammed).
Muhammad was born in Mecca c. 570 CE. According to Islamic belief, the Angel Gabriel recited the words of the Koran to the Prophet Muhammad in a cave where he was praying. Many of the Jews and Christians who heard Muhammad's preaching dismissed it as distortions of Bible stories, but the Muslim position is that it was the Bible that had gotten distorted, and the Angel Gabriel had delivered the accurate word of Allah directly to the Prophet Muhammad in order to correct the distortions.
More immediately relevant at the time, however, was the fact that most Meccans remained polytheistic, and they considered Muhammad's fire-and-brimstone preaching against polytheism a threat, not least because polytheistic pilgrims were a huge factor in the local economy. Ultimately, Muhammad was informed that some of these polytheists had laid a plan to kill him and his followers. This triggered the Hejira (or Hijrah), the migration of Muslims from Mecca to the city of Yathrib, now known as Medina, which was more friendly to monotheists, as it had a large Jewish population. The first year of the Hijrah marks the start of the Islamic calendar, which is widely used in Muslim-majority countries to this day; Islamic years are abbreviated AH and the first year of the Hijrah, which began during 622 CE, is called 1 AH in the Islamic calendar.
Muhammad eventually had a falling out with the Jews, but by that time he and his followers were a strong army. They defeated Jewish and pagan opposition and later returned as conquerors of Mecca. Through inspirational leadership and great military prowess, Muhammad was able to unite most of Arabia under his rule during his lifetime.
The Koran (in Arabic: القرآن al-Qurʾān, alternate English terms Qur'an, Quran and others) is the central religious text for Muslims. The word Koran translated literally is "recitation" and spoken recitation is still important; there are national and international Koran chanting contests every year which are widely televised in Muslim countries.
Other texts are also important, both the hadith (records) of Muhamad's life and sayings and the tafsir (interpretations) of both Koran and Hadith by various scholars. However, devout Muslims consider the Koran to be literally the Word of God, and the other texts do not have that level of authority.
What is a caliphate?
A caliphate is the Islamic form of government representing the political unity and leadership of the Muslim world. It is led by a caliph who is a person considered a political and religious successor to the Islamic prophet, Muhammad, and a leader of the entire Muslim community. The word "caliph" itself derives from the Arab word for "successor" or "placeholder".
The rulers of the Ottoman Empire claimed to be the Caliph of all Muslims up until the early 20th century when their empire fell. The claim did have considerable support, though it never got close to being accepted by all Muslims.
Today Da'esh (see #Muslim groups below) claim to be a new caliphate, and to be on their way to re-uniting all Muslims. This claim does not have widespread support, but many of those who do support it are fanatical about it.
The first Islamic Empire, the Rashidun Caliphate, was established following the Prophet Muhammad's death. It was controlled by the first four caliphs who are known among Sunni Muslims as the "Rightly Guided".
The reign of the first caliph, the prophet's father-in-law Abu Bakr, lasted for only a little over two years, but it included successful invasions of the two most powerful empires of the time and region, the Byzantine Empire (successor to the Roman Empire) and the Persian Empire. Under the second Caliph, Umar (or Omar), the empire expanded greatly and there was an economic boom in the lives of the ordinary people due to the revolutionary economic policies developed by Umar. During the reign of Umar's successor Uthman, the people of the empire enjoyed a prosperous life. The last Rashidun caliph, Ali, was the son-in-law of Muhammad and was also the first young man who accepted Islam.
By 750 CE, the Islamic Empire of the Umayyad Caliphate extended westward to Morocco, eastward to India and northward to southern France, Iberia, the Caucasus and Central Asia. It is the fifth largest empire ever to exist, and the largest empire in history by land area up until that point; it was home to roughly 30% of the world's total population during its heyday.
The Abbasid Caliphate, which was founded in 750 CE and ruled from Baghdad starting in 762 CE, was probably the most advanced civilization in the world for the next few hundred years. A tremendous number of Greek and Latin books were translated into Arabic between the 8th and 12th centuries, on topics including philosophy, history, science and mythology. At the same time, universities were opened, and there were great advances in astronomy, engineering and mathematics. Of particular note were:
- al-Khwārizmī (c. 780-c. 850), probably from Khiva, from whose terms we get the English words algebra and algorithm, and who introduced decimal arithmetic and "Arabic" numerals (actually from India) to the Islamic world
- Avicenna (Arabic: ibn Sīnā, c. 980-1037), from a village near Bukhara, a brilliant doctor and philosopher. One of his medical texts was used in Europe as late as 1650
- Omar Khayyam, from Nishapur, primarily a mathematician and astronomer but he also wrote on philosophy, mechanics, geography and mineralogy and is best known in the West for his poetry
- Maimonedes (c. 1135-1204), who was born in Córdoba, fled persecution of Jews there for the (then) more tolerant Muslim regions, and eventually became Court Physician to Saladin in Egypt.
- Maimonedes, who was also a very influential rabbi, was one of many Jews and Christians who along with Muslims contributed to the greatness of the Islamic civilization.
The Golden Age lasted until 1258 when Baghdad was captured and destroyed by the Mongols.
There were quite a few other great Islamic dynasties after the Golden Age, centered in different parts of the world, but it is above all the caliphates of the Golden Age that are remembered both by historians of all faiths and no faith who celebrate their advancement of knowledge and by Muslims who see these caliphates as an example of how Muslims prospered and advanced as one ummah (community) dedicated to knowledge and progress. Muslims argue about which caliphs serve as good examples of correct Islamic rule and whether or what kind of caliphate should be established today.
The last empire that was widely regarded as a Muslim caliphate was the Ottoman Empire (1299-1923), the caliph being the sultan of the empire; since its fall several Muslim leaders have laid claim to the title of caliph, but neither the Empire nor the later claimants have been universally recognised as such by the worldwide Muslim community.
The Sunni-Shi'a split
Some time after the prophet's death, the movement split; the main groups were the Sunni, loyal to the Caliphs, and the Shīʻatu ʻAlī (party of Ali) following the prophet's son-in-law Ali and his descendants. The latter group are generally just called Shi'a. There was a series of wars between the two factions, and there are still tensions between them which often lead to serious political conflicts both within and between countries.
One important battle was on the 10th of the Islamic month of Muharram at Karbala, now in Iraq, in 61 AH (680 CE); Ali's son Hussein and a band of followers were wiped out. This is still commemorated by both groups; for the Shi'a it is one of the most important religious events of the year. The day is called Ashura (meaning ten); for more detail, see the Iran article.
The Shi'a began as primarily an Arab movement; places as far west as Morocco had Shi'a dynasties, and the Shi'a Fatamid Caliphate (909-1170 CE) ruled much of Arabia, the Levant and North Africa. However, Shi'a Islam became the state religion of Iran (which is emphatically not an Arab nation) in the 16th century and today Iran is its main center; nearby countries such as Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain also have a Shi'a majority, and there are powerful Shi'a minorities in Pakistan, Yemen and Lebanon.
Sunnis are a majority in Southeast Asia, South Asia, Africa, and most of the Middle East. Around 90% of the world’s Muslims are Sunni and only around 10% of them are Shi'a, but the whole situation is complex; most predominantly Sunni regions have Shi'a minorities and vice versa. Indonesia has the largest number of Sunni Muslims, while Iran has the largest number of Shi'a Muslims in the world. Pakistan has both the second-largest Sunni and the second-largest Shi'a Muslim population in the world. Complicating the whole issue is the fact that some countries with a Shia majority have historically been ruled by Sunnis and vice versa. Saddam Hussein, for example, was a Sunni Muslim governing a country, Iraq, that is roughly 60% Shia.
The two most important festivals in Islam are the two Eids, which are the only festivals that are universally celebrated by all Muslims regardless of sect. Some Muslim sects may celebrate festivals that are unique to that particular sect.
- Eid al-Fitr - The most important festival in Islam, and celebrated after the end of Ramadan. While Ramadan is a time of fasting, Eid al-Fitr is a time of feasting, and many Muslim families will invite their friends and neighbours to their houses in the spirit of celebration.
- Eid al-Adha - The festival during which the Hajj is performed. Only pilgrimages made during Eid al-Adha are considered to fulfil the Hajj, while pilgrimages made during other times are regarded as lesser pilgrimages or Umrah. In mosques throughout the world, lambs donated by the faithful are sacrificed to commemorate Abraham's obedience to God, and their meat is used to feed the poor.
- Prophet Muhammad's Birthday - Celebrated by some Muslim sects, but not by orthodox Sunnis, who consider its celebration to be idolatry.
There are a large number of religious groups in the Muslim world today, all basically Islamic but differing considerably in theology and style. There is no single centralised body to serve as the authoritative voice on what is or is not the correct application of theological principles, and to this day, scholars continue to debate what an appropriate interpretation of the Koran and other religious scriptures is. While the great majority of Muslims agree that the Koran is valid in its entirety and continues to be applicable, there are significant differences about other bodies of Islamic scripture, including the validity of individual Hadiths.
The Sufis are Muslim mystics; there are both Sunni and Shi'a Sufis. Among the well-known ones:
- Omar Khayyam (1048-1131 CE) was important as a mathematician and astronomer, but is best-known for his poetry, especially the Rubaiyat. He lived most of his life in Bukhara. There are multiple scholarly interpretations of his work, and not all experts consider him Sufi.
- There are hundreds of stories about Mullah Nasrudin (or Nasreddin), a Sufi saint who lived in the Konya region of Turkey in the 13th century
- Rumi was a Sufi saint of the 13th century CE, a scholar and judge now known mainly for his poetry. He grew up near Balkh but the family fled west due to the Mongol invasion and he spent much of his career in the Konya region. His son founded the Whirling Dervish order.
- Dervishes are one type of Sufi, Sunni mystics who practice asceticism and meditation. Some dervish groups also whirl, putting themselves into a sort of trance.
The Sufis have been quite influential in the West, at least among the sort of "new age" groups who also study yoga and Zen; Nasrudin tales and Rumi quotes are very common in those circles.
Alawis are a mystically inclined branch of Shi'a Islam, centered in Syria. The ruling Assad family is Alawi and most of their opposition is Sunni.
Ismailis are a Shi'a branch sometimes called "seveners" as opposed to "twelvers" for the main (Jafari) Shi'a group; the Jafari list twelve Imams (spiritual leaders) but the Ismaili recognise only the first seven of those and have a different lineage after that. Today there are about 15 million Nizari Ismailis (who consider the Aga Khan the 49th Imam) mainly in the Indian Subcontinent, plus a few smaller Ismaili groups, such as the Druze in the Levant and another group in the Pamir mountains of Central Asia.
Perhaps the best-known Ismaili is Hasan-i Sabbah, who was educated in Samarkand with Omar Khayyam as a classmate and later led a Persian revolt against the Seljuk Turks. There are many rather colorful stories about him, and the English words "hashish" and "assassin" are both derived from his name. His fortress at Alamut, near Qazvin is now a tourist attraction.
Salafi is a fundamentalist Sunni movement; the name comes from salaf, meaning predecessors, referring to the idea that Muhammad and his early followers are the model for genuine Islam. Salafists call for a return to the fundamentals of Islam — the Koran and Hadith — and to Islamic Sharia Law. Salafists are adamantly opposed to such things as reverence for saints, the creation of shrines, and carrying amulets for luck or protection; they consider all of these as later innovations which pollute the original pure Islam.
- Wahhabi Islam is a Salafist reform movement that began in the Arabian Peninsula in the 18th century, named after the Arab theologian Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792), and is generally regarded to be a particularly strict and conservative branch of Salafism. Today it is the state religion of Saudi Arabia and significant in several other Gulf states. While "Wahhabi" is widely used by outside commentators, the adherents of the movement call themselves Salafi and often consider "Wahhabi" offensive.
- Deobandi Islam is a salafist movement that arose in India in the 19th century. It became quite influential on the Northwest Frontier (now the Pakistan/Afghanistan border region) and today is the main religious inspiration behind the Taliban.
- The most extreme Salafists believe their leaders can issue a takfir declaring others non-Muslim. In orthodox Islam, a takfir can only be issued by the Ulema, a group of scholars who are in effect a supreme court for Sharia Law. Da'esh, however, think their Caliph can issue takfirs and anyone who does not accept their interpretation of scripture and their Caliph (including all Shia and most Sunni Muslims) is not a Muslim. Since they also believe non-Muslims should be either converted or killed (except Christians and Jews who accept Muslim rule, Sharia Law and an extra tax) this poses a large problem.
- Da'esh much prefer to be called the Islamic State (formerly Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)). It has threatened to kill people for using "Da'esh". Many western commentators prefer Da'esh because the other terms implicitly acknowledge that the movement is Islamic (though many Muslim scholars reject its interpretation) and a state (though most governments do not recognise it).
An interesting difference between Salafists and Christian fundamentalists is that Salafists claim to base their movement on the work of respected Muslim scholars, dating back at least to the 12th century CE, and often quote those scholars. It is difficult to imagine a Christian fundamentalist quoting, say, Thomas Aquinas or even John Calvin.
The Nation of Islam (NOI) was founded in the United States as a political and religious movement fighting for the empowerment of black people. Many of their beliefs deviate significantly from mainstream Islam, such that many Muslims would consider some of these to be strange, or even heretical. Among the most prominent followers of this brand of Islam was the famous boxer Muhammad Ali (though he would later convert to mainstream Sunni Islam). Due to its prominence in African-American history and the Civil Rights Movement, the term "Black Muslim" has become somewhat synonymous with the NOI within the U.S., even though many African-American Muslims follow mainstream Sunni Islam rather than the NOI. Civil Rights leader Malcolm X was also a member of the NOI for most of his public career, though after his Hajj he had a personal falling out with NOI leader Elijah Mohamed, questioning both the personal morals and the religious teachings of his erstwhile mentor, and became a Sunni Muslim.
Of course Islam has also often had internal reform movements that can be classified various forms of "liberal" and a great many Muslims consider certain aspects of more conservative adherents of their faith outdated or wrong, just like many Christians and Jews do in their own faiths.
Islam and politics
The Muslim world has complicated politics and some, though by no means all, of the complications derive from religious differences which create sectarian violence among Muslim denominations. Some of the more obvious cases, which travelers in the region might need to be aware of:
- Iraq is predominantly Shi'a but with a substantial Sunni minority; estimates vary but none are under 20%. Saddam Hussein and most of his key followers were Sunni Arabs, and they persecuted the Shi'as as well as the Kurds, who are predominantly Sunni Muslims but non-Arab, and others. Today's government is Shi'a-led, and it is widely accepted that it has in turn oppressed the Sunni community. Most of the opposition groups are Sunni.
- In Syria, the Alawi make up only 12% of the population but the ruling family and many senior officials are from that community; most of their opposition is from the Sunni majority.
- Da'esh, also called ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) or ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), are Salafi-Takfiris who believe that Sharia Law and a Muslim Caliph should rule the world.
Islamism refers to the political ideology that seeks to establish an Islamic theocracy, and is distinct from the religion of Islam. Not all Muslims are Islamists, and likewise, not all Islamists are violent, with many who wish to achieve their goals solely through peaceful means.
Other than sectarian violence, there are a number of radical Islamic groups active in various parts of the world, and their co-religionists in other places are often accused of funding or arming them and using them as a strategic tools to get benefit in their geostrategic agendas. For example, unrest in Jammu and Kashmir or Mindanao is sometimes blamed on interference from the nearest Muslim country, Pakistan or Malaysia respectively.
Iran supports radical Shi'a groups such as Hezbollah further west (Hezbollah targets Israel and its allies, and also fights in support of the governments of Syria and Iraq against Sunni armed groups) while Saudi Arabia in particular and more generally the Arabs of the Gulf States are often accused of supporting various radical Sunni groups around the world, against both the west and the Shi'a. In all cases there are local issues that would be a problem with or without outside interference, and it is sometimes hard to tell if the accusations are true.
Although most countries with Muslim majorities have Islam as the state religion, this is not universally true, and several Muslim-majority countries are at least nominally secular. Prominent examples of secular Muslim-majority countries include Indonesia, Turkey and Kazakhstan. Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania are likewise traditionally Muslim-majority, but in modern times are largely secular societies that are rather relaxed in their religious observances.
In countries where both Islam and elections play a big role (and in fact also in some countries that don't have free and fair elections), there are also often explicitly Muslim political parties / organizations that participate in elections, even in countries that are nominally secular. The most successful of these are Hamas in the Palestinian territories, which Israel, the US government and others denounce as an extremist terror organization and the AKP in Turkey, which is (arguably) moderate and illiberally democratic. The Muslim Brotherhood, which while openly Islamist has recanted violence and aims to create an Islamic state through peaceful means only, briefly ruled Egypt during the Arab Spring but has been harshly suppressed by the military regime which overthrew them in a coup. In Iran, all candidates for the Presidency have to be approved by religious authorities and in practice anybody with any political power subscribes to a rather narrow set of branches of Shia Islam. The constitution furthermore states that the government is to be a "caretaker" for the eventual return of the Mahdi and few decisions of consequence can be taken without approval by the Supreme Leader, of which there have been two since 1979, Khomeini and Khamenei.
Almost all political figures in the Muslim world are Muslim, so religion often plays a role in the ideology and politics even of nominally secular parties, much like even politicians in Europe or North America who are not members of explicitly Christian parties are often Christian and sometimes claim religious influence in policy decisions or invoke religious imagery.
As with any other religion, there are also more liberal Muslims who believe that religious practice should be left to an individual and his community to decide, and reject the notion of establishing any sort of theocratic government, Islamic or otherwise.
Islam and law
Islamic Law is called Sharia (also spelled Shariah, Shari'ah or Syariah). Contrary to popular belief, there is no single codified "Book of Sharia Law", and even today, Islamic scholars continue to debate on what an appropriate application of Sharia is. In Western countries, it is common for Sharia to be misrepresented as only the most extreme possible punishments, such as stoning for adultery and amputation for theft. In fact, Sharia is applied to Muslims in many countries where such severe punishments are not practiced. Some might surprise you: For example, in Israel, marriage, divorce and family law for Muslims are governed by Sharia. The severest interpretations of Sharia are also called Hudud or Hudood, deriving from the Arabic word hadd, meaning "limit", because they take Sharia to its severest possible limits. Pakistan has Hudood Laws, but Malaysia, which like many other Muslim countries applies Sharia in addition to civil law to Muslims, does not, and its Supreme Court has ruled against attempts by the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party to pass a Hudud Law (Malaysian spelling) in the state of Kelantan on constitutional grounds.
Sharia in most cases does not apply to non-Muslims, anyway, though with some important exceptions such as possible penalties for blasphemy and perhaps for illicit sex or "proximity" (khulwa/khalwat, which means to be alone in a potentially compromising position with a person of the opposite sex to whom you are not married or an immediate family member) with a Muslim.
However, there are a few countries that do not recognize any religion but Islam, most notably Saudi Arabia, and those countries apply Sharia to all who enter.
Overall, the boundary between law, tradition and practice can be blurry, and there is a continuum between the mildest and severest forms of Sharia, so the best advice for any visitor to a Muslim country is to find out what laws and conventions are likely to apply to them and act respectfully, because in a country where blasphemy could be punished by death, you are a lot less likely to incur such a punishment if you refrain from criticizing Islam or its prophets while you are visiting.
There are five paramount rules or five most important duties in Islam, called the "Five Pillars of Islam", which are considered mandatory for all Muslims to follow during their life:
- Faith (Shahada) — Shahada is a testimony, a declaration of faith in the religion and trusting that there is no god except God, and Muhammad is God's Messenger (in Arabic, La ilaha illallah, Muhammadur Rasullulah). Recitation of this statement of faith is the most common declaration of faith for all Muslims, and the Arabic calligraphy for it is frequently found on modern Islamic flags such as of Saudi Arabia or Iraq. Militant Islamist organizations such as Al Qaeda, Taliban and others also use this creed on their flags, but there is nothing fundamentally militant about this central statement of Islamic faith. Saying the Shahada three times in front of two adult Muslim witnesses and sincerely meaning it is considered sufficient for a conversion to Islam by many Muslims.
- Prayer (Salah) — Salah is Islamic prayer. Muslims pray five times daily, facing the Kaaba in Mecca. The practice of Salah can be done anywhere, but it is mostly done at mosques and for that good reason, mosques and smaller prayer halls have been created in every town in every Muslim-majority country. The prayers include some specific movements including bowing. On Fridays, Muslim men are expected to pray at a mosque; Muslim women are not obligated to go to the mosque but frequently do.
- Charity (Zakat) — Zakat is charity that every Muslim, based on their wealth, is required by Islamic law to pay annually. Usually money is given to charitable organizations as well as to needy people.
- Fasting (Sawm) — Sawm is ritual fasting that is obligatory for Muslims to do during the month of Ramadan. Muslims abstain from food, drink, smoking and sexual intercourse from dawn to dusk during this month, and mostly engage in prayers and contemplation.
- Pilgrimage (Hajj) — Once in a lifetime, Muslims are required to go to Mecca on the Hajj pilgrimage if they can afford the traveling, financially and physically. It is not at all uncommon to have an entire village collect funds for one of their inhabitants to go to Mecca "in their stead". Those who have performed the Hajj are often addressed with the title of Haji (men) or Hajjah (women).
The Koran requires Muslims to dress modestly, and many Muslims interpret this to mean that women are required to cover their hair whenever they are in public. Many, but by no means all, observant Muslim women wear a headscarf known as a hijab (or in Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore, tudung) that covers their hair. Those who are stricter wear a full face veil, of which there are two types: the niqab covers the entire face except for the eyes, while the burqa covers the entire face including the eyes, with a mesh at eye level allowing the woman to see. Various forms of Islamic dress may be enforced by official law or very strong social custom and our country and region guides usually spell out the particulars. Make no mistake, not all who live in countries where veils are mandatory particularly like wearing them.
Read and watch
- The Message — An interesting Koranic epic drama film directed by Syrian American film producer Moustapha Akkad in 1977, chronicles the life and times of Muhammad and serves as an introduction to early Islamic history. Released in Arabic and English and also dubbed in Urdu.
- See also: Holy Land
Islam has had a tremendous influence on architecture and on other arts and crafts. Almost every town in the Middle East, Central Asia, North Africa, Pakistan, Malaysia or Indonesia, plus most cities along the Silk Road, has at least an interesting mosque and a bazaar full of items with Islamic elements in their design. So do some places in India, the Caucasus, Spain and East Africa.
This section lists a few of the best places for exploring Islamic traditions.
- Mecca Birthplace of Muhammad and endpoint of the yearly Hajj. Entry for non-Muslims is prohibited under Saudi law.
- Medina Muhammad found refuge and most of his first followers here. Considered one of the holiest cities in Islam today and also barred to non-Muslims.
- Jerusalem While not a majority-Muslim city, it is considered one of three holiest sites in Islam and its Arab name "al Quds" is used with longing and veneration.
- Karbala A battle nearby killed Hussein bin Ali in 61 AH. This is still commemorated, especially by Shi'a. There are shrines for Hussein and his brother Abbas and many other historic buildings.
- Najaf One of the holiest cities for Shi'a, a major pilgrimage destination, and the political center of Iraq's Shi'a. It has the tomb of Ali and many other religious buildings.
- Samarra The capital of the Abbassid Caliphate 836-890 CE, this is best-preserved Islamic capital and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Isfahan is home to some of the most striking mosques in the world, as well as impressive tombs and historic palaces.
- Mashhad The holy city of Mashhad is home to the splendid Imam Reza Shrine, dedicated to the eighth Shi'ite Imam, who was martyred in the 9th century CE.
- Qom A great center of Shi'a learning, roughly halfway between Tehran and Isfahan.
- Shiraz features impressive tombs but also the Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, which has colorful stained glass and beautifully tiled ceilings.
- Harran — while nowadays better known for its rural feel and traditional "beehive" houses, this village was one of the earliest centers of Islamic learning, where classical knowledge of astronomy, philosophy, natural sciences and medicine was translated from Greek into Arabic (usually through Syriac with the help of local Assyrians). The ruins of an ancient Islamic university exist. Nearby Urfa is also rich in Islamic architecture and myths associated with Abraham.
- Istanbul Formerly Constantinople, it was the spiritual and political center of one of the biggest Muslim empires, the Ottoman Empire, and features one of the holiest pilgrimage sites of Islam, the tomb of Mohammed's standard bearer Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, who died and was buried here during the first siege of Constantinople in the 8th century. The Eyüp mosque stands on the shore of the Golden Horn, outside the Old City walls. Inside them, there are several beautiful Imperial mosques, some of Byzantine origins.
- Konya home of the great Sufi teachers Rumi and Nasrudin (whose tomb is in the nearby town of Akşehir), with much fine Islamic architecture.
- Cairo (Egypt) Egypt's capital, founded during the Islamic era, is quite arguably the cultural hub of the Arab World. It is also home to the famous and ancient Al Azhar University and has its share of historic mosques. Egyptian Arabic is intelligible to the vast majority of Arabs and Egyptian TV and movies have influence far beyond Egypt itself.
- Kairouan (Tunisia) A major pilgrimage destination and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Agra (India) is the site of the most famous Mughal architecture and one of the most famous Islamic buildings in the world: The Taj Mahal. In addition, Agra has its own beautiful fort, and nearby is the well-preserved royal city of Fatehpur Sikri, built for the emperor Akbar.
- Delhi (India) India's capital was previously the capital of several Islamic dynasties, most notably the Mughal Empire. It is home to numerous splendid monuments and mosques from the Mughal and earlier periods, including the Red Fort, the tomb of Emperor Humayan and the Jama Masjid.
- Lahore (Pakistan) was an important city and sometime capital of the Mughal Empire. As such, it has quite a few impressive attractions dating from that time, including the Badshahi Mosque, Lahore Fort, and the splendid three-tiered Shalimar Gardens. Lahore has a vibrant Punjabi Muslim cultural and religious life, including a Sufi gathering on Thursdays at the shrine of Shah Jamal.
- Bukhara and Samarkand in Uzbekistan were both major sites of Islamic science and learning, featuring a high number of ancient buildings with delicate tilework that are the main highlights of any trip along the Silk Road.
- Turkestan, Kazakhstan, is the site of the striking shrine of Ahmed Yassavi, a 12th century poet and pioneer mystic who is a highly respected figure among Turkic Muslims. He was the founder of the Sufi order of Yasavviya, influenced by the pre-Islamic Turkic shamanism.
- Córdoba, the former capital of Al-Andalus, contains several important relics of that time, especially La Mezquita de Córdoba, a beautiful, large mosque built on the site of a Visigothic church and subsequently converted into a church after the reconquista of Spain.
- Granada, also in Andalusia, is the site of the splendid Alhambra fortress/palace complex and other relics of its Moorish past, and it also has a mosque in Moorish style that was built in 2003 to serve a new Muslim community, hundreds of years after the last member of the previous Muslim community was expelled.
- Larnaca, or rather the bank of the local salt lake west of the town in Cyprus, is the site of Hala Sultan Tekke, an Ottoman-built shrine at the cemetery of Umm Haram, Muhammad's wet nurse, who died here during a siege in the 7th century. Some denominations consider this to be one of the holiest Islamic sites.
- Tetovo, Macedonia, is the site of the "Painted Mosque" (Šarena Džamija), a rather small Ottoman-era mosque that is atypically decorated with extremely bright and colourful paintings.
In some places, non-Muslims are not permitted to enter mosques at all. If you are invited to visit a mosque, it is appropriate to dress conservatively and show respect; details vary by place but can be expected to include covering your hair, torso, arms and legs if you are a woman, and all who enter will be expected to remove their shoes. It is a very good idea to learn a bit about the local rules before visiting a mosque, especially if you're a non-Muslim. All mosques have separate sections or prayer halls for men and women.
Most Muslims take their religion more seriously than many non-Muslims in Western countries take theirs, so religious issues such as the lives of Muhammad and other prophets of Islam and the teachings of the Koran and Hadith are no laughing matter, and even what you may consider benign criticism might put you in physical danger in certain situations or get you prosecuted for blasphemy in some countries. Also avoid making any visual depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, as most Muslims consider this to be forbidden, and are deeply offended even when a non-Muslim does so. But don't be afraid to ask questions if you are genuinely interested in knowing more about Islam; like Christians, Muslims are exhorted to give testimony (da'awa) about their religion, according to their belief that following the straight path outlined in the Koran gives more people the chance to go to Heaven on Judgment Day. Just listen attentively to the responses and be respectful.
Dogs are considered to be unclean in Islam, and Muslims are forbidden from touching dogs, so be cognizant of this if you have a pet dog and have Muslim guests or neighbours. Cats, on the other hand, are revered for their cleanliness and considered to be the ideal pet by many Muslim families.
Arabic, specifically Classical Arabic, is the original language of Islam's main religious text, the Koran, and continues to be used as the liturgical language throughout the Muslim world. Other languages spoken by large numbers of Muslims are Urdu, Bengali, Persian, other Indo-Iranian languages, Malay/Indonesian and Turkic languages such as Turkish.
A literal translation of the word "Islam" is "submission", referring to submission to the will of God. The Arabic expression insh'allah (God willing) is common throughout the Muslim world and has entered several languages that are or have in the past been influenced by Islam; even the Spanish "ojala" is ultimately derived from "insh'allah". Other Arabic loanwords (often referring to religious subjects or technological advances made during the Muslim "golden age") have entered a number of languages, especially those of majority Muslim countries.
While many Muslims have a general knowledge of classical Koranic Arabic and it is used as a means of communication in pan-Arab media, you'd perhaps be surprised to hear that the "dialects" of modern Arabic are not necessarily mutually intelligible. In fact, they could be compared to the Romance languages in that they share a lot of grammar and vocabulary but differ enough in detail to hinder effortless communication. That being said, Modern Standard Arabic, which is very similar to the Classical Arabic of the Koran, is the official form of the language in all Arab countries, and hence taught in all schools and used in news broadcasts. Should you find yourself unable to communicate in a nominally Arabic-speaking country, both Classical and modern Egyptian Arabic may be close enough to the local variety to get by. Or failing that, Modern Standard Arabic will be known to locals who are well educated, have been abroad or who frequently watch pan-Arab TV Channels.
Of course a large number of Muslims don't speak Arabic. Or not much more than what they need to get through the most important passages of the Koran. Many mosques (especially in Western countries) hold services in the local vernacular and there is no more reason to assume a Muslim speaks Arabic than that a Jew speaks Hebrew, despite a high likelihood that they will know a few words or sentences here and there from their holy books.
There are fine mosques in many places and Islamic traditions in art, crafts, literature, music, and architecture. One of those traditions is fine mosaic work in tile, stone and wood. Many fine textiles, especially carpets, are woven in the Islamic world. Many types of beautiful clothing in keeping with standards of Islamic dress as understood in each region of the Muslim world are also manufactured by various means.
A common characteristic of much Islamic art is that they avoid depicting humans, and in some traditions also animals, in artwork. The injunction "Thou shalt make no graven images" is found in the Koran, as it is in the Bible, and Muslims often give it a strict interpretation. As a result, art that uses a combination of geometric designs and stylized plant motifs is typical of Islamic art. In particular, most Muslims consider any visual depictions of the Prophet Muhammad and all other prophets of Islam to be forbidden.
That said, there are many beautiful examples of historical Persian and Mughal paintings that include images of people and animals in gardens and other landscapes. Garden carpets — from Kerman, or Qashqai people around Shiraz, or Mughal regions — are also fairly common.
A typical technique in Islamic art is to use highly decorative forms of Arabic lettering in calligraphy of Koran inscriptions and other holy names and phrases, especially the names of Allah and the Prophet Muhammad, either by themselves or in combination with geometric designs.
There are a number of museums of Islamic Art around the world:
- Doha has a large one designed by I. M. Pei
- Istanbul has one
- There's one in Downtown Cairo
- Kuala Lumpur has one
- The Aga Khan Museum is in Toronto
- One is found in Jerusalem
- Marawi in the Philippines (too dangerous to visit as of mid-2017) has one
Of course any museum in an Islamic region can also be expected to have some Islamic art, and other museums such as the British Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum in New York also have sections for Islamic art. There are also museums specifically dedicated to Arab art, such as Musée de l'Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. Far from all Islamic art is Arab and not all Arab art is Islamic, but there is substantial overlap.
Distinct styles of Islamic architecture, which range in style between different regions and periods, not only encompass mosques today but have also influenced many other types of structures, including the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
The Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca is one of the Five Pillars of Islam; every adult Muslim should do it if possible. The Umrah, an out-of-season visit to Mecca that visits fewer places, is also common as are other pilgrimages, such as by Shi'a Muslims to the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf and by Sufis and other devotees to the graves of holy men and great scholars.
There are also various forms of devotional ceremonies, most of which include what non-Muslims would consider music (Muslims often consider that sung prayer is not music), and not only Muslims but respectful, properly dressed non-Muslims are often welcome to witness them. These include Koran chanting contests, other kinds of devotional chanting (Dikir Islam in Malaysia is one of numerous examples), Sufi whirling, and various types of classical Indian Muslim musical performances, but there are several times as many examples of Islamic performance genres as there are of Muslim peoples. In the Indian subcontinent, classical music is traditionally all religious, so any specifically Muslim Indian music may be based on a melody of praise to Allah, for example.
Zakat, which is charitable giving, along with the Hajj, is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. However, zakat is the minimum amount of charitable giving for observant Muslims, and many Muslims go further and do sadaqah, which is considered a voluntary act of charity rather than the fulfillment of a command. If you would like to be charitable, you may want to investigate the various Muslim and non-sectarian charitable organizations. Some of the advice in Volunteer travel may be relevant to you if you plan on traveling for charitable reasons.
There were universities of Islam in the Muslim world before the first university opened its doors in the Christian world. Some of the earliest are still active today, including the University of al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco, which has operated since 859 CE, and the famous Al-Azhar University in Cairo, founded in 972 CE. There are many Islamic universities throughout the Muslim world today.
Instruction in Arabic, the Koran, Islamic law and Islamic religion is needed throughout the Muslim world and beyond. Teachers with native Arabic accents may receive preference in some parts of the Muslim world. If you are a Muslim with excellent command of Arabic who is interested in traveling for work, some of the content of our article on teaching English might be relevant, but most specifics will differ.
It is also quite common for imams to travel or move to communities where they are needed.
Specifically Islamic items to buy include prayer rugs; Haji hats and other specifically religious garb (hejabs, fezes, songkoks, etc.); Zamzam water from Mecca; Korans and collections of Hadiths (reports on the statements or actions of the Prophet Muhammad); and sacred inscriptions in calligraphy, often framed for hanging.
In Islamic law, several foodstuffs are forbidden (in Arabic haram), with the most widely known being pork and other pig products, including pig-derived gelatin and pig leather, as well as alcohol and any dishes that make use of alcohol in the preparation process. Food that is allowed is known as halal and may go through a process of certification to ensure that it is in line with Islamic teaching. Halal products (sometimes spelled helal after the Turkish word) are now more and more available in European and North and South American countries with substantial Muslim populations. In order to be considered halal, meat (but not fish) must come from an animal that has been slaughtered by a Muslim in a very precise way, with the name of Allah pronounced at the time of slaughter. Fish is always considered to be halal, as long as it has not come into contact with any haram foodstuff. There is a debate about non-fish seafood like squid, prawn, crab, lobster or shellfish; these may or may not be halal depending on the sect of Islam in question.
If halal food is not available, kosher food (prepared according to Jewish dietary law), as long as it contains no alcohol, has traditionally been considered to comply with Islamic rules, though there has recently been some dissension about this.
During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims are required to fast: they cannot eat, drink anything or smoke during daylight hours. Exceptions to this rule are pregnant and breastfeeding women, women in menstruation, traveling Muslims and people with health issues for whom fasting would be severely detrimental to their health, though they are generally required to make up for the days of fasting missed at a later point when their circumstances allow them to do so. In countries with a substantial Muslim presence, non-Muslim travelers may also want to follow these restrictions when in public; in some countries they are required by law to do so. Travelers may notice that shops and restaurants are closed down during Ramadan. The Islamic calendar is lunar, so Muslim holidays fall at different points in the year, relative to the solar calendar in operation in most primarily non-Muslim countries. See Travelling during Ramadan for more detail.
When flying, most major airlines offer halal food as a special meal option, but this must typically be requested in advance. The airlines of most Muslim-majority countries, including the big three Middle Eastern airlines Emirates, Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways only serve halal meals on their flights. As kosher food on planes has a longer tradition, especially on US based carriers, it may be more readily available, but again, the caveat of not all religious authorities accepting alcohol-free kosher food as halal applies.
The Qur'an condemns alcoholic beverages. In many Muslim-majority countries, alcohol sale and consumption is strongly regulated, and in some, it is prohibited. During Ramadan, you may also want to be discreet about drinking anything during the day-time in majority Muslim countries. Even countries where the taboo against alcohol is not as prevalent tend to be stricter about the issue during Ramadan.