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Islam is the world's second most prolific religion, second only to Christianity. Several sites built in the name of Islam are on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj, is one of the largest human migrations. Islam is a traditional religion in most of North Africa, much of the Middle East and parts of Central Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia. Since modern times, there have been Muslims in most of the world's countries.

As Muslim congregations have had a significant role in most communities where they are present, a traveller will learn much from visiting a local mosque, regardless of what s/he believes.


Sunni and Shi'a

The largest branches of Islam are Sunni and Shi'a. There are some minor differences in traditions and customs between the followers of the two, though the Qur'an (transliteration from Arabic; English: Koran) is the central religious text for both and they have much else in common.

The division arose after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 CE; would the Islamic movement be led by some of his leading disciples (Sunni) or by members of his family, in particular by his son-in-law Ali (Shi'a Ali, or Shi'a for short)? There was a series of wars between the two factions, and there are still tensions between which often lead to serious political conflicts.

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.

Originally the Shi'a were 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 in the 16th century and today Iran is its main centre; nearby countries such as Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain also have a Shi'a majority, and there are powerful Shi'a minorities in Yemen and Lebanon. 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.

Muslim groups[edit]

There are a large number of other religious groups in the Muslim world, all basically Islamic but differing considerably in theology and style.

The Sufis are Muslim mystics; there are both Sunni and Shi'a Sufis. Among the well-known ones:

Whirling Dervishes
  • Omar Khayyam (1048-1131 CE) was important as a mathematician, astronomer and philosopher, but is best-known in the West for his poetry. 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 Sunni mystics who practice asceticism and mediation. Some dervish groups also whirl.

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.

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.

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 colourful 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.

Other groups include:

  • Alawis are a mystically-inclined branch of Shi'a Islam, centred in Syria.
  • Salafi or Wahabi Islam began as a reform movement in the Arab Peninsula in the 18th century, calling for a return to the fundamentals of Islam — the Qur'an and Hadith — and adamantly opposed to such things as reverence for saints and the creation of shrines. Today it is the state religion of Saudi Arabia and significant in several other Gulf states. Note that, while "Wahabi" is widely used by outside commentators, the adherents of the movement call themselves Salafi and often consider "Wahabi" offensive.
  • Deobandi Islam is a fundamentalist movement that arose in India in the 19th century. It became quite influential on the Northwest Frontier and today is the main religious inspiration behind the Taliban.

Islam and politics[edit]

The Muslim world has complicated politics and some, though by no means all, of the complications derive from religious differences. Some of the more obvious cases, which travellers 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 and were accused of oppressing the Shi'a as well as various other groups. Today's government is predominantly Shi'a and has been accused of oppressing Sunnis. Various opposition groups, including ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) 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.

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. 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 while Saudi Arabia in particular and more generally the Arabs of the Gulf States are often accused of supporting various radical Sunni groups. 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.


Percentage of Muslims by country
See also: Holy Land


Masjid Umar (Dome of the Rock), Jerusalem

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.


Arabic, specifically Classical Arabic, is the original language of Islam's main religious text, the Holy Qur'an. 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.


Tiled mosaic ceiling in the mosque of Khoja Ahrar, Samarkand

There are fine mosques in many places and Islamic traditions in art, crafts, music and architecture. 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 Qur'an, 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 stylised plant motifs is typical of Islamic art. 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.

Another typical technique in Islamic art is to use highly decorative forms of Arabic lettering in calligraphy of Qur'an 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:

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.


Things that Muslims do include the Hajj and sometimes the Umrah, and 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 Qur'an 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 traditionally is 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 travelling 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, Qur'an, 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 travelling 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.


Baluchi prayer rug, made by a tribe found in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan

Specifically Islamic items to buy include prayer rugs; Haji hats and other specifically religious garb (hejabs, fezes, songkoks, etc.); Zamzam water from Mecca; Qur'ans 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. 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. This norm in Muslim countries is becoming more common in the West.

Ramadan dates

  • 18 June – 16 July 2015 (1436 AH)
  • 6 June – 5 July 2016 (1437 AH)

Exact dates of Ramadan depend on local astronomical observations and may vary somewhat from country to country. Ramadan concludes with the festival of Eid al-Fitr, which may last several days, usually three in most countries.

If you're planning to travel to a Muslim region during Ramadan, consider reading Travelling during Ramadan.

During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims are required to fast: they cannot eat, drink anything or smoke during daylight hours.

In countries with a substantial Muslim presence, non-Muslim travellers may also want to follow these restrictions when in public; in some countries they are required by law to do so. Travellers may notice that shops and restaurants are closed down during Ramadan. Note also that the Islamic calendar is lunar, so it falls at different points in the year, relative to the solar calendar in operation in most primarily non-Muslim countries.


The Qur'an condemns alcoholic beverages. In many Muslim-majority countries, alcohol sale and consumption is strongly regulated, and in some, it is prohibited.

See also[edit]

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