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.
Islam is a monotheistic religion (that is, believing in one God, called Allah, Arabic for "The God"). Followers of Islam are known as Muslims. 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 word Qur'an is often translated as "recitation" and spoken recitation is still important; there are national and international Qur'an chanting contests every year which are widely televised in Muslim countries.
Islam is an Abrahamic religion, tracing its spiritual heritage through Abraham's son, Ishmael (Ismail in Arabic). However, 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 not mentioned in the Bible are also regarded by Muslims as prophets. 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.
The Prophet Muhammad
Muhammad was born in Mecca c. 570 CE. According to Islamic belief, the Angel Gabriel recited the words of the Qur'an 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. Ultimately, Muhammad was informed that some of these polytheists had laid a plan to kill him and his followers. This triggered the 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 Sunni-Shi'a split
After Muhammad's death in 632 CE, there was a split between those who wanted the Islamic movement to be led by some of his leading disciples (known as the Sunni) or by members of his family, in particular by his son-in-law Ali (known as the 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.
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 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.
Following the death of Muhammad, the Islamic Empire was led by a succession of rulers called Caliphs who conquered territory rapidly, so that by 750 CE, the Islamic Empire extended westward to Morocco, eastward to India and northward to southern France, Iberia, the Caucasus and Central Asia. 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, including the work of Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī (c. 780-c. 850), probably from Khiva, after whose scholarship algebra is named, and the brilliant doctor/philosophers, Avicenna (Arabic: ibn Sīnā, c. 980-1037), from a village near Bukhara, and Maimonedes (c. 1135-1204), who was born in Córdoba, had to flee a repressive dynasty and eventually became Court Physician to Saladin in Egypt. Maimonedes was one of many Jews and Christians who along with Muslims contributed to the greatness of the Islamic civilization of what's now called the Golden Age, a period that can be said to have lasted until 1258, the year 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 Muslims who argue about which caliphs serve as good examples of correct Islamic rule and whether or what kind of caliphate should be established today.
There are a large number of religious groups in the Muslim world today, 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:
- 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. Salafi / Wahabi Islam is often considered to be especially strict and many extremist Muslim groups (both violent and peaceful) claim to be Salafi.
- 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
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 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 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. 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.
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 use 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 (it 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 across the world, against both the west and the Shi'as. 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.
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 do annually. Usually money is given to charity organisations as well 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 a pilgrimage if they can afford the travelling, 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".
- See also: Holy Land
- 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
- Istanbul Formerly Constantinople, it was spiritual and political center of one of the biggest Muslim empires, the Ottoman Empire, and is the site of one of the biggest mosques in the world (formerly a church, now a museum) the Hagia Sophia
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.
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 Qur'an 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. 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 Qur'an gives more people the chance to go to Heaven on Judgment Day. Just listen attentively to the responses and be respectful.
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 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".
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:
- Doha has a large one designed by I. M. Pei
- Istanbul has one
- Kuala Lumpur has one
- The Aga Khan Museum is in Toronto
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 also have 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 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.
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. Halal products (sometimes spelled helal after the Turkish word) are now more and more available in European and North American countries with substantial Muslim populations. 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.
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 Muslim holidays fall 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. 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.