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Islam: An Overview

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The Oxford Dictionary of Islam What is This? Covers the religious, political, and social spheres of global Islam in the modern world

    Islam: An Overview

    Islam is the second most widespread of the world's religions, with more than one billion adherents. Muslim countries extend from North Africa to Southeast Asia. Muslims constitute the majority in forty-eight countries and are a significant minority in many others. Though the Arab world is often regarded as the heartland of Islam, the majority of Muslims live in Asia and Africa. The largest Muslim communities are in Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Central Asia, and Nigeria. Islam has grown significantly in the West in recent years, where it is now the second largest religion in many parts of Europe and the third largest in the United States.

    The term Islam is derived from the Arabic root s-l-m, which means “submission” or “peace.” Muslims are those who surrender to God's will or law, rendering them at peace with themselves and with God. To embrace Islam is to become a member of a worldwide faith community (ummah). Thus believers have a religious identity that is both individual and corporate as well as a responsibility or duty to obey and implement God's will in their personal and social lives.

    Islam stands in a long line of Middle Eastern prophetic religious traditions that share uncompromising monotheism, belief in God's revelation, prophets, ethical responsibility, accountability, and the notion of a Day of Judgment. Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all considered children of Abraham (Ibrahim), although they belong to different branches of the same family. Jews and Christians are spiritual descendants of Abraham and his wife, Sarah , through their son, Isaac (Ishaq); Muslims trace their lineage back to Ishmael (Ismail), Abraham's firstborn son by his Egyptian servant, Hagar . Ishmael became the father of Arabs in northern Arabia. Muslims believe that Islam was the original monotheistic faith, making it the oldest of the Abrahamic faiths, with Judaism and Christianity as tolerated offshoots.

    Islamic scripture, the Quran, was revealed by God to the Prophet Muhammad in Arabia in the seventh century. Muslims believe it was revealed verbatim. The center and foundation of Islam is God, whom Muslims call Allah, or “the God.” Allah is believed to be the transcendent, all-powerful, and all-knowing creator, sustainer, ordainer, and judge of the universe. The absolute monotheism of Islam is preserved in the doctrine of unity (tawhid) and sovereignty (rabb, “ruler” or “lord”) of God that dominates Islamic belief and practice. As God is one, His rule and will or law are comprehensive, extending to all creatures and in all aspects of life. God is not only powerful and majestic but also merciful and just. Reward and punishment follow from individual ethical responsibility and accountability before God. Islamic ethics follow from human beings' special status and responsibility on earth.

    Islam emphasizes practice as well as belief. Law rather than theology is the central religious discipline and locus for defining the path of Islam and preserving its way of life. The essential duties of all Muslims, the Five Pillars, are profession of faith (shahadah, “There is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God”), worship or prayer five times daily with community prayers at the mosque on Fridays, charity (zakah), fasting during the month of Ramadan, and pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca at least once in a lifetime. Jihad, or struggle in the way of God, is sometimes considered the sixth pillar. Jihad includes both internal spiritual struggles and external war waged in defense of the Muslim community.

    Contemporary revivalism is rooted in Islam's time-honored tradition of renewal (tajdid) and reform (islah) embodied in Muhammad's leadership of the first Islamic movement, seventeenth and eighteenth-century revivalism, and nineteenth and twentieth-century Islamic modernist movements. At the heart of the revivalist worldview is the belief that the Muslim world is in a state of decline owing to Muslims' departure from the straight path of Islam. The proposed cure is to return to Islam in personal and public life so as to ensure restoration of Islamic identity, values, and power. For Islamic political activists, Islam is a total or comprehensive way of life, stipulated in the Quran, mirrored in Muhammad's example and the nature of the first Muslim community-state, and embodied in the comprehensive nature of shariah, God's revealed law. Islamic activists or Islamists believe that renewal and revitalization of Muslim governments and societies require restoration or reimplementation of Islamic law, which they believe is a blueprint for an Islamically guided and socially just state and society. Revivalism continues to grow as a broad-based socio-religious movement, functioning today in virtually every Muslim country and transnationally. Its goal is creation of a just society through the Islamic transformation of individuals at the grassroots level.

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