An Introduction to Islam

Although Islam is one of the world's largest religions with over 1 billion adherants, for many, the image of Islam is unclear. Most see images of the Midle East or North Africa with Bedouins on their camels, Palestinians throwing rocks at Israeli police, or radical fundamentalists expounding their reasons for Jihad.

But this picture is not all that correct. Of the ten nations with the largest populations (over 700 million total), only three are in the Middle East. Believe it or not, Islam has an Asian face, and there are more Mulsims who use fishing nets than those who use surface-to-air missiles. More live in rainforests than in deserts. More of their diets are determined by war and famines than by the price of oil. Most of them live in countries where mission is possible, sometimes even welcome.

So who are the Muslims? What are their beliefs? Where do they live? What missions efforts are being done to reach them? This article is designed to help you answer these questions.


A Quick Quiz
The Birth of Mohammed
The Formative Years
The First Major Crisis
The Beginnings of Shi'a Islam
Divisions and sub-divisions
What do Muslims believe?
Christian Missions to the Muslim World
Major Mulsim People Groups
How to Pray for Muslims
Further Reading

How much do you know about Islam?
A quick quiz!

1. How many Muslims are there in the world?
2. What man is usually considered the founder of Islam?
3. How many children does the average Muslim woman have?
4. What does the Arabic word "islam" literally mean?
5. What five countries have the largest Muslim populations?
6. What is the name of Islam's holy book?
7. What language was this book written in?
8. What province in India has the largest percentage of Muslims?
9. What are the five pillars (central practices) of Islam?
10. What nation in South America is more than 15% Muslim?
11. What city do Muslims face when they pray?
12. Where is this city?
13. What five countries in Europe (excluding Russia) have the largest percentage of Muslims?
14. What are the two main branches of Islam?
15. What do Muslims call the building where they worship?

The Birth of Mohammed:

Mohammed was born in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, c572 A.D. His father, who died two months before his birth, was a poor man but belonged to the Koreish, one of the distinguished Arabian tribes. While still a young man, Mohammed married a wealthy widow and was thereby relieved of the necessity of daily labor. Mohammed found himself with enough leisure time to indulge in religious contemplation. At that time, although Judaism and Christianity had been adopted by certain Arabian tribes, idolatrous worship had supplanted most of their ancient rites.

Mohammed would annually go to Mt. Hira to meditate and pray. One year, upon returning from the mountain, Mohammed declared himself a chosen prophet of God. Mohammed claimed that he had his first vision while in a cave on the mountain. On return to Mecca, he preached his message for nine years, and gained a number of adherents. As one might expect, this caused friction with other established beliefs. Finally, in 612 A.D. he was warned by his followers that his enemies intended to murder him and he was forced to flee. This flight marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar and is called 1A.H. (after Hejrat meaning "after the flight or migration"). His flight allowed him to gather his followers and in 630 A.D. he returned to wrest Mecca from the hands of the Koreish. He was then acknowledged "the prophet" by all Arabia.

During his lifetime (Mohammed died two years after his return to Mecca), his followers carefully transcribed his words and visions, as he himself did not know how to write. In 645 A.D. (about ten years after his death, 'Ali (Mohammed's brother in law) and other leaders collected together all these transcriptions, collated them and created the book of the Qur'an, which has 114 chapters, and 6236 verses. This became the Holy Book for the followers of Islam.

The Formative Years:
Since the time of Mohammed, the Muslim community has tended to split up into various groups. Often political and cultural factors were as significant as theological and philosophical ones in this process. The formative period in the development of Islamic thought was an exciting battleground of ideas, and culminated in what generally became known as Sunni orthodoxy, the established doctrines of the vast majority of Muslims. The main issues involved faith and works, predestination and free will, revelation and reason, the implications of the unity of God, the eternity of the Qur'an, and whether or not the Qur'an must be taken literally.

Mohammed's flight to Medina in September 622, marks the initiation of the Islamic era, and his death in June 632, succeeded in founding a state of considerable power and prestige according to Arabian standards of the time. During this short ten year period, most of the desert dwelling Bedouin tribes of Arabia had pledged their allegiance to the Prophet of Islam, who thus laid the foundation for the subsequent expansion of the new faith in Allah beyond the Arabian peninsula.

However, the death of Mohammed presented the infant Islamic community with its first major crisis. The crisis of succession marks the beginning of what was eventually to develop into a permanent Sunni Shi'a division in the Islamic community.

The First Major Crisis:
As long as Mohammed was alive, Muslims had taken it for granted that he would provide them the best guidance according to the revealed message of Islam. His death in Medina left the Muslims in a state of serious confusion, because (at least in view of the majority), the Prophet had left neither formal instruction nor a testament regarding his successor. In the ensuing discussions, there was immediate consensus of opinion on one point only. The successor of the Prophet could not be another prophet as it had already been made known through divine revelation that Mohammed was the "Seal of the Prophets". However, it was still essential to choose a successor on order to have effective leadership and ensure the continuation of the Islamic community and state.

Consequently, amidst much debate, one of the earliest converts to Islam and a trusted companion of Mohammed, Abu Bakr, was elected as successor. He took the title of Khalifat Rasul Allah (Successor to the Messenger of God), a title which was soon simplified to Khakifa ("Caliph" in English). Thus by electing the first successor to the Prophet, the unique Islamic institution of the caliphate was also founded. From its very inception, the caliphate came to embody both the religious and the political leadership of the community. The early Muslims recognized neither distinction between religion and state, nor between religious and secular authorities and organizations. Indeed, a strictly theocratic conception of order, in which Islam is not merely a religion but a complete system ordained by God for the socio-political as well as the moral and spiritual governance of mankind, had been an integral part of Mohammed's message and practice.

Abu Bakr's caliphate lasted just over two years, and before his death in 634, he personally selected 'Umar as his successor. 'Umar who was assassinated in 644, introduced a new procedure for the election of his successor; he had decided that a council of six of the early companions was to choose the new caliph form amongst themselves. In due time, 'Uthman b 'Affan, an member of the important Meccan clan was selected and became the third caliph.

The Beginnings of Shi'a Islam:
In the meantime, immediately upon the death of Mohammed, there had appeared a minority group in Medina who believed that 'Ali b Abi Talib, first cousin and son in law of Mohammed (married to Mohammed's daughter Fatima), was better qualified than any other candidate, including Abu Bakr, to succeed the Prophet. This minority group came to be known as the Shi'at 'Ali (the party of Ali) and then simply as the Shi'a. 'Ali's candidacy continued to be supported by his partisans in Medina, and in due time the Shi'a developed a doctrinal view and their cause received wider recognition.

The Shi'a believed that Mohammed did in fact appoint a successor, (or an imam as they have preferred to call the spiritual guide and leader), and that person was in fact 'Ali. As such, 'Ali and his friends became obliged to protest against the act of choosing the Prophet's successor through elective methods. It was this very protest which separated the Shi'a from the majority of the Muslims.

Despite the contention over the rightful order, the first four caliphs (known as the al-khulafa' al-rashidun or "Rightly-Guided Caliphs") were considered to be the orthodox maintainers of the all embracing regulations of the message of Islam as expressed in the revelations contained in the Qur'an. (It was this orthodoxy that became known as Sunni Islam.)

According to Shi'a doctrine the imams ('Ali and his direct descendants) were the only source of religious instruction and guidance, and the most important question regarded the elucidation of Islamic teachings and religious tenets. This was because they were aware that the teachings of the Qur'an and the sacred law of Islam (Shari'a) came from sources beyond man and therefore contained truths that could not be grasped through human reason. Therefore in order to understand the true meaning of the Islamic revelation, the Shi'a had realized the necessity for a religiously authoritative person, namely the imam.

Although 'Ali eventually succeeded as the fourth caliph, the Shi'a believe he was really the first true caliph, followed by a succession of 11 others. In the eyes of the Shi'a, 'Ali's unique qualifications as successor held yet another important dimension in that he was believed to have been nominated by divine command as expressed through Mohammed's testimony. This meant that 'Ali was also divinely inspired and immune from error and sin, thus making him infallible both in his knowledge and as a teaching authority after the prophet.

Because of their beliefs, these Shi'a became known as the "twelvers" (based on the number of imams). When the twelfth imam mysteriously disappeared in 878 the Imamate came to an end and the collective body of Shi'ite religious scholars or ulema assumed his office, awaiting his return as the 'rightly guided one'. The present Ayatollahs (Signs of God) see themselves as joint caretakers of the office of the Imam, who is to return at the end of time.

However, the succession was not totally agreed upon by all Shi'a and another group broke away and became known as the "seveners" or Ismaelis, because of their contention that the rightful seventh (and last imam) was not Musa al Kazim, but his elder brother Isma'il who died as a child.

As a result of this aspect of the "division", it can generally be concluded that orthodox Sunni Islam basically believes that the Qur'an is the final authority and there is no further revelation. Shi'a Islam believes that the rightful Imam has both the divine inspiration and authority of Allah to add to the message of the Qur'an. Thus Shi'a Islam is seen as the more radical of the two main branches, and throughout the centuries many have claimed to be the next 'imam', attempting to rally Muslims to their particular cause which has unfortunately often been expressed as a Jihad (Holy war against infidels).

Divisions and sub-divisions:
During these early years further divisions were made in the Muslim community.

What do Muslims believe?
Muslims believe that their salvation depends upon their own efforts. To become a Muslim, the individual must first repent, especially of idolatry, and then acknowledge that there is no God but Allah, and that Mohammed is his messenger. Having done this, an individual's salvation depends on how the weight of his sins compares to the weight of his good deeds at the day of resurrection.

Muslims live and die without any assurance that they will be saved, and they are driven to perform good deeds in hopes of outweighing their sins. Their God - Allah is far off and uninterested in their personal well being. They know very little of forgiveness. Perhaps Romans 10:2-3a aptly describes them: "For I bear them record that they have a zeal from God, but not according to knowledge. For they be ignorant of God's righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted.."

Christian Missions to the Muslim World
Historically, Christian missionaries to the Muslim world have had a much harder and less fruitful field to work in, therefore most are not very well known. Sammuel Zwemmer, perhaps the most famous missionary to Muslims, probably had less than a dozen converts in 40 years. Yet he opened the field to modern Protestant workers. William Carey's impact should also be noted. Though a missionary to Hindus, he opened a Muslim community (which today has over 1 million people), through his work in the Bengali language.

What follows is an overview of some of the names which stand out in the history of missions to the Muslim world.

Major Muslim People Groups

How to Pray for Muslims
Satan has erected many walls to keep Muslims from being open to the Gospel. Political and national barriers have been created between Christians and Muslims throughout history. The crusades of the 11th and 13th centuries developed deep and lasting wounds of bitterness.

Join with millions of other Christians praying for the Muslim world during the month of Ramadan (beginning January 10th, 1997).
Remember, the fervent prayer of the righteous avails much!

1. 1 billion
2. Mohammed
3. Six
4. The "Way of Submission", or "Surrender"
5. Indonesia, Pakistan,Bangladesh, India, Nigeria
6. Qur'an (Koran)
7. Arabic
8. Kashmir
9. The confession, ritual prayer, giving alms, observing Ramadan, making the pilgrimage to Mecca.
10. Suriname
11. Mecca
12. Saudi Arabia
13. Albania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, France, West Germany
14. Sunni and Shi'a
15. Mosque

Return to Quiz

Further Reading
  • Farah, Caesar E. Islam
    New York. 1994 Baron's Educational Series
  • Guillaume, A. Islam
    London. 1956 Penguin Books
  • Parrinder, Geoffrey (Ed). World Religions
    New York. 1971 Hamlyn Publishing
  • Weekes, Richard V. (Editor) Muslim Peoples. A World Ethnographic Survey
    London. 1978. Greenwood Press.
  • Johnstone, Patrick. Operation World
    Seattle. 1993. YWAM Publishing.

© Copyright 1997
Bethany World Prayer Center
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