AN INTRODUCTION TO ISLAM
To observant Muslims, ritual prayer is as natural as sleeping or eating. Islam is not just one component of its believers' lives, a set of beliefs remembered on special occasions. Rather, for the devout, it is a way of life. Its tenets and rules permeate almost everything, often including politics and government. In a world swayed by misunderstanding of cultural differences, Islam and its adherents often are stereotyped and caricatured, branded with the violent or sexist image of a small minority of zealots. In reality, Islam is no better characterized by acts of Middle Eastern terrorists, for example, than is Christianity by acts of Northern Ireland's terrorists. Islam is an ancient religion with profound historical and theological ties to Judaism and Christianity. All three religions worship the same God, acknowledge large parts of the same Bible and revere Adam, Noah, Abraham and Moses. And, as do Christians, Muslims regard Jesus as the messiah. In fact, Islam teaches that it represents the modern mainstream of a primordial, monotheistic religion that began with the earliest humans. Over millennia, the religion took form with the early Jewish prophets, was modified significantly by Jesus and finally shaped by Muhammad, the final prophet, who died in 632. Among Muhammad's most important acts was rejection of the old Jewish concept of a "chosen people." Instead, he taught that all people are born Muslim and that anyone -- regardless of color, nationality or social standing -- can join the Muslim community simply by submitting to God and reciting the words known as the shahadah: "There is no deity but Allah (God), and Muhammad is his messenger." Because of its powerful, cross-cultural appeal, Islam has won the hearts and minds of an estimated 1.6 billion people around the world, making it the second largest religion. Christianity has about 2 billion adherents, and Hinduism is third largest with about 800 million. Despite its association in the Western mind with things Arabic, about 85 percent of Islam's faithful are not Arabs. South Asia has the largest Muslim population, with 275 million believers. Africa is second largest, with 200 million. And, according to the American Muslim Council, China has about as many Muslims as better-known Islamic strongholds such as Iran, Egypt or Turkey. According to The Muslim Almanac, an estimated 2 percent of Americans, or about 7 million people, are Muslims. It is difficult to determine the exact number of Muslims anywhere because they do not belong to congregations and because mosques are open to all and do not maintain membership rolls.
PEACE AND SUBMISSION
Islam is an Arabic word derived from the same Semitic three-letter root -- s-l-m -- as the Hebrew word for peace, shalom, often used as a greeting. The meaning of "Islam" encompasses the concepts of peace, greeting and submission. Thus, a Muslim -- the word is derived from the same root -- is one who submits to God, a stance enunciated in the traditional profession of faith: "There is no deity but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger." "Allah" is simply Arabic for "God," the same supreme, supernatural figure worshipped by Christians and Jews. Unlike most other religions, however, Islam has no baptism or other initiation ceremony. Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam has undergone splits into separate denominations. The biggest occurred shortly after Muhammad died when his followers disagreed about who should take his role as leader. One branch, called Sunni, today comprises about 87 percent of Muslims. The other, called Shia, account for about 13 percent, and a few tiny groups make up the remaining 1 percent. Although Islam has taken root in cultures as diverse as those of Egypt, China and the United States, in each region acquires local customs not mandated by the religion -- such as women wearing veils -- Islamic scholars say Muslims everywhere share a core of basic...