At the core of Islam is the Qur'an, believed to be the final revelation by a transcendent Allah [Arab., = the God] to Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam; since the Divine Word was revealed in Arabic, this language is used in Islamic religious practice worldwide. Muslims believe in final reward and punishment, and the unity of the umma, the "nation" of Islam. Muslims submit to Allah through arkan ad-din, the five basic requirements or "pillars": shahadah, the affirmation that "there is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God"; salah, the five daily ritual prayers (see liturgy, Islamic); zakat, the giving of alms, also known as a religious tax; Sawm, the dawn-to-sunset fast during the lunar month of Ramadan; and hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. The importance of the hajj can hardly be overestimated: this great annual pilgrimage unites Islam and its believers from around the world.
The ethos of Islam is in its attitude toward Allah: to His will Muslims submit; Him they praise and glorify; and in Him alone they hope. However, in popular or folk forms of Islam, Muslims ask intercession of the saints, prophets, and angels, while preserving the distinction between Creator and creature. Islam views the Message of Muhammad as the continuation and the fulfillment of a lineage of Prophecy that includes figures from the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, notably Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus. Islamic law reserves a communal entity status for the ahl al-kitab, People of the Book, i.e., those with revealed religions, including Jews and Christians. Islam also recognizes a number of extra-biblical prophets, such as Hud, Salih, Shuayb, and others of more obscure origin. The chief angels are Gabriel and Michael; devils are the evil jinn.
Other Islamic obligations include the duty to "commend good and reprimand evil," injunctions against usury and gambling, and prohibitions of alcohol and pork. Meat is permitted if the animal was ritually slaughtered; it is then called halal. Jihad, the exertion of efforts for the cause of God, is a duty satisfied at the communal and the individual level. At the individual level, it denotes the personal struggle to be righteous and follow the path ordained by God. Communally, it involves both encouraging what is good and correcting what is not and waging war to defend Islam.
In Islam, religion and social membership are inseparable: the ruler of the community (caliph; see caliphate) has both a religious and a political status. The unitary nature of Islam, as a system governing relations between a person and God, and a person and society, has contributed to the appeal and success of Islam.
The evolution of Islamic mysticism into organizational structures in the form of Sufi orders was, from the 13th cent. onwards, one of the driving forces in the spread of Islam (see Sufism; fakir). Sufi orders were instrumental in expanding the realm of Islam to trans-Saharan Africa, stabilizing its commercial and cultural links with the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and to SE Asia.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.