Islam is a monotheistic religion based on the worship of Allah (the Arabic name for God). Islam derives its teachings from the Qur’an, the Muslim Holy Book containing the inspired words of Allah, as dictated to the prophet Muhammad in the seventh century A.D. The Five Pillars are the five essential acts of obedience required by Muslim believers.
Islam is the second-largest religion in the world. Its origins stem from the Middle East but it has since become a widely-followed religion in East Asia. The pervasive influence of local animistic beliefs, particularly in Southeast Asia, create a type of Folk Islam in some areas.
Islam was founded by Muhammad around a.d. 610 Muhammad was born in Mecca, Arabia (now Saudi Arabia) in 570. The local religion was an ancient form of Semitic animism that recognized many gods, goddesses and angels and a supreme god known as Allah. A strong sense of fatalism prevailed. Most Semitic peoples were nomads, so there were also Jewish and Christian communities in western Arabia. Muhammad was thus surrounded by a mixture of religious beliefs that influenced the development of Islam.
Muhammad was notably religious, often fasting, dreaming and meditating. He devoutly believed that there was only one true god, and became disillusioned with the local polytheistic religions. When he was 40, still living in Mecca, he began to experience revelations (messages from God). At first, Muhammad was unsure of the origin of the revelations, whether they were divine or demonic. However, he became convinced of their divinity and continued to receive them until he died. Sometimes the revelations were spoken by an angel. They were later written to form the Qur’an (Islamic holy book, also Koran).
Muhammad had a good reputation and soon gained a small following, but was opposed by polytheists. Persecution eventually forced Muhammad and his followers to move to Medina in 622. Medina was split between two hostile communities, but most believed that Muhammad was a prophet and formed a new community with the immigrants from Mecca. This was effectively the beginning of the Islamic world. It has been suggested that the Jewish expectation of the Messiah may have influenced their acceptance of Muhammad as prophet. Islam began to take a form that is recognizable today and which included the rituals of prayer, fasting, almsgiving and pilgrimage to Mecca.
The new religion was not accepted by the local Jewish and Christian communities. Several Jewish clans rejected the Qur’an and opposed Muhammad. This led to the banishment of two Jewish clans and bloodshed, and Muhammad turned from his view of Jerusalem as the worship/pilgrimage center for Islam, back to Mecca. He returned with troops and conquered Mecca. Muhammad treated the Meccans well and most became Muslim. Many tribes across Arabia also converted. Muhammad had become the religious and political leader.
When Muhammad died in 632, he had appointed no successor. The people elected Abu Bakr, one of the first followers. He ruled for around two years and was followed by three more caliphs (Muhammad’s successors). However, questions of succession, tradition and rule led Islam to a split into two traditions, which continue today: Sunni and Shi’a.
Islam teaches that Jesus was not the son of God and was not crucified. He is believed to have been a prophet whose work was superseded by Muhammad, the last of the prophets. Other prophets include Adam, Noah, Abraham and John the Baptist.
The Qur’an is only regarded as authentic in Arabic. Some people in East Asia may read it without fully understanding.
Some Muslims believe that the early Bible texts were the same as their books of the prophets, but were altered by Jews and Christians, so are not credible.
The Islamic view of God (Allah) shares some similarities with the Christian view and historically can be said to derive from Christian and Jewish views. However, it differs in that it does not accept the Trinity, and does not see God as a father.
The Five Pillars:
- Testimony of faith (Shahada): “I bear witness that there is no god but God; I bear witness that Muhammad is the Apostle of God.”
- Prayer (Salat): five times a day at set times.
- Almsgiving (Zakat): alms given to the poor, prisoners or wayfarers—usually 2.5 percent of income.
- Fasting (Sawm): during Ramadan all are expected to fast from food, drink, smoking and sexual relations during the day.
- Pilgrimage (Haj): pilgrimage to Mecca made at least once in one’s lifetime.
Why Islam Is Attractive
- Certainty and tradition.
- Sense of community and identity.
- Prayer is important.
- Sense of the greatness of God.
- Brings awareness and appreciation of spiritual reality.
Islam began in the Arab world. It spread into Egypt, Syria and Iraq after Muhammad died and then into Iran. Over the next century it spread into what is now Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Africa, Spain and southern France. From Central Asia it spread to Northeast China. Later it moved into India, then Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Southeast Asia forms the largest geographical block of Muslims in the world. One quarter of the world’s Islamic population lives in East Asia and 40 percent of the combined populations of Southeast Asia are Muslim.
East Asian Islam differs from that of the Arab world. East and Southeast Asian culture is more relaxed than Middle Eastern culture, and because of religious plurality in most countries, Islam does not dominate in the same way. In many areas, the form of Islam followed is Folk Islam; a mixture of Islam and animistic beliefs. The tenets of Islam are observed, but there are also many non-Islamic rituals and customs.
Islam in Indonesia
In Indonesia, over 80 percent of the population is Muslim. However it is not an Islamic state. Freedom of religion is promised constitutionally and some of the founding fathers of the nation were Christian. An “Islamization” of institutions such as military and government has occurred in recent years.
Islam in Malaysia
To be Malay usually means to be Muslim. In Malaysia, Islam is followed by 55 percent of the population, and in Brunei by 71 percent. Islam is the state religion of Brunei and Sunni Islam is the official religion of Peninsular Malaysia.
Islam in China
In China, several minority nationalities are Islamic, or partly Islamic, particularly in the northwest. Before the fourteenth century, some of these minorities were Christian but within the context of developing Chinese religions, Christian groups mixed with Islamic groups.
Sunni Islam recognized Muhammad’s successor as the caliph or ruler of the believers. The caliph was elected by the community from the tribe to which Muhammad had belonged. Caliphs were not prophets, since Muhammad was “the Seal of the Prophets,” but were protectors of the tradition, leaders and administrators. The Sunnis developed a law system called the Shari’a, which is central to the practices and beliefs of Islam. The caliph system was discontinued in 1924 as leadership transferred to the governments of Muslim states, on the basis that they would observe the Shari’a. Today 90 percent of Muslims are Sunni.
The Shari’a is currently the source of debate in the Islamic world. Some scholars believe that a reinterpretation of the legal system is needed in order to allow for political, social and economic development.
Ten percent of Muslims follow Shi’a Islam. They recognize the imam as the principal authority figure and successor of Muhammad. The imam, it is believed, was appointed by Muhammad and possesses the infallible and inherent ability to interpret the Qur’an. The first imam, Ali, was Muhammad’s cousin and was supposed to have inherited his spiritual qualities.
Today most Shi’a live in Iran. They believe that each imam is divinely appointed, being part of a cycle of inheritance of Muhammad’s spirituality. The highest spiritual leaders in Iran are ayatollahs.
Sufism is a third tradition within Islam. It is not a division or sect like Sunni and Shi’a, but a spiritual tradition which can be followed by any Muslim. Sufism is mystical doctrine and practice, based on the love of God and the search for intimacy with him. Since Islam regards God as concerned with justice above love, this is a significant discipline. Sufis regard themselves as seekers, and an individual refers to him or herself as “one who tries to be a Sufi.” Their path involves spiritual purification through self-mortification, prayer and striving. One passes through several stages including repentance, conversion, poverty and love. However, human effort is not enough. Sufis also seek a grace from God, which is received without effort. This grace is recognized in states such as intimacy, separation and knowledge. Sufism is strong in East Asia and has contributed to the development of Folk Islam.