The foundations of Islam
The legacy of Muhammad
- 1 Doctrines of the Qurʾān
- 2 Eschatology (doctrine of last things)
- 3 Islamic thought
- 4 Sunnism
From the very beginning of Islam, Muhammad had inculcated a sense of brotherhood and a bond of faith among his followers, both of which helped to develop among them a feeling of close relationship that was accentuated by their experiences of persecution as a nascent community in Mecca. The strong attachment to the tenets of the Qurʾānic revelation and the conspicuous socioeconomic content of Islamic religious practices cemented this bond of faith. In 622 ce, when the Prophet migrated to Medina, his preaching was soon accepted, and the community-state of Islam emerged. During this early period, Islam acquired its characteristic ethos as a religion uniting in itself both the spiritual and temporal aspects of life and seeking to regulate not only the individual’s relationship to God (through conscience) but human relationships in a social setting as well. Thus, there is not only an Islamic religious institution but also an Islamic law, state, and other institutions governing society. Not until the 20th century were the religious (private) and the secular (public) distinguished by some Muslim thinkers and separated formally in certain places such as Turkey.
This dual religious and social character of Islam, expressing itself in one way as a religious community commissioned by God to bring its own value system to the world through the jihād (“exertion,” commonly translated as “holy war” or “holy struggle”), explains the astonishing success of the early generations of Muslims. Within a century after the Prophet’s death in 632 ce, they had brought a large part of the globe—from Spain across Central Asia to India—under a new Arab Muslim empire.
The period of Islamic conquests and empire building marks the first phase of the expansion of Islam as a religion. Islam’s essential egalitarianism within the community of the faithful and its official discrimination against the followers of other religions won rapid converts. Jews and Christians were assigned a special status as communities possessing scriptures and were called the “people of the Book” (ahl al-kitāb) and, therefore, were allowed religious autonomy. They were, however, required to pay a per capita tax called jizyah, as opposed to pagans, who were required to either accept Islam or die. The same status of the “people of the Book” was later extended in particular times and places to Zoroastrians and Hindus, but many “people of the Book” joined Islam in order to escape the disability of the jizyah. A much more massive expansion of Islam after the 12th century was inaugurated by the Sufis (Muslim mystics), who were mainly responsible for the spread of Islam in India, Central Asia, Turkey, and sub-Saharan Africa (see below).
Beside the jihad and Sufi missionary activity, another factor in the spread of Islam was the far-ranging influence of Muslim traders, who not only introduced Islam quite early to the Indian east coast and South India but also proved to be the main catalytic agents (beside the Sufis) in converting people to Islam in Indonesia, Malaya, and China. Islam was introduced to Indonesia in the 14th century, hardly having time to consolidate itself there politically before the region came under Dutch hegemony.
The vast variety of races and cultures embraced by Islam (an estimated total of more than 1.5 billion persons worldwide in the early 21st century) has produced important internal differences. All segments of Muslim society, however, are bound by a common faith and a sense of belonging to a single community. With the loss of political power during the period of Western colonialism in the 19th and 20th centuries, the concept of the Islamic community (ummah), instead of weakening, became stronger. The faith of Islam helped various Muslim peoples in their struggle to gain political freedom in the mid-20th century, and the unity of Islam contributed to later political solidarity.
Islamic doctrine, law, and thinking in general are based upon four sources, or fundamental principles (uṣūl): (1) the Qurʾān, (2) the Sunnah (“Traditions”), (3) ijmāʿ (“consensus”), and (4) ijtihād (“individual thought”).
The Qurʾān (literally, “reading” or “recitation”) is regarded as the verbatim word, or speech, of God, delivered to Muhammad by the archangel Gabriel. Divided into 114 suras (chapters) of unequal length, it is the fundamental source of Islamic teaching. The suras revealed at Mecca during the earliest part of Muhammad’s career are concerned mostly with ethical and spiritual teachings and the Day of Judgment. The suras revealed at Medina at a later period in the career of the Prophet are concerned for the most part with social legislation and the politico-moral principles for constituting and ordering the community.
Sunnah (“a well-trodden path”) was used by pre-Islamic Arabs to denote their tribal or common law. In Islam it came to mean the example of the Prophet—i.e., his words and deeds as recorded in compilations known as Hadith (in Arabic, Ḥadīth: literally, “report”; a collection of sayings attributed to the Prophet). Hadith provide the written documentation of the Prophet’s words and deeds. Six of these collections, compiled in the 3rd century ah (9th century ce), came to be regarded as especially authoritative by the largest group in Islam, the Sunnis. Another large group, the Shiʿah, has its own Hadith contained in four canonical collections.
The doctrine of ijmāʿ, or consensus, was introduced in the 2nd century ah (8th century ce) in order to standardize legal theory and practice and to overcome individual and regional differences of opinion. Though conceived as a “consensus of scholars,” ijmāʿ was in actual practice a more fundamental operative factor. From the 3rd century ah ijmāʿ has amounted to a principle of stability in thinking; points on which consensus was reached in practice were considered closed and further substantial questioning of them prohibited. Accepted interpretations of the Qurʾān and the actual content of the Sunnah (i.e., Hadith and theology) all rest finally on the ijmāʿ in the sense of the acceptance of the authority of their community.
Ijtihād, meaning “to endeavour” or “to exert effort,” was required to find the legal or doctrinal solution to a new problem. In the early period of Islam, because ijtihād took the form of individual opinion (raʾy), there was a wealth of conflicting and chaotic opinions. In the 2nd century ah ijtihād was replaced by qiyās (reasoning by strict analogy), a formal procedure of deduction based on the texts of the Qurʾān and the Hadith. The transformation of ijmāʿ into a conservative mechanism and the acceptance of a definitive body of Hadith virtually closed the “gate of ijtihād” in Sunni Islam while ijtihād continued in Shiʿism. Nevertheless, certain outstanding Muslim thinkers (e.g., al-Ghazālī in the 11th–12th century) continued to claim the right of new ijtihād for themselves, and reformers in the 18th–20th centuries, because of modern influences, caused this principle once more to receive wider acceptance.
The Qurʾān and Hadith are discussed below. The significance of ijmāʿ and ijtihād are discussed below in the contexts of Islamic theology, philosophy, and law.
Doctrines of the Qurʾān
The doctrine about God in the Qurʾān is rigorously monotheistic: God is one and unique; he has no partner and no equal. Trinitarianism, the Christian belief that God is three persons in one substance, is vigorously repudiated. Muslims believe that there are no intermediaries between God and the creation that he brought into being by his sheer command, “Be.” Although his presence is believed to be everywhere, he is not incarnated in anything. He is the sole creator and sustainer of the universe, wherein every creature bears witness to his unity and lordship. But he is also just and merciful: his justice ensures order in his creation, in which nothing is believed to be out of place, and his mercy is unbounded and encompasses everything. His creating and ordering the universe is viewed as the act of prime mercy for which all things sing his glories. The God of the Qurʾān, described as majestic and sovereign, is also a personal God; he is viewed as being nearer to one than one’s own jugular vein, and, whenever a person in need or distress calls him, he responds. Above all, he is the God of guidance and shows everything, particularly humanity, the right way, “the straight path.”
This picture of God—wherein the attributes of power, justice, and mercy interpenetrate—is related to the concept of God shared by Judaism and Christianity and also differs radically from the concepts of pagan Arabia, to which it provided an effective answer. The pagan Arabs believed in a blind and inexorable fate over which humans had no control. For this powerful but insensible fate the Qurʾān substituted a powerful but provident and merciful God. The Qurʾān carried through its uncompromising monotheism by rejecting all forms of idolatry and eliminating all gods and divinities that the Arabs worshipped in their sanctuaries (ḥarams), the most prominent of which was the Kaʿbah sanctuary in Mecca itself.
In order to prove the unity of God, the Qurʾān lays frequent stress on the design and order in the universe. There are no gaps or dislocations in nature. Order is explained by the fact that every created thing is endowed with a definite and defined nature whereby it falls into a pattern. This nature, though it allows every created thing to function in a whole, sets limits, and this idea of the limitedness of everything is one of the most fixed points in both the cosmology and theology of the Qurʾān. The universe is viewed, therefore, as autonomous, in the sense that everything has its own inherent laws of behaviour, but not as autocratic, because the patterns of behaviour have been endowed by God and are strictly limited. “Everything has been created by us according to a measure.” Though every creature is thus limited and “measured out” and hence depends upon God, God alone, who reigns unchallenged in the heavens and the earth, is unlimited, independent, and self-sufficient.
According to the Qurʾān, God created two apparently parallel species of creatures, human beings and jinn, the one from clay and the other from fire. About the jinn, however, the Qurʾān says little, although it is implied that the jinn are endowed with reason and responsibility but are more prone to evil than human beings are. It is with humanity that the Qurʾān, which describes itself as a guide for the human race, is centrally concerned. The story of the Fall of Adam (the first man) promoted in Judaism and Christianity is accepted, but the Qurʾān states that God forgave Adam his act of disobedience, which is not viewed in the Qurʾān as original sin in the Christian sense of the term.
In the story of the creation of humanity, Iblīs, or Satan, who protested to God against the creation of human beings, because they “would sow mischief on earth,” lost in the competition of knowledge against Adam. The Qurʾān, therefore, declares humanity to be the noblest of all creation, the created being who bore the trust (of responsibility) that the rest of creation refused to accept. The Qurʾān thus reiterates that all nature has been made subservient to humans, who are seen as God’s vice-regent on earth; nothing in all creation has been made without a purpose, and humanity itself has not been created “in sport” but rather has been created with the purpose of serving and obeying God’s will.
Despite this lofty station, however, the Qurʾān describes human nature as frail and faltering. Whereas everything in the universe has a limited nature and every creature recognizes its limitation and insufficiency, human beings are viewed as having been given freedom and therefore are prone to rebelliousness and pride, with the tendency to arrogate to themselves the attributes of self-sufficiency. Pride, thus, is viewed as the cardinal sin of human beings, because, by not recognizing in themselves their essential creaturely limitations, they become guilty of ascribing to themselves partnership with God (shirk: associating a creature with the Creator) and of violating the unity of God. True faith (īmān), thus, consists of belief in the immaculate Divine Unity and islām (surrender) in one’s submission to the Divine Will.
Satan, sin, and repentance
In order to communicate the truth of Divine Unity, God has sent messengers or prophets to human beings, whose weakness of nature makes them ever prone to forget or even willfully to reject Divine Unity under the promptings of Satan. According to the Qurʾānic teaching, the being who became Satan (Shayṭān or Iblīs) had previously occupied a high station but fell from divine grace by his act of disobedience in refusing to honour Adam when he was ordered to do so. Since then his work has been to beguile human beings into error and sin. Satan is, therefore, the contemporary of humanity, and Satan’s own act of disobedience is construed by the Qurʾān as the sin of pride. Satan’s machinations will cease only on the Last Day.
Judging from the accounts of the Qurʾān, the record of humanity’s acceptance of the prophets’ messages has been far from perfect. The whole universe is replete with signs of God. The human soul itself is viewed as a witness of the unity and grace of God. The messengers of God have, throughout history, been calling humanity back to God. Yet not all people have accepted the truth; many of them have rejected it and become disbelievers (kāfir, plural kuffār; literally, “concealing”—i.e., the blessings of God), and, when a person becomes so obdurate, his heart is sealed by God. Nevertheless, it is always possible for a sinner to repent (tawbah) and redeem himself by a genuine conversion to the truth. There is no point of no return, and God is forever merciful and always willing and ready to pardon. Genuine repentance has the effect of removing all sins and restoring a person to the state of sinlessness with which he started his life.
Prophets are men specially elected by God to be his messengers. Prophethood is indivisible, and the Qurʾān requires recognition of all prophets as such without discrimination. Yet they are not all equal, some of them being particularly outstanding in qualities of steadfastness and patience under trial. Abraham, Noah, Moses, and Jesus were such great prophets. As vindication of the truth of their mission, God often vests them with miracles: Abraham was saved from fire, Noah from the Deluge, and Moses from the pharaoh. Not only was Jesus born from the Virgin Mary, but God also saved him from crucifixion at the hands of the Jews. The conviction that God’s messengers are ultimately vindicated and saved is an integral part of the Qurʾānic doctrine.
All prophets are human and never part of divinity: they are the most perfect of humans who are recipients of revelation from God. When God wishes to speak to a human, he sends an angel messenger to him or makes him hear a voice or inspires him. Muhammad is accepted as the last prophet in this series and its greatest member, for in him all the messages of earlier prophets were consummated. The archangel Gabriel brought the Qurʾān down to the Prophet’s “heart.” Gabriel is represented by the Qurʾān as a spirit whom the Prophet could sometimes see and hear. According to early traditions, the Prophet’s revelations occurred in a state of trance when his normal consciousness was transformed. This state was accompanied by heavy sweating. The Qurʾān itself makes it clear that the revelations brought with them a sense of extraordinary weight: “If we were to send this Qurʾān down on a mountain, you would see it split asunder out of fear of God.”
This phenomenon at the same time was accompanied by an unshakable conviction that the message was from God, and the Qurʾān describes itself as the transcript of a heavenly “Mother Book” written on a “Preserved Tablet.” The conviction was of such an intensity that the Qurʾān categorically denies that it is from any earthly source, for in that case it would be liable to “manifold doubts and oscillations.”
Eschatology (doctrine of last things)
In Islamic doctrine, on the Last Day, when the world will come to an end, the dead will be resurrected and a judgment will be pronounced on every person in accordance with his deeds. Although the Qurʾān in the main speaks of a personal judgment, there are several verses that speak of the resurrection of distinct communities that will be judged according to “their own book.” In conformity with this, the Qurʾān also speaks in several passages of the “death of communities,” each one of which has a definite term of life. The actual evaluation, however, will be for every individual, whatever the terms of reference of his performance. In order to prove that the resurrection will occur, the Qurʾān uses a moral and a physical argument. Because not all requital is meted out in this life, a final judgment is necessary to bring it to completion. Physically, God, who is all-powerful, has the ability to destroy and bring back to life all creatures, who are limited and are, therefore, subject to God’s limitless power.
Some Islamic schools deny the possibility of human intercession but most accept it, and in any case God himself, in his mercy, may forgive certain sinners. Those condemned will burn in hellfire, and those who are saved will enjoy the abiding joys of paradise. Hell and heaven are both spiritual and corporeal. Beside suffering in physical fire, the damned will also experience fire “in their hearts.” Similarly, the blessed will experience, besides corporeal enjoyment, the greatest happiness of divine pleasure.
Because the purpose of human existence is submission to the Divine Will, as is the purpose of every other creature, God’s role in relation to human beings is that of the commander. Whereas the rest of nature obeys God automatically, humans are the only creatures that possess the choice to obey or disobey. With the deep-seated belief in Satan’s existence, humanity’s fundamental role becomes one of moral struggle, which constitutes the essence of human endeavour. Recognition of the unity of God does not simply rest in the intellect but entails consequences in terms of the moral struggle, which consists primarily in freeing oneself of narrowness of mind and smallness of heart. One must go out of oneself and expend one’s possessions for the sake of others.
The doctrine of social service, in terms of alleviating suffering and helping the needy, constitutes an integral part of Islamic teaching. Praying to God and other religious acts are deemed to be incomplete in the absence of active service to the needy. In regard to this matter, the Qurʾānic criticisms of human nature become very sharp: “Man is by nature timid; when evil befalls him, he panics, but when good things come to him he prevents them from reaching others.” It is Satan who whispers into a person’s ears that by spending for others he will become poor. God, on the contrary, promises prosperity in exchange for such expenditure, which constitutes a credit with God and grows much more than the money people invest in usury. Hoarding of wealth without recognizing the rights of the poor is threatened with the direst punishment in the hereafter and is declared to be one of the main causes of the decay of societies in this world. The practice of usury is forbidden.
With this socioeconomic doctrine cementing the bond of faith, there emerges the idea of a closely knit community of the faithful who are declared to be “brothers unto each other.” Muslims are described as “the middle community bearing witness on humankind,” “the best community produced for humankind,” whose function it is “to enjoin good and forbid evil” (Qurʾān). Cooperation and “good advice” within the community are emphasized, and a person who deliberately tries to harm the interests of the community is to be given exemplary punishment. Opponents from within the community are to be fought and reduced with armed force, if issues cannot be settled by persuasion and arbitration.
Because the mission of the community is to “enjoin good and forbid evil” so that “there is no mischief and corruption” on earth, the doctrine of jihad is the logical outcome. For the early community it was a basic religious concept. The lesser jihad, or holy striving, means an active struggle using armed force whenever necessary. The object of such striving is not the conversion of individuals to Islam but rather the gaining of political control over the collective affairs of societies to run them in accordance with the principles of Islam. Individual conversions occur as a by-product of this process when the power structure passes into the hands of the Muslim community. In fact, according to strict Muslim doctrine, conversions “by force” are forbidden, because after the revelation of the Qurʾān “good and evil have become distinct,” so that one may follow whichever one may prefer (Qurʾān), and it is also strictly prohibited to wage wars for the sake of acquiring worldly glory, power, and rule. With the establishment of the Muslim empire, however, the doctrine of the lesser jihad was modified by the leaders of the community. Their main concern had become the consolidation of the empire and its administration, and thus they interpreted the teaching in a defensive rather than in an expansive sense. The Khārijite sect, which held that “decision belongs to God alone,” insisted on continuous and relentless jihad, but its followers were virtually destroyed during the internecine wars in the 8th century.
Beside a measure of economic justice and the creation of a strong idea of community, the Prophet Muhammad effected a general reform of Arab society, in particular protecting its weaker segments—the poor, the orphans, the women, and the slaves. Slavery was not legally abolished, but emancipation of slaves was religiously encouraged as an act of merit. Slaves were given legal rights, including the right of acquiring their freedom in return for payment, in installments, of a sum agreed upon by the slave and his master out of his earnings. A slave woman who bore a child by her master became automatically free after her master’s death. The infanticide of girls that was practiced among certain tribes in pre-Islamic Arabia—out of fear of poverty or a sense of shame—was forbidden.
Distinction and privileges based on tribal rank or race were repudiated in the Qurʾān and in the celebrated “Farewell Pilgrimage Address” of the Prophet shortly before his death. All are therein declared to be “equal children of Adam,” and the only distinction recognized in the sight of God is to be based on piety and good acts. The age-old Arab institution of intertribal revenge (called thaʾr)—whereby it was not necessarily the killer who was executed but a person equal in rank to the slain person—was abolished. The pre-Islamic ethical ideal of manliness was modified and replaced by a more humane ideal of moral virtue and piety.
Fundamental practices and institutions of Islam
The five pillars
During the earliest decades after the death of the Prophet, certain basic features of the religio-social organization of Islam were singled out to serve as anchoring points of the community’s life and formulated as the “Pillars of Islam.” To these five, the Khārijite sect added a sixth pillar, the jihad, which, however, was not accepted by the general community.
The shahādah, or profession of faith
The first pillar is the profession of faith: “There is no deity but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God,” upon which depends membership in the community. The profession of faith must be recited at least once in one’s lifetime, aloud, correctly, and purposively, with an understanding of its meaning and with an assent from the heart. From this fundamental belief are derived beliefs in (1) angels (particularly Gabriel, the Angel of Inspiration), (2) the revealed Book (the Qurʾān and the sacred books of Judaism and Christianity), (3) a series of prophets (among whom figures of Jewish and Christian tradition are particularly eminent, although it is believed that God has sent messengers to every nation), and (4) the Last Day (Day of Judgment).
The second pillar consists of five daily canonical prayers. These prayers may be offered individually if one is unable to go to the mosque. The first prayer is performed before sunrise, the second just after noon, the third in the late afternoon, the fourth immediately after sunset, and the fifth before retiring to bed.
Before a prayer, ablutions are performed, including the washing of hands, face, and feet. The muezzin (one who gives the call for prayer) chants aloud from a raised place (such as a tower) in the mosque. When prayer starts, the imam, or leader (of the prayer), stands in the front facing in the direction of Mecca, and the congregation stands behind him in rows, following him in various postures. Each prayer consists of two to four genuflection units (rakʿah); each unit consists of a standing posture (during which verses from the Qurʾān are recited—in certain prayers aloud, in others silently), as well as a genuflection and two prostrations. At every change in posture, “God is great” is recited. Tradition has fixed the materials to be recited in each posture.
Special congregational prayers are offered on Friday instead of the prayer just after noon. The Friday service consists of a sermon (khuṭbah), which partly consists of preaching in the local language and partly of recitation of certain formulas in Arabic. In the sermon, the preacher usually recites one or several verses of the Qurʾān and builds his address on it, which can have a moral, social, or political content. Friday sermons usually have considerable impact on public opinion regarding both moral and sociopolitical questions.
Although not ordained as an obligatory duty, nocturnal prayers (called tahajjud) are encouraged, particularly during the latter half of the night. During the month of Ramadan, lengthy prayers called tarāwīḥ are offered congregationally before retiring.
In strict doctrine, the five daily prayers cannot be waived even for the sick, who may pray in bed and, if necessary, lying down. When on a journey, the two afternoon prayers may be followed one by the other; the sunset and late evening prayers may be combined as well. In practice, however, much laxity has occurred, particularly among the modernized classes, although Friday prayers are still very well attended.
The third pillar is the obligatory tax called zakāt (“purification,” indicating that such a payment makes the rest of one’s wealth religiously and legally pure). This is the only permanent tax levied by the Qurʾān and is payable annually on food grains, cattle, and cash after one year’s possession. The amount varies for different categories. Thus, on grains and fruits it is 10 percent if land is watered by rain, 5 percent if land is watered artificially. On cash and precious metals it is 21/2 percent. Zakāt is collectable by the state and is to be used primarily for the poor, but the Qurʾān mentions other purposes: ransoming Muslim war captives, redeeming chronic debts, paying tax collectors’ fees, jihad (and by extension, according to Qurʾān commentators, education and health), and creating facilities for travelers.
After the breakup of Muslim religio-political power, payment of zakāt became a matter of voluntary charity dependent on individual conscience. In the modern Muslim world it has been left up to the individual, except in some countries (such as Saudi Arabia) where the Sharīʿah (Islamic law) is strictly maintained.
Fasting during the month of Ramadan (ninth month of the Muslim lunar calendar), laid down in the Qurʾān (2:183–185), is the fourth pillar of the faith. Fasting begins at daybreak and ends at sunset, and during the day eating, drinking, and smoking are forbidden. The Qurʾān (2:185) states that it was in the month of Ramadan that the Qurʾān was revealed. Another verse of the Qurʾān (97:1) states that it was revealed “on the Night of Power,” which Muslims generally observe on one of the last 10 nights of Ramadan (usually the 27th night). For a person who is sick or on a journey, fasting may be postponed until “another equal number of days.” The elderly and the incurably sick are exempted through the daily feeding of one poor person if they have the means.
The fifth pillar is the annual pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca prescribed for every Muslim once in a lifetime—“provided one can afford it” and provided a person has enough provisions to leave for his family in his absence. A special service is held in the sacred mosque on the 7th of the month of Dhū al-Ḥijjah (last in the Muslim year). Pilgrimage activities begin by the 8th and conclude on the 12th or 13th. All worshippers enter the state of iḥrām; they wear two seamless garments and avoid sexual intercourse, the cutting of hair and nails, and certain other activities. Pilgrims from outside Mecca assume iḥrām at specified points en route to the city. The principal activities consist of walking seven times around the Kaʿbah, a shrine within the mosque; the kissing and touching of the Black Stone (Ḥajar al-Aswad); and the ascent of and running between Mount Ṣafā and Mount Marwah (which are now, however, mere elevations) seven times. At the second stage of the ritual, the pilgrim proceeds from Mecca to Minā, a few miles away; from there he goes to ʿArafāt, where it is essential to hear a sermon and to spend one afternoon. The last rites consist of spending the night at Muzdalifah (between ʿArafāt and Minā) and offering sacrifice on the last day of iḥrām, which is the ʿīd (“festival”) of sacrifice. See Eid al-Adha.
Many countries have imposed restrictions on the number of outgoing pilgrims because of foreign-exchange difficulties. Because of the improvement of communications, however, the total number of visitors has greatly increased in recent years. By the early 21st century the number of annual visitors was estimated to exceed two million, approximately half of them from non-Arab countries. All Muslim countries send official delegations on the occasion, which is being increasingly used for religio-political congresses. At other times in the year, it is considered meritorious to perform the lesser pilgrimage (ʿumrah), which is not, however, a substitute for the hajj pilgrimage.
Sacred places and days
The most sacred place for Muslims is the Kaʿbah sanctuary at Mecca, the object of the annual pilgrimage. It is much more than a mosque; it is believed to be the place where the heavenly bliss and power touches the earth directly. According to Muslim tradition, the Kaʿbah was built by Abraham. The Prophet’s mosque in Medina is the next in sanctity. Jerusalem follows in third place in sanctity as the first qiblah (i.e., direction in which the Muslims offered prayers at first, before the qiblah was changed to the Kaʿbah) and as the place from where Muhammad, according to tradition, made his ascent (miʿrāj) to heaven. For the Shiʿah, Karbalāʾ in Iraq (the place of martyrdom of ʿAlī’s son Ḥusayn) and Meshed in Iran (where Imām ʿAlī al-Riḍā is buried) constitute places of special veneration where Shiʿis make pilgrimages.
Shrines of Sufi saints
For the Muslim masses in general, shrines of Sufi saints are particular objects of reverence and even veneration. In Baghdad the tomb of the greatest saint of all, ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Jīlānī, is visited every year by large numbers of pilgrims from all over the Muslim world.
By the late 20th century the Sufi shrines, which were managed privately in earlier periods, were almost entirely owned by governments and were managed by departments of awqāf (plural of waqf, a religious endowment). The official appointed to care for a shrine is usually called a mutawallī. In Turkey, where such endowments formerly constituted a very considerable portion of the national wealth, all endowments were confiscated by the regime of Atatürk (president 1928–38).
The general religious life of Muslims is centred around the mosque. In the days of the Prophet and early caliphs, the mosque was the centre of all community life, and it remains so in many parts of the Islamic world to this day. Small mosques are usually supervised by the imam (one who administers the prayer service) himself, although sometimes also a muezzin is appointed. In larger mosques, where Friday prayers are offered, a khaṭīb (one who gives the khuṭbah, or sermon) is appointed for Friday service. Many large mosques also function as religious schools and colleges. In the early 21st century, mosque officials were appointed by the government in most countries. In some countries—e.g., Pakistan—most mosques are private and are run by the local community, although increasingly some of the larger ones have been taken over by the government departments of awqāf.
The Muslim calendar (based on the lunar year) dates from the emigration (hijrah) of the Prophet from Mecca to Medina in 622. The two festive days in the year are the Eids (ʿīds), Eid al-Fitr, which celebrates the end of the month of Ramadan, and Eid al-Adha (the feast of sacrifice), which marks the end of the hajj. Because of the crowds, Eid prayers are offered either in very large mosques or on specially consecrated grounds. Other sacred times include the “Night of Power” (Laylat al-Qadr; believed to be the night in which God makes decisions about the destiny of individuals and the world as a whole) and the night of the ascension of the Prophet to heaven. The Shiʿis celebrate the 10th of Muḥarram (the first month of the Muslim year) to mark the day of the martyrdom of Ḥusayn. The Muslim masses also celebrate the death anniversaries of various saints in a ceremony called ʿurs (literally, “nuptial ceremony”). The saints, far from dying, are believed to reach the zenith of their spiritual life on this occasion.Fazlur RahmanThe Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica
Islamic theology (kalām) and philosophy (falsafah) are two traditions of learning developed by Muslim thinkers who were engaged, on the one hand, in the rational clarification and defense of the principles of the Islamic religion (mutakallimūn) and, on the other, in the pursuit of the ancient (Greek and Hellenistic, or Greco-Roman) sciences (falāsifah). These thinkers took a position that was intermediate between the traditionalists, who remained attached to the literal expressions of the primary sources of Islamic doctrines (the Qurʾān, Islamic scripture; and the Hadith, sayings and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad) and who abhorred reasoning, and those whose reasoning led them to abandon the Islamic community (the ummah) altogether. The status of the believer in Islam remained in practice a juridical question, not a matter for theologians or philosophers to decide. Except in regard to the fundamental questions of the existence of God, Islamic revelation, and future reward and punishment, the juridical conditions for declaring someone an unbeliever or beyond the pale of Islam were so demanding as to make it almost impossible to make a valid declaration of this sort about a professing Muslim. In the course of events in Islamic history, representatives of certain theological movements, who happened to be jurists and who succeeded in converting rulers to their cause, made those rulers declare in favour of their movements and even encouraged them to persecute their opponents. Thus there arose in some localities and periods a semblance of an official, or orthodox, doctrine.
Origins, nature, and significance of Islamic theology
The beginnings of theology in the Islamic tradition in the second half of the 7th century are not easily distinguishable from the beginnings of a number of other disciplines—Arabic philology, Qurʾānic interpretation, the collection of the sayings and deeds of Muhammad (Hadith), jurisprudence (fiqh), and historiography. Together with these other disciplines, Islamic theology is concerned with ascertaining the facts and context of the Islamic revelation and with understanding its meaning and implications as to what Muslims should believe and do after the revelation had ceased and the Islamic community had to chart its own way. During the first half of the 8th century, a number of questions—which centred on God’s unity, justice, and other attributes and which were relevant to human freedom, actions, and fate in the hereafter—formed the core of a more-specialized discipline, which was called kalām (“speech”) because of the rhetorical and dialectical “speech” used in formulating the principal matters of Islamic belief, debating them, and defending them against Muslim and non-Muslim opponents. Gradually, kalām came to include all matters directly or indirectly relevant to the establishment and definition of religious beliefs, and it developed its own necessary or useful systematic rational arguments about human knowledge and the makeup of the world. Despite various efforts by later thinkers to fuse the problems of kalām with those of philosophy (and mysticism), theology preserved its relative independence from philosophy and other nonreligious sciences. It remained true to its original traditional and religious point of view, confined itself within the limits of the Islamic revelation, and assumed that these limits as it understood them were identical with the limits of truth.
The Hellenistic legacy
The pre-Islamic and non-Islamic legacy with which early Islamic theology came into contact included almost all the religious thought that had survived and was being defended or disputed in Egypt, Syria, Iran, and India. It was transmitted by learned representatives of various Christian, Jewish, Manichaean (members of a dualistic religion founded by Mani, an Iranian prophet, in the 3rd century), Zoroastrian (members of a monotheistic, but later dualistic, religion founded by Zoroaster, an Iranian prophet who lived before the 6th century bce), Indian (Hindu and Buddhist, primarily), and Ṣābian (star worshippers of Harran often confused with the Mandaeans) communities and by early converts to Islam conversant with the teachings, sacred writings, and doctrinal history of the religions of these areas. At first, access to this legacy was primarily through conversations and disputations with such men, rather than through full and accurate translations of sacred texts or theological and philosophic writings, although some translations from Pahlavi (a Middle Persian dialect), Syriac, and Greek must also have been available.
The characteristic approach of early Islamic theology to non-Muslim literature was through oral disputations, the starting points of which were the statements presented or defended (orally) by the opponents. Oral disputation continued to be used in theology for centuries, and most theological writings reproduce or imitate that form. From such oral and written disputations, writers on religions and sects collected much of their information about non-Muslim sects. Much of Hellenistic (post-3rd-century-bce Greek cultural), Iranian, and Indian religious thought was thus encountered in an informal and indirect manner.
From the 9th century onward, theologians had access to an increasingly larger body of translated texts, but by then they had taken most of their basic positions. They made a selective use of the translation literature, ignoring most of what was not useful to them until the mystical theologian al-Ghazālī (flourished 11th–12th centuries) showed them the way to study it, distinguish between the harmless and harmful doctrines contained in it, and refute the latter. By this time Islamic theology had coined a vast number of technical terms, and theologians (e.g., al-Jāḥiẓ) had forged Arabic into a versatile language of science; Arabic philology had matured; and the religious sciences (jurisprudence, the study of the Qurʾān, Hadith, criticism, and history) had developed complex techniques of textual study and interpretation. The 9th-century translators availed themselves of these advances to meet the needs of patrons. Apart from demands for medical and mathematical works, the translation of Greek learning was fostered by the early ʿAbbāsid caliphs (8th–9th centuries) and their viziers as additional weapons (the primary weapon was theology itself) against the threat of Manichaeism and other subversive ideas that went under the name zandaqah (“heresy” or “atheism”).
In the 10th century a reaction began against the Muʿtazilah that culminated in the formulation and subsequent general acceptance of another set of theological propositions, which became Sunni, or “orthodox,” theology. The issues raised by these early schisms and the positions adopted by them enabled the Sunni orthodoxy to define its own doctrinal positions in turn. Much of the content of Sunni theology was, therefore, supplied by its reactions to those schisms. The term sunnah, which means a “well-trodden path” and in the religious terminology of Islam normally signifies “the example set by the Prophet,” in the present context simply means the traditional and well-defined way. In this context, the term sunnah usually is accompanied by the appendage “the consolidated majority” (al-jamāʿah). The term clearly indicates that the traditional way is the way of the consolidated majority of the community as against peripheral or “wayward” positions of sectarians, who by definition must be erroneous.
The way of the majority
With the rise of the orthodoxy, then, the foremost and elemental factor that came to be emphasized was the notion of the majority of the community. The concept of the community so vigorously pronounced by the earliest doctrine of the Qurʾān gained both a new emphasis and a fresh context with the rise of Sunnism. Whereas the Qurʾān had marked out the Muslim community from other communities, Sunnism now emphasized the views and customs of the majority of the community in contradistinction to peripheral groups. An abundance of tradition (Hadith) came to be attributed to the Prophet to the effect that Muslims must follow the majority’s way, that minority groups are all doomed to hell, and that God’s protective hand is always on (the majority of) the community, which can never be in error. Under the impact of the new Hadith, the community, which had been charged by the Qurʾān with a mission and commanded to accept a challenge, now became transformed into a privileged one that was endowed with infallibility.
Tolerance of diversity
At the same time, while condemning schisms and branding dissent as heretical, Sunnism developed the opposite trend of accommodation, catholicity, and synthesis. A putative tradition of the Prophet that says “differences of opinion among my community are a blessing” was given wide currency. This principle of toleration ultimately made it possible for diverse sects and schools of thought—notwithstanding a wide range of difference in belief and practice—to recognize and coexist with each other. No group may be excluded from the community unless it itself formally renounces Islam. As for individuals, tests of heresy may be applied to their beliefs, but, unless a person is found to flagrantly violate or deny the unity of God or expressly negate the prophethood of Muhammad, such tests usually have no serious consequences. Catholicity was orthodoxy’s answer to the intolerance and secessionism of the Khārijites and the severity of the Muʿtazilah. As a consequence, a formula was adopted in which good works were recognized as enhancing the quality of faith but not as entering into the definition and essential nature of faith. This broad formula saved the integrity of the community at the expense of moral strictness and doctrinal uniformity.
On the question of free will, Sunni orthodoxy attempted a synthesis between human responsibility and divine omnipotence. The champions of orthodoxy accused the Muʿtazilah of quasi-Magian dualism (Zoroastrianism) insofar as the Muʿtazilah admitted two independent and original actors in the universe: God and human beings. To the orthodox it seemed blasphemous to hold that humanity could act wholly outside the sphere of divine omnipotence, which had been so vividly portrayed by the Qurʾān but which the Muʿtazilah had endeavoured to explain away in order to make room for humanity’s free and independent action.
Influence of al-Ashʿarī and al-Māturīdī
The Sunni formulation, however, as presented by al-Ashʿarī and al-Māturīdī, Sunni’s two main representatives in the 10th century, shows palpable differences despite basic uniformity. Al-Ashʿarī taught that human acts were created by God and acquired by humans and that human responsibility depended on this acquisition. He denied, however, that humanity could be described as an actor in a real sense. Al-Māturīdī, on the other hand, held that although God is the sole Creator of everything, including human acts, nevertheless, a human being is an actor in the real sense, for acting and creating were two different types of activity involving different aspects of the same human act.
In conformity with their positions, al-Ashʿarī believed that a person did not have the power to act before he actually acted and that God created this power in him at the time of action; and al-Māturīdī taught that, before an action is taken, a person has a certain general power for action but that this power becomes specific to a particular action only when the action is performed, because, after full and specific power comes into existence, action cannot be delayed.
Al-Ashʿarī and his school also held that human reason was incapable of discovering good and evil and that acts became endowed with good or evil qualities through God’s declaring them to be such. Because humanity in its natural state regards its own self-interest as good and that which thwarts this self-interest as bad, natural human reason is unreliable. Independently of revelation, therefore, murder would not be bad nor the saving of life good. Furthermore, because God’s Will makes acts good or bad, one cannot ask for reasons behind the divine law, which must be simply accepted. Al-Māturīdī takes an opposite position, not materially different from that of the Muʿtazilah: human reason is capable of finding out good and evil, and revelation aids human reason against the sway of human passions.
Despite these important initial differences between the two main Sunni schools of thought, the doctrines of al-Māturīdī became submerged in course of time under the expanding popularity of the Ashʿarite school, which gained wide currency particularly after the 11th century because of the influential activity of the Sufi theologian al-Ghazālī. Because these later theologians placed increasing emphasis on divine omnipotence at the expense of the freedom and efficacy of the human will, a deterministic outlook on life became characteristic of Sunni Islam—reinvigorated by the worldview of Sufism, or Islamic mysticism, which taught that nothing exists except God, whose being is the only real being. This general deterministic outlook produced, in turn, a severe reformist reaction in the teachings of Ibn Taymiyyah, a 14th-century theologian who sought to rehabilitate human freedom and responsibility and whose influence has been strongly felt through the reform movements in the Muslim world since the 18th century.