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In A.D. 610, Muhammad (later known as the Prophet), a merchant belonging to the Hashimite branch of the ruling Quraysh tribe in the Arabian town of Mecca, began to preach the first of a series of revelations granted him by God through the angel Gabriel. A fervent monotheist, Muhammad denounced the polytheistic paganism of his fellow Meccans. However, because the town's economy was based in part on a thriving pilgrimage business to the shrine called the Kaaba and numerous other pagan religious sites located there, his vigorous and continuing censure eventually earned him the bitter enmity of the town's leaders. In 622 he and a group of followers accepted an invitation to settle in the town of Yathrib, later known as Medina (the city) because it was the center of Muhammad's activities. The move, or hijra, known in the West as the Hegira, marks the beginning of the Islamic era and of Islam as an historical force. The Muslim calendar, based on the lunar year, thus begins in 622. In Medina, Muhammad continued to preach, eventually defeated his detractors in battle, and consolidated both the temporal and the spiritual leadership of all Arabia in his hands before his death in 632.

The shahada (testimony, creed) succinctly states the central belief of Islam: "There is no god but God (Allah), and Muhammad is his Prophet." Muslims repeat this simple profession of faith on many ritual occasions, and a recital in full and unquestioning sincerity designates one a Muslim. The God depicted by Muhammad was not previously unknown to his countrymen, for Allah is Arabic for "God" rather than a particular name. Rather than introducing a new deity, Muhammad denied the existence of the many minor gods and spirits worshiped before his ministry and declared the omnipotence of the unique creator, God. According to Islam, God is invisible and omnipresent; to represent him in any visual symbol is a sin. Events in the world flow ineluctably from his will; to resist it is both futile and sinful.

Islam means submission (to God), and he who submits is a Muslim. According to its doctrine, Muhammad is the "seal of the prophets;" his revelation is said to complete for all time the series of biblical revelations received by Jews and Christians. God is believed to have remained one and the same throughout time, but men had strayed from his true teachings until set right by Muhammad. Prophets and sages of the biblical tradition, such as Abraham, Moses, and Jesus (known in Arabic as Ibrahim, Musa, and Isa respectively) are recognized as inspired vehicles of God's will. Islam, however, reveres as sacred only the message, rejecting Christianity's deification of the messenger Jesus. It accepts the concepts of guardian angels, the Day of Judgment, or last day, general resurrection, heaven and hell, and eternal life of the soul.

The duties of the Muslim form the five pillars of the faith. These are the recitation of the shahada; daily prayer (salat); almsgiving (zakat); fasting (sawm); and hajj, or pilgrimage. After purification through ritual ablutions, the believer is to pray in a prescribed manner each day at dawn, midday, midafternoon, sunset, and nightfall. Prescribed genuflections and prostrations accompany the prayers, which the worshiper recites facing toward Mecca. Whenever possible, men pray in congregation at the mosque with the imam (see Glossary) and on Fridays make a special effort to do so. The Friday noon prayers provide the occasion for weekly sermons by religious leaders. Women may also attend public worship at the mosque, where they are segregated from the men, although more frequently women pray at home. A special functionary, the muezzin, intones a call to prayer to the entire community at the appropriate hour; those out of earshot determine the proper time by the sun. Public prayer is a conspicuous and widely practiced aspect of Islam in Syria, particularly in rural areas.

In the early days of Islam, a Muslims obligation to give alms was fulfilled through the tax on personal property proportionate to one's wealth imposed by the authorities; this tax was distributed to the mosques and to the needy. Today almsgiving, however, has become a more private matter. Many pious individuals have contributed properties to support religious and charitable activities or institutions, which traditionally been administered as inalienable waqfs (foundations, or religious endowments).

The ninth month of the Muslim lunar calendar is Ramadan, a period of obligatory fasting in commemoration of Muhammad's receipt of God's revelation, the Quran. Throughout the month all but the sick, the weak, pregnant or lactating women, soldiers on duty, travelers on necessary journeys, and young children are enjoined from eating, drinking, smoking, and sexual intercourse during the daylight hours. Those adults excused are obligated to undertake an equivalent fast at their earliest opportunity. A festive meal breaks the daily fast and inaugurates a night of feasting and celebration. Owing to the lunar calendar, Ramadan falls at various seasons in different years; when it falls in summer, it imposes severe hardships on manual laborers.

Finally, at least once in their lifetime all Muslims should, if possible, make the hajj to Mecca to participate in special rites during the twelfth month of the lunar calendar. The Prophet instituted this requirement, modifying pre-Islamic custom to emphasize sites associated with Allah and Abraham, founder of monotheism and father of the Arabs through his son Ishmael (Ismail).

Once in Mecca, pilgrims, dressed in the white seamless ihram, abstain from sexual relations, shaving, haircutting, and nail paring for the duration of the hajj. Highlights of the pilgrimage include kissing the sacred black stone; circumambulating the Kaaba, the sacred structure reputedly built by Abraham that houses the stone; running seven times between the mountains Safa and Marwa in imitation of Hagar, Ishmael's mother, during her travail in the desert; and standing in prayer on Mount Arafat. The returning pilgrim is entitled to the honorific "hajj" before his name. Id al Adha, a major festival celebrated world wide, marks the end of the hajj month.

Jihad, the permanent struggle for the triumph of the word of God on earth, represents an additional general duty for all Muslims, and is construed by some as a sixth pillar of the faith. Although in the past this concept has been used to justify holy wars, modern Muslims see it in the broader context of civic and personal action. In addition to specific duties, Islam imposes an ethical code encouraging generosity, fairness, honesty, respect for the elderly and those in authority, and forbidding adultery, gambling, usury, and the consumption of carrion, blood, pork, and alcohol.

A Muslim stands in a personal relationship to God; there are neither intermediaries nor clergy in orthodox Islam. Those who lead prayers, preach sermons, and interpret the law do so by virtue of their superior knowledge and scholarship rather than because of any special powers or prerogatives conferred by ordination.

During his lifetime, Muhammad held both spiritual and temporal leadership of the Muslim community and established the concept of Islam as a total and all-encompassing way of life. Islam traditionally has recognized no distinction between religion and state. Religious and secular life merged, as did religious and secular law. In keeping with this concept of society, all Muslims have been traditionally subject to sharia, or religious law. A comprehensive legal system, sharia developed gradually during the first four centuries of Islam, primarily through the accretion of precedent and interpretation by various judges and scholars. During the tenth century, legal opinion began to harden into authoritative doctrine, and the figurative bab al ijtihad (gate of interpretation) gradually closed. Thenceforth, rather than encouraging flexibility, Islamic law emphasized maintenance of the status quo.

In 632, after Muhammad's death, the leaders of the Muslim community consensually chose Abu Bakr, the Prophet's father-in- law and one of his earliest followers, to succeed him. At that time, some persons favored Ali, the Prophet's cousin and husband of his favorite daughter Fatima, but Ali and his supporters (the so-called Shiat Ali, or party of Ali) eventually recognized the community's choice. The next two caliphs (from the Arabic word khalifa; literally successor)--Umar, who succeeded in 634, and Uthman, who took power in 644--enjoyed the recognition of the entire community. When Ali finally succeeded to the caliphate in 656, Muawiyah, governor of Syria, rebelled in the name of his murdered kinsman Uthman. After the ensuing civil war, Ali moved his capital to Mesopotamia, where in a short time he was murdered (see Muslim Empires , ch. 1).

Ali's was the last of the so-called four orthodox caliphates, the period during which the entire community of Islam recognized a single caliph. In Damascus, Muawiyah then proclaimed himself caliph. The Shiat Ali, however, refused to recognize Muawiyah or his line, the Umayyad caliphs. In the first great schism, the Shiat Ali withdrew and established a dissident sect known as the Shia (or Shiites), supporting the claims of Ali's line to a presumptive right to the caliphate based on descent from the Prophet. The major faction of Islam, the Sunni, adhered to the position of election of the caliph; over the centuries the Sunnis have represented themselves as and have come to be identified as the more orthodox of the two branches.

Originally political, the differences between the Sunni and Shia interpretations rapidly took on theological and metaphysical overtones. Ali's two sons, Hasan and Husayn, killed after the schism, became martyred heroes to the Shia and thus repositories of the claim of Ali's line to mystical preeminence among Muslims. The Sunnis retained the doctrine of leadership by consensus, although Arabs and members of the Quraysh, Muhammad's tribe, predominated in the early years. (Reputed descent from the Prophet still carries great social and religious prestige throughout the Muslim world.) Meanwhile, the Shia doctrine of rule by divine right became more and more firmly established, and disagreements over which of several pretenders had the truer claim to the mystical power of Ali precipitated further schisms. Some Shia groups developed doctrines of divine leadership far removed from the strict monotheism of early Islam, including beliefs in hidden but divinely chosen leaders and in spiritual powers that equaled or surpassed those of the Prophet himself.

Fueled both by fervor for the new faith and by economic and social factors, the early Islamic polity was intensely expansionist. Conquering armies and migrating tribes swept out of Arabia, spreading Islam with the sword as much as by persuasion, and by the end of Islam's first century, Islamic armies had reached far into North Africa and eastward and northward into Asia. Syria was among the first countries to come under the sway of Islam; by 635 Muslim armies had conquered Damascus.

In Islam, the Quran is the principal source of religious law, supplemented by the Sunna, which sets forth the perfect example of the Prophet as represented by his deeds, his teachings and decisions, and his unspoken approval as reported by witnesses. In addition to "Allah's Quran and the Prophet's Sunna," the hadith records the deeds, teachings, legal interpretations, and consensual decisions by the Prophet's companions in the period immediately after his death.

Data as of April 1987

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