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Tenets of Islam

The shahadah (profession of faith, or testimony) states succinctly the central belief, "There is no God but God (Allah), and Muhammad is his Prophet." The faithful repeat this simple profession on ritual occasions, and its recital designates the speaker as a Muslim. The God preached by Muhammad was known to his countrymen, for Allah is the general Arabic term for the supreme being rather than the name of a particular deity. Rather than introducing a new deity, Muhammad denied the existence of the pantheon of gods and spirits worshiped before his prophethood and declared the omnipotence of God, the unique creator. The term Islam means submission to God, and a person who submits is a Muslim.

Muhammad is the "Seal of the Prophets," the last of the prophetic line. His revelations are said to complete for all time the series of revelations that had been given earlier to Christians and Jews. God is believed to have remained one and the same throughout time, but men are seen as having misunderstood or strayed from his true teachings until set aright by Muhammad. Prophets and sages of the biblical tradition, such as Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, are recognized as inspired vehicles of God's will. Islam, however, reveres as sacred only the message, rejecting Christianity's deification of the messenger. It accepts the concepts of guardian angels, the Day of Judgment, resurrection, and the eternal life of the soul.

The duties of the Muslim form the "five pillars" of the faith: the shahadah, salat (daily prayer), zakat (almsgiving), sawm (fasting), and hajj (pilgrimage). The believer prays facing Mecca five times a day. Whenever possible, men pray in congregation at a mosque under direction of an imam (see Glossary), or prayer leader, and on Fridays are obliged to do so. Women are permitted to attend public worship at the mosque, where they are segregated from the men, but their attendance tends to be discouraged, and more frequently they pray in the seclusion of their homes.

In the early days of Islam, a tax for charitable purposes was imposed on personal property in proportion to the owner's wealth; the payment purified the remaining wealth and made it religiously legitimate. The collection of this tax and its distribution to the needy were originally functions of the state. With the decentralization of Muslim religious and political authority as Islam spread to many countries, however, this became an individual responsibility.

The ninth month of the Muslim calendar is Ramadan, celebrated as the time during which the Quran was revealed to Muhammad. It is a period during which Muslims must abstain from food, drinking, smoking, and sexual activity during the daylight hours. Exempted are the sick, soldiers on duty, travelers on necessary journeys, young children, and menstruating, pregnant, or lactating women. The well-to-do accomplish little work during this period, and many businesses close or operate on reduced schedules. Since the months of the lunar calendar revolve through the solar year, Ramadan occurs during various seasons.

Finally, at least once during their lifetime, all Muslims should if possible make the hajj to the holy city of Mecca to participate in the special rites that occur during the twelfth month of the lunar calendar. Upon completion of this and certain other ritual assignments, the returning pilgrim is entitled to an honorific title, Haj (fem., Hajjah).

In addition to prescribing specific duties, Islam imposes a code of conduct entailing generosity, fairness, honesty, and respect for others. It proscribes adultery, gambling, usury, and the consumption of carrion, blood, pork, and alcohol. The proscription of alcohol is irregularly enforced in most Muslim countries, but since 1986 the Mauritanian government has strictly enforced its prohibition.

Muslims traditionally are subject to sharia, which--as interpreted by religious courts--covers most aspects of life. Sharia was developed by jurists from the Quran and from the traditions of the Prophet, and it provides a complete pattern for human conduct. Sharia also serves as a normative legal code (see Legal System , ch. 4).

Data as of June 1988

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