There are many expressions of Islam, reflected across Muslim believers from different countries and cultures. Even within the two main branches, Sunni and Shi’a, there can be differences in beliefs and practices. But all Muslims share some core beliefs, the five pillars of Islam, outlining general rules for living.
The five pillars of Islam
Shahada – declaration of faith. The entry point of Islam is the repetition of this creed, “I witness that there is no god but Allah, and that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.”
Salat – prayers. These are to be done five times a day, every day. They are best carried out in the mosque, but this isn’t mandatory.
Sawm – fasting. During the month of Ramadan, a Muslim is expected to fast from sunrise to sunset. This month ends with the festival Eid al-Fitr, which is three days of feasting and celebration.
Zakat – almsgiving. The Qur’an commands all believers to practise regular charity, though there are no specific commands as to how. Generosity is expected to those in need, especially family.
Hajj – pilgrimage. It is expected if possible, but is not mandatory, for pilgrimage to be made once in a lifetime to Mecca, during the month of Hajj.
At the heart of Islam is the idea of submission, to give in to the will of God and recognise his absolute authority. Therefore great importance is placed both on obedience, and on knowing what God’s command is for each aspect of life; what is considered lawful and unlawful.
Who was Muhammad?
Muhammad was born in Mecca around 570 AD, and is the final prophet of Islam. He was disillusioned with the idolatry he saw in Mecca and spent time alone praying in a cave for several weeks each year. In 610 AD, Muslims believe that the Angel Gabriel appeared to Muhammad and the revelation of the Qur’an began. Throughout his life his following grew, but so did opposition from people who followed the traditional Meccan religion, local tribes and rulers in the city.
Some Muslims identify with Muslim culture or religion because of their family background or their social and cultural environment. Someone born into a Muslim family may identify as a Muslim without subscribing to the beliefs and practices associated with it. In this context it becomes a social or ethnic label, not necessarily a religious one.
How do you get to heaven?
Personal responsibility is important in Islam. On the Day of Judgment, every person will be accountable to God. A practising Muslim is constantly striving to do enough good deeds to get them to heaven, but ultimately they are dependent on God’s mercy. There is no assurance of salvation, and some Muslims view the concept of assurance as presumptuous.
What about Jesus and the Bible?
Jesus is mentioned frequently in the Qur’an. Muslims believe he was a great prophet, but not divine. He was fully human, like the other prophets. They believe he was born of a virgin, and that he performed miracles, but not that he was crucified. Instead, God saved him and put his likeness on another man. They believe that the Torah was revealed to Moses, and some New Testament Scriptures to Jesus, but that these have been altered and added to. They can no longer be seen as God’s revelation, so God gave the restored truth to Muhammad (the Qur’an), which supersedes the authority of the Bible.