Sun, 14 Oct 2001

What's it all about? Islam

Ivy Susanti, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Most of you should be familiar enough with the word Islam, which is the term for one of the world's major religions. Islam was founded by Muhammad, an Arab who was born in the trading city of Mecca between 570 and 580 AD. When he reached 40, he heard God speaking to him and telling him to start a new religion. In Arabic, Islam means submission.

The Arabs belong to the Semite group of people along with the Akkadians of ancient Babylon, the Assyrians, the Canaanites (including Amorites, Moabites, Edomites, Ammonites and Phoenicians), the various Aramaean people (including Hebrews) and a considerable portion of the population of Ethiopia.

The Semites believed that they were descended from Shem, the son of Noah. Around 2000 BC, the Semites might have moved into the Arabian Peninsula from Mesopotamia. They were nomads who traveled with their sheep, goats and camels to different pastures at different times of the year. Many of them remain nomadic today.


Following the divine revelation, Muhammad made many converts to Islam. Next they attacked the Romans, and the Sassanids to convert them. When Muhammad died in 640 AD, the Arabs controlled most of Western Asia, and immediately under the rule of Ummayad caliphs, they conquered Egypt.

By 711, the Arabs controlled all of Western Asia except Turkey (which was still part of the Roman empire) and all the southern Mediterranean countries of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and most of Spain.

By 800 AD, the Islamic Empire began to break up into many smaller kingdoms or caliphates when the Abbasid caliphs ruled. The main part of it was ruled from Baghdad in modern Iran. In the 900s, the newly arrived Turks or Mamluk people took over the control of Baghdad and the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt.

In 1096 AD, the Crusaders from Europe gradually pushed the Arabs out of Spain.

In 1517 AD, Turkish Ottomans established the Ottoman Empire by conquering Syria and Egypt, and by 1639 AD the Ottomans had taken Iraq. The Ottoman Empire lasted until the end of World War I in 1918.

Being a Muslim

When one has strengthened one's will to convert to Islam and become a Muslim, one will be asked to say the testimony of faith or Shahada: La ilaha illa Allah, Muhammadur rasoolu Allah which means "there is no true god but God (Allah) and Muhammad is the Messenger (Prophet) of God." A Muslim should also:

* Believe that the Holy Koran is the literal word of God, as revealed by Him.

* Believe that the Day of Judgment (Day of Ressurection) is true and will come, as God has promised in the Koran.

* Accept Islam as his religion.

* Not worship anything nor anyone except God.

The sacred scripture of Islam is the Koran, which contains God's revelations to Muhammad. The sayings and the deeds of the Prophet are recounted in the sunna which became another important source of belief and practice in Islam.

Many of the stories in the Koran are the same as the stories in the Judeo-Christian bible, particularly the Old Testament.

A Muslim is banned from consuming alcohol and eating pork, as well as gambling, usury, fraud, slander and the making of images.

The religious obligations of all Muslims are summed up in the Five Pillars of Islam:

1. The testimony of Faith

2. Prayer (salat): Muslims perform five prayers daily, at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset and night, anywhere, such as in fields, offices, factories or universities.Salat consists of the repetition of prayer cycles (raka) which are composed of a sequence of postures and recitation of Koranic passages and special formulas.

A Muslim performing the salat is positioned facing Kaaba in Mecca. While salat can be performed individually or communally, the Friday noon prayer is necessarily communal and is performed at the mosque. Prayers other than salat are often ritualized, notably within the Sufi orders that incorporate music, formalized dancing and rhythmical chanting of God's name.

3. Giving zakat or support for the needy: Giving zakat means giving a specified percentage of certain properties to certain classes of needy people. The percentage, which is due in gold, silver or cash that have reached the equivalent of about 85 grams of gold and held in possession for one lunar year, is 2.5 percent. People may also give as much as they please as voluntary alms or charity.

4. Fasting in the month of Ramadhan: Fasting is regarded as a method of spiritual self-purification and occurs from dawn until sundown. During fasting, a Muslim will abstain from food, drink and sexual relations.

5. The Pilgrimage to Mecca: The annual haj is performed in the twelfth month of the Islamic calendar. Male pilgrims wear special simple clothes that strip away distinctions of class and culture so all stand equal before God.

The rites of the haj include circling the Kaaba seven times and going for another seven times between the hillock of Safa and Marwa, as Hagar did during her search for water. Then the pilgrims gather in Arafa and ask God for what they wish and seek His forgiveness.

The end of Haj is marked by a festival called Eid Al-Adha, which is celebrated with prayers and animal sacrifices. The Eid Al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr, a feast-day commemorating the end of Ramadhan, are two annual festivals of the Muslim calendar.

The other day of celebration is Maulid (Muhammad's birthday) and Miraj (his ascension into heaven).


Divisions occurred in early Islam that were brought about by disputes over the succession to the caliphate. About 90 percent of Muslims belong to the Sunni branch, and today most Asian Muslims adhere to this branch.

The Shiites broke away in the seventh century and later gave rise to other sects including the Ismailis. This branch dominates Iran and is the largest sect in Iraq. Shiite Muslims also exist in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan.

Another significant element in Islam is the mysticism known as Sufism, which emphasizes personal devotion and often blends local practices into its worship.

A strict form of Islam is called Wahhabism, which was founded in Saudi Arabia at the onset of the 19th century, is still growing there today and is making inroads into Asia.


The Koran instructs Muslims, especially women, to cover their bodies to keep themselves pure and chaste.

Women in the Islamic Empire wore long, loose tunics that reached to the knees, usually made of linen, cotton or silk. They also put on loose pants under their tunics.

Over the tunics, women wore veils made of one large piece of cotton, linen or silk, which they wrapped around them. But if they were out in a crowd, or wanted to appear modest, they pulled the veil across their face so that no one could see them.

However, in some countries including Indonesia, most Muslim women only wear head scarves rather than veils.

Muslim men in the past generally dressed almost the same as women. They also wore tunics, sometimes long but generally down to their knees, and they also sometimes wore loose pants under their tunics. Over the top they had a large piece of cloth, like the veil, but men would call it a cloak, which was also useful to keep off the sun. The tradition continues in many Muslim countries in the Middle East.

Sources:,,, The Britannica Concise and American Heritage Dictionary.