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Photo: Copyright Religion Transcends

Allah. Al Qaeda. Koran. Many Americans knew little of these words until acts of terrorism prompted us to take a second look at Islam. Unfortunately, the world’s second largest religion has become associated, for many, with terrorism and acts of violence. But with 1.2 billion followers (called Muslims), Islam is incredibly diverse, and a majority of Muslims to not support violence in the name of Islam.

 Islam is a monotheistic religion, meaning they believe in one God (or “Allah” in the Arabic language). Like Christians and Jews, Muslims (followers of Islam) believe themselves to be descended from the Abraham of the Old Testament. While Jews and Christians are descended from Abraham and his wife Sarah, Muslims are descended from Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Hagar.

Who is Muhammad?

Muhammad was born in 570 A.D. in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. In the year 610, Muhammad was meditating in a cave when the angel Gabriel appeared to him. Soon after, Muhammad began to recite words said to come straight from God, which were then recorded in a book called the Qur’an (sometimes spelled Koran). As a messenger of the words of God, Muhammad is considered a prophet. But not everyone saw him as such back then. Debates over his leadership role led authorities to deny Muhammad and his followers access to Mecca; they were forced to flee to nearby Medina in 622. Eight years and several battles later, they triumphantly returned, taking over Mecca and abolishing all idols worshipped there.


Muslims believe in angels, Heaven, Hell, and a Day of Judgment. Specifically, Muslims believe they must perform good deeds in order to be saved on the Day of Judgment.

Islam rests on five pillars that define members of the faith:

  1. The shahadah: a statement that there is no God but God and that Muhammad is His messenger.
  2. Prayer: Muslims are taught to pray multiple times during the day and regularly gather on Fridays for prayer and worship.
  3. Charitable giving: Muslims are obligated to give money to the poor.
  4. Ritual fasting: This includes the fast of Ramadan, when Muslims remember the night Muhammad received visions from God.
  5. Hajj: It is the duty of a Muslim to take a pilgrimage to Mecca at some point during their lifetime.

Muslims also place an emphasis on modesty. This is why you will often see Muslim women wearing a veil (or hijab) covering their hair and sometimes their faces. Though some people interpret the hijab as a way to make women inferior, many Muslim women choose to wear hijab as a sign of modesty.

Sunni vs. Shi’ite

The two largest divisions in Islam, between Sunnis and Shi’ites, began at the death of Muhammad. Muhammad never picked a successor. One group of people, today called Sunnis, believed someone should be elected to become the political leader of Islam. Another group, today called Shi’ites, believed leadership should be hereditary – meaning the political and religious leader would be a descendant of Muhammad. Today, Sunnis make up 85% of the Muslim population, while Shi’ites Muslims make up the other 15%.

Is Islam a violent religion?

The short answer is no. It is true that the Qur’an includes discussions of jihad, translated as “putting effort.” A jihad can be a struggle within oneself to become a better person, or a jihad can be a holy war against those who threaten Islam. However, the Qur’an and Muslims do not support unjust violence.

That being said, as in many religions, extremists have taken holy words and twisted them to justify acts of violence. And for the most part, the violence seems to come from political groups (like Al Qaeda and other Islamic governments), not religious groups. Osama bin Laden developed a hatred of American politics and culture. He used religious language and verses from the Qur’an to justify his terrorist actions against the United States. A majority of Muslims do not support such acts of terrorism but consider themselves a peaceful people with a deep love and respect for God. Read about 9/11 and Islam on Religion Transcends.

Find news and holiday information related to Islam on

Created by Religion Transcends, 2009. Portions of this overview are taken from an article written by Religion Transcends writer Jackie Walker for Relate magazine. Most information is general knowledge. You must seek permission to reuse this wording.

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