Islam A religion founded in present-day Saudi Arabia by the Prophet Muhammed. The word Islam literally means surrender, or give up; but it shares an etymological root with the word salaam, which means peace. Followers of Islam are called Muslims. Islam is one of the Abrahamic religions, along with Christianity and Judaism; it is also the youngest, coming into being around 610 ce, when Muhammad received his revelations from the Angel Gabriel in a cave outside Mecca. Islam is split mainly into two branches, Sunni Islam (the largest, with over 80% of Muslims) and Shi’a Islam. The split was formed on Muhammad’s death, when his followers disagreed on who should succeed Muhammad and become Caliph. (For more information, see the Shi’a and Sunni entries.) Islam is currently the second largest religion in the world with approximately 23% of the population, or 1.5 billion members; Christianity is the largest by population. Islam is found in much higher percentages in most of the countries of the Middle East, North Africa and Indonesia.

Islam stands in a long line of Middle Eastern prophetic religious traditions that share uncompromising monotheism, belief in God’s revelation, prophets, ethical responsibility, accountability and the notion of a Day of Judgment. Jews, Christians and Muslims are all considered children of Abraham (Ibrahim), although they belong to different branches of the same family. Jews and Christians are spiritual descendants of Abraham and his wife, Sarah, through their son, Isaac (Ishaq); Muslims trace their lineage back to Ishmael (Ismail), Abraham’s first-born son by his Egyptian servant, Hagar. Ishmael became the father of Arabs in northern Arabia. Muslims believe that Islam was the original monotheistic faith, making it the oldest of the Abrahamic faiths, with Judaism and Christianity as tolerated offshoots.

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The term Islam is derived from the Arabic root s-l-m, which means ‘submission’ or ‘peace’. Muslims are those who surrender to God’s will or law, rendering them at peace with themselves and with God. To embrace Islam is to become a member of a worldwide faith community (Ummah). Thus believers have a religious identity that is both individual and corporate as well as a responsibility or duty to obey and implement God’s will in their personal and social lives.

The Islamic holy book is the Qu’ran, which contains the messages delivered to the Prophet Muhammad by God. However a second source of information, the Hadith, is also used as a guide to life by Sunni Muslims. It is a collection of words and deeds of Muhammad, as compiled by various Islamic scholars over the centuries after his death. To appear in the Hadith, a word or deed has to have survived intense scrutiny and evidence-gathering by these scholars.

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