What is Islam?

Gary Leazer

Understanding people of all faiths is a valuable step in not only becoming a better citizen of the world, but in becoming a more understanding Christian as well.

Islam is more than the faith of people on the other side of the globe. It is a growing part of America's religious landscape. So what is Islam?

Islam is both a religion and a way of life.

The word Islam, meaning "surrender" or "submission," comes from an Arabic word (slm) associated with peace (salaam). A Muslim, meaning "a submitted one," is a follower of Islam. Moslem is the Anglicized spelling of Muslim.

The Qur'an (meaning "the recitation"), or Koran, is the Muslim holy book. Allah is the Arabic word for God, not the name of the Muslim God. Many Arab Christians use "Allah" as the word for God.

Islam teaches that Muhammad (570-632) was the last and greatest prophet of God. But, Muslims also recognize Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus as prophets. When he was about 40 years old, Muhammad reportedly received his first of many revelations from God which later became the Qur'an.

There are five pillars, or fundamental duties, of Islam.

1. Shahada: This confession of faith states, "I bear witness that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God." Devout Muslims will recite the Shahada when waking in the morning and at bedtime.

2. Salat: This ritual prayer is spoken five times daily--dawn, midday, mid-afternoon, sunset and two hours after sunset. Although these prayers can be said anywhere, on Friday--the Muslim holy day--prayers are said in a mosque where a sermon follows.

3. Sawn: This is the fasting during the Islamic month of Ramadan. No food, water or sexual relations are allowed during daylight hours during the fast. The fast is meant to remind Muslims that all gifts come from God. The feast of Al-Fitr, the day after Ramadan ends, is a major celebration with exchanging gifts and donations of a day's worth of food.

4. Zakat: This is a religious tax, about 2 1/2 percent of a person's annual wealth. Many Muslims give 10 percent. The funds are used for building mosques, relief for the poor and missionary programs.

5. Hajj: This pilgrimage to Mecca--the most holy city in Islamic faith--is required of every faithful Muslim, who is physically and financially able, at least once in a lifetime.

Although it is not technically a pillar of Islamic faith, jihad, meaning exertion on behalf of God, is sometimes listed as the sixth pillar. Jihad can refer to spiritual warfare, a Muslim's inner struggle or a "holy war" to avenge God's honor due to some sacrilege. It can refer to preaching, writing or making war against enemies.

Gary Leazer is president of the Center for Interfaith Studies in Stone Mountain, Ga.