Understanding Islam


As the capstone of a long monotheistic tradition which began with Judaism and Christianity, Muslims believe that Islam completes the revelation of God’s message to man. Islam—which in Arabic means “submission”—is an assertion of the unity, completeness and sovereignty of God. Muslims believe that God, or Allah, as He is known in Arabic, revealed His final message to mankind through the Prophet Muhammad Praise Be Unto Him (PBUH) and the Glorious Qur’an, which is the divine, eternal and immutable word of God.

With its focus on the equality of man before the one true God, Islam is in many ways a return to the original doctrine of pure monotheism that characterized the early Judeo-Christian tradition. By the early seventh century, polytheistic religions and idol worship were prevalent throughout the Arabian peninsula. While a few tribes still adhered to their Christian or Jewish traditions, pagan tribes had, over time, become the most powerful in Mecca—the birthplace of Muhammad—and throughout Arabia. The Ka’aba (which in Arabic means cube, describing its shape), built by Ibrahim (Abraham) as the House of God, had lost its traditional purpose and had become a reservoir of idols.

Born in 570 CE, Muhammad grew up as an orphan in the house of his uncle Abu Talib. As a young man, he became known and trusted because of his attempts to resolve inter-tribal differences. In fact, he was known within his Quraysh tribe as al-Ameen, or “the trustworthy.” Soon, however, Muhammad began to earn the displeasure of some of his kinsmen. Even before he began to receive religious revelations, Muhammad had always rejected the worship of idols. In 610 CE, though, he had a vision in which the archangel Gabriel commanded him to read a message sent from God saying that man was a creature of God and meant to serve Him. The Prophet received his first divine revelation when he was 40 years old.

As Muhammad continued to receive revelations and attract a community of believers, he also attracted the hostility of Mecca’s aristocracy, which reaped profits from the pilgrimages and trade brought by Mecca’s role as a center for idol worship. His uncompromising message of monotheism brought persecution from the ruling class, forcing Muhammad and about 70 of his followers to migrate from Mecca in the year 622 CE. The flight from Mecca al-Mukarrama to al-Medina al-Munawwara—known as the Hijra in Arabic—marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar.

In Medina, Muhammad and his followers demonstrated the practicality of the new religion’s social application by resolving bitter rivalries and tensions among the city’s rival groups and clans. Seeing the virtues of Islam in action, many inhabitants of Medina became Muslims. After consolidating the new religion in Medina, Muhammad led his followers back to Mecca, conquering the city in 630 CE. His first act upon returning to Mecca was to cleanse the Ka’aba of its pagan idols, restoring it to the Abrahamic tradition of monotheism. The advent of Islam brought about a social revolution in the Arabian peninsula, as the new religion fought against slavery, the mistreatment of women and other social injustices that had become an accepted way of life.

In Mecca, the Islamic umma, or “community,” began to gather strength and soon burst forth upon the world in a spectacular expansion that eventually unified much of the known world under a common religious, social, political, cultural and linguistic tradition. Today there are over 800 million Muslims throughout the world. The diversity found among Muslim communities in language, culture, skin color and ethnic origin is a source of pride for Muslims, who believe in the universal and timeless message of Islam.

The Five Pillars of Islam

Islamic tradition has crystallized five fundamental observances, or “pillars,” that are as important as faith in defining Islamic identity and strengthening the common bond that ties all Muslims together. Devout Muslims are aware of the Qur’anic exhortation to “strive in the way of God,” and seek to increase their faith and righteousness by practicing the five pillars of the faith.

1. The Confession of Faith: “I testify that there is no god but God, and Muhammad is His messenger.” This oral declaration springs from the monotheistic tradition and affirms the Muslim belief that God’s revelation through the Prophet Muhammad is true. The recitation of this credo, known in Arabic as the shahada, is the one requirement which is absolutely obligatory for one to be considered a Muslim.

2. Prayer: Muslims are enjoined to pray five times daily—at daybreak, noon, afternoon, sunset and evening. Before commencing prayer, a Muslim must be clean, decently attired, and facing the qibla, Mecca. Muslims can perform their daily prayers anywhere.

3. Fasting: During the Islamic lunar month of Ramadan, Muslims are required to fast during daylight hours. Exceptions are made for those who are traveling or physically unable to fast, and they may donate a prescribed amount to the poor or to Islamic institutions. From sunrise until sunset during Ramadan, nothing whatsoever is to be consumed, including water. Sexual activity and smoking are also prohibited during fasting, while prayer and the refinement of the spiritual self are encouraged. When the fast is broken at sunset, Ramadan assumes a festive character with families and friends gathering for the iftar meal. When done in the proper spirit, fasting imparts empathy for the poor, strengthens the power of mind over body, and allows one to experience self renewal and introspection.

4. Almsgiving: The fourth pillar of Islam concerns tithing and almsgiving. The practice of zakat requires that Muslims give a fixed percentage of annual income and property assets to the poor.


5. Pilgrimage: The Holy Qur’an commands Muslims who are physically and financially able to go on pilgrimage (known in Arabic as the hajj) to the Ka’aba in the holy city of Mecca, at least once in their lifetime. Performed during the last month of the Islamic calendar, the hajj brings Muslims from throughout the world together to reaffirm their commonality under God and to rededicate themselves to Islam.

While performing the pilgrimage, His Majesty King Hussein touches the holy black stone located in one of the four corners of the Ka'aba. Mecca, Saudi Arabia, 1979.

As Muslims from all walks of life come together in plain white robes for the pilgrimage, the hajj reinforces the concept of equality before God that is at the heart of Islam.