The Islamic Faith

Key Lecture Points

  • Islam is the second most widely practiced religion in the world, with some 1.1-1.3 billion adherents worldwide (second only to Christianity). Islam is the fastest growing religion in the US, with some 5-7 million Americans calling themselves Muslims today. Over the past decade, many events have turned the eyes of people in the West, especially in the US, towards Islam and Muslim peoples. An understanding of Islam seems more necessary than perhaps ever before, especially during a time when religions are becoming increasingly politicized and when religious beliefs are often central to international and domestic political debates and conflicts.
  • Only about 20% of Muslims worldwide are of Arab ethnic descent, with many Muslims claiming African and Asian ancestry. Every Arab nation has at least some portion of its population claiming a non-Muslim religious background. Fifty-two countries contain Muslim majorities; Indonesia is the most populous Muslim nation in the world. About 18% of the world’s Muslims are found in the Middle East and North Africa; 20% are in Sub-Saharan Africa; 30% in South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh); there are also significant Muslim populations in China and Russia, and other parts of Central and Western Asia. France has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe—5-6 million.
  • Islam began with the teachings of the prophet Mohammed, who lived from 570-632 AD. The basic tenets of Islam are shared by all major sects, including Sunni and Shi’a, although each sect names and categorizes them differently. Mohammed’s death in 632 led to significant infighting within the Muslim community about who should succeed him as the leader of the faith, eventually leading to the first Islamic Civil War from 655-661 and the split between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. Between the 7th and 11th centuries, the Muslim Empire expanded from a limited area in the Middle East and North Africa, to encompass over ¼ of the globe, stretching from modern-day Spain in the west all the way to China in the east, from Western Asia in the north to the Indo-Pakistani subcontinent in the South. In the 13th century Islam came to SE Asia by way of Sufi missionaries, and, by the 15th century modern-day Indonesia and the Philippines had large Muslim populations. New Muslim Empires arose in the 15th and 16th centuries: the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal.
  • Today, a few important trends can be noticed within the global Muslim community. Islamic fundamentalism is a trend of much concern, although most Muslims are not fundamentalists and do not support their violent interpretation of jihad. On the other end of the spectrum of over a billion people, rogressive Islam is a movement critical of conservative Muslim tenets; many progressives support gender equality and nonviolence. Moderate Islam, perhaps most notable in Iran, seeks to reform Islamic states; moderate Muslims often argue for the adoption of democratic norms and some social and political freedoms.

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Armstrong, Karen. Islam: A Short History. Modern Library, 2002. Islam haunts the popular American imagination as an extreme faith that promotes terrorism, authoritarian government, female oppression, and civil war. In a vital revision of this narrow view of Islam and the distillation of years of thinking and writing about the subject, Karen Armstrong's short history demonstrates that the world's fastest-growing faith is a much more complex phenomenon than its modern fundamentalist strain might suggest.
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  • Nigosian, S.A. Islam: Its History, Teaching and Practices. Indiana University Press, 2003. The author underscores two fundamental points: that to understand Islam properly, it is necessary to see it as a major faith tradition, with Muhammad as the last of a series of messengers sent by God; and that to grasp the spirit of Islam, one must recognize its emphasis on an uncompromising monotheism, with strict adherence to certain social, political, and religious practices, as taught by the Prophet and elaborated by tradition.
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  • Arberry, A. J. Jarthur John. The Koran Interpreted: A Translation. Touchstone Books, 1996. This classic, authoritative translation brings the full meaning and power of the sacred book of Islam to Western readers. "Certainly the most beautiful English version, and among those by non-Muslim translators, the one that comes closest to conveying the impressions made on Muslims by the original".--Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Harvard University.
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