Cultural History Themes

Islam, the Religion

The Arabic word islam means submission or devotion. It is also the designation for the religion that is shared by Muslims the world over. To be a Muslim means to submit or reconcile oneself to the will of God. Today, about one fifth of the world’s population is believed to profess Islam.

As a faith, Islam is based on the belief in the existence of one – and only one – God. This God, whose name is Allah (the same name in Arabic used for God in a Christian context), created the world and at some point will let it perish. When the last day dawns, all creatures will be resurrected and made to account for their lives. People who have lived according to the will of Allah, as described in the Koran, will be able to reckon with eternal life in paradise, while those who have not lived in keeping with Allah’s prescriptions must prepare for a life in hell.

The Koran, which is the Muslims’ holy book, is understood quite literally as the word of God conveyed by the Archangel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad between 610 and 632. Unlike the Bible, the Koran is thus a divine text that leaves no room at all for alteration. God’s own words, whether it is easy to understand them or not, must always be reproduced in the same way.

The traditions that have been handed down about the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad (hadith) are also used as a supplement to the Koran to provide ethical guidance for the individual Muslim. Since the time of the earliest caliphs, guidelines for everyday life have been developed by interpreting these traditions. In the view of many Muslims, Islam is consequently not just a religion, but also a way of life.

In the Islamic world, Islam is not considered a new religion in relation to others, but as the latest form of the same monotheistic faith that also gave birth to Judaism and Christianity. The prophets of Islam include Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, in addition to a number of other figures from the Old and New Testament. Jews and Christians are generally considered by Muslims to be People of the Book (ahl al-kitab). This designation reflects the belief that Allah had also revealed a divine book (kitab) to adherents of these religions.