Order Code RS21432
February 19, 2003
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
Islam: A Primer
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
There are about one billion Muslims in the world, concentrated primarily in North
Africa, the Middle East, and South and Southeast Asia. Islam teaches that Allah
selected Muhammad, a merchant from Mecca, as the last of the prophets following
Adam, Moses, Jesus, and others, to deliver God’s message to mankind. The report
includes short descriptions of the historical background, the tenets of Islam, jihad, the
status of women in Islam, and other aspects of Islam. The report will not be updated.
According to Islamic belief, in 610 A.D., Muhammad, a 40-year-old merchant of the
Quraysh tribe in Mecca, in the Arabian desert (now eastern Saudi Arabia), was
commanded by the angel Gabriel to “recite” the message of Allah (Arabic for God).
Gabriel said mankind had lost sight of Allah’s previous messages to earlier prophets,
Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Solomon, and Jesus, among others, and that Muhammad
was to spread Allah’s message to all people so that mankind would know how to live,
how to show respect for Allah, and how to prepare for the judgement day. The message
to Muhammad was to be God’s last; Muhammad was the “seal of the prophets.”
Muhammad won some converts to Islam, but his monotheist preaching threatened
to undermine the profitable polytheist pilgrim traffic supporting many Meccan merchants.
In 622 A.D., the merchants drove Muhammad and his followers out of Mecca to the city
of Yathrib (later renamed Medina, or city - as in the city of the prophet). This flight
(hijra) from Mecca to Medina marks the beginning of the Muslim lunar calendar, and is
celebrated each year in the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. After a series of battles
between the Meccans and Muhammad’s forces in Medina, Mecca finally succumbed,
converted to Islam, and welcomed the prophet back to the city in 630.
Muhammad died in 632. Tribal elders elected Abu Bakr to be Muhammad’s
successor, or Caliph (Khalifa). Abu Bakr united the tribes of the Arabian peninsula
during his two years as head of the new faith. Upon his death, the elders elected Umar
ibn al-Khattab the next Caliph. During Umar’s ten year reign, Islam spread into Egypt,
Syria, Palestine, Iraq, and parts of Iran. Umar was assassinated by a Persian in 644, and
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
was succeeded by Uthman ibn Affan, who spread Islam into North Africa, Cyprus, Iran,
Afghanistan, and parts of India and Pakistan. Over the next two centuries, Islam
expanded into sub-Saharan Africa, Spain, Southeast and Central Asia, and Turkey.
Divisions Within Islam
Uthman was assassinated in 656 A.D. by soldiers who then installed Ali ibn Abu
Talib, Muhammad’s son-in-law, as Caliph. Ali’s followers believed Muhammad had
chosen Ali to be Muhammad’s heir, and had disagreed with the selections of Abu Bakr,
Umar, and Uthman as Caliphs. Ali’s claim to the position was challenged by Muawiyah,
a kinsman of the murdered Uthman. Five years later, Ali was assassinated by Kharjites,
religious dissidents who broke away from the main body of Muslims because they
rejected Ali’s accepting arbitration to resolve his leadership dispute with Muawiyah.
Ali’s supporters, or the Shiah al-Ali (or Shiat Ali, partisans of Ali) believed that Ali was
the true Caliph and was, in part, divinely inspired. Ali’s sons, Hassan and Husayn
followed as Shia Caliphs, Hassan dying in 669 or 670 A.D., possibly by poisoning, and
Husayn slain by soldiers of his rival, the Sunni Caliph Yazid, in 680 A.D.
The Shia Muslim community has divided further as followers coalesced around
several of Ali’s descendants or successors, called Imams. The “twelvers,” predominant
in Iran, believe the twelfth Imam is in hiding and will reveal himself just before
judgement day. Ismailis rejected the seventh Imam and practice a spirituality that seeks
hidden meaning in scripture. Ismailis ruled much of North Africa as the Fatimid dynasty
of Egypt in the tenth through the twelfth centuries, and today are found primarily in
Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India. The Sunni majority reject the premise that men can be
divine, including Muhammad, Ali, or Jesus, and did not accept any of the Imams who
followed Ali. Sunnis remain more committed to traditions and less inclined to accept
Shia mysticism. Today, about 15% of the world’s one billion Muslims are Shia and 85%
are orthodox Sunni.
There are other factions within Islam. Sufis, a name apparently taken from the wool
garments they wear, developed around mystical practices and trance-induced revelations.
Sufis are found today in Turkey, Syria, and parts of Africa. Other movements have taken
reform tracks, such as the Unitarians of Saudi Arabia, also called Wahhabis after their 18th
century reformist founder Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. The conservative Wahhabis
are found today in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Some critics would argue that the Taliban of
Afghanistan took conservative reform to an extreme. Other sects or break-away groups
include, among others, the Alawis found in Syria and Turkey, the Druze in Lebanon,
Syria, Jordan, and Israel, the Ibadhis (Kharjites) in Oman and Africa, the Ahmadiya of
Pakistan, and the Zaydis of Yemen.
During his lifetime, Muhammad’s companions memorized and later transcribed the
verses (surrahs) of the Quran as they had been dictated to Muhammad. The Caliph
Uthman collected and codified the various versions of the surrahs into one written Quran
that became the standard Arabic text used by the world’s Muslims today. Present-day
Muslims look first to the Quran as a guide to life, then to the Sunnah, or the way of the
Prophet (his life as an example for others) as recorded by his early companions, and then
to the Hadith, a collection of the Prophet’s sayings, comments, advice, and descriptions.
Frequently, Muslims disagreed over how to interpret certain passages in the Quran, the
Sunnah, or the Hadith in their search for the ideal life and perfect path to heaven. From
these interpretations Sunni Muslims developed four schools of law, or interpretations of
law, named after their founders or early leaders: the Hanbali, considered the most strict
school and predominant today in Saudi Arabia; Shafi, the school of widest acceptance,
found in Egypt, parts of Palestine-Syria, south Arabia, and the Far East; Maliki, prevalent
in North Africa, Sudan, and Nigeria; and Hanafi, considered the most moderate school,
predominant in Ottoman Turkey and today found primarily on the Levant and Indian
subcontinent. Frequently, Muslim countries have two separate legal systems, one for
civil, criminal, or commercial law, and a second, and separate, system for religious law.
Religious courts and their judges (qadis) might handle issues dealing with marriage,
divorce, child custody, inheritance, religious education, charitable or religious property
(Waqf), or family matters. Among Middle Eastern countries, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Oman,
Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Amirates, and Yemen have Shariah courts
serving alongside their secular courts or have adopted Shariah (Islamic law) as the basis
of their legal systems.
Clergy. Sunni Islam does not have a priesthood or clerical hierarchy to conduct
religious services or interpret scripture, but it does have prayer leaders, called Imams, and
religious scholars, called Ulama, who often are educated men familiar with the Quran and
able to offer commentaries on Quranic verses. Sunni Muslims also respect the teachings
and interpretations of scholars, judges, and academics who may interpret laws, write
treatises on Sharia (religious law) or Hadith, and issue Fatwas, religious declarations
intended to enlighten or guide Muslims.
Shia Islam has a hierarchy that resembles a priesthood. Mullahs are prayer leaders,
but usually do not interpret religious law. Mujtahids are religious scholars who may
interpret law or passages from the Quran or Hadith. The lower order of Mujtahids are
called Hojjatolislam. Ayat Allah (literally sign of God, also Ayatollah) is a higher order
of Mujtahid who may issue Fatwas, or religious edicts, in addition to leading Islamic
schools, interpreting religious law and the Quran, and offering sermons or discourses on
proper Islamic behavior.
Tenets of Islam
Islam means submission to the will of God; those who submit are Muslims. Islam
has five basic tenets, often called the five pillars of Islam:
! recite the creed (shahadah) “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad
is the prophet of Allah”;
! pray (salat) five times each day;
! give alms (zakat) to the poor;
! fast (sawm) from dawn to sunset during the month of Ramadan; and
! go on pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca once during your lifetime if you are
physically and financially able.
The five daily prayers are said just before dawn, noon, mid afternoon, just after
sunset, and at bedtime. The Friday noon prayer usually is performed at a mosque, where
the faithful gather to pray together to reinforce the spirit of the Muslim community
(ummah). Men and women pray separately in the mosque, with a women’s section off to
one side or on a balcony. The Quran does not obligate women to pray five times each day
if their household or motherly duties intercede, and women are encouraged to pray at
home rather than at the mosque on Fridays.
Ramadan commemorates the month when the angel Gabriel dictated the Quran to
Muhammad. Observant Muslims do not eat, drink, smoke, or have sexual relations
during the daylight hours of Ramadan.
The hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca also is a reaffirmation of Islam’s principle of
equality, when Muslims from Asia, the Middle East, Africa, the Americas, or Europe,
wearing similar seamless white garments, perform the same rituals and ceremonies under
the same conditions without regard to their wealth, nationality, position, or background.
The hajj that began on February 20, 2002, drew 2.5 million pilgrims to Saudi Arabia.
Other Aspects of Islam
Jihad. Jihad is the “effort” or “struggle” each Muslim faces in the everyday trials
of life, such as the effort to get better grades in school, or the striving to achieve better
results from a job, or the struggle to avoid sinful temptations. Jihad also can be applied
to warfare; participating in jihad in Allah’s cause was the third most important good deed
listed in the Hadith, after prayer and honoring one’s parents.1 Jihad often was a rallying
cry for the military spread of Islam in the seventh through tenth centuries. Many
Westerners are familiar only with the characterization in the popular press of jihad as
warfare against Christians and Jews. Most Muslims would not apply jihad to Christians
and Jews, believing them to be “people of the book” (see below) rather than infidels.
Osama bin Laden and Fundamentalists. Bin Laden has stated that Islam is
at war with the United States and its allies.2 Some observers maintain that the number of
Muslims who believe as bin Laden does is growing, and others go further to suggest that
all “fundamentalist” Muslims are enemies of the West.3 But other observers differentiate
between the very conservative “fundamentalists” and the “extremists” who follow bin
Laden or other terrorists. These observers suggest that the fundamentalists disagree with
bin Laden as much as do Westerners.
People of the Book. Christians and Jews are called “people of the Book” (the
Old and New Testaments) and are accorded protection, respect, and consideration as the
predecessors to the Muslims.4 Many have noted Islam’s connections to Judaism and
Salih Bukhari translation, Hadith, vol. 4, Book 52, number 41. May be found at
See, for example, Bin Laden Is a Fundamentalist, by Daniel Pipes, National Review Online,
See Quran 2:62, “Those who believe (in the Qur'an), and those who follow the Jewish
(scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians, any who believe in Allah and the Last Day, and
work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall
they grieve.” Christians, Jews, and Sabians are considered “Dhimmi,” or protected people. The
Christianity, how closely many Quranic passages follow similar passages in the Old and
New Testaments, and some suggest that Muhammad and the early Muslims borrowed
much of the faith from its two monotheistic predecessors. Muslims do not deny the close
ties between the Quran and the Old and New Testaments and suggest that the ties further
demonstrate that Muhammad extends the line of succession that began with the prophets
of Judaism and Christianity.
Women in Islam. For the most part, the Quran treats men and women equally,
applies the same injunctions and prohibitions to men and women, and grants many of the
same privileges and benefits, such as divorce, property ownership, or inheritance. But
women are treated separately in certain instances. For example, women are required to
“... draw their outer garments around them ... that they may be known (to be Muslims) and
not annoyed (by men).” (Quran 33:59) Covering the head and body in public (hijab) is
viewed by many Muslim women as a protection of their modesty, a way to discourage
men’s covetous eyes. The principle of hijab is applied in different ways: a small scarf
around the head and regular “street clothes” may be voluntary and acceptable in Cairo or
Damascus but a full length opaque “Burqa” was enforced in Taliban Afghanistan. The
treatment of women may depend upon rural or urban settings, educational level, society
norms, tradition, or other factors.
Muslim women’s status is controversial. Some critics claim that Muslim men
oppress Muslim women by compelling them to remain hidden behind the veil,
sequestered in the home, and ignorant of the world by denying them access to education
and worldly opportunities. Defenders of some practices suggest that many of them, such
as the veil, are cultural traditions that pre-date Islam and are intended to protect, not
constrict, women, or that many Muslim women adopt the life style of the veil voluntarily.
There are Muslim women who agree and disagree with the critics.
Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. Muhammad’s home city of Mecca was the site
of his earliest preaching and conversions, and is the location of the Kaaba, traditionally
held to be the foundation stone of the first mosque built by Adam and later restored by
Abraham, and now the focus of the annual pilgrimage (hajj). Some historians suggest that
the Kaaba, a black stone probably meteoric in origin, was venerated by pre-Islamic
At first, Jerusalem was Islam’s holy city and the focus of prayers, but Mecca became
the center of Islam after Muhammad’s return in 630. Medina, because of its early
association with Muhammad and as the site of Muhammad’s tomb, is second in
importance to Mecca. Jerusalem is revered by Muslims as the site of Solomon’s temple,
Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Ismail,5 and the scene of Muhammad’s miraculous
midnight journey, the latter two now enshrined in the Dome of the Rock mosque.
According to the Quran (Surrah 17:1, Isra) and Hadith, Muhammad and Gabriel were
Sabian Mandaeans are followers of an ancient religion from Iraq and Iran, believe in a single
deity, are baptized, include among their prophets Adam and Noah, and may number about
100,000 today. [http://www.mandaeans.org/aboutthemandaeans.htm]
Muslims believe Allah commanded Abraham to sacrifice his first son, Ismail, but Christians
and Jews believe it was Isaac, the second son, who nearly was sacrificed.
taken on winged mules from Mecca to Jerusalem, where they ascended through the seven
heavens to the presence of Allah. During the visit, Muhammad learned, among other
points, that Muslims were to pray five times each day and to honor Abraham, Moses,
Jesus, and the other prophets.
Restrictions. Observant Muslims are not supposed to eat pork and in general do
not have dogs as pets; both swine and canines are considered unclean. Muslims are
proscribed from drinking alcoholic beverages. Observant Muslims do not collect or pay
Non-Muslim Practices. Some practices have been associated with Islam because
they occur in Islamic countries, but actually are not a part of Islam. For example, female
circumcision is not mentioned in the Quran, but is mentioned in Hadith as an “honorable”
but not obligatory condition.6 It is a pre-Islamic tradition in parts of sub-Saharan Africa
and the Arab world, notably in Eritrea, Yemen, and Egypt. Another example of a
practice that has been associated incorrectly with Islam is honor killing, in which a
brother, father, or uncle “restores” or “defends” a family’s honor by killing the sister,
daughter, or niece that dishonored the family through unmarried pregnancy or
promiscuous behavior. The “honor killing” is more ancient and possibly tribal in origin.
For Further Reference
Armstrong, Karen. Islam: A Short History. New York, Modern Library, 2002. 230 p.
__ Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet. San Francisco, Harper, 1992. 290 p.
Esposito, John L. Islam: The Straight Path. 3rd ed. New York, Oxford University Press,
1998. 286 p.
Lewis, Bernard. What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response. New
York, Oxford University Press, 2002. 180 p.
Murphy, Caryle. Passion for Islam: Shaping the Modern Middle East; the Egyptian
Experience. New York, Scribner, 2002. 358 p.
Nasr, Seyyad Hossein. The Heart of Islam: Enduring Value for Humanity. San
Francisco, Harper-Collins, 2002. 338 p.
Islam Page [http://www.islamworld.net]
Other Sources on Islam [http://www.usc.edu/dept/MSA/othersites/]
See Muslim Women’s League at [http://www.mwlusa.org/pub_fgm.html] or Amnesty
International at [http://www.amnesty.org/ailib/intcam/femgen/fgm1.htm ]