Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, was born in AD570, the posthumous son of a Hashemite from Mecca (Makkah). His mother died when he was about six and he was brought up by his grandfather, who had him set up as a merchant by the time he was 25.

His teachings began around 612, but despite gaining some followers he was rejected by the townsmen and was forced to leave for Medina (Madinah) in 622. For the next decade he organised the Islamic Community, creating a community based on the will of God. His activities led to the persecution of the early Muslims, followed by years of conflict, mainly with the Meccans, as the number of Muslims increased. By his death in 632, many Arabian tribes had either joined or been subdued by the Muslims.

Within a year of the Prophet’s death, the Muslims had advanced into Iraq, and by the early years of the following century had reached the River Indus and the Pyrenäen.

The Islamic religion is based on the ‘submission to the will of God (Allah)’. Islam has teachings for the mind, body and spirit; also laws on education, economy, politics, science, crimes and punishment, human behaviour and all aspects of morality in daily life for individuals (men and women of any race), families, governments and whole societies anywhere in the world.

The Quran/Koran and Sunnah are the two basic sources of Islamic teachings, law and order. The Quran is the main religious book for Muslims; it is the spoken word of Allah(God) and is subdivided into 30 equal parts containing 114 chapters (or Sura) in Arabic. The Sunnah is complementary to the Quran and contains the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad and his way of life.

The Prophet received the spoken word of Allah containing the foundation of the faith (the Quran/Koran) while in Mecca in the 7th century AD. The city is now Islam’s principal holy city. Medina, also in Saudi Arabia, a little over 300km (200 miles) due north of Mecca, is second only to Mecca in importance. It was to Medina that Muhammad and his followers moved after his monotheistic beliefs were given a hostile reception by some Meccans. The journey from Mecca to Medina (Hijra) is celebrated each year, the event being taken as the starting point of the Islamic calendar (Ah 1). Prior to their return to Mecca the Prophet and his followers made a pilgrimage (Hajj) to the Holy City during the month of Ramadan. After Muhammad’s death in AD632 temporal authority was assumed by a series of Khalifahs, with various sects developing.

Today the strongest sects within Islam (that is those with the most followers) are the Sunni (in Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Syria, parts of Lebanon, Egypt, north Africa, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and large parts of Turkey) and the Shia (in Iran, southern Lebanon, parts of India, Afghanistan and Pakistan and the greater part of Iraq).

The Five Pillars of Islam. There are five basic religious tenets, generally called the Five Pillars of Islam

Shahadah: „The profession of faith: ‘I testify there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.’“

Salah: The faithful must turn towards Mecca and recite a prescribed prayer five times daily at dawn, just after midday, asr (mid afternoon), just after sunset and before midnight. In some Muslim countries the activities of the day stop at the time of prayer. The muezzin calls to prayer, chanting from the minaret of each mosque. For obvious practical reasons, not all Muslims go to a mosque for prayer. Shopkeepers and businessmen will offer prayers on their premises, usually on a mat set to one side. Non-Muslims should not be embarrassed if they happen to witness this.

The most important prayer is the Friday prayer, delivered from a pulpit of the mosque by a prayer leader. In many Muslim countries, Friday is a holiday, with banks and shops closed all day.

Zakah A compulsory payment from a Muslim’s annual savings. It literally means ‘purification’, and is an annual payment of 10% of the value of cash, jewellery and precious metals above a specified minimum amount (a separate rate applies to animals, crops and minerals). Zakah can only be used for helping the poor and needy, the disabled, the oppressed, debtors and other welfare purposes defined in the Qur’an and Sunnah.

Ramadan: All Muslims are required to fast during the Holy Month of Ramadan (a lunar month of 29 or 30 days, which falls 11 days earlier each year, depending on sightings of the moon). All Muslims abstain totally from food, drink, sex and tobacco from dawn to sunset. Non-Muslims should respect this practice and wherever possible avoid infringing these laws in front of Muslims, since this would be considered an insult. Practically speaking, when Ramadan falls during the summer months, the abstentions become a test of endurance. Often shops and restaurants will open much earlier and close during the afternoons and in smaller towns some will close altogether, but some businesses do open at night. Straight after sunset most, if not all, Muslims will break their fast, and little business or travel will be practical for the visitor at this time.
Originally the festival celebrated the month during which the Quran was first revealed and later when Muhammad’s followers won a great victory over opponents to his faith in Mecca. Eid al-Fitr, an official holiday in some Muslim countries of three or more days, takes place after the end of Ramadan. It is a celebratory feast when those luxuries which have been denied are enjoyed with relish.

The Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. Every Muslim who can afford it and is fit enough must make the journey. Some Muslims, especially those in Saudi Arabia, make the pilgrimage more than once. At the time of the pilgrimage, the pilgrim (Hajji/Hajja) enters the holy precincts of Mecca wearing a white, seamless garment (ihram) and performs the sevenfold circumambulation of the Kaabah (the black stone housed in the centre of the Holy Mosque) and the sevenfold course between the little hills of Safa and Marwah near Mecca. Muslims perform this in memory of Haggar who is mentioned in the Old Testament, who ran seven times between Safa and Marwah seeking a spring for her thirsty son. The Hajj lasts from the seventh to the eighth day of Dhu-al-Hijja. On the ninth day pilgrims stand praying on the mountain Arafat – an essential part of the ritual of the Hajj. The pilgrimage formally ends with Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice), which is an official holiday of four or more days, in which a camel, sheep or horned domestic animal is sacrificed on the tenth day of Dhu-al-Hijja. After shaving the head (which is performed only by men), the ihram is discarded and normal dress (ihlal) resumed. As long as the hajji/hajja is in a muhrim (sanctified place) he/she must refrain from sexual intercourse, the shedding of blood, hunting and the uprooting of plants. All of the different activities of the Hajj are symbolic and have stories associated with them.

Muslims regard Islam as an integral part of daily life, resulting in an ordered society in which a person’s social, spiritual and economic status is clearly defined. This way of life is for the most part drawn from the Quran. Greetings and replies in particular are formal and stylised. Manners and courtesy reflect a deeply-held convention of hospitality and mutual respect. It is customary for Muslim households to extend hospitality to people whom Western society would disregard socially. For instance, tradition dictates that anyone who appears at meal times must be invited to share the meal, and this would apply as much to strangers or tradesmen, whatever the reason for their call, as it would to friends or relatives. Hospitality was a part of Arab culture before Islam and the laws and teaching of Islam reinforced it. Subjects such as illness or death are not surrounded by taboo as they are in many Western societies, and are discussed with frankness by all. Muslims are encouraged to have close relationships and keep an open heart, an understanding of others and to try and help with their problems.
The label of a family can cover any number of individuals rather than just those related by blood ties. Arab families are close-knit, and the importance of family unity cannot be stressed too strongly. Inter-family disputes are a cause for public shame and require immediate attention.

Giving and receiving always use the right hand.

Drug use: Although many countries cultivate hashish or marijuana, it is not culturally acceptable and in the majority of countries the possession, use or trading of drugs is severely punished. Drug abuse is not permitted in Islam, particularly hard drugs such as heroin, morphine or cocaine, but also any drug which interferes with the consciousness, reasoning or judgement, affecting work, study or family life.

Alcohol: The consumption of alcohol is forbidden by law.

Gambling: This is considered by most Islamic countries to be an evil, and is strictly outlawed.

Food: Pork is forbidden by Islamic law and all meat is killed by cutting the animal’s throat and draining the blood.

The Islamic Calendar: Based on lunar months, ie the first of each month coincides with the date of the actual New Moon. In ‘Common’ years of 354 days, the months are alternately 30 and 29 days long; in the ‘Kabishah’ year of 355 days the last month has 30 days. During a 30-year period there are 19 Common and 11 Kabishah years. The ninth month is Ramadan.

The Islamic months are as follows: Muharram, Safar, Rabi (1), Rabi (2), Jumada (1), Jumada (2), Rajab, Sha’ban, Ramadan, Shawwal, Dhu al-Qa’da, Dhu al-Hijja.

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