Understanding islam

Understanding Basic Principles of Islam

There are approximately 1.8 billion Muslims on the planet; on our campus alone many of our students identify as Muslim.  While Muslims believe in the same fundamental elements, they come in all races, ethnicities, shapes, sizes and, depending on what type of Muslim they are, their beliefs may differ.   With so many Muslims in this world, and living on our campus community, understanding their core beliefs and some key aspects of their religion will broaden your perspectives and will give you a deeper appreciation of someone who may believe something different than you do.  And you just may find out that your beliefs align with Muslims’ beliefs in surprising ways.

What is Islam?

Islam is the second largest religion in the world only after Christianity.  Islam was founded by the Prophet Muhammad who was born in Mecca, Saudi Arabi in 570 CE.  The Prophet Muhammad, also known as “The Prophet” or “The Messenger” developed the religious, political and social principles that became the foundation of Islam.

What is a Muslim?

Muslims are those who follow the teachings of Islam.  According to Imam Duric, Muslim is an Arabic word that means surrender and is derived from a word that means peace.  Simply put, a Muslim is one who surrenders to the will of God and the ultimate peace occurs when you submit to the will of God, or Allah (pronounced aa · luh) as some Muslims refer to God.  Some people are born into Muslim families and others convert, or revert, and become a Muslim.

What types of Muslims are there?

Muslim beliefs may take a variety of forms, or sects, but the majority of Muslims are Sunni (pronounced soo · nee) and most of the remaining Muslims are Shi’ite (pronounced shee · ait).  Sunnis follow the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad and four elected successors.  Shi’ites believe that the Prophet Muhammed’s son-in-law ‘Ali was his designated successor and that, therefore, Muslims should be led by a designated descendant of the Prophet.

What is the Nation of Islam?

The Nation of Islam is an African American religion that was established by Wallace D. Fard Muhammad in 1930.  Fard Muhammed was succeeded by Elijah Muhammad who was active in Fard Muhammed’s temple.  The book Speaking Qur’an: An American Scripture by Dr. Timur Yuskaev states that, “in 1975, Elijah Muhammad died and his son, Wallace Muhammad, took the reins of the Nation of Islam.


After taking control of the organization he led the effort to gradually convert its members to Sunni Islam. By the early 1980s, the transformation was complete. Most members of the Nation followed Elijah’s son – who in the late 1970s adopted the name Warith Deen Muhammad (later to be changed to Warith Deen Mohammed) – and embraced the Sunni Muslim identity. Some split from Imam Mohammed’s group and formed new versions of the Nation. Most famous of them was the reconstituted Nation of Islam of Minister Louis Farrakhan (1933-).”


How can you tell if someone is a Muslim?

You actually can’t tell if someone is a Muslim.  Muslims are of various races and live all over the world so they don’t all look the same.  Some Muslims adhere to a certain type of dress based upon guidance from the Qur’an that are translated into their culture.  Some Muslims, both men and women, follow the instructions of the Qur’an to dress modestly and for some women this means they only allow their face, hands and feet to be seen by men they are related to or their husbands.  They may wear a hijab, a scarf that covers their neck and hair, or a burka which covers their full body leaving only the eyes visible – there are many other types of head coverings but not all Muslim women cover their heads.  Some Muslim men only wear long trousers and long-sleeve shirts. Depending on the country, these dress recommendations are adhered to rigidly; dress codes may also be required at certain religious sites.  However, in other countries you will see a variance in how Muslims choose to dress with some opting to follow specific codes of dress and others opting not to.

What are the main tenets of Islam?

The goal of Islam is to have the body, heart and mind perform optimally.   Muslims believe that three dimensions lead to this optimal performance Islam (submission), Iman (pronounced ee · mon, means faith, believe, trust) and Ihsan (pronounced ih · san, means perfection or excellence).

What do Muslims do?

Islam suggests that Muslims put their faith first and incorporate it into their everyday lives.   To accomplish this Muslims practice the Five Pillars of Islam, these five pillars encompass Islam’s first dimension:

  1. Stating that there is only one God and that Muhammad is his prophet. This is Shahadah (pronounced shuh · haa · dah) and is recited as “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.”
  2. Praying five times a day. This is Salah (pronounced sa · la · hey).  These prayers occur a) before sunrise b) midday c) late afternoon d) after sunset e) between sunset and midnight.  Praying five times a day sets a pattern for each day and, since these prayers are conducted all over the world, they promote connectivity amongst Muslims.
  3. Paying a portion of your wealth toward specific groups of people including the poor. This is Zakat (pronounced zuh · kat) Only those who have a specific amount of wealth are required to give Zakat, for those there are specific amounts that should be paid each year depending on the type of currency a person has.
  4. Fasting during Ramadan. This is Sawm (pronounced saam).  Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar – this is a lunar calendar which means that the month is not permanent and changes over time.   Ramadan is the most sacred month of the year as it celebrates when God, or Allah, gave the Prophet Muhammad the first revelation of the Qur’an which equated to about five verses.  During Ramadan Muslims fast from food or drink, smoking, sexual activities and bad thoughts or deeds. This fasting is meant to encourage self-discipline and closer growth to God among other things.
  5. Making a trip to Mecca. This is Hajj (pronounced haj).  It is recommended that every Muslim who is able, should journey to Mecca at least once during adulthood to be spiritually reborn as rituals of Hajj purifies sins that have been committed.  During this pilgrimage, Muslims circle the holiest shrine Kaaba (pronounced kah · ba) seven times, praise God together, and participate in other rituals.

Just as no members of a religion are monolithic, some Muslims will practice each of the five pillars and some Muslims may only practice a few.

What do Muslims believe?

Muslims believe in Six Articles of Faith, these encompass the second dimension of Islam:

  1. Belief in God (Allah)
  2. Belief in angels
  3. Belief in four holy books of God including: the Qur’an (as told to the Prophet Muhammad), the Gospel (as told to Jesus Christ), the Torah (as told to the Jewish prophet Moses) and Psalms (as told to the Israeli king David)
  4. Belief in God’s messengers, his prophets
  5. Belief in the Last Day also known as the Day of Judgement when all life ends, the dead are resurrected, and their deeds and actions are judged.
  6. Belief in Predestination the understanding that Allah knows everything that will happen but this does not interfere with humans’ ability to make free choices.

The third dimension of Islam, Ihsan, suggests that Muslims should seek to obtain perfection, or excellence, in worship, which leads to excellence in all actions.  It specifically states, “to worship God as though you see Him, and if you cannot see Him, then indeed He sees you.

What do Muslims eat?

You may have noticed halal food options in the dining halls.  These options are for Muslims who choose to follow the Qur’an’s guidance on foods and their consumption. Halal (pronounced huh · laal) means permitted.  Essentially, all foods are considered halal except those that are prohibited according to the Qur’an.

Muslims believe that all life is sacred including the lives of animals, therefore, the Qur’an states that Muslims should only eat meat from animals that have been slaughtered in a way that reduces their pain and distress as much as possible.   In addition, Muslims believe that food and drink are for sustenance only and are not for indulgence. Examples of foods that are not halal include:  alcohol, pork, meat and food products from animals not slaughtered in a very specific way.

What does modern-day Muslim discrimination look like?

Modern-day Muslim discrimination involves the act of limiting participation or non-participation of Muslims in certain activities varying from schools, employment, accommodation, businesses, public parks, and other areas and activities otherwise available to the general public and other religions. These include preventing athletes from being on a sports team, barring a student from attending certain schools or classes, enforcing increased restrictions on airport security measures, passing on a potential candidate for a position even though in all of these cases the individual possesses the requisite determined for the attributed activity solely because he/she is a Muslim.

In addition, Muslims face microaggressions caused by prejudice including remarks, comments, taunts, and direct speech hurdled toward them regarding them and/or their religion that can cause fear, intimidation, humiliation, despair, and discouragement from being a Muslim.   Examples are women who wear the hijab being treated with suspicion, inaccurate statements about eating habits, inappropriate questions regarding intimate relations and Sawm, the assumption that obtained positions are due to affirmative action rather than work quality.

What’s next?

Now that you have the basics down you may want even more information about Islam and the Muslim community on our campus.  Please contact our Islamic Chaplain with any additional questions you may have.


Allah (pronounced aa · luh) means God

Hajj (pronounced haj) the pilgrimage to Mecca by Muslim adults.  The fifth pillar of Islam.

Halal (pronounced huh · laal) food or items that is permitted to be consumed or used per the Qur’an.

Imam (pronounced ee · mom) not be confused with Iman, an Imam a person who leads prayers in a mosque

Islam, Iman (pronounced ee · mon), and Ihsan (pronounced ih · san) are the three dimensions of Islam

Muslims are those who follow the teachings of Islam.

Qur’an (pronounced kr · aan) is the main text of Islam.

Salah (pronounced sa · la · hey) prayer that occurs five times a day.  The second of the five pillars of Islam.

Sawm (pronounced saam) fasting during Ramadan.  The fourth pillar of Islam.

Shahadah (pronounced shuh · haa · dah) the profession of faith stating that there is only one God and that Muhammad is his messenger.  The first of the five pillars of Islam.

Shi’ite (pronounced shee · ait) Muslims are the second largest sect of Muslims.

Six Articles of Faith – six core beliefs that Muslims uphold.

Sunni (pronounced soo · nee) Muslims are the largest sect of Muslims.

Zakat (pronounced zuh · kat) giving a portion of your wealth to the needy.  The third of the five pillars of Islam

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