Islam: A Brief Guide

  • Muhammad ibn Abdullah (c. 570-632) — founder and Prophet
  • Allah — the one god’s name in Arabic. literally “The God” (al-Lah)
  • Islam — Submission, from salama, submission to achieve peace
  • Qur’an — “reading”, “reciting” collected about 650-651, 20 years after Muhammad’s death from secretarial jottings of scribes. Life of Muhammad not recorded in detail for about a century.
  • hadith — “sayings”, oral traditions compiled in 9c and 11c, including chains of transmission.

Five Pillars:

  1. confession of full faith that “There is no god but Allah and his prophet is Muhammad”

  2. prayer five times per day (facing Mecca)

  3. daylight fast (food and water; sex) during holy month of Ramadan, the month of Muhammad’s revelation (begins 15 May 2018)

  4. almsgiving (Zakat, “justice,” rather than charity; often 1/40th of net worth)

  5. pilgrimage (hajj) to the Ka’ba in Mecca.

Other Terms

  • hijra (escape) in 622 from Mecca to Medina, beginning of Islamic year count; purely lunar calendar 11 days shorter than solar year, so it is now 1439 AH; the new year falls on September 10 2018.
  • jihad — “struggle.” Self-sacrifice in the service of Islam or community. Quran contains strict rules on practice of warfare, including avoiding harm to non-combatants and limiting legitimate warfare to state-v-state combat.
  • Ka’ba, in Mecca, considered holy and a place of peace by pre-Islamic Arabic culture. Purified of pagan (and Christian) images; believed to be therock given to Adam on departure from paradise. Also contains two rock pillars associated with Satan, at which the faithful throw stones during their pilgrimage.
  • Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (Temple Mount) established in 8th century: believed to be the site of the Binding of Ishmail.
  • dhimmis, protected “people of the book” (Christians and Jews, mostly) who paid the jizya tax.
  • madrasas — religious schools, a relatively late development in the Islamic empires.

Sunni (90% of Muslims)

  • Sunna — stories (including hadith) of the life of Mohammed (e.g. beard growing).
  • ‘ulamâ — religious scholars who interpret Qur’an into systematic theology and moral law
  • qâdî — judges, who apply the interpretations and edicts (fatwa) of the ‘ulamâ.
  • Shariah — The Way or The Path. The legal code developed by the scholars and judges.
  • imam — prayer group leaders, slowly evolving into something like clergy.

Shi’a (almost 10% of Muslims)

  • Shi’a — “partisans,” “supporters” of the leadership of the descendants of Muhammad
  • caliphs, imam — political leaders who also share in continued direct revelation of divine truth
  • Ali — Cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, but passed over for leadership on Muhammad’s death.
  • Hussein — Ali’s second son, and founder of the Shi’a after Ali’s assassination. Defeated and killed by the Umayyads in 680
  • Mahdi — “The awaited one,” The twelfth and last true Imam, hidden for last millenium awaiting appropriate moment to return and lead.
  • Ismailism — (a.k.a. “Seveners”) offshoot of Shia, following a different Seventh Imam; philosophically influential; group which spawned the hashishiyun [assassins]
  • ayatollahs and mullahs — religious leaders without the direct divine inspiration of the true Imam.

Sufi (very few, but very influential)

  • ascetic mystics responsible for much of the spread of Islam beyond Arabic world. Tradition begins roughly 750c.e.
  • Greater Jihad, defined by Sufi, is the struggle for self-mastery and true submission. Jihad in warfare called “Lesser Jihad” and limited to defensive circumstances.

Familiar names in Arabic:

  • Abraham [Ibrahim]
  • Ishmael – Arab tradition places the Arabs as descendants of Ishmael (who was the chosen sacrifice, not Isaac).
  • Joseph [Yusef]
  • Moses [Musa]
  • Aaron [Harun]
  • Jesus [Isa]

Islamic Empires

  • Umayyad (661-750) — Arabic aristocracy
  • Abbasid (750-1258) Persian control and ethnic diversity in leadership

Turkish Islamic Empires:

  • Ottoman (1289-1919) — Western Mediterranean, North Africa, Southwestern Europe
  • Safavid (1501-1722) — Central Asia
  • Mughal (1526-18c) — India/Pakistan

A Few Famous Muslims (pre-1500)


  • al-Ghazali — Sufi mystic who argued that Allah is beyond rational understanding
  • Ibn Khaldun — dismissed secular learning in favor of divine revelation. Author of The Muqaddimah, a global history.
  • al-Kindi — neo-Platonic theologian
  • Ibn Rushd (Averroës) — Aristotelean influenced theologian who thought that pure rationality could encompass world including Allah


  • Fazari — translated Indian mathematical treatise Siddhanta into Arabic, bringing Zero from India
  • al-Khwarizimi — mathematician who created algebra and from whose name algorithm is derived


  • Razi (Rhazes) — first physician to distinguish smallpox from measles. Encyclopedic Hawi (a.k.a. Continens) a standard medical text in the West until Scientific Revolution
  • Ibn Sina (Avicenna) — one of the greatest Islamic physicians, whose Canon was used as medical teaching texts for centuries.
  • Ibn al-Haitham– physician whose book on Optics was influential into 18c, including development of telescopes in the West.

Literary Figures

  • Omar Khayyám — mathematician and mystical poet (Rubiyat).
  • Rumi — Sufi poet
  • Harun al-Rashid — Abbasid Caliph (r. 789-809) One Thousand and One Arabian Nights set in capital city Baghdad during his reign.

© 2003, 2004, 2013 – Jonathan Dresner