What is Islam? Who are the Muslims? - Part One (Historical)

By RAY FELICIANO Editor's note
An Brief Historical Perspective

In the early seventh century, a tribal leader named Muhammad founded the Islamic faith when in 610 A.D. he began describing to his followers the revelations he claims he received from the archangel Gabriel. He continued to receive these revelations until his death in 632. The transcriptions of Muhammad’s revelations were put together in a book known as the Qur’an, which literally means “the recitation”. This book is considered by Muslims to be the true word of God, undistorted by man or time.

Mosque with crescent moon top
The crescent moon atop this mosque has been adopted by some Muslim nations as a symbol of Islam, but it is not universally accepted as such by all Muslims. It is actually a symbol of the Ottoman Empire, which spread Islam throughout the Mediterranean.

Islam builds upon the beliefs and prophets described in scripture from both Judaism and Christianity, but insists that the messages from those prophets have been distorted by man, and that the Qur’an sets things straight for all time.

Islam embraces Jesus as one of the prophets, but rejects as polytheism the Christian concept of the Trinity. The most central tenet of Islam is the belief that there is no god but God, also known as Allah, [Sura 112:1-4] and that the Qur’anic verse describing Muhammad as the “Seal of the Prophets” [Sura 33:40] indicates that Muhammad was to be God’s last prophet.

After the death of Muhammad, there was a disagreement as to who should be the leader of the Muslims going forward. Shi’a Muslims contend that Muhammad made it clear that he wished his son-in-law, Ali, to be his successor. Sunni Muslims insist that the Muslim community freely chose another of Muhammad’s followers, Abu Bakr, to be their leader, making him the first Caliph. The Shi’a contest the fairness of this ‘vote’ that they claim they were not present for, since they were busy arranging and attending the burial of Muhammad at the time.

Most of the differences between the Sunni and Shi’a are political, and not spiritual, in nature, and exaggerated by media. According to Dr. Kobeisy, Imam from the Islamic Center of Capital District, "Most Muslims do not label themselves as Sunni or Shi’a. They label themselves as Muslims."

In the year 1095, Pope Urban II called for Christian soldiers to war with Muslim Turks and reclaim the holy city of Jerusalem, offering full penance for those that did, ushering in a series of military campaigns known as the Crusades. To this day, the brutality of the Crusades has not been forgotten by the Muslims.

Muslims praying
A pious people, Muslim’s kneel and pray five times every day while facing Mecca, the holiest of Islamic sites. It is expected of every able bodied Muslim to make the pilgrimage to Mecca (the Hajj) at least once in their lifetime.

After World War II, the attempted genocide of the Jews gave rise to the concept of Zionism, which called for a Jewish homeland to be established in the ‘Land of Israel’. In 1948, this land was occupied by Palestinians, who were then displaced by the newly created Jewish state. Over the years, a series of wars between the Arab Muslims and the Israeli Jews over the territory and control of Jerusalem led to deep bitterness and mistrust between the two. Many Muslims perceive the Israelis as occupiers of Muslim land, and the plight of the oppressed Palestinians as evidence of injustices that have been condoned and encouraged by the United States, which is a major supplier of weapons to Israel. This is cited as a major cause of anti-American anger in the Muslim community.

In 1979, Iranian students stormed the Americans embassy, taking and holding hostages for 444 days in an Islamic revolution against aggressive westernization. This event led to an increase in anti-Arab, anti-Islamic sentiment in America.

The attacks of 9/11 by Islamic extremists has further exasperated tensions between people who are again divided more politically than spiritually.

[To view Part 2 of this article regarding western perceptions of Islam, click here.]

Note from the Editor

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Ever since the attacks of 9/11, the bulk of media attention regarding Muslims has been to focus almost exclusively on negative imagery, such as terrorism, war, or the growing threat of a nuclear armed Islamic adversary. Because the mass media gives priority to titillating news that is sensationalistic, such as bloody terrorist attacks, the media often fails to counter balance such one-sided depictions of Muslims. This leads many people to unfairly and erroneously extrapolate that such hatred and extremism is accurately representative of all Muslims.

In truth, radical Islamic extremists represent only an extremely small fraction, albeit a growing fraction, of the entire Muslim population, estimated worldwide to be approximately 1.4 billion, with arguably between one and seven million Muslims living in the United States.

In addressing a topic as vast and diverse as Islam, this article, the first of two parts, aims simply to give the reader a basic understanding of the core history and tenets of Islam. Next month, we will look closer at what it is like to be a Muslim living in America in the modern age with the War on Terror fueling stereotypes and suspicions, some questioning their loyalties.

- Ray Feliciano (Sr. Editor)

If you have questions regarding Islam, there are many resources to help you. Please feel free to contact either of the two gentlemen below:

(Sunni Muslim)
Imam Kobeisy
Islamic Center of the Capital District
(518) 370-2664

(Shi’a Muslim)
Shakil A. Virjee
(518) 573-7714