Islam is an intensely monotheistic religion claiming to be the true extension of the Old Testament faith. Christian New Testament figures, such as Jesus and John the Baptist, are regarded as prophets; Muhammad is considered the last and greatest prophet. Islam means surrender, or submission, to the will of Allah, so Muslim concepts regarding the character of Allah are key in understanding their practices.
Holy Book: The Quran (or Koran)
Founder: The Prophet Muhammad, originally known as Ubu’l Kassim
When: 610 AD
Arrived in India: The Muslim religion arrived via trade in the south, where it is on fairly good terms with other religions. In the north, conversely, it came mainly by sword, as conquerors like the Mughals brought their concepts of faith with them, and a sometimes violent hostility continues to simmer between Muslims and members of other faiths (notably Hindus).
Muhammad was born in Mecca in 570 AD as Ubu’l Kassim, a member of the powerful Quraish tribe. Because his father, Abdullah, died before he was born, and his mother, Amina, died when he was only six, Muhammad was mostly raised by his uncle, Abu Talib, a camel driver.
Forging across oceans of desert to faraway places like Syria and Egypt with the trading caravans was a regular part of Muhammad’s life growing up. It would prove important for him personally and was, certainly, key in the birth of the Islamic faith in terms of monotheistic ideology and Abrahamic pedigree.
When Muhammad died in 632, he left behind him an Arabia that had largely embraced his religious vision...and an uncertain succession. It was at this point that the religion split into its two main factions: Sunni and Shi’ite.
While these two sects are largely similar in terms of doctrine, Sunnis claimed right of succession for a chosen caliphate, while Shi’ites would support only a descendant of Muhammad...each of which was assassinated in turn by Sunni dissenters—obviously a point of contention.
These journeys brought him in contact with many other religions, including monotheistic faiths like Christianity and Judaism that were far removed from the desert polytheism of his people. In fact, his hometown of Mecca owed much of its prosperity to visits from polytheistic pilgrims come to see its shrines and temples, including the Kaaba, home of the Black Stone.
In a sense, this introduction to Judaism and Christianity served as a sort of starting point for a vastly different Muslim theology.
The Muslim worldview is structured around the five pillars and six articles of faith. These guide the believer in the faith and provide the supporting structure — indeed, the pillars — for the Islamic community of believers, called the Ummah.
For Muslims, there is little to no separation between church and state. The function of the Ummah is to build the kingdom of Heaven on earth via a theocratic government and enforcement of Shariah law.
Quranically, historically, and culturally, there isn’t much room for dissent from Islamic teaching, and religious tolerance isn’t touted as a virtue. Although Muslim societies have embraced and absorbed a diversity of other cultures, it is noteworthy that this was done primarily via the impartation of Islam — i.e., conversion of these other groups.
And while other monotheists may break down and critique their own holy books, textual criticism of the Quran is rare. To question the divinely imparted words of the Quran is considered heretical.
The family unit and, beyond that, the community of believers, is central. It is not an individually oriented faith; rather, the individual must act to bring honor to the family. And while women play an important and valued role within this restricted sphere, it is worth noting that Shariah law can be especially harsh toward women. For example, a woman who has been raped is only able to bring an accusation against the man if she has four male witnesses. In some cases, the family may choose to kill the victim as part of an honor killing meant to restore family honor from the shame. The community will not punish this killing.
The Sixth Pillar
A sixth pillar — that of jihad — is frequently added. Jihad means struggle. And while the meaning that concept contains is much larger than the holy war non-Muslims typically think of, that is certainly a part of it. It's a struggle against what is not Islam — sometimes a peaceful, inward struggle; other times, the frighteningly violent expression of Partition-era violence (of which some were part) and terrorist attacks.
That is not to say that all Muslims embrace this more violent aspect (many do not), but it is a real part of Quranic doctrine and one that must be acknowledged.
But while it is valid to acknowledge this face of the faith, it is still vital that each of us judge not by label, for a label can never encompass the breadth of an individual soul, and few of us are divinely inspired to know the heart of a man or woman by their appearance alone.