A primer on Muslim groups and beliefs

September 14, 2010 | Feature | Number 18
By Dave Rogalsky |

Islam is one of the two largest religions in the world, with the other being Christianity. Figures differ, but it is clear that Islam is an alive and growing religion.

There are six main beliefs of Muslims:

  • Allah (the Arabic word for God, which would be used by Jews and Christians as well).
  • Angels;
  • The “scroll of Abraham,” which includes the Psalms of David, the Torah revealed to Moses, the Bible revealed to Jesus, and the Qur’an revealed to Muhammad by God through the Angel Gabriel.
  • All the prophets from Adam, Moses, Jesus and others who came before Muhammad, who is recognized as the Last Prophet.
  • The Day of Judgment.
  • The “measuring out” of the good and the bad on the day of judgment.

After these beliefs, the five pillars of Islam are:

  • Declaration of faith.
  • Fasting, as in Ramadan.
  • Prayers, five times daily, facing Mecca.
  • Almsgiving.
  • Hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Major groups within Islam include Sunni and Shi’a. Sunni and Shi’a differ in their understanding of leadership in Islam.

The Sunni believe that after Muhammad there are no divinely authoritative leaders, leaving the communities to chose their own leaders.

The Shi’a believe that Muhammad designated 12 members of his family to be inerrant imams—spiritual leaders and scholars. The first 11 led the people of Islam, each dying a violent death as a martyr, while the 12th imam has been hidden away since 941 A.D.

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While both Sunni and Shi’a identify a mahdi—”guided one,” the prophesied redeemer of Islam—only the Shi’a believe that this is the 12th imam. The Sunni believe that the mahdi will come at the end of the age to bring righteousness and justice.

The leaders of the Islamic Revolution in Iran are Shi’a.

There are smaller groups, including the Wahhabi from Saudi Arabia, an ultra-conservative part of Sunni Islam. While the Wahhabis are believed to support extremist organizations within Islam, the vast majority of Muslims believe in peaceful co-existence with Christians.

Within the major divisions are mystical groups, the best known of which are the Sufi.

An interesting belief among all Muslims, including the extreme groups, is that Jews and Christians, as “people of the book,” are not to be proselytized because they are fellow believers of Allah. This is a Qur’anic commandment. One of the Hebrew words for God, “El,” is from the same ancient Semitic root as the Arabic word, “Allah.”

While Muslims do not believe Jesus (“Isa” in Arabic) was God or the son of God, they do honour him as a messiah who will return before the Day of Judgment, and his words as a prophet of Allah. He is also referred to as the “word of God.”

With files from Idrisa Pandit and Yousef Daneshvar Nilu.

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