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Useful Notes / Islam

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A calligraphic rendition of the Shahada: "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God."note 

"In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful."note 
The Basmala

Islam is the second-largest religion in the world, after Christianity. Although it's becoming increasingly important in Western society, especially current affairs and world politics, the three-fourths of the world's population that don't adhere to it have some very strange ideas about what it's like. See also the article on The Qur'an, the religious text of the faith.

Let's get a few things cleared up right away:

  • "Islam" اسلام is a noun referring to the religion itself. Its etymology is derived from the tri-consonant "S-L-M" from which the words peace "salam سلام", safety "salama سلم", greeting "sallama سلّم", being safe/secure "saleem سليم", and surrender "istislam" استسلام; also derive. "Muslim"note  (one who submits, pronounced "moos-lim"note ) is an adjective and the noun for an individual adherent of Islam. (An alternate spelling is "Moslem," pronounced "moss-lim.") "Islamic" is the adjective for cultural constructs relating to Muslims and Islam: Islamic civilization, the Islamic Golden Age, etc. "Islamist," a neologism, is a noun and adjective referring to adherents of expansionist political Islam and does not necessarily represent all Muslims, or the majority, of the religion (given the definitions of the term, it's difficult to say how many Muslims it includes).
    • Older European texts sometimes use "Mohammedan" for Muslim, but it is considered offensive by Muslims since it is by analogy with the word "Christian," implying that Muslims worship Muhammad in the same way Christians worship Christ. The term came about because the Muslims do believe in following the example set by Muhammad to the best of their ability as told in suras 60 and is said to be a sublime example of morality in sura 68; in fact, the Sira (biographies of the Prophet) and Hadith (sayings attributed to the Prophet) mainly exist to give people a better understanding of who Muhammad was, since the Qur'an does not relate the life of the prophet in detail. Muslims take the term Mohammadan to imply the blasphemy that he is worshiped, so the respectful no longer call Muslimin Mohammedans.
    • Among Muslims, there are actually three terms that indicate how far a faithful strives to be in the Right Path. There is Muslim itself, which indicates people who profess the Five Pillars of Islamnote , but there are also Mu'min, who, in addition to the aforementioned Pillars, also profess the Six Articles of Faithnote  as well as the Muhsin, who not only do all of the above but also show their faith in deeds and actions, and constitutes the highest rank of worship towards God. To put it another way, all Mu'min are Muslims and all Muhsin are Mu'min, but not all Muslims are Mu'min and not all Mu'min are Muhsin.
  • Islam is a monotheistic religion (tawhid) and very serious about it. The official Muslim line is that the Christian Trinity is too close to polytheism (shirk), and Muslims do not believe that God had, has, or ever will have a Son; one verse in the Qur'an (QS 112:3) sums it up as "Neither does he beget nor is he begotten". That being said, most Muslims take Christians at their word that they really do believe in one God; they just give the side-eye to the whole "in three parts" bit.
  • Muslims certainly do believe that Jesus existed, and is the one in the Bible. He was born of a virgin,note  but was not the son of God or God in any way,note  was one of the great prophets who preached the word of God, was not martyred nor resurrected but did ascend to heaven. He remains there and will return before the last day (Qiyamah) to wage war against the unbeliever, Anti-Christ, and Gog and Magog. Shi'a believe that he shares this role with the Mahdi.note  Sunni, who make up 85-90% of Muslims, believe that role is fulfilled solely by Jesus, or as he is known in Islamic text, Isa (a better Arabic translation for Jesus would be Yasū‘ يسوع from Yahushua/Yeshua ישוע‎ (similar to Joshua before translation). Isa عيسى‎ comes from Esau עֵשָׂו, twin brother of Jacob if taken directly from Hebrew. It could be justified by the Greek/Latin Isus/Isous, but is still a strange path to take). The Ahmadiyyah sect believes Jesus survived on the cross, was entombed alive, got out, and then went on to preach to the lost Jewish tribes, eventually dying in Kashmir (there is a tomb in Kashmir that is claimed to be his). This sect believes that Jesus came back in the form of another man named Mirza Ghulam Ahmed, who founded Ahmadiyyah.
  • Muslims believe in many of the prophets and have similar though not identical versions of Bible stories in the Qur'an. On the whole, Islam considers The Bible and the Jewish scriptures to be once true revelations that should agree with the Qur'an, but deviated from their original sources over time. So a lot of Bible stories about King Solomon, Noah, and so on are also in the Muslim tradition.
  • An important one is Abraham and Ishmael. The Bible says that his son Ishmael by Hagar and Isaac by Sarah. Both were each the father of a nation, but Isaac as the favored son became the ancestor of the Hebrews while Ishmael founded the Ishmaelites — whom the Arabs (and the ancient Hebrews) identified with the Arabs (or rather the so-called "Arabized Arabs," tribes from the Levant that married into the Arab tribes of the Arabian Peninsula). As a result, Ishmael is the son that Muslims consider to be the favored one; according to the Qur'an, Ishmael assisted Abraham to build the Kaaba, the direction where Muslims face towards during prayer. Muslims also believe that it was Ishmael, and not Isaac, who was nearly sacrificed by Abraham before the order was rescinded.note 
  • Islam was founded in the early seventh century by Muhammad, sometimes spelled Mohammed, Muhammed, etc. Muslims usually affix his name with "peace and blessings be upon him" at the end or 'PBUH'. (It is actually a scriptural rule to do this with all prophets.) This is sometimes put only as 's' or 'saw', short for 'Sallahu alaihi wa salam', which is Arabic for 'peace and blessings be upon him'. It is also considered taboo to not say this after hearing Muhammad's name. For a long time, the standard European renditions of his name were "Mahomet," "Machomet," and "Mahound," but these are now considered inaccurate, dated, or offensive. ("Mahomet" is still used in French while "Mahound" is blatantly derogatory.) While Muslims do revere Muhammad, they do not worship him as God. They view him as a great man and the last of the prophets, but only human nevertheless.
    • According to Muslims themselves, Islam is a religion from time immemorial, preached by Biblical patriarchs and figures such as Adam, Noah, Moses, etc. An important theme in the Qur'an is that "every nation has a messenger"; God will not condemn a people until He has sent a messenger to guide them. Before Muhammad, there had been many prophets sent to guide the people of the world, but the Right Path always swerved over time. Muslims believe that Judaism and Christianity are forms of the Path that had been corrupted,note  which was why another messenger, Muhammad, was sent to perfect the faith. Muhammad is considered the final messenger and was not sent to a specific nation (i.e. the Arabs), but to all of humanity.
  • Muslims take the Qur'an very seriously indeed. Muhammad claimed that the tenets of Islam were revealed to him by the Archangel Jibreel (Gabriel) over a twenty-two-year period between 610 and his death in 632. Because he was illiterate, he then dictated to others. The written transcripts of these revelations are collected in the Qur'an (more properly called the Glorious Qur'an), the main sacred text of Islam. For Muslims, the Qur'an is, literally, word for word, comma for comma, the Word of God (as opposed to the Christian Bible and Jewish Tanakh, which are mostly comprised of prophets and apostles talking about God). Most Muslim scholars would rather learn Classical Arabic to study it rather than risk mistranslation. This makes sense if you take in mind that, because of how Arabic grammar works, misreading a word could change the meaning of the whole sentence. The word "Qur'an" itself literally means "recitation."
    • In the scripture itself, the Qur'an is also called by epithets such as the Criterion (al-Furqan), the Tidings (an-Naba), and the Reminder (al-Dhikra), because it is considered the last of the Word of God (its predecessors being the various scriptures that collectively make up the Tanakh and the Bible).
    • It's worth noting that the Qur'an was originally not written, but orally transmitted by the prophet and his companions. When it was finally written, it was in a haphazard individual collections that show slight variations, as they were transcribed by different people. Abu Bakr, the first Muslim caliph, collected them into one volume, but it was not until the reign of Uthman, the third caliph, that the Qur'an was codified.
  • Muhammad built up a sizable Muslim state in Arabia during his lifetime, encompassing all Muslims at the time. After his death, this state became known as the "Caliphate" (Arabic al-Khilafah, literally "successorship"), and grew into one of the world's largest (and most sudden) empires to emerge. Many Muslims still call for restoring it. This history of military conquest has led to the claim of some critics that Islam was 'spread by the sword', although Saladin and Umar Ibn Al-Khattab fought only when necessary. Umar even refused to pray in a church because he feared it would be demolished.
  • Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians, (and "Sabians", whatever that means)note  being monotheists, are considered to be in the same boat as Muslims, and have protected status in Muslim law — that is, they have the option of not converting if they pay an extra "jizya" (humility) tax and thus receive Dhimmi status (protected by Muslims but with fewer rights in society and exempts the person from military service). "Dhimmi" (protected) treatment ranged from simply paying the jizya to being a humiliated third-class citizen with special clothing to let everyone know who you were; it largely depended on how good the ruler was and how well the country was doing at that point in time.
    • During some of the periods of particularly intense anti-Semitism in Christian Europe, it was actually considered preferable by Jews to live under Muslim rule, because being a lower-class citizen was better than getting lynched in a pogrom. People not considered to be following a religion "close" enough to Islam (atheists, pagans, and sometimes Hindus, depending on the ruler) fared (in bad times) even worse. At the time, the Sassanid and Eastern Roman empire had expended most of their treasuries and military fighting each other (itself an extension of the ongoing Greek-Persian conflict) on top of Bubonic plague in Rome, which not only allowed the newly risen Caliphate to run over them, but also meant the Jizya was actually less than the poll tax at the current time. But taxes rose, people started to convert to Islam to get out of paying the jizyah, and this caused the collapse of the first Caliphate dynasty as they could not figure out an alternative tax structure.
    • Note that being Muslim did not mean getting out of paying — they still have to pay zakat or alms. Unlike Jizya, however, zakat is a fixed amount (2.5% of capital assets owned for over one lunar year for those who can afford to pay, as a rule of thumb, although different — but still fixed! —rules apply to certain types of agricultural and mineral property and spoils of war), and unlike jizya, there is a minimum threshold amount of wealth one must have before one is required to pay zakat, so if the jizya did happen to rise to more than the zakat, it would still explain why people would convert.
  • Forced conversion is strictly forbidden in Islam. This is clearly dictated by QS 2:256: "Let there be no compulsion in religion, for the truth stands out clearly from falsehood. So whoever renounces false gods and believes in God has certainly grasped the firmest, unfailing hand-hold. And God is All-Hearing, All-Knowing." In other words, people only convert to Islam if they have made the decision to renounce their previous faith themselves, and reciting Shahada (the Islamic creed) must be voluntary.
    • While some cite QS 9:5 as claiming Muslims are required to fight all pagans where you find them unless they convert, the verses prior (specifically verse 9:4) and the verses after (QS 9:6-7) mention that Muslims are not to attack non-believers whom they have a treaty with or who made no move to attack first, and to honor agreements made with them.
  • The chief holy cities of Islam are Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. Mecca was Muhammad's hometown, supposedly founded by the Prophet Abraham. Medina is a city in Saudi Arabia some distance north of Mecca, where the first generation of Muslims fled after being expelled from Mecca. In the 'Night Journey', Muhammad claimed he was transported all the way from Mecca to 'the farthest mosque', usually thought to be Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem, where he briefly ascended to heaven to meet God and see heaven and hell. The Dome of the Rock is built around and the rock he was supposedly standing on; unfortunately, it's also on the Jewish Temple Mount too. Many Jews consider the "Night Journey" to be a patently fabricated story used to lay claim to the Jewish holy city of Jerusalem; Muslims often point out that the Muslim Qibla (direction of prayer) had been Jerusalem for several years before the "Night Journey", indicating that a special connection to the city already existed (if you're praying in that direction, you're basically saying "that's God's capital on Earth").note 
    • Though Medina and Jerusalem are considered sacred, they are more of symbolic holy cities than anything. They don't figure in any prescribed Islamic rites such as the Hajj, which is done in Mecca and Mecca alone (Hajj package tours almost always include trips to Medina but these are not religiously mandated). Outside of those who actually live there, Muslims mainly visit Jerusalem to holiday, not as part of a religious duty. Among Shia Muslims, Jerusalem is even less regarded and some would say that it's Karbala (a city located in south Iraq) that is considered "Islam's third holiest city", because it is the place where Husayn ibn Ali (Muhammad's grandson and the third Shia Imam) was martyred and buried. More than 30 millions of Shia Muslims visit Karbala yearly to attend his death anniversary, which, as a trivia, is more than those who visit Mecca yearly as part of the Hajj.
  • There are five 'pillars' of Islam. The five basic acts that are considered mandatory for all Muslims. This isn't Quranicnote  and details vary somewhat between Muslims, but the key points are:
    • The Shahadah, or creed, which translates into English as "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Prophet of God." In order to enter the Muslim community (one is technically already a Muslim from the instant of deciding to be one), you have to say this out loud, in Arabic, with full belief in front of two Muslim witnesses. In that matter, actually it requires two witnesses, both male Muslims ("muslimun" is the Arabic plural) or four Muslimat (the Arabic plural for female Muslims) — this draws from Islamic legal practices, where the testimony of two witnesses is the minimum requirement to establish a truth in court. An imam is not really required (in Islam, imam is one who leads prayers, any sane adult Muslim can be an imam).
    • Salah, or prayer. This is supposed to be done five times a day (at dawn, just after high noon, at the middle of the afternoon, just after sundown, and at nightfall), and periodically while reading the Quran. This is done, if possible, facing Mecca and requires ritual cleansing beforehand. This is announced by the muathin (also spelled muezzin) from the minaret of a mosque, or often by loudspeaker. The precise text varies between Sunni and Shia, but always begins with "God is Great" in Arabic. (Please note that this is only the universal, ritual prayer; Muslims are also obligated to engage in ordinary prayer at other times and there are many specific kinds for certain occasions.)

      The direction of Mecca is called the Qibla, and it's marked by a niche in most Mosques. It is also considered the proper way to face a Muslim's body when he is buried. How it is calculated on the spherical Earth is a subject of controversy among Muslims. In the strictest sense, all American Muslims should be praying towards the floor, through the planet, but the most common way is by the shortest great-circle route to Mecca, meaning in some places it's north or south, over the pole. Side note: the need to find the direction of the Qibla is sometimes cited as one of many driving forces behind advances in astronomy, geography, and mathematics in the Arab world.

      There have been some discussions about which direction a man in outer space would pray towards, and the usual answer is generally "if the exercise in geography is taking time away from prayer, you are doing it wrong."
    • Zakat, literally "that which purifies", or Muslim-to-Muslim "alms for the poor." There is a scholarly consensus (ijma`) that zakat cannot be given to non-Muslims, as mentioned by Ibn al-Mundhir, Kasani, Ibn Qudama, Buhuti, and others. This is usually done through Muslim-run social services (sometimes treated more like a social services tax in Islamic countries). This is extremely precise: a 2.5% minimum for all wealth held for one full lunar year beyond 85kg in gold or another weight if in silver. Agricultural produce is calculated depending on how it gets its water. Mineral wealth is taxed most heavily, at 20%; when people figured out that oil was actually really valuable, the monarchs holding it were mildly upset to hear that the jurists were in agreement that it fell into this category.note  Incidentally, Zakat combined with the insanely complex laws of Islamic inheritance gave the Muslims the motivation to learn algebra.note  Figuring how much each of various categories of heirs gets from the estate is a lot easier when you can just plug in the variables.note 
    • Sawm, or fasting. This is done mainly during Ramadhan (pronounced with a thick D), in which one must fast a full month. Muslims eat before dawn prayer (called Sahur, which is strongly recommended unless one wakes up late) and after dawn prayer are not allowed to eat, drink, smoke, or have sex until sunset. Putting something in one's mouth during fasting is also prohibited and even getting angry should be strongly avoided. During the month of Ramadhan, one must do as many good deeds as possible, such as reading the Quran and praying extra prayers in between daily prayers. It is believed during the month of Ramadhan, the devils are tied up, thus leaving one's heart clear to perform good deeds better. Women are exempt from fasting during menstruation, but must make up for it later; one day of fasting missed must be made up with one day outside of the month of Ramadhan. The very sick, traveling, elderly, very young, and breast-feeding and pregnant women may avoid fasting during the month of Ramadhan but must make up for it later, usually by giving food to one needy person for every day missed. For others who intentionally miss fasting, smoke, or have sex, they will have to make up for it either by fasting for sixty days straight for every single day of fasting missed or feeding the poor a certain amount for every single day missed. Affectionate hugging and kissing during Ramadhan with one's spouse is allowed, but only if one is very positive they can control their libido.
    • Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. All Muslims are expected to do this at least once in their lives if they are financially and physically able. Each year, nearly two million pilgrims arrive in Mecca, and planning the entire process is a massive undertaking; an entire Saudi ministry is tasked with running the event. Have you heard the expression 'a tourist Mecca'? This is why. The Saudi government doesn't let non-Muslim tourists in Mecca (though there have been some famous instances of non-Muslims managing to sneak in), though (and most Muslim tourists decide to just do Umrah, or off-season pilgrimage that doesn't count towards the Hajj requirement, while they're in town). During the Hajj, women must have their faces unveiled and all the men wear a plain white toga-like wrap; this is done to emphasize the equality of all Muslims during the Hajj, as all markers of wealth and social standing are stripped away. The Hajj consists of a highly choreographed series of rituals; these are:
      • Tawaf: Circling the Kaaba seven times counter-clockwise. The Hajji would return to the Kaaba three times over the course of the Hajj for prayers.
      • Saay: Running seven times between the Hills of Safa and Marwah, in remembrance of Hajar's (Hagar) frantic search for water to save the infant Ismail (Ishmael), Allah finally directed Hajar to the well of Zamzam, which is still providing fresh water to this day.
      • Wuquf (Standing before God): The pilgrims travel to the Mount Arafat, and spend a day in contemplation and prayer. This is where Muhammad delivered his final sermon. The pilgrims spend the night at Muzdalifah sleeping under the stars.
      • Ramy al-Jamarat (Stoning the Devil): The pilgrims cast seven stones at a pillar that represent Satan; when Ibrahim (Abraham) was instructed by Allah to sacrifice Ismail, Satan thrice attempted to tempt him out of it, and thrice Ibrahim rebuffed him and chased him away with stones.
      • The final day of the Hajj season is the festival of Eid al-Adha, on that day, all-male pilgrims will shave their head, and an animal sacrifice made. Due to the sheer number of people at the Hajj, pilgrims would generally buy a voucher to have a professional butcher slaughter the animal. The resulting meat will be distributed to the poor with the purchaser getting a choice cut to serve at the festival dinner.


Meat is certified halal only if the animal is killed by a Muslim, who must recite the words "Bismillah, Allahu akbar," after which the animal is killed as painlessly as possible and all the blood is drained out. Halal is typically referred to as a law of cleanliness, including a set of dietary restrictions somewhat similar to kashrut rules in Judaism. For example, meat must be specially prepared, absolutely no pork may be eaten, etc. It is considered proper to slaughter an animal when it is facing the Qibla. Furthermore, like certain Protestant denominations, Islam dislikes alcohol and many Muslim states are 'dry', although this is more a legal point than an actual situation (as anyone who has spent a decent amount of time in Tehran or knows anything about Saudi princes can attest). By extension, no intoxicating or mind-altering substances like drugs are allowed either. Again, this is more of an official point; hashish smoking has been a pastime that long predated Islam and continued after its spread; it's sufficiently popular that, when a number of ulema were surveyed about the permissibility of hashish, the Egyptian ones came to the conclusion that it was makruh — literally "detestable", meaning "discouraged but not forbidden" (the other ulema considered it forbidden, but the response of the Egyptian scholars shows there is room for debate). A famous sect of Ismaili Shiites known as the Hashishin gave us the word "assassinate", although the legends that its members smoked hashish (which is Arabic for "grass"... obviously, stoners everywhere make the same connections) before eliminating their target, with the promise of more hash later, are most likely the result of factional propaganda. Muslims can eat kosher food, as the Jewish dietary laws are actually stricter than the Islamic ones and it says in the Qur'an that they may eat the food of the Jews and the Christians. There is debate over how "Christian" the food most Christians eat is, though, so that part's mainly ignored.

Some current issues

  • The word jihad, a variation on Jahada (to struggle), can be applied to anything from inner turmoil to international warfare. Further complicating the matter is the fact that in Arabic, the word jihad can be applied to any struggle, so you could legitimately call feminism the jihad for women's rights or talk about Mahatma Gandhi's jihad for Indian independence or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s jihad for Civil Rights or even Bob's jihad to stop smoking. However, four madhhab of Sunni jurisprudence and the Shia do agree that the jihad al-asghar or "lesser jihad" — which is to say, armed jihad — refers specifically to armed struggle against unbelievers. Indeed, while the Arabic word jihad itself does mean "struggle", the word jihad is used in the Qur'an in contexts explicitly referring to armed struggle (warfare), as clearly shown by the Qur'an exempting the sick, weak, children and the elderly from the jihad, and is in fact the second most common usage of the word in the Qur'an. But it is a distant second to the most common usage of the word: striving to obey the commandments of God. It bears repeating that the word is heavily context-based; in total, the word jihad has approximately 5 different meanings as used in the Qur'an. It's also important to note that the conception of jihad in the context of warfare has been neither uniform nor constant throughout history. Jurists have never been unanimous about when war is sanctioned by Islam, and the definition has ranged from solely defensive wars to wars for expanding the Islamic empire. Which conception dominated at any given point in time largely depended upon the ambitions of the rulers at the time and how comfortable the scholars were at justifying those ambitions with religion. A close analog would be the debate about whether there is such a thing as a "just war" in Christianity, which not-coincidentally emerged when Emperor Constantine decided he wanted to conquer other lands in the name of the cross.
  • Similarly, fatwa is just a technical term for a non-binding legal ruling pertaining to religious law made by a qualified scholar or religious authority. A scholar might issue a fatwa on, for example, whether a particular food is appropriate for Muslims or whether a Muslim can do particular things during Ramadan. However, the first time many westerners heard the word is when Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for Salman Rushdie's executionnote  so many people incorrectly assume the word means something like "death sentence". For the record, to "issue a fatwa against someone" has no meaning out of context; doing so can mean anything from polite disapprobation to declaring a person a non-Muslim.
  • "Allah" is Arabic for "The God", a contraction of Al (the) and illah (god, Al-illah).note  Allah is not considered to be separate from the God common to Judaism and Christianity; Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians use the word "Allah" to refer to God. Jews and Christians are considered heterodox rather than heathen in Islam and are thus (in theory, at least) supposed to be accorded a level of respect in Islamic societies. How closely this has been followed throughout history has varied according to geopolitical and cultural factors. Because the three religions share a common background with intersecting prophets, in Islam the three together are referred to by the marvelously mellifluous term "Peoples of the Book." Some other religions with revealed texts and some level of monotheism are considered Peoples of the Book, but it depends on who you ask.
    • "Allāhu Akbar" is a common Arabic phrase meaning "The God is greater". The Western world tends to associate it with terrorists about to blow people up, but in the Muslim world, it is such a ridiculously common phrase that people thinking that it's said with homicidal intent are seen as, well, ridiculous. The phrase is part of the Muslim call of prayer that is broadcast five times a day, it is used in said prayers to indicate that you should move (e.g. from a standing position to a prostrating position, from prostrating to sitting, etc.), and it is also said if you are awestruck or shocked in general (akin to English "Jesus Christ" or "Mother of God"). In an appearance on Fox News, Senator John McCain memorably pointed this out.
    • Variations of "Allah" appear, also meaning "God" in other Semitic (or Arabic-influenced) languages, including Aramaic (preceding both Islam and Christianity) and Maltese (the bastard child of Tunisian Arabic and Sicilian and Italian, and the language of arguably the most Catholic country in the world). The Hebrew "Elohim" is also a cognate.
    • In Yolngu culture (which had extensive contact with the Muslim Southeast Asian traders known as the Macassans), "Allah" morphed into "Walitha'walitha". This deity is slightly different from the usual Muslim interpretation on Allah, being a sprite-like spirit that answers people's wishes (technically what prayers are?) and which is worshipped in funerary rites primarily. Some Yolngu are bonafide Muslims, but most worship Walitha'walitha in addition to other spirits.
  • If the opening of the Shahadah (above) sounded weird to you, "There is no god but The God" is a lot nicer in Arabic, with the first "god" being ʾIlāh, the generic word for any deity, and the second being (of course) Allah, which is just a contraction of the former word with al-, the Arabic definite article that you've probably heard elsewhere. Just about every Islamic phrase or quotation sounds better in Arabic, of course. "La ilaha ila Allah, Muhammadan rasul'ullah" sounds better than "There is no god but The God and Muhammad is The God's messenger." When translating, Muslims will often either leave Allah untranslated ('There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.') or give illah an alternative translation (i.e. "There is nothing worthy of worship but Allah," etc.)
  • "Madrasah" note  is the generic Arabic word for "school". In Western media, it's used in the sense of "extremist training camp", which is why there was a brief hysteria about Barack Obama supposedly attending a madrasah during his childhood in Indonesia. Actually, all that means is that he went to a Muslim-majority elementary school, which, given the demographic makeup of Indonesia, pretty much just means he went to school, period.note  In Arabic and many languages of the Muslim world (which borrow from Arabic like how European languages borrow from Latin), you went to a madrasah, unless you were homeschooled.
  • Islamic Dress is another significant controversy, in both the Muslim world and the West. In the West — especially Continental Europe and most especially France — the various forms of women's religious dress have become frequent targets. Right wingers charge that those who wear them are forced to do so and that such obviously religious dress is a disruption to [insert country here]'s culture. A few feminists propose that women who fret too much about whether they’re modest enough have Internalized Categorism. In the Muslim world, this controversy exists in two extremes: in some countries, like Turkey and Syria, the headscarf (although not necessarily the veil) is considered to be a mark of liberation from state-enforced secularism (i.e. saying, "screw you, government, I'll be religious if I want to be!"); in other countries, like Saudi Arabia and Iran, trying to find how much hair you can show and still be "modest" in the eyes of the religious police is a (highly dangerous) game played by women rebelling against state-enforced religiosity. This is particularly annoying to Iranian women: before the Shah was kicked out, his government-enforced secularism, and occasionally sent out the police to rip scarves off the heads of women who were wearing them of their own free will. For about fifty years, the motto of Iranian woman might as well have been: You can't win. You can't break even. And you can't even quit the game.
  • Sharī`ah (or sharia) is not limited to religious law; it also covers personal and daily matters including worship and morals. It is such an intrinsic part of being a Muslim that one cannot function as a practicing Muslim without sharī`ah. Worshiping God is not limited to the Five Pillars of Islam, but also covers doing what God orders in God's name. Thus, doing good deeds in God's name is worshiping God. In other words, doing good deeds is one of the many ways of practicing sharī`ah.
    • We should note here that "sharī`ah" roughly means "the Way" (it's very closely related to the word shāri`, which is the Arabic word for "street"), and essentially refers to "the way God says we should do things in all aspects of life." What the ignorant term "sharia law" is actually more properly considered a subset of fiqh. "Fiqh" refers to the body of rules and regulations that constitute the considered opinion of generations of scholars on what God thinks the sharī`ah (that is, the Way) should be; although widely accepted, it is not based solely on the Qur'an, but also incorporates a great deal of oral tradition (particularly the Hadith — sayings of the Prophet — and Sunnah — reported acts/habits of the Prophet), some of which has been questioned by modern scholars.
    • Only part of the fiqh deals directly with what Western societies would consider legal matters, and to the extent it does, it mostly deals with them as matters of private law — that is, as disputes between individuals, rather than as any kind of official law for the state to follow. (For instance, yes, it is true that the Qur'an prescribes death as the penalty for murder — but it also states that the decision to impose the death penalty lies with the family of the victim, who may — and are encouraged to — accept blood-money in lieu of death. In other words, the fiqh, as accepted by nearly all mainstream scholars, does not actually define murder, but rather a tort of wrongful death — the state has nothing to do with it.) To the extent that fiqh prescribes any action by the state, the state is, in traditional Islamic jurisprudence, free to ignore fiqh so long as it serves the public interest; what modern legal scholars term public law is in Islamic jurisprudence called siyasah (literally "politics" or "policy"), and may under proper circumstances override official prescriptions (most famously, during one year with difficult harvests, the Caliph Umar suspended the fiqh sentence for theft — cutting off of the hand — because doing so would both impede the ability to harvest what grain there was and unnecessarily make unproductive citizens out of people who would not have stolen but for the exceedingly difficult year).

Don't call them Sonny and Cher

Just like Christianity, Islam has its own denominations, the most important of which is the difference between Sunni and Shi'a. You might not have heard of the names because the vast majority of Muslims (80 to 90%) are Sunni; however, the sectarian disputes in Iraq, which is majority-Shi'a like Iran, have brought this to the news. Although they have come to differ in their interpretation of many aspects of Islam, it all started over who deserved to lead the Islamic world after Muhammad, the Seal of the Prophets.

  • "Sunni" derives from sunnah, which means 'example, precedent', because they believe that the Ummah or the community of Muslims correctly chose the Rashidun, the four rightly guided caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman ibn Affan, and Ali — the same Ali that the Shiites follow, it's complicated) by popular election. Sunnis believe the example of the original Muslim community and Muhammad to be the best guide. They are further divided into different madhhab, schools of law: Hanafi, Hanbali, Shafi'i, and Maliki schools, each of which has specific prohibitions and allowances, but are considered equally valid by most (except when Muslims follow a different maddhab than their conqueror does). It's more like the difference between United Methodist and Wesleyan Methodist than Protestant and Catholic. Note also that the Muslim maddhahib (plural of maddhab) are schools of law: their job is interpreting the Islamic laws or Shari'ah. In this respect, they're more like court systems. Indeed, like courts in the common-law tradition (i.e. derived from English law), they are bound by precedent and do not regard themselves as makers of new law but clarifiers of existing law, even though they do in fact make law this way. Some scholars even think the English got the idea of binding precedent (as well as trusts and some other legal concepts) from Muslims during The Crusades, but that's a rather contentious subject, to say the least.
    • Most Muslims (somewhere in the range of 80%) are Sunni, so their dispersion can be listed as "everywhere, except for the Shi'a-majority ones". The maddhab followed, however, varies between regions. The breakdown is as follows:
      • Hanafi: The oldest school and historically the largest, it is now followed in Central Asia, South Asia, the Balkans, Egypt (sedentary Egyptians only), Turkey (and by extension its large diaspora in Europe), Iraq, and the Levant (for the latter three, the Kurds are the exception). The founder of this school is the Persian scholar Abu Hanifa Nouman ibn Thabit. This school is generally the most analytical of the schools, favoring the use of juristic analogy and inference from the Qur'an and limiting the use of the hadith only to those of greatest authenticity.
      • Maliki: Followed in most of Africa except for the sedentary Egyptians and the nomadic Bedouins, as well as the Persian Gulf states not named Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE. Founded by Malik Ibn Anas, who believed that the practices and traditions of the people of Medina were the closest approximation of the actual practice of the prophet, and therefore gave them more priority in the law.
      • Shafi'i: Followed by the nomadic Bedouins of Egypt, the Kurds, the Horn of Africa states, and Southeast Asia. Founded by Malik Ibn Abas' most famous student, Abdullah Muhammad ibn Idris Shafi. Unlike his teacher, Shafi engaged in a more extensive study of hadith from outside of the Medina area, and therefore this school places a heavy emphasis on precedent, both from prophetic tradition and the opinions of the Prophet's closest companions.note  Shafi's magnum opus, commonly known as Ar-Risala (literally, "the message"), is recognized as the first systematic work of Islamic jurisprudence ever written, making him the founding father of fiqh as it is currently known.
      • Hanbali: Mainly followed in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Founded by Ahmad ibn Hanbal, this is the most textual of all of the schools, so strongly prioritizing the usage of hadith that it even puts traditions of weak authenticity in much higher regard than analogy or custom (the classical Hanbali school didn't accept the latter two as sources of law at all). Because of its more intuitive, less intellectual approach compared to the other schools, this school has historically been extremely popular with Sufis. Those of a more fundamentalist bent tend towards this school, mostly because its evidence-based approach fits well with their conceits of restoring a "pure" Islam.
      • The Zahiri school is sometimes described as the fifth major madhhab but is so rare nowadays that this classification is largely irrelevant. It was most prominent during the days of the Islamic Caliphate in Spain, but after the Reconquista, it went into sharp decline. Founded by Dawud al-Zahiri, it is a literalist school that values certainty above all other things, accepting only unambiguous readings of the Quran and only the most historically verifiable hadith as sources of law, rejecting all other sources. Ironically, the school's rigidity means that it is either the most lenient or the strictest of them all, depending upon who you ask.
    • The Salafi movement is a somewhat dodgy term that refers to a tendency of antinomianism in Islam, i.e. refusal to be identified with a formal school of thought. Salafism started out as a modernist reform movement that sought to restore Islam to a purer form by rejecting the traditional interpretations of medieval scholars and focusing on independent reasoning directly from the Quran and Sunnah (salaf refers to the first generation of Muslims, emphasizing that this form of Islam is essentially getting back to the basics). Traditionally, this form of Islam was associated with anti-colonialism and Islamic modernism. Nowadays, it's associated with Islamic fundamentalism and jihadist terrorism, partly because Western commentators are notoriously terrible at using the word "Salafi" with any degree of precision, and partly because extremist fundamentalist types love to refer to themselves as Salafi (the below-mentioned Wahhabis being a prime example).
    • The Wahabbi school is a (largely pejorative) term for the followers of the Hanbali jurist Muhammad ibn Wahhab. The main sticking point of this school is "purifying" the religion of un-Islamic practices, and declaring those that engage in such practices as outside of the fold of Islam (his beef was mostly with the practice of saint veneration, which is the main reason why Wahhab-inspired groups love to demolish holy sites). The movement has its origins in the Najd region of Saudi Arabia (that big desert in the center of the Arabian Peninsula housing the capital city, Riyadh), and, through complex political issues, was spread as a condition for the state to be approved by the ulemanote . This, of course, means that the movement is strong in Saudi Arabia, and the country being a rich oil-exporter as it is, the movement is exported through aid given by the country to more impoverished countries and in turn provide the basis for many Sunni fundamentalist groups such as Taliban and Al-Qaeda. This sect is extremely unpopular with other Muslims, in part because of their excessively narrow definition of a "true" Muslim, and in part because of their take on "commanding the good and forbidding the wrong," which is usually interpreted as "harass and attack anyone who does not meet our standards." Ibn Wahhab was particularly fond of going out and killing people who refused to convert to his exact take on Islam, which, by the way, is expressly forbidden by God (his justification was that these people would be punished in the afterlife anyway, he was just speeding up the process).
  • 'Shi'a' means 'party, following', and they are the party of Ali specifically. Unlike the Sunni, they believe Muhammad declared before his death that his son-in-law Ali, who married his daughter Fatima and was the first male convert to Islam, was invested with the ability to interpret the Quran without error. The Shi'as don't rate the early community as highly as the Sunni because they believe they mistakenly chose Abu Bakr and insists that Ali is the true first Caliph and Imam. In any case, Sunnis agree he was elected the fourth Caliph; however, he was martyred during the serious warfare of these early divisions. His sons Hassan and Hussein continued his line and were martyred too. The Shia's then divide themselves further depending on how many legitimate successors of Muhammad and Ali they recognize; the major groups are the Twelvers, Fivers (aka Zaidis), Seveners (aka Ismailis), and Ismaili Nizaris (who believe that the legitimate line of Imams has continued to this day — they are currently on the 49th Imam). Twelvers form the vast majority of Shia's and the vast majority of them live in Iran, another reason not to confuse Iranians with Arabs. However, the first great Shi'a state was the Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt, which was Ismaili. That's as in Fatimah, Ali's wife. Sunnis tend to find the whole idea of a hereditary Caliphate un-Islamic, hence the bitter divide between the sects...despite the fact that many Sunni kingdoms have been hereditary as well. The Shiite version of the Shahada appends the phrase ...wa 'aliyyun waliyyu-llah (...and Ali is the Vicegerent of God) to the end.
    • Shi'a Muslims are a smaller proportion of the Muslim population (about 10 to 20%), but are the majority in Iraq, Iran, and Azerbaijan, among others; they form a plurality in Lebanon (the majority of Lebanese Muslims are Shi'a, but only about 55-60% of Lebanese are Muslim, the remainder being Christian) and Yemen is split about 50-50 between Sunnis and Zaidi Shiites. Substantial minorities of Shia in a majority-Sunni country are quite common. Because of this lineage, the concept of the Imam and the guidance of clerics is much more important to Shi'as than Sunnis. The fact that Iran is what Westerners would call a theocracy is an example of this.
    • Some British people remember the name 'Aga Khan' because of his role in The Raj. The vast majority of Ismailis today are Nizari, and respect him as the current Imam.
    • Twelvers believe that the Twelfth Imam is the Messiah (or rather the second one, in keeping with the Sunni Muslim belief that Jesus is the Messiah predicted in The Bible); he (the Mahdi) went into hiding (or "occultation" if you want to be technical) and will return at the End of Days (hence Stephen Colbert's T-shirt that read "Welcome Jesus" on one side and "Welcome Twelfth Imam" on the other...though Twelvers actually believe the Twelfth Imam will return with Jesus).
    • Incidentally, a group of Twelver Shia that you might have heard about in the news are the Alawites. A mystical sect, they believe...well, we don't know that much about them, as they are famously secretive about their faith (some main tenets of Alawism includes a trinitarian God, a vaguely Hindu belief on the reincarnation of souls, and the elevation of Ali to a quasi-divine status — if you have been paying attention up to this point, it's quite clear that none of these doctrines would sit well with mainstream Muslims, Sunni or Shia). They have become important in the news because the group's most famous adherent is Bashar al-Assad, the (current) dictator of Syria. Despite Bashar's and his father Hafez's work in bringing Alawism closer to the Islamic mainstream, many still see the Alawites as heretics. This resulted in the rather uncomfortable situation where the Syrian Alawites (who hold most of the political and military power in the country) get along better with the nation's Christians than the Sunni Muslims (which forms the overwhelming majority of the Free Syrian Army). This goes a long way to explain why the Syrian Civil War of 2011 is such as clusterf*ck.
    • Then there's also the Alevism, yet another Shi'a movement which primarily concentrates in Turkey and mainly in the Kurd-majority southeastern region, where they originally arose. It is not the same as the Alawism in neighboring Syria, despite the similarity of the names, but most leaders of the country, who have bad relations with both the Kurds and the Assad dynasty, get the chance to lump them together and thus demonize them easily, hence why Alevism gets an extremely bad reputation among the Turks of Turkey.
  • Sufism is a remarkably loaded term, used to describe an esoteric, mystical orientation of Islam. The term itself is rather controversial, as is the tendency (mostly in the West) to regard it as a separate sect of Islam.note  Traditionally, Sufism (more properly called ''tasawwuf', or "purification") is a broad designation for a variety of ascetic, mystical, and initiatory practices that developed out of Islamic practice. It has roughly the same relationship to everyday Islam that Kabbalah has to everyday Judaism, and a similar tendency (again, mostly in the West) to be artificially abstracted out of its religion of origin as a separate spiritual tradition. Practicing Sufis (that is, those formally pledged to a Sufi order) are a minority nowadays, at least compared to their historical role in the Muslim world. They are, however, extremely prevalent in multiple areas of the Muslim world and Muslim communities worldwide, and were very important in spreading Islam, particularly in India, Turkey, Africa, and Indonesia.
    • Sufis are divided into many different subgroups, or Tariqa, each with their own distinct traditions, method of interpretation, saintly figures, and mythos. Some include the Mevlevi, who primarily revere (among others) the poet Rumi as a saint and are famous for their "Whirling Dervishes", a method of worship involving meditative spinning. The Naqshbandi, who revere (among other saints) the teachings of Baha-ud-Din Naqshband Bukhari and Sheikh Nazim-Haqqani and several forms of communal chanting/meditation as prayer. And then there's the Bektashi, who form a syncretic doctrine with traditional shamanism and believe in a concept of Muhammad and Ali being "radiations" of Allah, thus forming an almost Triune aspect similar to the Alawi concept.
    • Sufism has also been particularly strong in Chechnya and the neighboring regions of the northern Caucasus. It was quite convenient during the Soviet times since Sufis do not need mosques for their practices, and going to any house of worship could get one ostracized in the USSR. However, during the wars with Russia, more radical forms of Islam, such as the aforementioned Wahhabi school, became quite widespread. Still, some sources state that about half of all Chechens belong to Sufi brotherhoods. Sufism is also somewhat more common in Turkey and the Southern European Muslim countries (Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania) for similar reasons and Sufi brotherhoods have been at the center of much political activism and controversy.
    • Sufism (the Naqshbandi branch in particular) is also quite popular and the traditional orientation of Chinese Muslims as well as in the general Central Asian region.
    • The tradition also has deep connections in African countries, which has the most murids (devotees) of Sufism than any other region in the world. Many African Muslim communities typically follow the Naqshbandi and Qadiri Tariqa. Similar to Chechnya, the region has undergone massive Wahhabi reactionary movements that seek to "cleanse Islam" of Sufism, which they find hedonistic and pagan. Some of these, like Boko Haram, go so far as to exterminate Sufi communities in Africa.
  • The Ahmadiyya movement is a relatively new branch of Islam, founded in 1889 by the Muslim reformer Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. Generally speaking, this branch differs little from Sunni Islam, except in three very key respects. First, it regards its founder Ahmad as the promised Mahdi and therefore regards prophecies regarding the end of the world to be strictly allegorical of his revival of the true Islam. Second, it believes that Jesus was in fact crucified, but survived and went on to teach the "Lost Tribes of Israel," after which he died a natural death in what is now Afghanistan. Finally, it regards Ahmad as a prophet, which is sharply contradictory to the orthodox Muslim notion that there can be no prophets after Muhammad (though the Ahmadis insist that Ahmad was a different, lesser sort of prophet than Muhammad was).note  These heterodoxies are enough to have the Ahmadis branded as non-Muslims in some circles, which has led to their persecution, particularly in Pakistan where the movement is based. For some time, Ahmadis were not even permitted to make Hajj, although this has started to change somewhat. The Ahmadis are particularly notable for their dedication to Islamic apologetics and missionary work, believing strongly in the "jihad of the pen." The first Muslim missionaries in America were from the Ahmadi movement, and their spread of the religion in the African American community influenced figures such as Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. The first English translations of the Qur'an written by non-Westerners also came from this movement, as was the very first Japanese translation of the Qur'an.
  • The Nation of Islam is a rather...quirky religious group founded in America by the semi-mythical Wallace Fard Muhammad. Growing out of the Moorish Science Temple — an In Name Only Islamic group that had more in common with New Age Occultism — the Nation of Islam based its beliefs and practices both on Wallace Fard Muhammad's religio-racial theories and the studies of the Bible and Quran conducted by Wallace Fard's most prominent student: Elijah Muhammad. The NOI taught that W.F. Muhammad was Allah incarnate, that God (whose proper name was Allah) was "the Asiastic Black Man", that white people were a race of devils selectively bred by an evil scientist named Yakub, and that Elijah Muhammad was the Messenger of God meant to save Black people from the conditions imposed upon them. Their message of Black pride and self-respect gave them traction even amongst people who found their religious beliefs a little too out-there, but the group wouldn't rise to national prominence until the efforts of its most famous member, Malcolm X, pushed them into the spotlight. Its relationship to orthodox Islam has always been a bit tenuous; many of their key beliefs are considered to be completely at odds with Islamic orthodoxy. Despite bearing little to no resemblance to classical Islam, the group was tolerated and even encouraged by other more mainstream Islamic groups to a level not enjoyed by other more marginal sects of Islam, thanks almost entirely to the work of Malcolm X abroad. The group was formally converted to Sunni Islam by Warith Deen Muhammad, Elijah Muhammad's seventh son, before going defunct in 2003. A spin-off group, also called The Nation of Islam, was founded by Louis Farrakhan to maintain the religious teachings of Elijah Muhammad, though over time it began to adopt some beliefs and practices of Sunni Islam. Many of its high profile members (including Malcolm himself and Muhammad Ali) have since converted to Sunni Islam.
  • There is also a myriad of more minor sects, such as the Kharijite sect, which, among other things, claimed that most Muslims had become kuffar (unbelievers), and the Ibadi sect — who form a majority in Oman — which is essentially Kharijism-lite (although despite this, the Ibadis are surprisingly religiously tolerant, due to their fastidious belief in separation of Church and State). Another movement very prevalent among some Modernist Muslims and several Reform advocates is Qur'anism, which rejects all or most hadith and histories, basically "extra-Qur'anic sources", similar to the Qaraite sect of Judaism which rejects the Talmud. Various scholars and practitioners advance different justifications, some believing that the historical methods of preserving and verifying hadith are faulty, some believing that too many hadith contradict Quranic injunctions, some believing that hadith are time-bound or only applicable to a single event in history, some simply believing that Muhammad never intended his extra-Quranic statements to be authoritative at all, and some believing that since the Quran is the perfect word of God it can't possibly need any supplemental texts. It's still a minority and heavily criticized by most other Muslim groups.
  • People might have heard about the Druze, who is an ethnoreligious group living in the Levant. They are native to Lebanon but have emigrated to Israel and Syria in modern times. The Druze developed out of an Ismaili sect that grew during the times of the Fatimid Caliphate. All of its members are descendants of the people who were converted by a preacher named Baha al-Din al-Muqtana, because it is secretive and does not accept conversions. They are usually not considered Muslims nowadays, except in Israel. The Druze are quite influential in Lebanon and have a rivalry with Maronite Christians dating back to Ottoman times, while in Israel, they are considered to be loyalists of the Zionist government and are not exempt from the mandatory conscription, unlike the other Israeli Arabs (who, for obvious reasons, have little interest in the politics of the state).

Historically, many Muslim dynasties were named for how they claimed to be related to Muhammad. The Abbasid Caliphate claimed descent from Abbas, his youngest uncle, the Hashemites from his great grandfather, and the Umayyad Caliphate from Hashim's brother. The Fatimid caliphate claimed Fatimah, the Prophet's daughter and Ali's wife, and their branch of Shiism was called Ismailism after Ismail ibn Jafar, a descendant of Ali. This is more than a spiritual point: these were all major political ruling dynasties, who each predicated the legitimacy of their rule on the basis of being Muhammad's successors.

Ironically, when the Turkish Republic abolished the Ottoman throne, that ended the last Sunni authority claiming the caliphate in 1924, so the original point of contention is now moot. The Hashemites are still kings of Jordan, briefly of Iraq, and were custodians of Mecca until the 1920s, but no longer claim to be caliphs or to otherwise have authority over Muslims outside their kingdom. The King of Morocco, because he claims descent from the Caliphate of Cordoba, who claimed descent from an Umayyad prince who fled to Spain due to the rise of the Abbasids, still calls himself Commander of the Faithful.

Although Arabic culture is very important in Islam (since it's the liturgical language, the heartland and foundation, and Mecca and Medina are in Arabia), "Arab" and "Muslim" are by no means mutually inclusive. "Arab" is an ethnicity or group of ethnicities, largely defined by the Arabic language; thus there are Arab Jews,note  Arab Christians, Arab atheists, etc. On the flip side, a great proportion of Muslims are non-Arab: the three most populous Muslim countries are in fact Indonesia, India (which isn't majority-Muslim but has such a gigantic overall population that its Muslim portion is substantial), and Pakistan. Having said that, in 1970, East Pakistan split from West Pakistan because the former felt that the latter was discriminating against them, at least partly because East Pakistan's dominant language, Bengali, is written with a native Indian script while the languages of West Pakistan were all written in the Arabic script. Now it's Bangladesh — the fourth-largest Muslim country — and Pakistan respectively. Iran was also one of the most important early Muslim nations and influenced much of both Muslim and Arab culture. A semi-detailed breakdown of Muslim population by cultural grouping goes something like this:

  1. South Asia/Indian Subcontinent: Just under 1/3 of all Muslims.
  2. Arab World: Another 1/5-1/4.
  3. Sub-Saharan Africa: Just under 1/6.
  4. Persian-speaking Middle East and Central Asia: About 1/10.
  5. Turkic-speaking Middle East and Central Asia: About 1/10.
  6. Everywhere else: The rest

These proportions are likely to change slightly in the near future, as Sub-Saharan Africa still has very high population growth rates, while South Asia and the Arab world are for the most part in the midst of a demographic transition and their birthrates are getting much lower very quickly; expect African Islam to get more press in the near future.

The infamous association of Islam with female circumcision stems from the local traditions of some parts of the Muslim world, which themselves come from East African tribal tradition rather than Islam itself. It is by no means exclusive to those East African Muslims; East African Christians also practice them (to an even larger extent, in the case of Ethiopia), but it somehow manages to avoid much press...

In fact, much of the general image of Islam as misogynistic stems from such "local traditions"; scriptural and institutionally, only some of this reputation is deserved, and in practice the varied, heterogeneous Muslim world has at many points been arguably more "pro-woman" than contemporary Christians or Jews (though given the historical periods in question, you'd be forgiven for thinking that isn't saying much). Particularly, if you're not sure whether the word for dress code is hijab, burqa, or chador, that shows how much of it is down to local custom rather than scripture. Hijab is the idea of (male and female) modesty: women should cover themselves in public or at prayer, but not necessarily at home. For this, many wear a full niqab, which covers all but the eyes; some just wear a chador, a single wrapped sheet. A simple headscarf is a khimar. Burqa, despite being probably the most familiar word for Muslim veils in the West (thanks to the Taliban), is actually a specialized and culture-specific kind of chador that is only seen in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is frequently confused with niqab, but whereas proper niqab is black-colored and covers everything but the eyes, burqa covers everything in front of the women's face, with only a mesh that allows them to see, and is most often blue or pink in color. This extreme veiling is rooted in historical Persianate societies of Central and South Asia, which put an emphasis on limiting the freedom of aristocratic women (a historical variant of the burqa, paranja, used to be widespread among urban Central Asian women). In Turkey, such clothing is forbidden in government/public areas like universities: one President's wife was criticized for wearing it at his swearing-in. In other countries, it's fully enforced by the police. In case you are wondering, designing modest swimsuits you can actually swim in is kind of a challenge, but they exist in real life and can be bought in stores specializing in hijab clothing. After all, a nun's habit and wimple might be important to Christian modesty, but it's not a fundamental belief. (For more, see Islamic Dress.)

On nuns, Islam dislikes the idea that holiness requires retreating from the world, so monasticism is discouraged as an institution. This is attributed to the following Quranic verse (57:27): "As for monasticism, [the Christians] made it up—We never ordained it for them—only seeking to please God, yet they did not "even" observe it strictly. So We rewarded those of them who were faithful. But most of them are rebellious."

Some Muslim-majority countries do have an enforced death penalty for those who renounce Islam. There is no Qur'anic verse that mandates this kind of punishment to apostates (the closest is QS 2:217, which basically states that apostates will have all of their good deeds as a Muslim annulled), so this is more because of regional and cultural values than strictly Islamic.

Islam has a complex relationship with homosexuality. The Qur'an clearly states that Sodom and Gomorrah (Lot's cities) were condemned because of homosexuality, so many Muslim-majority countries, accordingly, have laws against homosexuality. In the most extreme cases, it is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and Iran. Muslim majority countries that have no laws against homosexuality include Turkey and Indonesianote , but it bears mentioning that these are both secular states. However, there are long-standing traditions of relationships between adult men and young boys in many Muslim areas, though the buggery has to stop before the boy is old enough to start enjoying it (because he'll get addicted). In Jakarta, Indonesia's capital, homosexual acts will get you labeled as mentally handicapped, which has wide-ranging effects on your legal status in society. In Iran, it's mandated by law that homosexual men get sex-change operations.

Similarly, polygamy is a world custom that the Qur'an permits but does not endorse. It instructs a man who becomes the guardian of fatherless children, to marry the widow if he can. This is in the Old Testament too, by the way. In any case, the maximum is said to be four, and equal treatment of them is required, as well as the wife's consent. Naturally, this allowance was abused to allow the extensive harems of sultans. Actually, the word harem should just mean 'where female relatives live together': Islam discourages unrelated men and women mixing — in some Muslim countries, adultery is a criminal offense. It is said if two unmarried people are alone together, Satan is the third person there. Again, It Makes Sense in Context: The endorsement only came after Islam's first engagements in warfare, with the result of many dead men; the idea was to pick up the slack and not leave a town full of widows.

Relating to "no nuns" and "four wives" above, Islam makes it serious that, as soon as you can support yourself (as in, having your own source of income), you should get married. While casual dating is discouraged, Arranged Marriage is discouraged even more (of the non-consenting kind). Another point is that, like the other Abrahamic religions, chastity (but, as in the nun issue above, not celibacy) is important. However, as soon as you're married, you are allowed, nay, obliged to have sex with your wife, not only for procreation but (especially) for pleasure as well. And no being a selfish ass, either: strong authority states that God disapproves of a man who pleases himself before his wife. A narration from Prophet Muhammad PBUH even says that "All games man plays are futile except archery, horse-riding, and playing with one's wife."

  • Note, however, one should be careful not to become obsessed with sex, and it should be seen as something to relax the soul rather than something that is necessary as food and drink.

In addition to the Quran, Islam has various hadiths. A hadith is a body of the text concerning the life of Muhammad — sayings attributed to him, things that he did (or refused to do) at some point, answers and advice he gave in response to the questions of his followers, and things of that nature. Much of the hadiths are similar in structure to the parables of Jesus or to the judgements of the rabbis in the Jewish Talmud, although their status in worship is significantly less exalted, with differences of opinion on which are required, which are merely recommended, and which can be ignored altogether. The hadith have a bit of an authenticity problem; they are words and acts attributed to the prophet after his death by later narrators, and their authority depends heavily on how strongly they can be traced back to the prophet himself. Each hadith comes with an isnad (chain), detailing the path of transmission of that particular saying (i.e. Muhammad told A, who told B, who told C, who wrote it down in this book). Generally, the fewer steps in the chain and the more credible each step is (for example, the accounts of Muhammad's wives, children, and close companions are generally considered the most trusted), the more credible the hadith (the most credible and accepted set of hadiths are labeled as sahih or authentic). Muhammad ibn Ismail al-Bukhari, working 200 years after the death of Muhammad, collected over 300,000 hadiths, but only classed 2605 of them as sahih — in other news, the compilation of these hadiths, Sahih al-Bukhari is often referred to as the second holy book of Islam. While generally considered an important guide for Muslims, it absolutely is not seen as on par with the Quran, because no text can be. In 2008, reform Muslim scholars in Turkey (a predominantly Muslim yet very secular nation) considered reviewing the hadith for modern times, trying to figure out how many hadiths that had been considered good (sahih) actually stood up to the scrutiny of modern textual analysis. This has not gone over very well with many people.

About the hadiths, there's one in which the Seal of the Prophets seems to ban any and all images of living things, which is why the Taliban went to so much trouble to keep television out of Afghanistan. note  Most Muslims don't quite subscribe to this, but most dislike the practice of depicting Muhammad himself, which was famously part of the whole Danish cartoons affair (those opposed to the cartoons claim that the real issue was the marginalization of Danish Muslims, while those supporting them claim that the central issue is Muslims trying to use violence to force their norms on everyone else). However, this rule is not in any way universal. Because the hadith that contains this rule is part of the Sunni canon, most Shia Muslims don't subscribe to the theory that representation of living things is forbidden. Shockingly, graphical representations of the prophets was quite commonly made in Iran until recently and there are hundreds of surviving paintings of Qur'anic scenes depicting figures such as Joseph, Abraham, David, Jesus, and yes, Muhammad. This lack of a rule regulating physical representations is also the reason why many Shias keep photos of Ayatollahs in their homes and why ziyarat (pilgrimages to burial places of holy figures, much like the Orthodox Christian veneration of icons) is commonplace among Shias.

One more not-particularly-Islamic thing: the keffiyeh, a scarf worn around the head and/or shoulders throughout the Middle East, has for most of its history been a purely utilitarian bit of clothing, and has only recently gained political — i.e. not religious — significance as a badge of solidarity with the Palestinian people (generally, only a particular white-and-black cloth pattern has this significance, which Yasser Arafat was always seen with during his later years. It's still popularly worn by many non-Muslims, both for political reasons and simply as clothing. It evolved into a trend, and some media figures were seen wearing it (Vanessa Carlton, Hayley Williams, the Olsen twins, Kristen Dunst, David Beckham, Justin Timberlake, Lupe Fiasco, etc).