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"There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God."
The Shahada

Islam is the second-largest religion in the world, after Christianity. Although it's becoming increasingly prevalent 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.

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

  • 'Islam' is a noun referring to the religion itself. It is derived from the Arabic word salām meaning peace and literally means 'submission' (to the will of God, that is).[1] 'Muslim' (sometimes 'Moslem' - pronounced "moos-lim," and "moss-lem")[2] is an adjective, and the noun for an individual adherent of Islam. 'Islamic' is the adjective for cultural constructs relating to Muslims and Islam: Islamic civilisation, 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 texts sometimes use "Mohammedan" for Muslim, but that's no longer in current use, and 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 (it would be extremely blasphemous if they did).
  • Islam is a monotheistic religion and very serious about it. The official Muslim line is that the Christian Trinity is too close to polytheism, and Muslims do not believe that God had, has, or ever will have a Son. The idea of ineffable, incomprehensible God incarnating himself as a mere human is similarly difficult to accept.
    • Muslims certainly do believe that Jesus existed, and is the one in the Bible. He was born of a virgin, but not the son of God or God in any way (other than the sense in which all humans are believed to be God's children), preached the word of God, was not martyred and resurrected, but did ascend to heaven. He remains there and will return on the resurrection (ours) on Judgment Day, but he shares this role with the Mahdi[3].
      • It should be noted that the less tolerant followers of the religion often take offense at this notion. According to the Qur'an, the version described in the Bible was actually someone else (often supposed to be Judas), transformed by Allah to resemble Jesus just out of the Romans' sight while the real one is being ascended into Heaven.
    • There is a sect (Ahmadiyyah) that 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 Ahmadiayyah.
  • Because Islam grew out of the Christian and Jewish traditions, and the Old Testament prophets (along with Jesus and some traditional Arab figures) are also considered prophets in Islam, e.g. Jesus, the Prophet of Love, and Moses, the Prophet of Law. Muhammad is the Prophet of Islam. (If this seems to break the pattern, take another look at the first bullet point.) 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. In some legends, Ishmael was the favored son and the father of all Arabs.
  • 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 will 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. 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.
    • "Mahomet" is still used in French while "Mahound" is blatantly derogatory.
    • Incidentally, transliterating from Arabic is even more messy than from Hebrew; Islamic terms in English have lots of equivalents of the dreaded "(C)Han(n)uk(k)a(h)." You can generally tell what's being referred to, though. In any case, Muhammad is a great example of this. Also see Koran/Qur'an, below.
  • 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 Koran (more properly called the Glorious Qur'an), the main sacred text of Islam. For Muslims, the Koran is, literally, word for word, comma for comma, the Word of 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 misreading a word could change the meaning of the whole sentence. Arabic grammar works this way.
  • Muhammad built up a sizable Muslim state in Arabia during his lifetime. This was one of the world's largest (and most sudden) empires to emerge and it was called the Caliphate, uniting all Muslims under it at the time. 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'. Note that the Muslim empire was only called the Caliphate after Muhammad died, as "Caliphate" (Arabic al-Khilafah) literally means "successorship". As for its supposed militarism, 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.
    • Specifically, Islam was spread not by the sword but by tax policy: Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians, being monotheists, are considered to be in the same boat as Muslims, and have protected status in Muslim law. The deal in the first hundred years of the Muslim empire was that non-Muslims were exempted from military service, but in exchange had to pay a special tax called the jizyah. At first this was OK, because the taxes were still lower than under the Byzantine and Persian Empires, but as taxes rose, the people started to convert to Islam to get out of having to pay the jizyah. This caused the collapse of the first dynasty of the Caliphate; they couldn't figure out a proper alternate tax structure.
      • Members of religions considered suitably "close" to Islam, and who accepted the authority of the Caliphate, were called "dhimmi" (protected). In varying times, their treatment ranged from simply having a special tax to being a humiliated underclass (depending on the ruler, with fanatical rulers being more likely to impose the latter order). 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, often being outright executed.
    • Note also that forced conversion is a big no-no in Islam; reciting the Shahada (articles of faith) must be voluntary or it's invalid.
  • 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").[4]
  • There are five 'pillars' of Islam. This isn't Quranic 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 a Muslim religious leader, called an imam.
      • 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). An imam is not really required (in Islam, there's no such thing as an appointed imam; imams became what they are for their knowledge in Islam and their wisdom, thus anyone can be an imam if they accepted by their community) but the community supposedly will accept you more easily with the imam acknowledging your status as a Muslim.
    • Salah, or prayer. This is supposed to be done five times a day, and periodically while reading the Koran. This is done, if possible, facing Mecca and requires ritual cleansing beforehand. This is announced by the muathin from the minaret of a mosque, 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.
    • Zakat, or alms for the poor. 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 depended 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.[5]
    • 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. 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 much 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, travelling, 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 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. The ceremonies associated with hajj could fill up their own page and involve millions of people. Have you heard the expression a 'a tourist Mecca'? This is why. The Saudi government doesn't let non-Muslim tourists in Mecca, 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). This is a massive undertaking: the population of Mecca quadruples during Hajj season, and an entire Saudi government ministry is dedicated to planning and running for the event.

Halal

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 mild-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. 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, meaning "struggle" in Arabic, 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.
  • "Allah" is the Arabic word for God. Allah is not considered to be separate from the Jewish and Christian God (though whether Allah, the Islamic God, actually mirrors the Judeo-Christian God in character and action is definitely a point of debate, regardless of whether or not Muslims claim to worship the same God). Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians use the word "Allah" to refer to their God. Jews and Christians are considered heterodox rather than heathen and are thus (in theory, at least) supposed to be accorded a level of respect in Islamic societies. 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 "God is great". The Western world tends to associate it with terrorists about to blow people up, but it's said quite regularly by people without any homicidal intent whatsoever.
    • If the opening of the Shahadah (above) sounded weird to you, "There is no god but 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 God and Muhammad is God's messenger." When translating, Muslims often say 'There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.'
  • "Madrasah" [6] 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, and there was nothing extremist about it. In Arabic and many languages of the Muslim world (which borrow from Arabic like 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 for right-wingers and feminists who charge that those who wear them are forced to do so (not always true, believe it or not, even with the full-body-tent style), and that such obviously religious dress is a disruption to [insert country here]'s culture. 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 the Iranian woman might as well have been: You can't win. You can't break even. And you can't even quit the game.

Don't call them Sonny and Cher

Just like Christianity, Islam is divided into 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 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 means 'example, precedent' because they believe that the Muslims who knew Muhammad correctly chose the Rashidun, the rightly guided caliphs by popular election. Sunnis believe the example of the original Muslim community and Muhammad to 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 Methodist and Lutheran than Protestant and Catholic. Wahhabi, if you've heard of it, is a particularly unique and radical school of Hanbalism strong in Saudi Arabia that Al-Qaeda supposedly follows.
    • 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 of 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, including most of the Muslim population of North Africa, Arabia, Jordan, Israel-Palestine, Turkey and some others.
  • '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 Koran without error. Shiah don't rate the early community as highly as Sunni because they believe they mistakenly chose Abu Bakr and instead that Ali is the true first Caliph. 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. Shiah then divide into Twelvers, Fivers (aka Zaidis), Seveners (if they still existed) and Ismailis over his successors: just like Sunnis are the vast majority of Muslims today, Twelvers are the vast majority of Shiah and the vast majority live in Iran, another reason not to confuse Iranians with Arabs. However, the first great Shi'a state was the Fatamid 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.
    • Shi'a Muslims are a smaller proportion of the Muslim population, 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 the 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 believe 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).

Sufis are a notable, esoteric, mystical minority who are now mostly extinct but were very important in spreading Islam, particularly in India and Indonesia.

  • Sufism has also been particularly strong in Chechnya and the neighbouring 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 ostracised 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 for similar reasons, and Sufi brotherhoods have been at the center of much political activism and controversy.

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.

  • Islam explicitly rejects the Christian idea that God was incarnate in human form. Thus, the Nation of Islam, which claims that its founder was God incarnate, is widely considered to not be Muslim. The Nation of Islam's explicit racism is also in opposition to Islamic ideals, which state that all believers are equal regardless of race or ethnicity.

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 Hashimites from his great grandfather, and the Umayyad Caliphate from Hashim's brother. The Fatamid caliphate claimed Fatima, the Prophet's daughter and Ali's wife, and their branch of Shiism was called Ismailism after Ismail ibn Jafar, a descendent of Ali. This is more than a spiritual point: these were all major political ruling dynasties.

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. The King of Morocco, because he claims descent from the Caliphate of Cordoba, who claimed descent from an Umayyad prince who fled to Spain 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 Arabic Jews,[7] Arabic Christians, Arabic atheists, etc. On the flipside, 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, was written with a native Indian script while the languages of West Pakistan were all written in Arabic script. Now it's Bangladesh--the fourth-largest Muslim country--and Pakistan respectively. Persia 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.

Another thing that's Arab but not Muslim is circumcision: it's a tradition, not a religious requirement, unlike for Jews. However, most Muslims are circumcised, not just Arabs. 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.

In fact much of the general image of Islam as misogynistic stems from such "local traditions"; scripturally 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 burqa, which covers all but the eyes; some just wear a chador, a single wrapped sheet. A simple headscarf is a khimar. In Turkey, such clothing is forbidden in government/public areas like universities: one President's wife was criticised for wearing it at his swearing-in. In other countries, it's fully enforced by the police. In case you were wondering, designing modest swimsuits you can actually swim in is kind of a challenge, but they exists 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.

Many Islamic countries do have an enforced death penalty for those who renounce Islam. Amputation of the hand for theft is in the Koran, though (It Makes Sense in Context: depending on where you were, thieves often got off scot-free or paid a fine, which a poor thief could not afford and which a rich thief could laugh off; a hand was something everyone would hate to lose. There were also various rules on the seriousness of the crime meaning that the only way you should, in theory, get this penalty is if you were rich and stole for kicks).

Regarding homosexuality in Islam, as in many Abrahamic religions opinions vary widely on scriptural interpretation. However, many Islamic countries have laws against homosexuality. In most extreme cases, it is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Sudan and Iran-- this last being notable, however, for legally recognizing sex changes, thus allowing homosexuals to marry as long as they're willing to undergo extensive surgery. Muslim majority countries that have no laws against homosexuality include Turkey and Indonesia, but it bears mentioning that these are both secular states. However, in 2002 Indonesia's Aceh province was granted permission to introduce sharia law, and homosexual acts between adults have been banned. In Jakarta, Indonesia's capital, homosexuals acts will get you labeled as mentally handicapped, which has wide ranging effects on your legal status in society.

Similarly, polygamy is an Arabic 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 offence. It is said if two are alone together, Satan is a third.

  • 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 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. 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 like food and drink.

In addition to the Koran, Islam has various hadiths. A hadith is a body of text concerning the life of Muhammad -- sayings attributed to him, things that he may or may not have done at some point, things of that nature. Much of the hadiths is similar in structure to the parables of Jesus, 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. In 2008, reform Muslim scholars in Turkey (a predominantly Islamic yet very secular nation) considered revising the hadith for modern times. 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. [8] 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, a view supported by the violent response to the cartoons by Muslims); and of course certain Imams touring various Muslim countries with false reports on the Danish incident, claiming that much more offensive cartoons had been published etc.).

One more not-particularly-Islamic thing: the kuffiyeh, 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). 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).

Troper points:

  • Spell My Name with a "The" - as mentioned in the "Shahadah" bit, Allah is this. Al+lah.
    • I Have Many Names - There are 99 Names of Allah. Certain Muslims, like Suleiman the Magnificent (slave of god, powerful with the power of God, deputy of God on earth ...) or Muammar Gaddafi emulate this. There was even a Mullah Nasruddin (better known as Juha in the Arab world) joke about Tamerlane wanting a name of the sort. Nasruddin called him A'awdu Billah (I take refuge in Allah's protection [from you!]).
      • Although a little unlike the examples, the names are more of attributes, from the most commonly heard (The All-Forgiving), to scary-sounding (The Bringer of Death), to something nice (The Guardian), and at least one has been translated into The Evolver. Take that of what you will. Of course, two of the names are The First and The Last, pretty much like the Alpha and Omega.
      • Arabic names note. "Abdul" is a common Arabic name in fiction where they Did Not Do the Research. It's not a complete name. "Abd" means "servant" and as a name, it must precede "God" or one of the names of God. "Abdullah" is Servant of God. One of the most common is Abdurrahman (Servant of the Compassionate).
  • Islamic art tends to use symbolism a lot more than representational figures, hence the Islamic world's reputation for elaborate calligraphy and architecture (which gave rise to the term "arabesque").
    • The flag of Iraq, for example, features "Allahu Akbar" (God is Great) on the flag (supposedly in Saddam Hussein's handwriting, which is why it's been changed to a more typographical font now). The flag of Iran has the same written 22 times. Ottoman sultans gave the the best autographs of anyone.
    • Geometry and tessellation. A visit to the Alhambra palace, which is covered with this kind of artwork, in Spain inspired Escher's most famous artworks. Some tiles display non-periodic tessellation sets five centuries before Western mathematicians fully discovered the concept.
    • He Who Must Not Be Seen - as mentioned above, if Muhammad is not The Ghost, then is at least The Faceless. If Muhammad must be drawn, he is depicted with a veil over his face. (As a result, the 1976 film The Message, about the life of Muhammad, avoids portraying him by filming everything from his perspective). In Civilization 3, the Arabs are led by Abu Bakr, because the game makes a point of a huge picture of the leader used during diplomacy. The reason for this is that it was feared Muhammad would be idolized if his face was portrayed [9]
      • It's worth noting that this hasn't always been the case, and that there are many very old paintings by the devout of the Prophet, to the point where the early Islamic state had pictures of Muhammad on its currency.
      • In the rare instances where the Prophet's facial features have been described, he sounds like... any other random Arab dude. Come to think of it, there are more descriptions of his actual behavior rather than his physical features. This makes perfect sense since Muslims are supposed to emulate his actions, not copy his looks.
    • Calligraphy is fun, too - it's a good substitute on its own and sometimes it lets you bend the rules about drawing living creatures like tigers.
  • Rebel angel stories don't work. Iblis and his djinn of smokeless fire (whence genies) refused to bow down to Allah's new-created Adam, but the angels of light obeyed, no question. As the Satan figure, he's more of a tempter than a former highest angel. Notably, he was a devout worshiper of god, and that's why he was asked to bow with the angels.
    • Even The Prophecy film doesn't work. Angels don't have free will, so they just couldn't.
      • Some narration do imply that they are intelligent and can actually question the orders from God Himself; they just can't do jack about it once the order's given. For example, before the creation of Adam, the angels actually ask about why would God create a being that will cause havoc and destruction upon Earth.
    • Narrations of Angels are few and far in between, but true to the trope entry, while angels can shapeshift to whatever form they choose (by the permission of God), most of their true forms have been described as something so horrendous even Cthulhu would look cute by comparison. Actually it is why they shapeshift into something much less strenuous in the eyes, like being a Bishonen for example. Gabriel is described as having 600 wings, each wing filling the space between the east and the west. Muhammed was frightened when he first saw him.
      • Or the one that carrying God's throne, the distance between its ear lobe and its shoulder is equal with 500 years of journey with the fastest horses.
      • Note that angels are part of the 'Ghaib', what cannot be seen by human eyes. One may only see an angel with the will of Allah and when the angel takes the shape of something worldly with the exception of Muhammad because he was special.
  • A related example is literally, Our Genies Are Different. The Arabic jinn (which are mentioned in the Qur'an) exiss in an alternate plane of existence, more like an Energy Being, and is capable of both good and evil. As such, Muslim jinns are not unheard of (even if theorized, since, well, confirming their existence is kinda difficult). Most quotes from the Qur'an and the Prophet makes it clear that, while they do exist, they are to be left alone, since, while some may have a Weaksauce Weakness, they are generally more powerful than an ordinary human.
    • A fun fact is that the word "jinn" means "the unseen". Basically it means while you can't see them, they can see you. Ceilingcat is mild compared to this when you start thinking about it, which is why most scriptures basically said "they exist, they live, now please go on living your life and don't worry too much."
    • Also note that though there are Muslim jinn, it has been stated 'the best of jinn are like the worst of humans.' Meaning though they may be Muslim, they still have bad habits etc.
  • Motifs - As mandated by the "no idolatry" hadiths, none of these are official symbols of Islam; they're just widely used.
    • The crescent moon (seen on many flags) and the star (which combined with the moon symbolizes miracles, as no star can appear inside the shaded part of the moon in Real Life under normal circumstances). There's also a lunar calendar, see below.
    • Green, just as ubiquitous. Iranian politician Mousavi made it his campaign color.
    • 5 - There are five pillars, the day of prayer is Friday, the fifth day of the week) and similarly the hand. Especially the hand of Fatimah (to Shi'a Muslims).
      • Odd numbers in general are considered to be holier or more auspicious than even ones, and odd primes even more so.
  • Remember in The Simpsons when Ned Flanders said he didn't have home insurance because he considered it a form of gambling? This idea comes up in Islam, and although many Muslims circumvent the rule, they're not happy that the West often requires insurance to buy a house or a car. No gambling at any rate. Usury (lending money for interest) is also forbidden and called ribba. (Note: that the Catholic Church also forbade this for a long time. The stereotype of the money-hungry Jewish lender came about because only Jews could legally be bankers.) Instead, an Islamic bank will buy partial ownership of a business and the owner will slowly buy the bank back out. The British government has recently (and controversially) began to offer government securities with a similar structure. The Zakat tax also taxes savings very heavily.
      • Remember the bit about the Sunni madhahib being schools of law? Like Judaism, Islam is a religion for lawyers: the statute (the Qur'an) prohibits loans as such, but finding the institution of a loan with collateral useful, the ulema (judges) found this alternate arrangement, which gets around the law (because the statute does not prohibit one to sell something back to its original owner at a profit) but otherwise serves as a perfect substitute. The Qur'anic proscription also prohibits unsecured loans, which given how some people use credit cards might just be very far-sighted indeed. (One might indeed argue that the point was not to prohibit loans as such but rather prohibit unsecured loans, with God understanding that His faithful judges would notice the loophole).
  • Doomy Dooms of Doom - Pickthal's English translation of the Qur'an.
  • Remember when Salman Rushdie went into hiding from an Iranian fatwa (technically it just means 'judicial opinion', not just a death sentence) for writing The Satanic Verses? It referred to an old Muslim legend that Muhammad claimed there were three daughters of God before retracting the error, and in Rushdie's story, just the the original legend the Qur'an still survives and the error is retracted, but this still got him in serious trouble. No one seems to have warned the many people who've made attempts on Rushdie's life since the beginning of the fatwa, forcing him to live under constant fear of death and strict surveillance. Or the Iranian government, who once put a bounty on his life. Ayaan Hirsi Ali too.
  • There aren't nearly so many names in The Koran as there are in The Bible, and Muhammad is by far the most prominent religious figure, so Muhammad is the single most common name among males in the Islamic world. Almost half of all Muslim men have this name slipped in somewhere. It's supposedly the most common male given name in the world, including all transliteration variations thereof. Other names given to Islamic children tend to be localized Arabic names, even when the parents don't speak Arabic, for much the same reasons that modified Semitic names from the Bible are used in any Christian-dominated culture regardless of language.
    • Naming teddy bears Muhammad, however, tends not to go down so well. Naturally, the women claimed she asked her children in the class to name the teddy, and they chose Muhammad, because of course a boy in their class was called that, and it's a really generic name if you have to come up with one.
    • Many Muslims names become much more familiar if you realize this. For example, Sulaiman means Solomon.
        • On which note, common Arabic names besides Muhammad are Mahmoud, Ahmed, Hamid, and Hameed. All are from the same Arabic root (H-M-D) which means "to praise."
    • Some Muslim equivalents of common Western (i.e. Hebrew/Aramaic) names:
      • John=Yahya. John the Baptist is considered a prophet in Islam, as Yahya ibn Zakariyya--i.e. John, son of Zachariah.
      • Isaac=Ishaq (=Yitzhak, as in Rabin)
      • Jacob=Yaqub
      • Joseph=Yusuf
      • David=Dawud
      • Solomon=Sulayman
      • Elias=Ilyas
      • Elisha=Ilyasa
      • Gabriel=Jibril
      • Michael=Mikail/Mikal
      • Moses=Musa
      • Aaron=Harun
      • Abraham=Ibrahim (or Brahim if you're Moroccan)
      • Lot=Luth
      • Zachariah/Zachary=Zakariyya (so yes, there are in fact Muslims you could call "Zack")
      • Mary=Maryam
      • Sarah=Sara
      • Noah=Nuh
      • Jesús=Isa
      • And most conveniently, Adam=Adam
  • As in Christianity, the permanence of hell depends on the sect. The Qu'ran does state that people in hell stay there as long as Allah wills, which means it may be temporary for some, whilst permanent for others, such as Abu Lahab, the uncle of of Muhammed who mocked him and egged another infidel to throw a camel's placenta (and the rest of the gooey stuff that comes out after she gives birth to calf), and accordingly was damned by Allah.
    • Also, different people may go to Hell and Heaven for different reasons. For example, there was a man who had killed a hundred people and as he was on his way to a village to find help to repent and convert to Islam but he died on the way. It is said Allah will allow him to Heaven because he was looking for God. In another less famous story, a man of a different religion was devout to his own religion but he heard often of Muhammad and was very fond of him and thus, he too will go to Heaven. There is another story of a man who gave everything to Allah but Allah knew he only did it to show off so he will not go to Heaven... It's very complicated but basically, if you follow the five pillars of Islam and the six pillars of Iman (faith) [10] are kind and aren't a tyrant, you'll get by.
      • Still another tradition, based on an enigmatic verse in the Qur'an saying that anyone with even "an atom" of faith would not be condemned forever, states that everyone who believed in anything that kept him/her moral--even atheists and polytheistic idolaters--will eventually end up in Heaven, although their unbelief would extend their time in Hell; only a Complete Monster would be eternally condemned. This is understandably controversial.
  • Heroic Sacrifice - Because Ali and both his sons were martyred, this motif is very important to Shi'as, as are the shrines where they arguably died (in Iraq).
    • In the autobiographical graphic novel Persepolis (but not the movie, where it makes a token cameo) the author recalls how this trope was turned Up to Eleven in Shi'a Iran during the person-intensive Iranian strategy for the Iran-Iraq war. She won a design competition by plagiarising Michelangelo's Pieta and converting it to a dead Iranian soldier with his mother in a chador and red tulips, the flower of martyrs.
  • Phrase Catcher - Really, we should write P.B.U.H or 'peace be upon him' every time we mention Muhammad (the prophet).
    • Or salallahu alaihi wassallahm (s.a.w), which probably means the same thing. You should also say alaihissalam (a.s.) to other prophets and subhanahu wata'ala (s.w.t) to Allah.
  • Mr. Fanservice - According to the Qur'an, Joseph (Yusuf) is more beautiful than any men on Earth. So much so that a group of women cut their fingers while peeling a fruit because they're so awestruck by his handsomeness. Another tale recounts a wife of Joseph's master being so smitten she tries to force herself on him. In an Above the Influence moment, Joseph resists her.
  • Pose of Supplication - How Muslims pray.
  • Alternative Calendar - The Muslim (or Hijri) calendar has 12 lunar months in a year of about 354 days. Because this lunar year is about 11 days shorter than the solar year, Islamic holy days, although celebrated on fixed dates in their own calendar, usually shift 11 days earlier each successive solar year, such as a year of the Gregorian calendar. Islamic years are also called Hijra years because the first year was the year 622 during which the Hijra occurred - Islamic prophet Muhammad's emigration from Mecca to Medina. Thus each numbered year is designated either H or AH, the latter being the initials of the Latin anno Hegirae (in the year of the Hijra). The current Islamic Year is 1430 AH (for 2009/2010).
  • Did Not Do the Research - Some people (ancient and modern) believe the strangest things about Islam.
    • Chanson de Roland - a romance epic that featured Roland, who fought the Muslim incursion from Spain into France. The story asserts, either not noticing that Muslims are monotheists or assuming that Muslims would have to be trinitarian like Christians, Muslims worship "Mahumet", "Termagant" and "Apollo."
    • Probably a case of either Did Not Do the Research or They Just Didn't Care - among other details, the real Roland was actually killed by Christian Basque rebels.
    • In the Divine Comedy, Dante puts Muhammad and his son-in-law and cousin Ali in Hell ...because he thought Islam's similarity to Christianity was due to Muhammad having been a Catholic cardinal who lost a bid to become Pope and founded a copy religion.
      • Even though he had just about no knowledge of Christianity, as there were no Arabic Bibles and he couldn't read them anyway. Just saying.
      • Not strictly true. Muhammad's first wife, Khadijah, had a Christian cousin who had actually translated bits and pieces of the Bible into Arabic, and Muhammad was apparently fond of discussing religion with said cousin-in-law.
  • He's Just Hiding - Ismaili Shiah says a certain man was not dead but in 'minor occultation'. Shiah who don't say Muhammad the Mahdi supposedly went into 'Greater Occultation' in the late 9th century and is still out there today.
  • Messianic Archetype - The Last Imam, The Imam of Time, Muhammad the Mahdi, the twelfth Imam according to Twelver Shiah, will return in the second coming along with Jesus to restore the rule of the righteous on earth for a certain number of years before The Day of Judgment and the Resurrection (of the dead, not Jesus). This is more important to Shiahs, although many Sunni believe the general idea, only difference being that they believe Jesus would come, not the Mahdi. By contrast, the Book of Revelations is dubious in Christianity too - it's not Gospel and Martin Luther didn't trust it.
    • Word of Dante - Some Sunni theologians question the existence of the Mahdi since he's not mentioned in the Qur'an or the hadith.
    • One Steve Limit - Not to be confused with Muhammad the Mahdi, third Abbasid caliph.
  • Standard Snippet - The call to prayer for the Middle East in fiction, when it's not that belly-dancing song.
  • Subbing vs. Dubbing - Not exactly, but the closest trope we have. Many, many, many Muslims insist that the Holy Koran can only be read properly in Arabic and that any translation takes the poetry and the hidden double meanings out of the book, and that learning Arabic is crucial to truly appreciating the text.
    • This is also the source of a great deal of the confusion over passages in the Qu'ran. A simple translation may not give the correct meaning or may be taken out of context. Unlike many other languages (mostly European), Arabic cannot be translated perfectly into English. So, the meaning of a passage in Arabic will be very difficult to convey correctly in English. And that's assuming the person doing the translating even wants to convey the correct meaning.
  • Double Standard - While the Qur'an permits a man to have up to four wives, it does not allow a woman to have more than one husband. There is a reason for this, though: men were more likely to be killed in battle or otherwise die young in those days than women, and the permission of polygamy allowed early Muslim society to absorb that blow. An unmarried woman frequently didn't have anyone to protect her from rival clans; allowing men to marry more than one woman at a time gave women that protection. Most Muslims today are monogamists and are rather appalled by polygamy; men pursuing second (or third or fourth) marriages are often seen as sexually incontinent, and women agreeing to them are often viewed as either desperate (e.g. being unmarried at, say, 30-35, a big embarrassment for the family in most any traditional society) or shameless Gold Diggers. Also considered appalling is the Loophole Abuse used by (again) some wealthy tourists from the Gulf, who get temporary marriage contracts for purposes of prostitution--sometimes underage prostitution--in Muslim countries, where the locals (Muslim and otherwise) understandably do not approve. Muhammad himself was strictly monogamist while his first wife Khadijah was still alive, and he never had children with any of his subsequent wives (those marriages were strictly political).
    • The marriages were not strictly political; he did have sex with them (even though one of them, namely Aisha was only nine years old. This was referenced in the Sahih Bukhari, although to what extent that hadith is authentic can be debated).
    • Back then, before the days of DNA tests and the like, if a woman had multiple husbands there was no way of knowing who the father was and it was considered wrong to deprive the child of the right to know who their parents were, which would cause no end of grief when the subject of inheritance inevitably rolls around.
    • They can sometimes be comparatively lax on divorce, though.
  • Fair for Its Day: Islam's positions on women were remarkably progressive, in their original form, compared to the views of surrounding societies. Women can own and inherit property and are allowed to initiate divorce proceedings, among other things. Much of this was diluted by local cultures (meaning that many parts of the Muslim world are actually less progressive toward women's rights today than they were a thousand years ago), and to this day women are not allowed to lead men in prayer (although men are allowed to lead women), but it's still rather remarkable.
  • Human Sacrifice: The story of Ibrahim (a.s.) sacrificing his son Ismail/Ishmael (or Ishaq/Isaac, depending on whom you ask to). The story goes that after Ibrahim was reunited with his son Ismail, who was left abandoned in a desert place with his mother Hajjar (long story, and It Makes Sense in Context), Ibrahim got a dream that God wanted him to sacrifice his son. In a Tear Jerker moment when Ibrahim asked Ismail about what he thinks, he replied "If it's God's will, then do it. Do not despair father, I will be fine." After enduring a journey to the place, (and in Islamic traditions, throwing stones to three places where Satan tempted him, which become the rite in Hajj called The Stoning or Jumra), he arrived and prepared to sacrifice his son. In a complete subversion to the trope, God declared that Ibrahim and Ismail's purity of intention sufficed and sent Gabriel with a lamb to substitute Ismail. Thus the ritual Islamic holiday of Eid Al-Adha was commemorated every year.
  • Poirot Speak: Extremely common among Muslims. Expect fully to hear a bare minimum of 30% of our words in the languages of Muslim countries to be from Arabic (when discussing religion, that is).

Notes

  1. If you're curious: Islam is the fourth stem of the Semitic root S-L-M, "peace"; the fourth stem is the causative, i.e., "cause there to be peace [between you and God]" i.e. "submit". And now you know.
  2. Feminine: Muslimah, plural: Muslimin
  3. An Arabic word meaning "Guided One", the prophesied redeemer of Islam who will rule for 40 years before the Day of Judgment
  4. The qibla was changed to Mecca several years later after a political brouhaha involving the Jews of Medina; Muslims say that the Jews' insolence to Muhammad offended God, who revealed that the direction should be changed, while non-Muslim observers--especially Jewish ones--would tend to say that Muhammad himself changed it out of spite.
  5. Of course, the oil states spend more than 20% of their annual petroleum-derived state budgets on social services anyhow--to buy off the populace--so this actually ended up working in their favor.
  6. the stress is on the first syllable, by the way, not the second--unless you're speaking Egyptian Arabic, but then the "a" is pronounced differently. Arabic is a very annoying language to learn.
  7. Although their numbers are much diminished today, they do, despite the obvious, still exist; their numbers were far more numerous in the early 20th century, not because of a Holocaust or anything, but because anti-Jewish action caused them to move to Israel and elsewhere and disavow their Arab identity--which had previously been quite strong in many communities.
  8. Actually this is only a theory and there is no very solid evidence it is not allowed.
  9. not to mention that his race would be changed a thousand times over, like Jesus being pale, brown or Asian in appearance depending on who's depicting him.
  10. namely, faith in God, faith in the Prophets, faith in the angels, faith in the books given to certain Prophets [Bible to Jesus, Torah to Musa, Zabur to David and Quran to Muhammad], faith in the Last Day and faith in Qada' and Qadr, what Allah wills
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