What is Islam?


What is Islam?

Dr.; Jamal Badawi




Taking the term “Islam,” it is important to emphasize that it is not derived from the name of any particular person, race, or locality. A Muslim considers the term used by some writers, “Mohammedanism,” to be an offensive violation of the very spirit of Islamic teaching. 

§  1. The meaning of “Islam”

§  2. Islamic Monotheism

§  3. What are the basic attributes of Allah?

§  4. Nature of Human

§  5. Allah Humankind Relationship

§  6. The Special Role of Mohammad

§  7. Accountability and Salvation

§  8. The Applied Aspect

§  9. Muslim/Non-Muslim Relations

§  10. Who are Muslims?

§  11. What are the ‘Five Pillars’ of Islam?

§  12. Does Islam tolerate other beliefs?

§  13. How does Islam guarantee human rights?




Taking the term “Islam,” it is important to emphasize that it is not derived from the name of any particular person, race, or locality. A Muslim considers the term used by some writers, “Mohammedanism,” to be an offensive violation of the very spirit of Islamic teaching. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is not worshipped, nor is he regarded as either the founder of Islam or the author of its Holy Book, the Qur’an. The term “Islam” is given in more than one place in the Qur’an itself. It is derived from the Arabic root (SLM) which connotes “peace” or “submission.” Indeed, the proper meaning of “Islam” is the attainment of peace, both inner and outer peace, by submission of oneself to the will of Allah. And when we say submit, we are talking about conscious, loving and trusting submission to the will of Allah, the acceptance of His grace and the following of His path. In that sense the Muslim regards the term Islam, not as an innovation that came in the 7th Century, Christian era, with the advent of the Prophet Muhammad, but as the basic mission of all the prophets throughout history. That universal mission was finally culminated and perfected in the last of these prophets, Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon them all.


The next essential concept that needs to be clarified is the term “Allah” What does it mean? It should be emphasized first that the term “Allah” has no connotation at all of a tribal god, an Arabian or even a Muslim god. The term ” Allah’ in Arabic simply means the One and Only True, Universal God of all. To think that Allah is different from God, with a capital ‘G’ is no more valid than saying the French Christians worship a different god because they call him “Dieu”.

3.   What are the basic attributes of Allah?

The Qur’an mentions the “most beautiful names” (or attributes) of Allah. Instead of enumerating them all, let’s examine a few. Some attributes emphasize the transcendence of Allah. The Qur’an repeatedly makes it clear that Allah is beyond our limited perception. (There is nothing whatever comparable unto Him).[1] (No vision can grasp Him, but His grasp is over all vision)[2].

A Muslim never thinks of God as having any particular image, whether physical, human, material or otherwise. Such attributes as “The Perfectly-Knowing,” “The Eternal,” “The Omnipotent,” “The Omnipresent,” “The Just,” and “The Sovereign” also emphasize transcendence. But this does not mean in any way that for the Muslim Allah is a mere philosophical concept or a deity far removed. Indeed, alongside this emphasis on the transcendence of Allah, the Qur’an also talks about Allah as” personal” God who is close, easily approachable, Loving, Forgiving and Merciful. The very first passage in the Qur’an, which is repeated dozens of times, is -In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful . . . .’ The Qur’an tells us that when Allah created the first human (He breathed into him something of His spirit)[3], and that “Allah is closer to the human than his jugular vein.” In another beautiful and moving passage we are told, (When my servants ask you (O Muhammad) concerning me, then surely I am near to them. I listen to every suppliant who calls on Me. Let them respond to My call and obey My command that they may be led aright).


We have talked about Allah. What about you and me? Who is the human being? Who are you and I? And why are we here on earth? The Qur’an teaches that we humans are created of three components. We are created from clay, representing the material or carnal element. We are endowed with intellect that is Allah-given to be used, not to be put on the shelf. Reason may be insufficient but it is not the antithesis of faith, either. And thirdly, we are endowed with the spirit of Allah, which was breathed into us[4].

The Muslim does not see human existence here on earth as punishment for eating from the forbidden tree. That event is regarded as an experiential lesson for Adam and Eve before they came to earth.

The Qur’an teaches that even before the creation of the first human it was Allah’s plan to establish human life and civilization on earth[5]. Thus, the Muslim does not view the human as all evil, nor as all good, but rather as responsible. It is stated in several places in the Qur’an that Allah created the human to be His (khalifah), His trustee or vice-regent on earth. Humankind’s basic trust, our responsibility, is to worship Allah. Worship for the Muslim is not only engaging in formal rituals, but it is any activity in accordance with the will of Allah for the benefit of oneself and of humanity at large. 

Thus the Muslim views the earth, its resources and ecology as a gift from Allah to humans to harness and use in fulfillment of the trust for which we shall all be held responsible. That is why the Qur’an speaks highly of learning. The first word revealed of the Qur’an was, “Recite,” or “read.” As long as they were true to their faith and to Qur’anic injunctions about learning, Muslims established a civilization that saw great advances in science and in the humanities. Not only did they preserve earlier scientific heritage but they also added to it and paved the way for European renaissance. When Muslims again become true to their faith such history is bound to repeat itself.


We talked of Allah and of humankind. Now we must ask what is their basic relationship? The Qur’an teaches us that the human race is given an innate pure nature called “fitrah.” Knowledge of Allah and innate spirituality are inherent in human existence, but this spirituality can betray us if it is not led in the right direction. To depend on a merely human feeling of the guiding Spirit is dangerous. Many groups, even cults, claim to be guided by the spirit or by God or by revelation, yet these groups hold divergent, even contradictory, beliefs.

We find people behaving in contradictory ways who claim nonetheless that each is doing the will of God. “I feel,” they say, “that the spirit guides and directs me.’

A credible source of revelation is imperative. Throughout history Allah has selected particular individuals to convey His message, to receive His revelation and to exemplify it for mankind. For some of these prophets, holy books or scriptures were given revealing Allah’s commands and guidance. For most of you the names of these prophets found in the Qur’an will sound familiar: Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, Solomon, John the Baptist, Jesus, and, finally, the last prophet, Muhammad, peace be upon them all. These prophets carried the same basic message: (Not an apostle did We send before you without this inspiration sent by Us to him: that there is no god but I; therefore worship and serve Me)[6].

Further, the Qur’an insists on calling all those prophets Muslims, because a Muslim is one who submits to the will of Allah. Their followers are called Muslims as well. Thus it is an article of faith for a Muslim to believe in all these prophets. Indeed, Muslims are warned that anyone who accepts some prophets and rejects others, in fact rejects them all. For a Muslim, to believe in Moses while rejecting Jesus or Muhammad is against the very teaching of Moses. And to believe in Jesus but reject Moses or Muhammad is to violate what Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad stood for. For a Muslim to believe in Muhammad and reject either Moses or Jesus is to violate his own Holy Book. Recognition of all prophets is an article of faith, not a mere social courtesy or diplomatic statement.


But why do Muslims in their testimony of faith say, “I bear witness that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is His messenger? Does that mean that they in fact reject other prophets? Indeed, the special role played by Muhammad as the seal and last of all the prophets puts the Muslim in the position whereby honoring Muhammad implies honoring those who came before him as well. Muslims are warned not to make fanatical or parochial distinctions between prophets[7]. But the Qur’an also says that Allah has favored some prophets with more significant gifts or roles than others[8]. All are brothers, although the only prophet with the universal mission to all humankind is Muhammad, peace be upon him[9]. The Muslim believes not only that Muhammad is a brother to Jesus, Moses, Abraham and other prophets, but the Qur’an states in clear terms that the advent of Muhammad was foretold by previous prophets, including Moses and Jesus, peace be upon them[10]. Even the Bible in its present form foretells the advent of the Prophet Muhammad[11].  For the Muslim, the Qur’an contains the words of Allah directly and verbatim revealed to Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. Many confuse the Qur’an with the ‘Hadith,’ or sayings, of the Prophet. The Hadith is quite separate from the Qur’an. The latter was dictated to Muhammad word for word through the Angel Gabriel and immediately memorized and put down in writing. It is important to emphasize that the Qur’an was neither written nor composed by Muhammad, peace be upon him. To hold such a view would contradict what the Qur’an says of itself and of Muhammad; that the prophet is not speaking on his own but only transmitting the revelation dictated to him by the Angel Gabriel. To suggest that the Qur’an borrowed from or copied from previous revelations, be it the Bible or otherwise, is, for a Muslim, an accusation of ‘prophetic plagiarism,” a contradiction in terms. The fact that there are similarities between the Qur’an and previous scriptures is simply explained by the fact that He Who spoke through those earlier prophets is He Who revealed the Qur’an to Muhammad, the one and only true God, Allah.

However, the Qur’an is the last revealed Holy Book, which supersedes previous scriptures and the only one still available in the exact words and language uttered by Prophet Muhammad.


We have talked about Allah, about the human and about the relationship between them. What about accountability? How can we humans, from the Islamic perspective, overcome “sin”? The Qur’an teaches that life is a test, that earthly life is temporary[12]. The Muslim believes that there is reward and punishment, that there is life hereafter and that reward or punishment do not necessarily wait until the day of Judgment, but start immediately after burial. The Muslim believes in resurrection, accountability, and the day of judgment.

For a Muslim, to demand perfection in order to gain salvation is not practical. Islam teaches a person to be humble and to learn that we cannot achieve salvation by our own righteousness. The reconciliation of the “sinful” human with Allah is contingent on three elements: the most important is the Grace, Mercy, and Generosity of Allah. Then there are good deeds and correct belief. Correct belief and good deeds are prerequisites for God’s Grace and Forgiveness and for rising above our common shortcomings. How can sin be washed away? The Qur’an gives the prescription: ‘If anyone does evil or wrongs his own soul, but afterwards seeks Allah’s forgiveness, he will find Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.”[13]. Another moving passage reads, “Those things that are good remove evil deeds.”[14] Islam teaches repentance, stopping evil ways, feeling sorry for what one has done, and determining to follow the path of Allah as much as humanly possible. The Muslim does not believe in the necessity of the shedding of blood, much less innocent blood, to wash away sins. He believes that Allah is not interested in blood or sacrifice, but in sincere repentance.

The Qur’an puts it clearly: “But My Mercy extends to all things.”[15]


How about the application? Are we just talking theology? Since the human is Allah’s trustee, it would be inconsistent for a Muslim to separate the various aspects of life, the spiritual and the material, state and religion. We hear a lot about the “five pillars of Islam,” but they are often presented as the whole of Islam, many times in a shallow way. They are not the whole of Islam any more than one can claim to have a functional house composed exclusively of five concrete pillars. You also need the ceiling, walls, tables, windows and other things. As the mathematicians put it, it is a necessary but not a sufficient condition. The five pillars of Islam (the testimony of faith, the five daily prayers, fasting, charity, pilgrimage) are presented by most writers as matters of formal ritual. Even the pillar that is liable to appear ritualistic, daily prayers, is a purely spiritual act involving much more than simply getting up and down. It has social and political lessons to teach the Muslim. What may appear as separate compartments of life simply does not exist for the Muslim. A Muslim does not say, ‘This is business and this is moral.” Moral, spiritual, economic, social and governmental are inter-related, because everything, including Caesar, belongs to Allah and to Allah alone.


Another question may be: what is the implication for the Muslims in their attitudes toward non-Muslims? The Muslim is taught to be tolerant toward others. Indeed, the Qur’an not only prohibits compulsion in religion, but it prohibits aggression as well, although it allows self defense: (Fight it, the cause of Allah those who fight you, but commit no aggression; for Allah loves not transgressors)[16].

In addition, we find that within this broad rule of dealing with non-Muslims “the People of the Book” is a special term accorded to Jews and Christians in the Qur’an. Even though a Muslim might point out areas of theological difference, we still believe in the divine origin of those revelations in their “original” forms.

How should a Muslim treat these “People of the Book”? Says the Qur’an: (Allah forbids you not, with regard to those who fight you not for [your] Faith nor drive you out of your homes, from dealing kindly and justly with them: for Allah loves those who are just)[17].

In the world today all believers in Allah are facing common dangers: materialism, violence, and moral decay. We must work together. Allah says in the Qur’an: (… If Allah had so willed, He would have made you a single People, but His Plan is to test you in what He has given you. So strive as in a race in all virtues. The return of you all is to Allah; it is He that will show you the truth of the matters in which you dispute)[18].

10.                Who are the Muslims?

One billion people from a vast range of races, nationalities and cultures across the globe, from the southern Philippines to Nigeria, are united by their common Islamic faith. About 18% live in the Arab world; the world’s largest Muslim community is in Indonesia; substantial parts of Asia and most of Africa are Muslim, while significant minorities are to be found in the Soviet Union, China, North and South America, and Europe. Examples of the Prophet’s sayings[19]:

‘God has no mercy on one who has no mercy for others.’

‘None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.’

‘He who eats his fill while his neighbor goes without food is not a believer. ‘

‘The truthful and trusty businessman is associated with the prophets the saints, and the martyrs.’

‘Powerful is not he who knocks the other down, indeed powerful is he who controls himself in a fit of anger.’

‘God does not judge according to your bodies and appearances but He scans your hearts and looks into your deeds.’

‘A man walking along a path felt very thirsty. Reaching a well he descended into it, drank his fill and came up. Then he saw a dog with its tongue hanging out, trying to lick up mud to quench its thirst. The man saw that the dog was feeling the same thirst as he had felt so he went down into the well again and filled his shoe with water and gave the dog a drink. God forgave his sins for this action.’ The Prophet was asked: ‘Messenger of God, are we rewarded for kindness towards animals?’ He said, ‘There is a reward for kindness to every living thing.’

11.                What are the ‘Five Pillars’ of Islam?

They are the framework of the Muslim life: faith, prayer, concern for the needy, self-purification, and the pilgrimage to Makkah for those who are able.


There is no god worthy of worship except God and Muhammad is His messenger. This declaration of faith is called the Shahadah, a simple formula which all the faithful pronounce.


Salat is the name for the obligatory prayers which are performed five times a day, and are a direct link between the worshipper and God.

There is no hierarchical authority in Islam, and no priests, so the prayers are led by a learned person who knows the Quran, chosen by the congregation. These five prayers contain verses from the Quran, and are said in Arabic, the language of the Revelation, but personal supplication can be offered in one’s own language.

Prayers are said at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset and nightfall, and thus determine the rhythm of the entire day. A person who knows that he/she are about to meet God in a few hours will be more God-conscious and less likely to stray far away into wrongdoing. Although it is preferable to worship together in a mosque, a Muslim may pray almost anywhere, such as in fields, offices, factories and universities. Visitors to the Muslim world are struck by the centrality of prayers in daily life.

(3) CHARITY (Zakat)

One of the most important principles of Islam is that all things belong to God, and that wealth is therefore held by human beings in trust. The word zakat means both ‘purification’ and ‘growth’. Our possessions are purified by setting aside a proportion for those in need, and, like the pruning of plants, this cutting back balances and encourages new growth.

Each Muslim calculates his or her own zakat individually. For most purposes this involves the payment each year of two and a half percent of one’s capital.

A pious person may also give as much as he or she pleases as sadaqa, and does so preferably in secret. Although this word can be translated as ‘voluntary charity’ it has a wider meaning. The Prophet said ‘even meeting your brother with a cheerful face is charity.’

The Prophet said: ‘Charity is a necessity for every Muslim. ‘He was asked: ‘What if a person has nothing?’ The Prophet replied: ‘He should work with his own hands for his benefit and then give something out of such earnings in charity.’ The Companions asked: ‘What if he is not able to work?’ The Prophet said: ‘He should help poor and needy persons.’

The Companions further asked ‘What if he cannot do even that?’ The Prophet said ‘He should urge others to do good.’ The Companions said ‘What if he lacks that also?’ The Prophet said ‘He should check himself from doing evil. That is also charity.’


Every year in the month of Ramadan, all Muslims fast from first light until sundown, abstaining from food, drink, and sexual relations. Those who are sick, elderly, or on a journey, and women who are pregnant or nursing are permitted to break the fast and make up an equal number of days later in the year. If they are physically unable to do this, they must feed a needy person for every day missed. Children begin to fast (and to observe the prayer) from puberty, although many start earlier.

Although the fast is most beneficial to the health, it is regarded principally as a method of self purification. By cutting oneself off from worldly comforts, even for a short time, a fasting person gains true sympathy with those who go hungry as well as growth in one’s spiritual life.


The annual pilgrimage to Makkah – the Hajj – is an obligation only for those who are physically and financially able to perform it. Nevertheless, about two million people go to Makkah each year from every corner of the globe providing a unique opportunity for those of different nations to meet one another. Although Makkah is always filled with visitors, the annual Hajj begins in the twelfth month of the Islamic year (which is lunar, not solar, so that Hajj and Ramadan fall sometimes in summer, sometimes in winter). Pilgrims wear special clothes: simple garments which strip away distinctions of class and culture, so that all stand equal before God.

The rites of the Hajj, which are of Abrahamic origin, include circling the Ka’ba seven times, and going seven times between the mountains of Safa and Marwa as did Hagar during her search for water. Then the pilgrims stand together on the wide plain of Arafa and join in prayers for God’s forgiveness, in what is often thought of as a preview of the Last Judgment.

The close of the Hajj is marked by a festival, the Eid al-Adha, which is celebrated with prayers and the exchange of gifts in Muslim communities everywhere. This, and the Eid al-Fitr, a feast-day commemorating the end of Ramadan, are the main festivals of the Muslim calendar.

(12)    Does Islam tolerate other beliefs?

The Quran says: (God forbids you not, with regards to those who fight you not for [your] faith nor drive you out of your homes, from dealing kindly and justly with them; for God loveth those who are just).[20]

It is one function of Islamic law to protect the privileged status of minorities, and this is why non-Muslim places of worship have flourished all over the Islamic world. History provides many examples of Muslim tolerance towards other faiths: when the caliph Omar entered Jerusalem in the year 634, Islam granted freedom of worship to all religious communities in the city.

Islamic law also permits non-Muslim minorities to set up their own courts, which implement family laws drawn up by the minorities themselves.

When the caliph Omar took Jerusalem from the Byzantines, he insisted on entering the city with only a small number of his companions. Proclaiming to the inhabitants that their lives and property were safe, and that their places of worship would never be taken from them, he asked the Christian patriarch Sophronius to accompany him on a visit to all the holy places.

The Patriarch invited him to pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but he preferred to pray outside its gates, saying that if he accepted, later generations of Muslims might use his action as an excuse to turn it into a mosque.

According to Islam, man is not born in ‘original sin’. He is God’s vicegerent on earth. Every child is born with the fitra, an innate disposition towards virtue, knowledge, and beauty. Islam considers itself to be the ‘primordial religion’, din al-hanif, it seeks to return man to his original, true nature in which he is in harmony with creation, inspired to do good, and confirming the Oneness of God.

13.How does Islam guarantee human rights?

Freedom of conscience is laid down by the Quran itself: ‘There is no compulsion in religion’[21].

The life and property of all citizens in an Islamic state are considered sacred whether a person is Muslim or not.

Racism is incomprehensible to Muslims, for the Quran speaks of human equality in the following terms:

(O mankind! We created you from a single soul, male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, so that you may come to know one another. Truly, the most honored of you in God’s sight is the greatest of you in piety. God is All-Knowing, All Aware)[22].





[1]  (al-Shura; 42:11)

[2] (al-An’Zim; 6:103)

[3] (al- Sajdah; 32:9)

[4] (al-Sajdah; 32:7, al Baqarah; 2:31, al-Hijr; 15:29)

[5] (al-Baqarah; 2:30)

[6] (al Anbiya; 21:25)

[7] (al-Baqarah; 2:285)

[8] (Al-Isra’; 17:55)

[9] (al- Furqaan; 25:11)

[10] (al-Araf; 7:157, al-Saff; 61:6)

[11] (e.g. Genesis 21:13, 18, Deuteronomy 18:18 and 33:1-3, Isaiah 11:1-4, 21:13-17, 42:1-13 and others)

[12] (al-Mulk; 67:2)

[13] (al-Nisa’; 4:110)

[14] (Hud; 11:114)

[15] (al-A’raf; 7:156)

[16] (al-Baqarah; 2:190)

[17] (al-Mumtahanah; 60:8-9).

[18] (al-Ma’idah; 5:51).

[19] From the hadith collections of Bukhari, Muslim, Tirmidhi and Bayhaqi

[20]  (Quran, 60:8)

[21] (2:256)

[22] (49:13)


One comment on “What is Islam?

  1. […] particular person, race, or locality. A Muslim considers the term used by some writers, ???Mohammedahttps://thequranblog.wordpress.com/2008/05/29/what-is-islam/If I Did That Over There, They’d Cut My Hands Off San Diego ReaderWhat??s it like, being Muslim in […]

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