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What is Islam?

Terminologies to Understand


In Islam: Christians and Jews, People of the Book.

With the rise of Islamic fundamentalism - partly in reaction to Israel's dominance of the Middle East - there has been a tendency in the past few years to think of Islam as being in conflict with the major religions of the West, Christianity and Judaism.

In fact, while all three religions have been turbulent, there has been a lot more symbiosis and coexistence over the last 1400 years than is generally acknowledged.

In classical Islamic theology, both Christians and Jews are regarded as 'People of the Book' - the Talmud and the Bible being regarded as Holy Books second only to the Quran. They cannot be forced to convert to Islam and are guaranteed freedom of worship in Islamic societies. Christians and Jews lived and worked peacefully under stable Islamic dynasties such as the Abbasids in Baghdad, Islamic Spain, and the Ottoman Caliphate in periods stretching from 750 AD into this century. Muslims regard Christianity and Judaism as incomplete versions of Islam. So they are obliged to tolerate these two faiths while in fact considering that they are closer to the teachings of Christian and Jewish holy men such as Moses and Christ than are the Jews and Christians themselves.

Many Jews see Muslim fundamentalism as hostile because it is hostile to the idea of Zionism and the state of Israel. And there are Muslim-Christian tensions right across the world in nation states where the two groups form significant proportions of the population: Lebanon's 1975-1991 civil war is the most well-known case but there are also conflicts in Africa, such as Nigeria and Sudan, and the Caucasus between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In most of these cases, however, religion is either a pretext or only one of many factors which have shaped the conflict, a symbol as much as it is a cause.

Sharia, the law of the golden age?

Islamic Law, or Shari'a, is held by Muslims to be a complete legal system that governs every aspect of individual and social life and is derived directly from the Quran and the Traditions and Sayings of the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century of the Christian Era.

Islamic fundamentalists demand the implementation of full Shari'a as a prerequisite for an Islamic state and under pressure from a wave of popular Islamic fervour, countries such as Iran, Pakistan and Sudan have made very public moves to introduce aspects of Islamic law. Supporters of political Islam often repeat the slogan that 'Islam is the solution' and look back on the early days of Islam as a golden age when justice reigned supreme and Muslim civilisation became dominant in the world as a result.

In fact, there is great controversy within the Muslim world about what exactly a return to Shari'a would mean. For example, many leading thinkers in political Islam argue that punishments such as the cutting off of a hand for theft could only be enacted at a time when society was entirely just and there was no excuse for theft.

Scholars say it's also clear that, while many Muslim countries are now largely under legal systems they borrowed or inherited from European colonial powers, the idea that Shari'a was ever strictly enforced right across the board is wishful thinking.Right from the earliest days, there were often two roughly parallel systems of law in Muslim societies and empires: religious law, which governed personal and family status, and civil administration, commerce and a large part of the public sphere which effectively came under civil law defined and administered by Muslim rulers.

And as Islamic Law developed over the centuries, loopholes emerged to smooth over rough points in various places at various times. For example, to counter the well-known punishment of death for adultery, a legal fiction known as 'al-rakid', or 'the Sleeping Foetus',evolved whereby a widow could be held to be pregnant for up to two years after the death of her husband. To convict for adultery requires four eyewitnesses who must each state their testimony four times - and at any time a statement can be retracted without penalty to the witness. It has even be known for a judge to rule that a woman became pregnant because she had sat on a bench in public baths shortly after a man had sat on the same bench.

What Does 'Jihad' Mean?

What exactly does Jihad mean? One of the commonest terms known of Islam, it is often misunderstood. The term Jihad comes from the Arabic root 'jahada' meaning 'to struggle'. The most famous use of the word Jihad is as 'Holy War', and Islamic guerrillas fighting state authority in various Muslim countries use it freely to describe their struggles. The fighter who fights a Jihad - a Mujahid - is believed to go straight to Paradise if he dies and his enemy will go straight to Hell.

But Muslims point out that the term has a much wider significance, meaning any kind of struggle, which has spiritual significance. Giving up smoking can count as Jihad, for example, or controlling one's temper. In Islamic theology, these struggles inside the personality are termed 'the Greater Jihad' and struggles with outside forces such as state power or tyrannical armies 'the lesser Jihad'.

All the same, the culture of Jihad and the 'martyrs' or shuhada it produces is pervasive in some Muslim countries. In the Palestinian territories, for example, during the Intifadah against Israeli occupation, such as was the prestige of dying as a 'shaheed' or martyr that even those who died in car accidents who had nothing to do with the political situation were termed 'shuhada' by their relatives.

Sharia Islamic Law:

For Muslims, the way God wants us to live. But has it ever been fully applied? And what is the doctrine of the Sleeping Foetus? Sunnis and Shia Islam's major schism started in succession battles just a few years after Muhammad died. Now it's a split as deep as between Catholic and Protestant Christians. The Veil Perhaps the single best known thing about Islam, and surely one of the tiredest metaphors for travel book titles. But it's a little more nuanced than it seems.


Everyone's Holy City Jerusalem has the distinction, and the misfortune, to be a Holy Place for three major world religions which have fought over it for centuries: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The al-Aqsa mosque sits right on top of the Wailing Wall, sacred to the Jews. According to Islamic law, it was from the Aqsa mosque that the Prophet Muhammad flew to Heaven on a horse one night as he lay sleeping in the town of Madina in Saudi Arabia. The Arabs conquered Jerusalem just after Muhammad died and built the mosque then - one of the oldest in Islam. Archeologists have found that in some early mosques Muslims prayed facing Jerusalem - before Mecca became the recognised centre of the Islamic faith.

The battle for Jerusalem goes on today. Palestinians demand access to Jerusalem as their inalienable right and Islamic fundamentalists all over the Middle East demand the Liberation of the Holy City from 'Zionist hands'. Israel, of course, vows that the whole city of Jerusalem shall remain forever the capital of the Jewish state despite the fact that the eastern half was under Jordanian Arab control for the first 20 years of Israel's existence.

It was in the Six Day War of 1967 that Israel conquered east Jerusalem along with the West Bank. In the three decades since, about 150,000 Israelis have settled in the eastern half of Jerusalem and now outnumber the Arabs there. They've been encouraged to do so by Israeli governments keen to establish their claim to the whole city by creating facts on the ground.

Huge estates have been built on what most neutral outside observers agree to be Arab land.

Pictures of al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, another mosque in the same compound, adorn the walls of homes in dank refugee camps and tenement blocks across the Middle East. As long as either side in the Arab-Jewish conflict tries to impose their exclusive control over the whole city of Jerusalem, it is likely to be an explissue.

Sunnis and Shiites, the great schism_

Islam is divided into two main sub-divisions, the Sunni, who form about a 90 percent majority of the Muslim world, and the Shia, who form about 10 percent.

The origins of the two schools are steeped in the early history of Islam. The Sunnis hold that the first four caliphs, or rulers, after the Prophet Muhammad were 'rightly guided' whereas Shi'ites are 'the partisans of Ali' who believe that the Prophet's son-in-law should have succeeded him directly.

These struggles in the seventh century broadened out into a schism a great as that between the Orthodox, Catholics and the Protestants in Christianity.

Both groups hold to the Quran as the sacred text and Muhammad as the Last prophet. But Shi'ites have their own version of Islamic law and their own theology. They also believe in a chain of leaders, or imams, who came after Muhammad and in a structure of spiritual authority through mullahs and a religious establishment.

There's also a different feel to Shi'ism, which has a much greater emphasis on the injustice of the world and on mysticism than Sunnism, which is more pragmatic.

It's important to realise that Iran is the largest Shi'a country in the world and as far as the mainstream Sunni Muslim world is concerned, the revolution of 1979 and the triumph of Ayatollah Khomeini were very heavily coloured by that. That's why Islamic fundamentalists in Algeria and Sudan take great pains to stress that their vision of an Islamic state is different.



 "The Arab and Muslim worlds are so weak, so divided, so confused, so co-opted that right under their noses the noses the U.S., NATO, Israel, and Turkey have put together the unnamed 'Ankara Pact'...and yet it's strategic and military - largely against them."

The Israeli Ma'ariv Newspaper Editorial