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The Geography of Islam

The Essentials of the Faith

Islam is one of the three great monotheistic faiths which has had an impact upon the world and history that is immeasurable. It was Islam which preserved many of the great texts of Greek knowledge from which the West would later learn. Islam produced great scientists and philosophers. Islamic mathematicians developed the numbering system we use today and Algebra. Muslim explorers and traders traveled much of the world, bringing their faith with them.

Founded: Islam was founded by the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, in the year 622 CE at Medina on the Arabian peninsula, although Muslims consider the biblical patriarch Abraham and his son Ishmael as the first true Muslims.

Adherents: Islam is a universalizing religion and is made up of a large portion of ethnic groups and nations found in the East, although the Arabs make up a large portion of believers. The muslim world extends from Turkey and the western coast of Africa across southern Asia to the Philippines and Indonesia. Islam extends north from India, where it shares the territory with other faiths, to central Asia and China.

Distribution: The distribution listed for Islam is given as follows from Markham, pp. 356-357:

Area Adherents Population Percentage
Latin America1,350,5000.3%
Northern America2,847,0001.0%

Major Teachings: The single most important teaching of Islam is the confession of faith known as the shahada: There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet. These are the first words spoken into the ears of a newly born child, and the last uttered at death. Allah is the creator of the universe and is just and merciful. Allah revealed his word to sinful man to guide him back to a life of sinlessness and an eternity in Paradise. Satan leads men to sin, and if men do not repent, spend eternity burning in the flames of Hell. Other important teachings include the Five Pillars of Islam and obedience to the laws of Islam (the Shari'a).

Koran Page link
View Text
Scriptures and Significant Writings: The Koran is the major scripture holy to all Muslims. It is the collection of revelations given to the prophet Mohammed which is the final authoritative revelation given by God to the world. The "Old" and "New" Testaments are considered to have been corrupted at some time in the past. Owing to the beauty of the Arabic prose in which the Koran is written, Muslims believe that it is impossible to translate the Koran to another language. The only thing that can be done is the translation of the meaning of the Koran. Thus, all Muslims are encouraged to learn to read Arabic. Also important is a collection of traditions about the Prophet known as the Hadith. Sufi mystics also use other collections of traditions.

crescent moon Symbols: The most universally recognized symbol of Islam is the crescent moon (called hilal) and star. It is used on this website to represent Islam. The phases of the moon is important since Islam uses a lunar calendar. The Red Crescent is the Muslim equivalent of the Red Cross.

Major Divisions: There are two major divisions in Islam today. The first and largest is the Sunni, comprising of 90% of all Muslims. They developed the Shari'a, or community law, which governs everyday life. Sunnis believed that prophetic succession passed through the caliphs after the death of the Prophet. The teachings of the caliphs together with those of the Prophet comprises the sunna or custom of all Muslims. The other major division is the Shia, which believe that the 12 imams, or perfect teachers, still guide faithful Muslims from Paradise. Shiaism tends toward the ecstatic. There are some smaller sects, but they tend not to be significant to Islam in general. Sufism is the mystical tradition of Islam, believing in a special inner revelation from God (Famighetti, p. 737).

Major Holy Days: The Islamic year starts with the Day of Hijra, where the prophet Mohammed departed from Mecca with his followers and migrated north to Medina in 622 CE. The year of the Hijra is also the start of the Muslim calendar from which the years are counted. The next festival is the Birth of the Prophet, celebrated during the month of Rabi I. Next is Laila Al-Bar'h or the Night of Forgiveness, observed in preparation for Ramadan, in which Muslims seek the forgiveness from each other. Ramadan is observed for the whole month, in which all food and drink are withheld during daylight hours. Light meals are then permitted after nightfall. Then comes Lailat Al-Qadr or the Night of Power, to celebrate the revelation of the Koran to the Prophet Mohammed. 'Id Al-Fitr or the Little Festival is the celebration of the end of the Ramadan fast, where gifts are given to children and the poor. Dhu Al-Hijja is the Month of the Pilgrimage when the hajj, or the pilgrimage to Mecca occurs. Finally, the 'Id Al-Adha is the Festival of Sacrifice, coinciding with the end of the hajj, is observed with animal sacrifices and the distribution of the meat to the poor.

The Details about Islam

Those who reject
Our Signs, We shall soon
Cast into the Fire:
As often as their skins
Are roasted through,
We shall change them
For fresh skins,
That they may taste
The Chastisement: for Allah
Is Exalted in Power, Wise.

But those who believe
And do deeds of righteousness,
We shall soon admit to Gardens,
With rivers flowing beneath--
Their eternal home:
Therein shall they have
Spouses purified
We shall admit them
To shades, cool and ever deepening.

-- the meaning of the Koran,
Surah 4.56, 57

Islam is an Arabic verb meaning to submit. Islam is the religion of submission to God. Islam does not agree with concept of a chosen people found in Judaism, nor with the Christian abandonment of strict monotheism in the doctrine of the trinity. For Islam, God is one and He alone is worthy of worship. The basics of Islam may be summed up in the Five Pillars:

  1. the daily confession that there is one God and Mohammed is His prophet
  2. the conduct of prayer five times daily, facing Mecca
  3. keeping the great fast of Ramadan, abstaining from food and drink during the daylight hours
  4. Zakat, or the giving of alms to the poor; ideally one-fourth of the Muslim's income
  5. at least once in the life of the Muslim, making the hajj or the pilgrimage to Mecca where one circles the Ka'ba seven times

The Prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him, was a member of the Quraysh tribe, the ruling tribe of Mecca in the sixth century CE. Mecca was even then the most important town of western Arabia. According to tradition, Abraham had established a there a pre-Islamic pilgrimage, making Mecca an important economic and trade center. It was at Mecca in 610 CE on mount Hira' that Mohammed received his first revelations at the age of forty. Because of the economic consequences in the pre-Islamic pagan society, only the closest associates of Mohammed converted. Due to extreme persecution, Mohammed and his followers migrated north to Medina in 622 CE, now known as the hijra.

Mohammed gained more converts in Medina and later returned to Mecca, winning two military campaigns in 624 and 627. His generous treatment of the Meccans helped him gain adherents in high political positions. Almost immediately, Mohammed sent forces south into what is now Oman, commanding the rulers there to embrace Islam. Once possession of the port of Suhar was gained, one of the greatest religious expansions in history began.

The Geography of Islam

By 750 CE, Islam stretched from the Atlantic Ocean east to China. The great caliphs, or successors to the prophet reigned. Ummah, or Muslim communities, were formed throughout this vast territory. Two major types of diffusion were used during the spread of Islam: contagious (contact) and hierarchal (through force).

Reasons for the success of Islam have been debated, but there are generally two on which scholars generally agree. The first is religious fervor, or the idea that a religion unites and strengthens a people to help them accomplish goals that seemed impossible in the past. The other explanation is the systematic execution of religious tolerance, which did two things: made way for peaceful conversion and allowed different religious beliefs to co-exist. Throughout the Muslim empire, the dhimmi or protected people system was instituted granting Jewish and Christian populations the right to keep their property and profess their religion, provided that they paid their taxes. It was this type of religious tolerance that kept the great majority of India Hindu after many years of Muslim rule.

The expansion of Islam into non-Arab territory also increased the number of adherents, mainly during the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Suleiman the Magnificent ruled from 1520-1564 during which Islam reached its greatest penetration into western Europe, taking Belgrade and Vienna.

In the practice of Islam, the mosque is the place of public worship. It must have a minaret from which Muslims are called to prayer and be oriented toward Mecca. Mecca is the holiest site in Islam, being the place where the Ka'ba is located. Medina is the second holiest site, and Jerusalem is the third. Tradition teaches that the temple mount in Jerusalem was the "farthest mosque" visited by Mohammed in the night journey spoken of in the Koran (Surah 17.1). The site is now marked by the Dome of the Rock and the Mosque of Hadhrat 'Umar. The issue of control over the temple mount is a current source of contention between Islam and Judaism.


Ballou, Robert O. (Editor), The Viking Portable Library World Library. New York: The Viking Press, 1967.

Famighetti, Robert (Editor), The World Almanac and Book of Facts 1995. Mahwah, NJ: Funk & Wagnalls Corporation, 1994.

Markham, Ian S., (Editor), A World Religions Reader. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.

The Presidency of Islamic Researches, IFTA, Call and Guidance, The Holy Qu-ran: English Translation of the Meanings and Commentary. Al-Medinah, Saudi Arabia: King Fahd Holy Qu-ran Printing Complex, 1400 AH.

Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Eerdmans' Handbook to the World's Religions. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1982.

Links for More Information

About Al-Islam and Muslims (massive amount of information)
Islamic Audio Studio (audio prayers and readings)
Islam (Pakistan Online)
Islam Home Page
Muslim Students Association of Columbia University
The Holy Koran (searchable)
Islamic Affairs Department at the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia

Version 1.1 dated 07.06.98

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