The Shahada, or confession of faith, states that “I bear witness that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God.” A devout Muslim will always repeat the Shahada upon rising and at bedtime. It is whispered into the ear of a newborn and into the ear of a person at the point of death.

Worldwide: 1,000,000,000 Muslims
United States: 5,800,000 Muslims

Some Muslims claim 1 billion or more followers worldwide and 6-7 million in the United States. There were approximately 1,200 mosques (masjids) and Islamic centers in the United States in 2000, up from 211 in 1970. One survey found that only one-third of Muslims in the United States attend prayer gatherings on Islam’s two most holy days and join in at least one Friday prayer a year at mosques.

Nearly 40 percent of the American mosques are affiliated with the Islamic Society of North America, based in Plainfield, Ind. Thirty percent of the mosques are independent and 20 percent are affiliated with Imam W. Deen Mohammed of Chicago. Thirty percent of American Muslims are African-Americans. Louis Farrakhan and his Nation of Islam, with fewer than 100,000 followers (figures have never been released), are not considered orthodox by the worldwide Islamic community.

Countries with the largest Muslim populations:

Indonesia: 145,100,000
Turkey: 58,600,000
India:  106.400,000
Iran: 56,500,000
Bangladesh: 103,700,000
Egypt: 47,300,000
Pakistan: 101,700,000
Nigeria: 44,400,000

Sixty-four nations have Muslim populations of ten percent or more.


Islam: Islam, meaning “surrender” or “submission,” comes from an Arabic word (slm) associated with “peace” (salaam). Islam is both a religion and a way of life.

Muslim: Muslim means “a submitted one” and is the proper term for a person who follows the religion of Islam. A Muslim is one who completely submits to the will of God. According to the Qur’an, the Muslim holy book, Adam was the first Muslim. Moslem is the Anglicized spelling of Muslim. Muhammadan is an improper term because it implies Muslims worship Muhammad, which they do not.

Mecca: Mecca, or Makkah, is the most holy city in the Islamic faith. All Muslims face toward this city in Saudi Arabia when offering their daily prayers. Medina and Jerusalem are two other holy cities in the Islamic faith. Many Muslims believe Adam found his wife in the vicinity of Mecca, that Abraham established the settlement that is now Mecca and built the Ka’ba (a black cube structure containing what is believed to be a meteorite), and that Hagar and Ishmael settled there. None of these teachings are found in the Bible.

Qur’an: The Qur’an (literally “the recitation”), or Koran, is the Muslim holy book. Portions of the Old Testament and Jesus’ Gospel (not the Gospels) are also authoritative. It is considered a meritorious achievement to memorize the entire Qur’an, which is about four-fifths the size of the New Testament. It is divided into 114 chapters or suras. In some countries, Muslims write verses from the Qur’an in chalk, mix the chalk in water and drink the mixture, believing it has magical power to heal.

Allah: Allah is the Arabic word for God. It is not the name of the Muslim God. Allah is a contraction of the Arabic definite article al, “the,” and ilah, “god,” thus Allah means “the God.” The Arabic word for “god,” ilah, is related to the Hebrew word for God, Elohim. Arab Christians have used “Allah” as the word for God since the ninth century.

Muhammad: Muhammad (570-632) was born in Mecca in Saudi Arabia. At about age 40, he reported an experience of a call from God which commanded him to “recite.” This was the first revelation from God which would continue for 22 years and become the Qur’an. Beginning in A.D. 622, he led his followers to Medina, an event commemorated as year one of the Islamic calendar. He returned to Mecca in A.D. 630, destroyed all of the idols (said to have numbered 360), except the Ka’ba, which was rededicated to Allah. Muhammad was buried in Medina.


The unity or singularity of God: This essential belief is stated in the Shahada or confession of faith. Muslims reject the Christian doctrine of the trinity because, Muslims insist, it attributes “companions or partners to Allah,” an unforgivable sin according to the Qur’an. Muhammad believed the trinity was God the Father, Mary the Mother and Jesus the Son. Muslims believe God has 3,000 names, but only 999 have been revealed to mankind in the Torah, Psalms, New Testament and Qur’an. The 99 names of God in the Qur’an are memorized and regularly recited by Muslims. Each name is said to have special power to answer specific prayer requests.

Angels: Angels are created beings who serve as divine messengers. Gabriel, called the Holy Spirit by Muslims, is said to have brought the words of the Qur’an to Muhammad. Satan is a fallen angel who seeks to lead people away from the worship of the one true God.

Prophets: There have been about 125,000 prophets or special messengers of God, but the Qur’an mentions only 25. The most prominent are Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. Prophets are infallible and without sin. Jesus is mentioned 97 times in 93 verses in the Qur’an.  All references to Jesus in the Qur’an are positive, but not all agree with the New Testament. His virgin birth is accepted (Mary is the only woman mentioned in the Qur’an). He is called the Word of God, Messiah, Prophet and Son of Mary, but not the Son of God. Jesus did not die on the cross; a substitute was provided by God. Jesus will return at the end of time to destroy all “unbelievers.” Muhammad is said to have been the last and greatest prophet because he received a universal mission from God, while earlier prophets, including Jesus, were sent to particular people groups. John 14:16 is said to have prophesied his birth.

Sharia: Sharia is Islamic religious law, a complex code of ethics, morality and religious duties designed to lead one to God. Sharia pressures Muslim women to wear the veil and dress, called the chador or burqa. Some Muslim countries have abolished sharia, others (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran) strictly enforce it. Much of the struggle in Islamic countries is an attempt to install sharia as law.

Last days: Muslim teachings emphasize end-time troubles, the resurrection of the dead and the judgment of God on all “unbelievers” who will be sent to hell, but faithful Muslims will enjoy a Paradise with God.


Shahada: The Shahada, or confession of faith, states that “I bear witness that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God.” A devout Muslim will always repeat the Shahada upon rising and at bedtime. It is whispered into the ear of a newborn and into the ear of a person at the point of death.

Salat: The Salat, or ritual prayer, is spoken 5 times each day: dawn, midday, mid-afternoon, sunset and two hours after sunset. These prayers can be said anywhere. On Friday, the Muslim holy day, prayers are said in a mosque, or masjid, where a sermon follows. Muslims prepare themselves by ceremonial washing and removal of shoes. Special postures, while facing Mecca, are prescribed. Men and women pray in divided or separate rooms. Mosques are sacred places so no talking occurs as in Christian churches. Worshippers sit on prayer mats. The only piece of furniture normally in a mosque is a wooden pulpit. Music is never played in a mosque.

Sawm: Fasting during the Islamic month of Ramadan is required of all faithful Muslims, with a number of persons temporarily exempted: certain travelers, the sick and elderly, pregnant women and young children. No food, water, or sexual relations are allowed during daylight hours during the fast. The fast reminds Muslims all gifts come from God. Ramadan (the changing dates are due to the Islamic lunar calendar being 11 days shorter than our Gregorian calendar) began on November 16, 2001. Muslims began fasting at daylight on November 17 and ended the fast on December 14. The Feast of Al-Fitr, held the day after Ramadan ends, is a major celebration with exchanging of gifts and donations of a day’s worth of food.

Zakat: The zakat is a religious tax amounting to 2.5 percent of a person’s annual wealth. Some elect to give 10 percent of their earnings. The funds are used for building mosques, relief for the poor and missionary programs.

Hajj: The hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, is required of every faithful Muslim who is physically and financially able, at least once in a lifetime. As many as 2 million pilgrims gather annually for seven days to circle the Ka’ba and perform other prescribed rituals during the hajj.

Jihad: Jihad, meaning exertion on behalf of God, is sometimes listed as a sixth pillar, although technically it is not. Jihad can refer to anything from spiritual warfare or an inner struggle a Muslim may feel to a “holy war” to avenge God’s honor due to some sacrilege. It can refer to preaching, writing or making war against enemies. Jihad includes the high quality, multi-colored literature produced to present Islam favorably to American readers.


Dietary regulations: The Qur’an prohibits drinking alcoholic beverages and eating pork. To do so is blasphemy against God.

Women: Many Muslim marriages are arranged. The Qur’an allows men to marry four women. Muslim men may marry Christian women, but not vice versa. In some Muslim countries, women are not allowed to drive cars.

Death and burial: A person approaching death is reminded of God’s goodness and forgiveness. His body is turned toward Mecca (as it is in the grave). The dying person’s last words should be: “I confess there is no God but Allah.” A body is bathed, wrapped in linen and placed in a simple grave. Caskets are seldom used. No flowers decorate the grave.


While there are thousands of Muslim people groups, a strong sense of unity exists among Muslims. Cultural and political differences are sometimes confused with religious differences.

Three major sects of Islam exist:

Sunni Muslims make up about 90 percent of the worldwide Muslim community. They contend Muhammad did not name a successor; consensus of the community determines Islamic tradition and law for the community.

Shi’a or Shi’ite Muslims insist Muhammad named his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, as his successor (Imam). Twelve Imams, the last born in 870, were representative of Muhammad. The 12th Imam disappeared at age eight. Shi’a Muslims believe he will reappear in the future. Until then, Shi’a Muslims are led by legal specialists and scholars called Ayatollahs. (Shi’a Imams should not be confused with Muslim imams who lead communal prayers.)

Sufi Muslims received their name from the wool garment worn by early Muslim mystics who emphasized a direct communion with God. Their practice of dancing, known as “whirling dervish,” started by 13th century Sufi poet Rumi to express love to God, sets them apart from other Muslims. In the United States, Sufism is distorted by New Age teachings. Within these three sects are found several categories of Muslims. Orthodox Muslims take the Qur’an literally and follow Islamic tradition closely. Conservatives accept some modern ideas. Secular Muslims have abandoned most practices. Popular Islam blends non-Muslim superstitions (astrology, charms, curses, etc.) with Islamic practices.

Gary Leazeris the founder and president of the Center for Interfaith Studies, Inc. He received a bachelor’s degree from MississippiCollege, and a master’s of divinity and doctorate from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. His primary areas of research have been the New Age Movement, the occult, sects and the world religions. He served on the staff of the Home Mission Board’s Interfaith Witness Department for 14 years.

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