Atlas of World Religions Islam

The Islamic World

The Islamic World

About 1.3 billion people consider themselves followers of Islam, the world's second largest - and fastest-growing - religion after Christianity. In recent years, it has gained influence chiefly in Africa and the central Asian countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union.

Islam means the complete "submission" to God's will. A person who embraces this is a Muslim. Muslims object to being called "Mohammedans," after the name of the religion's founder, because they regard its homology to the terms "Christians" or "Buddhists" as misleading.

Islam had its origins in the revelations that the prophet Mohammed, who was born in 570 C.E. in Mecca and died in 632 in Medina, is said to have received from the Angel Gabriel. People are viewed as Muslims if they publicly profess their belief that there is no God except Allah and that Mohammed is the Messenger of God. The religion is founded on the Koran with its 114 chapters or suras.

Like Christians, Muslims believe in a life after death, a paradise and a hell. The "five pillars of Islam" are the belief in Allah as the only God and in Mohammad as His prophet; daily prayers; giving alms; fasting during the month of Ramadan; and making the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca at least once. In everyday life, the most important pillar is the salat - the prayer, obligatory for all adult Muslims, which must be performed five times a day. All that is needed to hold the salat is a "pure" place: a small prayer rug ensures the requisite cleanliness. Congregational prayers are held in the mosque (Arabic: masjid, "the place where one prostrates oneself"). The call to prayer is issued from the minaret.

Typical of Islam is the close nexus of politics, religion and daily life. The Koran is both a worldly and religious guide, and the umma both the religious and political community. For the past 30 years or so, various movements within political Islam, also known as fundamentalism, have acquired a global reach. Their shared goal is to unify religion and politics on the basis of Islamic law (sharia). These movements oppose, in particular, western influences in the Islamic world, such concepts as the separation of church and state and western individualism, as well as the supposedly "hedonistic" lifestyle of industrial nations.

Sunnis and Shiites

The Shiites are followers of the Shia (Arabic for the “party (of Ali)”) branch of Islam. They worship the Fourth Caliph Ali bin Abi Talib and recognize his direct descendants only as Mohammed’s true successors.

The Sunnis take a broader view and also accept religious leaders who aren’t descended directly from the Prophet Mohammed.


Estimated Shiite population in millions as percentage of population
1. Iran 58.7 89
2. Pakistan 19.1 13
3. Iraq 14.4 60
4. Azerbaijan 5.4 65
5. Afghanistan 4.7 15
6. Syria 1.9 8
7. Saudi Arabia 1.8 10

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