In A.D. 610, Muhammad, a prosperous merchant of the Arabian town of Mecca, began to preach the first of a series of revelations said to have been granted him by God (Allah) through the agency of the archangel Gabriel. The divine messages, received during solitary visits into the desert, continued during the remainder of his lifetime.
Muhammad denounced the polytheistic paganism of his fellow Meccans, his vigorous and continuing censure ultimately earning him their bitter enmity. In 622 he and a group of his followers were forced to flee to Yathrib, which became known as Medina (the city) through its association with Muhammad. The flight (hijra) marked the beginning of the Islamic Era and the entrance of Islam as a powerful force on the stage of history; indeed, the Muslim calendar begins with the year 622. In Medina, Muhammad continued his preaching, ultimately defeated his detractors in battle, and consolidated the temporal and spiritual leadership of most Arabs in his person before his death in 632.
After Muhammad's death, his followers compiled those of his words that were regarded as coming directly from God in a document known as the Quran, the holy scripture of Islam. Other sayings and teachings of the Prophet, as well as the precedents of his personal behavior as recalled by those who had known him, became the hadith (sayings). From these sources, the faithful have constructed the Prophet's customary practice, or sunna, which they endeavor to emulate. Together, the Quran, hadith, and sunna form a comprehensive guide to the spiritual, ethical, and social life of the faithful in most Muslim countries.
Islam in a short time was transformed from a small religious community into a dynamic political and military authority. By the early eighth century A.D., Muslim conquerors had subdued the coastal population of North Africa, but widespread conversion of the nomads of the central and western desert did not come until after large-scale invasions of the eleventh century by beduin tribes from Arabia and Egypt. As Islam spread westward and southward in Africa, various elements of indigenous religious systems became absorbed into and then altered strictly Islamic beliefs. For example, the Islamic tradition includes provisions for a variety of spirits and supernatural beings, as long as Allah is still recognized as the only God. Muslims in Mauritania believe in various lesser spirits apparently transformed from pre-Islamic faiths into Islamic spirits. Mauritanian Muslims, however, do not emphasize the Islamic concepts of the eternal soul and of reward or punishment in an afterlife.
Tenets of Islam
The shahadah (profession of faith, or testimony) states succinctly the central belief, "There is no God but God (Allah), and Muhammad is his Prophet." The faithful repeat this simple profession on ritual occasions, and its recital designates the speaker as a Muslim. The God preached by Muhammad was known to his countrymen, for Allah is the general Arabic term for the supreme being rather than the name of a particular deity. Rather than introducing a new deity, Muhammad denied the existence of the pantheon of gods and spirits worshiped before his prophethood and declared the omnipotence of God, the unique creator. The term Islam means submission to God, and a person who submits is a Muslim.
Muhammad is the "Seal of the Prophets," the last of the prophetic line. His revelations are said to complete for all time the series of revelations that had been given earlier to Christians and Jews. God is believed to have remained one and the same throughout time, but men are seen as having misunderstood or strayed from his true teachings until set aright by Muhammad. Prophets and sages of the biblical tradition, such as Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, are recognized as inspired vehicles of God's will. Islam, however, reveres as sacred only the message, rejecting Christianity's deification of the messenger. It accepts the concepts of guardian angels, the Day of Judgment, resurrection, and the eternal life of the soul.
The duties of the Muslim form the "five pillars" of the faith: the shahadah, salat (daily prayer), zakat (almsgiving), sawm (fasting), and hajj (pilgrimage). The believer prays facing Mecca five times a day. Whenever possible, men pray in congregation at a mosque under direction of an imam, or prayer leader, and on Fridays are obliged to do so. Women are permitted to attend public worship at the mosque, where they are segregated from the men, but their attendance tends to be discouraged, and more frequently they pray in the seclusion of their homes.
In the early days of Islam, a tax for charitable purposes was imposed on personal property in proportion to the owner's wealth; the payment purified the remaining wealth and made it religiously legitimate. The collection of this tax and its distribution to the needy were originally functions of the state. With the decentralization of Muslim religious and political authority as Islam spread to many countries, however, this became an individual responsibility.
The ninth month of the Muslim calendar is Ramadan, celebrated as the time during which the Quran was revealed to Muhammad. It is a period during which Muslims must abstain from food, drinking, smoking, and sexual activity during the daylight hours. Exempted are the sick, soldiers on duty, travelers on necessary journeys, young children, and menstruating, pregnant, or lactating women. The well-to-do accomplish little work during this period, and many businesses close or operate on reduced schedules. Since the months of the lunar calendar revolve through the solar year, Ramadan occurs during various seasons.
Finally, at least once during their lifetime, all Muslims should if possible make the hajj to the holy city of Mecca to participate in the special rites that occur during the twelfth month of the lunar calendar. Upon completion of this and certain other ritual assignments, the returning pilgrim is entitled to an honorific title, Haj (fem., Hajjah).
In addition to prescribing specific duties, Islam imposes a code of conduct entailing generosity, fairness, honesty, and respect for others. It proscribes adultery, gambling, usury, and the consumption of carrion, blood, pork, and alcohol. The proscription of alcohol is irregularly enforced in most Muslim countries, but since 1986 the Mauritanian government has strictly enforced its prohibition.
Muslims traditionally are subject to sharia, which--as interpreted by religious courts--covers most aspects of life. Sharia was developed by jurists from the Quran and from the traditions of the Prophet, and it provides a complete pattern for human conduct. Sharia also serves as a normative legal code.
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