What Muslims Believe


As is the case with all religions, there is a core set of beliefs and practices that define the religion of Islam. These are the least common denominators that distinguish and define the Islamic faith. At a minimum, this core would include what are known as the five pillars of Islam. These five pillars are considered the heart and pulse of Islam, and it is often asserted that believing in and accepting them as the foundational articles of the faith differentiates between a Muslim and non-Muslim. The five pillars of the faith are the following:


1. The testament of faith (shahada): To believe and profess that there is no God but God and that Muhammad is the messenger of God.


The testament of faith is the most fundamental and critical pillar of Islam. Muslim theologians agree that believing in and pronouncing the testament of faith is the defining conviction and act that makes one a Muslim. The converse is also true: denying the testament of faith means that one is not a Muslim. At the most basic level, the testament of faith means a strong and unwavering conviction in one God, who has no partners or equals, and who was not begotten and who begets no other. The testament also means believing that Muhammad is God’s prophet and messenger, who faithfully transmitted what God revealed to him. Believing that Muhammad was but a human being who possessed no Divine powers or attributes is a critical part of the Islamic faith. Muhammad’s role was restricted to transmitting the literal Divine revelation, word for word, and to acting faithfully upon God’s commands. Muslims do not worship the Prophet Muhammad, but they do honor and respect him as God’s messenger, and they treat him as a high moral example to be followed on all matters.


"The God that Muslims believe in is referred to as Allah in Arabic. Christian Arabs refer to Jesus as Allah as well. This point is worth emphasizing, because there is a common misconception in the West that Muslims worship a deity other than the God of Abraham or that the word Allah is exclusively used by Muslims. Muslims believe that they worship the same God that Jews and Christians worship..."


This is considered to be the basic meaning of the testament of faith, but there are various implications and details that follow from it, and those implications are of critical importance to the faith. Some of these Islamic theological tenets, despite their pivotal importance to the faith, are poorly known in the West. In fact, people in the West are often surprised when they learn, for instance, about Islam’s relationship to Judaism and Christianity. Therefore, in introducing some of these Islamic tenets, it is best to let the Qur’an speak for itself. Hence, in this particular section I will be quoting extensively from the Qur’an.


The Qur’an and the Sunna (the authentic traditions of the Prophet) are the primary sources of Islam, which contain the beliefs and teachings of the Islamic faith. All Muslims accept the Qur’an—the Divine word revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. Therefore, the Qur’an is considered to be the literal, authentic, and unadulterated word of God. It is a tenet of the Islamic faith that the Qur’an is completely authentic; it has not been redacted, altered, revised, or corrupted in any way. However, other than the Qur’an, which was authored by God, there is a body of oral traditions attributed to the Prophet, known as the Sunna. These Sunna contain descriptions of the Prophet’s conduct in different contexts and situations, and also teachings, judgments, instructions, and statements, all attributed to the Prophet. Unlike the case of the Qur’an, the issue with the Sunna is its authenticity—whether the various reports and traditions are accurately attributed to the Prophet. All Muslims understand that some traditions and reports were fabricated and then improperly attributed to the Prophet. However, Muslims accept that Prophetic traditions or reports that are verifiably authentic are to be treated as obligatory and binding.


The God that Muslims believe in is referred to as Allah in Arabic. Christian Arabs refer to Jesus as Allah as well. This point is worth emphasizing, because there is a common misconception in the West that Muslims worship a deity other than the God of Abraham or that the word Allah is exclusively used by Muslims. Muslims believe that they worship the same God that Jews and Christians worship. In Qur’anic usage, the phrase “People of the Book” refers to the followers of the Abrahamic faith, mostly Christians and Jews. (The reason I say mostly Christians and Jews is that the Qur’an mentions Sabians as well, but Muslim jurists extended the People of the Book status to Zoroastrians, Hindus, and Sikhs, and some jurists even added Confucians to the list.) Addressing the People of the Book, the Qur’an reminds the followers of the three monotheistic religions that they all worship the same God. The Qur’an states: “Tell them [Christians and Jews] that we believe in what has been sent down to us and we believe in what has been sent down to you. Our God and your God is one and to Him we submit.” (Qur’an 29:46)


It is a tenet of faith in Islam that Muhammad is the final prophet in a long line of Abrahamic prophets all conveying the same basic message to humanity. Therefore, a Muslim must necessarily believe in Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and many others as prophets of the same and one God—all bearing the same essential message of submission to God. For example, the Qur’an proclaims the following testament of faith: “The Prophet believes in what has been revealed to him by his Lord. And so do the faithful believe in the same. Each one believes in God and His angels, His Books and the prophets and We make no distinction between the apostles. They all say, ‘We hear and obey, and we seek your forgiveness O Lord, for to You we shall journey in the end.’” (Qur’an 2:285) As this verse emphasizes, God considers all the Abrahamic prophets to be equals, and all the prophets upheld the same core set of beliefs.


The same idea is made even more explicit in the following Qur’anic revelation addressed to Muslims: “Say, we believe in God, and in what has been revealed to us, and in what had been sent down to Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and their offspring, and what has been revealed to Moses and Jesus and to all other prophets by their Lord. We make no distinction between them, and we submit to Him and obey.” (Qur’an 3:84) In this verse, it is Muslims who are commanded to believe in all the Abrahamic prophets equally and without distinction. However, according to Muslim theology, while some of the Abrahamic prophets were sent to a particular tribe or nation, Muhammad carried the final and perfected Divine message to all of humanity. In addition, Muslims believe that aspects or parts of the earlier messages sent by God were altered, deformed, corrupted, or otherwise derailed from their initial purpose, and Islam was sent to reclaim and restore the original message to its pristine form. One important example of this is the concept of the Trinity in Christianity. Muslims do not believe that Jesus made any claims to being Divine or that he taught the doctrine of the Trinity. The Qur’an affirms the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, the virginity of Mary, and the miracles of Jesus and asserts that Christ was aided by the Holy Ghost. However, the Qur’an contends that some of the followers of Christ misunderstood or misrepresented his teachings by claiming that he was Divine or that he was God’s begotten son. Therefore, in Muslim belief, Jesus was another Abrahamic prophet, just like Moses, preaching the same message of submission to God. In Qur’anic discourses, Jesus is claimed as a Muslim prophet, in the sense that his message to humanity was at its core the same as that of Muhammad. According to the Qur’an, the Torah and the Injil (New Testament) are divine books revealed by the same God who authored the Qur’an. However, Muslims believe that various historical forces interceded, leading to a process in which parts of these Divine texts became corrupted by human revisions, alterations, and omissions.


Nevertheless, the Qur’an insists on the essential unity of all the Abrahamic messages; the moral and spiritual path they set out is in a fundamental way of a similar nature. Therefore, for instance, the Qur’an asserts: “God has laid down for you the same way of life and belief that He had set out to Noah, and that We have enjoined for you, and that We had bequeathed to Abraham, Moses, and Jesus so that you will establish the faith, and not divide amongst yourself.” (Qur’an 42:13) The Qur’an states that there is an essential unity not just in revelation and prophetic teachings but in creation. Therefore, the Qur’an often refers to the various prophets as Muslim, and it also describes nature and creation as Muslim as well. According to the Qur’an, revelation and creation attest to God’s unity and affirm the moral obligation of recognizing that God is worthy of grateful supplication and submission.


2. Prayer (salat): Muslims are required to perform five formal ritual prayers a day.


Shi’i Muslims perform the same five prayers, but instead of doing them five separate times, they perform them three separate times during the day. Muslims are also required to perform a congregational prayer in the mosque once a week, on Fridays, known as jum‘ah prayers.


Muslims are encouraged to pray in the mosque as much as possible. In fact, each mosque holds a congregational prayer for each of the five prayers daily, which is usually attended by fewer Muslims than those who attend the Friday jum‘ah prayers. The person leading the congregational prayers is usually called an imam, but other terms, such as shaykh or ‘alim, have also been used.


The Friday jum‘ah prayer is designed to bring Muslim communities together to listen to a sermon before performing a prayer together as a congregation. The sermons are supposed to discuss the issues of concern to the whole community, but in current practice often the sermons focus on imparting general moral lessons without discussing any particular problems that might plague the community. Uncensored, Friday sermons often become occasions for mobilizing the masses and for inducing political change. Historically, Friday sermons have sparked many protests, riots, and even full-scale rebellions against one government or another. Today, in some Muslim countries, governments attempt to dictate the topics that may be discussed in the Friday sermon. At the conclusion of the Friday prayer, in order to strengthen the social bond and sense of unity in the Muslim communities, worshippers are encouraged to shake hands and meet and socialize with each other.


Other than the five ritual prayers and the weekly congregational prayers, Muslims are encouraged to perform informal prayers that could be done any time in the day. Muslims may volunteer additional ritual prayers that are performed according to specifically prescribed movements, or they may pray and supplicate to God in any position and in any place. Some non-Muslims are under the misimpression that Muslims may worship God only through prescribed ritualistic movements. This is not true. It is an article of faith in Islam that the relationship between God and the individual is direct and personal. Therefore, other than the prescribed five prayers, a Muslim may communicate with God in any way that meets the requirements of purity and cleanliness as well as respect and dignity.


3. Fasting of Ramadan (siyam): During the Muslim month of Ramadan, from sunrise to sundown every day for thirty days, Muslims abstain from eating and drinking, if they are physically able to do so, as well as from sex, violence, and cursing. This is a month in which Muslims focus on all forms of self-discipline, including refraining from anger, backbiting, and all forms of bad habits.


During the month of Ramadan, Muslims are supposed to intensify their efforts of struggling to overcome their base and vile desires and weaknesses. In Islamic sources, this is known as jihad al-nafs, or the struggle against oneself. Put differently, during the month of Ramadam, each Muslim is expected to undertake a personal jihad. According to the Prophet’s teachings, this struggle for self-purification is the highest possible form of jihad. In addition to self-purification, Muslims are expected to intensify their efforts at building their relationship with God. They are expected to assess the nature of their past relationship with God, and repent and mend whatever breaches exist in this relationship. Moreover, fasting is supposed to remind Muslims of the sufferings of the poor, and therefore Muslims are expected to give generously to the poor. In fact, part of the communitarian obligations upon Muslims is to arrange for public meals in which the poor are fed, especially during Ramadan. The month of Ramadan is a month of intensified training for individuals and the Muslim community. However, Muslims are encouraged to fast at least a couple times a week throughout the year if their health permits, and to continue their exercises in developing self-control and discipline.


4. Almsgiving (zakat): This is a set percentage (ranging from 2.5 percent to 20 percent, depending on the sect) of their wealth to the poor annually. In addition to these alms, Muslims are strongly encouraged to give to charity (sadaqa), each according to his or her wealth and ability.


The giving of charity is one of the most repeatedly emphasized obligations in the Qur’an. The Qur’an mentions groups of people particularly deserving of charity: the poor, the orphan, relatives in need, wayfarers and strangers or aliens in the land, and prisoners of war or other people in a state of bondage. The charity in this case is aimed at freeing them from their bondage. It is also considered highly praiseworthy to give charity to seekers of knowledge, scholars, and students in need. Importantly, most Muslim scholars make no distinction between giving charity to Muslims or nonMuslims. This includes giving charity to non-Muslim prisoners of war or others suffering from the oppression of bondage. The puritans, however, insist that charity must be given only to Muslims.


5. Pilgrimage (Hajj): A pilgrimage to Mecca once in a lifetime for those Muslims who can afford the trip and whose health allows them to make it.


Much has been written about the justification for the pilgrimage. Most importantly, pilgrimage is a symbol of Muslim unity and of the basic equality of all Muslims. All Muslims go on the pilgrimage wearing the same kind of clothing so that there is no distinction between rich and poor; all stand next to each other before God while clothed in the same white shrouds for men and simple white dresses for women. The rites performed while at pilgrimage are designed to emphasize not just the unity of all Muslims, but also the basic unity of the Abrahamic faiths. The circumambulation performed by Muslims around the Ka’ba (the cubic structure in the center of Mecca) symbolizes the circumambulation of the universe and all of existence around God.


These five pillars constitute the backbone of the Islamic faith, and according to traditional Islamic law, all Muslims must at least strive to fulfill the five obligations honestly and with sincerity. Denying one of the five pillars takes one out of the Islamic faith, meaning that a Muslim, in principle, must accept the five pillars as obligatory. Actually performing the five pillars is a different matter. As long as one admits that the five pillars are the essence of Islam and pronounces the testament of faith, one is accepted into the fold of Islam. There is no substantial difference between the moderates, conservatives, and puritans on this point. They do disagree, however, as to what, if anything, makes a Muslim an apostate.


The essential objective of the five pillars is to teach people to consistently work at developing a relationship with God; to learn piety, self-restraint, and humility; to emphasize the shared brotherhood of all Muslims; and to underscore the importance of service to others as a means of worshipping God. The five pillars have been described as the foundation upon which the rest of Islam stands, because they open up the potential of realizing the truly sublime—for realizing Godliness in oneself by surrendering oneself to Divinity.


In discussing the main doctrines that unite all Muslims and that form the backbone of Islam, I should mention that centuries ago a considerable number of Muslims used to believe that Islam is founded on six and not five pillars. The sixth pillar is summed up in the proclamation that every Muslim has a duty to enjoin the good and forbid the evil. Today, all Muslims agree that enjoining the good and forbidding the evil is a solemn religious duty upon all Muslims, but few would still count it as the sixth pillar of Islam. In essence, this religious obligation is very similar to what Thomas Aquinas asserted as the first principle of natural law: that all people ought to do good and refrain from doing evil.


The Islamic precept, however, goes beyond an injunction to do or refrain from doing particular acts; it also includes additional social and political obligations. Besides doing good and refraining from evil oneself, wherever and whenever possible, a Muslim is expected to encourage others to seek the good and to try to prevent others from doing evil. This duty is applicable at various levels—at the level of the family, society, and the state. Parents must discharge this religious obligation when dealing with their children, individuals owe both society and the state the same obligation, and the state owes society the same reciprocal obligation. As examples, at the family level parents fulfill this duty by providing proper moral guidance to their children and raising them well; at the social level, a Muslim might advise his friend to stop consuming alcohol or to start praying; at the state level, a Muslim might discharge his duty by speaking truthfully before the ruler and sincerely counseling him regarding state policies that are causing injustice and undue suffering. Emphasizing that in the political sphere the duty of enjoining the good and forbidding the evil often entails serious sacrifice, the Prophet taught that a word of truth spoken before a tyrant is an act of great moral value; and if as a result of doing so a Muslim loses his life, he dies a martyr.


Although all Muslims agree that enjoining the good and forbidding the evil is an Islamic obligation, this basic principle generated an enormous amount of debate and raised some of the most heated controversies among various theological and legal factions in Islamic history. This is not surprising, because this basic principle became implicated in controversies about political legitimacy, the role of law, methods of legal enforcement, and the legality of rebellion or disobedience. Furthermore, this principle raised numerous questions as to the limits of social and political activism and the permissibility of selfhelp when one encounters behavior that arguably violates Islamic law. The question incessantly raised and debated was: Assuming that the state is weak, absent, or unwilling to enforce Islamic legal injunctions, may Islamic law legitimately be enforced by, for instance, individuals, or the head of a small community, like a village or a tribe?


It is important to emphasize that the five or six pillars of Islam do not represent all that Muslims agree upon, and I am certainly not claiming that other than the pillars of Islam Muslims disagree about everything else. The range of edicts and principles that Muslims agree upon is very broad. For instance, all Muslims agree that good Muslims ought to honor their parents, respect the elderly, be decent and caring toward their neighbors, feel for and help the poor, speak the truth, keep their promises, abstain from consuming alcoholic beverages, and refrain from committing adultery, fornicating, cheating, or stealing. All of these and many other ethical commandments are very important to Islam. All Muslims are expected to work hard to observe these commandments and to instill these virtues in themselves and, in the course of doing so, set a good moral example for others. I have focused on the five pillars because they are often identified as the foundation of the faith, and because taken together they are also the distinctive elements that define Islam.


What unites Muslims is substantial indeed. But the ways that any religion manifests itself in practice are always as varied as the personal psychologies and experiences that attempt to understand and absorb the teachings of that religion. People coming from different cultural and social contexts will live out the doctrines of the same faith in very different and varied ways. For instance, those growing up in despotic cultures will tend to understand their religious faith in ways that affirm their authoritarian experience. The same is true for people who grew up within a pluralist and democratic cultural experience; they will tend to understand their religion in ways that affirm tolerance, personal choice, and greater individual freedom.


It is important to note that on most theological issues, even those of greatest disagreement, there is a certain amount of shared territory between moderates and puritans; there is hardly a theological question upon which they completely diverge without adhering to a set of common assumptions and beliefs. After all, puritans and moderates still belong to the same religion; they believe in the same Holy Book; and they learn the same basic religious precepts. However, despite that degree of overlapping conviction, the beliefs of moderates and puritans often diverge widely because the two groups adhere to worldviews that are fundamentally at odds with each other. Often the differences between puritans and moderates are due to the amount of emphasis that each group assigns to principled moral imperatives as opposed to pragmatic political considerations; other differences are frequently due to the amount of emphasis that each group places on the overall objectives of Islam as opposed to the technical specifics of the law.


The point to bear in mind is that although on any given topic moderates and puritans will often start from the same or similar premises or precepts, for various reasons their ways quickly part and the gap between their ways of thinking becomes increasingly wide.


The most foundational and critical issue in Islamic theology, and also the issue that is at the core and heart of most of the disagreements between moderates and puritans, is the issue of God and the purpose of creation. The gap between puritans and moderates goes back to variant conceptions of the Divine Being—God’s Self. Although puritans and moderates read the same references contained in the Qur’an about God and God’s attributes, their respective understandings of key issues related to God’s nature, what God wants from human beings, the purpose of creation, and the nature of the relationship between God and human beings diverge very sharply. These are not abstract theoretical disagreements without real consequences to the lives of people. Far from it—these elementary and foundational questions end up being at the very core of the problems that plague the lives of Muslims and non-Muslims today. 


(Excerpted from The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists)