Belief is a very important component to Islam. As Turner points out, the notion of belief is referenced frequently within the Quran, and is a cornerstone of the idea behind the origins of Islam. Therefore, we want to understand what exactly are the beliefs of Muslims?
In this article shall discuss the various Islamic beliefs that Muslims throughout the world hold. However, as we shall see, there is no one set of “Islamic beliefs” or “Muslim beliefs,” but rather, a series of beliefs that Muslims may differ on. Now, there are some concepts that are more agreed upon than others, but how one interprets these beliefs varies greatly.
We will talk about a number of Islamic beliefs that include but are not limited to the pillars of Islam (which will include discussions about the belief in God, Muhammad, belief in prayer, charity, as well as fasting, religious pilgrimage), questions about death, among many other topics. We will spend some time delving into these matters, and why each of these beliefs are important to Muslims.
Why is this important for international relations? Given that the topic for this article is more centered on religion, one may be wondering what relationship this would have to international relations. However, I would argue that understanding Islamic beliefs (or any beliefs, and how individuals of a said faith believe something) is very important for international relations, particularly if you are studying questions related to religion and politics, culture, etc… As long as people in the world are motivated by religion, then it is imperative to study beliefs with an eye on how these beliefs can be related to domestic and international politics.
Going into an exhaustive discussion about Islamic beliefs will take as along as the history of the faith. Any single topic regards Islam has been examined, and continues to be talked about–and written about. So, our intention here is not to go through the entire religion and see what Muslims believe on every single matter, but rather, we want to choose some themes and look at different belief structures associated with that issue.
We will focus on the five pillars of Islam, and go into detail within each category. The five pillars of Islam are:
- Shahada (Testimony of Faith). There is no God but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God.
- Prayer: Five Daily Prayers
- Zakat (Almsgiving) (Charity)
- Fasting: Fasting during the month of Ramadan
- Hajj: The Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca.
Monotheism in Islam
Arguably the central aspect of Islamic belief revolves around the notion of monotheism, and that this one God not only created everything in existence. As Turner notes, “The principle requirement of belief in the Qur’anic sense of the word is the the individual should attain to a state of perception and reflection in which he sees the cosmos not as a collection of ‘natural’ phenomena, but as ‘signs’ (ayat) which make known the One Creator. All of the ‘natural world’ is claimed by the Qur’an to point to Him” (109).
Unity of God
This point about one God is one that continues to be focused on within Muslim traditions. But the notion of monotheism in Islamic belief is more than just saying God exists. Rather, “the central message of the Qur’an is…that God is one–which is why the first fundamental of religion is ‘Divine Unity’ and not ‘Divine existence.’ Advanced reflection, meditation, and study on this concept has led to a variety of interpretations on just what is meant by this tawhid, or oneness of reality.
It has been argued by some that this is where Islam and other faiths differ a bit; some have even suggested that Islam veers from Christianity here as well. For many within the Islamic tradition, there is no one than can be associated at all with God. So, ideas such as God having a son, or a Trinity (a belief within many sects of Christianity) is one that most within Islam would not agree with.
In fact, the idea of associating anything with God has been viewed by many within the history of the Islamic tradition as a major sin. It was this idea of “idolatry” and polytheism that the last messenger, Muhammad (according to Muslim belief), spoke out against. It should be noted that polytheism does not have to take on exact manifestations to the polytheists during the time of late 6th and early 7th century Arabia; forms of idolatry can exist today in the forms of money, power, the need for being famous, etc… (Turner, 2011). So, the Quran, and other parts of Islamic teachings continue to stress the role that monotheism has, but also warns of how individuals can and have moved away from monotheist beliefs (Turner, 2011).
This importance of monotheism can be found throughout the Qu’ran. The very beginning of the Quran, Chapter 1, Al-Fatiha, illustrates the central role that monotheism plays within the faith. The verse reads:
In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy! Praise belongs to God, Lord of the Worlds, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy, Mast of the Day of Judgement. It is You we worship; it is You we ask for help. Guide us to the straight path: The path of those You have blessed, those who incur no anger and who have not gone astray (cited in Saeed, 2008: 39).
A Muslim who observes the five daily prayers will recite the Al-Fatiha on several occasions.
Attributes of God in Islamic Belief
Within Islamic belief God has a number of attributes that help human beings try to understand The Creator. It is said that there are 99 revealed attributes of God according to Islamic beliefs, and there is a 100th that has not been revealed to humans. While we shall not list every attribute here, according to Muslim belief, God “…is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. He has always existed and will always exist, and the entire cosmos of created beings depends on Him and Him alone for its existence. He is the First, the Last, and the Ground of all being. He is immanent but yet transcendent; no eye can perceive Him, yet wherever one looks, there is His ‘face’ (Turner, 2011: 110).
One attribute of God that is also discussed within Islamic beliefs is the idea that God is a creator, and that through God’s creation, one can attempt to get close to this Divine Reality. For many Muslims, nothing can be made without God allowing it to be so, nothing exists in its form without God, and nothing changes or passes without the divine will of God. There is an Islamic concept as “continuous creation’ which “holds that God creates and re-creates all things at all times, brining things into existence, annihilating them, and bringing them back into existence all within the twinkling of an eye while maintaing the illusion of the permanency of matter” (Turner, 2011: 113).
Islamic Belief in Messengers or ‘Prophets’
Another important component in Islamic beliefs is the idea that God revealed messages to human beings, who them shared these messages with others. Beginning with the first human Adam (according to an aspect of Islamic thoughts), many Muslims believe that God has sent thousands upon thousands of messengers throughout the history of world. It has been noted that “Islam asserts that all nations were sent prophets and apostles (Quran 35:24) who all taught the same basic message of belief in one unique God, and in this regard, all the prophets are believed to have been “Muslims” (Esposito & Mogahed, 2007: 8).
Thus, for Islam, the last messenger (for most Muslims) (there are other strands of Islamic beliefs were groups have believed in messengers after Muhammad)) is just one in a line of messengers. Thus, for them, Islam shares a great bond with other faith systems, in part because some view is as being within the same tradition of monotheism. The Quran itself seems to stress this point. Sura 3: 84 of the Quran states that
“We believe in God and what has been revealed to us; in what was revealed to Abraham and Ismail, to Isaac and Jacob and the tribes, and in what was given to Moses and Jesus and the prophets from their Lord. We do not make a distinction between any of them [the prophets]. For we submit to God” (cited in Esposito & Mogahed, 2007: 8).
Islamic belief is very much align with many of the stories mentioned in the Old Testament and New Testament; Muslims believe in Jesus (as a messenger), Mary, in Moses, and Adam and Eve (Esposito & Mogahed, 2007). So, in Islamic belief, not only do they believe that those mentioned in religious traditions such as Christianity and Judaism were messengers, but they also believe in the books or scriptures of these religious traditions.
But for the vast majority of Muslims, they believe that out of all of the messengers, the last messenger, Muhammad, who was born in Arabia around the year 570 ace, was given the final word and revelation from God. Thus, Muhammad’s life and teachings play a crucial role in the lives of many Muslims. For many within the Islamic tradition, they view him as of the most important figures in the history for he world. His life serves as an example for how Muslims should live, whether it is with regards to being a father, a spouse, a member of a community, a political leader, etc… (Esposito & Mogahed, 2007).
In fact, “Muslims look to the Prophet Muhammad as the perfect human example of living. Volumes of store about his life, hadith, record what the Prophet is reported to have said and done” (Esposito & Mogahed, 2007: 11).
With regards to prophets in Islamic belief, some have raised the question of how one is selected to become a prophet. As Turner (2011) writes: The Qur’an does not offer any answer to the old question of whether a prophet is a prophet by nature or by nurture. Prophethood is not something that is given on merit alone: it cannot be earned, deserved or won through endeavour or competition. But it is equally inconceivable that prophets be solely the result of nature too.” Thus, according to Muslim belief, it is God alone who decides who gets to be a prophet.
Prayer in Islam
The notion of prayer (or Salat) is another of the key pillars within the faith of Islam. Muslims have been prescribed to pray five times a day (throughout the day at different periods (beginning with the morning prayer, the midday prayer, a prayer in the late afternoon, an evening prayer (at sundown), and an evening/night prayer (which “may be performed at any time between the disappearance of daylight and the beginning of daybreak” (Turner, 2011: 138).
While there are tools (that include apps, websites, and programs that can tell a person the prayer times), in many Muslim societies, a “call to prayer” will be made by the muezzin from the mosque (or place of worship).
The Call to prayer reads as follows:
God is Most Great, God is Most Great
There is no God but God, There is no God but God
Muhammad is the Messenger of God, Muhammad is the Messenger of God
Come to Pray, Come to Pray
Come to do good work, come to do good work
God is Most Great, God is Most Great
There is no God but God.
(The morning break varies slightly in that another line is added which says, “Prayer is better than sleep, prayer is better than sleep).
Muslims of course are encouraged to prayer additionally throughout the day if they would like. These prayers can be requests to God (a Dua), or additional formal prayers (Donner, 2010). They are able to pray at mosques, in their homes, and also with friends and family. Prayer is an important part of the lives of Muslims. While the Quran mentions the importance of praying, according to public opinion research, “Muslims pray not only because it is a religious obligation, but also because it makes them feel closer to God. In a 2001 Gallup Poll, an overwhelming majority of respondents in seven predominantly Muslim countries indicated that prayer helps a great deal in soothing their personal worries” (Esposito & Mogahed, 2007: 14).
Fasting During the Month of Ramadan
Another pillar of Islamic belief is that of fasting. For 30 days (during the month of Ramadan) Muslims are expected to fast from dawn to sundown. During this time, they are to refrain from eating or drinking, as well as from sexual acts. They are expected to use this time to pray, contemplate God, and to provide service to those in need. Children, or those who are sick are not required to fast during this month.
Fasting is mentioned in the Quran, and is seen not a very important action for a Muslim, but also a way that s/he can continue to maintain a closeness, and a remembrance with God. As Surah 2, 183-185 of the Quran states:
[] O you who Believe, fasting is prescribed for you, ask it was for those who came before you, that you should be God-fearing
. For a specific number of days. But whoever of you is sick, or traveling, [prescribed are] a number of other days. And upon those who are able to do it [but do not], redemption is feeding a poor person; but whoever does a good deed of his own accord, that is better for him, and that you fast is better for you, if you could know.
 The month of Ramadan, in which the Qur’an was sent down as a guidance to the people, and clear evidence of the guidance and the commandments: Whoever of you is present in the month shall fast for it, but whoever is sick or traveling [shall fast] a number of other days. God wishes to make it easy for you, he does not wish to make it difficult. So complete the number [of days] and magnify God because He guided you; perhaps you may be thankful. [cited in Donner, 2010: 65]
Muslims are expected to contribute a percentage of their assets to helping others. This is often known or understood as zakat or “purification” (Esposito & Mogahed, 2007), “almsgiving,” or, what some have argued to be a more accurate translation, “spending for the sake of God” (Turner, 2011: 152). There is a strong emphasis on helping others in Islam. Individuals should not be left without aid, and it is essential that Muslims provide help to those in need.
In Islam, “charity toward the less fortunate in life–[is] another way of bringing home the idea that all humans are fundamentally equal and that whatever differences of fortune we may enjoy are only contingent” (Donner, 2010:63). The Quran also calls for Muslims to offer aid and charity to those in need (Quran, 2177) (Donner, 2010).
There are a few types of charity or almsgiving that a Muslim can give. For example, a Muslim can give “Sadaqat” which is understood as alms (charity or aid to the poor, for example). Unlike the next category of giving, this one is often a voluntary type of aid. (It should be noted that Sadaqat, while understood as a form of charity giving, was not always seen as such. In fact, “the original Qur’anic meaning of zakat and sadaqa was not almsgiving, but rather a fine or payment made by someone who was guilty of some kind of sin, in exchange for which Muhammad would pray in order that they might be purified of their sin and that their other affairs might prosper” (63)).
In addition to Sadaqat, Muslim belief suggests that individuals within the faith also give “Zakah” which is a yearly donation of usually 2.5 percent of all wealth. This money or wealth historically went to a “community treasury” (Turner, 2011: 154) that could be used to help members within the community.
Another historical type of charity was the “khums,” which was initially a tax to the family of Muhammad, although later stopped being applied. Some within certain Muslim religious traditions still apply it towards the selling of certain goods or income (Turner, 2011).
The last pillar of Islamic belief is that of the pilgrimage of Hajj. In Islam, if physically and financially able, Muslims are expected to make a trip to Mecca and Medina. The Hajj pilgrimage takes place after the end of Ramadan, and is a spiritual pilgrimage in which Muslims carry on a series of ritual acts while in Arabia. While at Mecca, they perform a number of prayers, many of them at the Kaaba, or the building in which many Muslims believe was the first place of Adam and Eve, and also a place of worship built by Abraham and his son Ishmael.
It should be noted that non-monotheistic faiths also made religious pilgrimages to the Kaaba. Polytheists and idol worshipers would often bring their gods to the Kaaba to be stored within its walls. Thus, for the early Muslims, “The Believers’ pilgrimage was thus portrayed as the restoration of an originally monotheistic practice. The story of Muhammad’s occupation of Mecca in 8/630…relates how Muhammad purified the Ka’ba enclosure of the pagan idols that had been introduced to it” (Donner, 2010: 66).
While this became an important part of the Islamic beliefs system, scholars argue that it was not necessarily a key component of the religion for the early Muslims. The reason was that many of them were living in Medina, and were unable to go to Mecca safely. The early verses of the Quran (revealed at Mecca) do not reference the idea of the Hajj (Donner, 2010).
The Islamic Belief in Life After Death
Similar to many other of the world’s religious traditions, many Muslims believe in an afterlife, in which they will be judged based on their actions in this life, and then based on that, will either be in the “gardens of paradise,” or in hell. This idea of the garden is a place where souls will live on forever, without any need or wants, whereas hell will be a place for the punishment of the soul, equally for eternity (Turner, 2011). Regardless of what “heaven” and “hell” look like (different community have depicted them differently), it is less about the exact physical description, compared to the meaning behind what these locations are said to represent (Turner, 2011).
Thus, for Muslims, they believe that what they do on Earth will be something they will have to account for when they meet God following their physical death. In fact, there exist various references to an after-life in the Qur’an. As Turner (2011) writes: “The Qur’an appeals to human reason in its various attempts to demonstrate the reality and rationality of the hear after, and the resurrection and judgement which proceed it. The Qur’an insists that its followers deliberate upon God’s ‘signs’ before assenting to the truths indicated by them” (124).
The Qur’an attempts to illustrate the reality of resurrection related to an after-life by pointing to physical examples on earth: the death and rebirth of trees and plants, as well as the death and “revivification” (Turner, 2011) of a person’s cells are examples of how resurrection is quite possible.
As mentioned, many Muslims believe that not only will they be judged based on their actions, but there will be a final judgement for all of humankind, a judgement in which God will carry out for all beings (Turner, 2011).
Islamic Beliefs References
Donner, F. M. (2010) Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam. Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Belknap Press of Harvard University.
Esposito, J.L. & Mogahed, D. (2007). Who Speaks for Islam? What A Billion Muslims Really Think. New York, New York. Gallup Press.
Saeed, A. (2008). The Qur’an: An Introduction. New York, New York. Routledge.
Turner, C. (2011). Islam: The Basics. Second Edition. New York, New York. Routledge Press.