World Religions other than Christianity

World Religions other than Christianity


A Brief Introduction

Islam is one of the world’s largest and most widespread religions, with approximately 1.25 billion followers. It grew from the Arabian peninsula in the early 7th century CE and quickly spread into Africa, Asia and Europe. Muslims today can be found in many countries and many cultures, speaking many languages.


Muslim faith centres on the belief that there is one God and that Muhammad is his Prophet (or Messenger) – the last of all the prophets.  Islam means submission to God; a Muslim is one who submits.

A familiar Muslim symbol is the Crescent Moon, which can be seen on the national flags of some mainly Muslim countries, sometimes, though not always, appearing with a star.

Historical Background

When Muhammad was born in the city of Makka, in 570 CE, the city was the centre of a prosperous caravan route through the Arabian desert.  As an adult he became a camel-driver and trader, working for Khadijah, a rich widow whom he later married.  On his journeys he met people of many faiths and became an earnest seeker after truth.  Muhammad was greatly troubled by the idols in the Ka’ba, a shrine in the centre of Makka which was believed to have been established by Abraham (Ibrahim), and also by the oppression of the poor, violence, drunkenness and ill-treatment of women and children.  At the age of 40 Muhammad had the first of many visions and was given words to recite by the Angel Gabriel.  These recitations eventually became written down as the Qur’an.

He began to preach but encountered persecution and in 622 CE Muhammad moved to Medina with the first followers of the faith.  After a long campaign Muhammad re-entered Makka without a fight in 629 CE, and purified the Ka’ba from its idols.  He died in Medina in 632 CE.  The new faith spread very rapidly throughout the Middle East and North Africa and within a hundred years of Muhammad’s death Muslims had reached Spain, far to the west of their Arabian origins.

Sunni and Shi’a

There are two main communities of Muslims.  The majority are Sunni – those who follow the customs and traditions of the sunna or code of behaviour exemplified by Muhammad.  About 10% of Muslims follow the Shi’a tradition, which gives more significance to the leadership of the Imams.

Shi’a Muslims are found mostly in Iran (Persia), parts of Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, Afghanistan and India, and there are Shi’a minorities in many other Muslim countries.

An Imam, which means ‘example’, is leader of the prayers in the mosque.  In the Sunni tradition he may be any male Muslim of good standing and is not in any sense an ordained minister.  In the Shi’a tradition, however, the Imam is a more significant spiritual leader, often charismatic in style.

Some Shi’a Muslims look for the coming of a ‘Hidden Caliph’, the Mahdi, who will be the last caliph of all.  He will come at the end of time to conquer evil and reward the faithful.


The Five Pillars of Islam outline the basic responsibilities of a Muslim.  They are:

  • Shahada - reciting the statement of faith:
  • Salat - prayer five times a day;
  • Zakat - giving money for the needs of the poor;
  • Sawm - fasting during the hours of daylight in the month of Ramadan; and
  • Hajj - pilgrimage to Makka at least once during one’s lifetime.

The words of the Shahada sum up the faith of Islam:

There is no God but God and Muhammad is his Messenger.

(Allah is the only Arabic word for God.)  A person who can recite and believe the Shahada is a Muslim.

Muslim prayer (salat) is recited every day at set times, facing towards Makka (as taught by the Prophet himself), which is South East from Britain and Ireland.  The five traditional times of prayer are: Dawn; Noon; Mid-Afternoon; After Sunset; Night Time. 

Although it is regarded as desirable to attend the mosque for prayer, Muslims may say their prayers anywhere, and often do so in the home.  If the worshipper is not in a mosque a prayer mat is set down to ensure that the place where prayer takes place is clean. 

In order to prepare themselves for prayer Muslims go through a routine washing or ablutions – wudu.   This is carried out before prayer according to a strict pattern.  Following a declaration to worship with a pure heart the worshipper washes hands, mouth, face, arms and feet three times each.  The shoes or sandals are also removed.

Zakat (almsgiving) is a religious duty, and Muslims are expected to give a contribution from of their income (at least 2.5%) as charity for the needy, as laid down in the Qur’an. 

During the month of Ramadan (the ninth month of the Muslim calendar) Muslims fast (sawm) during the hours of daylight.  This is obligatory for all healthy Muslim adults (over the age of 12).  No food or water is taken and other abstinences must be observed.  After nightfall a meal is taken, and communities often come together for this purpose.  The fast marks the first revelation of the Qur’an to Muhammad on 27th Ramadan in 610 CE.

The annual Hajj (pilgrimage to Makka) takes place during the month of Dhu’l Hijjah (the twelfth month) for those who are physically and financially able.  It centres on the Ka’ba in Makka and follows a set pattern over a 6 day period, emphasising the equality of all Muslims.  It is an expression of unity and a time for renewal of devotion to Allah, and all Muslims hope to be able to go on the Hajj at least once.


The Qur’an (in the past often spelt ‘Koran’) is regarded by Muslims as God’s word, received through the revelation from the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad.  It is revered and Muslims normally recite it out loud.  Many Muslims learn long passages from the Qur’an, and some commit the whole to memory. 

Some of the characters in the Qur’an are also familiar to Jews and Christians – including Abraham (Ibrahim), Moses (Musa), Mary (Mariyam), Jesus (Isa) and many others.

The Qur’an is divided into 114 suras (chapters) which are placed in decreasing order of length.  The first sura, Al Fatihah (which means ‘Opening’), is the most familiar of all, as it is recited many times a day, during each prayer time, and is the first sura learnt by heart by children:

Praise be to Allah, Lord of the Worlds,
The beneficent, the merciful,
Owner of the Day of Judgement,
Thee alone we worship;
Thee alone we ask for help.
Show us the straight path,
The path of those whom thou hast favoured;
Not the path of those who earn thine anger

Fundamentally the Qur’an is in Arabic, although translations are available in most languages.  All Muslims learn it in Arabic whatever their native language.  A translation of the Qur’an is at best an interpretation.  Only about 20% of Muslims speak Arabic as their first language.

The Hadith

The Hadith is an important collection of sayings and teachings, many of them attributed directly to Muhammad.  While the sayings of the Hadith do not carry the same weight as the Qur’an, they nevertheless are regarded as significant, and are often quoted by Muslims.  They cover many of the questions which a Muslim might have to face in everyday life, such as how to treat other people and the practice of faith, such as dealing with exemptions from fasting during Ramadan.


Muslim conduct is based on a code known as the Shari’a, sometimes translated as “law”.  It is Allah’s law, based on the Qur’an and the Hadith or teaching of the Prophet.  The Shari’a provides a common code of behaviour for Muslim societies in many different countries and cultures.  However, law in Islam is universal and egalitarian.  Muslims regard it as the law for all humankind.

Shari’a literally means “the road to the watering hole” – it is the clear/right road – the straight path.  This is the path which the Muslim must follow as he or she strives to reach the Creator and to do the will of the one God.

Shari’a consists of things which are:

  1. expressly prohibited;
  2. expressly enjoined;
  3. disliked but not prohibited;
  4. recommended but not enjoined; and
  5. simply permitted through silence.

Only a few things are actually prohibited under shari’a; most of life comes under the category of those things which are permitted through silence.

Some Shi’a Muslims use a different image to characterise their faith, likening it to a tree – of which the roots are the beliefs and the practices of faith are the branches.


The Arabic word Masjid means “bowed down” or “a place of prostration”.  It comes to us via French (mosquée) as mosque

The mosque is the place of assembly for salat (prayer).  A special place is not essential for salat, but it is desirable and should be attended when possible.  There is special merit in saying one’s prayers in a mosque.  According to the Qur’an, masjids are “houses which God has allowed to be built, that his name may be spoken in them” (the Qur’an, sura 24:36).  Muslims normally make a special effort to go to the mosque for Friday Prayers (salat al-jum’a).  In the mosque the worshippers face together in the direction of Makka and the prayers include recitations from the Qur’an.

Mosques are also used as community places and places of study and learning.  Children often go to classes there to learn Arabic and the Qur’an.

The first masjid (Masjid al-Nabi – the Mosque of the Prophet) was in Medina, where it was established by Muhammad in the house where he lived, and where his tomb is to be found.

The features of a Mosque

  • The Minaret (menara): from where the call to prayer is made by the mu’adhdhin (often spelt muezzin);
  • Prayer Hall: where people assemble to pray;
  • Mihrab (niche): in the wall of the hall, to indicate the qibla – direction of Makka;
  • Minbar (pulpit): from where the sermon is preached at Friday prayers;
  • Dakka (platform): including a seat for the mu’adhdhin, and from where further calls to prayer are made (only in some mosques);
  • Kursi (a traditional chair or stand): on which a copy of the Qur’an is set (while the reader sits on the floor); and
  • A room for wudu – ablutions before prayer.


Eid-ul-Adha (feast of sacrifice) is the major Muslim festival, celebrated by those who remain at home during the pilgrimage in Makka.   The festival marks Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice his son, and God’s faith and mercy in providing an alternative.  During Eid-ul-Adha an animal is slaughtered and the meat shared with the poor.  Some Muslims just give money to the poor rather than sacrifice an animal.  Children usually accompany their parents to special Eid prayers in the morning, and there are new clothes and gifts from relatives and friends.

Following the fasting of Ramadan Muslims take part in the three-day festival of Eid-ul-Fitr to thank Allah for help during the fast.  For children Eid-ul-Fitr is particularly exciting, involving feasting, family visits and exchange of cards and gifts.  Eid-ul-Fitr cards often include a quotation from the Qur’an, and display the words Eid mubarak – A Happy Eid.  In Muslim countries both Eids are a major public holiday.

Mawlid-al-Nabi (the Birthday of the Prophet) is celebrated on the 12th of Rabi al-Awwal (the third month).  It is one of a number of smaller festivals which relate to events in the life of the Prophet or other occasions.  Some are celebrated differently and with greater or lesser emphasis in various parts of the Muslim world.

All Islamic religious holidays follow the Hijri calendar – the lunar calendar.  (It is so named because of its origins in Muhammad’s Hijra, the migration from Mecca to Medina.)  As the lunar year is about 11 days shorter than the solar year, this means that all festivals move ‘backwards’ through the year in relation to the dates commonly used around the world.  Thus a festival which in one year is in the middle of the summer will be in the winter a decade later.  This prevents Muslim festivals from taking on a seasonal character which is often associated with those of other religions.

Muslims in Britain and Ireland

The resident Muslim population of Northern Ireland is estimated at between 3,000 and 4,000, including many business people, professional and medical personnel, plus others who spend some time as students.  Members of the local community have come mainly from India and Pakistan, but there are also many from Arab countries and North Africa, with a growing number of students, especially from Malaysia.  Significant growth in the resident Muslim community is evident in recent years.  The largest community is based in Belfast, but smaller groups are based in centres such as Antrim, Craigavon, Londonderry, Coleraine, Newtownards, Ballymena, etc., each with their own facilities for Friday Prayers. 

Belfast Mosque and Islamic Community Centre was established in the early 1980s (  It is a converted house with an upstairs carpeted area serving as a main prayer hall, with facilities for daily prayers and Friday Prayers and also for children’s classes, Arabic classes, a Ladies’ Circle and various special events and seminars.  A Northern Ireland Muslim Family Association ( has also been established close to Queen’s University Belfast.

There are at least 6,000 Muslims in the Republic of Ireland (though some estimates place it at almost 20,000), based in many towns and cities.  An attractive purpose-built mosque was opened in Clonskea, South Dublin, in 1996 and serves as a significant focal point for Irish Muslims, although there are now six mosques altogether in Dublin alone.  There are also two Muslim National Schools in Dublin, and a number of Muslim social organisations serving a growing population.

The Muslim population of the UK as a whole is about 1.5 million.

Further Resources

Further reading:

  • Esposito, J.L. (1998)  The Straight Path (3rd Edition), Oxford University Press

The following dating system has been used:

  • BCE: Before the Common Era;
  • CE: Common Era.