What Is Islam, The World's Second-Largest Religion, Really About?

Islam, practiced by more people than any other religion except Christianity, emphasizes faith, charity and peace.

In the wake of last week's attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. — apparently committed by terrorists who adhere to a radical version of Islam — political and religious leaders are urging Americans to show tolerance for the millions of Muslims living in the United States, to look at them as fellow citizens, not as enemies.

Islamic leaders in the U.S. and other parts of the world, even from the ultra-conservative Islamic state of Iran, have condemned the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as unrepresentative of their faith.

"These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith. And it's important for my fellow Americans to understand that," President George W. Bush said Monday at the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C. "The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don't represent peace. They represent evil and war.

"When we think of Islam, we think of a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world," Bush continued. "Billions of people find comfort and solace and peace. And that's made brothers and sisters out of every race — out of every race."

What does Islam — the world's second-largest religion, after Christianity — stand for?

The word "Islam" is Arabic for "submission" — as in submitting to the will of God. Muslims call God Allah, which is simply the Arabic word for God. Christians who speak Arabic also call God by that name.

Fewer than 20 percent of Muslims are Arabs — the rest live in Asia and other parts of the world.

Like Christians and Jews, Muslims are monotheists — they believe in one God. Biblical figures such as Moses, Jesus and John the Baptist are among their prophets.

Muslims believe the last prophet, God's final messenger, was Muhammad, born more than 1,400 years ago. Muhammad is said to have recorded what Muslims believe were messages from God, via the Angel Gabriel, in the Islamic holy book known as the Koran. Muhammad was born in the year 570; Islam as we know it is said to have begun in the year 622.

Muslim life is guided by what believers call five pillars of belief:

  • 1. Faith: Muslims believe there is one God, and Muhammad is his messenger.

  • 2. Prayer: Muslims are expected to pray five times a day — at dawn, at noon, in mid-afternoon, at sunset and at nightfall.

  • 3. Charity: Muslims are expected to give away a portion of their money and possessions to those in need.

  • 4. Fasting: All adult, healthy Muslims are expected to fast from dawn to sundown on each day during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. This year, Ramadan begins November 16. The fasting is intended to help believers purify themselves, grow spiritually and gain sympathy for those who go hungry.

  • 5.Pilgrimage: Muslims who are physically and financially able to do so are expected to journey to Mecca, the city in Saudi Arabia where Muhammad was born. Mecca is a central spiritual site for Muslims.

Islam teaches that life is sacred, and forbids the killing of innocents, as well as suicide. Echoing the Old Testament, the Koran says, "If anyone slew a person — unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land — it would be as if he slew the whole people: And if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people."

Some radical Muslims — including exiled Saudi Arabian dissident Osama bin Laden, described by the U.S. government as the mastermind behind last week's attacks — use the ancient Islamic belief that the world is divided into the "world of Islam" and the "world of war" to justify violence against non-believers.

"The terrorism we practice is of the commendable kind," bin Laden said in a 1998 conversation with his followers, recorded by ABC News journalist John Miller. "For it is directed at the tyrants and the aggressors and the enemies of Allah, the tyrants, the traitors who commit acts of treason against their own countries and their own faith and their own prophet and their own nation."

Mainstream Islamic leaders have rejected such views.

Get answers to your questions about Islam, Muslim-Americans, and fighting discrimination from MTV's Fight for Your Rights.

For more information on and audience reaction to the attacks, including tips on how you can help, see "9.11.01: Moving Forward."