Islam is a system of religious
beliefs and an allencompassing way of life. Muslims believe that
God (Allah) revealed to the Prophet Muhammad the rules governing
society and the proper conduct of society's members. It is incumbent
on the individual therefore to live in a manner prescribed by
the revealed law and on the community to build the perfect human
society on earth according to holy injunctions. Islam recognizes
no distinctions between church and state. The distinction between
religious and secular law is a recent development that reflects
the more pronounced role of the state in society, and Western
economic and cultural penetration. The impact of religion on daily
life in Muslim countries is far greater than that found in the
West since the Middle Ages.
The Ottoman Empire organized society around the concept of the
millet, or autonomous religious community. The nonMuslim
"People of the Book" (Christians and Jews) owed taxes to the government;
in return they were permitted to govern themselves according to
their own religious law in matters that did not concern Muslims.
The religious communities were thus able to preserve a large measure
of identity and autonomy.
The Iraqi Baath Party has been a proponent of secularism. This
attitude has been maintained despite the fact that the mass of
Iraqis are deeply religious. At the same time, the Baathists have
not hesitated to exploit religion as a mobilizing agent; and from
the first months of the war with Iran, prominent Baathists have
made a public show of attending religious observances. Iraq's
President Saddam Husayn is depicted in prayer in posters displayed
throughout the country. Moreover, the Baath has provided large
sums of money to refurbish important mosques; this has proved
a useful tactic in encouraging support from the Shias.
Islam came to Iraq by way of the Arabian Peninsula, where in
A.D.610, Muhammad--a merchant of the Hashimite branch of the ruling
Quraysh tribe in the Arabian town of Mecca--began to preach the
first of a series of revelations granted him by God through the
angel Gabriel. A fervent monotheist, Muhammad denounced the polytheism
of his fellow Meccans. Because the town's economy was based in
part on a thriving pilgrimage business to the shrine called the
Kaaba and numerous other pagan religious sites in the area, his
censure earned him the enmity of the town's leaders. In A.D.622
he and a group of followers accepted an invitation to settle in
the town of Yathrib, later known as Medina (the city), because
it was the center of Muhammad's activities. The move, or hijra,
known in the West as the hegira, marks the beginning
of the Islamic era and of Islam as a force in history; the Muslim
calendar begins in A.D.622. In Medina Muhammad continued to preach
and eventually defeated his detractors in battle. He consolidated
the temporal and the spiritual leadership in his person before
his death in A.D.632. After Muhammad's death, his followers compiled
those of his words regarded as coming directly from God into the
Quran, the holy scriptures of Islam. Others of his sayings and
teachings, recalled by those who had known him, became the hadith.
The precedent of Muhammad's personal behavior is called the sunna.
Together they form a comprehensive guide to the spiritual, ethical,
and social life of the orthodox Sunni Muslim.
The duties of Muslims form the five pillars of Islam, which set
forth the acts necessary to demonstrate and reinforce the faith.
These are the recitation of the shahada ("There is no
God but God [Allah], and Muhammad is his prophet"), daily prayer
(salat), almsgiving (zakat), fasting (sawm),
and pilgrimage (hajj). The believer is to pray in a prescribed
manner after purification through ritual ablutions each day at
dawn, midday, midafternoon, sunset, and nightfall. Prescribed
genuflections and prostrations accompany the prayers, which the
worshiper recites facing toward Mecca. Whenever possible men pray
in congregation at the mosque with an imam, and on Fridays make
a special effort to do so. The Friday noon prayers provide the
occasion for weekly sermons by religious leaders. Women may also
attend public worship at the mosque, where they are segregated
from the men, although most frequently women pray at home. A special
functionary, the muezzin, intones a call to prayer to the entire
community at the appropriate hour. Those out of earshot determine
the time by the sun.
The ninth month of the Muslim calendar is Ramadan, a period of
obligatory fasting in commemoration of Muhammad's receipt of God's
revelation. Throughout the month all but the sick and weak, pregnant
or lactating women, soldiers on duty, travelers on necessary journeys,
and young children are enjoined from eating, drinking, smoking,
or sexual intercourse during the daylight hours. Those adults
excused are obliged to endure an equivalent fast at their earliest
opportunity. A festive meal breaks the daily fast and inaugurates
a night of feasting and celebration. The pious well-to-do usually
do little or no work during this period, and some businesses close
for all or part of the day. Since the months of the lunar year
revolve through the solar year, Ramadan falls at various seasons
in different years. A considerable test of discipline at any time
of the year, a fast that falls in summertime imposes severe hardship
on those who must do physical work.
All Muslims, at least once in their lifetime, should make the
hajj to Mecca to participate in special rites held there during
the twelfth month of the lunar calendar. Muhammad instituted this
requirement, modifying pre-Islamic custom, to emphasize sites
associated with God and Abraham (Ibrahim), founder of monotheism
and father of the Arabs through his son Ismail.
The lesser pillars of the faith, which all Muslims share, are
jihad, or the crusade to protect Islamic lands, beliefs,
and institutions; and the requirement to do good works and to
avoid all evil thoughts, words, and deeds. In addition, Muslims
agree on certain basic principles of faith based on the teachings
of the Prophet Muhammad: there is one God, who is a unitary divine
being in contrast to the trinitarian belief of Christians; Muhammad,
the last of a line of prophets beginning with Abraham and including
Moses and Jesus, was chosen by God to present His message to humanity;
and there is a general resurrection on the last or judgment day.
During his lifetime, Muhammad held both spiritual and temporal
leadership of the Muslim community. Religious and secular law
merged, and all Muslims have traditionally been subject to sharia,
or religious law. A comprehensive legal system, sharia developed
gradually through the first four centuries of Islam, primarily
through the accretion of precedent and interpretation by various
judges and scholars. During the tenth century, legal opinion began
to harden into authoritative rulings, and the figurative bab
al ijtihad (gate of interpretation) closed.
Thereafter, rather than encouraging flexibility, Islamic law emphasized
maintenance of the status quo.
After Muhammad's death the leaders of the Muslim community consensually
chose Abu Bakr, the Prophet's father-in-law and one of his earliest
followers, to succeed him. At that time some persons favored Ali,
Muhammad's cousin and the husband of his daughter Fatima, but
Ali and his supporters (the Shiat Ali, or Party of Ali) eventually
recognized the community's choice. The next two caliphs (successors)--Umar,
who succeeded in A.D.634, and Uthman, who took power in A.D.644--enjoyed
the recognition of the entire community. When Ali finally succeeded
to the caliphate in A.D.656, Muawiyah, governor of Syria, rebelled
in the name of his murdered kinsman Uthman. After the ensuing
civil war, Ali moved his capital to Iraq, where he was murdered
shortly there after.
Ali's death ended the last of the so-called four orthodox caliphates
and the period in which the entire community of Islam recognized
a single caliph. Muawiyah proclaimed himself caliph from Damascus.
The Shiat Ali refused to recognize him or his line, the Umayyad
caliphs, and withdrew in the first great schism to establish the
dissident sect, known as the Shias, supporting the claims of Ali's
line to the caliphate based on descent from the Prophet. The larger
faction, the Sunnis, adhered to the position that the caliph must
be elected, and over the centuries they have represented themselves
as the orthodox branch.
Data as of May 1988