(Arab. Islam, Turk. İslam)
At its core, Islam refers to the belief in the existence and oneness of God, as well as to devotion to Him. Islam is also the general name of the religion proclaimed by all of the prophets of God, both named and unnamed, in the Qur’an. Revelations sent down, from the days of Adam through Muhammad, may differ in terms of their form (sharia), but in terms of their essence they are all the same (5:48). Because the term ‘Islam’ in Arabic denotes self-submission to God, in the Qur’an Abraham is referred to as Muslim, meaning someone who has devoted himself entirely to God.
In the Qur’an and in the Sunnah, however, the term ‘Islam’ is also used as a descriptor for the religion proclaimed by Muhammad. In this sense, it is reported of Muhammad that he ‘is the first of those who submit to God (Muslims)’ (cf. 6:14; 39:12). Every person who sincerely devotes him- or herself to God is thus a Muslim. Alongside this understanding of Islam, however, both in the Qur’an itself and in the Sunnah, there is still another view, one according to which ‘Islam’ is the name of the historical religion as proclaimed by the prophet Muhammad (cf. Nasai). Under this view, one is only a Muslim if one confesses faith in the religion proclaimed by Muhammad.
Among the principal characteristics of historical Islam is that scholars reinterpret the main sources of the religion, the Qur’an and the Sunnah, in light of their respective age (ijtihad) and arrive at a consensus (ijma). The fundamental principle is the confession of faith that ‘There is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God’. Elements of Islam also include belief in angels, Holy Scripture, prophets, the hereafter and the Final Judgement. Ritual prayer, fasting, obligatory alms-giving and pilgrimage are basic obligations or so-called ‘pillars’ of religious practice.
In Islam, in clear distinction to polytheism, God is One. He is unique, eternal and transcendent. The objective consists in gaining God’s favour (98:8). A person must remain aware that every activity has a religious connection. The individual must bow to no one but God. Noble and sacred values may not be instrumentalised for selfish ends.
Islam calls upon us to comply with the commandments and actions that bring us God’s favour while at the same time keeping us conscious of the fact that we will be called to account in the hereafter for every action taken and for every word spoken. There are many verses in the Qur’an in which faith and righteous deeds are mentioned together, and the significance of moral conduct as reflection of faith is emphasised (2:25, 82, 277; 4:57, 124). Muhammad considered morally impeccable behaviour to be a basic condition of being a Muslim (cf. Bukhari; Abu Dawud). Consequently, Islam is not a faith that persists in the realm of the theoretical; instead, it is reflected both in the conduct of one’s own life and in the larger society. Muhammad provided a living example of these principles. Islam aims to achieve individual happiness and well-being, urging that the individual maintain a peaceful, loving and harmonious relationship with him- or herself, with the Creator, and with the entire cosmos.
In terms of the history of Islam, the political, social and cultural developments that occurred after the death of Muhammad (632 CE) meant the emergence of different currents and lines of thought. When political disputes began during the reign of the third caliph, Uthman (644‑656 CE), pitting the companions of Muhammad against one another, a discussion arose as to which of the hostile parties was in the right, and whether, in the hereafter, the fallen soldiers of one or the other side would be punished or rewarded. Ali, a cousin and son-in-law of the prophet who had accepted the intervention of an arbitrator in the dispute with Muawiya, was abandoned by some of his followers, who accused him of a lack of faith and maintained he had given precedence to the judgement of an arbitrator over the judgement of God. Later on, this group, known as ‘Kharijites’, was of the view that people who committed grave sins had become unfaithful; the group exhibited a tendency towards intolerance. Opponents of this view held that it devolved to God to pass judgement upon those who had died during the civil war, and upon those who committed grave sins. They thus held the view that sins – regardless of their magnitude – caused no harm to the faith. This group was known as the ‘Murjites’.
Those, on the other hand, who unconditionally supported Ali (Shiites) were convinced that only Ali and his descendants were entitled to lead the Muslims; they based this belief on statements in the Qur’an and by the Prophet Muhammad.
Differences over whether actions emanated from the will of humankind or from Divine will led to the development of two persuasions: Qadariyya (Mutazilites) and Jabriyya. These currents were disapproved of by a majority – who were referred to as people of the Sunnah and of the community (Sunnis). While none of the earliest political or dogmatic currents – with the exception of the Shia and, to some extent, the Kharijites – has persisted down to the present, the Sunnis constitute the majority of Muslims to this day, despite internal differences in direction.
From a theological standpoint, most of today’s Sunni Muslims follow the Asharite or Maturidite school, and in terms of their practices of religious observance they follow the Hanafite, Malikite, Shafiite or Hanbalite school of religious law. Traces of the views of several groups that have otherwise ceased to exist can be found among the Sunnis as well, groups such as the Murjites, Jabriyya and Mutazilites. Murjite and Mutazilite views, for instance, can be found within the Maturidite school of theology and the Hanafite school of religious law. Views of the Jabriyya can be found within the Asharite school of theology and in the Shafiite and Hanbalite schools of religious law.
More than 90 percent of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims are Sunni, with most of the remaining Muslims belonging to the Shiites. There are other, smaller Islamic communities in addition to these; there is also a branch of the Kharijites, the Ibadites, and followers of other currents that have come into being in recent centuries.
Within the three monotheistic religions of revelation, the Muslims constitute the second-largest religious community, after the Christians. As in the past, today’s Muslims present themselves differently depending upon the culture and regions in which they live. In terms of the central tenets of the faith, however, and in terms of religious practice there is very broad consensus. Some Islamic groups and currents adhere to a stricter, more traditional view and practice of Islam, whereas others are more moderate. The universal claim of Islam to be the religion of all people is accompanied by the religion’s capacity to demonstrate flexibility in adapting to changes of time and place.
İsmail Hakkı Ünal