By Craig Branch

Islam is the second largest religion in the world behind Christianity, numbering 1.2 billion adherents. Also, it is arguably the second largest religion in the United States.1 Yet before the events of September 11th, it commanded the attention of less than 6% of the entire Christian missionary force. The significance and resurgence of Islam had largely gone unnoticed except for various conflicts and wars in Iran, Iraq, and the Gulf War, and in Croatia-Bosnia. But September 11th, which left over 3,000 dead, has dramatically changed that.

The attack on America has forced us to focus on the entire mosaic of events and issues such as attacks on the U. S. Embassy in Beirut in the 80’s, hijacked airlines, American hostages in Iran, the bombing of the Pan Am flight (1998), traced to Libya, where 252 were killed, the first World Trade Center bombing (1993), two U. S. Embassies bombed in East Africa (224 killed), the bomb attack on the U.S.S. Cole in 2000 (17 killed), the genocide of Christians in Sudan, Pakistan, Nigeria and other Muslim countries, and the constant and growing conflagration in Israel and Palestine. Additionally, as Christians first and as Americans second, we must understand Islam and Muslims both for our apologetics and evangelistic callings, as well as for our influence on national leaders in the geopolitical process (1 Tim. 2:1-4; Rom. 13:1-7). In this article, I hope to provide the reader with a basic understanding of the history and doctrine of Islam.

The History of Islam

Islam is a seventh century religion based on the testimony and practice of its prophet, Muhammad. Geographically, Islam rose out of the desert-oasis complex of the Arabian peninsula and spread into several continents. The word “Islam” is derived from an Arabic word which means “submission,” “surrender,” or “obedience.” A secondary derivative of the Arabic word is “peace.” Taken together, “Islam” means that one can only achieve peace through complete submission to the will of God as revealed to his Prophet, Muhammad. The god of Islam is called Allah. The word “Muslim” means a follower or one who is submitted to Allah and Islam as revealed in the Qur’an and the sayings and practices (Sunnah) of Muhammad recorded in the Hadith.

Since Islam evolved within a historical context, it is important to understand that context. This understanding can help us comprehend the current conflicts and issues that much of the world is facing today.

The Beginnings of Islam

Muhammad was born in Mecca around 570 A.D. His parents died when he was very young and he was raised by his uncle, a merchant. Most of the people throughout the Arabian peninsula at this time were polytheists and nature worshippers. Mecca was a religious center and housed the Ka’ba, a large cube structure which housed many idols of various gods. Muhammad was a member of the most prominent tribe, the Quraysh, who also presided over the Ka’ba.

However, Muhammad had other religious influences in his life. The Arabian peninsula was bordered by the Persian Empire in the East, dominated by Zoroastrians, and the Byzantine Empire to the west, largely dominated by the Eastern Orthodox Church. There was a considerable population of Jewish traders, merchants and settlers due to repeated migrations from Palestine, especially in Medina.

Even though it was over a hundred years after the authoritative Councils of Nicea (A.D. 325) and Chalcedon (A.D. 451), there were still a number of competing Christological and other “Christian” heresies inside and adjacent to the peninsula. There were Nestonians in parts of Syria and Persia who emphasized the human nature of Christ almost to the exclusion of His deity, and Monophysites in Egypt and Syria who taught that the divine nature swallowed up His human nature.

These theological disputes significantly weakened the regions surrounding the Arabian peninsula geopolitically. Yet the presence of monotheistic Jews and professing Christians helped to pave the way for the rapid growth of a coming Islam. Muhammad certainly had contact with Jewish and Christian merchants, as some vestiges of those faiths made their way into the revelations of Islam.

There is strong evidence that Muhammad had some significant contact and input from an uncle of Muhammad’s first wife Khadija. This uncle, Waraqa bin Nawfal (Sometimes written Waroka Ibn Nofal) was probably an Ebionite (a heretical Christian sect).2 The Ebionites were Judaizers who saw Jesus only as a miracle working prophet, rejecting His divinity. Their focus was on keeping the laws of the Torah, and they rejected the writings of Paul and the other apostles. Through Waraqa, these heresies probably found their way into Muhammad’s Islam.

The period between 595-610 were known as Muhammad’s Silent Period. According to Islamic tradition, during the Arabic lunar month of Ramadan in 610 A.D., Muhammad was in prayer and meditation in a cave on the slopes of Mount Hirah. He claimed to have been visited by the angel Gabriel who spoke the Arabic word Iqra, which means “recite.” Gabriel supposedly declared Muhammad to be the messenger and final Prophet of God.

At first, Muhammad claimed to be perplexed about the revelation since it was common in that day for people to have trance states and be visited by either evil or good spirits called jinns. As Muhammad related his vision to his wife, she and her “Christian” uncle confirmed the message as being from the one true God to His new Prophet.

From 610 to 622, Muhammad continued to receive these trance-revealed recitations from Gabriel in Mecca. Muhammad was allegedly illiterate (which is difficult to believe since he was a prominent merchant and trader), so rather than write down these recitations, he dictated them to members of his family who became his first followers. These included his wife, his nephew Ali, a leading merchant Abu Bakr, a wealthy relative Uthman, and Umar, a formerly resistant convert. These men later became the successors to Mohammad (called caliphs, deputy to the messenger) to lead the Muslims in their expansion.

The recitations continued until Muhammad’s death in A.D. 632, and became the sacred scriptures of Islam, the Qur’an (sometimes spelled Koran). The Qu’ran, having been written over the formative time of Islam, reflects the various situations and stages of growth Muhammad experienced. The verses, called suras, often gave divine sanction to Muhammad’s actions and edicts, and were sometimes contradictory as they reflect the changing dispositions of Muhammad and issues he faced.

The Flight to Medina

Muhammad’s messages against idolatry, theft, adultery, and infanticide brought much opposition and persecution from the Quraysh tribe because they significantly threatened the economic advantage the tribe had by selling idols to the polytheistic pilgrims. The persecution became so intense by 615, that Muhammad told about 70 of his followers to flee to Abyssinia (Ethiopia) where they were protected by a Christian king. In 619, Muhammad’s wife and uncle died and he claimed to have been transported by Gabriel to Jerusalem where he met Abraham, Moses, and Jesus to lead them in prayer. He was then taken up into the seven heavens at the place which is known as the Dome of the Rock (in present-day Jerusalem). This is now a sacred place for Jews and Muslims, and is one of the reasons for the continued tension today.

There were also during this time some fateful developments in the rich oasis town Yathrib, about 250 miles north of Mecca. Yathrib was inhabited by Jews and two Arab tribes wearied by internal strife. They were open to someone to lead them and bring order. In 620 and 622, two delegations came from Yathrib, met with Muhammad, converted to Islam, and invited him to come to be a mediator between the cities factions. With the Meccan tribes plotting to kill him, Muhammad made a decision which would effect the future of Islam forever. Muhammad led the rest of his followers to Yathrib in July of 622. This date in Islam is known as the Hegira (hijra), meaning “flight” or “severing of relationships,” and became the beginning of the Islamic calendar. Yathrib later became known as Medina—the city of the Prophet.

Developments in Medina

Muhammad’s relations with the Jews in Medina are crucial for an understanding of early Islam and subsequent development. Muslims regard their history in phases or periods. First there was the Meccan period when Muslims were the minority and were persecuted. Then came the Medinan phase when the true Islamic state was formed. The Qur’an’s suras reflect this evolution.

At first, Muhammad attempted to appease the Jews by establishing the Friday-Saturday Sabbath and facing Jerusalem for prayers. He also adopted Abraham as the patriarch of the faith. Some Jews accepted him, but when Muhammad claimed to be in succession to the Old Testament Prophets, some rabbis became hostile. It was during this period that Muhammad began to establish a Constitution, called the Shari’a, which formulated definite principles for administering the social, economic, legal, and political affairs of all the people. These became the ultimate rule as they were given divine statues via Qur’anic revelation. This resulted in the establishment of the Muslim community or state called the umma. Islam is a theocracy with no distinction between church and state.

Another important practice which legitimized the use of the sword and jihad to advance Islam was the practice of raiding Meccan trade caravans. The result was a collection of merchandise and money, called booty, which enriched the treasury of Muhammad. This practice was also justified and sanctioned through divine revelation in the Qur’an (48:15). Muhammad also legitimized polygamy by allowing up to four wives, provided equal treatment and care be performed. He outlawed usury as well.

Back to Mecca and Beyond

The year 624 marked a significant victory for Muhammad over a vastly superior force of Meccans at Badr. To Muslims, this was a supernatural affirmation that God was with them. This same year marked increasing deterioration with the Jews and Muhammad changed the direction of prayers to Mecca and the Ka’ba. This is also the year Muhammad married his youngest wife Aisha, who was six years old. She was nine when he consummated the marriage. He eventually had 11-16 wives and concubines.

In 627, Muhammad took the last Medinan Jewish tribe captive for “treason.” He beheaded all 800 men and took all the women and children as slaves. All of this found its way into the Qur’an and explains why earlier suras were positive toward the Jews, but later suras grew more and more negative.

Muhammad then led thousands of Muslims to lay siege to Mecca. After several battles, he won Mecca (in 630), and he gained more followers because of his merciful acts of clemency toward its citizens. Before his death two years later, he had gained control of all of Arabia.

During the final ten years of Muhammad’s life, he served the Muslim community as a prophet, political and economic leader, and a conqueror in the cause of Allah. He established the umma (Islamic nation) with such strength that shortly after his death Islam advanced quickly to claim vast territories. Under his direction, the mission of Islam had been set. The world was divided into two domains: dar al Islam, the domain under Allah, and dar al harb (land of war), those areas still in ignorance and disobedience which needed to be brought under submission to Allah’s theocratic rule. It was during this period that the doctrine of jihad (sometime called “holy war”) was laid out in the Qur’an (see my Veritas article in this issue of Areopagus Journal for more on this topic).

Islam After Muhammad

After Muhammad’s death, Islam was led by a series of caliphs (“deputies of the Messenger of Allah”). Four Caliphs served in the first 30 years and during that time, by persuasion and warfare, the Muslim armies expanded their rule into Persia, Syria, Jerusalem, Palestine, all that had constituted the Babylonian, Byzantine, and Assyrian Empires, as well as Egypt, and most of Iraq.

A few years later, Libya and North Africa came under their control. By 732, they controlled Spain and were advancing into the southern portion of France until Charles Martel stopped their further conquest of Europe. They later occupied Afghanistan and penetrated into what is now Pakistan and India. There were peaceful advances, as well, through trade into Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

The Ottoman Empire, made up of Muslim Turks ruled much of Asia Minor and took over Constantinople (renamed Istanbul) in 1453. They expanded their rule from Austria in the west to India in the east. European countries began invading the lands of Egypt (France), India (British), Indonesia (Dutch), Central Asia (Russian), which began the colonization era and decline of the Ottoman Empire. WWI and the Ottoman’s alliance with Germany hastened its collapse.

The Crusades and Inquisition

Up until the 12th century, the Islamic umma, or collective community, enjoyed qualitative advances in art, science, technology, and medicine. The strict law made for a generally orderly society. But then things began to occur in the West that would ever foster deep-rooted hostility toward Christianity, Israel, Western Europe, and eventually the United States.

Even though the New Testament worldview presents a separation of Church and State, the Church at Rome formed expedient alliances with secular governments in order to regain its strength and secure protection. The Crusades, prompted by the Roman Catholic Church, were mounted as an attempt to regain the Holy Lands occupied by the pagan Muslims. There were six major Crusades fought between 1096 and 1212. After some initial success, the “Christians” were beaten back and the lands remained under the domination of Islam until the UN’s establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. In the Muslim’s mind, their people had been unjustly uprooted from the lands they had occupied and settled for almost 1300 years.

The influence of the “Christian” Crusades, the later Spanish Inquisition, and the Colonization conquests of the Muslim world, has caused a deep and bitter animosity within the Islamic umma (community) that is both politically and theologically fed. Because Muslims view the world though the lenses of their own theocratic worldview, many do not understand that those actions were incidental perversions of Christianity. Yet, because of this past, Muslims have tended to view Christianity as a warring, colonialistic, imperialistic, and political movement seeking to dominate the world, including the lands of Islam. They see Christian missionaries as agents of Western imperialistic societies, as well as preying upon Muslims with blasphemous doctrines. Islam’s own belief in the duty of every Muslim to engage in a “defensive” holy war (jihad) against invasion and oppression, necessitates their active animosity.

Thus, these events have never been forgotten. In fact, in many Muslim countries and in Muslim mosques and schools, their children are raised with a steady diet of hostile propaganda against the West and Christianity. Conservative Muslims also view the establishment of the state of Israel and the subjugation of Arab Palestinians as an extension of this Crusader mentality and action. Add the United State’s financial support, its corrupt social influence (drugs, alcohol, pornography, television, bikinis, materialism, abortion, relativism, gambling—all under the rubric of freedom and democracy), our invasion of Iraq, and our military bases in holy Islamic territory, including the sacred land of Saudi Arabia, and you have aroused the deepest of angers and resentment, even rage.

Some of America’s foreign policy efforts have not helped either. From the typical Muslim perspective, the U.S. is thoroughly hypocritical. Muslims say that with all the talk about freedom and democracy, the real foreign policy priority is to maintain stability by supporting what they say are corrupt pseudo-Islamic government heads which suppress true Islamic law (shari’a) in order to further the U.S. expansion of its ideology and financial interests.

Islam 101

In the remainder of this article, I will outline the major beliefs, practices, and institutions of Islam. We will start with their basic theological doctrines and religious practrices, and then discuss various aspects of Islamic culture.

Major Doctrinal Beliefs

God. Muslims believe that Allah is One, the only true God. To associate a partner with God (as they perceive the Christian doctrine of the Trinity as doing) is to commit the unpardonable sin of shirk. He is absolute in his omnipotence and so wholly other that it is impossible to have a personal relationship with him.

Angels. These are created spirit beings often called Allah’s messengers in the Qur’an. Every human is assigned two angels to record his good and bad deeds. At the lower end of angelic hierarchy are jinn, most of whom are evil and can possess humans.

Prophets. Muslims believe that Allah has sent 124,000 Prophets to preach aspects of his message to all people in all periods of time. Many prophets are unknown, but those who are known include Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus and, the most important, Muhammad. Prophets are considered the model of good behavior and perfect character. Even though the Qur’an notes sins or mistakes of earlier prophets, many contemporary Muslims believe prophets were protected from sin. Folk Islam has elevated Muhammad to an almost divine status.

Jesus. Regarded as a great Prophet, born of the Virgin Mary, Jesus was sinless, performed miracles, and was given the title of Messiah. But Islam vehemently denies that Jesus was divine or the Son of God. They also deny that Jesus was crucified (Allah’s Prophet would not undergo such humiliation), and therefore was not resurrected. Instead, He was taken up into heaven (paradise) and will come again from heaven, defeat the antichrist, confess Islam, break all crosses and establish a millennium of righteousness.

Salvation. In Islam, salvation is a complex issue and there are varying perspectives. In general, salvation involves overcoming the effect of one’s personal mistakes (weakness and forgetfulness), with a view of attaining paradise by obedience and conformity to the straight path of Islam. Islam rejects original sin and the substitutionary atonement of Christ. Balancing the scales is prominent in Islam, salvation requiring that one’s good deeds outweigh one’s bad deeds. Paradise in Islam means enjoying sensual pleasures including being served by numerous virgins. Paradise is promised for those who die (martyrdom) serving the cause of Allah.

One’s fate is entirely in the hands of Allah, and Allah requires a true and perfect understanding of, and a devotion of one’s life to, the cause and law of Allah. These laws are known through Muhammad’s revelation in the Qur’an and in his pattern of life (Sunnah) recorded in the Hadith. If Allah decides to send a Muslim to Hell, he can be punished there for his sins and then go to Paradise afterward. Unbelievers are sent to hellfire for eternity.

The Five Pillars of Islam

Even though Muslims and their practices can differ in many ways from place to place because of cultural accretions, what is basic and foundational to all are the Five Pillars of Islam:

Shahadah. The confession of faith that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is his messenger/Prophet which obliges all Muslims to follow his message and life. To sincerely repeat the shahadah makes a person a Muslim.

Salat. This refers to ritual prayers that a Muslim is required to pray five times daily facing toward Mecca.

Zakat. The faithful Muslim tithes at least 2.5% annually as gifts to the poor and needy.

Sawm. During the 9th lunar month of Ramadan, from sunrise to sunset, the Muslim fasts, abstaining from food, drink and sexual activity.

Hajj. This refers to the pilgrimage, if at all possible, that the Muslim is to make to Mecca at least once in his lifetime to engage in ritual worship around the Ka’ba.

Many Muslims add this sixth pillar: Jihad, which means “struggle.” It encompasses a personal struggle over evil inclinations as well as armed force in defending and/or extending the interests of Islam. For more on this concept, see my opening “Veritas” article in this issue of Areopagus Journal.

Authority in Islam

The authority structure in Islam is complex and involves several elements. These elements are:

The Qur ’an. This is this holy Scriptures of Islam. The Qur’an consists of a collection of recitations allegedIslam. The Qur’an consists of a collection of recitations alleged 632, supposedly the perfect word of Allah. Compiled into 114 chapters (suras), perfectly preserved, without error, written in Arabic. Any translation can dilute the meaning, so Muslims do not consider translations of the Qur’an to be the Qur’an. All Muslims are supposed to memorize the Qur’an (but few do).

The Hadith. A compilation or collection of the words, teachings, deeds, and practices (Sunnah) of Muhammad. Although there are six major collections, compiled in the 9th to 12th centuries, and approved by the ulama (respected Islamic scholars) and the ijma (community consensus), the two most respected are from Bukhari (A.D. 870) and Muslim (A.D. 875). Bukhari’s contains 7,275 official traditions out of over 300,000 collected in history.

In so far as the revelations of Islam are supposed to reveal the required pattern for all of life, Muhammad’s Qur’an was incomplete. So in the early 9th century, Muslim legal scholar alShafi’i stabilized the umma (Muslim community) by assigning the Hadith to a fundamental position in Islamic law (Shari’a). Thus, since Muslims are to follow the morality and example of the Prophet, the Hadith is, in practice, as authoritative as Scripture. Some Muslims actually understand the Hadith to have equal authority to the Qur’an, while some see it as a secondary authority.

Shari ’a. This the constitutional law for Islam, the sum of guidance revealed to Muhammad that governs all ritual, social, political and commercial actions. It is the basis for Islamic theocracy. The four sources for Shari’a are the Qur’an, Hadith, Ijma (consensus of the Muslim community and its scholars, the ulama), and the Qiyas (analogical reasoning or deduction based on the other three sources). Shari’a is the source of some of the controversial criminal penalties such as amputation, stoning and beheading for crimes such as adultery, theft, prostitution and fornication.

Torah (Tawrat) and Psalms (Zabur).  Muslims recognize as Scripture these potions of the Old Testament as originally delivered by the prophets Moses and David. These Scriptures were meant for the Jews during the progress of Allah’s revelation, but the Qur’an states that the Jews have perverted or corrupted their meaning so they are not authoritative for today.

The Injil (Gospel of Jesus). This is the divine message of Allah through the Prophet Jesus delivered to Christians for their era. The Islamic view of the gospel is that it, too, has been corrupted and mistranslated, according to the Qur’an (But, see Steve Cowan’s article in this issue of Areopagus Journal).

Women in Islam

After September 11, American women converts to Islam have outnumbered men by 3 to 1. Orthodox Muslims believe that women gain true freedom in Islam and that Muhammad liberated women and recognized essential equality between males and females. Islam holds that women’s rights and responsibilities are generally equal to those of men. It is noteworthy that Muhammad stopped female infanticide which was common in his culture. The Qur’an describes husbands and wives as friends and says that they should live in tranquility, love and mercy (Sura 4:36; 30:21).

However, though Muslim women are guaranteed a portion of inheritance from their father, they receive only one-half that of their brothers. Also, the Qur’an notes that women are inferior or weaker than men and are to submit to their leadership for protection and well-being. But the Qur’an also orders that if a wife is living improperly and unresponsive to warnings, her husband may strike her. In court, a woman’s testimony is worth one-half that of a man. Men have access to female captives with whom they may have sex. If a woman is raped, there must be four adult male witnesses who saw penetration before the rapist can be found guilty.

Moreover, a man may have up to four wives, although he is obligated to provide equally and substantially for all wives. A Muslim woman is to cover herself from neck to wrist and ankle with loose, modest clothing, and cover her head. In some ultra fundamental settings, she is to cover everything but her eyes. Muslims claim that this liberates women from being looked at as a sexual object and gives her dignity without the culture’s allure to immodest styles.

The Shari’a in some Muslim countries allows “honor killing” in which families may slay a daughter who is involved in fornication. A husband may divorce a wife by pronouncing three times over the course of three months, “I divorce you.” Yet a woman has a more difficult time divorcing her husband since her testimony is worth 1/2 of his in court. Muslim men may marry Christians or Jews, but a Muslim woman may only marry a Muslim.

Major Divisions in Islam

After the death of Muhammad, who left no revelation for the succession of leadership, there emerged a number of disputes and divisions that continue today. These divisions, although not numerous, can be very roughly compared with the division between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism with their various sub-divisions. Actually, there is an ever bitter and fascinating analogy between Islam and Mormonism after the death of the Mormon “prophet” Joseph Smith (but that’s another article). The major divisions of Islam are as follows:

Sunni. Sunni Muslims make up between 80-90% of Muslims worldwide and represent more “orthodox” Islam. When Muhammad died, most Muslims believed that the successor to Muhammad should come from Muhammad’s own Quraysh tribe, and be determined by the consensus of the community. The successor also had to be a companion or deputy (caliph) of Muhammad. After these companions of Muhammad had died, the caliphs were then to be elected by the ijma. The caliphate (succession of caliphs) was disbanded in 1924.

Shi ’ite. Some Muslims believe that the leadership must be passed on through the bloodline of Muhammad to divinely inspired Imams (leaders). Those who believe this are known as Shi’ite Muslims. When Muhhamad died, his closest male relative was Ali, but he was passed over by the ijma. Disputes arose even when Ali became the fourth caliph under the Sunni system. Ali was murdered and this caused continued friction and disputation. The twelfth Imam, Mahdi, disappeared mysteriously, and the Shi’ites still look for his return.

Wahabism. This is a small puritan movement within Shi’ite Islam that began in 18th century Saudi Arabia. Wahabis seek to return to the golden age of dominant Islam and are very much fundamentalists. This is the group that is most aligned with radical Islamism.

Sufism. Sufis are the mystical wing of Islam and constitute a reaction against the formal, ritualistic approach of mainstream Islam. They stress the emotions and the personal attributes of a relational god. They are somewhat aesthetic in their spirituality.

Nation of Islam.  This movement arose among blacks in the U.S. under the leadership of W.D. Fard, and later, Elijah Muhammad. Today, they are led by Louis Farrakan. They tend to be inflammatory in public rhetoric and radical in practice. They are not, however, accepted as orthodox by mainstream Islam.


In this brief article, I have sought to outline the history, beliefs, and practices of Islam. It is my prayer that the Christian reader will use this information, as well as that in other articles in this journal, as a starting point for reaching out to his Muslim neighbors with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Craig Branch is Director of the Apologetics Resource Center, Birmingham, Alabama.


1 The vast majority of Muslims are not Arabs or Middle Eastern. Islam is either the controlling or dominant religion in North and East Africa, and Central Asia, including Indonesia, which has the largest population of Muslims (170 million). Muslims constitute more than 85% of the population in 32 countries, between 25%-85% in 11 countries and a significant population in another 47 countries. Islam has significant growth in West Europe, especially in England, and in the former U.S.S.R. But the Middle Eastern countries remain the spiritual heart of Islam. Muslim growth in the United States has been significant. There are conflicting reports and studies noting the Muslim growth, but most show that Islam has now replaced Judaism as the second largest religion here behind Christianity (Protestantism and Catholicism combined). The statistics reported range from 2.8 million (study by the American Jewish Committee), to 6-7 million (Council on American-Islamic Relations). The most consistent research counts U.S. Muslims at 5 million. The ethnic breakdown statistics also vary from 12%-25% who are Arab, 30%-42% who are African American, and 25%-33% who are South Asian. (See Newsweek 3/16/98 p. 35; U.S. Dept. of State “Demographic Facts” April 2001).

2 Hadith Bukhari, 1:I, no. 3.