A Muslim is someone who submits to the will of God (Allah in Arabic), as it has been made known through the Qur’an (‘Recitation’) and the life of Muhammad (570-632 CE). These are the foundations of the religion of Islam (an Arabic word, meaning ‘submission’). Islam is one of the Abrahamic faiths; its followers believe that it continues and fulfils the revelations of Judaism and Christianity, both of which came before it. Like members of all other faith communities, Muslims practise their religion with varying degrees of observance and commitment. For some it provides a strong sense of national or cultural identity. The crescent moon and star is an internationally recognised Islamic symbol which appears on the flags of several Muslim countries.
Muhammad was born in the Arabian Peninsula in the 6th century. Widely trusted and admired among the people of the city of Makkah, at the age of 40 he started to receive the word of God from the archangel Gabriel. When he made these revelations known, a group of believers began to gather around him, while others turned against him. In the face of increasingly fierce opposition stoked by the city’s tribal leaders, Muhammad and his companions emigrated from Makkah to Madinah in 622. This event, called Hijrah (‘Migration’) marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar. After a decade of tests and trials, they returned to Makkah in triumph, firmly establishing their community there. Muhammad settled in Madinah, where he died in 632.
Muslims believe in one God, neither male nor female, with no children, parents or partner, and with whom none can be associated. This omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent God was not created by anyone or anything, has always existed and always will exist, and rules over the universe with justice, mercy and compassion. At the core of a Muslim’s faith is the declaration, ‘There is none worthy of worship but God and Muhammad is His Messenger.’ All Muslims believe this, as well as believing in the succession of prophets and messengers sent by God; in the existence and intervention of angels; in the Books sent by God; in the coming Day of Judgment and resurrection when the good and bad deeds of all those who have ever lived will be weighed.
Muslims believe the Qur’an to be the word of God, revealed to Muhammad over a period of 23 years. Muhammad recited the verses as he received them, then taught them to his followers, who committed them to memory. Trusted scribes later wrote down the verses after rigorous cross-referencing and authentication by those who had memorised them. Great pains have been taken to ensure the purity of the text since that time. Muslims treat the Qur’an with reverence, in its printed form, or when hearing its verses recited aloud. Muslim children around the world are taught to read and recite it in the original Arabic in special classes. Most Muslims also look to stories from the life of Muhammad (called hadith) to help them follow his example.
Worship, prayer & meditation
Muslims are obliged to pray five times daily (dawn, midday, late afternoon, after sunset and late evening) out of love for God and obedience to His will. Muslims prepare for these prayers, which involve certain physical movements and must be said facing in the direction of Makkah, by ritual washing. Muslims are encouraged to offer all these prayers communally at a mosque (masjid) especially the Friday afternoon prayers. Sufism, a mystical devotional tradition which encourages a greater sense of union between the believer and God, has influenced much Muslim belief and practice over the centuries. It has inspired the work of many great poets, such as Rumi and Hafiz, many of whom are widely read outside the Muslim community.
Muslims do not see their religious duties as being separate from how they try to live in the world every day. They strive to observe those spiritual obligations known as the Five Pillars of Islam: Shahadah – the declaration of faith; Salah – the five daily prayers; Zakah – giving 2.5% of one’s income to the poor and needy; Sawm – fasting during Ramadan (the ninth month of the Islamic calendar); Hajj – every adult Muslim who is physically, financially and legally able must make at least one pilgrimage to Makkah. Muslims show respect for the prophet Muhammad, frequently adding ‘Peace be upon Him’ after saying or writing his name. They normally do the same for other prophets and messengers recognised in the Qur’an, such as Jesus and Moses.
Given its long history and widespread acceptance, it is no surprise that there is variation in the ways Muslims practise their faith. For example, Muslims should dress modestly, but this varies according to the cultural background of the individual, family or community. Muslims only eat meat from certain animals, slaughtered using the halal method. Muslims are prohibited from eating pork or any foods product derived from the pig (e.g. lard). Islam also forbids any sort of intoxicant, such as alcohol or drugs. Shari‘ah (Islamic law) is widely observed by Muslims in their personal lives, addressing such issues as marriage, family rights and inheritance. Muslims should live according to God’s command, but they should also obey the law of the land where they reside.
A strong sense of community has been a vital aspect of Islamic life from its earliest days. Muslims use the word ummah to denote the whole community of believers, regardless of denomination or tradition, wherever in the world they may live, and at whatever time they have lived. Sometimes this is even extended to include people who are not believers, but who reside in Islamic countries. Such lively and daily awareness of their kinship helps Muslims overcome differences between them, reinforcing their sense of unity around the world and throughout history. It motivates them to care for all those members of the ummah who may be less well-off than themselves, or who may be victims of misfortune – natural or man-made – in other parts of the world.
’Id al-Adha is the main Muslim festival, lasting three days, commemorating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Isma’il, as commanded by God. Muslims fast between dawn and sunset during the month of Ramadan. The holiest night in this month, Laylat al-Qadr (‘The Night of Power’) commemorates the revelation of the first verses of the Qur’an to the prophet Muhammad. ’Id al-Fitr is celebrated at the end of Ramadan with three days of festivities, marked by acts of fellowship, peacemaking and charity. The Islamic calendar is based on the phases of the moon, so dates advance by approximately 11 days each year compared to the Gregorian calendar. This means it is hard to predict the exact dates of Muslim festivals in advance.
Islam is the second-largest religion in the world today, with Muslims making up more than a fifth of the world’s population. Divisions that arose shortly after the passing of Muhammad have shaped the Muslim community over the centuries. The main groups which derived from this historical split are Sunni (the majority of the Muslim world) and Shi’ah (the largest numbers of which are in Iran, Iraq and the Lebanon). The vast majority of the world’s Muslims are non-Arabs and do not speak Arabic; most now live in non-Muslim states; the country with the largest Muslim population is Indonesia. Muslim peoples have been able to retain the diversity of their own culture, while living with a sense of solidarity within their worldwide religious community.
Muslims in Britain
Middle Eastern and Indian Muslims – mostly seamen and traders – settled around British ports from the early 19th century onward. The first building dedicated to Muslim worship in Britain was in Cardiff in 1860; the first purpose-built Mosque was opened in Woking in 1889. After the First World War, many Muslims discharged from the British army settled here. Large numbers of Muslim workers from India and Pakistan were recruited for British industry in the 1950s and 60s. The 1970s saw further settlement from East Africa, then (more recently) refugees from Somalia and Bosnia. The 2001 Census records 1,546,626 Muslims in Britain – just under 3% of the population. Islam is Britain’s second-largest religion. There are more than 700 purpose-built mosques around the country today.
Muslims in Leicester
Local Muslims were using premises in Sutherland Street, Highfields, as a mosque as early as 1965. Now there are 35 mosques in Leicester, for around 50,000 Muslims. Many organisations based locally serve the Muslim community: The Islamic Foundation (founded 1973, which has given rise to Markfield Institute of Higher Education) is significant academically (The Prince of Wales visited its campus in 2003); the Muslim Burial Council received the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Organisations in 2007; the Muslim Forum often speaks out on topical issues; the influential Islamic Da’wah Academy has purpose-built premises in Highfields; Darul Uloom Leicester is a seminary for training home-grown scholars and imams; the Federation of Muslim Organisations has almost 200 groups affiliated to it.