Islam literally means 'submission to the will of God' and is the second largest religion in the world with over a billion followers. Most of these are found in North Africa, the Middle East, and the Horn of Africa and there are large communities in Asia, India, Russia and China as well as large, growing immigrant communities in Western Europe. Of these, the majority are Sunnis (around 80-90%) and the minority is Shia, with a small number of other sects making up about 1% of the total population. Islam was spread fast through the Middle East in the years 632 to 700, in a war motivated by greed as well as religion.
Until recently the Sunni and Shia populations coexisted peacefully, and in places like Iraq intermarriage was common, and while they are in agreement over many fundamental principles, there are significant differences stemming mostly from the death of the prophet Mohammed and the schism that followed over his successor.
Followers of Islam believe that the religion has always existed, but that it was revealed to humanity gradually through prophets (Jesus, Moses and Abraham are all respected prophets of God), the final and complete revelation being through Mohammed in the 7th century CE in Mecca, Arabia. Muslims believe that there is only one true God called Allah who is neither male nor female, is eternal, omnipotent and omniscient, has no shape or form and is just and fair.
Beliefs and practices are taken from the holy book, the Qur'an and the Sunah, the practical teachings of the prophet Mohammed. In order to live a good life in accordance to Islam, followers must follow the five pillars: Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, Zakat, giving to the poor or charity (altruism is very important in Islam -“…And they give others preference over themselves even though they were themselves in need….” (Quran 59:9)), Salat, performing prayer properly five times a day and Shahadah, sincerely reciting the profession of faith. Muslims pray in a building called a mosque, which has a main room devoid of furniture, and without statues or decoration, as this would be considered blasphemous. There is a place to store shoes and to perform the ritual cleansing, as purification is a central aspect to the Muslim faith. Women are seated separately from men to maintain modesty and reduce distraction. Often women will pray in their homes. Cleanliness is also ensured through the circumcision of boys, although not mandatory is still widely practiced and thought to assist in keeping oneself clean.
Jihad is an Arabic word for effort or struggle and is used for three different things. The internal struggle to lead as good a Muslim life as possible, to build a good Muslim society and to defend Islam, with force if necessary. The five pillars therefore provide an exercise in Jihad, as the practitioner gets closer to Allah abiding by them. Sharia law governs all the aspects of Islamic life, which are created by a mixture of teachings from the Qur'an, the Hadith (sayings from the prophet) and fatwas, the rulings of Islamic scholars. Sharia governs laws on modesty, which different cultures interpret for laws on dress with some women being required to wear the niqab, hijab or other head covering, and dietary laws which prohibit the consumption of certain foods like pork and alcohol. Halal actions or objects are often used to describe the Islamic dietary laws, but Halal also means other admissible things.
There are a variety of Islamic rulers and figureheads. A Caliph in Sunni Islam is a head of state that has been elected through Muslims or their representatives, however Shia Muslims believe that they must be an Imam chosen by God through the descendants of the prophet. An Imam is a leader, and can have a variety of important connotations for Shia Muslims, while for Sunnis it often refers to a founder of one of the four schools of religious thoughts. In Shia societies, the term Ayatollah is given to clergymen considered experts in Islamic studies, with title of Grand Ayatollah only being awarded to the most important.
The Qur'an is descriptive about the afterlife. In Islam life is simply a test to determine one's eternal abode in heaven (Jannah) or hell (Jahannam), the decision of which will occur on judgment day when the world will be destroyed and all people will be resurrected from the dead. Heaven and hell are both comprised of 7 levels. Heaven has 7 gates and 7 levels, the higher the level the better it is and the happier you are, whereas hell has 7 deep and horrible layers. Until the Day of Judgment the soul will begin to have a sense of their destiny in their grave. Those with a strong Iman (belief in the six articles of faith, angels, the holy book, prophets, Allah's predetermination, Allah and judgment day) will be at peace in their graves, and those without will feel growing discomfort. There are numerous descriptions in the Hadith and the Qur'an about the suffering in hell, which will be both spiritual and physical, with lips burnt off, backs on fire and skin being scalded with boiling liquids. Unlike Christian belief, hell is not a resting place for the devil, or Shaytan, as Muslims know him, but he is said to 'whisper' into the hearts of men and jinn (spirits) to tempt them into sinning.
There are only two holy days marked down in the Islamic law, Eid ul Fitr, a feast marking the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting and Eid ul Adha The day of sacrifice when Muslim honor Abrahams willingness to sacrifice his son. However, there are many other days that Muslims celebrate, including Ashura, a day of fasting to commemorate when Noah left the Ark and Moses was saved from the Egyptians by Allah, Lailat al Miraj, a festival celebrating the revelations of Salat (daily prayers) and a few others that vary depending on sect and culture.