Islam is one of the world's major religions, along with Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism and Christianity. Since its birth in Arabia more than 1,400 years ago it grew rapidly, making a profound impact on philosophy, literature, the arts, science and medicine throughout history.

An estimated 1.1 billion people worldwide are Muslims and the Islamic traditions they follow are as varied as the nations where they live.

Islam's central teaching is that there is one all-powerful, all-knowing God, who is referred to by the Arabic name, Allah. In Arabic, Islam means "surrender," or "submission," to the will of God.

Islam was founded by the prophet Mohammed, who was born in Mecca around A.D. 570 and settled in Medina around 622. Muslims believe Mohammed was the last and most important in a series of prophets, including Abraham, Moses and Jesus.

The holy book of Islam is the Koran, which means "the timeless words of God." The core practices are known as the Five Pillars -- daily prayer, faith, fasting, pilgrimage and alms giving.

The two main branches of Islam are Sunnism and Shi'ism.

Sunnis constitute the vast majority of the world's Muslims. They believe that the first four supreme religious leaders, or caliphs, were the rightful successors of the Prophet Mohammed. Sunni Islam draws its name from its identification with the importance of the Sunnah, which literally means "the path." The Sunnah is the example set by the life of the prophet Mohammed. The written document based on the teachings and practices of Mohammed, known as the Hadith, serves as a supplement to the Koran.

Sunnism is divided into four legal schools: Hanifi, Maliki, Shafi and Hanbali. These four Islamic schools of jurisprudence were established centuries ago as a way of interpreting the Koran and the Hadith.

While most Sunnis fall within the mainstream of Islam, two particular minority Sunni orientations have moved into the spotlight due to the conflict in Afghanistan.

While Sunni Muslims recognized the first four caliphs as the Prophet Mohammed's legitimate successors, the followers of the Shii (or Shi'a) branch of Islam place authority solely in the hands of the fourth caliph, Ali, and his descendants. The Shi'ites accept some of the the Hadith (books that supplement the Koran) that the Sunnis accept, but not all of them. The Shi'ites also have some Hadith of their own.

The Sunni-Shii split occurred in the decades following the death of the prophet Mohammed. The two branches have a long history of tension and rivalry. Their differences lie mainly in methods of leadership.Shi'ism is the official religion in Iran. Other countries where Shi'ites are in the majority include Iraq, Bahrain and Lebanon. Many other countries have Shii minorities, including Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Afghanistan's Shi'ites primarily come from the Hazara ethnic group, located in the northwestern part of the country near the Iranian border.

To learn about Islam you can go to the following links or perform your own research:

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Last Updated: Monday, May 05, 2008