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
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
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
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
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
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