ImageIslam is the second largest religion in the world. Only Christianity has more followers. People who follow the religion of Islam are called Muslims. Today, almost 1 billion people call themselves Muslims. Most Muslims live in a string of countries that extends from Morocco in North Africa to Indonesia in Southeast Asia.


An Arab trader named Muhammad was the founding prophet of Islam. He lived in Mecca, a busy trading town in Arabia (now called Saudi Arabia). Mecca had temples built to honor various pagan gods. Pilgrims visited these temples to worship statues of the gods.

One day, while fasting in a cave, Muhammad had a vision. He returned to Mecca to preach a new religious message. He said there is only one god, not many, and no one should worship idols (statues of gods). He called on the people of Mecca to surrender themselves to Allah, as he called God.


Muhammad’s message angered some Meccans. In the year 622, they forced him to flee to another city, now known as Medina. That journey—or Hegira, as Muslims call it—marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar. In Medina, Muhammad became the head of the community. Soon, he led his Muslim followers back to Mecca. After a battle, the Meccans accepted Islam. Within a century, Muslims ruled an empire that stretched from India to Spain. Throughout this empire, Islam took root. The empire crumbled after a few centuries, but many people of these lands remained Muslims.


After Muhammad’s death in 632, Muslims disagreed about how the next leader should be chosen. One group came to be known as Sunnis and the other as Shias. Islam remains divided into these two branches.

By the year 900, a Muslim movement called Sufism had developed. Sufis seek a personal experience of God. Many great Muslim poets have been Sufis. Sufis helped to spread Islam long after the Islamic empire crumbled.


The Muslim faith centers on five beliefs and practices. These are known as the five pillars of Islam. According to the five pillars, Muslims must

  1. Accept that only one God exists and Muhammad was his messenger.
  2. Perform certain prayers five times a day.
  3. Fast from dawn to dusk during a month called Ramadan.
  4. Give a portion of their wealth to the poor.
  5. Visit Mecca at least once if they are able to.

These practices are based on the holy book of Islam, the Qur’an (also spelled Koran). Muslims believe that the Qur’an is the word of God, delivered through Muhammad. Muslim practices are also based on the Hadith—Muhammad’s own deeds and sayings as reported by his companions.


In the early Islamic empire, the government and the religion were the same. All questions that came up were decided by religious scholars. Their decisions filled in a set of laws called the Sharia. These laws, which are also drawn from the Qur’an and Hadith, cover every aspect of life. They tell what crimes should be punished and how. They set the rules for marriage, contracts, and inheritance.

Islam is thus a complete way of life. In this way of life, men and women generally have different roles. Their activities are often kept quite separated. Families sometimes arrange marriages. Women are expected to be well covered when they go outdoors. In some countries, they have to wear a veil covering their body. In Arab countries, such a covering is called a burka.

The mosque is the traditional place of worship for Muslims. Friday is their holy day, or day of worship. Islam teaches that all Muslims are equal before God. This teaching gives Muslims around the world a sense of community, no matter what country or social class they come from.

 Source: Microsoft ® Encarta