Learning something about Islam and respecting its traditions and practices is important for all expatriates.
Note that followers of the Islamic faith are Muslims or Moslems, depending on the chosen spelling of the word. They aren’t to be called Mohammedans. For Muslims, Islam isn’t just a religion but a way of life that governs and guides their path through this world and the next. It’s an integral and pervasive part of all aspects of life. Public worship is viewed as more important than almost anything else, religious books and writings are found everywhere, and the phrase ‘In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful’ is found at the top of most correspondence.
Islam means ‘active submission to the will of God’. The religion teaches that Allah controls absolutely everything and, when making plans, you often hear the response ‘in sha Allah’ (‘God willing’). You will also hear ‘ La ilaha illa Allah, Mohammadun rasulu Allah’ (‘There’s no God but God, and Mohammed is his Prophet’). Mohammed was born in Mecca in around 571AD and began to receive revelations at the age of 40. Three years later, he started to preach and to challenge the local pagan religions. As a result, Mohammed and his followers – Muslims – had to flee to the town of Medina in 622AD. This exodus ( hejira) is regarded as the beginning of the Muslim age and is therefore year zero, the beginning of the Islamic calendar, in the same way as the date given for Christ’s birth is the beginning of the Christian calendar.
The Holy Koran ( Qu’ran) is God’s word as revealed by the angel Gabriel to the Prophet Mohammed in Mecca and, along with other writings, it sets out rules for every aspect of life. Whereas the Christian Bible and the Jewish Torah consist of later writings of a number of individuals, the Koran is seen as the direct word of God. The God of Abraham is the one true God for all Christians and Jews, but Mohammed claimed that they altered their books and that the message of the Koran is the final truth.
The main point of disagreement with Christianity is that, while Muslims perceive and venerate Jesus as a prophet (second in stature only to Mohammed), they dispute his divinity. In the words of the Koran, ‘Neither was God born, nor did he give birth’. The Muslim believes that all people are born to Islam but are diverted to other religions, usually by their parents.
There are five ‘pillars’ of Islam:
- Faith ( shahada): The first pillar is the profession of faith, which is the belief that ‘there is no God but Allah and Mohammed is the Prophet of God’.
- Prayer ( salah or salat): The second pillar lays out the obligatory prayers to be performed by devout Muslims five times a day. As the sun rises for each new day, the faithful are called to prayer by a muezzin (or nowadays often by a tape recording) with the following declaration of faith, known as the ‘ Shahadah’: ‘God is most great. I testify that there is no God but Allah and that Mohammed is the Prophet of God. Come to the prayer. Come to the salvation. Prayer is better than sleep. God is most great. There is no God but God.’ Each phrase is repeated. (The reference to sleep is used only in the first call to prayer.) Prayer times are at dawn ( fajr), noon ( dhuhr), mid-afternoon ( asir), sunset ( maghreb) and nightfall ( isha). The times of the dawn and sunset prayers are traditionally the earliest and latest times at which you can see the difference between a black thread and a white thread, using only natural light. All newspapers publish the prayer times to be observed on that day. The duration of prayers varies with the prayer leader (Imam) but is usually between ten minutes and half an hour. You can pray anywhere, but Friday noon prayers must be performed in a mosque. Muslims wash before praying to show a willingness to be purified. Non-Muslims aren’t expected to do anything in particular during prayer times, although you shouldn’t watch or pass close in front of anyone who is praying or step on his prayer mat.
- Charity ( zakat): The third pillar of the Muslim faith involves the (obligatory) donation of a 40th (i.e. 2.5 per cent) of the value of your assets annually – a sort of ‘alms tax’. Fortunately, this doesn’t apply to non-Muslims.
- Fasting ( sawm): The fourth pillar concerns the Ramadan Fast, when Muslims must fast during the hours of daylight for the whole of this Holy month. The fast is an act of self-purification and a test of strength, patience and inner knowledge. Muslims must refrain from drinking, eating, smoking and all other physical pleasures, including sexual activity. Eid Al-Fitr (‘the big festival’), is the festival of the breaking of the fast, when the whole community celebrates, families visiting each other and children wearing new clothes. Non-Muslims usually join in and enjoy the fun. This is also an occasion for people to pay their respects to the ruler and any notable families that they do business with or are in regular contact with. Coffee and sweets are served, and the host and his family and friends are wished ‘ Eid mubarraq’ (‘congratulations on the occasion of the festival). The Eid Al-Fitr is also a time when people pay money or donate food to a charity called Sadaqah Al-Fitr, which provides food for the needy.
- Pilgrimage ( Hajj or Haj): The fifth and final pillar of Islam declares that it’s incumbent on every Muslim who can afford it to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, at least once in his life. The reward for doing so is impressive: forgiveness for all sins. The Haj is an annual event, which takes place in the 12th month ( Dhul-Hijah) of the Muslim calendar. It’s a well-organised event, although such is the demand to make the pilgrimage that quotas have had to be enforced on each country.
Some branches of Islam insist that men shave their heads for the pilgrimage, and on arrival at Mecca all pilgrims must wear the ihram, a seamless white garment wrapped around the body and making the wearer indistinguishable as to class or status: all are equal before God. There are also many complex rituals to be observed. At the end of the Haj, the Eid Al-Adha (Festival of Sacrifice) is celebrated.
According to Islam, the ‘sabbath’ or holy day is Friday ( Al-Juma), when shops and businesses are normally closed.
When Islam arrived in the seventh century, Christianity and Judaism had become riven by factions and disagreements. The new religion seemed to offer a pure alternative to both of them, without hierarchies and rituals and offering a direct relationship with God. This didn’t last for long, however. When the prophet died in 632AD with no sons, the succession was disputed by Abu Bakr (the father of Mohammed’s second wife, Aisha) and Ali (Mohammed’s cousin and the husband of his daughter, Fatima). Power was initially given to Abu Bakr, who became Mohammed’s successor. Ali agreed, albeit reluctantly. This fragile harmony was short-lived, ending when one of Abu Bakr’s successors was murdered. Ali reignited his claim to power and won the struggle for it, but he was assassinated in 661AD. Ali’s successor Hussein was defeated in 680 by the Umayyad dynasty, which came to prominence throughout most of the Muslim world and created the Sunni sect. Those who remained loyal to Ali’s descendents were called Shi’ites (or Shi’a Muslims).
The two sects still exist today, Sunnis being the more orthodox group and accounting for around 90 per cent of the world’s approximately 1 billion Muslims. Except in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, Sunnis are the majority in all Arab countries. They regard the Shi’ites as giving excessive importance to prayer leaders ( Imams), whom they regarded as a kind of divine intermediary of God – to an extent that’s almost sacriligious. Shi’a representation is also strong in Kuwait, the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, and Iran (which lays claim to Bahrain), and Shi’ites have gained notoriety because of the unrest caused by some of their followers, although the vast majority are peaceful and reasonable people. There are also sub-groups of each sect, further complicating matters. For example, two important Sunni sub-groups are the Wahhabis, who follow the the teaching of 18th century ‘reformer’ Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab and who have strong influence in Saudi Arabia, and the Ibadis, who are prevalent in Oman (as well as Algeria). Shi’a sub-groups include the Ithna-Asharis, the Ismailis and the Zeidis.
This article is an extract from Living and Working in Gulf States & Saudi Arabia. Click here to get a copy now.