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"There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet"
Al-shahada, The Islamic proclamation of faith.

Basic Information

Depending on who you ask, Islam either began in around 610AD or has been around since the creation of the world. Generally a muslim1 - an adherent of Islam - will give the second answer and anyone else the first. To accept the second answer is, more or less, to accept Islam's claims to be the original, final, correct and definitive form of both Judaism and Christianity and is therefore not well received by followers of either of the other two religions.

Whichever turns out to be true in the end, Islam as we know it today was founded in the years approximately 610-632AD by Mohammed of Mecca, an Arab merchant and self-anointed prophet belonging to the Quraysh tribe2. By his own account he began to receive a series of revelations (ayat) from God, dictated to him by the angel Jibreel (Gabriel) which he composed into a series of chapters (sura) from which the Quran would later be compiled.

When Mohammed began to preach these revelations to his fellow Qurayshi the strict monotheism and other teachings contained in them irritated the predominately polytheistic tribe and he and his followers were expelled from their home city of Mecca to nearby Medina. There he set about recruiting followers and raiding Meccan trade caravans to build up his strength. Unsurprisingly this lead to all out war between Medina (which was now under Mohammed's defacto control) and Mecca, a conflict which went back and forth for several years until the 628 Treaty of Hudaybiyyah.

This treaty lasted for two years, during which Mohammed turned his attention to the Jewish tribes in the surrounding area, subjugating or destroying them in a series of expeditions including the notorious battle of Khaybar. When the Meccan's allies the Bakr tribe attacked Mohammed's Khuza'a allies and broke the treaty thereby, Mohammed marched on Mecca in such force that he took the city almost without a fight - the remaining polytheists were killed, enslaved or forced to convert or flee.

From this point, Mohammed's territory - and the sway of his new religion - spread like wildfire across Arabia. By his death in 632 he had defeated and subjugated most of the remaining tribes in the peninsula. This expansion continued under his successors the caliphs who, by 660 had overrun great swathes of the Eastern Roman Empire and the Parthian Empire and by 750 had conquered their way as far as Northern Spain.

The Islamic scriptures are based around the Quran, which was compiled from the Suras recited by Mohammed and finally collected and codified by the third Caliph Uthman (reigned 644-656AD), who then destroyed all of the written source material available to him leaving his version as the sole authoritative text. Also of great importance are the sirah - biographies of Mohammed written by his followers and the sunnah - a collection of hadith, teachings of Mohammed that were not directly part of the surahs.

As with any religion the actual tenets and practices are many and complicated, but Islam is said to be summarised by the following five 'Pillars of Wisdom':

  1. Shahada: The Profession of Faith: "There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet" - to many Muslims, to speak the Shahada aloud before witnesses is to declare yourself a Muslim.
  2. Salah: The Prayers: A Muslim is obliged to pray at five set times every day: sunrise, midday, mid afternoon, sunset and before retiring for the night.
  3. Zakat: Alms: A tithe paid on all of a Muslim's income. This can be donated to the needy or put towards other approved projects such as funding the spread of Islam or building mosques.
  4. Hajj: Pilgrimage: A pilgrimage to the Kaba shrine in Mecca which every Muslim is expected to make at least once in his lifetime if he possibly can. This pilgrimage was initially made to Jerusalem, but once Mohammed took control of Mecca the destination was moved to the Kaba.
  5. Saum: Fasting: This is observed during the lunar month of Ramadan, during which Muslims are forbidden to eat or drink during daylight hours.

Some theologians add an unofficial 'sixth pillar', Jihad or "struggle" - which means both inner struggle to be a better Muslim and external struggle, both violent and non-violent, to advance the causes of Islam.

Key to the understanding of Islam is that of sharia - the legalistic framework which defines right and wrong according to the instructions given in the Quran and the sunnah. That which is forbidden is termed haram and that which is permitted halal3 with the additional category of fard - indicating those things which are not only permitted but required for correct practice. Related concepts include hudud - the concept of moral crimes for which punishments are defined by divine sanction. The interpretation of Sharia is known as fiqh (effectively "jurisprudence") and a given school of legal thought is called a madhab. The most authoritative guide to Sharia law currently in circulation is known as "The Reliance of the Traveller and tools of the worshipper" (Umdat as-Salik wa 'Uddat an-Nasik), commonly referred to simply as "The Reliance of the Traveller"4 although minor differences will occur from place to place. The conception of Sharia as divinely ordained and invariable tends to cause conflict both with those who believe that laws should be man made and change with society and with others who hold to conflicting religious mores.

See Also



Game and Story Use

  • If you run a game set in a Muslim-majority country (or during the Middle Ages), it's a good idea to at least be familiar with the basics.
  • In a fantasy setting, there is a holy city where a popular religion was founded. An adherent of the faith is dying of disease without having made the necessary pilgrimage to it, and contacts an adventuring party for protection along the way.
  • A good set of religious laws may be useful for determining what your PCs religion will and will not permit, however, as generations of religious scholars have found, the laws will rarely be comprehensive enough to answer every case (let alone every smart arse question) your players will come up with. Perhaps a principles-based religious practice would be better than a rules based one after all?
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