The term Muslim implies 'submission to (God)'. The Prophet Muhammad experienced mystical revelations in AD 610 while meditating in a cave near Mecca in Arabia. The monotheistic religion called Islam was thus revealed to him. He brought his message to the Arab peoples and from Arabia it spread rapidly through the Middle East and Central Asia and entered the Indus Valley, soon becoming a major world religion.
Muhammad's message focussed on the One God from whom all had strayed and to whom he asked people to submit. The heart of this revealed message is the affirmation that 'there is no god but Allah (The God), and Muhammad is the messenger of God.' His migration to Medina with a small number of Muslims in 622 is called the Hegira, a significant date that begins the Islamic calendar. In 630 he conquered Mecca, established it as centre of pilgrimage for his new community, with the ancient shrine of the Ka'ba as the focus, and then passed away at Medina in 632. Muhammad's revelations were collected in the Koran which became the foundation of the Muslim faith. It is not seen as a new revelation but as a complete and final version of messages from God received by prophets throughout history, such as Abraham and Jesus.
Image: Painting of the courtyard of a Muslim dargah with a mosque beyond. The garden is a metaphor for paradise in Islamic philosophy and art.
Sunnis and Shias
The leaders after Muhammad were called the Khalifas (or successors of the Prophet). The first four were companions of Muhammad and ruled from 632-661, known as the period of the Rightly-guided Caliphate. After the Prophet's death theological issues arose from who would lead the community. The majority, called Sunnis after the Prophet's customary practice or Sunna, joined Abu Bakr (the second Khalifa 632-634). Others followed the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law Ali ibn Ali Talib (Khalifa 656-661), becoming the Shias (from the party or Shi'a of Ali).
Islam has some fundamental articles of faith: a belief in God (shahada), a belief in angels, a belief in the revealed books, a belief in messengers or prophets, and a belief in the Day of Judgement. The duties of a Muslim involve obligatory prayers five times a day, the giving of alms by payment of an alms tax or zakat computed according to income, fasting during the period of Ramadan each year, and carrying out a pilgrimage called Haj to Mecca at least once in the lifetime.
These beliefs and duties give the adherents of Islam a sense of unity and community. The professing of faith, giving of alms to the poor, prayers, fasting and pilgrimage are called the Five Pillars of Islam. The daily ritual of prayers takes place at dawn, mid-day, mid-noon, sunset and evening. They can be performed singly or communally except on Friday mid-day when prayers are congregational and a sermon or khutba is read beforehand from a pulpit or mimbar. Muslim prayers are preceded by ritual ablution and performed facing in the direction of Mecca towards the orientation of the Ka'ba or Home of God. The qibla in mosques gives the required orientation.
In South Asia, Sunnis are the majority in Pakistan and Bangladesh, although there are sizeable numbers of Shias too. India has over 100 million Muslims in which diverse sects, languages and communities are represented. Besides Sunnis and Shias, India is also home to Bohras, Ismailis and Ahmadiyas.