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Islam is one of the 3 major world religions, along with Judaism and Christianity, that profess monotheism (belief in a single God). In the Arabic language, the word Islam means "surrender" or "submission". A follower of Islam is called a Muslim, which in Arabic means "one who surrenders to God". Their name for God is Allah and refers to the same God worshiped by Jews and Christians.
Islam was founded by the prophet Muhammad (570-632 AD) around 610 AD. Muhammad was a trader in Arabia (present-day Saudi Arabia) who turned from paganism to belief in one God. Muslims believe Muhammad was the last in a long line of holy prophets, preceded by Adam, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Because Allah communicated his final revelation to him, it made him God's most important prophet. God's revelation to Muhammad became the Islamic holy book, The Qur'an [pronounced: "Core-ran"]. Muslims do not believe Muhammad was divine; rather he is a prophet, like Moses, and was a man like other men.
Muslims worship Allah through the Five Pillars, which are religious duties required of every adult Muslim. They are: the profession of faith, prayer, almsgiving (giving to the poor), fasting, and pilgrimage. There are two sects of Islam: Sunnites and Shi'ites. Sunnites (85-90% of all Muslims) take The Qur'an for meaning exactly what it says and pray 5 times a day toward Mecca. Shi'ites believe The Qur'an can be interpreted differently as time goes on and pray 3 times a day.
Allah and Muhammad communicated during the 9th month in the Islamic
Calendar. This is celebrated as Ramadan, during which all Muslims fast (no eating/drinking/sex) from sunup until sundown every day during that month.
Muhammad first preached in his hometown of Mecca, where he had many
converts... and enemies.
He emigrated to Medina in 622 AD. This is called the
Hegira [pronounced: He-jeer-rah] and marks Year 1 of the Islamic Calendar.
Many critical Western
studies of Islam focus only on the Islamic concept of jihad. Jihad, considered the Sixth Pillar by some (not all) Muslims, has been understood to mean
"holy war" in these descriptions. The word in Arabic actually means "to struggle" or "to exhaust one's effort" in order to please God.
As a result of the terrorist attacks against the U.S. on September 11, 2001, the Western media of the 21st Century continues to focus on the militant interpretations of the concept of jihad, whereas most Muslims do not.
Muslims generally avoid depictions and drawings of Muhammad as the interdiction against such images is designed to prevent worship of Muhammad (since the idea is to worship Allah). The whole "no pictures of Muhammad" restriction is much more strictly observed by Sunnites than Shi'ites.
As such, mosques are decorated with calligraphy and inscriptions or geometrical designs... but never images or sculptures. Since the year 1500 AD, any depictions show Muhammad with his face veiled or symbolically represented as a flame.