What Is Islam?

What Is Islam?

Islam was revealed 1,437 years ago, and is the second largest religion in the world, with 1.6 billion adherents. Unfortunately, the religion of Islam continues to be linked to terrorism, due to the politically motivated acts of violence committed in its name, leaving many to wonder, “What is Islam?”

It is difficult to understand and appreciate the heart of any religion in times of prolonged conflict and senseless violence. The trauma caused by endless bloodshed, whether it be through “shock and awe” bombings or suicide attacks, distorts psyches and mangles souls. The Qur’an explains that when there is chronic anger, fear, suspicion, and hopelessness, “Verily, it is not the eyes that grow blind, but it is the hearts which are in the breasts that grow blind” (22:46). In these blinded times, religion becomes politicized and many of us, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, lapse into serving truth based on convenience. We misuse religion, individually and collectively, to serve our agenda of self-interest. Ultimately, what we are able to glean from any religion depends on our state of consciousness and our intention. The thirteenth-century sage Rumi illustrates this insight through a metaphor: a bee and wasp drink from the same flower; one produces nectar and the other, a sting.

Islam is a spiritual path that is defined by the root of its name, Salaam. Like its Hebrew cousin, Shalom, Salaam means “peace” in the sense of psychological and emotional wellbeing—the well-being that comes from surrendering the ego to a higher, divine power; following the precepts of the prophets and the Qur’an; and doing our best to be God’s agents for good upon the earth.

According to a celebrated prophetic saying (Hadith), a stranger dressed in white appeared to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and posted this exact question. After an intense conversation, the visitor disappeared as mysteriously as he had arrived. To his astonished companions who witnessed the event, the Prophet confided that the visitor was the angel Gabriel in the shape of a human. The angel validated the Prophet’s understanding of the core teachings of Islam contained in three principles and five pillars.

The Three Principles



Islam means “surrender in peace.” Surrender is the inner journey of releasing attachment to the ego and making space for God at the center of one’s being in order to become a more complete and authentic human being. If we do not do this work of self-surrender (Islam), explains the Qur’an, “we shall be in the ranks of those who have lost” (3:85). Sadly, this verse is often misinterpreted to mean that Islam is the only valid religion. But religion per se doesn’t matter to God; it is the whole hearted attempt to live in a state of surrender to Divine Will that is paramount.

In the verse above, the Qur’an clearly embraces the critical concept of surrender as it has been revealed in other religions:

“We believe in God, and in what has been revealed to us and what was revealed to Abraham, Ismail, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and in (the Books) given to Moses, Jesus, and the Prophets, from their Lord: we make no distinction between one and another among them, and to God do we bow our will” (3:84).



Iman means faith—primarily belief in the oneness of God; the existence of angels; the revelations of the prophets and messengers who came before Muhammad (including Adam, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus); the scriptures of the three Abrahamic traditions (Torah, Psalms, Gospels, and Qur’an); and the Day of Judgment. The Qur’an makes it amply clear that faith must be informed, not merely blind. Certainty borrowed from our scriptures and teachers is not enough (102:5); from that base we must progress to personal witnessing (102:7) and from there, to a deep inner conviction (69:51).

“The Desert-Arabs say, ‘We have believed.’ Say, ‘You have not [yet] believed’; but say [instead], ‘We have submitted,’ for faith has not yet entered your hearts. And if you obey God and His Messenger, He will not deprive you from your deeds of anything. Indeed, God is Forgiving and Merciful” (49:14).



Ihsan means to be righteous or beautiful. “Render your innermost heart pure of all dross,” says the Qur’an (3:154), and “Bring to God a sound heart” (26:89). The Prophet cautions Muslims to especially guard against three negative traits that are at the root of all wrongdoing: pride, greed, and envy. Self-purification is not an end in itself. We work at it so that we may develop our capacity to do God’s work in the world: practicing the Golden Rule, pursuing social justice, and caring for the earth. The Qur’an emphasizes repeatedly the importance of “righteous deeds.” Whether you are male or female, says the Holy Book, whether you are Jew, Christan, Sabian, or Muslim, what assures heavenly rewards is having faith in God and engaging in righteous deeds (2:62).

“And whoever does righteous deeds, whether male or female, while being a believer—those will enter Paradise and will not be wronged, [even as much as] the speck on a date seed” (4:124).

Five Beliefs of Muslims


Belief in One God

Islam is a monotheistic religion, meaning that Muslims believe that God is one, the sole creator of life on earth, who has neither gender nor human form and is beyond likeness to anything in creation. God is called Allah in Arabic and is also described by ninety-nine “Beautiful Names of God,” which are descriptive attributes of God, such as the Merciful, the Compassionate, the King, the Holy, and the Almighty. These divine names describe how God relates to humankind and to the rest of creation.

“Before thy time We never sent any apostle without having revealed to him that there is no deity save Me, therefore, you shall worship Me!” (Qur’an 21:25).


Belief that God Has Communicated with Mankind through Scriptures

Muslims believe in four scriptures sent from God as revealed through the prophets: the Torah of Moses; the Psalms of David; the Gospels (Evangel) of Jesus (Isa); and the Qur’an of Muhammad, as well as the scrolls of Abraham and Moses. All these books were authored by the one God and were sent to particular prophets with one overarching theme: right belief regarding God and right ethics for the benefit of humankind.

“Oh people of the Book! You do not stand on anything until you observe the Torah and the Evangel and what was sent down to you from your Lord” (Qur’an 5:68).


Beliefs in the Prophets and Messengers

The Qur’an names twenty-five prophets, beginning with Adam and including Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, David, Solomon, Moses, Aaron, Job, Jonah, John the Baptist, and Jesus Christ, and ending with Muhammad. Muslims are instructed to revere them all and to make no distinction between them. The Quran says that in addition to the named prophets there are many others who are unnamed and every community has been sent a prophet. Muslims make a distinction between a messenger—one to whom God sent a revelation; and a prophet—who received a revelation and was instructed to preach.

“But as for those who believe in God and His apostles and make no distinction between any of them—unto them, in time, will He grant their rewards. And God is indeed much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace” (Qur’an 4:152).


Belief in the Existence of Angels

Angels are radiant, genderless beings of light acting as intermediaries between God and the visible world. The primary ones are the four archangels also known in the Jewish and Christan traditions: Jibra’il (Gabriel), Mika’il (Michael), Izra’il (Azrael), and Israf’il (Raphael). Angels are assigned to individuals to record their good and bad deeds and Angels will interrogate people afer their death and accompany them to their afterlife. There are Angels in heaven, overseen by Ridwan, and in hell, overseen by Malik.

“The angels celebrate the praises of their Lord, and pray for forgiveness for all beings on earth” (Qur’an 42:5).


Belief in the HereAfter, Sometimes Called the Last Day

The Last Day means that creation will come to an end, followed by a Day of Resurrection when all souls will be resurrected, followed by a Day of Judgment when souls will be judged. On this day, souls will be judged on all their deeds, both good and bad. The philosophical underpinning of the idea of the Last Day is human accountability for our ethical actions. Those who lived a righteous life will gain divine approval and enter the bliss of Paradise, while those who lived unethically will gain divine disapproval, taste the burn of their evil actions in Hell, and undergo a period of purification in Hell.

“On that day all human beings will come forward separately to be shown their deeds. Then shall anyone who has done an atom’s weight of good see it! And anyone who has done an atom’s weight of harm shall see that” (Qur’an 99:6–8).

The Five Pillars


Profession of Faith – Shahada

Shahada, where you state: “There is no God but God and Muhammad is a messenger of God.”

The first part testes to the omnipresence and eternity of God: “Everywhere you turn is the Face of God” (2:115); “All that is on Earth will perish but forever will abide the Face of your Sustainer, full of Majesty and Abundant Honor” (55:26–27). God is utterly beyond space, time, gender, and form. Toward the end of his life, the Prophet humbly lamented, “O God, we have not known You as we should have.” Sadly, humans fight and kill over definitions of Divinity, forgetting that in essence God is One for all of humanity. In a telling verse, God instructs us not to argue with Jews and Christians “otherwise than in a most kindly manner… and say… our God and your God is one and the same, and it is unto Him that we all surrender ourselves” (29:46).


Prayer – Salat

Salat, or prayer, in which Muslims are required to pray five times daily. “Bow in adoration and draw closer,” says the Qur’an (96:19), and Muslims respond by bowing and prostrating to God five times a day in obligatory prayer. This prayer is derived, some scholars opine, from the Prophet’s mystical night journey, during which he ascended seven levels of heaven and was dazzled by the sight of angels bowing and prostrating to God while uttering words of praise and thanksgiving. The Prophet saw this as a sign that prayer must consist of praising and thanking God, and using the gif of the body to express adoration. Spiritual teachers explain that one prostration of prayer to God frees us from a thousand prostrations to our ego. The required number of prayers is attributed to a legend that when the Prophet was descending the seven levels, he met Moses, who asked him how often God wanted his community to pray. “Fifty times a day,” the Prophet said. “They’ll never pray that much!” Moses exclaimed. “Go back and plead for a lesser number.” With Moses’ encouragement, the Prophet finally got the number down to more manageable five prayers daily.


Charity – Zakat

Zakat means purification through almsgiving. Muslims sanctify our wealth and our being by giving for the sake of God. Muslims must the at least 2.5 percent of their net worth every year to those in need and are encouraged to offer non-obligatory donations and service for worthy causes. The Qur’an stipulates some guidelines: “give freely of what you love” (3:92), “to those who ask” (2:177), “and to those who can’t ask” (70:25), and give quietly, for “it will atone for some of your wrongdoings” (2:271).


Pilgrimage – Hajj

Hajj is the pilgrimage to Mecca in the twelfth month of the Islamic calendar. Able-bodied Muslims who can afford it are expected to go on hajj at least once in their lives “in the service of Allah” (2:196). Joining fellow Muslims from all over the world in the rituals of the hajj is a glorious reminder of the importance and sacredness of a community of faith as we live out our lifelong pilgrimage from this world to the next.