Introduction to Islam
16th century Iznik tiles on the Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem (photo: Glenna Barlow)
In order to understand Islamic art, it is essential to have a basic understanding of the religion itself. While not all art that falls into this broad category is created for a religious purpose or a religious audience, the rapid spread of Islam was incredibly influential in the art of these regions.
Soon after its origin in the seventh century, Islam spread broadly and became an important religion throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond. Today Islam is thought to be the world’s fastest-growing religion, both because of conversions and a high birth rate among muslims (adherents to Islam).
Despite its pervasiveness, Islam is often misrepresented and misunderstood in the West, due in no small part to the violent acts of radical members, despite wide condemnation by religious leaders. In fact, peace is at the root of Islam—its very name derives from the word "salaam," which means peace in Arabic. Understanding Islam is essential not only in order to understand the art it helped produce but also to understand the world in which we live.
Muhammed (sometimes written as Mohammed) was born in 570 C.E. in the city of Mecca in present-day Saudi Arabia. Mecca was then a major pilgrimage center for the current polytheistic religion. Muhammed himself was a spiritual individual and often retreated into the mountains to mediate. It was on one such occasion in 610 C.E. that the faithful believe he received the word of God through the Angel Gabriel. It was this word that was recorded and became the Koran (or Qur’an), which literally means ‘recitation.’
It is important to note that Muhammed is seen only as the intermediary, a messenger, rather than a divine person, as Jesus is considered in the Christian tradition. In fact, Islam is such a strictly monotheistic religion that it even condemns the depiction of Muhammed, or any other human figure, for fear that anyone besides God might be worshipped. Muhammed is seen as last in a line of prophets that include Abraham and Jesus; for this reason Islam is considered one of the three Abrahamic religions—with Judaism and Christianity—whose followers are sometimes called ‘people of the Book’.
Muhammed’s teachings challenged the status quo in Mecca and in 622, his followers moved to a city that became known as Medina. In fact, this event marks beginning of the Islamic calendar, which, unlike Gregorian calendar in the West, is based on the moon.
While Muhammed is not considered divine, his teachings were influential and were recorded in the Hadith, which serves as an additional source of guidance for the faithful. At the time of his death in 632, Muhammed had gained a number of followers throughout the Arabian Peninsula; in just one generation, Islam was well on its way to becoming an established religion. In the following century, Muslims would conquer lands from Spain to India.
Five Pillars of Faith
The word Islam literally means ‘submission’, and a muslim is simply one who submits to God. While Islam is a complex religion, the basic beliefs and practices of the faith can be summarized in what have come to be known as the pillars of faith. These are:
1. Profession of Faith
A monotheistic belief is at the core of Islam. All believers must proclaim that “There is no God but God (or Allah, in Arabic), and Muhammed is his Prophet.”
The faithful bowing in prayer inside a mosque
2. Daily Prayers
Prayer is seen as a means to focus one’s mind on God, which must be done five times daily. Mosques make calls to prayer summoning the faithful, but prayer does not need to be done in a mosque. The devotee, though, must face towards Mecca during the ritual of standing, sitting, bowing and prostrating, often on a special prayer rug.
It is believed that worldly wealth should be shared among the community of believers, or umma. For this reason, the faithful are asked to annually give a percentage (typically 2.5 percent of their wealth) that is divided among the poor.
During Ramadan, the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, Muslims are expected to abstain from food, drink and other impure acts (such as smoking or sexual contact) from sunrise to sunset. This abstention is done both in acknowledgement of the month the Koran was passed down to Muhammed and as a means of self-purification. Ramadan ends with the celebration of Eid al-Fitr, one of the most important holidays in the Muslim calendar.
Pilgrims gather around the ka’aba in Mecca during the Hajj
All followers of Islam are required to make the pilgrimage (or hajj) to Mecca at some point in their lives (barring financial or physical restrictions). This journey is typically undertaken during the twelfth month of the Islamic calendar. The Hajj now attracts more than 2 million pilgrims every year, and the numbers are steadily increasing.
Of course these are just the very basic tenets of a much more complex religion. Nevertheless they provide a glimpse at Islam’s basic principles and requirements.
Text by Glenna Barlow
Where and When
began 610 C.E.
began 610 C.E.