Today's 1.5 billion Muslims belong to a religious tradition that began in the seventh century in present-day Saudi Arabia. The religion quickly spread under the leadership of the Muslim prophet Muhammad, and today Islam has a significant presence in large parts of Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. Although in many way these Muslims are very diverse, most share some core beliefs.
Articles of Faith
To become a Muslim, the only thing you have to do is believe and say the Shahada: "There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his Prophet." In addition to this statement, many Muslims teach that you must also believe the "Six Articles of Faith:" belief in one God; God's angels; God's books, especially the Quran; God's prophets, especially Muhammad; the Day of Judgment and the supremacy of God's will.
The Quran is the most important source in Islam. Muslims believe that God revealed the book to Muhammad in stages over 23 years, and that the words written in it are God's own. Muslims also use the Sunnah -- Muhammad's actions and examples -- as well as the Hadith -- reports of what Muhammad said or approved -- as important sources and guides. Scholars examine Sunnah and Hadith to judge their authenticity, and they disregard any that do not meet their criteria.
Most Muslims believe in five pillars, or essential ways to put their faith into practice. First is the Shahada, or statement of faith in God and his prophet Muhammad; next, praying five times each day at set times; third, giving two and a half percent of your you wealth to charity each year; fourth, fasting during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar; and finally, making a pilgrimage to Mecca if you are physically and financially able.
Although the Muslim faith has fewer sects than Christianity does, the first rift came almost immediately after Muhammad's death. He left behind about 100,000 Muslims and no clear successor, causing his followers to split into what remain Islam's two major groups. Sunnis, the majority, chose one of Muhammad's companions as their leader. However, Shias, the minority group, believed that the role should go to one of Muhammad's blood relatives. Today, they remain divided over questions of leadership and interpretation of the Hadith and Sunnah.
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