The religion of Islam arose in Muhammad’s time in sixth century Arabia (its
followers see it as having begun with God), but by the mid-seventh century
CE, Islam had divided—over the source of religious authority within the
faith—into two major divisions, Sunni and Shi’a. The word Sunni derives
from the Arabic “code of behavior”, the body of traditional law that derives
from the teachings and acts of the Prophet Muhammad. Sunni Muslims form
the majority of Muslims and hold that the first three caliphs (all three) were
Muhammad’s true successors. The Shi’a believe that Ali was Muhammad’s
first true successor, and the term Shi’a originally referred to the partisans of
Ali. Following the capture of Constantinople in 1453, Islam spread into some
of Europe, and by the 17th century had significantly expanded its presence
there, albeit temporarily.
Religious identity for Muslims goes hand in hand with ethnic, social and
cultural identity. In many states, Islam is less a faith than a way of life.
Shari’ah means the “clear path”, indicating correct ways of behavior
covering religious, political, social, domestic and even private life. Taken
from the Qur’an (Allah’s word) and the Hadith, the Shari’ah sets out for
Muslims legal and ethical foundations and guidance for institutions as well
as for relationships. Application of Islamic law differs considerably
according to the branch, the school of thought (Sunni have four) or system of
elders (Shi’a), on whether Islam is a majority religion in a state, and on the
type of legal system (e.g., secular or not) in a state.
Source: Joanne O’Brien and Martin Palmer, The State of Religion Atlas, 1993.
Worldwide: There are now over a billion adherents. Islam, like Christianity, is
a fast growing religion.
Sources: The World Almanac and Book of Facts, 1994.
United States: There are 1,104,000 Muslims (0.5% of the U.S. population).
Source: The ARIS 2001 study.
Teaching About Religion
in support of civic pluralism