One of the world’s major and fastest-growing religions, Islam is practiced by about 1.3 billion adherents throughout the world, about one fifth of the world’s population. A monotheistic faith, Islam literally means “submission to the will” of God in Arabic, the language of its origin and of its sacred text, the Koran. Islam was founded by Muhammad, a man of 6th-century Arabia, who is considered the “seal” (or last) of the prophets by the community of believers.
Islam was studied by European scholars, including some considered to be among the founders of the discipline of anthropology, as Europe expanded its political and cultural domination of Asia and Africa in the 19th century. Recently, detailed ethnographic studies of the localized practice of Islam have become the main focus of anthropological inquiry.
Basic Practices and Beliefs
Islam is based upon five religious duties, often called the “Five Pillars.” The first pillar is the profession or declaration of faith: There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God. Recitation of this sentence makes a person a Muslim, one who submits to God. The second duty is prayer five times a day: dawn, noon, midafternoon, sunset, and nightfall. Each prayer is said facing Mecca, in a state of ritual purity, and is composed of a number of bows or prostrations to God. People may pray anywhere, although many congregate at mosques, Muslim houses of worship, especially for the Friday noon prayer.
Almsgiving is the third pillar or religious duty. Generally, most almsgiving is personal and direct from donor to recipient. Historically, in some countries, it has been an obligatory tax on those who were able to pay. The fourth pillar is fasting during the month of repentance and purification, Ramadan. Eating, drinking, smoking, and sexual relations are prohibited between dawn and sunset. At night, communal feasts for family and friends are common. The last pillar is the pilgrimage to Mecca, which must be made at least once in a lifetime if possible. Over a million people annually make the pilgrimage during the month of Dhul-Hijja. Among the many ritual acts the pilgrims complete are seven circumambulations of the Kaaba, a sacred shrine originally consecrated to God by Abraham. Those who make the pilgrimage to Mecca are called hajjis and are much respected when they return to their local communities.
A foundational belief in Islam is that God has a unitary nature. God is referred to as omniscient, merciful, compassionate, generous, everlasting, the most high, and the judge. These and other characteristics of God are often part of men’s names; for example, Abdul Rahman, or “slave of the compassionate,” indicates a man’s submission to God in his personal name.
The Koran, Islam’s holy book, contains 114 chapters, arranged longer to shorter, and contains legal, judicial, and ethical norms. The Koran is considered the last, final, and perfect revelation from God to humankind. It refers many times to the Day of Judgment, when God will judge people and the good will go to paradise and the evil to hell.
Other customs associated with Islam are prohibitions against the use of pork, alcohol, and representations of animate objects. The enforcement of these prohibitions has varied historically and regionally. Although the veiling of women is often linked to Islam, the Koran specifies modest dress, not the complete veil or the seclusion of women.
Historical Development of Islam
Muhammad was born in Mecca, a prosperous town and center of a pagan cult in the Arabian Peninsula, in AD 570. His tribe, the Quraysh, was powerful and wealthy; his family lineage was Hashim, a minor although respected group. His father died before his birth and his mother when he was only 6. At age 40, while meditating in a cave near Mecca, Muhammad received revelations from God via the Angel Gabriel and began reciting these to the people of Mecca. The Koran, literally “the reciting,” is the collection of these revelations and thus is God’s direct word, according to Muslims. Not only did Muhammad attract followers from among the poor of Mecca, he also threatened the prosperity of the wealthy who gained economically from pilgrims visiting the city’s pagan shrine. Some Meccans began to persecute Muhammad and his followers.
Yathrib, a city north of Mecca later renamed Medina, was in the midst of a series of disputes that Muhammad was asked to arbitrate. Muhammad and his followers migrated to Medina, where they formed a community and state based on ties of faith rather than blood. This event, the Hijra or Emigration in 622, marks the year 1 in the lunar Islamic calendar. After a series of battles with the Meccans, Muhammad and his followers returned to Mecca in triumph. The Kaaba, a large black stone and the shrine, which previously housed idols, was purified and dedicated as the place where Abraham and his son Ishmael worshipped God.
Muhammad died in AD 632, leaving no male heir or successor. However, his daughter Fatima was married to Ali, one of Muhammad’s earliest followers, cousin, and adopted son. Some, known as the Shia (from shiat Ali, or the “party of Ali”), thought Ali was Muhammad’s true successor, but a group of Muhammad’s counselors selected Abu Bakr, whom the majority accepted. The dispute about leadership continued through two additional successors, or caliphs. Although Ali finally was selected the fourth successor after Muhammad, he was never universally accepted. After Ali’s assassination, the Shia looked to his eldest son Hasan, but the powerful governor of Syria, Muawiya, threatened his position. Hasan retired, and the Shia looked to Ali’s second son, Husayn, for leadership. The forces of Husayn and Muawiya’s son, Yazid, battled near Karbala, Iraq, on the 10th of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, in AD 680. Husayn and many of his family and followers were killed. The Shia commemorate the event each year on the 10th of Muharram in a reenactment of Husayn’s martyrdom.
The orthodox majority of Muslims, 90% of the total, are known as “Sunnis” from the word, sunna, Arabic for customary conduct, referring to Muhammad’s own practices. The Shia remain a minority of about 10% or 15%; however, they control the state in Iran and are the majority in Iraq. Shiism has been divided into numerous sects since the 8th century. Most are known as Imamis, or “Twelvers,” because they accept 12 imams, or leaders, from the first, Ali, to the 12th, who is believed to have hidden himself away only to return later to restore justice before the end of the world. Others include the Ismailis, “Seveners,” who accept a different 7th imam than the Twelvers, the Zaydis who accept a different 5th imam, and many more.
The victory of Yazid over Husayn consolidated the dynasty of caliphs known as the Umayyads (AD 661-750). Islam continued to expand across North Africa and up through Spain as well as through Central Asia, which had been Buddhist, to India and the frontiers of China. Many non-Arab peoples, including Berbers, Turks, and Persians, converted to Islam. The growth of non-Arab peoples within the Muslim community created difficulties in governance, leading to a series of revolts and a new ruling dynasty, the Abbasids, with capitals at Baghdad (AD 750-1258) and Cairo (AD 1261-1517).
In the 12th and 13th centuries, a major shift in popular religious expression took place in the Islamic world with the development of sufism, frequently defined as “Islamic mysticism.” The word is derived from the Arabic word for “wool,” suf, thus denoting a person wearing a wool robe. Taking different regional and historical forms, sufism emphasizes an individual’s communion with the divine, the veneration of saints, and participation in religious brotherhoods. Each brotherhood has a teacher or master who initiates disciples into a particular set of rituals for reaching God.
Anthropology and Islam
In the 19th century, European expansion impacted the Muslim world, including forms of colonization and political domination. European historians and scholars of religion studied Arabic and other Semitic languages, primarily to understand the Bible’s ancient roots in the Middle East. Using a theoretical paradigm now called evolutionism, these scholars thought that societies such as the Bedouin, pastoral nomads in the Arabian Peninsula, represented a past way of life that was comparable to that of Abraham or Jesus. One such scholar, William Robertson Smith (1846-1894), may be considered a founder of the anthropology of religion as well as kinship studies. Though Smith’s evolutionist approach is no longer used in anthropology, he provided an early systematic description of the kinship and political organization of the Bedouin using ethnographic data. In writing about Islam, his main concern was in linking stages of religious development such as totemism, animal sacrifice, and the development of monotheism. In his time, Robertson Smith’s ideas about religion were influential, and other scholars, such as Sigmund Freud in Totem and Taboo, borrowed much from him. Writing about Western scholarship on Islam, the late Columbia University Professor Edward Said and other critics of “orientalism” accuse 19th-century European scholars of overgeneralization, lack of historicity, and denigration of non-Europeans.
In the first half of the 20th century, forms of functionalism became dominant paradigms in British social anthropology and also were influential in the United States. Functionalism emphasizes the operation and interactions of social institutions as they maintain society. Anthropological studies during this period emphasized the study of small-scale societies and tended to ignore complex literate societies, where much historical work was necessary for cultural interpretation. In order to revive studies of complex societies in the 1940s, anthropologists labeled religious practices associated with standardized religious texts and authority “the Great Tradition,” while they labeled popular understanding and practice of religion “the Little Tradition.” Sufism, for example, was placed in the Little Tradition, ignoring the interpenetration of authoritative and popular understandings of Islam. E. E. Evans-Pritchard’s work on the Sanusi, a religious order among the Bedouin of Libya, is one of few monographs on the Islamic world written by an anthropologist during the functionalist period.
The situation changed dramatically in the second half of the 20th century, when significant theoretical and ethnographic works were written by anthropologists on Islamic subjects. Much of the work highlights the historically complex variability within different parts of the Islamic world through detailed case studies. Clifford Geertz, one of the most influential anthropologists of the period, has compared Moroccan and Indonesian variants of Islam. Michael M. J. Fischer focused on the Iranian revolution and role of Shiism in a major work that appeared soon after that event. Fischer conducted fieldwork in Qum, the center of Iranian Shiism’s religious establishment.
- Eickelman, D. F. (2001). The Middle East and Central Asia: An anthropological approach (4th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1949). The Sanusi of Cyrenaica. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Fischer, M. M. J. (1980). Iran: From religious dispute to revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Geertz, C. (1968). Islam observed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Said, E. (1978). Orientalism. New York: Random House.