Who are Muslims?

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Muslims are those who practice the Abrahamic and monotheistic religion of Islam. “Muslim” comes from the Arabic root slm, which means ‘peace’, ‘submission’ or ‘surrender’. From a spiritual perspective, it translates as ‘one who achieves peace by submitting to the will of Allah’ (‘God’ in Arabic). Today there are about 2 billion Muslims, around a quarter of the world’s population. Islam is the fastest growing religion globally and it is estimated that after 2050 it will be the most followed in the world.

The first Muslims

Islam was born in the 7th century in Mecca, on the Arabian Peninsula. It arose from the hand of the merchant Muhammad or Muhammad, who regularly retired to the mountains to reflect on the injustices of his society. According to Islamic tradition, in a spiritual retreat he received a visit from the archangel Gabriel, who revealed to him the first word of the Koran, the future sacred book of Islam: Iqraa (‘Read’). That moment inspired the Golden Age of Islam, which would last five centuries, since for Muslims Allah is known in the search for knowledge. It was then that Islamic civilization flourished.

Muhammad was active in his society, and his speech and revolutionary ideas penetrated the marginalized population. The upper class of Mecca saw his interests in danger and began to persecute him, so the prophet fled to Medina in the year 622. This event was called the Hijra and marked the beginning of the Muslim calendar. Muhammad died in 632 and by then had already consolidated his power in the Arabian Peninsula. Islam gained followers at breakneck speed and spread throughout the region.

After the death of Muhammad, the succession was not defined and the two great branches of Islam then appeared: Sunnism and Shiism. The differences between the two are of political origin, but also rituals and interpretation of the sharia, Islamic law. Sunnism comes from the Arabic word sunnah, which means ‘tradition’, and is divided into four schools of Islamic jurisprudence. Shiism comes from the Arabic word shīʻatu, which means ‘follower’, in this case of Ali, one of the four orthodox caliphs of Islam. There are three legal schools where the Shiites only accept the prophetic tradition transmitted by Ali and his immediate descendants. Today around 90% of Muslims are Sunnis and 10% Shiites.

Between tradition and modernity

All Muslims are part of the umma or community of believers, but they are not a monolithic block of origins and thought. They cover different religious interpretations and practices, ethnicities, nationalities, cultures, social classes and ideologies. The majority is concentrated in Asia-Pacific and the Middle East, with Indonesia being the country with the most Muslims in the world. For Muslims, Islam is not a religion, but a lifestyle, and they consider that there is divine wisdom behind the dogmas that determine their diet, clothing or way of relating in society and family.

The life of every Muslim revolves around two fundamental axes. On the one hand, the six pillars of faith: believing in Allah and his power, in the angels, in the books revealed by Allah before the Koran, in the prophets before Muhammad, in the day of final judgment and in destiny. On the other hand, the five pillars of Islam, which are practical norms: bearing witness to faith (shahada), pray five times a day (salat), give alms (zakat), fasting in the month of Ramadan (sawm) and make the pilgrimage to Mecca if you have the means (hach). The most important religious holidays for Muslims are those at the end of Ramadan and the one that commemorates the sacrifice of Abraham. In both, Muslims meet with family, friends, neighbors, share with those in need and stimulate the feeling of community and solidarity.

The Quran and the sayings and deeds of the prophet (ahadiths) are considered timeless principles of Islam. But interpretations make Muslims range from the most orthodox to the most liberal. In this sense, the challenges and debates in the Muslim community vary depending on the country, such as the confessional nature of the States where they are the majority, Islamic feminism or jihadist terrorism. Muslims are the main victims of the latter in the world, whereby they face radical interpretation of religious texts in the community and Islamophobia from outside, especially visibly Muslim women.