What is Islam?

Linguistically, Islam means submission to God through sincere worship, which allows one to achieve true inner peace. Islam is the name for the way of life revealed by God which provides guidance on how to reach the pinnacle of moral virtue by building one’s relationship with God and caring for His creation.

Since Islam is about submission to God alone, all doctrines in Islam must be derived from revelation from God. Hence, the sources for Islamic teachings are the Qur’an and the Sunnah1. The Qur’an is the verbatim speech of God revealed to the final Prophet, Muhammad. The Sunnah refers to the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad which explain and exemplify the Qur’anic message. An individual narration from/about the Prophet Muhammad (P) is called a hadith.

Thus, for anyone to claim that something is part of Islam, it must have a scholarly and objective basis in Qur’an and Sunnah. That’s a good point to keep in mind.

Who is Allah?

‘Allah’ is the Arabic word for God, the sole Creator and Sustainer of the universe. God is described with all attributes of majesty and perfection, and He transcends all deficiencies. Muslims believe that God is the only One worthy of our worship.

God is described as follows in the Holy Qur’an:
In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful. Praise be to Allah, the Lord of All the Worlds; the Beneficent, the Merciful. Master of the Day of Judgment.”2

Allah! There is no god but He, the Living, the Self-Subsisting. No slumber can seize Him nor sleep. His are all things in the heavens and on Earth. Who is there that can intercede in His presence except as He permits? He knows what is before them and what is behind them, and they cannot comprehend anything of His knowledge except what He pleases. His Throne extends over the heavens and the Earth, and He feels no fatigue in guarding and preserving them, for He is the Most High, the Great.3

He is Allah besides whom there is no god; the Knower of the unseen and the seen; He is the Beneficent, the Merciful. He is Allah, besides whom there is no god; the Sovereign, the Holy One, Peace, the Granter of security, Guardian over all, the Exalted in Might, the Irresistible, the Supreme. Glory to Allah above the partners they attribute to Him. He is Allah the Creator, the Maker, the Fashioner. His are the most beautiful names. Whatever is in the heavens and the Earth declares His glory; and He is the Mighty, the Wise.4

Finding the truth

God did not abandon His creation without guidance. Rather, every human being has been endowed with a natural inclination towards God and towards virtue (commonly referred to as one’s moral conscience)5). Furthermore, human beings have been equipped with the capacity for logical reasoning and contemplation6. Through sound reasoning and embracing one’s natural inclination, every human being has the opportunity to learn, contemplate and recognize their true purpose in life.

What is the purpose of life?

Islam teaches us that God created humanity to worship Him7 and to deepen one’s knowledge of Him8. The challenges of life provide unique opportunities to develop one’s relationship with God through acts of virtue, piety and compassion9. Through one’s journey to worship God and become close to Him, one is able to engage in purification and cultivation of one’s soul10. This spiritual and moral growth is what leads to success in this life and the hereafter11.

What does ‘worship’ actually refer to?

While prayers represent the pillar of all worship, worship includes everything that is beloved and pleasing to God. The Prophet Muhammad (P) taught that worship includes everything from the testimony of faith, to remembering God, to smiling at others, to even removing litter from the road. All actions of goodness can become worship when done with sincerity towards God. Thus, in Islam, worship is as broad as life itself! Islam allows for the human being to become a perpetual worshipper of God. A person may be worshipping God even while engaged in seemingly mundane actions of work, school, sports, socializing and so on.

Which good deeds enable a person to be amongst those whom God loves?

The most important good deeds are those fundamentals of worship that God has made obligatory upon His servants. When a person goes above and beyond the obligatory deeds by striving to do extra acts of goodness, righteousness and worship, they are on their way to earning the close friendship (wilayah) and special love of their Creator.

The Prophet Muhammad (P) explained that God Almighty says,“Nothing endears My servant to Me more than doing what I have made obligatory upon him to do. And My servant continues to draw nearer to Me with voluntary deeds so that I shall love him.”12

Thus, implementing the Islamic teachings allows a human being to exemplify their devotion to God and come closer to Him. Islam provides humanity with a comprehensive system of guidance for all facets of life whether moral, spiritual, physical, social, administrative, economic, or environmental.

How do good deeds lead to deeper knowledge of God?

In the Qur’an and Sunnah, one finds that God is described by many beautiful Names and Attributes. Knowledge of God’s nature motivates human beings in doing good, and in turn doing good leads to a deeper appreciation of God’s nature. For instance, God has the name ar-Rahman, which means ‘the One whose Mercy is all-encompassing’. The Prophet Muhammad (P) said, “The merciful ones receive the mercy of ar-Rahman.” 13 Thus, human beings seeking the mercy of their Creator are motivated to show mercy to others. And when they show mercy to others, they grow in their appreciation of what it means to be merciful.

Likewise, God is described as al-Ghaffaar (the One who perpetually forgives) and al-Ghafoor (the One who forgives the greatest enormities). The Qur’an teaches us to show forgiveness towards others in order to experience Divine forgiveness14. Thus, when a human being strives to forgive others in spite of being wronged by them, such a person develops in their appreciation of what it means to forgive, and consequently experiences a closer relationship with Allah, as He is al-Ghaffaar and al-Ghafoor.

Famous Muslim theologians like Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah (d.751H) pointed out that this connection exists for numerous Divine names and attributes15. The most beloved of God’s creation to Him are those who strive to emulate what His Divine names entail16. When human beings strive against all obstacles to establish peace, justice, love, kindness, compassion, gratitude, beauty, knowledge, and so many other virtues, they develop a deeper knowledge of God, as He is the source of all such virtues as manifested in His beautiful names and attributes.

The Message of Islam

Muslims believe that throughout time, God has sent prophets and messengers to humanity to call them back to their true purpose in life: worshipping God alone and living amongst one another with the best moral conduct.

All of the Prophets carried the same message which revolves around three fundamentals17:

1. Tawheed: God is the sole Creator and Sustainer of the universe, the sole possessor of the Divine Names and Attributes, and only He is worthy of our worship and ultimate adoration and servitude. Through our relationship with God, we develop ourselves as human beings.

2. Nubuwwah: Out of His Mercy, God has not abandoned His creation but rather He has sent numerous prophets and messengers to clarify the reality of Tawheed. God selected His prophets and messengers from the most righteous of His servants, in order that they may serve as exemplary role models for others.

3. al-Akhirah: the life of this world is temporary and transient, and eventually all human beings will pass into the afterlife where they will stand accountable before God for their actions on the Day of Judgement. Those who acted righteously will be rewarded with Heaven, while the evildoers will be punished with Hell.

These three themes echo throughout the Qur’an and the Sunnah.

The nature of faith

The English term ‘faith’ is often used to imply belief in the absence of evidence, which is a concept that is foreign to Islam. The Qur’an criticizes such an attitude frequently:
“And when it is said to them, ‘Follow what Allah has revealed,’ they say, ‘Rather, we will follow that which we found our forefathers doing.’ Even though their forefathers did not use their reason at all, and lacked guidance?”18

In Islam, faith is not placed blindly in the creed of one’s ancestors. True faith conforms to one’s innate disposition and to sound logical reasoning.

Another misconception concerning ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ is that these terms simply apply to affirming theoretical doctrines. However, the Islamic understanding of faith (eman) is that faith encompasses one’s behaviour, emotions, and attitude. For instance, recognizing the truth of the messengers should lead to love and acceptance in one’s heart, acting upon their message, and embodying their noble virtues in one’s conduct with others. This is true faith. Thus, the Prophet Muhammad (P) said, “The worshipper does not attain true faith until he loves for all humanity the same goodness that he loves for himself”19.

Likewise, the Prophet Muhammad (P) said, “Whoever has true faith in God and the Last Day, then let him be kind to his neighbour. And whoever has true faith in God and the Last Day, then let him honour his guest. And whoever has true faith in God and the Last Day, then let him speak what is good or remain silent.”20 Thus, true faith in Islam should manifest itself in one’s moral character and in one’s devotion.

Nothing in Islam is of mere theoretical value only. Rather, every Islamic concept, practice and teaching serves to develop a human being in their moral and spiritual growth.

The Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him)

Muhammad, the son of Abdullah, was born in 570 or 571CE in Makkah. He grew up well-loved by his people and his upright character earned him the nickname, ‘al-Ameen’ (the most trustworthy). However, he was disheartened by many of the wrongful practices in society, including idol-worship, social inequality, economic corruption, hedonism and promiscuity, tribalism, and many other forms of oppression. He began to seek solitude in the Cave of Hira, seeking guidance from God. On one occasion, he was frightened when the Archangel Gabriel appeared before him and commanded him:
“Read in the name of your Lord, who has created. He created man from a clinging substance. Read, and your Lord is Most Generous. He who has taught by the pen. He taught man what he did not know.”21

Thus began the revelation and the beginning of prophethood in 610CE. Although Prophet Muhammad had not anticipated such a momentous change in his life and was initially overcome with fear, his wife Khadija comforted him and told him, “God would never disgrace you. You keep good ties with your relatives, you look after the weak, you help the poor and the needy, you honour the guests and suffer hardships in the path of truthfulness.”

With the support of his wife, the Prophet Muhammad (P) began to preach the message of Islam, initially to his close family and friends, and then later to all the people of Makkah. In spite of his excellent reputation amongst them, he was initially met with fierce hostility for preaching that their ways were false and calling people to a new way of life. This fierce hostility grew into hatred and animosity, which in turn lead to the persecution of Prophet Muhammad and his followers. In many unfortunate cases, this persecution became outright torture and even murder.

As the persecution intensified, and the Makkans sought to assassinate Prophet Muhammad, the Muslims fled to the city of Madinah in 622CE, where the local tribes welcomed the message of Islam and began to embrace it. The Makkans however plundered all the wealth that the Muslims had left behind and declared a complete state of war against the Muslims. It was at this point, that God revealed the verse in the Qur’an:
“Permission [to fight] is granted to those who are being fought, because they have been oppressed. And indeed, God is capable of granting them victory.”22

Although initially vastly outnumbered by the Makkan forces, the Muslims faced their former persecutors and torturers in the Battle of Badr and won a decisive victory. Steadily, the message of Islam began to reach more people and the fledgling Muslim community grew in size and strength. The Makkans found themselves incapable of eradicating this community, no matter how many military resources and reinforcements they secured.

In 628CE, the Muslims initiated a ten-year peace treaty with the Makkans. During this period, the message of Islam spread far and wide and people had the freedom to learn and contemplate the call. In just under two years, the size of the Muslim forces had grown ten-fold.

When the Makkans violated the peace treaty by arming an attack on the Muslims’ allies, the Prophet Muhammad (P) prepared to return to the city of Makkah. In 630CE, the Muslims entered into Makkah and retook the city without any bloodshed. When their former torturers stood before them, the Prophet Muhammad (P) told them, “Go, for verily you are forgiven.”

The Prophet Muhammad (P) passed away in 632CE and left behind a tremendous legacy and lofty moral standard in all facets of life. His beautiful example is cherished by Muslims, and acknowledged by many non-Muslims who study his life, as well.

The famous British women’s rights activist, Annie Besant, made the following comments:
“It is impossible for anyone who studies the life and character of the great Prophet of Arabia, who knew how he taught and how he lived, to feel anything but reverence for that mighty Prophet, one of the great messengers of the Supreme. And although in what I put to you I shall say many things which may be familiar to many, yet I myself feel, whenever I reread them, a new way of admiration, a new sense of reverence for that mighty Arabian teacher.”23

Scottish historian and influential scholar, William Montgomery Watt, described Prophet Muhammad as follows:
“His readiness to undergo persecution for his beliefs, the high moral character of the men who believed in him and looked up to him as a leader, and the greatness of his ultimate achievement – all argue his fundamental integrity. To suppose Muhammad an impostor raises more problems than it solves.”24

Internationally renowned Indian peace activist, Mahatma Gandhi, wrote the following:
“I wanted to know the best of the life of one who holds today an undisputed sway over the hearts of millions of mankind…. I became more than ever convinced that it was not the sword that won a place for Islam in those days in the scheme of life. It was the rigid simplicity, the utter self-effacement of the Prophet the scrupulous regard for pledges, his intense devotion to his friends and followers, his intrepidity, his fearlessness, his absolute trust in God and in his own mission. These and not the sword carried everything before them and surmounted every obstacle. When I closed the second volume (of the Prophet’s biography), I was sorry there was not more for me to read of that great life.”25

Esteemed American author and historian, Washington Irving, described the manners and interactions of Prophet Muhammad:
“In his private dealings he was just. He treated friends and strangers, the rich and poor, the powerful and weak, with equity, and was beloved by the common people for the affability with which he received them, and listened to their complaints.”26

The celebrated English historian, Edward Gibbon, wrote the following in his magnum opus on the Roman empire:
“The good sense of Muhammad despised the pomp of royalty. The Apostle of God submitted to the menial offices of the family; he kindled the fire; swept the floor; milked the ewes; and mended with his own hands his shoes and garments. Disdaining the penance and merit of a hermit, he observed without effort of vanity the abstemious diet of an Arab.”27

Such quotations could go on ad infinitum, and the interested reader is encouraged to read the books on the life of the Prophet Muhammad (P) for onself.28

The Holy Qur’an

The Qur’an literally means ‘the recitation’, and it is the verbatim speech of God addressing humanity. It was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (P) over a period of twenty-three years. Previous Prophets were sent with miracles to make manifest the truth of their message. For the Prophet Muhammad (P), the miracle and the message are perfectly combined in one form: the Qur’an.

The Qur’an is in the Arabic language, hence any translation is a human interpretation of God’s speech into another language and not God’s speech itself. This is important for rulings regarding recitation as well as interpretation. In terms of recitation, only the actual Qur’an (and not translation) can be recited in the five daily prayers, and in order to touch a written copy of the Qur’an, one must be in a state of ritual purity. In terms of interpretation, one must not take any translation as an authority on the verse’s meaning. Rather, the correct interpretation of the verses must rely upon (1) other verses of the Qur’an (2) the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (3) the understanding of the companions who learned directly from the Prophet and (4) the Arabic language.

Recitation of the Qur’an is of the greatest forms of worship and remembrance of God, and affords a believer spiritual contentment through contemplation and reflection.

The Qur’an says, “Verily, in the remembrance of God do hearts find rest.” (Qur’an 13:28).


Islam is a complete way of life that directs human beings to develop their relationship with God, allowing them to reach new heights in their own moral cultivation and spiritual contentment. Islam is founded on the texts of the Qur’an and the Sunnah, as understood by the companions of the Prophet Muhammad (P), and elaborated by an immense tradition of scholarship.

  1. And if you disagree over anything, refer it to Allah and the Messenger” (Qur’an 4:59). The Prophet Muhammad (P) said, “I have left among you two things which if you hold firm to them, you shall never be misguided: the Book of Allah, and the Sunnah of His Messenger.” (Related in Muwatta Malik). For a detailed discussion of this topic, please refer to The Authority of the Sunnah by Mufti Taqi Uthmani as well as The Sunnah and it’s role in Islamic Legislation by Sheikh Mustafa As-Siba’ee 
  2. Qur’an 1:1-4 
  3. Qur’an 2:255 
  4. Qur’an 59:22-24 
  5. In Arabic this is referred to as the ‘fitrah’. It is established in the Qur’an (30:30) and the Prophet Muhammad (P) said, “Every child is born on the fitrah.” (Related in Sahih Muslim 
  6. The Qur’an exhorts the human being to think, reason, contemplate, understand and exercise his or her intellect in over 135 places. 
  7. Qur’an 51:56 
  8. Qur’an 65:12 
  9. Qur’an 90:12-17 
  10. Qur’an 2:129, 3:164, 62:2 
  11. Qur’an 87:14, 20:76 
  12. Related in Sahih al-Bukhari 
  13. Related in Sunan at-Tirmidhi 
  14. Qur’an 24:22 
  15. Uddat as-Sabireen wa Dhakhirah ash-Shakireen, Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, p.310 
  16. With regard to the attributes of God, sometimes human beings are to emulate a parallel attribute. This applies for mercy, justice, love, knowledge, wisdom, and so on. Other times, human beings are to emulate an opposite attribute. Thus, recognizing God’s power should make one humble, recognizing God’s Lordship should make one reverent, recognizing God’s
    Omniscience should make one mindful, and so on. Sometimes an attribute of God can apply in both ways. Thus, knowledge of God’s generosity should make humans more generous to one another, and also more grateful towards God. 
  17. Irshaad ath-Thiqaat, Muhammad bin Ali ash-Shawkani (d.1250H), pp.3-4 
  18. Qur’an 2:170 
  19.  Related in Musnad Ahmad 
  20. Related in Sahih Muslim 
  21. Qur’an 96:1-5 
  22. Qur’an 22:39 
  23. The Life and Teachings of Mohammad, Annie Besant. Madras, 1932 
  24. Muhammad at Mecca, W. Montgomery Watt. Oxford, 1953 
  25. Young India, M. Gandhi. 1924 
  26. Mahomet and his successors, W. Irving 
  27. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, E. Gibbon. 1823 
  28. One of the most comprehensive books in the English language on the life of Prophet Muhammad (P) is the 3-volume book, The Noble Life of the Prophet by Dr. Ali Muhammad asSallaabee, translated by Faisal Shafeeq 
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