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Tomb of Ali, the first Imam and the fourth caliph, in Iraq (it was rebuilt about 1500 AD by the Safavids)

Medieval Islam was closely related to Judaism and Christianity. Like Jews and Christians, Muslims believed that there was only one God. They called this God ‘Allah’. Muslims believed that Moses and Jesus had both existed. They believed that Moses and Jesus were important holy men. And they believed that Mohammed was another holy man in the same line.

Many of the stories in the Quran are retellings of the stories in the Judeo-Christian Bible. The story of Noah is in the Quran, and the story of Abraham and Isaac. After the Islamic Empire conquered the Sassanian Empire, many Muslims lived there, in what is now Iraq and Iran. Many of those people were Zoroastrians before they became Muslims. So a lot of old Zoroastrian beliefs also became common among Muslims.

A kids’ song with the Muslim prayer in it: “There is no God but God, and Mohammed is his prophet”

Muslims believed that if you did things which pleased Allah, you would have a good life on earth. You would also have a good life after you died. There were five main things Allah liked. People called these things the five pillars of Islam:

  • Allah wanted you to have no other gods but Allah.
  • Allah liked you to pray to him five times a day, facing toward his most holy place at Mecca, in the Arabian peninsula.
  • Allah liked you to give charity to the poor.
  • Allah liked you to make a trip to Mecca sometime in your lifetime (the Hajj).
  • Allah liked you to fast (not eat or drink during the daytime) during Ramadan, the holy month.

This is a recording of the Muslim call to prayer. You hear it in any Muslim town five times a day. It begins “Allah u Akbar”, which means “God is Great”.

Also, Allah totally forbade men or women to eat pork. You couldn’t drink alcohol, or make pictures of people, and especially not pictures of holy people like Mohammed. But the most important thing was that a good Muslim should worship only Allah, and no other gods. “There is no god but God,” the Muslims said, “and Mohammed is His prophet.”

Like other world religions after about 500 BC – like Christianity, and medieval Judaism, later Zoroastrianism and Buddhism – Islam generally did not have animal sacrifices. People used prayer to communicate with Allah. The only exception was the Eid al-Adha, the festival at the end of the Haj or trip to Mecca. Then Muslims sacrificed a sheep.

By 650 AD, the followers of Islam had already split into two main kinds. Most Muslims were Sunnis, but there were also a lot who were Shiites. The Shiites believed that their religious leaders were going to come save them like the Messiah.

Another important part of early Islam was Sufism. Sufis believed in a direct relationship between people and God. Many Sunnis and Shiites were also Sufis.

Learn by doing: visit a mosque
More about the Quran
More about the hajj
More about Eid al-Adha

Bibliography and further reading about Islam:


More about the Quran
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