Islam is one the world's most important religions, second only to Christianity in number of adherents. Its followers are called Muslims and their houses of worship, mosques.

Islam is the main religion of most of the Middle East, North Africa, the Sahel and Central Asia, and is also widespread in South and Southeast Asia, West and East Africa. Today there are Muslims in most of the world's countries, mainly due to immigration but also some converts. The annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj, is one of the largest human migrations and brings together Muslims from all over the world.

Many sites built in the name of Islam are on the UNESCO World Heritage List. As Muslim congregations have had a significant role in most communities where they are present, a traveller will learn much from visiting a local mosque, regardless of what s/he believes.


Should you visit an Islamic country?

Given that within the last two decades no part of the world has been scrutinized as much or stereotyped as heavily as the Muslim world, many people may ask themselves whether they will be safe traveling in a Muslim country or should they simply avoid them.

There are some countries which are better avoided for the time being due to ongoing armed conflicts but there are Muslim countries that are worth visiting if you ignore media hype. One reason to visit an Islamic country is that you are likely be welcomed as a revered guest almost anywhere as Islamic society puts a tremendous emphasis on the tradition of hospitality. Another is that you won’t have to deal with tourists, as many of Muslim countries are largely untraveled. If you intend to visit an Islamic country during Ramadan have a look at the corresponding Wikivoyage guide, though.

Islam is a monotheistic religion (that is, believing in one God, called Allah, Arabic for "The God"). It is an Abrahamic religion like Judaism and Christianity, tracing its spiritual heritage through Abraham's son, Ishmael (Ismail in Arabic). However, the first Prophet of Islam, according to Muslims, was the first man, Adam, and many of the prophets mentioned in the Bible, as well as Jesus and several others, not mentioned in the Bible, are also regarded by Muslims as prophets.

The key doctrinal difference between Islam and Christianity is that Islam rejects the claim that Jesus was divine and with it the whole idea of God as a Trinity. In Islamic belief there is only one God, indivisible, and Jesus was one of his prophets and the Messiah, but no person can be God. Jesus deserves a great deal of respect, as does any prophet, but no man deserves worship.

Do not refer to Muslims as "Mohammedan". Many Muslims are deeply offended by this name, since it seems to imply that they worship their religion's founder as Christians (in the Islamic view, wrongly) worship Christ.

The Prophet Muhammad

Qur'an inscriptions on Bara Gumbad Mosque wall, Lodhi Gardens, Delhi

The man regarded in orthodox Islam as Allah's last Messenger, and by all as the first person to preach Islam using the word Islam as such, is the Prophet Muhammad (also transliterated as Mohammed).

Muhammad was born in Mecca c. 570 CE. According to Islamic belief, the Angel Gabriel recited the words of the Qur'an to the Prophet Muhammad in a cave where he was praying. Many of the Jews and Christians who heard Muhammad's preaching dismissed it as distortions of Bible stories, but the Muslim position is that it was the Bible that had gotten distorted, and the Angel Gabriel had delivered the accurate word of Allah directly to the Prophet Muhammad in order to correct the distortions.

More immediately relevant at the time, however, was the fact that most Meccans remained polytheistic, and they considered Muhammad's fire-and-brimstone preaching against polytheism a threat, not least because polytheistic pilgrims were a huge factor in the local economy. Ultimately, Muhammad was informed that some of these polytheists had laid a plan to kill him and his followers. This triggered the Hejira (or Hijrah), the migration of Muslims from Mecca to the city of Yathrib, now known as Medina, which was more friendly to monotheists, as it had a large Jewish population. The first year of the Hijrah marks the start of the Islamic calendar, which is widely used in Muslim-majority countries to this day; Islamic years are abbreviated AH and the first year of the Hijrah, which began during 622 CE, is called 1 AH in the Islamic calendar.

Muhammad eventually had a falling out with the Jews, but by that time he and his followers were a strong army. They defeated Jewish and pagan opposition and later returned as conquerors of Mecca. Through inspirational leadership and great military prowess, Muhammad was able to unite most of Arabia under his rule during his lifetime.

The Qur'an (transliteration from Arabic; English: Koran) is the central religious text for Muslims. The word Qur'an is often translated as "recitation" and spoken recitation is still important; there are national and international Qur'an chanting contests every year which are widely televised in Muslim countries.

Other texts are also important, both the hadith (records) of Muhamad's life and sayings and the tafsir (interpretations) of both Qur'an and Hadith by various scholars. However devout Muslims consider the Qur'an to be literally the Word of God, and the other texts do not have that level of authority.

The Caliphates

What is a caliphate?

A caliphate is the Islamic form of government representing the political unity and leadership of the Muslim world. It is led by a caliph who is a person considered a political and religious successor to the Islamic prophet, Muhammad, and a leader of the entire Muslim community. The word "caliph" itself derives from the Arab word for "successor" or "placeholder".

The first Islamic Empire, the Rashidun Caliphate, was established following the Prophet Muhammad's death. It was controlled by the first four caliphs who are known among Sunni Muslims as the "Rightly Guided".

The reign of the first caliph, the prophet's father-in-law Abu Bakr, lasted for only a little over two years, but it included successful invasions of the two most powerful empires of the time and region, the Byzantine Empire (successor to the Roman Empire) and the Persian Empire. Under the second Caliph, Umar (or Omar), the empire expanded greatly and there was an economic boom in the lives of the ordinary people due to the revolutionary economic policies developed by Umar. During the reign of Umar's successor Uthman, the people of the empire enjoyed a prosperous life. The last Rashidun caliph, Ali, was the son-in-law of Muhammad and was also the first young male who accepted Islam.

By 750 CE, the Islamic Empire of the Umayyad Caliphate extended westward to Morocco, eastward to India and northward to southern France, Iberia, the Caucasus and Central Asia. It is the fifth largest empire ever to exist, and the largest empire in history by land area up until that point; it was home to roughly 30% of the world's total population during its heyday.

The Abbasid Caliphate, which was founded in 750 CE and ruled from Baghdad starting in 762 CE, was probably the most advanced civilization in the world for the next few hundred years. A tremendous number of Greek and Latin books were translated into Arabic between the 8th and 12th centuries, on topics including philosophy, history, science and mythology. At the same time, universities were opened, and there were great advances in astronomy, engineering and mathematics, including the work of Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī (c. 780-c. 850), probably from Khiva, after whose scholarship algebra is named, and the brilliant doctor/philosophers, Avicenna (Arabic: ibn Sīnā, c. 980-1037), from a village near Bukhara, and Maimonedes (c. 1135-1204), who was born in Córdoba, had to flee a repressive dynasty and eventually became Court Physician to Saladin in Egypt. Maimonedes, who was also a very influential rabbi, was one of many Jews and Christians who along with Muslims contributed to the greatness of the Islamic civilization of what's now called the Golden Age, a period that can be said to have lasted until 1258, the year when Baghdad was captured and destroyed by the Mongols.

There were quite a few other great Islamic dynasties after the Golden Age, centered in different parts of the world, but it is above all the caliphates of the Golden Age that are remembered both by historians of all faiths and no faith who celebrate their advancement of knowledge and by Muslims who see these caliphates as an example of how Muslims prospered and advanced as one ummah (community) dedicated to knowledge and progress. Muslims argue about which caliphs serve as good examples of correct Islamic rule and whether or what kind of caliphate should be established today.

The Sunni-Shi'a split

Some time after the prophet's death, the movement split; the main groups were the Sunni, loyal to the Caliphs, and the Shīʻatu ʻAlī (party of Ali) following the prophet's son-in-law Ali and his descendants. The latter group are generally just called Shi'a. There was a series of wars between the two factions, and there are still tensions between them which often lead to serious political conflicts.

Sunni and Shi'a

One important battle was on the 10th of the Islamic month of Muharram at Karbala, now in Iraq, in 61 AH (680 CE); Ali's son Hussein and a band of followers were wiped out. This is still commemorated by both groups; for the Shi'a it is one of the most important religious events of the year. The day is called Ashura (meaning ten); for more detail, see the Iran article.

Originally the Shi'a were primarily an Arab movement; places as far west as Morocco had Shi'a dynasties, and the Shi'a Fatamid Caliphate (909-1170 CE) ruled much of Arabia, the Levant and North Africa. However, Shi'a Islam became the state religion of Iran (which is emphatically not an Arab nation) in the 16th century and today Iran is its main center; nearby countries such as Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain also have a Shi'a majority, and there are powerful Shi'a minorities in Pakistan, Yemen and Lebanon.

Sunnis are a majority in Southeast Asia, South Asia, Africa, and most of the Middle East. Around 90% of the world’s Muslims are Sunni and only around 10% of them are Shi'a, but the whole situation is complex; most predominantly Sunni regions have Shi'a minorities and vice versa. Indonesia has the largest number of Sunni Muslims, while Iran has the largest number of Shi'a Muslims in the world. Pakistan has both the second-largest Sunni and the second-largest Shi'a Muslim population in the world. Complicating the whole issue is the fact that some countries with a Shia majority have historically been ruled by Sunnis and vice versa. Saddam Hussein for example was a Sunni Muslim governing a country that is roughly 60% Shia.

Muslim groups

There are a large number of religious groups in the Muslim world today, all basically Islamic but differing considerably in theology and style.

The Sufis are Muslim mystics; there are both Sunni and Shi'a Sufis. Among the well-known ones:

Whirling Dervishes

The Sufis have been quite influential in the West, at least among the sort of "new age" groups who also study yoga and Zen; Nasrudin tales and Rumi quotes are very common in those circles.

Alawis are a mystically-inclined branch of Shi'a Islam, centered in Syria. The ruling Assad family is Alawi.

Ismailis are a Shi'a branch sometimes called "seveners" as opposed to "twelvers" for the main (Jafari) Shi'a group; the Jafari list twelve Imams (spiritual leaders) but the Ismaili recognise only the first seven of those and have a different lineage after that. Today there are about 15 million Nizari Ismailis (who consider the Aga Khan the 49th Imam) mainly in the Indian Subcontinent, plus a few smaller Ismaili groups, such as the Druze in the Levant.

Perhaps the best-known Ismaili is Hasan-i Sabbah, who was educated in Samarkand with Omar Khayyam as a classmate and later led a Persian revolt against the Seljuk Turks. There are many rather colorful stories about him, and the English words "hashish" and "assassin" are both derived from his name. His fortress at Alamut, near Qazvin is now a tourist attraction.

Salafi is a fundamentalist Sunni movement; the name comes from salaf, meaning predecessors, referring to the idea that Muhammad and his early followers are the model for genuine Islam. Salafists call for a return to the fundamentals of Islam the Qur'an and Hadith and to Islamic Sharia Law. Salafists are adamantly opposed to such things as reverence for saints, the creation of shrines, and carrying amulets for luck or protection; they consider all of these as later innovations which pollute the original pure Islam.

An interesting difference between Salafists and Christian fundamentalists is that Salafists claim to base their movement on the work of respected Muslim scholars, dating back at least to the 12th century CE, and often quote those scholars. It is difficult to imagine a Christian fundamentalist quoting, say, Thomas Aquinas or even John Calvin.

Wahhabi is a Salafist reform movement that began in the Arabian Peninsula in the 18th century. Today it is the state religion of Saudi Arabia and significant in several other Gulf states. Note that, while "Wahhabi" is widely used by outside commentators, the adherents of the movement call themselves Salafi and often consider "Wahhabi" offensive.

Deobandi Islam is a salafist movement that arose in India in the 19th century. It became quite influential on the Northwest Frontier (now the Pakistan/Afghanistan border region) and today is the main religious inspiration behind the Taliban.

Salafi-Takfiris are a relatively small group of extremist Salafis who consider Muslims who reject their Caliph or their Salafist interpretation of Islam (all Shi'a and most Sunnis) to be apostates who can be declared non-Muslim by a takfir. Since they also believe that non-Muslims must be either converted or killed (except Jews and Christians who accept Muslim rule, Sharia Law, and an extra tax), they create much havoc. This is the ideology behind Da'esh, the radical group who call themselves an Islamic State.

Islam and politics

Tiled mosaic ceiling in the mosque of Khoja Ahrar, Samarkand

The Muslim world has complicated politics and some, though by no means all, of the complications derive from religious differences which create sectarian violence among Muslim denominations. Some of the more obvious cases, which travellers in the region might need to be aware of:

Other than sectarian violence, there are a number of radical Islamic groups active in various parts of the world, and their co-religionists in other places are often accused of funding or arming them and using them as a strategic tools to get benefit in their geostrategic agendas. For example, unrest in Jammu and Kashmir or Mindanao is sometimes blamed on interference from the nearest Muslim country, Pakistan or Malaysia respectively.

Iran supports radical Shi'a groups such as Hezbollah further west (Hezbollah targets Israel and its allies, and also fights in support of the governments of Syria and Iraq against Sunni armed groups) while Saudi Arabia in particular and more generally the Arabs of the Gulf States are often accused of supporting various radical Sunni groups across the world, against both the west and the Shi'a. In all cases there are local issues that would be a problem with or without outside interference, and it is sometimes hard to tell if the accusations are true.

In countries where both Islam and elections play a big role (and in fact also in some countries that don't have free and fair elections) there are also often explicitly Muslim political parties / organizations that participate in elections. The most successful of these are Hamas in the Palestinian territories, which Israel, the US government and others denounce as an extremist terror organization; the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt, which while openly Islamist has recanted violence and aims to create an Islamic state through peaceful means only; and the AKP in Turkey, which is (arguably) moderate and illiberally democratic.

Of course almost all political figures in the Muslim world are Muslim, so religion often plays a role in the ideology and politics even of nominally secular parties, much like even politicians in Europe or North America who are not members of explicitly Christian parties are often Christian and sometimes claim religious influence in policy decisions or invoke religious imagery.

Five Pillars

Part of a palace in Isfahan

There are five paramount rules or five most important duties in Islam, called the "Five Pillars of Islam", which are considered mandatory for all Muslims to follow during their life:

  1. Faith (Shahada) — Shahada is a testimony, a declaration of faith in the religion and trusting that there is no god except God, and Muhammad is God's Messenger (in Arabic, La ilaha illallah, Muhammadur Rasullulah). Recitation of this statement of faith is the most common declaration of faith for all Muslims, and the Arabic calligraphy for it is frequently found on modern Islamic flags such as of Saudi Arabia or Iraq. Militant Islamist organizations such as Al Qaeda, Taliban and others also use this creed on their flags, but there is nothing fundamentally militant about this central statement of Islamic faith. Saying the Shahada three times in front of two adult Muslim witnesses and sincerely meaning it is considered sufficient for a conversion to Islam by many Muslims.
  2. Prayer (Salah) — Salah is Islamic prayer. Muslims pray five times daily, facing the Kaaba in Mecca. The practice of Salah can be done anywhere, but it is mostly done at mosques and for that good reason, mosques and smaller prayer halls have been created in every town in every Muslim-majority country. The prayers include some specific movements including bowing. On Fridays, Muslim men are expected to pray at a mosque; Muslim women are not obligated to go to the mosque but frequently do.
  3. Charity (Zakat) — Zakat is charity that every Muslim, based on their wealth, is required by Islamic law to do annually. Usually money is given to charity organizations as well as to needy people.
  4. Fasting (Sawm) — Sawm is ritual fasting that is obligatory for Muslims to do during the month of Ramadan. Muslims abstain from food, drink, smoking and sexual intercourse from dawn to dusk during this month, and mostly engage in prayers and contemplation.
  5. Pilgrimage (Hajj) — Once in a lifetime, Muslims are required to go to Mecca on a pilgrimage if they can afford the travelling, financially and physically. It is not at all uncommon to have an entire village collect funds for one of their inhabitants to go to Mecca "in their stead".

Read and watch


Percentage of Muslims by country
See also: Holy Land


Masjid Umar (Dome of the Rock), Jerusalem

In some places, non-Muslims are not permitted to enter mosques at all. If you are invited to visit a mosque, it is appropriate to dress conservatively and show respect; details vary by place but can be expected to include covering your hair, torso, arms and legs if you are a woman, and all who enter will be expected to remove their shoes. It is a very good idea to learn a bit about the local rules before visiting a mosque, especially if you're a non-Muslim.

Most Muslims take their religion more seriously than many non-Muslims in Western countries take theirs, so religious issues such as the lives of Muhammad and other prophets of Islam and the teachings of the Qur'an and Hadith are no laughing matter, and even what you may consider benign criticism might put you in physical danger in certain situations or get you prosecuted for blasphemy in some countries. But don't be afraid to ask questions if you are genuinely interested in knowing more about Islam; like Christians, Muslims are exhorted to give testimony (da'awa) about their religion, according to their belief that following the straight path outlined in the Qur'an gives more people the chance to go to Heaven on Judgment Day. Just listen attentively to the responses and be respectful.


Arabic, specifically Classical Arabic, is the original language of Islam's main religious text, the Holy Qur'an. Other languages spoken by large numbers of Muslims are Urdu, Bengali, Persian, other Indo-Iranian languages, Malay/Indonesian and Turkic languages such as Turkish.

A literal translation of the word "Islam" is "submission", referring to submission to the will of God. The Arabic expression insh'allah (God willing) is common throughout the Muslim world and has entered several languages that are or have in the past been influenced by Islam; even the Spanish "ojala" is ultimately derived from "insh'allah". Other Arabic loanwords (often referring to religious subjects or technological advances made during the Muslim "golden age") have entered a number of languages, especially those of majority Muslim countries.

While many Muslims have a general knowledge of Quranic Arabic and it is still used as a means of communication in pan-Arab media, you'd perhaps be surprised to hear that the "dialects" of modern Arabic are not necessarily mutually intelligible. In fact, they could be compared to the Romance languages in that they share a lot of grammar and vocabulary but differ enough in detail to hinder effortless communication. Should you find yourself unable to communicate in a nominally Arab-speaking country, both Classical and modern Egyptian Arabic may be close enough to the local variety to get by. Or failing that, they'll be known to locals who've been abroad or who frequently watch pan-Arab TV Channels.

Of course a large number of Muslims don't speak Arabic. Or not much more than what they need to get through the most important passages of the Quran. Many mosques (especially in Western countries) hold services in the local vernacular and there is no more reason to assume a Muslim speaks Arabic than that a Jew speaks Hebrew, despite a high likelihood that they will know a few words or sentences here and there from their holy books.


Tile work on the ceiling of Hafez's tomb in Shiraz
A backgammon set, from Lebanon; the style shows Islamic influences

There are fine mosques in many places and Islamic traditions in art, crafts, music and architecture. Many fine textiles, especially carpets, are woven in the Islamic world. Many types of beautiful clothing in keeping with standards of Islamic dress as understood in each region of the Muslim world are also manufactured by various means.

Islamic art

A common characteristic of much Islamic art is that they avoid depicting humans, and in some traditions also animals, in artwork. The injunction "Thou shalt make no graven images" is found in the Qur'an, as it is in the Bible, and Muslims often give it a strict interpretation. As a result, art that uses a combination of geometric designs and stylized plant motifs is typical of Islamic art. In particular, most Muslims consider any depictions of the Prophet Muhammad and all other prophets of Islam to be forbidden. That said, there are many beautiful examples of historical Persian and Mughal paintings that include images of people and animals in gardens and other landscapes.

A typical technique in Islamic art is to use highly decorative forms of Arabic lettering in calligraphy of Qur'an inscriptions and other holy names and phrases, especially the names of Allah and the Prophet Muhammad, either by themselves or in combination with geometric designs.

There are a number of museums of Islamic Art around the world:

Of course any museum in an Islamic region can also be expected to have some Islamic art, and other museums such as the British Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum in New York also have sections for Islamic art. There are also museums specifically dedicated to Arab art, such as Musée de l'Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. Far from all Islamic art is Arab and not all Arab art is Islamic, but there is substantial overlap.

Islamic architecture

Distinct styles of Islamic architecture, which range in style between different regions and periods, not only encompass mosques today but also have influenced many other types of structures, including the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.


Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, the largest mosque in the world

The Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca is one of the Five Pillars of Islam; every adult Muslim should do it if possible. The Umrah, an out-of-season visit to Mecca that visits fewer places, is also common as are other pilgrimages, such as by Shi'a Muslims to the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf and by Sufis and other devotees to the graves of holy men and great scholars.

There are also various forms of devotional ceremonies, most of which include what non-Muslims would consider music (Muslims often consider that sung prayer is not music), and not only Muslims but respectful, properly-dressed non-Muslims are often welcome to witness them. These include Qur'an chanting contests, other kinds of devotional chanting (Dikir Islam in Malaysia is one of numerous examples), Sufi whirling, and various types of classical Indian Muslim musical performances, but there are several times as many examples of Islamic performance genres as there are of Muslim peoples. In the Indian subcontinent, classical music is traditionally all religious, so any specifically Muslim Indian music may be based on a melody of praise to Allah, for example.

Zakat, which is charitable giving, along with the Hajj, is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. However, zakat is the minimum amount of charitable giving for observant Muslims, and many Muslims go further and do sadaqah, which is considered a voluntary act of charity rather than the fulfillment of a command. If you would like to be charitable, you may want to investigate the various Muslim and non-sectarian charitable organizations. Some of the advice in Volunteer travel may be relevant to you if you plan on travelling for charitable reasons.


There were universities of Islam in the Muslim world before the first university opened its doors in the Christian world. Some of the earliest are still active today, including the University of al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco, which has operated since 859 CE, and the famous Al-Azhar University in Cairo, founded in 972 CE. There are many Islamic universities throughout the Muslim world today.


Instruction in Arabic, Qur'an, Islamic law and Islamic religion is needed throughout the Muslim world and beyond. Teachers with native Arabic accents may receive preference in some parts of the Muslim world. If you are a Muslim with excellent command of Arabic who is interested in travelling for work, some of the content of our article on teaching English might be relevant, but most specifics will differ.

It is also quite common for imams to travel or move to communities where they are needed.


A prayer rug made by the Baluchi people, who live in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan

Specifically Islamic items to buy include prayer rugs; Haji hats and other specifically religious garb (hejabs, fezes, songkoks, etc.); Zamzam water from Mecca; Qur'ans and collections of Hadiths (reports on the statements or actions of the Prophet Muhammad); and sacred inscriptions in calligraphy, often framed for hanging.


In Islamic law, several foodstuffs are forbidden (in Arabic haram), with the most widely known being pork and other pig products, including pig-derived gelatin and pig leather, as well as alcohol and any dishes that make use of alcohol in the preparation process. Food that is allowed is known as halal and may go through a process of certification to ensure that it is in line with Islamic teaching. Halal products (sometimes spelled helal after the Turkish word) are now more and more available in European and North and South American countries with substantial Muslim populations.

If halal food is not available, kosher food (prepared according to Jewish dietary law), as long as it contains no alcohol, has traditionally been considered to comply with Islamic rules, though there has recently been some dissension about this.

During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims are required to fast: they cannot eat, drink anything or smoke during daylight hours. In countries with a substantial Muslim presence, non-Muslim travellers may also want to follow these restrictions when in public; in some countries they are required by law to do so. Travellers may notice that shops and restaurants are closed down during Ramadan. Note also that the Islamic calendar is lunar, so Muslim holidays fall at different points in the year, relative to the solar calendar in operation in most primarily non-Muslim countries. See Travelling during Ramadan for more detail.


The Qur'an condemns alcoholic beverages. In many Muslim-majority countries, alcohol sale and consumption is strongly regulated, and in some, it is prohibited. During Ramadan, you may also want to be discreet about drinking anything during the day-time in majority Muslim countries. Even countries where the taboo against alcohol is not as prevalent tend to be stricter about the issue during Ramadan.

See also

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Thursday, March 10, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.