Islam is the second largest religion in terms of numbers of members across the world today. Muslims account for roughly one-fifth of the world's population with over 1 billion adherents. The word Islam literally means submission. And the word Muslim derives from the same root, meaning "one who submits." The roots of the word Islam are also used to denote peace, soundness, and safety. Briefly, Muslims profess that there is no god but God, and embrace the message of the Prophet Muhammad, believing that he is the last messenger of God. Muslims across the world profess daily that "there is no god but God, and Muhammad is his prophet." This is the shahadah, or profession of belief, which, when proclaimed three times in front of a witness, is all that is needed to become a Muslim. But as with many religions, although it is easy to become a member, it is a much more involved matter to live a Muslim life.
Muslims believe Islam to be the final and most complete form of the family of religious traditions that includes Judaism and Christianity. Indeed, Muslims deeply revere many of the same figures found in the Jewish and Christian sacred scriptures. For Muslims, the most important people found in the Jewish and Christian scriptures are Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. These four along with the Prophet Muhammad are all regarded as prophets or God's messengers. Therefore, although Muslims believe that Islam is closer to what was intended by God to be communicated through all of God's true messengers, Muslims generally consider Judaism and Christianity to be part of their religious family, referring to Jews and Christians as "people of the Book."
Many non-Muslims in North America believe that Islam is primarily the religion of Arabic-speaking peoples. However, not all Arabs are Muslims, and not all Muslims are Arabs. There is a significant population of Christian, Jewish, and secular Arabs, and Arabs are in fact a minority ethnicity within the worldwide Muslim population. The greatest concentration of Muslims is actually found in Indonesia, and Muslims of South Asian descent, primarily from India and Pakistan, currently account for the majority of Muslims in North America overall.
THE PROPHET MUHAMMAD
The Prophet Muhammad was born in 570 C.E. in the city of Mecca in the Arabian Peninsula now known as Saudi Arabia. The Prophet Muhammad's parents died when he was very young, and he was raised by his uncle Abu Talib. Abu Talib was a poor but generous man, and because Muhammad had to earn his living from a very young age he never learned how to read or write. Muhammad learned to make his living as a trader and traveled with his uncle to Palestine and Syria. Muhammad came to be known in Mecca as a wise and honest man of great integrity. At the request of Abu Talib, Muhammad began to serve a wealthy 40-year-old widow named Khadijah by looking after her merchandise while she was traveling and trading with her caravan. Khadijah became very impressed with Muhammad as their relationship developed, and Muhammad, at the age of 25, and Khadijah, at the age of 40, were married.
In the year 611 C.E., on the 27th day of the month of Ramadan, Muhammad had retreated to the cave of Hira just outside Mecca as he customarily did in order to pray, meditate, and reflect on questions of great importance to him, such as the purpose of life and the struggle between good and evil. On this particular day, however, while he was in deep thought, the Prophet Muhammad heard a powerful voice call him. When he asked who was calling him the voice commanded him to "read." Muhammad replied that he could not read. Muhammad was then squeezed in the grip of a very strong hug for a moment and the voice commanded him a second time to read, to which Muhammad replied again that he could not read. Muhammad was squeezed once again, and a third time was commanded to read. This time Muhammad asked what it was he should read, and the voice replied "Read! In the name of your Lord who creates man from a clot! Read, for your Lord is most generous, who teaches by means of pen, teaches man what he does not know." Muhammad chose to obey this command, and became the Messenger of God. This event was the beginning of the revelation of the Muslim sacred scripture or writings known as the Qur'an. The Qur'an was revealed in segments to the Prophet Muhammad through the angel Gabriel over the course of the next 23 years.
When Muhammad returned to Khadijah after his experience in the cave of Hira, she believed in what Muhammad told her had happened, and she became the very first convert to Islam. Muhammad first spread the message he had been given by God to his close friends and soon began preaching openly in and around Mecca. But the Meccans were not pleased with Muhammad preaching that their idols were illegitimate gods and that God was the one and only true God. The early Muslims suffered terrible persecutions, and many died for their religion. During the most intense part of this persecution against Muslims, God granted Muhammad a special vision known as the Night Journey. Muhammad had a vision that he was led by a celestial guide from Mecca to Jerusalem, and then ascended through the seven heavens meeting earlier prophets from other places. He passed through a number of veils until reaching the veil of unity where he was able to look upon what human eyes cannot see and human minds cannot imagine. This Night Journey led to the institution of the five ritual daily prayers as a central part of the Islamic faith.