In the Arabian town of Mecca in A.D. 610, the Prophet Muhammad preached the first of a series of divine revelations. Muhammad, an uncompromising monotheist, made himself unpopular with his fellow Meccans, who benefitted from the town's thriving pilgrimage business and numerous polytheist religious sites. Censured by Mecca's leaders, in 622 Muhammad and a group of his followers were invited to the town of Yathrib, which came to be known as Medina (from Madinat an Nabi, meaning the Prophet's City), and made it the center of their activities. This move, or hijra, marked the beginning of the Islamic era and of Islam as a historical force. The Muslim calendar, based on a 354-day lunar year, begins in 622. In Medina, Muhammad continued to preach, eventually defeating his opponents in battle and consolidating the temporal and spiritual leadership of Arabia before his death in 632.
After Muhammad's death, his followers compiled his divinely inspired speeches in the Quran, the scripture of Islam. Other sayings and teachings of Muhammad and the examples of his personal behavior became the hadith. Together they form the Muslim's comprehensive guide to spiritual, ethical, and social living.
The shahadah, or testimony, succinctly states the central belief of Islam: "There is no god but God [Allah], and Muhammad is his Prophet." This simple profession of faith is repeated on many occasions; recital in full and unquestioning sincerity makes one a Muslim. Islam means "submission to God," and he who submits is a Muslim. The God whom Muhammad preached was not unknown to his countrymen, for Allah is the Arabic word for God rather than a particular name. Instead of introducing a new deity, Muhammad denied the existence of the minor gods and spirits worshiped before his ministry.
Muhammad is called the "seal of the Prophets"; his revelation is said to complete for all time the series of biblical revelations received by the Jews and the Christians. Prophets and sages of the Judeo-Christian tradition, such as Abraham, Moses, and Jesus (Ibrahim, Musa, and Isa, respectively, in the Arabic Islamic canon) are recognized as inspired vehicles of God's will. Islam, however, reveres as sacred only God's message, rejecting Christianity's deification of the messenger. It accepts the concepts of guardian angels, the Day of Judgment, the general resurrection, heaven and hell, and the immortality of the soul.
The duties of the Muslim, which form the "five pillars" of the faith, are recitation of the shahadah (kalima in Bangla), daily prayer (salat; in Bangla, namaj), almsgiving (zakat; in Bangla, jakat), fasting (sawm; in Bangla, roja), and pilgrimage (hajj). The devout believer prays after purification through ritual oblations at dawn, midday, mid-afternoon, sunset, and nightfall. Prescribed genuflections and prostrations accompany the prayers that the worshiper recites while facing Mecca. Whenever possible, men pray in congregation at a mosque, led by a prayer leader; on Fridays they are obliged to do so. Women may attend public worship at mosques, where they are segregated from men, although most women commonly pray at home. A special functionary, the muezzin, intones a call to prayer to the entire community at the appropriate hours; those out of earshot determine the prayer time from the position of the sun. Public prayer is a conspicuous and widely practiced aspect of Islam in Bangladesh.
Almsgiving consists of a variety of donations to the poor, debtors, slaves, wayfarers, beggars, and charitable organizations. Once obligatory, although not strictly a tax, almsgiving in modern times is voluntary but usually expected.
The ninth month of the Muslim calendar is Ramadan, a period of obligatory fasting in commemoration of Muhammad's receipt of God's revelation. During the month all but the sick, the weak, pregnant or lactating women, soldiers on duty, travelers on necessary journeys, and young children are enjoined, as appropriate to their state in life, from eating, drinking, smoking, and sexual intercourse during daylight hours. The wealthy usually do little or no work during this period, and some businesses close for all or part of the day. Since the months of the lunar calendar revolve through the solar year, Ramadan falls at various seasons in different years. Summertime fasting imposes considerable hardship on those who must do physical work. Id al Fitr, a feast celebrated throughout the Islamic world, marks the end of the month of fasting. Gifts, the wearing of new garments, exchanges of sweetmeats, almsgiving, and visits to friends and relatives are some of the customs of this great religious festival.
Islam dictates that at least once in his or her lifetime every Muslim should, if possible, make the hajj to Mecca to participate in special rites held there during the twelfth month of the Muslim calendar. The Prophet instituted this requirement, modifying pre-Islamic custom to emphasize the significance of the sites associated with the history of Abraham, the founder of monotheism and the father of the Arabs through his son Ishmail (Ismail in the Arabic Islamic Canon). The pilgrim, dressed in a white seamless garment, abstains from sexual relations, shaving, haircutting, and nail-paring. Highlights of the pilgrimage include kissing a sacred black stone; circumambulating the Kaabah shrine (the sacred structure reportedly built by Abraham that houses a stone sacred to Islam); running between the hills of Safa and Marwa in imitation of Hagar, Ishmail's mother, during her travail in the desert; and standing in prayer on the Plain of Arafat.
The permanent struggle for the triumph of the word of God on earth--the jihad--represents an additional duty of all Muslims. Although this concept continues to be used to justify holy wars, modernist Muslims see the jihad in a broader context of civic and personal action. In addition to specific duties, Islam imposes a code of ethical conduct that encourages generosity, fairness, honesty, and respect and that forbids adultery, gambling, usury, and the consumption of carrion, blood, pork, and alcohol.
A Muslim stands in a personal relationship to God; there is neither intermediary nor clergy in orthodox Islam. Those who lead prayers, preach sermons, and interpret the law do so by virtue of their superior knowledge and scholarship rather than any special powers or prerogatives conferred by ordination.
During his lifetime, Muhammad was both spiritual and temporal leader of the Muslim community. He established the concept of Islam as a total and all-encompassing way of life for both individuals and society. Muslims believe that God revealed to Muhammad the rules governing decent behavior. It is therefore incumbent on the individual to live in the manner prescribed by revealed law and on the community to perfect human society on earth according to the holy injunctions. Islam recognizes no distinction between religion and state. Religious and secular life merge, as do religious and secular law. In keeping with this conception of society, all Muslims traditionally have been subject to religious law.
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