There are differing views as to when the schism between Sunnism and Shi’ism, the two major sects, took place. The main differences between them can be summarized as follows:
- Shi’ites maintain that the Koran is a created thing, while for Sunnis the Koran is the Word of Allah.
- According to Sunni Muslims, on Judgement Day Allah will appear to His Muslim believers. According to Shi’ites, Allah will not appear on the Day of Judgement.
- Shi’ite theologists have the right to interpret religious law, and also are responsible for the faithful. Decisions reached by high-ranking Shi’ite theologists are binding. In contrast to this, Sunni Muslims believe in a more personal relationship between Allah and mankind, and feel less need for such religious intermediaries. Sunni religious teachers are content simply to offer advice to their community. While the hierarchy amongst Shi’ite theologists is similar to that pertaining in the Catholic Church, Sunni theologists have been compared to Protestant priests. Financial support for religious personnel in Sunni nations is provided by the State, but by the public in Shi’ite communities.
- For Sunnis the rank of the Imam is equivalent to that of the Caliph. However, for the Shi’ites belief in the Imams is a fundamental tenet of their faith. They hold that the Twelve Imams were appointed by the Prophet on orders from Allah. People should address both their spiritual and material problems to them. Where there is no Imam, all these matters may be left to the expounders of Islamic law. For the Shi’ite it is essential to believe that the Muslim Messiah, Mahdi, will one day appear.
- Sunnis acknowledge and respect all the disciples of the Prophet; the Shi’ites, however, do not acknowledge the first three Caliphs, and only the preaching of the Prophet (Hadith) as interpreted by the Imams are acceptable.
- In pronouncing judgment on matters not covered by the Koran and the Prophet’s teachings, or where Ijma, (universal agreement), is not available, Shi’ites rely on intelligence while Sunni doctrine relies on qiyas, analogical reasoning.
- For Shi’ites, combining the noon and mid-afternoon prayers, and after sunset and evening prayers is unconditionally admissible, but according to Sunni doctrine it would be admissible only on certain conditions. In the above case Shi’ites performs the ritual prayer only three times a day.
- Shi’ites add a sentence to the traditional call to prayer, expressing the idea that the Prophet Ali is God’s chosen companion. The Sunni’s call to prayer does not include this clause.
- In Shi’ism there are two forms of marriage: permanent marriage, also accepted by the Sunnis, and temporary marriage as described in the Koran. However, the Sunni doctrine declares this latter form of marriage to be forbidden, and considers it invalid.
- While Sunnis maintain that a traveller may continue to keep the fast of Ramadan if so desired, in Shi’ism the traveller during the month of Ramadan must definitely abandon the fast.
- There are also variations in performing ritual ablutions. Shi’ites performs the ritual prostration in prayer on the ground. The use of a carpet, prayer-rug or the like is inadmissible.
Shi’ites in Iran put small ceramic pieces in the place the forehead touches during prostration in prayer. These are made from the soil of Karbala and are available in any mosque or mausoleum. Some bear designs or inscriptions.
- Taqiya or hiding, meaning the concealment of one’s true beliefs while in a hostile society without the risk of committing the offence of hypocrisy, is the right of every Shi’ite.
- For Sunnis, pilgrimage to Mecca is a mandatory duty and one of the Five Pillars of Islam. For Shi’ites pilgrimage to the tombs of Shi’ite saints, of Ali at Najaf (Iraq) or of Huseyn at Karbala (Iraq) may be substituted. Pilgrimages to the tombs of saints are a significant characteristic of Shi’ism, and in Sunni Islam certain Sufi (mystic) practices are similar to this.
The mosque is not essential for worship, but provides space for meetings, study and worship, and Muslims gather there to pray, especially on Fridays. The principal officials are: the muezzin, who calls the faithful to prayer, the imam who leads the prayer, and the preacher (Khatib). It is important to be correctly dressed for prayer. Men should cover their bodies from navel to knees; women may show only their hands, face and feet. Clothing for both sexes should be plain. Traditionally, men and women pray separately, and special areas in the mosques, usually upstairs are reserved for women, although women generally pray at home. Because Muslim prayer involves standing, kneeling and prostration, an open space is provided, without chairs or benches, and a large space is required for the crowds who attend on Fridays. The direction of Mecca (qibla) towards which Muslims face when they pray is indicated by the mihrab. The raised pulpit (minbar), which the preacher mounts to deliver his Friday sermon (khutba), is the most important piece of furniture in the mosque. Every mosque has at least one minaret; though some have two or four and each minaret has one or more balconies from which the muezzin utters his call to prayer, five times daily. The mosque has no altar. For many Muslims the dome is the symbol of the oneness of God. Some mosques are decorated with beautiful wall-tiles, often bearing calligraphic designs based on verses from the Koran.
Traditionally, images are not used, and in place of these, miniatures, flower-and-leaf designs and calligraphy were developed. In the Koran as in the Torah there is no verse which clearly forbids representative art. Later in the Hadith, depiction is clearly forbidden. To make representations of Nature is considered to be a turning aside from the truth. The Hadith says that those who depict living beings are presuming to imitate God’s creation and will be punished in the afterlife. Embellishment of the Koran, which sometimes takes years to complete, is widespread. Abstract and geometric designs and many different calligraphic styles of Arabic script are used as decoration, regarded as appropriate to adorn the Word of God. From the 10th century onwards, special academies or seminaries were established to teach religious and legal doctrines.
Charity or almsgiving (zakat) is required of every Muslim who possesses the means for the relief of the poor, and for other social and charitable causes. The preferred amount is usually two-and-a-half percent of the annual income.
In the Islamic lunar calendar, the 9th month is known as Ramadan, the month of fasting. For the whole month, Muslims do not eat, drink or engage in sexual intercourse during the hours of daylight. The aim is to demonstrate the physical will-power involved in the service of God and to share the suffering of the world’s many hungry people. Towards the end of the month of Ramadan, the most sacred night (Kadir, Laylat al-Qadr), when the Koran was first revealed to Mohammed, is commemorated. Ramadan ends with a feast called “Id al-Fitr”.
The 12th month of the Islamic calendar is the month of pilgrimage (Hajj), which involves a visit to Ka’ba, the sacred place in Mecca. A visit made in any other month is called “umra”, the Lesser Pilgrimage. At least one pilgrimage is expected of every Muslim who is capable of undertaking it. The Prophet himself only once undertook the Hajj, and that was in the last year of his life. Men wear two seamless pieces of white cloth (ihram), one round the waist and the other draped over the left shoulder. Women wear garments which show only their face and hands. This apparel is usually put aside to be used later as a shroud. Almost two million people go on a pilgrimage each year. Ka’ba is the most holy shrine, perhaps the first sanctuary, on a site many believe to have been first consecrated by Adam; and then by Abraham, who rebuilt it at God’s command with Ishmael, his son by Hagar. Muslims believe that God told Abraham to sacrifice his son, Ishmael, at a site near Mecca, and the three pillars that stand at Mina are said to represent the three times that Satan attempted to dissuade Abraham and was repulsed. The Ka’ba was once a shrine to 360 Arabian deities in pre-Islamic times, but all its religious images were removed by Mohammed. He purified it and rededicated it to the one true God. A pilgrimage involves many ceremonies, the first being the seven anti-clockwise circuits (tawaf) of the Ka’ba, on each of which the pilgrim tries to touch the Black Stone (al-Hajar al-Aswad), or at least point in its direction. Muslims believe that this stone was given by the angel Gabriel to Adam and later to Abraham. Then pilgrims process seven times between the two hills of al-Safa and al-Marwa. This reminds them of the mother of Ishmael, Hagar’s (Hajar) search for water for her son. It was at this point, that holy water, known as Zam-Zam gushed out from the ground. The pilgrim visits the well and takes holy water from it. On the eighth day, the pilgrim must stand on Mount Arafat and ask for enlightenment and salvation. This is the most sublime act of worship. After this, stones are thrown at Satan, representing his punishment for trying to dissuade Abraham from sacrificing his son. Then the pilgrimage ends with the slaughter of a sacrificial animal, in remembrance of Ishmael, the meat of which is shared out among the poor. Pilgrimage forms a strong bond between all members of the whole Muslim world.
There are five mandatory duties enjoined on every Muslim. These are known as the Five Pillars of Islam. They are: recitation of the faith (Shahada); ritual prayers (Salat); almsgiving (Zakat); fasting in the month of Ramadan (Sawm); and a pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj).
One of the cornerstones of Muslim religious life is the daily prayer (salat), to which the faithful are called by a muezzin (adhan) from the minaret. Salat, the ritual prayer, is to be performed daily at five appointed times: at daybreak, at noon, in mid-afternoon, just after sunset and in the evening. Certain procedures must be followed to validate the prayer.
These include ablution that is, washing, the face, nostrils, mouth, the hands up to the elbow and feet up to the ankle. Prayer need not be performed in a mosque, but can be carried out anywhere that is clean, usually on a special prayer rug reserved for the purpose. Worshippers face in the direction (qibla) of the sacred mosque in Mecca (originally in the direction of Jerusalem), and they repeat a series of rituals, standing, kneeling and prostrating (secde), which indicate submission to God. This is accompanied by recitations of verses from the Koran. Mid-day prayer on Fridays is performed as a congregation in the mosque, with the object of engendering a feeling of unity with God and with fellow-worshippers.