FAQs about Islam & Muslims
Islam has a rich tradition of legal and theological inquiry and debate. The content of this page is intended to provide simple and introductory answers to some basic questions about Islam.
- What is Islam?
Islam [iss-LAAM] is a monotheistic faith that is followed by over a billion Muslims worldwide. Islam literally means “submission” and also “peace.” It involves finding peace in life through submission to God, the Creator.
- How do Muslims greet one another?
Muslims all over the world greet one another with a greeting of peace - “as-salaam-Alaykum” or “peace be with you.” In response to the greeting, one says “walaikum as-salaam” or peace be with you also.”
- Who is Allah?
“Allah” is the Arabic word for God, used by Muslims and Arabic speaking Christians alike. It is a unique term since it has no gender and no plural forms. God is the Creator, the Lord of the Universe, the All-Knowing and the All-Seeing. He has 99 names, which describe His attributes. Allah is unlike anyone or anything imaginable. “Allah” is not the “Muslim God.” Muslims believe that there is only one God for all of humanity and creation.
- Do “Islamic” and “Muslim” mean the same thing?
They basically mean the same thing, but there is a difference in usage. Islamic is generally used as an adjective for things and concepts (e.g. Islamic law, Islamic art, Islamic marriage) while Muslim is used as a noun (e.g. a Muslim) or as an adjective to describe people (e.g. Muslim society, Muslim students, Muslim families).
- What do you have to do to become a Muslim?
In order to convert, a person must testify that there is nothing or no one worthy of being worshipped, except for God, and that Muhammad is His final messenger. In Arabic, this statement is “Laa ilaaha illa Allah, Muhammad rasool Allah.” This declaration is the first pillar in Islam, which makes a person a Muslim. (See "Practice and Lifestyle section below for descriptions of the remaining four pillars.)
- Who is Muhammad?
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is the final messenger in a long line of messengers sent by God—including Adam, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus (peace be upon them). He was born in the city of Mecca (in present day Saudi Arabia) around 570 CE. He started receiving revelations from God through the Archangel Gabriel in 610, preached the message of monotheism, and established the first community of Muslims in Medina in 622. He died in Medina in 632.
- Do Muslims worship Muhammad?
No. Muslims believe that God, the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe, has no partners, no parents and no offspring. Muhammad was a messenger of God, and is revered and emulated by Muslims, but NOT worshipped by them.
- Do Muslims believe in Jesus?
Yes. In Islam, Jesus (peace be upon him) is a prophet who was born to Mary, without a father. The Qur’an (Koran) states that Jesus’ nature is like the nature of Adam: God merely commands a being, “Be!” and it is created. Muslims revere Jesus as God’s messenger, but do not worship him.
- What is the Qur’an (Koran)?
The Qur’an is the holy book that Muslims believe followed the other divine revelations that preceded it, including the Old Testament (or the Torah sent to Moses), the Bible (or the Injeel sent to Jesus) and the Psalms (or the Zabur sent to David). The Qur’an is considered to be God’s speech, revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) through the Archangel Gabriel. The Qur’an is not a Muslim version of the Bible; rather, its 114 chapters contain a variety of subjects such as: descriptions and praises of God, creation accounts, stories of people (many of whom appear in the Bible as well), commands and prohibitions, guidelines for daily life and societal relations, descriptions of the Day of Judgment when all shall be judged, and descriptions of recompense in the afterlife.
- What is Sharia?
Sharia is Islamic law. It is a comprehensive body of law that encompasses areas of life such as family, business and crime. Sharia is based on two primary sources: God’s words in the Qur’an (Koran) and the Sunnah, or teachings of Prophet Muhammad.
- Is Islam a “green” religion?
Yes. The Qur’an’s (Koran’s) description of the creation of Adam names him as God’s vicegerent on earth. Human beings are placed in a custodial role on earth, in charge of and responsible for taking care of all of its inhabitants. The Qur’an teaches us to learn from the wonders of nature and to respect our environment.
- What is Jihad?
Jihad is often MIStranslated as “holy war”. It literally means, “struggle”, and it takes many forms: a spiritual struggle against one’s self, a personal struggle to make one’s environment better, a community’s non-violent struggle against injustice, and a nation’s military or diplomatic struggle against oppression.
- Does Islam condone terrorism?
Absolutely not. There is no scenario where Islam condones the killing of innocent civilians, animals or destroying infrastructure and the environment, even during times of war. Unfortunately, when there is a political conflict, people often use ideologies like religion to justify their actions.
- Do Muslims believe in heaven and hell?
Yes. Muslims believe in personal accountability; there will be a final judgment of everyone for their actions and intentions. Ultimate judgment, justice and mercy rest with God alone and He will decide who will be rewarded in heaven or punished in hell.
- Why do Muslims pray so much?
The second pillar of Islam is ritual prayer (salah). There are five prescribed prayer times: dawn, midday, afternoon, sunset, and night. Prayer consists of reciting verses from the Qur’an (Koran) while moving through a series of motions that include standing, sitting, bending over and prostrating on the ground in the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca. Each prayer is a spiritual, mental, and physical declaration that Muslims serve, worship and praise God, and it serves as a kind of spiritual nourishment throughout the day. Although it is encouraged, prayers do not need to be performed in congregation (with the exception of the Friday midday prayer); indeed, many people pray individually at home and sometimes at work or school if necessary.
- What is the Kaaba?
The Kaaba is an empty, cube-shaped building situated in Mecca (in current day Saudi Arabia). The Kaaba was built by the prophet Abraham and his son Ishmael and is the most sacred site for Muslims. Muslims all over the world face the Kaaba during prayer as a symbolic gesture that they are one community under one God.
- Do Muslims have priests or ministers?
No. There is no clergy in Islam. Anyone can communicate directly to God through prayer, without any intercession. Many mosques designate a person with religious knowledge to be an Imam (prayer leader), to lead the congregational prayers, give the sermon (khutba) on Fridays and act as a spiritual leader to the community.
- Is Friday Islam’s “day of rest”?
No. However, on Fridays, Muslims are required to pray the midday prayer in congregation at the mosque or in an appropriate gathering place. The imam (prayer leader) first gives a sermon (khutba) and then leads the congregation in prayer. This service usually lasts about 30 to 45 minutes. During this prayer, Muslims are forbidden to work, but they may work during the rest of the day.
- What does “Allahu akbar” mean? I hear it in news coverage of protesters a lot.
“Allahu akbar” means “God is the greatest”. It is the first phrase recited in the call to prayer (adhaan) and ritual prayer (salah). A better translation might be, “God is greater”, meaning, God is greater than whatever it is you are doing when the prayer time begins. Muslims might say this phrase in other contexts to openly declare that God has power over all things.
- What is Ramadan?
Ramadan is the ninth month in the lunar, Islamic calendar. The fast that Muslims observe during this month is the fourth pillar of Islam.
- Do Muslims fast for a whole month?
Yes, but only during the daylight hours (from dawn until sunset) and only if one is physically and mentally mature and able. Fasting means to abstain from eating, drinking, and sexual intercourse—a human’s bodily desires. During Ramadan, Muslims are encouraged to worship more, give charity, focus on their spiritual needs, and improve their character.
- I often hear about the “pillars of Islam”. What are they?
The five pillars make up the foundation of Islamic faith and practice.
1. Faith: The declaration of faith (shahaada) in God and Muhammad as His final messenger.
2. Prayer: Ritual prayer (salah) five times per day.
3. Charity: Alms (zakaat) is a tax that Muslims pay and distribute to the needy. It is 2.5% of a Muslim’s movable assets; it is believed to purify one’s wealth.
4. Fasting: Muslims are asked to fast for the daylight hours during the month of Ramadan to empathize with the needy and learn self-discipline.
5. Pilgrimage: The last pillar is the pilgrimage to Mecca (the Hajj) for Muslims who are physically and financially able to embark on this spiritual journey during the 12th month of the Islamic calendar. They perform certain rites that commemorate the story of Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael and the spirit of sacrifice it represented. If performed sincerely, the Hajj renders the Muslim as sinless as the day he/she was born.
- Do Muslims celebrate Christmas?
No. Muslims do not celebrate Christmas. There are however, two major Islamic festivals during the year. The first is Eid-ul-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan (the fasting month). The second comes two months later and is called Eid-ul-Adha, which marks the end of the yearly pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca. Each year, the festival dates are 10 to 12 days earlier than the previous year’s festival dates because the Islamic calendar is a lunar one.
- Do Muslims have any dietary restrictions?
In Islam, all things are halal or permissible for eating, including for example, fruit, vegetables, and meat, except for what is specifically prohibited in the Qur'an or by Prophet Muhammad, such as “the flesh of pigs” (The Qur’an 5:4) in any form (pork, ham, lard, or bacon). Some Muslims may object to eating foods with gelatin, such as marshmallows and some types of candy and desserts, because it may be derived from pigs. “Halal meat” usually means that the animal was slaughtered in a specific manner according to Islamic standards (humanely and pronouncing the name of God), whether it be chicken, beef, lamb, etc. Also, alcohol is haraam or prohibited to Muslims.
- My Muslim coworker hesitates to shake my hand and hug. Why is that?
It is not generally acceptable for men and women who are not family to have physical contact with each other as part of modest behaviour. However, amongst Muslims, you may find variations of practice depending on cultural norms. For example, in some ethnic communities, it is acceptable to shake hands with the opposite gender.
- What is a mosque?
A mosque is a place of worship for Muslims. A mosque, or masjid in Arabic, means “place of prostration.” It is synonymous with a church for Christians and a synagogue for Jews. Mosques are often used as community centres where families can gather for social, educational and recreational activities.
- What are the distinctive features of a mosque?
Most mosques have a large open space to pray in (musalla); there are no pews and members of the congregation sit on the floor. Many mosques have separate prayer halls and entrances for men and women. Mosques often have a pulpit (minbar) from which the sermon (khutba) is delivered. There are no statues or pictures of people in mosques, since Muslims do not attempt to recreate the image of God or any of the Prophets. Islamic art and decor in mosques often consist of geometric, intricate designs and Calligraphic quotations from the Qur’an (Koran) in Arabic. Prayer halls usually have bookshelves with copies of the Qu’ran available for reference reading. Muslims also perform ablution (wudu) before prayers where they wash their hands, face, arms and feet, and therefore washrooms will often have special washbasins or specifically designed areas with built-in benches, floor drains and faucets. Water containers in the washroom stalls are always used for proper hygiene. Many mosques in the world have courtyards and minarets, or large towers used to issue the call to prayer. North American minarets are usually just decorative.
- I’ve heard the call to prayer in movies and on my travels. What does it mean?
The call to prayer, or adhaan is a series of Arabic phrases meaning:
God is most great, God is most great. God is most great, God is most great. I bear witness that there is no god but God. I bear witness that there is no god but God. I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of God. I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of God. Hurry to prayer, hurry to prayer. Hurry to success, hurry to success. God is most great, God is most great. There is no god but (the One) God.
- What does a Muslim prayer service look like?
Any of the five daily prayers may be prayed in congregation in a mosque. There is a prayer leader (imam) who is knowledgeable but not considered to be higher in status. Before the prayer, someone (the muezzin) will stand up and do a “call to prayer” called the adhaan. In preparation for prayer, everyone will stand side by side in lines behind the imam facing the direction of Mecca. Women stand in separate rows behind the men. The Friday midday prayer also includes a short sermon (called a khutba) and the whole Friday service usually lasts 30-45 minutes; other prayers are usually shorter, around 10 minutes.
- Why do women pray behind the men at the mosque?
Women pray behind the men because that was how people prayed in the first mosque in Medina (under the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him). At one point in salah (ritual prayer), Muslims fully prostrate, with their foreheads, hands, knees and toes on the ground, and their backsides in the air. Many women feel more comfortable praying behind men, because they would not want any man to watch them from behind while they are bent over in this position.
- Do Mosques have special rules?
Men and women should dress conservatively when visiting a mosque, covering their arms and legs. Examples of inappropriate clothing would be shorts, short skirts and tank tops. Shoes are removed before entering the prayer area. Headscarves are encouraged for women, but whether they are required or not depend on the mosque you are attending or visiting. Talking is not permitted during the sermon (khutba) on Fridays. Talking is discouraged during the call to prayer (adhaan). Muslims who are praying cannot talk or be interrupted until they’ve finished. However, other people who are not praying can talk silently. One should not walk in front of someone who is praying. When prayers are not taking place, everyone is free to talk and interact respectfully as one would in any religious institution. Degrees of segregation between men and women vary from mosque to mosque. (See Mosque Visits for information about visiting WCM).
- Why don’t Muslims use prayer books while they pray?
Muslims have memorized enough of the Qur’an (as little as 7 verses) for them to perform the ritual prayer, so there is no need to read from a hard copy of the Qur’an (Koran) while praying.
- Why do some Muslim women cover their hair?
There are guidelines in the Qur’an (Koran) and sayings of the Prophet Mohammad for modest dress and behaviour for both men and women. These guidelines are meant to promote respectful interaction between the sexes and to avoid harassment or exploitation. The generally held understanding of these versus and sayings is that women should cover everything except their hands and face (and feet, according to some interpretations). Muslim women who choose to cover in this way do so in public, in the company of marriageable men, and in prayer. A Muslim woman’s headscarf is also commonly referred to as hijab. Hijab styles and outfits may differ, reflecting women's individual sense of fashion as well as the cultural diversity of Muslims around the world.
- Why do some Muslim women cover their face?
Some Muslim interpretations of modest dress for women include covering the face. The face covering is referred to as niqab.
- Where do Muslims come from?
Muslims come from everywhere: some were born in the Americas, the Caribbean, Europe, Australia, China and many were born in majority Muslim nations, such as Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, Indonesia, Afghanistan, and many former Soviet Republics. About 20% of the world’s Muslim population lives in the Arab world, whereas approximately 60% live in Asia-Pacific. Indonesia is the largest Muslim country by population (home to approximately 15.6 % of the world’s Muslims).
- How many Muslims are there in the world?
There are about 1.5 billion Muslims in the world making up around 23% of the world’s population.
- How many Muslim live in Canada?
The 2001 Canadian census estimates about 600 000 Muslims in Canada (almost 2% of Canada’s population).
- Do all Muslims speak Arabic?
No, in fact, most don’t. Muslims usually learn how to read enough Arabic to recite and memorize some verses from the Qur’an (Koran) in Arabic, but most Muslims rely on translations to understand what they are reciting.
- I hear about Sunnis and Shi’ites in the news a lot. Who are they?
Sunnis and Shi’ites (also known as “Shia) are two sects within Islam, the Sunnis being the majority of Muslims. The division dates back to differing views on leadership of the Muslim community after the Prophet Muhammad passed away in 632 CE. The Sunnis established a line of caliphs to be religious leaders of the Muslims, while the Shiites established a line of Imams from among Prophet Muhammad’s descendents. Sunnis and Shiites are all Muslims; however, their divergent histories of leadership have led to divergent rulings in Islamic law.
- It seems like there are so many bad Muslims in the news these days. Are there any good Muslims out there?
The reality is that Muslims are human, and just like other people, some Muslims commit negative acts that are in no way endorsed by true Islamic teachings. For every “bad” Muslim portrayed in the media, there are countless others contributing positively to society through working, studying, doing community service, raising their families, respecting their neighbours, or helping someone in a time of need.
- Who are some famous Muslims?
Muhammad Ali (boxer), Kareem Abdul Jabbar (NBA player), Muhammad Yunus (Nobel Peace Prize Winner 2006), Shirin Ebadi (Nobel Peace Prize Winner 2003), Yusuf Islam (previously Cat Stevens, singer/songwriter), Zarqa Nawaz (Canadian Filmmaker, creator of Little Mosque on the Prairie), Malcolm X (Human Rights Activist), Avicenna (11th-century philosopher), Ibn Khaldun (14th-century physician and philosopher), Alberuni (11th-century scientist), Rumi (13th-century poet) and Ibn Battuta (13th-century world explorer, traveled further than Marco Polo).