Monday, 23 August 2010

Saudi Arabia - An introduction to Islam

As I'm blogging about Saudi Arabia, I think this is a perfect opportunity for me to learn about Islam, the same way I learned about Hinduism when I was blogging about Rajasthan.  I'm no expert though and I apologise in advance for misrepresenting any aspects of the religion, I can assure you it's not intentional. 

I must admit, I did know a little bit about Islam, before I started reading for this blog, at least the Uzbek version of Islam, as I lived in Samarkand for almost two years.  Unlike a lot of Westerners, I've had a very positive experience of Islam and I like to think that I have understood more about the religion than the negative stereotypes of Western media sources.  As with Hinduism, I need to profess my disbelief in any religions or the existence of God, but I find the whole subject of religion fascinating and I'm interested in learning more. 

Blogging about Islam is such a massive undertaking and I really just want to begin with the basics.  A lot of the information I'm taking is from Malise Ruthven's Islam: A very short Introduction, published as part of a series by Oxford University Press (that I'm always raving on about).  The opinions expressed in this blog are my own.  Other things I would like to cover in future blogs about Saudi Arabia are Muhammad and Shari'a Law.  I'll probably leave other aspects, such as the Quran, Sufism, Shi'a, the role of women and Jihad to future blogs about other Muslim countries.


I guess the most surprising thing about Islam for a Westerner is that it doesn't really differ from Western religions in the way, for example, that Hinduism does. It's important to remember that Islam is part of the same religious tradition as both Christianity and Judaism.  As Christianity developed from Judaism and went off in its own direction, adapting to the European societies that identified with Christian beliefs, Islam was a reaffirmation of traditional beliefs and an attempt to purify the message of God that had been corrupted and confused in Jewish and Christian interpretations.  I can't help comparing the origins of Islam to the origins of Protestantism in Europe, ie. getting back to the essentials of religious practice and away from the corruption and materialism of the predominating church. 

I guess there is a big difference between orthodoxy (ie. harmony of beliefs) and orthopraxy (ie. harmony of practice) and whilst Islam is relatively orthodox in relation to Christianity and Judaism, it's not necessarily orthoprax and it's the practice of Islam that is difficult for Westerners to understand, as it so often differs from the way Christians and Jews practise their respective religions.

The diversity of Islamic orthopraxy

Unlike Christianity, there is no centralised 'church' in the Muslim faith.  Even Saudi Arabia, which might be considered to be the centre of Islamic beliefs, with the important religious sites in Makka and Medina, wouldn't really be acceptable as the leader of Islam for most believers. 

Leadership comes at a local level and this leads to a diversity in Islam that most people in the West fail to recognise.  An estimated 23% of the world's population follow Islam but it's far from being a monolithic community.  I can understand the frustration of Muslims everywhere, when they are portrayed as religious fanatics and fundamentalists.  We can quite easily identify the differences in Christian beliefs and practices, in terms of the different Christian sects, Catholicism, Orthodoxy, the myriad of Protestant belief systems.  Similarly, Islam has been adapted to local circumstances and whilst the essential orthodoxy of the religion is consistent, the practice of Islam varies from one community or society to the next.

The fall of Communism and Islamophobia

Islam is perceived to be the fastest growing religion in the world and, since the fall of communism in the late 80's, there has been a growing anxiety in the West, which sees Islam as the main obstacle to Western orthopraxy.  I would argue that orthopraxy in the West goes beyond religion - even those of us who are not practising Christians share a belief system of sorts, based on the values of the Enlightenment and a liberalism which is the basis of most Western societies.  This seems to bring us directly into conflict with Islam and the news headlines in the past few weeks have been all about headscarves (France), mosques (New York) and charity, or the lack of it (Pakistan).  The western media definitely sensationalises these conflicts and, in my opinion, distracts from the very real changes that are occuring in Islam at the present time, as it adapts to the pressures of a globalised society and dominance of western consumerism. 

Whilst people in the West live in fear of an Islam that wants to convert us all and impose Shari'a law, societies based on Islamic beliefs and traditions are finding themselves confronted with the overwhelming impact of globalisation and a capitalist system that seems to preclude any alternatives to consumerism and greed.

The Five Pillars of Islam

As a belief system that has spread right across the world and has been adopted by so many different types of societies and cultures, the central ethos of Islamic beliefs is incredibly clear and uncomplicated.  I guess the Five Pillars of Islam unite the Muslim community in a way that strengthens Islam and helps it meet the challenges of 21st century life.  The five pillars are:

1. Shahada - the basic declaration of faith

lâ ilâha illallâh, Muḥammadur rasûlullâh - There is no God but God and Muhammad is his messenger - this is what the Arabic writing on the Saudi flag says.

2. Salat - Worship

This relates to prayer and the idea (at least in the Sunni tradition) that Muslims must pray five times a day

3 Zakat - alms-giving/compulsory charity

It's no coincidence that Saudi Arabia is one of the world's largest contributors of aid to poorer countries.

4 Sawm - the fast during Ramadan

Fasting is an important part of Islamic orthopraxy.

5 Hajj - pilgrimage to Makka

All good Muslims should try to make a pilgramage to Makka at least once during their lifetime. 

To be honest, I don't think any of these five pillars would be unfamiliar or unacceptable to Christians and, on a very basic level, I'm beginning to wonder what all the fuss is about!

Image credit

The photograph of a Muslim family in Langkawi, Malaysia was taken by self-confessed flickr addict Jim Boud - you can see more of Jim's photos at 

The image of the children at prayer was taken by flickruser Ranoush, aka Rana Ossama, who is a student from Ismailyah in Egypt - you can see more of Rana's photos at

Thanks Jim and Rana for sharing these images with the world using the Creative Commons License.

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