Islam is one of the three main monotheistic Abrahamic religions, along with Christianity and Judaism. It was spread by the Prophet Mohammed in the 7th century A.D. The Islamic holy book is the Quran, and according to Islamic tradition it entails the direct word of God as spoken to the Prophet.
Islam is centered around five pillars which detail the five duties incumbent on every Muslim. The first is the Shahada, the Muslim profession of faith. The second is prayer: A practicing Muslim must pray towards Mecca five times a day. There is also Zakat, the alms-tax, according to which Muslims must share their wealth with those in need. Fasting during the holy month of Ramadan is the fourth pillar, and Hajj, the mandatory pilgrimage each Muslim must make at least once in their life, is fifth.
The Ka’bah sanctuary in the city of Mecca is the most holy Islamic site, and the destination of the Hajj pilgrimage. The second most holy site is the prophet Mohammed’s mosque in the city of Medina. Third in line is Jerusalem, where, according to Islamic tradition, Mohammed ascended to heaven. Adherents to the Shi’ite school of Islam also regard Karbala in Iraq and Meshed in Iran as holy sites.
The two main Islamic schools are the Sunni and the Shi’a. The differences between the two originated with the Prophet’s death in 632 A.D, when disputes arose as to who would be Mohammed’s rightful heir. Some worshippers thought that only a direct descendant of Mohammed should lead the movement, while others thought that a leader should be chosen by consensus. Those who supported a direct descendant wanted Ali to become caliph, but they lost out. When Ali eventually became caliph years later, he was massacred along with many of his followers in 680 at Karbala. Those who supported him eventually became Shi’ites.
Since then, the two doctrines have evolved. They now contain disagreements and differences while still maintaining agreement on many essentials of Islam.
In addition to the Sunni and the Shi’a, there are also additional branches of Islam such as the Druze and Alawi. Though they identify as Muslims, other Islamists often do not consider them proper followers of the faith. Other religious groups like the Baha'i are split-offs from Shi’a Islam. Sufi Muslims, a spiritual sub-sect of Islam, can have either Sunni and Shi’a backgrounds.
Islam is the fastest growing major religion in the world. Its devotees make up the majority of the population in over 50 countries and number over 1.8 million. Over 85% of these Muslims are Sunnis, who are spread throughout the Arab world, as well as Indonesia, Bangladesh, Turkey, Pakistan and more. Most Shi’ites are centered in Iran, Iraq and Bahrain. The majority of Muslims in and around Israel are Sunnis.
Islam recognizes two holy days (Eids) each year, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. Eid al-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan, and Eid al-Adha marks the end of the pilgrimage to Mecca. The dates of the Eids differ according to the Gregorian calendar because the Islamic calendar, like the Jewish one, is based on the lunar year.