Introduction to Islam

Reem al Faisal

Reem Al Faisal, 2003-2005 (Reem Al Faisal, Hajj (Reading 2009)

The Qur’an

The Qur’an – from the root qr’a, to read - is the holy book of Muslims. It contains God’s revelation to the Prophet Muhammad in the early 7th century set out in 114 chapters known as suras. The Prophet received the revelation in Arabic through the intermediary of the Archangel Jibril (Gabriel), first at the cave of Hira outside Mecca and then at Medina, where he migrated in 622. At first, the Prophet’s followers memorised the revelation and communicated it orally and then began to write it down. It was later committed to writing by the Caliph’ 'Umar (r. 634 – 44). The final recension was done by the Caliph ‘Uthman (r. 644-56). This is the text that Muslims use today.

Islam is to testify that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God; to perform the prayer; to pay the zakat; to fast in Ramadan; and to make the pilgrimage to the House [the Ka‘ba] if you are able to do so.
From the Hadith (the traditions which relate to the life, sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad); Sahih Muslim , Bk. I, Ch. I, no. 1.

The Five Pillars of Islam

Islam means surrender or submission to God in Arabic. It is based on five key principles established by the Prophet Muhammad (d. 632), known as the Five Pillars. This framework helps to connect the individual Muslim with the wider Islamic community known as the umma:

All Muslims must make the declaration, ‘I bear witness that there is no god but God and Muhammad is His Messenger.’ This is a commitment that God takes priority over all desires, ideologies and ambitions.
Muslims pray five times a day. The act of turning to Mecca symbolically reminds Muslims of their true orientation to God.
All Muslims must give a proportion of their wealth to benefit the needy. Muslims strive to serve God by trying to create a just society, where wealth is shared fairly.
Fasting during the month of Ramadan helps Muslims identify with the poor through knowing what it means to be hungry.
The rituals of Hajj represent a symbolic return to the holy region of the prophets Adam, Ibrahim (Abraham) and Muhammad. Before going on Hajj, pilgrims must settle all debts, provide for any dependents and seek forgiveness from friends and family.

Qur’an (c. 750-800 AD, Hijaz)


British Library, Or. 2165, (f. 53b)

Qur’ans copied in this style, probably in Mecca or Medina, are among the earliest in existence. It is written with a qalam (reed pen) in a form of the Arabic script known as Hijazi or ma’il, meaning sloping, on account of the pronounced slant to the right, and it is one of a number of scripts developed in the early Islamic period for the copying of the Qur’an. This opening (fol. 53b) includes the words:

We have sent the Qur’an down in the Arabic tongue and given all kinds of warnings in it, so they may be aware and take heed…
Qur’an 20 – Taha:113

The Sanctuary at Jerusalem (c. 1800, probably Mecca)

The Sanctuary at Jerusalem

Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, MSS 745.1. (© Nour Foundation. Courtesy of the Khalili Family Trust)

For Muslims, Jerusalem is the third most sacred city after Mecca and Medina. Originally, Muslims faced Jerusalem when they prayed, in accordance with Jewish and Christian tradition. A revelation to the Prophet Muhammad ordained that Muslims should turn to face Mecca. This painting shows the two sacred mosques on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem: Masjid al-Aqsa at the top and the Dome of the Rock below. The footprints are a reference to the miraculous ‘Night Journey’, when the Prophet, mounted on his winged horse Buraq, flew to ‘the furthest mosque’ (Masjid al-Aqsa) and ascended to Heaven. To the left of the painting are the scales on which a person’s deeds will be weighed on the Day of Judgment. The red band above represents the narrow path dividing heaven from hell, along which every soul must pass on the Last Day.

Qibla indicator and sundial (990/1582-3, Ottoman Empire)

Qibla indicator

British Museum 1921,0625.1

This instrument was used to find the qibla, the direction of Mecca. The sail-shaped feature between the Ka‘ba and the compass is a sundial that was used to find the time of the afternoon prayer. The string-gnomon, which is attached to the tip of the metal pin, casts a shadow that allows both sundials to be used at the same time.

There are 72 sectors containing the names of cities and regions in the Islamic world around the rim. The only city in red is Constantinople, the latitude for which this instrument was constructed. However, it can be used from any of the locations listed around the rim. The compass allows the instrument to be aligned in a north-south direction, establishing the direction of the Ka‘ba.

The Astrolabe of ‘Abd al-Karim al-Misri (633/1235-36, Jazira)

The Astrolabe of ‘Abd al-Karim al-Misri

British Museum 1855,0709.1

An astrolabe is used to tell the time and to determine the correct time for the five daily prayers (salat) by providing a two-dimensional map of the heavens. Some astrolabes also indicate the direction of prayer (qibla). This important example has figural designs representing the constellations on the front and back. It gives the name of the artist who made it, ‘Abd al-Karim al-Misri, who is known through other signed astrolabes. This instrument is noted as an early example of a 'royal' astrolabe.

The positions of prayer (c. 1774, Faizabad, India)

The positions of prayer

Victoria and Albert Museum, IS 25:26-1980 fol. 25

This watercolour belongs to a genre of painting known as ‘Company School’ which was produced by Indian artists for Europeans living in the Indian subcontinent. The artist shows the various postures that Muslims adopt during ritual prayers. The believers are dressed in Mughal costume and face the sanctuary at Mecca. It is part of an album commissioned by a French infantry Colonel, Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Gentil (1726 –1799). Gentil served under Shuja‘ al-Daula, ruler of Awadh (Oudh), between 1774 and 1786.

The Depiction of the Sandal of the Prophet (1800s, probably Morocco)

The Depiction of the Sandal of the Prophet

British Library, Or.6774

Among the miracles popularly attributed to the Prophet Muhammad is the belief that his sandals left no imprint in the sand. This representation of the Prophet’s sandal was used as an amulet, and could be carried in a purpose-made pouch. Written around the drawing are poetry and instructions for its use. Muslims hung copies of the Prophet’s sandal in their homes, to protect them from the evil eye and intruders.

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