Islam 101

Photo above of the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, the third largest mosque in the world.

One of the greatest things about Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS) is their three-prong approach to international volunteerism:

Volunteer work (which is generally the morning activity)

Cultural learning and education (which comprises of education on politics and culture, cultural activities (such as cooking class, musical performance, etc), and cultural tours.

Cross-Cultural exchange (meaning sharing your culture with the locals and learning about their culture to educate and change perceptions).

I find this approach to be an excellent way for a volunteer and foreigner to totally immerse with a new and different culture. The learning and the week is extremely intensive yet it is quite amazing. I feel like I’ve just completed an entire class on Moroccan life, traditions and culture all in only a week’s time!

A few days ago, we spent the afternoon talking with Mohammed, our Country Director, about a hot topic: The religion of Islam. It was an extremely fascinating discussion that took us over two and a half hours, and although I learned a lot it still felt like we had just touched the surface of this amazing, complex religion. For an American and for someone who knows very little about Islam (and religion in general, to be quite honest), our discussion with Mohammed was very enlightening and surprising.

Before coming to Morocco, I knew very little about Islam except of course what I had heard about in the media or read in the papers. I believe there is a very bad perception and understanding of Islam in the the Western world. Many believe Islam equates to terrorists and that it not at all the case. It is only a very small percentage of actual Muslims who are terrorists and these are the extreme cases (just like in Christianity we have the far far religious right wackos who go off the deep end). Thus for me to learn more about Islam and to meet and develop friendships with Muslims, was in itself a very “thirdeyemom” (aka eye-opening) experience and it truly changed the way I feel and view Islam.

Ok, so here is a summary of what I learned on Islam (this is Islam 101) as well as my own thoughts, reflections and feelings on this great religion. Of course it is not all inclusive! It is just the information I gathered from our lecture with Mohammed and from asking tons of questions.

Lesson one: What is the meaning of Islam?

Islam can be literally translated to me “submission to God” and represents the peace you obtain when you submit to God.

It is the second largest religion in the world (after Christianity and followed by Hinduism) and it the fastest growing religion i the world (due to the high birth rates in large Muslim countries and also the high level of conversions to Islam. Last year there were over 20,000 conversions to Islam in only the United States!).

Some facts:

20% of the world’s population are Muslims.

Of the Muslim population, 20% (only) are Arabs (this is a figure that surprised me as I believed there to be more. Indonesia has the largest Muslim population and there are also a small population of Muslims in India – 140 million).

95% of the Arab world are Muslims.

There are two different groups of Muslims in the World:

1. Sunni (75-80%)

2. Shia (minority and mainly found in the Gulf countries).

Lesson two: What are the Five Pillars of Islam?
1. Testimonies (or beliefs) which are called “Shahada” in Arabic.

2. Prayer

3. Charity

4. Fasting

5. Pilgrimage

These are all in order of importance.

Here is a look at what each pillar means:

Testimonies/Shahada: Means that you believe there is only one God and that the Prophet Mohammed is a messenger from God.

The life of Mohammed was fascinating. He was born in 571 AC in Mecca and was an orphan by age 6. He was raised by his uncle who taught him to become an honest and hard-working young man. People gained great trust and respect in him. At the age of 25 he met and fell in love with a wealthy, widow named Khadija who was 40. They then married and lived in Mecca. At the time there was no real organized religion in Mecca. However, Mohammed used to spend his time meditating in a cave called Hirae, where he was met by the angel Gabriel. Gabriel was sent by God to tell Mohammed to believe in only one God. Thus started the religion of Islam! In 622, Mohammed moved from Mecca to Medina and this year marks the beginning of Islam and the Muslim calendar.

Mohammed became a prophet and died in 632 (thus he spent about 22 years of his life as a prophet).

He was the last Prophet to come. (For Muslims, there are 125,000 prophets sent by God and mentioned in the Qur’an. The first was Adam and the last one was Mohammed. Almost all the same prophets that are mentioned in the bible are mentioned in the Qur’an. For example, Moses, Abraham, Noah and Jesus). In the Qur’an, all Prophets are respected as they all had the exact same message: To worship One God. Jesus and his stories are also in the Qur’an (something I did not know!) and the Qur’an includes all the same stories as found in the bible EXCEPT one: The crucifixion of Jesus, because Muslims don’t believe it happened. Instead, they believe he was not killed but was risen to heaven. Muslims also believe that Jesus is our savior and will return some day. (Very interesting!)

In Islam: There are two important religious documents:

1. The Qur’an: The Word of God (recited by Gabriel to Mohammed who then wrote it down and recited to the people).

2. The Hadeeth: These are words of the Prophet Mohammed. Like the Bible, they were written down later. The Hadeeth was compiled and written 125 years AFTER the death of Mohammed.

Every Muslim, no matter what country you live in, uses the same Qur’an, written in Arabic. Translations are not considered as “pure”. The Hadeeth has many different versions thus it is not always followed exactly as “the word” since it is not technically as accurate as the Qur’an.

In the Qur’an, “Mariam” (Mary) is also a virgin and the mother of Jesus, however, Muslims do not believe that Jesus is the son of God. Also, Muslims do not believe that Jesus died for our sins.

In the Muslim religion, what helps you go to heaven is your good deeds or actions, not just by believing in Jesus Christ. The main sins are: Killing, Dishonoring your parents, Adultery, and Stealing. I asked about the meaning of the word “jihad”. It means “a struggle” to do something good. Thus in Islam, you are only allowed to fight and kill if you are attacked. Obviously this was taken to the extreme with 9/11.

In sum, there are many similarities between the Bible and the Qur’an, which surprised me. I had no idea.


In the Muslim religion, you must pray five times a day. The first prayer is at the Break of Dawn, the second is around noon (when the sun is in the middle), the third prayer is around afternoon, the fourth prayer is around sunset and the fifth prayer is at dusk when there are a few stars in the sky. The prayer times change each day depending on the movement and position of the sun. One knows it is prayer time when one hears the “muadhin” (person who makes the call to prayer) being sent via amplification throughout the city. The Muadhin makes the call to prayer from the minaret (tower of a mosque) and it can be heard anywhere.

The Call to Prayer is always the same and includes the following verses (all in Arabic):

1. God is Great – is repeated four times.

2. Bear witness that there is only one God -repeated two times.

3. Mohammed is a messenger of God – repeated two times.

4. Hurry up and pray -repeated two times.

5. Hurry up to salvation -repeated two times.

6. God is Great – repeated two times.

7. There is not God but Allah – said once.

Before doing prayer, Muslims must do the “abulations” where every part of the external body is washed, and clean clothing is put on. Once clean, a Muslim turns “qibla” or the direction of Mecca and recites the first chapter of the Qur’an (7 verses which are memorized), next a recitation of choice, followed by bowing and praising to God, and finally the different poses to show humility towards God (stand up, flex knees and then place forehead on the ground). These prayers are done five times per day. If a prayer session is missed (due to work or travel, etc) then it can be made up during the day.

Charity (“Zakat”): Is the belief that everything belongs to God and involves purification and growth. Muslims are required to pay 2.5% of their yearly income to the poor.

Fasting: During the month of Ramadan (which is the 9th month of the Muslim calendar and fluctuates yearly) means that a Muslim must fast (no drinking any liquids, including water and no eating any food) and abstain from sex, smoking, and chewing gum. It starts at dawn and ends at dusk. Every Muslim must follow the fast for the entire month except for sick, pregnant, nursing mothers, travelers, or women during their periods. The fasting must be made up after a person is well enough to do it before the next Ramadan. The object of Ramadan is self control.

Pilgrimage: Every able Muslim must make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in your lifetime. This happens the 12th month of the Muslim calendar and only three million Muslims around the world are allowed to go (due to capacity constraints). Thus there is a lottery to go.

A final interesting fun fact I learned about Islam is the spiritual belief in the Jinns or spirits. Muslims believe there are three types of beings:

1. Humans who are created from clay.

2. Angels who are created from light.

3. Jinns who are created from fire.

Jinns are unseen creatures that can be either good or bad, and they can be found anywhere: A house, on someone’s shoulder, or even in the water inside the toilet! Jinns have a lot of power in Morocco and almost everyone believes in their existence and power. For more information on Jinns and life in Morocco, there is a great book called “The Caliph’s House: A Year in Casablanca” by Tahir Shah. The book goes into great detail with perfect humor and wit about the complexities of living in the land of the Jinns.

The above commentary is meant to be a brief explanation of the important facets of Islam. It is an extremely complex topic in which I am by no means even close to an expert. In my opinion, it is really a pity that there is not more religious tolerance and understanding in the world. We can learn a great deal from others and their religions. We are all after the same goal in life! Ok, that is my food for thought for the day. (It feels like a great load has been taken off my shoulders to attempt to even discuss Islam!). My upcoming posts will discuss the hot topic of The Role of Women in Morocco (which will include some information on the how to date in Morocco….a rarity, but yes it does happen!).


  1. I was first introduced to Islam by a Methodist Chaplain, as part of his annual training section in the Woman’s prison I worked at. It is a beautiful religion and thanks for your post.

    What is it about religions that separates people rather than brings them together?


    P.S. I considered becoming a Sufi at one point in my life.

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  3. Lu

    It is such a shame that there is not more tolerance between faiths – given the any number of similarities. I think it is the fear of the unknown that most people are afraid of and if they learnt a little bit about someone else’s religion and culture, there would be a definite improvement in overall relations.
    I’m also not religious in any way, but I do respect those who do believe – in whichever way they choose.

    • Yes I agree 100%. I am not religious at all either but find religion to be interesting to learn about. There is so much stigma here in the US about Islam and I learned it is quite an interesting religion that does have some good things in it.

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