1. The word “Islam” is derived form the Arabic root “asalama” which literally means peace, purity and submission. Thus Islam means “surrender to the Almighty” and Muslim means “one who is in a state of submission”. It is understood that this submission is to the Will of God, as is laid down in the Quran. This tenet is unequivocally accepted by all sects of Islam be they Shia, Sunni or Sufis.
2. Islam is an unerringly monotheistic religion. It enjoins the existence of one God, his prophet Muhammad who is the Last Prophet (khatam-in-nabiyin) in a long line of prophets sent throughout time and to every civilization, and the Quran as the Word of God revealed to Muhammad through the angel Jibrael.
Muslims believe that God is one and incomparable and the purpose of life is to worship him and to adhere to his word, as laid down in the Quran, and in Sunnah (the normative practices of the Prophet), as closely as possible.
They believe that Islam is the final, completed and universal version of a faith (Deen-e-Ibrahimi) revealed too many prophets before; most notably Abraham, Moses and Jesus, but whose message has now been distorted.
3. The practices of Islam are based on the ubiquitous “Five Pillars”. These are, in order of importance, Shahadah or acceptance of One-ness (Taw hid) of God, Salat or five daily Prayers, Saum or Fasting in the month of Ramadan, Zakat or obligatory Alms-giving, Hajj or Pilgrimage to the Kaabah (House of God) at least once in a lifetime, for those able to afford it. These five “Pillars of Faith” are incumbent upon every Muslim and form the basis for his belief. Some scholars say that the pillars in Shia Islam involve an additional four points in addition to the principal ones. Namely, Nabuwah or Prophet Hood of Muhammad, Jesus, Moses etc., Imamah or Leadership of the Tweleve Imams, Qiyamah or Day of Judgment and Adel or Justice.
4. The fundamental goals of Islam are a complete submission to God and adherence to the teachings of the Quran and the example of Sunnah. When a child is born he is “ordained” into Islam by reciting the Kalima (the verses outlining Tawhid) into his ear, and thereby giving Shahadah i.e. acknowledgement of the One-ness of God. Muslims must perform the ritual of prayer five times a day, fast and give alms in the month of Ramadan, and perform the pilgrimage to the Kaabah if he is of sound mind and body and is able to afford it.
The principles of the Promotion of Virtue (amr bil-maaroof) and Prevention of Vice (nahi an-al-munkar) are long-standing and Muslims are expected to inculcate them in their dealings with others. As Islam enjoins peace and harmony with mankind and with nature there is a great emphasis placed on community. Indeed, the Muslim brethren at large are considered one community (Ummah), irrespective of political, cultural or physical barriers. A Muslim is encouraged to perform good deeds for the community (masawaat) and to call people to worship the One God (Dawah).
5. Authority in Islam remains with God. His injunctions, as laid down in the Quran, and the practices and teachings of the Prophet, Sunnah are to be followed in establishing a political structure. Traditionally the concept of political leadership was embodied by the “Great Caliphs” (Khulfa-e-Rashiduun), who succeeded Muhammad in leadership of the nascent Islamic Empire. This political set-up personified adherence to the Shariah, duty of the rulers to seek consultation or Shura and of censuring unjust rulers. It is widely believed that the “Great Four”, the four to succeed Muhammad in succession, were the only ones in practice true to the cause of Islam and subsequent rulers fell victim to dynastic politics and greed.
With the fall of the Ottoman Empire there was an abolition of the Caliphate, no matter how symbolic, and closure of the traditional Islamic political setup. Shia Islam has a theological concept of the Imamate. This term is often used interchangeably with the Caliphate but has very different connotations. The Shia believes that it is a divine institution succeeding the Last prophet and the Imams divinely chosen. The chosen Imams take up the mantle of religious, political, social etc. leader of all the Ummah. Traditionally Shia followers and scholars have shown political aloofness or activism against what was viewed as an increasingly corrupt caliphate.
6. The legal ideal in Islam resides with God. His injunctions form the basis for Islamic Law or Shariah. Shariah derives from two sources: divine revelations set forth in the Quran, and the normative practices of the Holy Prophet, Sunnah, as pertained to everyday matters. Fiqh or Jurisprudence extends on matters not directly touched upon in these primary sources. The foundations for Fiqh come from Ijma or consensus of learned scholars and qiyas, analogy from quran and Sunnah. Shia jurisprudence replaces this with aql or “reason”. Shariah law is not widespread, and even in Muslim countries there are often parallel justice systems. In countries where it enjoys official status Shariah is upheld by the qadis. Shariah has widespread implications; from matters of politics and economics to diet and personal hygiene. Shia scholars employ a different tack. According to them sources of law (usul-e-fiqh) are: Quran, Sunnah, the practices of the Twelve Imams and aql (reason).
7. Islamic philosophy and theology have more or less a harmonious perspective. Theology in Islam centers on six main articles of belief; Belief in One God (Tawhid), Belief in the Last Prophet (Nabi) and all the Messengers of God (Rasul), belief in Angels (Malaika), books sent by god (kutub), judgment (qiyamah) and predestination (qadar). Islamic philosophy as produced in an Islamic society is not exclusively concerned with religious matters nor is it wholly Islamic in origin; rather it has grounds in Hellenistic and Pre-Islamic Indian traditions. The golden age of Islamic philosophy is centered on the 8th to 12th centuries and exemplified Averroes and Avicenna.
The first aspect of theology is Kalam which deals with theological questions and the other is Falsafa based on Aristotelianism. Kalam centers on ijtihad or using thought to investigate the doctrines of the Quran, while Falsafa was mainly concerned with the translation of Greek and Hindu texts and expounding them to the community at large. It is quite possible for a Muslim to hold separate philosophical and theological beliefs; believing on the one hand in the Aristotelian principle that the existence of the world is not only a possibility but also a necessity, and also valuing the fact that existence of the world in due only to God. The Shia school of thought differs only in what it considers purely theological matters i.e. Roots of religion (Usul e-Din) and Branches of Faith (Furu-e-Din)
8. By the end of the 12th century, the Islamic Empire was a vast entity. Stretching from beyond the shores of the Mediterranean to much of India. Thus Islamic art and architecture shows wide and varied themes, each influenced by the culture and climate of the particular land. The principal Islamic architectural styles are the mosque, tomb, fort and palace and from these an idea of the recurring themes may be gleaned. Soon after Muhammad, a recognizable style of architecture emerged comprising interior vaulted spaces, a circular dome and decorative arabesques.
The great mosque of Samarrah in Iraq, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, and the Hagia Sofia in Turkey are prime examples. The conquest of the Persian Empire in the 7th century introduced large arcades and arches. Moorish architecture is perhaps the most familiar example in the western world. The Great Mosque (Mezquita) in Cordova, the Alhambra and the fort of Granada introduced wide breezy interiors and decorative foliage and Arabic inscription motifs. Mughal architecture has built a class of its own.
Perhaps the most famous is the Taj Mahal, built in white marble entirely in symmetry with large minarets and cupola domes. The Mughals also introduced gardens as a relevant theme in their architecture, most famously the Shalimar Gardens. While theology does not have a very significant impact on Islamic architecture a recurring theme is the absence of human or animal imagery, widely considered to be forbidden by the Prophet. Instead calligraphic inscriptions of the Quran and geometric patterns replace as decorative influences.