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The Straight Path Episode 1

A three part series, in which Mark Little examines modern Islam the world's fastest growing religion.

The Origins of Islam
Islam emerged from the deserts of western Arabia almost fourteen hundred years ago. Life at the time revolved around the rivalry of scattered tribes, and the worship of many different gods and pagan idols. In this barren environment the seeds of a great religion and civilisation were sown by a man called Muhammad. Even though Muhammad was born into a well respected city family his first taste of life was the harsh, levelling realities of the desert. Like every great Arabian clan of the time, Muhammad's family kept a bond with the desert by sending their newborn babies to be weaned by the Bedoin.

Mark Little

Muhammad spent his earliest years living the harsh life of a desert nomad and soaked up simple values of endurance and equality. He was barely a teenager when he joined the camel trains that travelled the trade routes of Arabia and he spent half his life travelling routes that stretched from Mecca and beyond all the way north to Damascus.

Few things shaped Muhammad's view of the world more than the injustice he witnessed in the big Arabian towns. Even in Mecca the old tribal bonds were breaking down and he saw that the poor were increasingly slaves to the wealthy and women were treated as little more than possessions.

At the age of 40 Muhammed's life was turned upside down when he received the first revelation from God. Over the next two decades he continued to receive the divine revelations that would eventually become the Qur'an - the literal embodiment of God.

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The Five Pillars of Islam

Shahada
The Shahada is a simple declaration of faith - the axis around which Islam turns.

Salah
The big feature of Islam's daily routine is prayer - five times a day. Muslims can pray almost anywhere but, on Friday, they come together in the mosque for collective prayer.
Zakat
The word Zakat means both 'purification' and 'growth' in Arabic. Zakat is the amount of money that every adult has to give to support specific categories people.
Sawm
The most sacred period in the Muslim calendar is Ramadan. For an entire month, while the sun is in the sky, Muslims are not supposed to let food or drink - not even water - pass their lips
Hajj
The Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, brings together Muslims of all races and cultures and is one of the central religious duties of Islam.
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The Five Pillars of Islam
Islam is not just a religion, it is a code of conduct - for Muslims one's actions are judged more important than one's beliefs. Muslims from all backgrounds and nations are bonded into a global community by five rituals - the five pillars of Islam.

Jihad
From a distance there is something clear and consistent about Islam but look more closely and there is evidence of deep divisions among Muslims. Within the global Islamic community there is endless debate about what the words in the Qur'an actually mean. Rival visions and ideas now travel across the planet in an instant and so - like never before - Muslims are caught in a global war of interpretations.

This conflict is most visible to outsiders when it comes to the concept of Jihad - what Islamic puritans sometimes call the sixth pillar of Islam.

The word Jihad doesn't mean war. It comes from the Arabic for struggle or striving. Jihad was first revealed to the Prophet after he and his followers were forced to flee Mecca for the city of Medina - where they set up the first Islamic state. Islam's early years were filled with turmoil. The religion spread rapidly but that made it hard to say who exactly was in charge. The prophet was dead less than fifty years when the new Islamic empire was rocked by civil war; a conflict that created the lasting divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

This rivarly and expansion also strengthened the hand of Islam's militants - those who used the harsher verses in the Qur'an to justify their violence.

Today Jihad is inspired as much by politics as religion so it can be misleading to say that Islam itself is the root cause of violence. But religion is used by many Muslims - and not just the militants - to justify violent acts. Where some see terrorism, others choose to see the acts of a martyr. Travel deeper into the Muslim world and one hears about another form of Jihad and a different vision of Islam. Some Muslims believe that Jihad involves peace, submission and self-control - a sharp contrast to the view that it is about martyrs and holy war. Both views can be justified, depending on which interpretation of the Qur'an one believes. In the end, Jihad is what Muslims say it is, just like Islam itself - and different Muslims are saying very different things.

It is evident that there are no absolute truths about Islam and if there were, there is no single authority that has the credibility to enforce them. What is important here is to come to terms with the shades of Islam, and the forces of politics, history and geography that shape its future. With so many influences, so many rival interpretations, how does a good Muslim know which path to follow? And who exactly gets to shape the next stage in Islam's evolution?

The next programme looks at these questions.