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  What Do Our Neighbors Believe?  

ISLAM Judaism | Christianity
Where is the religion found today?
by John Kaltner

By the end of the period of the Rightly Guided Caliphs in 661 Islam had experienced remarkable growth and expansion. From its relatively humble beginnings in Arabia it quickly spread westward across North Africa, northward into the area of modern-day Israel, Lebanon and Syria, and westward as far as India. The reasons for that rapid development are many and varied, but one of the most important was the strategy the Muslim empire adopted as it entered non-Muslim territories.

Many non-Muslims assume that Islam spread through violent and hostile means, but this was not actually the case. Rather, the Muslim forces gave local populations a choice upon entering their lands. They first invited them to convert to Islam and become part of the ummah, which some chose to do. Those who preferred not to become Muslims and were followers of one of the other monotheistic religions were allowed to continue to practice their faith as long as they paid an extra tax, which gave them the status of protected minorities.

Many chose this option because the Muslim authorities, unlike the Byzantines who preceded them, adopted a hands-off policy toward those living in areas under their control. Non-Muslims were given a great deal of independence and freedom under Islam, and so, ironically, Christians fared better under Muslim rule than they did under their fellow Christians the Byzantines, who tended to meddle more in the affairs of their subjects. Only if neither of these options was taken—which was a very rare occurrence—would the Muslim forces engage in military battle with non-Muslims.

That approach toward expansion was abandoned a long time ago, but throughout the centuries Islam has continued to spread. Muslims are now found in virtually every country in the world, and it is the fastest growing religion on the planet. The worldwide Muslim population exceeds one billion people, which means that approximately one of every five people on the face of the earth is a Muslim.

It is therefore wrong to equate Islam with the Middle East, a mistake made by many non-Muslims. In fact, Arabs comprise only about 15% of the total Muslim population. We get a clear sense of this when we take note of the fact that only one Arab country (Egypt) makes the list of the top ten most heavily populated Muslim nations, and it comes in at number nine. The first five on that list—Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and China—are all quite far removed from the Middle East, the part of the world that is often associated with Islam.

Shi`a Islam is found throughout the world, but the country that has the largest number and largest percentage of Shi`a Muslims is Iran, where about 95% of its 75 million people follow that branch of the faith. Iraq and Lebanon are two other countries in which Shi`a Islam has played an important and influential role.

Islam has had a more visible presence in the western world in recent decades as a result of increased Muslim immigration to non-Muslim lands, marriages between Muslims and non-Muslims, and conversions to the faith. Because the US Census Bureau does not collect information on religious affiliation the exact number of Muslims in the United States is not known, but most estimates put the total at somewhere between five and ten million.

While a significant proportion of America’s Muslims live in large cities, they can be found throughout the country. For example, many people are quite surprised to learn that the oldest mosque in the United States is located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Similarly, the headquarters of the Islamic Society of North America, the largest organization in the country that addresses the interests and concerns of North American Muslims, is located in Plainfield, Indiana.

Copyright ©2007 John Kaltner

John Kaltner is a member of the Department of Religious Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee where he teaches courses in Bible, Islam, and Arabic. Among his books are Islam: What Non-Muslims Should Know (2003); Inquiring of Joseph: Getting to Know a Biblical Character through the Qu’ran (2003); Ishmael Instructs Isaac: An Introduction to the Qur’an for Bible Readers (Collegeville: Liturgical Press/Michael Glazier, 1999)

What Do Our Neighbors Believe?
This excerpt from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra Hotz, and John Kaltner is used with permission from Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky.
To purchase a copy of WHAT DO OUR NEIGHBORS BELIEVE? visit amazon.com. This link is provided as a service to explorefaith visitors and registered users.



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