When we started our series on Islam what seems like ages ago (here’s a link to the crash course), I promised that I’d address the most pressing questions you and your kids have about the religion. I received many questions from you in the comments on the website and through social media, and this article is a compilation of answers to those questions. Of course, I can’t possibly cover every single aspect of every question (entire books have been written on some of these topics!), but I’ll give you some recommended resources, too. If you’ve got something to add or think we got something wrong, let us know in the comments…just be kind, please. After all, one of the goals of this world religion series is to build bridges, not barricades.
- What are the core beliefs of Islam?
- What are the five pillars of Islam?
- What are the holy books of Islam?
- What are the major Islamic festivals?
- Who was Muhammad?
- Do Muslims worship Muhammad?
- Was Muhammad married? How many wives did he have?
- What do Muslims believe about God?
- Is the God of Islam the same as the God of Christianity?
- Do Muslims believe Jesus was the Son of God?
- Do Muslims believe Jesus performed miracles?
- Do Muslims believe Jesus died on the cross?
- Do Muslims believe Jesus will return?
- What do Muslims believe about the Trinity?
- What are the differences between Sunni and Shia (Shiite) Muslims?
- Do Muslims have any dietary restrictions?
- What’s a hijab? What’s a burqa? What’s a niqab?
- Why do some Muslim women fully cover themselves, while others do not?
- What do Muslims believe about salvation?
- Do Muslims believe the Bible is the word of God?
- Do Muslims practice polygamy?
- Can Muslims get divorced?
- What is Sharia?
- What is Jihad?
- Did Muslims cause 9/11?
- Can Muslims adopt?
- How can I build bridges with my Muslim neighbors?
- What are some recommended resources so I can learn more about Islam?
1. What are the core beliefs of Islam?
I covered the core beliefs in much more detail in the first article on Islam, which you can read here, but here are the basics:
- The oneness of God
- The belief in angels and spirits
- The Quran is the only trustworthy Scripture.
- The use by Allah of Prophets
- There will be a judgment day.
- “If it is Allah’s will.”
2. What are the five pillars of Islam?
- Confession (shahada). “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is the prophet of Allah.”
- Prayer (salat). They must pray at five specific times during the day:
- At sunrise
- At noon
- In the midafternoon
- At sunset
- One hour after sunset
They do not have to pray at a mosque, though that is preferred (mostly men go to the mosque and women pray from home).
- Fasting (sawm). For one month, during daylight hours. This is called Ramadan.
- Almsgiving (zakat). Surah 2:43 requires Muslims to practice regular charity. Zakat is an annual gift to the poor.
- Pilgrimage (hajj). Muslims are encouraged to visit Mecca at least once in their lifetime. If they cannot due to health or other circumstances, they can designate someone to make the pilgrimage in their place.
I covered the Five Pillars in much more detail in my crash course on Islam, which you can read here.
3. What are the holy books of Islam?
Muslims primarily use the Quran as their holy book. The Quran is made up of 114 chapters and is written in Arabic (though English translations abound). Muhammad claimed that it was the product of revelations from the angel Gabriel to him over the course of 23 years.
Muslims also use the Sunnah, which highlights Muhammad’s lifestyle and practices, and the Hadith, which contains Muhammad’s sayings, as sacred texts.
4. What are the major Islamic festivals?
Ramadan. Traditionally, Ramadan is the month when Muhammad received his first revelations. To celebrate this, Muslims are required to fast throughout Ramadan during daylight hours. They are not even allowed to drink water. Even when it is dark outside, they are not permitted to indulge. This doesn’t just cover food either. The rule applies to sex and various types of entertainment.
There are two main holy days celebrated by Muslims: Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.
- Eid al-Fitr (“Festival of Breaking the Fast”) happens at the end of Ramadan (the Muslim month of fasting). This is typically commemorated by a special service at a mosque. Families decorate their homes and exchange gifts.
- Eid al-Adha (Tabaski) celebrates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Ishmael (there is debate among Muslims whether it was Isaac or Ishmael, but most Muslims say Ishmael…the Quran doesn’t name the son). An animal is usually sacrificed at this event. One-third of the animal is normally eaten by the family, and the rest is given away to the poor. Gifts are also exchanged on this holy day.
5. Who was Muhammad?
I covered Muhammad, Islam’s founder, extensively in our second article. Read it here.
6. Do Muslims worship Muhammad?
No. Muslims worship Allah. Muhammad is recognized as a prophet. Sometimes, Muslims refer to Muhammad as the Prophet, the Messenger of Allah, or the Last Prophet of Islam.
7. Was Muhammad married? How many wives did he have?
Yes. Muhammad worked for a wealthy woman named Khadija, 15 years his senior, and he eventually married her. They were married for 25 years before she died. After Khadija’s death, Muhammad had 12 wives (although that number varies based on who you count as an actual wife). This seemed to violate the Muslim rule that a man could only have four wives (Surah 4.3), but there was an exception made for him so he could have more than four. All except one of his wives (we’ll discuss Aisha in a second) were widows, divorcees, or captives.
Some of you may have heard that he had a very young wife named Aisha, which is true, but the details of their marriage (and the consummation of their marriage) is unclear. She was probably about six when they were betrothed and nine or ten when the consummation happened. As Winfried Corduan mentions in his book, Neighboring Faiths, though, it wasn’t entirely unusual in that culture and time to take child brides. I’m not at all condoning Muhammad’s act in marrying Aisha, just pointing out that he wasn’t the only guy who did it.
All of Muhammad’s wives are referred to as “Mothers of the Believers.”
8. What do Muslims believe about God?
Allah is the name Muslims use for God. Muslims believe that God is one (they reject the notion of the Trinity). Almost all of the Surahs in the Qur’an begin with “In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.” They believe He is transcendent and sovereign. God is all-seeing, all-knowing, and all-powerful.
9. Is the God of Islam the same as the God of Christianity?
That’s a question that has been hotly debated among scholars, but generally, the answer is no. In 2018, I sat in on a lecture by Catholic philosopher Francis Beckwith at the Evangelical Theological Society’s annual meeting titled, “Why Jews, Christians, and Muslims Worship the Same God.” He gave pretty convincing arguments for why we should believe that Allah, Yahweh, and God are all one and the same. Based on the audience’s reaction, it seemed like most could get on board with Judaism and Christianity having the same God, but with Islam, Beckwith may have been overreaching. In another place, he has written an explanation of his argument using an analogy about Thomas Jefferson. You can read it here, but essentially, he says if one person believes Jefferson had several children with one of his slaves, and another person believed Jefferson didn’t, does it make sense to say that these people are talking about two different people?
I’m not convinced this works in comparing Allah and the God of Christianity. The Trinity is a core essence of the Christian God, and Muslims deny the Trinity. Without the Trinity, how can Allah be one and the same as the Christian God? Further, as Winfried Corduan notes, how can Allah be Allah if he didn’t reveal the Quran? Like I said, this one is complex, but in general, I’d say no, the God of Christianity is not the same as the God of Islam, even if they do both get referred to as the “God of Abraham.”
You can read more about this topic in a book titled, Do Christians, Muslims, and Jews Worship the Same God?: Four Views (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology), edited by Ronnie Campbell (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019).
10. Do Muslims believe Jesus was the Son of God?
No. Muslims do believe in the virgin birth (Surah 3:45-47). Although the Quran acknowledges Mary was a virgin, it does not say that Jesus was the Son of God. Instead, it says, “She said: ‘O, my Lord! How shall I have a son when no man has touched me?’ He said: ‘Even so: Allah creates what He wills: When He has decreed a plan, He only says to it, “Be.” And it is!’” (Surah 3:47)
Muslims consider Jesus to be one of the prophets, equal to others like Noah and Abraham, but far below Muhammad. They also believe that God is better than stooping so low as to have a son. “…Christ Jesus, the son of (Mary) was (no more than) a messenger of Allah…Do not say Trinity.…Because Allah is One Allah: Glory be to Him (Far Supreme and Glorious is He) above having a son.…” (Surah 4:171)
This also means that Muslims do not believe in the Trinity.
11. Do Muslims believe Jesus performed miracles?
Yes. Surah 2:87 says, “And we gave unto Jesus, son of Mary, clear miracles.” Some other Surahs in the Quran that describe Jesus’ miracles are 3:46 (He talks to Mary from the cradle), 3:49 (He turns clay into a real bird, he heals a leper, and brings the dead to life), and 5:112-114 (Jesus asks God for a table laden of food).
12. Do Muslims believe Jesus died on the cross?
No. Some Muslims believe that God took Jesus to heaven and that someone else was crucified in His place. Many Muslims, though, believe in the Swoon Theory, which says that Jesus was simply in a type of coma when He was removed from the cross, only made to look like He had died (Surah 4:157). To be fair, it hasn’t only been Muslims who have historically held this view. Biblical scholar Karl Bahrdt (not to be confused with theologian Karl Barth) thought Jesus merely fainted on the cross, not that He died. There have also been a lot of urban legends about it.
But could they be right? Could Jesus have fainted and been made to look like He died? Not likely. There are too many things that are described in the Bible to support that He actually died, from the intense torture before the cross to the crucifixion itself to the breaking of Jesus’ legs to His bleeding blood and water. You may remember a scene in the Case for Christ film where apologist Lee Strobel visits Dr. Alexander Metherell (you can watch a part of it here). I recommend you read Dr. Metherell’s great essay, “The Medical Evidence: Was Jesus’ Death a Sham and His Resurrection a Hoax?” in Strobel’s book, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016).
Muslims believe that God called Jesus to return to Him and that He entered Heaven alive (Surah 4:158).
13. Do Muslims believe Jesus will return?
You might be surprised to hear this but while Muslims do not believe Jesus died on the cross (most believe in the Swoon Theory, see the question “Do Muslims believe Jesus died on the cross?”), they do believe that He ascended to heaven and will one day return (Surah 4:158).
14. What do Muslims believe about the Trinity?
Muslims don’t believe in the Trinity. The Quran denies it in Surah 4:171: “O People of the Scripture. do not commit excess in your religion or say about Allah except the truth. The Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, was but a messenger of Allah and His word which He directed to Mary and a soul [created at a command] from Him. So, believe in Allah and His messengers. And do not say, “Three”; desist – it is better for you. Indeed, Allah is but one God. Exalted is He above having a son. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. And sufficient is Allah as Disposer of affairs.”
15. What are the differences between Sunni and Shia (Shiite) Muslims?
There are two main sects of Muslims: Sunnis and Shiites.
About 85-90% of all Muslims are Sunni, and most Shia Muslims live in Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, and India, so the odds are very good that most of the Muslims you or your kids will meet will be Sunni. [Although, since writing this, I have had dinner with a Shiite Muslim in my home, so even though odds might be good you won’t meet a Shiite, it doesn’t mean you won’t, which means it’s good to know the basics of both sects.]
The split between Sunnis and Shiites happened around Muhammad’s death and the issue of Muhammad’s successor. Sunnis believed that Muhammad’s father-in-law, Abu Bakr, was the successor, and Shias believed that Muhammad’s cousin, Ali ibn Abi Talib, should be the successor. Sunnis think that Muhammad did not designate a successor, but Shiites think that he chose Ali and that Muhammad’s successors would specific family members divinely appointed. Even to this day, there is debate and division on the issue.
Although Abu Bakr was eventually named Muhammad’s successor, he died two years later. Ali was eventually appointed caliph after Abu’s two successors were assassinated.
You might have heard of the Twelvers — Shiites who believe that twelve male Muhammad descendants are imams who have religious and political authority. About 85% of Shiites are Twelvers.
16. Do Muslims have any dietary restrictions?
Yes, and this is something to consider if you’ve got Muslims coming to your house for a meal! There are foods considered halāl (“lawful”) and foods that are considered harām (“unlawful”). Unlawful foods include pork or pork derivatives or any other meat that is impure according to the Quran.
Surah 2:173 says, “He has only forbidden you dead meat, and blood, and the flesh of swine and that on which any other name has been invoked besides that of Allah. But if one is forced by necessity, without willful disobedience (of Allah’s Word), and without transgressing due limits- Then he is guiltless. Verily, Allah is often forgiving, most Merciful.”
Surah 6:121 echoes this saying, “Do not eat from the (meats) on which Allah’s name has not been mentioned: For sure, this is sin and disobedience. But the Satans’ always inspire their friends to argue with (create doubt in) you, if you were to obey them, you would truly be pagans.”
Surah 5:3 is more explicit:
Forbidden to you (for food) are: dead meat, blood, the flesh of swine, and that on which has been pronounced the name of (any) other than Allah; And that which has been killed by choking or by a violent blow, or by a headlong fall, or by being (repeatedly) stabbed to death, And that which has been (partly) eaten by a wild animal; Unless you are able to slaughter it (in due form)l And that which is sacrificed on stone (altars); (Forbidden) also is the division (of meats) by tearing apart with arrows (for luck): That is impiety. …
Muslims must also abstain from alcohol (Surahs 2:219, 4:43, and 5:90). Alcohol may be used as a cleaner or disinfectant, but not for drinking.
So, the bottom line is that when you have a Muslim over for dinner, know that they cannot eat pork or drink alcohol. If you get confused about what’s allowed, just ask them about their dietary restrictions. I had to recently when we had a Muslim over for dinner, and no offense was taken at all by my question.
17. What’s a hijab? What’s a burqa? What’s a niqab?
(ABC News: Lucy Fahey, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-10-02/what-are-the-differences-between-the-burka,-niqab-and-hijab/5785816)
Most Muslim women wear a hijab, which is a scarf that covers a Muslim woman’s hair, ears, and neck. A burqa is a head-covering that devout women primarily in the Middle East wear. It covers everything, even the eyes (with a thin veil). You might also see Muslim women wearing a niqab, which covers everything except for the eyes, a chador, a full cloak that some Muslim women wear in the Middle East, or a dupatta, a long scarf that covers the head and shoulders by women primarily in south Asia. So, although some Muslim sects believe it is a requirement that Muslim women wear a niqab (e.g., the more conservative Salafi sects of Islam), most Muslims believe a simple head covering like a hijab is acceptable.
18. Why do some Muslim women fully cover themselves, while others do not?
Ultimately, the Quran simply requires that a woman dress in a way that does not draw attention to her beauty (Surah 24:31). Different Muslims interpret this rule in different ways (as illustrated in our question “What’s a hijab? What’s a burqa? What’s a niqab?”). Men are also required to be modest.
19. What do Muslims believe about salvation?
Muslims believe in sin, but they believe in major and minor sins. Major sins (there are up to 71 total, depending on which Muslim you ask!) include things like murder, eating pig, or leaving daily prayer, while minor sins include swearing, being mean to other people, and losing your temper.
There really isn’t a doctrine of salvation in Islam per se because people are in charge of their own decisions. At the very least, Muslims need to follow the Five Pillars to earn their salvation. They believe Allah has predetermined the destiny of humanity, though. Ultimately, Allah makes the final call about who ends up in heaven and who goes to hell. Muhammad can intercede on someone’s behalf. They do not believe Jesus is the Son of God, and they do not believe that He died on the cross, let alone that He died for our sins.
Heaven is described in the Quran as a beautiful garden. Muslims believe there are seven levels of Heaven. Hell is a physical and very real place for infidels. It is full of fire and torment. The ultimate torment is considered estrangement from Allah.
20. Do Muslims believe the Bible is the word of God?
Yes, but they believe it has been corrupted by Christians and Jewish people. They believe that the Quran is the only untainted Scripture. Even then, they prefer the Quran in Arabic because translations may be wrong, too.
21. Do Muslims practice polygamy?
Yes, but this doesn’t apply to all Muslims. The Quran permits a man to have four wives (Surah 4.3).
While Muhammad was faithful to Khadija during their 25-year marriage, after she died, he took on several wives. Muslim men may have up to four wives at any time, not including their concubines (Surah 4:3). Muhammad violated that rule, though, because, upon his death, he had nine wives. His reasons for marrying these women have been described as noble because many of them were widows. That said, he did marry his first cousin and adopted son’s ex-wife (Zaynab) and a six-year-old (Aisha…their marriage was consummated when she was nine and he was fifty-three). Also see: Question 7. Was Muhammad married? How many wives did he have?
22. Can Muslims get divorced?
Yes, and it’s a pretty simple thing to do… if you’re a man. All the husband has to do is say, “I divorce you” three times to his wife publicly, and the marriage is over. The man is supposed to say this at different times, and the wait period for the third one is supposed to be three months just in case he changes his mind or the woman is pregnant.
Although it’s fairly straightforward to absolve a marriage for a man, a woman must apply for a divorce (referred to as khul’ or khula). She returns the husband’s dower (like a dowry), gets his mutual consent, and goes through a court.
Although divorce is permissible, it isn’t preferred by any means in Islam. It is considered halāl (“unlawful”), and a hadith says that is it “hateful in the sight of God.”
23. What is Sharia?
Sharia means “law,” and it is considered divinely inspired. Sharia can be summed up as being a strict set of guidelines Muslims need to follow throughout their life. It offers guidelines for punishments for things like stealing, blasphemy, and adultery.
24. What is Jihad?
Jihad is Arabic for “to struggle or exert oneself.” You might be surprised to learn that the word “jihad” appears nowhere in the Quran. The word qihad (which means “fighting”) does appear, though, and some Muslims explain that this is about internal spiritual striving. In other words, it’s an internal struggle against the flesh (sin, though Muslims don’t really have a doctrine of fallenness). Sometimes, you might hear of this internal struggle as the “Greater Jihad.” What, then, of the “Lesser Jihad”? This is the military action most people envision when they hear the word “jihad.”
25. Did Muslims cause 9/11?
What a loaded question, right, but your kids may very well ask you this when they study the events of 9/11 in school. It’s best to address the question rather than shrug it off.
Yes, the terrorists who carried out the attacks on 9/11 were Muslims, but to be very clear, that does not mean that all Muslims are terrorists. Yes, several terrorist acts on U.S. soil can be attributed to Muslim extremists, but many Muslims have come out strongly against the terrorist attacks on 9/11. For example, one American Muslim said, “The wider Muslim community’s reaction was thus filled with confusion and inaction. Denial, victimisation, silence and anger were all utilised to one degree or another. The only common voice was that of condemnation – but somehow, that escaped most of the public.” Another young woman, who was just a freshman in college on 9/11, said that she even questioned her own faith after the attacks: “If these people claim to be Muslim and they’re doing these kinds of attacks, do I really want to belong to that religion? I think for Muslims, it was a period of deep introspection…I thought, if this is a religion that promotes terrorism, I don’t want any part of it.”
And many non-Muslims tried to protect Muslims in the days following 9/11. Former U.S. President George W. Bush said, “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war.” In other words, let’s not paint all 1.8 billion Muslims with broad strokes. Just like some Christians differ on theological issues, the same goes in Islam.
26. Can Muslims adopt?
This was a question one of our Mama Bears had, and I didn’t realize it was even an issue until she asked. As someone who has adopted myself, I was interested in knowing the answer, too.
Yes, Muslims can adopt (Muhammad was adopted!), but there are some caveats to adoption Muslims must follow. If they do adopt, the adopted child cannot take their last name (they have to keep their biological family’s name), and they also cannot inherit from their adoptive parents. Instead of adoption, many Muslims prefer to foster orphaned children long-term, providing for their needs and keeping them safe, but not giving them a new name or an inheritance.
27. How can I build bridges with my Muslim neighbors?
I’m glad you asked! I recommend checking out the third article of this series (click here). I also discuss dietary restrictions in this Q & A, in case you’d like to invite your neighbors over for dinner.
28. What are some recommended resources so I can learn more about Islam?
I’m pleased you’re interested in learning more about Islam! I’ve read several books, but there are always others, so if you’ve read something you think should be on this list, let me know in the comments!
- Nabeel Qureshi, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus : A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016).
- Nabeel Qureshi, No God But One (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016).
- Winfried Corduan, Neighboring Faiths, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012).
- Forthcoming book The Popular Handbook of World Religions (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, March 23, 2021). I contributed the Jehovah’s Witness chapter, but I have also read the entire book, and I think the chapter on Islam will be helpful. You can preorder it now at your favorite book retailer.
Lindsey Medenwaldt is Mama Bear’s Executive director and our resident expert on world religions. She is a perpetual student, so in addition to her M.A. in Apologetics and Ethics from Denver Seminary, she has a J.D. and a Master’s in Public Administration. She’s been married to another apologist, Jay (aka, the Psych Apologist), for 13 years, and they have three incredible daughters, ages 13, 10, and 7.