The fundamental truth about our debt to Islam
ISLAM TEACHES the enjoyment of sex without guilt. Not a lot of people know that. It also taught the equality of men and women, black and white, rich and poor. It makes the pursuit of knowledge an obligation on every Muslim, male or female. This pursuit was once the main driving force of Muslim society. It gave the world algebra and logarithms, the concept of zero, spherical geometry and trigonometry. Not only did the West adopt Arabic numerals to pursue the new learning, it embraced Muslim practice by working addition and subtraction sums from right to left.
Five hundred years before Galileo, a Muslim astronomer called al-Baruni calculated the length of the solar year (he was 24 seconds out), measured the specific gravity of various metals and discussed the rotation of the earth on its axis. Other Muslim scholars developed the science of optics, invented test tubes and surgical instruments and pioneered universities - giving us such terms as "chair" and "reader". Public libraries, mass publishing, bibliographies, the compass, the guitar and "how to be a mystic without freaking out" have all been learned by Westerners from Islam.
The decline of Muslim civilisation can be attributed to the corrupt and luxurious lifestyles of some of its leaders: to the fall of Baghdad before "Mongol hordes" in 1258; to the ending of 800 "glorious and truly enlightening years of Muslim rule in Spain"; and to the outlawing, by religious scholars, of printing presses on the grounds that the reproduction of sacred texts would lead to their misrepresentation. As a result the interpretation of the Muslim holy book, the Koran, "was frozen in history" and "Muslim thought was ossified", these events prepared the way for the colonisation of the Muslim world by Britain, France and Holland.
Colonialism not only drained Muslim countries of their wealth but, its practitioners encouraged Europeans back home to equate "anything 'Islamic' with inferiority and low moral worth". It allowed Westerners to stereotype Muslims as "barbaric, licentious, depraved, fanatical". Sadly, these views are still peddled today despite the varied ways in which many Muslims are attempting to rebuild their ransacked civilisation.
On the one hand, this desire for renewal and reform has resulted in liberation movements and denunciations of dogmatism and racial nationalism. At the same time it has nurtured the growth of what is loosely termed fundamentalism. Fundamentalists are angry, anti-modern and aggressively anti-West. And they have very good reason on all counts.
The bankruptcy of that fundamentalist philosophy that expresses itself in empty slogans and replaces a persuasive moral God by a coercive, political one. Yet the growth of nationalism and fundamentalism, were by no means entirely the product of Western exploitation. Modernist leaders in some Muslim states have been ruthless in pursuit of power; wealth has accumulated in fewer and fewer hands; and there have been misguided attempts to reinstate "the outer limits" of the sharia, or Islamic law. What we thus get is an austere state that behaves totally contrary to the teachings of the Qur'an and spirit of Islam, yet justifying its oppression in the name of Islam.

(with thanks to Ziauddin Sardar and David Self)

Beliefs and laws of Islam
Islam is the religion of allegiance to God and his prophet Mohammed, who lived around 570-632 and came from a family of traders at Mecca. The religion's book of revelation, mediated by the prophet, is the Koran.
The word Islam derives from the same semitic root as the Hebrew word Shalom, which means peace. Islam means "entering into a condition of peace and security with God, through allegiance or surrender to him".

Mohammed is said to have received his revelations over a period of 23 years from the Angel Jibreel, or Gabriel, who was relaying the word of God.

It was not a completely new faith but is the third great monotheistic religion. In Muslim eyes, Mohammed completes a succession of prophets, including Abraham, Moses and Jesus, each of whom refined and restated the message of God.

The Koran therefore corroborates, updates and expands the Old and New Testaments.

It contains 114 chapters, written in vivid, rhyming prose, and was settled in its current form within 30 years of Mohammed's death.

Main tenets
Central to Islam is the absolute sense that there can only be one God - Allah - and that he is the source of all creation and disposer of all lives and events. Hence, there is no God but God and Mohammed is his messenger.

All people should become a single Umma - community - witnessing to that fact. On the day of judgment, all will rise from the dead and be sent to heaven or hell.

The Koran contains many moral exhortations, forming the basis of Islamic (sharia) law. It lays down generosity and fairness and the requirements for daily prayer, alms giving, abstinence during daylight hours in the month of Ramadan and pilgrimage to Mecca.

The five pillars of the Islamic faith - the fundamental constituents of Muslim life - are:
· Shahada, the profession of faith in the uniqueness of Allah and the centrality of Mohammed as his prophet
· Salat, formal worship or prayer
· Zakat, the giving of alms for the poor, assessed on all adult Muslims as 2.5% of capital assets once a year
· Hajj, pilgrimage to Mecca, which every Muslim should undertake at least once in their lifetime; the annual hajj takes place during the last 10 days of the 12th lunar month every year
· Sawm, fasting during Ramadan, the holy ninth month of the lunar year.

Early history
In 622, Mohammed travelled from Mecca to Medina in the hijrah (emigration) - this forms the starting point in the Muslim dating system.

After the prophet's death his community split into followers of the caliph Abu Bakr and those who supported Mohammed's closest relative, his son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib.

This division between Shia (followers of Ali) and Sunni (followers of the custom of the caliphate) persists to this day. Although both share most of the customs of the religion, Shiites place more emphasis on the guiding role of the imam.

About 90% of the world's Muslims are Sunni and about 10% Shia.

The divine law of Islam by which Muslims should live their lives.

It embraces every aspect of life, including family relations, inheritance, taxation, purification and prayer and observes no distinction between secular and religious law.

How far modern Islamic states follow this principle depends on the degree of secularisation they permit. It is essentially laid down by the Koran but has been updated and extended by fatwa (legal opinion), consensus and custom.