The basic features of the religion of Islam are well known, and as they are common to Muslims in a variety of countries around the world as well as to those in Iran, they need only be summarized briefly here.

The two absolutely essential doctrines of Islam, on which all others are based, are encapsulated in what is known as the shahâdeh, or profession of faith: “I testify that there is no god but God; I testify that Mohammad is the prophet of God.” The first clause of this profession of faith expresses belief in an austere, uncompromising monotheism. God is a supreme, eternal, transcendent being, creator and sustainer of the universe and all that it encompasses. The second attests to the belief that this God has revealed knowledge of Himself and His will to mankind through a series of prophets, and the last of these apostles or “messengers” ( rasuls) was Mohammad, who lived in Mecca and then Medina in the Arabian peninsula (ca. 570–632). The revelations received by Mohammad were eventually collected together in a scriptural text, the Koran ( al-Qor ’ ân in Arabic), which represents, quite literally, the word of God to mankind in its purest and final form.

Islam itself means “submission” to God and His will. The Koran emphasizes over and over the majesty of God, the benefi cence that He has shown to human beings in particular, the acts of obedience and gratitude that creatures owe in return to their Creator, and the rewards that await the faithful at the end of time. These ideas are enunciated with perhaps the greatest eloquence in the “Chapter of Light” (surat-on-nur) of the Koran, where the transcendental sublimity of God is compared the light of a lamp in a niche: “God is the light of the heavens and the earth. The parable of His light is if there were a niche and within it a lamp, the lamp enclosed in glass, the glass as it were a brilliant star. Lit from a blessed tree, an olive neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil is well- nigh luminous, though fi re scarce touched it. Light upon light; God doth guide whom He will to His light. God sets forth parables for men, and God knows all things.” 1 God has dominion over all the earth; it is He who heaps clouds together and causes rain to fall from them, and He who causes night and day to alternate. All creatures celebrate and praise Him in their own way, by “birds with wings outspread” and throughout the day by men who are not distracted by trade and commerce in houses of worship. For those who submit to God and obey the Prophet, who do not compromise their monotheism, who establish prayer and practice charity, there will be recompense in this world and the next: “God has promised to those among you who believe and work righteous deeds that He will certainly grant them in the land inheritance as He granted it to those before them; that he will establish in authority their religion, the one which He has chosen for them; and that He will transform them from the state of fear in which they live to one of security and peace.”

As the last of the prophets and the founder of the Islamic community, Mohammad himself played a special role in teaching Muslims the meaning of the Koran and the requirements God had imposed on them. Especially in terms of law and ritual, many details of the religion are not drawn directly from the Koran but are based on the examples or instructions of the Prophet as handed down in reports known as hadith. All of this traditional information about the practices of the Prophet collectively constitutes the Sunna, a comprehensive guide to conduct must likely to be pleasing to God. The Koran and the Sunna together form the basis for the Shari’a, the whole body of rules and regulations that determine how Muslims should live and worship. Part of what is described in the Shari’a has to do with the well-known ritual aspects of Islam: daily prayers, fasting during daylight hours of the month of Ramadan (pronounced Ramazân in Persian), pilgrimage to Mecca once in a lifetime for those who are able to do so, charitable contributions, the rules of ritual purity and ablutions, etc. In theory, it also governs a wide range of matters pertaining to law and the regulation of daily law: marriage, inheritance, contracts and business dealings, torts and penal law, sexual behavior, deportment, dress, permitted and forbidden foods and drinks, etc. It is this aspect of the Shari’a that has become controversial in modern times, especially as the more or less secularized governments of nation states have laid claim to authority over these same areas of conduct. In the case of Iran, the Islamic revolution promised to harmonize state and Shari’a, but if anything the debate over the continued relevance of the Shari’a and the extent to which it is binding on individual behavior has intensifi ed.