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BUDDHISM

"Buddhism has the characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic religion for the future: it transcends a personal God, avoids dogmas and theology; it covers both the natural & spiritual, and it is based on a religious sense aspiring from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity" Albert Einstein 1
 
Overview:
Buddhism is the fourth largest religion in the world, being exceeded in numbers only by Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. It was founded in Northern India by the first known Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. In 535 BCE, he attained enlightenment and assumed the title Lord Buddha (one who has awakened)
As Buddhism expanded across Asia, it evolved into two main forms, which evolved largely independently from each other:
Theravada Buddhism (sometimes called Southern Buddhism; occasionally spelled Therevada) "has been the dominant school of Buddhism in most of Southeast Asia since the thirteenth century, with the establishment of the monarchies in Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and Laos."
Mahayana Buddhism (sometimes called Northern Buddhism) is largely found in China, Japan, Korea, Tibet and Mongolia.
Tibetan Buddhism, which developed in isolation from Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism because of the remoteness of Tibet.
Modern Buddhism has emerged as a truly international movement. It started as an attempt to produce a single form of Buddhism, without local accretions, that all Buddhists could embrace.

Core beliefs of Buddhism:
Buddhism, like most of the great religions of the world, is divided into a number of different traditions. However, most traditions share a common set of fundamental beliefs.
One fundamental belief of Buddhism is often referred to as reincarnation -- the concept that people are reborn after dying. In fact, most individuals go through many cycles of birth, living, death and rebirth. A practicing Buddhist differentiates between the concepts of rebirth and reincarnation. In reincarnation, the individual may recur repeatedly. In rebirth, in a person does not necessarily return to Earth as the same entity ever again. He compares it to a leaf growing on a tree. When the withering leave falls off, a new leaf will eventually replace it. It is similar to the old leaf, but it is not identical to the original leaf.
After many such cycles, if a person releases their attachment to desire and the self, they can attain Nirvana. This is a state of liberation and freedom from suffering.
 
The Three Trainings or Practices:
These three consist of:
Sila: Virtue, good conduct, morality. This is based on two fundamental principles:
The principle of equality: that all living entities are equal.
The principle of reciprocity: This is the "Golden Rule" in
Christianity -- to do onto others as you would wish them do
onto you. It is found in all major religions.
Samadhi: Concentration, meditation, mental development. Developing one's mind is the path to wisdom which in turn leads to personal freedom. Mental development also strengthens and controls our mind; this helps us maintain good conduct. Prajna: Discernment, insight, wisdom, enlightenment. This is the real heart of Buddhism. Wisdom will emerge if your mind is pure and calm.
The first two paths listed in the Eightfold Path, described below, refer to discernment; the last three belong to concentration; the middle three are related to virtue.

The Four Noble Truths:
The Buddha's Four Noble Truths explore human suffering. They may be described (somewhat simplistically) as:
Dukkha: Suffering exists: (Suffering is real and and almost universal. Suffering has many causes: loss, sickness, pain, failure, the impermanence of pleasure.)
Samudaya: There is a cause for suffering. (It is the desire to have and control things. It can take many forms: craving of sensual pleasures; the desire for fame; the desire to avoid unpleasant sensations, like fear, anger or jealousy.)
Nirodha: There is an end to suffering. (Suffering ceases with the final liberation of Nirvana (a.k.a. Nibbana). The mind experiences complete freedom, liberation and non-attachment. It lets go of any desire or craving.)
Magga: In order to end suffering, you must follow the Eightfold Path.

The Five Precepts:
These are rules to live by. They are somewhat analogous to the second half of the Ten Commandments in Judaism and Christianity -- that part of the Decalogue which describes behaviors to avoid.
Do not kill. This is sometimes translated as "not harming" or an absence of violence.
Do not steal. This is generally interpreted as including the avoidance of fraud and economic exploitation.
Do not lie. This is sometimes interpreted as including name calling, gossip, etc.
Do not misuse sex. For monks and nuns, this means any departure from complete celibacy. For the laity, adultery is forbidden, along with any sexual harassment or exploitation, including that within marriage. The Buddha did not discuss consensual premarital sex within a committed relationship; Buddhist traditions differ on this.
Do not consume alcohol or other drugs. The main concern here is that intoxicants cloud the mind. Some have included as a drug other methods of divorcing ourselves from reality -- e.g. movies, television, the Internet.

The Eightfold Path:
The Buddha's Eightfold Path consists of:
Panna: Discernment, wisdom:
1) Samma ditthi Right Understanding of the Four Noble Truths
2) Samma sankappa: Right thinking; following the right path in life
Sila: Virtue, morality:
3) Samma vaca: Right speech: no lying, criticism, condemning, gossip, harsh language
4) Samma kammanta Right conduct by following the Five Precepts
5) Samma ajiva: Right livelihood; support yourself without harming others
Samadhi: Concentration, meditation:
6) Samma vayama Right Effort: promote good thoughts; conquer evil thoughts
7) Samma sati Right Mindfulness: Become aware of your body, mind and feelings
8) Samma samadhi Right Concentration: Meditate to achieve a higher state of consciousness
 
 
History of Buddhism
The founder of Buddhism in this world is Buddha Shakyamuni. He was born as a royal prince in 624 BC in a place called Lumbini, which was originally in northern India but is now part of Nepal. 'Shakya' is the name of the royal family into which he was born, and 'Muni' means 'Able One'. His parents gave him the name Siddhartha and there were many wonderful predicitions about his future. In his early years he lived as a prince in his royal palace but when he was 29 years old he retired to the forest where he followed a spiritual life of meditation. After six years he attained enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya, India.
He was subsequently requested to teach and as Venerable Geshe Kelsang says in Introduction to Buddhism:
'As a result of this request, Buddha rose from meditation and taught the first Wheel of Dharma. These teachings which include the Sutra of the Four Noble Truths and other discourses, are the principal source of the Hinayana, or Lesser Vehicle, of Buddhism. Later, Buddha taught the second and third Wheels of Dharma, which include the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras and the Sutra Discriminating the Intention respectively. These teachings are the source of the Mahayana, or Great Vehicle, of Buddhism. In the Hinayana teachings Buddha explains how to attain liberation from suffering for oneself alone, and in the Mahayana teachings he explains how to attain full enlightenment, or Buddhahood, for the sake of others. Both traditions flourished in Asia, at first in India and then gradually in other surrounding countries, including Tibet. Now they are also beginning to flourish in the West.'
In all Buddha Shakyamuni gave eighty-four thousand teachings. His intention in founding Buddhism was to lead living beings to permanent liberation from suffering. He realized temporary liberation from suffering and difficulties is not enough. Motivated by love and compassion his aim was to help living beings find lasting peace or nirvana.

Buddhism Beliefs
Since some background knowledge of rebirth and karma is useful for understanding Buddhism, there now follows a brief introduction to these topics taken from Geshe Kelsang's book, Eight Steps to Happiness:
The mind is neither physical, nor a by-product of purely physical processes, but a formless continuum that is a separate entity from the body. When the body disintegrates at death, the mind does not cease. Although our superficial conscious mind ceases, it does so by dissolving into a deeper level of consciousness, call 'the very subtle mind'. The continuum of our very subtle mind has no beginning and no end, and it is this mind which, when completely purified, transforms into the omniscient mind of a Buddha.
Every action we perform leaves an imprint, or potential, on our very subtle mind, and each karmic potential eventually gives rise to its own effect. Our mind is like a field, and performing actions is like sowing seeds in that field. Positive or virtuous actions sow the seeds of future happiness, and negative or non-virtuous actions sow the seeds of future suffering. This definite relationship between actions and their effects - virtue causing happiness and non-virtue causing suffering - is know as the 'law of karma'. An understanding of the law of karma is the basis of Buddhist morality.
After we die our very subtle mind leaves our body and enters the intermediate state, or 'bardo' in Tibetan. In this subtle dream-like state we experience many different visions that arise from the karmic potentials that were activated at the time of our death. These visions may be pleasant or terrifying depending on the karma that ripens. Once these karmic seeds have fully ripened they impel us to take rebirth without choice.

It is important to understand that as ordinary samsaric beings we do not choose our rebirth but are reborn solely in accordance with our karma. If good karma ripens we are reborn in a fortunate state, either as a human or a god, but if negative karma ripens we are reborn in a lower state, as an animal, a hungry ghost, or a hell being. It is as if we are blown to our future lives by the winds of our karma, sometimes ending up in higher rebirths, sometimes in lower rebirths.
This uninterrupted cycle of death and rebirth without choice is called 'cyclic existence', or 'samsara' in Sanskrit. Samsara is like a Ferris wheel, sometimes taking us up into the three fortunate realms, sometimes down into the three lower realms. The driving force of the wheel of samsara is our contaminated actions motivated by delusions, and the hub of the wheel is self-grasping ignorance. For as long as we remain on this wheel we shall experience an unceasing cycle of suffering and dissatisfaction, and we shall have no opportunity to experience pure, lasting happiness. By practising the Buddhist path to liberation and enlightenment, however, we can destroy self-grasping, thereby liberating ourself from the cycle of uncontrolled rebirth and attaining a state of perfect peace and freedom. We shall then be in a position to help others to do the same. A more detailed explanation of rebirth and karma can be found in the books Introduction to Buddhism and Joyful Path of Good Fortune.
 
 
 
 
HINDUISM
 
Hinduism differs from Christianity and other Western religions in that it does not have a single founder, a specific theological system, a single system of morality, or a central religious organization. It consists of "thousands of different religious groups that have evolved in India since 1500 BCE." 1
Hinduism has grown to become the world's third largest religion, after Christianity and Islam. It claims about 837 million followers - 13% of the world's population. 2 It is the dominant religion in India, Nepal, and among the Tamils in Sri Lanka. According to the "Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches," there are about 1.1 million Hindus in the U.S. 3 The "American Religious Identification Survey" is believed to be more accurate. 4 They estimated smaller number: 766,000 Hindus in 2001. Still, this is a very significant increase from 227,000 in 1990. Statistics Canada estimates that there are about 157,015 Hindus in Canada. 5
Hinduism is generally regarded as the world's oldest organized religion.
Most forms of Hinduism are henotheistic religions. They recognize a single deity, and view other Gods and Goddesses as manifestations or aspects of that supreme God. Henotheistic and polytheistic religions have traditionally been among the world's most religiously tolerant faiths. However, until recently, a Hindu nationalistic political party controlled the government of India. The linkage of religion, the national government, and nationalism led to a degeneration of the separation of church and state in India. This, in turn, has decreased the level of religious tolerance in that country. The escalation of anti-Christian violence was one manifestation of this linkage. With the recent change in government, the level of violence will diminish.
 
Early history of Hinduism:
Beliefs about the early development of Hinduism are currently in a state of flux:
The classical theory of the origins of Hinduism traces the religion's roots to the Indus valley civilization circa 4000 to 2200 BCE. The development of Hinduism was influenced by many invasions over thousands of years. The major influences occurred when light-skinned, nomadic "Aryan" Indo-European tribes invaded Northern India (circa 1500 BCE) from the steppes of Russia and Central Asia. They brought with them their religion of Vedism. These beliefs mingled with the more advanced, indigenous Indian native beliefs, often called the "Indus valley culture.". This theory was initially proposed by Christian scholars in the 19th century. Their conclusions were biased by their pre-existing belief in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). The Book of Genesis, which they interpreted literally, appears to place the creation of the earth at circa 4,000 BCE, and the Noahic flood at circa 2,500 BCE. These dates put severe constraints on the date of the "Aryan invasion," and the development of the four Veda and Upanishad Hindu religious texts. A second factor supporting this theory was their lack of appreciation of the sophisticated nature of Vedic culture; they had discounted it as primitive. 2 The classical theory is now being rejected by increasing numbers of archeologists and religious historians. The originators of the theory were obviously biased by their prior beliefs about the age of the earth and the biblical story of the flood of Noah.

Emerging theory: The Aryan Invasion view of ancient Indian history has been challenged in recent years by new conclusions based on more recent findings in archaeology, cultural analysis, astronomical references, and literary analysis. Archeologists, including Jim Schaffer and David Frawley, have established convincing arguments for this new interpretation. 3 Archeological digs have revealed that the Indus Valley culture lasted from about 3500 to 1800 BCE. It was not "destroyed by outside invasion, but...[by] internal causes and, most likely, floods." The "dark age" that was believed to have followed the Aryan invasion may never have happened. A series of cities in India have been studied by archeologists and shown to have a level of civilization between that of the Indus culture and later more highly developed Indian culture, as visited by the Greeks. Finally, Indus Valley excavations have uncovered many remains of fire altars, animal bones, potsherds, shell jewelry and other evidences of Vedic rituals. "In other words there is no racial evidence of any such Indo-Aryan invasion of India but only of a continuity of the same group of people who traditionally considered themselves to be Aryans...The Indo-Aryan invasion as an academic concept in 18th and 19th century Europe reflected the cultural milieu of the period. Linguistic data were used to validate the concept that in turn was used to interpret archeological and anthropological data." 2 "There was no invasion by anyone."

Sacred texts:
Hindu sacred texts are perhaps the most ancient religious texts still surviving today. Some appear to be millennia older than the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) which conservative Christians date to circa 1500 BCE and liberal scholars date to circa 900 BCE.

The primary sacred texts of Hinduism are the Vedas: the Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda and Atharva Veda. The Vedas contain hymns, incantations, and rituals from ancient India. 4 The Rig Veda (a.k.a. Rigveda) may be the oldest of the four. Estimates of its date of composition in oral form range from 1500 BCE to 4000 BCE. The Yajur and Atharva Vedas refer to the vernal equinox having occurred in the Pleiades constellation -- an event dating from about 2500 BCE.
An important text is the Ramayana. Various sources have dated it to:
The first century CE in written form, based on oral traditions dating back six or seven centuries earlier.
4th century BCE in written form, based on oral traditions dating back to 1500 BCE.
4000 BCE in oral form, based on astronomical constellations and other features mentioned.
It is "a moving love story with moral and spiritual themes that has deep appeal in India to this day" 6 concerning the exploits of the hero Rama who is viewed as an avatar of Vishnu, and as "...a principal deity in his own right." 7 The written form has been attributed to the poet Valmiki.

The Mahabharata is a group of books attributed to the sage Vyasa. They have been variously dated as having been composed between 540 and 300 BCE, between 200 BCE and 2000 CE, the to the 15th century BCE. They record "the legends of the Bharatas, one of the Aryan tribal groups." The Bhagavad Gita is the sixth book of the Mahabharata. It is a poem describing a conversation between a warrior Arjuna and the God Krishna. It is an ancient text that has become a main sacred text of Hinduism and other belief systems.

Other texts include the Brahmanas, the Sutras, Puranas, and the Aranyakas.

Hindu beliefs and practices:
Categorizing the religion of Hinduism is somewhat confusing:
Hinduism has commonly been viewed in the west as a polytheistic religion - one which worships multiple deities: gods and goddesses. Although a widespread belief, this is not particularly accurate.

Some have viewed it as a monotheistic religion, because it recognizes only one supreme God: the panentheistic principle of Brahman, that all reality is a unity. The entire universe is seen as one divine entity who is simultaneously at one with the universe and who transcends it as well.

Some view Hinduism as Trinitarian because Brahman is simultaneously visualized as a triad -- one God with three persons:
Brahma the Creator who is continuing to create new realities
Vishnu, (Krishna) the Preserver, who preserves these new creations. Whenever dharma (eternal order, righteousness, religion, law and duty) is threatened, Vishnu travels from heaven to earth in one of ten incarnations.
Shiva, the Destroyer, is at times compassionate, erotic and destructive.
Strictly speaking, most forms of Hinduism are henotheistic; they recognize a single deity, and recognizes other gods and goddesses as facets, forms, manifestations, or aspects of that supreme God.
Most urban Hindus follow one of two major divisions within Hinduism:
Vaishnavaism: which generally regards Vishnu as the ultimate deity
Shivaism: which generally regards Shiva as the ultimate deity.
However, many rural Hindus worship their own village goddess or an earth goddess. She is believed to rule over fertility and disease -- and thus over life and death. The priesthood is less important in rural Hinduism: non-Brahmins and non-priests often carry out ritual and prayer there.
Hindus believe in the repetitious Transmigration of the Soul. This is the transfer of one's soul after death into another body. This produces a continuing cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth through their many lifetimes. It is called samsara. Karma is the accumulated sum of ones good and bad deeds. Karma determines how you will live your next life. Through pure acts, thoughts and devotion, one can be reborn at a higher level. Eventually, one can escape samsara and achieve enlightenment. Bad deeds can cause a person to be reborn as a lower level, or even as an animal. The unequal distribution of wealth, prestige, suffering are thus seen as natural consequences for one's previous acts, both in this life and in previous lives.
Hindus organize their lives around certain activities or "purusharthas." These are called the "four aims of Hinduism," or "the doctrine of the fourfold end of life." They are:
The three goals of the "pravritti," those who are in the world, are:
dharma: righteousness in their religious life. This is the most important of the three.
artha: success in their economic life; material prosperity.
kama: gratification of the senses; pleasure; sensual, sexual, and mental enjoyment.
The main goal for the "nivritti," those who renounce the world. is:
moksa: Liberation from "samsara." This is considered the supreme goal of mankind.

Meditation is often practiced, with Yoga being the most common. Other activities include daily devotions, public rituals, and puja, a ceremonial dinner for a God.
Hinduism has a deserved reputation of being highly tolerant of other religions. Hindus have a saying: "Ekam Sataha Vipraha Bahudha Vadanti," which may be translated: "The truth is One, but different Sages call it by Different Names"

Hindu Beliefs
It is difficult to assign a dogmatic orthodoxy to Hinduism. Many variations have developed from Hinduism over the years, and many non-Hindu cults and religious movements gained their inspiration from Hinduism. Even in India today, the most orthodox divisions of Hinduism have changed significantly over the last three thousand years.
One of the oldest aspects of Hinduism is as much social as religious, and that is the caste system. It is important to understand the caste system before delving into Hindu religious beliefs. According to Hindu teaching, there are four basic castes, or social classes. Each caste has its own rules and obligation for living. The elite caste is the Brahman, or priest caste. Second are the Kshatriyas, or warriors and rulers. Third are the Vaisyas, or merchants and farmers. Finally, the fourth caste is the Shudras, or laborers. Outside the caste system are the untouchables. The untouchables are the outcasts of Hindu society. Though outlawed in India in the 1940s, the untouchables are still a very real part of Indian society. One does not get decide his or her caste – that matter is decided when one is born into a particular caste.
As previously stated, there is not a strict orthodoxy in Hinduism. There are however, several principles that share a commonality among the various sects. Virtually all Hindus believe in:
The three-in-one god known as “Brahman,” which is composed of: Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the Preserver), and Shiva (the Destroyer). The Caste System. Karma. The law that good begets good, and bad begets bad. Every action, thought, or decision one makes has consequences – good or bad – that will return to each person in the present life, or in one yet to come. Reincarnation. Also known as “transmigration of souls,” or “samsara.” This is a journey on the “circle of life,” where each person experiences as series of physical births, deaths, and rebirths. With good karma, a person can be reborn into a higher caste, or even to godhood. Bad karma can relegate one to a lower caste, or even to life as an animal in their next life. Nirvana. This is the goal of the Hindu. Nirvana is the release of the soul from the seemingly endless cycle of rebirths
Hinduism is both polytheistic, and pantheistic. There are three gods that compose Brahman – Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Hindus also worship the “wives” of Shiva, such as Kali, or one of Vishnu’s ten incarnations (avatars). This is only the beginning. There are literally millions of Hindu gods and goddesses – by some counts, as many as 330 million!
At the same time, Hinduism teaches that all living things are Brahman in their core. In other words, all living things are Brahman, or god. Enlightenment is attained by becoming tuned in to the Brahman within. Only then can one reach Nirvana. The release from the wheel of life that allows access to Nirvana is known as “moksha.”
Hindus recognize three possible paths to moksha, or salvation. The first is the way of works or karma yoga. This is a very popular way of salvation and lays emphasis on the idea that liberation may be obtained by fulfilling one’s familial and social duties thereby overcoming the weight of bad karma one has accrued.
The second way of salvation is the way of knowledge, or jnana yoga. The basic premise of the way of knowledge is that the cause of our bondage to the cycle of rebirths in this world is ignorance. According to the predominant view among those committed to this way, our ignorance consists of the mistaken belief that we are individual selves, and not one with the ultimate divine reality – Brahman. It is this same ignorance that gives rise to our bad actions, which result in bad karma. Salvation is achieved through attaining a state of consciousness in which we realize our identity with Brahman. This is achieved through deep meditation, often as a part of the discipline of yoga.
The third way of salvation is the way of devotion, or bhakti yoga. This is the way most favored by the common people of India. It satisfies the longing for a more emotional and personal approach to religion. It involves the self-surrender to one of the many personal gods and goddesses of Hinduism. Such devotion is expressed through acts of worship, temple rituals, and pilgrimages. Some Hindus conceive of ultimate salvation as absorption into the one divine reality, with all loss of individual existence. Others conceive of it as heavenly existence in adoration of the personal God.
 
 
ISLAM
 
Basic Beliefs of Islam
The teachings of Islam are comprised of both faith and duty (din). One branch of Muslim learning, "Tawhid", defines all that a man should believe, while the other branch, "Shari'a," prescribes everything that he should do. There is no priesthood and no sacraments. Except among the Sufis, Muslims receive instruction only from those who consider themselves adequately learned in theology or law.
Five Articles of Faith
The five articles of faith are the main doctrines of Islam. All Muslims are expected to believe the following:
God. There is one true God and his name is Allah.
Angels. Angels exist and interact with human lives. They are comprised of light, and each have different purposes or messages to bring to earth. Each man or woman has two angels who record his actions; one records good deeds, the other bad deeds.
Scripture. There are four inspired books, the Torah of Moses, the Psalms (Zabin) of David, the Gospel of Jesus Christ (Injil) and the Qur'an. All but the Qur'an have been corrupted by Jews and Christians.
Prophets. God has spoken through numerous prophets throughout time. The six greatest are: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. Muhammad is the last and greatest of Allah's messengers.
Last Days. On the last day there will be a time of resurrection and judgment. Those who follow Allah and Muhammad will go to Islamic heaven, or Paradise. Those who do not will go to hell.

The Five Pillars of Faith
The five pillars of faith are observances in Islam which are duties each Muslim must perform.
Creed (Kalima)- One must state, "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the Prophet of Allah." publicly to become a Muslim.
Prayer (Salat)- Prayer must be done five times a day (upon rising, at noon, in mid-afternoon, after sunset, and before going to sleep) towards the direction of Mecca. The call to prayer is sounded by the muezzin (Muslim crier) from a tower (minaret) within the mosque.
Almsgiving (Zakat)- Muslims are legally required to give one-fortieth of their income to the needy. Since those whom alms are given are helping the giver achieve salvation, there is no sense of shame in receiving charity.
Fasting (Ramadan)- During the holy month of Ramadan, faithful Muslims fast from sunup to sundown each day. This develops self-control, devotion to God, and identity with the needy.
Pilgrimage (Hajj)- Each Muslim is expected to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime if they have the means to do it and are physically capable of the trip. It is an essential part of gaining salvation, so the old or infirm may send someone in their place. It involves a set of rituals and ceremonies.
A sixth religious duty associated with the five pillars is Jihad, or Holy War. This duty requires that if the situation warrants, men are required to go to war to defend or spread Islam. If they are killed, they are guaranteed eternal life in Paradise.  
History of Islam
The history of Islam centers around one person, Muhammad (also spelled Muhammed or Mohammed). He was born around 570 A.D. and was raised by his extended family after the death of his parents. As he grew, he became dissatisfied with polytheism and came to believe in one God, Allah. He began to have religious visions around age 40. During these visions, Muhammad would receive "messages" or "revelations" from Allah. He would memorize them and teach them to his followers. These visions are now recorded in the Qur'an (or Koran). Muhammad continued to receive these visions and messages until his death in 632 A.D.
The Expansion of Islam
Muhammad's new faith was not widely accepted in his hometown of Mecca. Therefore, he and his followers moved to Medina which means "City of the Prophet". This movement is known as the Hijirat or "the flight". It marks the turning point in Islam and serves as the beginning date on Islamic calendars.
At first, Muhammad was sympathetic to both Christians and Jews, but after their rejection of his teaching, he turned from Jerusalem as the center of worship for Islam to Mecca. He realized he must return to Mecca, and he did, conquering the city. Islam quickly spread throughout the area.
When Muhammad died, he left no document appointing a successor. Some people thought that one of the original converts who had taught with Muhammad, some wanted a member of a powerful political family in the area, and others felt that 'Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad had been divinely designated as successor. An early believer, Abu Bakr was appointed, but died within two years.
Eventually, a power struggle developed as different groups of Muslims believed their method of establishing a successor were the best. The largest argument was over whether the successor should be elected or chosen through heredity. This controversy produced the main body of Islam known as the Sunnis (followers of the prophet's way) and other numerous sects including the Shi'a and the Sufis. The Sunnis are the majority in Islam today.
The Shi'a are the group of Muslims who believe that the successorship should remain within Muhammad's family, and that leaders are spiritually chosen, not politically chosen. They carry with them the pain of Muhammad's son-in-law, 'Ali, who was murdered by Mu'awiya in order to obtain power. Today, the Shi'a dominate Iran.
The Sufis are a group who believes that orthodox Islam is too mechanical and impersonal. This group of Islamic mystics seek for direct personal experience of the Divine.
Nationalism in the Arab world since the rise of Israel as a political power has kept Islam strong. It is a rapidly spreading religion because of its cultural and political appeal and its universal message of peace, temperance and the brotherhood of man.