Islam and Arabia: Where faith and nationality converge and diverge


Islam is one of the world’s three monotheistic faiths, founded in the 7th century by Muhammad. Born in what is today Saudi Arabia in 570 CE, Muhammad was meditating in a cave outside of Mecca when he received his first prophecy from Allah (God) at the age of 40.

Muslims believe that Muhammad was the last and most important prophet in a series of Jewish and Christian prophets. Muslims also embrace the prophecy of others like Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus.

Adherents to Islam are called Muslims (or Moslems, as is frequently mispronounced). There are between 1.3 and 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, comprising nearly 1/5th of the world population. Many of these Muslims — approximately 18 percent — live in Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, Iraq, Egypt and Jordan. The largest Muslim community, however, lives not in the Arab world, but in Indonesia. There are also large communities in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa and significant Muslim minorities live in North and South America and Europe.

Despite the fact that less than 1/5th of all Muslims live in the Arab world, there is a pervasive assumption and misconception that Arab and Muslim are synonymous terms. In fact, Arab refers to those who share a linguistic, cultural, ethnic and historic heritage from the Arabian Peninsula. Muslim, on the other hand, refers to those who practice Islam. Just as Muslims can and do live in Arab countries — and anywhere else in the world, not everyone living in an Arab country is a Muslim. They can be Christian, Druze, Bahai and even Jewish.