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Islam -- a brief overview

Daily prayer is one of the Five Pillars of Islam.

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(CNN) -- Islam is one of the world's major religions, along with Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism and Christianity.

Since its birth in Arabia more than 1,400 years ago it grew rapidly, making a profound impact on philosophy, literature, the arts, science and medicine throughout history.

Today, an estimated 1.1 billion people worldwide are Muslims and the Islamic traditions they follow are as varied as the nations where they live.

Many Muslims are frustrated by Westerners' general lack of understanding of Islam, said As'ad AbuKhalil, an associate professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus, who specializes in the Middle East and Islamic issues.

"I asked an audience at UC-Berkeley the other day, 'How many of you know Osama bin Laden?' Every hand was raised," AbuKhalil said. "Then I asked, 'How many of you can name an Arab or Muslim writer, poet, sculptor or Nobel Laureate?' Is it fair? All of bin Laden's followers could be squeezed into one small lecture hall, but he is the most widely known Muslim in the West."

Bin Laden is distorting Islam for his own political purposes, said AbuKhalil, who recently completed a book on bin Laden and the Taliban of Afghanistan.

"Don't judge us by our kooks. Western people need to remind themselves that religious Muslims are very similar to religious Jews and Christians. They believe in basic things like prayer -- not hijacking and terrorism."

Islam's central teaching is that there is one all-powerful, all-knowing God, who is referred to by the Arabic name, Allah. In Arabic, Islam means "surrender," or "submission," to the will of God.

Islam was founded by the prophet Mohammed, who was born in Mecca around A.D. 570 and settled in Medina around 622. Muslims believe Mohammed was the last and most important in a series of prophets, including Abraham, Moses and Jesus.

The holy book of Islam is the Koran, which means "the timeless words of God." The core practices are known as the Five Pillars -- daily prayer, faith, fasting, pilgrimage and alms giving.

The two main branches of Islam are Sunnism and Shi'ism.

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