Reflections of an American Muslim
|COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT ISLAM|
|Written by Dr. Shahid Athar|
The pluralistic American society is changing from being a "melting pot" to a "salad bowl" in which all ingredients are encouraged to preserve and display their distinct individual taste and flavor. However, even though Islam is a major religion with over I billion followers worldwide and nearly 6 million in the U.S.A., some Americans still think it is a cult, some believe all Muslims are terrorists or have 4 wives, or ask me, if my wife puts on a veil, walks behind me or does belly dancing for me! Thus, the misconceptions about Islam continue because of a lack of correct information about the basic teachings of Islam.
The ongoing crisis in the Muslim world and the misrepresentation of Islam sometimes by the media challenges us to answer questions by our non-Muslim friends about our way of life in a simple and concise language. I have given many lectures to non-Muslim school and college students, church audiences, inter-faith gatherings, and have appeared on radio and TV talk shows. The following responses are based on actual questions asked from me by various non-Muslims with whom I have had contact.
1. WHAT IS ISLAM
The word "Islam" means peace and submission. Peace means to be at peace with yourself and your surroundings. Submission means to submit to the Will of God. A broader meaning of the word "Islam," is to achieve peace by submitting to the Will of God.
This is a unique religion with a name which signifies a moral attitude and a way of life. Judaism takes its name for the tribe of Judah, Christianity from Jesus Christ, Buddhism from Gautama Buddha and Hinduism from the Indus River. However, Muslims derive their identity from the message of Islam rather than the person of Muhammad Thus, they should not be called "Muhammadans."
2. WHO is ALLAH?
This is the Arabic word for "one God." Allah is not the God of Muslims only. He is God of all creations because He is their Creator and Sustainer.
3. WHO IS A MUSLIM?
The word "Muslim" means one who submits to the will of God. This is done by declaring, "There is no god except the one God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God." In a broader sense, anyone who willingly submits to the Will of God is a Muslim. Thus, all the prophets preceding the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) were Muslims. The Quran specifically mentions Abraham, who lived long before Moses and Christ, saying, "He was not a Jew or a Christian, but a Muslim," because he had submitted to the Will of God. Thus, there are Muslims who are not sub- mitting at all to the Will of God and there are Muslims who are doing their best to live an Islamic life. One cannot judge Islam by looking at those individuals who have a Muslim name, but in their actions, they are not living or behaving as Muslims. The state of being a Muslim can be according to the degree to which one submits to the Will of God in his or her beliefs and actions.
4. WHO WAS MUHAMMAD (PBUH)?
In brief, Muhammad (PBUH) (peace and the mercy of God be upon him) was bom in a noble tribe of Mecca in Arabia in the year 570 AD. His ancestry goes back to Prophet Ishmael (PBUH), (peace be upon him) son of Prophet Abraham (PBUH). His father died before his birth and his mother died when he was six. He had no formal schooling. He was first raised by a nurse as was the custom in those days and then by his grandfather and uncle. As a young man, he was known as a righteous person who used to meditate in a cave. At the age of forty, he was given the prophethood when the angel Gabriel appeared in the cave. Subsequently, the revelations came over a period of twenty-three years and were compiled in the form of a book called the Quran. Muslims consider the Quran to be the final and last word of God. The Arabic of the Quran has been preserved, unchanged, in its original form and confirms the truth in the Torah, the Psalms and the Gospels.
5. DO MUSLIMS WORSHIP MUHAMMAD (PBUH)?
No. Muslims do not worship Muhammad (PBUH)or any other prophets. Muslims believe in all prophets including Adam, Noah, Abraham, David, Solomon, Moses and Jesus. Muslims believe that Muhammad (PBUH) was the last of the prophets. They believe that God alone is to be worshipped, not any human being.
6. WHAT DO MUSLIMS THINK OF JESUS (PBUH)?
Muslims think highly of Jesus (PBUH) and his worthy mother, Mary. The Quran tells us that Jesus (PBUH) was bom of a miraculous birth without a father. "Lo! The likeness of Jesus with God is the likeness of Adam. He created him of dust and then He said to him, 'Be' and he was" (The Quran, 3:59). He was given many miracles as a prophet. These include speaking soon after his birth in defense of his mother's piety. God's other gifts to him included healing the blind and the sick, reviving the dead, making a bird out of clay and, most importantly, the message he was carrying. These miracles were given to him by God to establish him as a prophet. According to the Quran, he was not crucified, but was raised into heaven (see the Quran, Chapter Mary).
7. DO MUSLIMS HAVE MANY SECTS?
Muslims have no sects. In Islam, there are two major schools of thought, the Shia and the Sunni. Followers of either group have many things in common. They both follow the same revelation-the Noble Quran. They both follow the same prophet, Muhammad, (PBUH). They both offer their prescribed prayers five times a day and perfon-n the prescribed fast in the month of Ramadan. Both go at least once in their lifetime on the pilgrimage to Mecca. They both follow Prophet Muhammad (PBUH] sayings and actions, but those who, in addition, follow the sayings and views of 'Ali ibn Abi Talib (the Messenger's first cousin and son-in-law) are called Shia. while those who don't are called Sunnis. Shia means a partisan (party of Ali) and it started more as a political party to help Ali in his conflict with his political adversaries. Most Shias are in Iran and Iraq while the rest of the Muslim world is mostly Sunni. Shias are about 16-percent of the Muslim population.
8. WHAT ARE THE PILLARS OF ISLAM?
There are five major pillars which are the articles of faith. These pillars are:
All the pillars should be of equal height and strength in a building in order to give the building its due shape and proportions. Therefore, all the pillars of Islam should be of similar strength. It is not possible that one would perform the hajj without performing the prescribed fast or without offering the prescribed prayers. Now think of a building which has pillars only. It would not be called a building. In order to make it a building, it has to have a roof, it has to have walls, it has to have doors and windows. These things in Islam are the moral codes of Islam which includes honesty or truthfulness, steadfastness and many other human moral qualities. Thus, in order to be a Muslim, one should not only be practicing the pillars of Islam, but should also have the highest possible quality which is possible for a good human being. Only then is the building completed and looks beautiful.
9. WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF WORSHIP IN ISLAM?
The purpose of worship in Islam is to be God conscious. Thus, the worship, whether it is prescribed prayer, fasting or charity, is a means to an end and the end is consciousness of God so that when one becomes conscious of God in thought and action, one is in a better position to receive His bounties, both in this world and the next.
10. WHAT DO MUSLIMS THINK OF THE HEREAFTER?
God is Just and therefore, in order to show His justice, there has to be a system of accountability. Those who do good have to be rewarded and those who do wrong have to be punished accordingly. Therefore, He created heaven and hellfire and there are admission criteria for each of them. Muslims believe that the present life is temporary. It is a test and if we pass the test, we will be given a life of permanent happiness in the company of good people in heaven.
11. WILL THE GOOD ACTIONS OF THE NON-BELIEVERS BE WASTED?
No. The Quran clearly says, "Anyone who has done an atom's worth of goodness will see it and anyone who has done an atom's worth of evil will also see it." By that, it is meant that those who do not believe, but have done good, will be rewarded in this world for their good deed. On the other hand, those who do good if they are Muslims, will be rewarded not only in this world, but also in the world hereafter as well. However, the final judgment is up to God (The Quran 2:62).
12. WHAT IS THE DRESS CODE FOR MUSLIMS?
Islam emphasizes modesty. No person should be perceived as a sex object. There are certain guidelines both for men and women that their dress should neither be too thin nor too tight to reveal the form of the body. For men, they must at lease cover the area from the knee to the navel. Women's dress should cover all areas except the hands and face.
13. WHAT ARE THE DIETARY PROHIBITIONS IN ISLAM?
Muslims are told in The Quran not to eat pork or pork products, dead animals or the mean of carnivorous animals (because they eat dead animals) nor to drink intoxicants such as wine or use any illicit drugs.
14. WHAT IS JIHAD?
The word "jihad" means struggle or, to be specific, striving in the cause of God. Any struggle done in day-to-day life to please God can be considered jihad. One of the highest levels of jihad is to stand up to a tyrant and speak a word of truth. Control of the self from wrongdoing is also a great jihad. One of the forms of jihad is to take up arms in defense of Islam or a Muslim country when Islam is attacked. This kind of jihad has to be declared by the religious leadership or by a Muslim head of state who is following the Quran and the sunnah.
15. WHAT IS THE ISLAMIC YEAR?
The Islamic Year 1 began with the migration (hijra) of Prophet Muhammad (Lp) from Mecca to Medina in 622 AD. The calendar is based on lunar cycles. A lunar year is 354 days. The first month is called Muharram. 1994 AD is the year 1415 AH in the Islamic calender.
16. WHAT ARE THE MAJOR ISLAMIC FESTIVALS?
Id al-fitr,the Festival marking the end of the month of the prescribed fast in the month of Ramadan, is celebrated with public prayer, feasts and the exchange of gifts. Id al-adha, the Festival marking the end of the pilgrimage, is held at the time of annual pilgrimage to Mecca. After congregational prayer, those who can afford to, sacrifice a lamb or a goat to signify Prophet Abraham's obedience to God which he showed by his readi- ness to sacrifice his son, Ishmael.
17. WHAT IS THE SHARIAH?
The Shariah is the Islamic Divine Law derived from two sources: the Quran and the sunnah or Traditions of Prophet Muhammad (,p). It covers every aspect of daily, individual and collective living. The purpose of the Divine Law is to protect the basic human rights of each individual including the right to life, property, political and religious freedom and safeguarding the rights of women and minorities. The law crime rate in Muslim societies is due to the application of Islamic Law.
18. WAS ISLAM SPREAD BY SWORD?
According to the Quran, "There is no compulsion in religion" (2:256). Thus, no one can be forced to become a Muslim. While it is true that in many places where Muslim armies went to liberate people or the land, they did carry the sword because that was the weapon used at that time. However, Islam did to spread by the sword because in many places where there are Muslims now, in the Far East like Indonesia, in China and many parts of Africa, there are no records of any Muslim aries going there. To say that Islam was spread by the sword would be to say that Christianity was spread by guns, F-16's and atomic bombs, etc. which is not true. Christianity was spread by the missionary work of Christians. Ten percent of all Arabs are Christians. The "Sword of Islam" could not convert all the non-Muslim minorities in Muslim countries. In India, where Muslims ruled for 700 years, they are still a minority. In the US, Islam is the fastest growing religion and has six million followers without any swords around.
19. DOES ISLAM PROMOTE VIOLENCE AND TERRORISM?
No. Islam is a religion of peace and submission and stresses the sanctity of human life. A verse in The Quran says, "Anyone who saves one life, it is as if he has saved the whole of mankind and anyone who has killed another person except in case of murder or mischief on earth, it is as if he has killed the whole of mankind" (The Quran, 5:32). Islam condemns all the violence which happened in the Crusades, in Spain, in WW 11, or by acts of people like the Rev. Jim Jones, David Koresh, Dr. Baruch Goldstein, or the atrocities committed in Bosnia by Christian Serbs. Anyone who is doing violence is not practicing his religion. However, sometimes violence is the human response of an oppressed people as is the case in Palestine. These people have been displaced from their homeland, been put in refugee camps, and watched their relatives being killed and no one listens to their plight unless they do something to get the attention of the media. Although this is wrong, they think of this as a way to get attention. There is a lot of terrorism and violence in areas where there is no Muslim presence. For example, in Ireland, South Africa, Latin America, and Sri Lanka. Sometimes violence is due to a struggle between those who have with those who do not have or between those who are oppressed with those who are oppressors. We need to find out why people become terrorists. Unfortunately, the Palestinians who are doing violence are called terrorists, but not the armed Israeli settlers when they do the same.
20. WHAT IS "ISLAMIC FUNDAMENTALISM?"
There is no concept of "fundamentalism" in Islam. The western media has coined this term to break those Muslims who wish to return to the basic fundamental principles of Islam and mould their lives accordingly. Islam is a religion of moderation and a practicing Muslim can neither be a fanatic nor an extremist.
21. DOES ISLAM PROMOTE POLYGAMY?
No. Polygamy in Islam is to limit the number of wives. Historically, all the prophets except Jesus, who never married, had more than one wife. For Muslim men to have more than one wife is a permission which is given to them in the Quran, not to satisfy lust, but for the welfare of the widows and the orphans of war. It is not an injunction. In pre-Islamic times, men used to have many wives. One person had eleven wives and when he became a Muslim, he asked Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), "What should I do with so many wives?" The Prophet said, "Divorce all except four." The Quran says, "You can marry two or three or four women if you can be equally just with each of them" (4:3). Since it is very difficult to be equally just with all wives, in practice, most Muslim men do not have more than one wife. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) himself was married to only one woman, Khadija, from the age of twenty-five to fifty three. In western society, some men who have one wife have many extramarital affairs. A survey published in USA Today (April 4, 1988, section D) asked 4,700 mistresses what they would like their status to be. They said that they preferred being a second wife rather than 'the other woman,' because they did not have any legal rights nor did they have the financial equali- ty of the legally married wives and it appeared that they were being used by these men.
22. DOES ISLAM OPPRESS WOMEN?
No. On the contrary, Islam elevated the status of women 1,400 years ago by giving them the right to divorce, the right to have financial independence and support and the right to be identified as dignified women (wearing the modest dress) when in the rest of the world, including Europe, women had no such rights. Women are equal to men in all acts of piety (33:32). Islam allows women to keep their maiden name after marriage. Whatever they earn belongs to them alone and they can spend it as they wish. It also asks men to be their protector as women are easily molested. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) told Muslim men, "The best among you is the one who is best to his family." Not Islam, but some Muslim men do oppress women today. This is because of their cultural habits or their ignorance about their religion.
23. IS ISLAM INTOLERANT OF OTHER RELIGIOUS MINORITIES?
Islam recognizes the rights of the minority. To ensure their welfare and safety, Muslim rulers initiated a tax (jaziya) on them. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) forbade Muslim armies to destroy churches and synagogues. Caliph Umar did not even allow them to pray inside a church. Jews were welcomed and flourished in Muslim Span when they were persecuted in the rest of Europe. They consider that part of their history as the Golden Era. In Muslim countries, Christians live in prosperity, hold government positions and attend their church. Christian missionaries are allowed to establish and operate their schools and hospitals. However, the same religious tolerance is not always available to Muslim minorities as seen in the past during the Spanish inquisition and the Crusades or as seen now by the events in former Yugoslavia, Israel and India. Muslims do recognize that sometimes the actions of a ruler doe not reflect the teachings of his religion.
24. WHAT IS THE ISLAMIC VIEW ON:
DATING AND PREMARITAL SEX:
Islam does not approve of intimate mixing of the sexes and forbids premarital or extramarital sex. Islam encourages marriage as a shield to such temptations and as a means of having mutual love, mercy and peace.
Islam considers abortion as murder and does not permit it except to save the mother's life (see Quran 17:23-31, 6:151).
HOMOSEXUALITY AND AIDS
Islam categorically opposes homosexuality and considers it a sin. However, Muslim physicians are advised to care for AIDS patients with the same compassion they give to other patients.
EUTHANASIA AND SUICIDE:
Islam is opposed to both suicide and euthanasia. Muslims do not believe in heroic measures to artificially prolong the life of a terminally ill patient.
Islam stresses the saving of lives (see Quran 5:32). Thus, transplantation in general would be considered permissible provided a donor consent is available. The sale of organs is not allowed.
25. HOW SHOULD MUSLIMS TREAT JEWS AND CHRISTIANS?
The Quran calls them the "People of the Book," that is, those who received Divine Scriptures before Muhammad (PBUH). Muslims are told to treat them with respect and justice and not to fight them unless they initiate hostilities or ridicule their faith. The Muslims' ultimate hope is that they all will join them in worshipping the one God and submitting to His Will.