Understanding Islam

The following is the first in a series of columns addressing the faith of Islam. Future installments will address specifically the issues of  "jihad" and women in Islam.

What is Islam?

That’s a question that has been on the minds of many Americans lately, and one that has so far been mostly answered with an explanation of what Islam is not: it is not terrorism, it is not the murderous extremism behind the attacks against the United States and it is not represented by nor supportive of that extremism. The war on terrorism is not a war on Islam.

This is what President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, prominent Muslims like boxing legend Muhammed Ali and even the mainstream news media have been telling us, and this is all very true. But none of this—not even the often-repeated description of Islam as a "peaceful" religion—have done much to explain what Islam is.

Discussing Islam within the context of terrorism—discussing Islam and terrorism within the same conversation—is a flawed and inappropriate premise. It is tantamount to using the actions and philosophy of the Ku Klux Klan as the framework for a discussion of Christianity. Like all religions, Islam has and has had followers who have misinterpreted their own faith and also, like in all religions, these misinterpretations have resulted in violence and oppression. As in all religions—particularly the many denominations of Christianity and sects and levels of Judaism—there are different sects and degrees of devoutness within Islam. Islam also has the company of most other religions in having a history that includes the oppression and mistreatment of women.

But the thing that Islam has most in common with other religions is that the large majority of Muslims do not share the distorted views of extremists within their faith. The majority of Muslims are very clear on the meaning of their faith—including, for instance, the actual meaning of the word "jihad" and the rights of women.

The terms "Muslim" and "Arab" are by no means synonymous or interchangeable. There are 1.3 billion Muslims in the world; there are 300 million Muslims in the Arab world. Well over two-thirds of Muslims are not Arab. The largest concentration of Muslims reside in Southeast Asia. Afghanistan, for example, is not an Arab nation, but an Asian one.

The United States is home to between 6-8 million Muslims, half of whom are African-American. In the U.S., 152 elected officials in local, state and federal government are Muslim. In the 2000 elections, well over 80 percent of Muslims voted for George W. Bush.

So, what is Islam? Islam originated in the 7th century in Arabia, now known as Saudi Arabia, when the prophet Muhammad, a native Arabian who was born in the city of Mecca in 571 received what the Muslims believe were verbatim revelations from God. These revelations, communicated to Muhammad in 611 when he was about 40 years old, were assembled into the Qur’an (sometimes spelled "Koran",) which is the most important reference in the Islamic faith.

The new faith of Islam being preached by Muhammad spread quickly, but persecution by the tribal leaders of Mecca led to the Hijrah—the emigration of the Muslims in 622 to Madinah. The Hijrah marks the birth of the first Islamic community and state in Madinah (the current "Medina" in Saudi Arabia.) Hijrah is the name of the first month in the Islamic calendar.

Eventually, all of Arabia adopted Islam as a religion, while a region that included Spain, Persia, the Near East and Africa became part of the Islamic state. Islamic law and the Qur’an prohibit forced conversions and the inhabitants of these lands and nations were allowed to keep their own faiths and practice their own cultures. In fact, the Islamic state fostered an environment of remarkable tolerance where it was not uncommon for the government ministers and officers to be non-Muslims.

Nonetheless, Islam did spread among the people of the state and the local cultures did become "Islamicized" by that influence. This new Islamic civilization gave rise to an outburst of cultural achievements in art, medicine, architecture, mathematics, physics and philosophy.

Islam is a strict monotheism, meaning that Muslims believe in one God and that God is absolutely transcendent—he is not present in creation, he cannot be described in human or physical terms, and no man can share or partake in his divine nature. Islam rejects characterizing God in any human form or depicting God as holding certain individuals or nations in special favor because of their wealth, power or race. God created human beings as equals who can only gain God’s favor or distinguish themselves from other humans through virtue and piety. The concept that God could be incarnate in any human being is considered blasphemy from the Islamic point of view. Islam considers associating any deity or personality with God as a deadly sin.

There are no clergy in Islam, or any institution that dictates a certain interpretation of the Qur’an, and the prophets—Muhammed, as well as the Jewish prophets such as Moses and Abraham that Islam recognizes—are believed to be human messengers with no divine qualities, though they are believed to have communicated directly with God.

The Muslim name for God is Allah, but it refers to the same God worshiped by Christians and Jews. Arab Christians and Arab Jews also use the name Allah to refer to God.

Muslims consider Jesus to be a human prophet. The Qur’an maintains the miracle of his birth, but Muslims do not believe he was the son of God. Islam recognizes Judaism and Christianity as religions "of the Book"—they stem from God’s divine revelation to the prophets. This status was later extended by Islamic law to other major faiths: the Qur’an teaches that God sent revelations to all communities equally. Muslims believe the Qur’an was the last of these revelations and that Muhammad was the final prophet sent to complete the message God began sending to his people through Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jacob and Jesus. Muslims believe that Muhammad was the last prophet and the Qur’an the last of God’s revelations, and that Muhammad completed and purified from human adulteration the message sent through the prophets that preceded him.

The Qur'an is believed to be the exact, original word of God. The second book of Islam, the Hadith, is the report of the sayings, deeds and approvals of the prophet Muhammad.

Islam does not recognize the concept of separation between church and state or the law of religion and the law of government, but believes that each community is ruled by its own religious tradition. Muslims believe that Islam is a complete way of life and that both state and religion are under the obedience of Allah. Islamic teachings do not separate religion and politics, and encompass the governing of economic, social, educational and political systems.

Muslims believe that God created the world to worship him and mankind to freely submit to his law. The Qur’an says that mankind agreed voluntarily to do so, thus becoming God’s Khalifa (steward of God) on earth. Mankind is the lord over creation, charged with upholding the divine law but with the free will to disobey it, to fail at this task.

According to Islam, all human beings will be re-recreated body and soul on the Day of Judgment to render account for their actions on the basis of this covenant. Paradise and Hell are not places but simply God’s response to man's actions in the form of just reward and strict punishment; the scale of justice is however tempered by God's infinite mercy which is freely provided to all those who truly repent during their lifetime for their evil deeds.

Islam teaches that God is loving and merciful and loves human beings as a mother loves her children.

Muslims believe that paradise is equally available to all people of faith, provided their faith in God is sincere and accompanied by a record of good deeds: "The Muslims, the Jews, the Christians, the Sabeans, whoever believes in God and the Last Day and does good deeds, they shall find their reward from their Lord; they shall have nothing to fear, nor shall they come to grief" (Qur'an 2:62 and 5:69).

In addition to good deeds, a Muslim is supposed to faithfully maintain daily prayers, perform a pilgrimage to Mecca once in a lifetime, fast from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan, and pay yearly the zakat, the poor-tax due to those less favored than oneself.

The notion that Muslims "hate" America or Americans is false; false also is the perception that this alleged anti-Americanism is directed at the secular culture of the United States. Secularism does not have the same meaning in Islam as it does in Christianity or in the United States.

However, many Muslims certainly and seriously oppose American foreign policy or the relationship the government of their nation has with the U.S. government.

The terrorist attacks against the United States have brought terms like "Islamic fundamentalism" and "radical Islam" into the American vernacular; accounts of the brutality of the Taliban regime, of atrocities committed against women and of declarations of "jihad" or "holy war" are spawning fear, and the argument could be made that historically the primary motivation for hate has been fear. Human beings hate what they fear and don't understand.

A centuries-old religion with more than one billion followers cannot be explained or made understandable in a few words. What must be understood, and what Americans, of all people, are capable of understanding, is that however frightening or evil, a small minority does not, and cannot, speak for or stand for more than one billion.