Understanding Islam:

Islam will be part of the RC curriculum this week as we tackle economic reform in Saudi Arabia. Islam will be part of the news this week as America continues down the path to war in the Middle East. Most importantly, though, Islam will continue to have an important impact on our world as roughly one out of every five people on the planet is a Muslim. Stop and ponder this for a moment, and it should be staggering.

So while the debate rages on about whether Islam and the West can co-exist, one thing is certain: with so much of the world practicing Islam, there is no other choice.

Unfortunately, many people’s only exposure to Islam is through the news, which pays significant attention to the acts of a tiny minority.

Indeed, far too often, no attempt is made to differentiate between the doctrine that is Islam, and modern political embodiments and extreme interpretations of that doctrine. Furthermore, almost no attention is paid to the incredible cultural diversity amongst those who practice the faith.

In this article we hope to accomplish two objectives: to accurately and faithfully lay out the basic tenets of the religion, and to clarify several deep misconceptions about Islam (in particular regarding the rights of women and the concept of jihad) that have taken root in popular conversation.

We hope to start by a brief albeit essential introduction to Islam, recognizing that no one article can claim to completely represent all aspects of Islam.

The basic tenets of faith
The root of the word Islam is the Arabic word salaam, which means peace. Islam literally means submission, and is often taken to mean submission to the will of God. A muslim is, therefore, one who submits to the will of God. There are five pillars of Islam: faith in only God, prayer several times a day, donating to charity, fasting during the month of Ramadan, and for those who can afford to do so, pilgrimage to Mecca once during their lives. Islam’s basic principles revolve around a way of life that is perhaps better elucidated through the following quotes translated* from the Qu’ran:

1. [49:13] O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise each other). Verily the most honored of you in the sight of God is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And God has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).

2. [2:177] Righteousness does not mean for you to turn your faces towards the East and West, but righteousness means one should believe in God (Alone), the Last Day, angels, the Book and prophets; and no matter how he loves it, to give his wealth away to near relatives, orphans, the needy, the wayfarer and beggars, and towards freeing captives; and to keep up prayer and practice regular charity; and those who keep their word whenever they promise anything; and are patient under suffering and hardship and in time of peril (stress). Such are the people of truth…

Islam affirms these simple beliefs as the basis of the decent, civilized society for which it strives. Its vision of society is, in essence, no different from that upheld by all monotheistic religions. This is particularly true of Judaism and Christianity which share with Islam the direct spiritual lineage of the Prophet Abraham. Islam affirms the divinely-ordained missions of the Prophet Moses, through whom God revealed the sacred scripture called the Torah, and of the Prophet Jesus, through whom God revealed the scripture known as the Gospel. 1 The message of Islam is, in essence, the same as that which God revealed to all his prophets and messengers; this was revealed through The Prophet Mohammed, the last of the Prophets:

[2:136] Say, “We believe in God, and in what was sent down to us, and in what was sent down to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Patriarchs; and in what was given to Moses and Jesus, and all the prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction among any of them.

To Him (God) alone we are submitters.”

While we hope that the general background provided above is helpful, we recognize that there are several specific areas around which the deepest misconceptions are centered. These are the rights of women, and the concept of jihad (the struggle for moral purity), and a deeper look at what the religion says about these two areas is worthwhile.

The rights of women
When one thinks about Muslim women, what often comes to people’s minds are stories of their oppression under regimes like the Taliban and Saudi Arabia. But we must be careful to identify what is actually taught in the religion itself versus what comes from a country’s culture or custom, because at its root, Islam teaches that women and men are equal in the sight of God:

[3:195] “So their Lord accepted from them – ‘Never will I allow to be lost the work of any of you, be he male or female. You are (members) one of another.”

Indeed, when placed in the context of the era in which it was revealed, Islam was an innovator for women’s rights. It established women’s right to own independent property. For example, in a marriage, whereas a man’s property belongs to the family, the wife’s property, her earnings, her inheritances, etc. belong to her alone. The Prophet Mohammed’s wife was herself an independent merchant when the two were married.

Islam secured a woman’s right to inheritance and her right to be taken as a witness as early as 600ad. Furthermore, Islam secured for women the right to divorce their husbands. Islam also asks of both men and women to dress modestly. There is no denying that in some countries and communities, there is a lattice work of rules that deny women their civil rights, but again we need to differentiate between these communities or states and Islam’s stance on women. Barriers to the advancement of women and the denial of certain rights today are more a function of the dominant dynamics of traditional patriarchal societies.

Nonetheless, in modern times, Muslim women have served as prime ministers of Pakistan and Bangladesh. At present, the president of the world’s largest Muslim population – Indonesia – is a democratically elected woman.

Jihad Explained
While often translated, incorrectly, as “holy war,” the word jihad literally means “struggle.” The root of the word is “mujahada” or hard work.

References to jihad in the Qu’ran and in the sayings of the Prophet
Mohammed refer to both the inner struggle to become a better person (called the greater struggle), and to the collective struggle to defend and improve society (called the lesser struggle).

In fact, when Mohammed began preaching Islam, the concept of jihad was limited only to the inner struggle for self-improvement. It was only after fourteen years of persecution did Muslims begin to defend themselves using force, and even once they did, it was made clear that the greater struggle, the struggle that should most consume their efforts, was the inner struggle for morality and purity.

In more modern times, unfortunately, the concept of jihad has often been equated in the media incorrectly, to mean “holy war.” It is therefore important that we understand what Islam actually does say about war and about peace.

Firstly, Islam entreats all believers to pursue the path of peace.
[5:16] Wherewith God guideth all who seek His good pleasure to ways of peace and safety, and leadeth them out of darkness, by His will, unto the light,- guideth them to a path that is straight.

In fact, acts of aggression are prohibited. War is only permitted in defense:

[22:39] To those against whom war is made, permission is given (to fight), because they are wronged;- and verily, God is most powerful for their aid;-

And peace is always the most desired state:
[8:61] But if the enemy incline towards peace, do thou (also) incline towards peace
, and trust in God. For He is One that heareth and knoweth (all things).

Furthermore, the taking innocent life is strictly prohibited. (Even the destruction of fruit-bearing trees during war was prohibited by the Prophet Mohammed). As such we hope to clarify that Islam in no way espouses or condones acts of aggression.

We hope to have shed some light on the issues at hand. In the final analysis, it is crucial to acknowledge the nature of Islam as deeply personal in its practice. Each person is held accountable for her/his own beliefs and actions to God. Faith lies in the heart and is translated through one’s actions. There is no compulsion in religion and there can be no coercion into believing by force:

[2:256] Let there be no compulsion in religion. Truth stands out clear from error: whoever rejects evil and believes in God hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold that never breaks. And God heareth and knoweth all things.