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ISLAM BEHIND THE STEREOTYPES

An essay by Semonti Hossain

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Islam is the fastest growing religion on the entire planet, yet it is misunderstood by millions. Islam (meaning peace and submission to God), is a religion of ethics, obedience, harmony, and is based on a faithful belief system. It exists in various parts of the world, spreading its tranquility to all Muslims (adherents of the religion). Since the time the religion was revealed, Islam has laid out a religiously pure belief system and has promoted advancements in several branches of science. Interestingly, Islam has also been considered as a religion of cruelty, oppression, and brutality. Soon after Muslim immigration into America and other regions in the western world, Muslims have found it increasingly difficult to endure these misconceptions. The religion of Islam is not a religion of hatred and violence, but a religion of respect for all humans and God. This is the true Islam, the religion of equality, morality, and faith.

Islam enforces its belief system by establishing several rules and regulations. The five pillars of Islam constitute the foundation of the religion. The pillars symbolize the necessary duties of every Muslim. By obeying to the commandments of the five pillars, Muslims will become religiously pure and are ensured to enter heaven in the afterlife. The five pillars include belief, five daily prayers, fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, alms, and pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The first pillar, belief, requires every Muslim to believe that Allah (Arabic word for God) is the only God and that Muhammad was his last messenger. The second pillar, five daily prayers, obliges Muslims to pray five times each day. The five prayer times are early morning, afternoon, late afternoon, evening and night. 1 The third pillar, fasting, asks Muslims to fast from sunrise to sunset everyday during the holy month of Ramadan. The fasting allows Muslims to save food to donate to the poor and experience the hunger that a person in poverty endures. The fourth pillar, charity, compels Muslims to donate 2.5% of their wealth yearly to the poor and needy. The last pillar, pilgrimage, requires every Muslim who is financially stable to pray at the Ka'ba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia during Eid-ul-adha (the religious festival of sacrifice). 2 Sometimes for regular daily prayers, Muslims usually gather to pray together and discuss Islam in a Mosque, much like a church for the Christians, or the synagogue for the Jews. Along with these requirements, there are a series of actions that are forbidden in the Koran (the holy book of Islam), among them are adultery, gambling, cheating, consuming pork and alcohol, lending or accepting money for interest. It is vital that a Muslim has respect for everybody, is charitable to the poor, helps others in need, is clean, honest, generous, hard working, and ethical. 3 It is obvious that Islam is a religion that guides Muslims to a path of ethics, morals, and peace.

However, many of these rules and regulations do not apply to some branches of Islam. The two major branches in Islam are the Sunni branch and the Shi’a. The Sunni Muslims make up a total of 80% of the Muslim population and they do adhere to the rules and regulations that have been explained. The Shi’a Muslims are a minority and the more radical branch of Islam. Unlike Sunni’s, Shi’a Muslims put much priority on jihad (to struggle and fight through and for Islam). Their interpretation of jihad permits them to be violent and sometimes harmful towards non-Muslims and some Muslims. Martyrs are also very much honored by Shi’a Muslims, mostly because Shi’as have a strong support for Ali, who was a martyr and Muhammad’s son-in-law. This strong belief in fighting for religion promotes much of the radicalism among Shi’a Muslims. Along with this belief, Shi’a Muslims also follow a slightly different version of the five pillars of Islam. Instead of praying five times daily, they combine the prayers into three prayers, and they fast from sunrise to noon, rather than sunset. Though they are a minority, Shi'a Muslims change other people's understanding of Sunni Muslims.

Islam originated in the Middle East, in the mountains not far from the thriving city of Mecca. A man named Muhammad was meditating in a cave on Mount Hira around the year of 610 CE. Muhammad was a kind, intelligent, and well-respected man from Mecca, but he was very much troubled by the selfishness and greed of the Meccan people. One night, Jibril (angel Gabriel), appeared in Muhammad’s cave and recited the first message from Allah, "Read in the name of your lord who has created everything, who has created man from a clot of blood." Initially, Muhammad was very much shocked and frightened by this magnificent creature that claimed to have a message from the great Lord himself. But he did soon realize that this was a great revelation and that he had been chosen by Allah to spread these words and become the last prophet. Muhammad took action rapidly and lectured about the commands of Allah to many of the residents in Mecca. People at first were reluctant to listen to his speeches, but they were soon moved by his divine preaching and personality. During this time period, Muhammad routinely received new messages from Allah though the angel Jibril. As Muhammad was spreading the word, there were groups of people who victimized Muhammad because he had been spreading this unknown religion called Islam. Even under tremendous persecution, Muhammad and his faithful companions managed to spread the faith of Islam throughout Arabia. 4 After the death of Muhammad, there were many caliphs that followed after him. These were successors to Muhammad as head of Islam; they originally had full political as well as religious power. Among them were Abu Bakr (the first Meccan to convert to Islam), Umar ibn al-khattab, Uthman ibn Affan, Ali, and Mu’awiyah. They spread Islam through exposure, negotiations, and some wars. 5

Soon after the establishment of Islam, civilization, science, and technology had improved significantly. The Islamic Empire was the first to develop the scientific tradition of that time (early 6th century CE). Islamic science consisted of mathematics, astronomy, medicine, and philosophy. Many do not realize that the concept of algebra and the number zero was actually introduced by Muslims. Muslims have also formed the trigonometric function as well as introduced Arabic numbers to Europe and taught the concept of arithmetic to the West. Astronomy was greatly studied by Muslims at that time. Islam follows the lunar calendar, making the Muslims dependent on the movement of the stars and moon to keep time. Muslims have formed tables and charts on the movement of planets that had been discovered, produced the safihan (a type of astrolabe), and have developed theories on stellar movement. Muslim doctors and experts in medicine made great contributions in medicine by discovering new diseases, classifying diseases, and creating theories for the causes of several diseases. It is amazing how much Muslims discovered with their limited resources at the time. They also made major contributions in other studies as well, such as geography, civilization, physics, and metaphysics. 6 From the very beginning, Islam has encouraged humankind to seek and gain knowledge. Prophet Muhammad also clearly stated that obtaining education is an obligatory duty of a Muslim. This crucial commandment from God had promoted much of the educational development among Muslims, introducing new ideas and concepts to the entire world.

This essay continues below.

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As time passed, Muslims from the Middle East and Asia begin to immigrate into the Western world. Muslim immigration into America began in the 1960’s with a small population and became more evident as more Muslims immigrated to the U.S. Many Muslims immigrated for economic opportunities, education, and to escape wars, civil wars, and revolutions in the Islamic world. Non-Muslims were very welcoming towards the new Muslims and accepted their culture and way of life. Muslims had also added more diversity and culture to the American society and lived successfully in their new lives. Mosques and Islamic schools were opened, and Islam began to be an integral part of American life. 7 However events like Jimmy Carter’s failure with Iran in 1979 8 and September 11th, 2001 have portrayed Islam negatively. Many non-Muslims began to wonder if Islam was truly a religion of peace.

Unfortunately, these minor misunderstanding slowly turned into serious hate crimes towards Muslims. Mosques and Islamic centers had been attacked and even torn down by angry non-Muslims. Muslims in the western world were persecuted physically and mentally because of the portrayal of Islam as a corrupt and antagonistic belief. Islam has not always been easily accepted, beginning in the past when it became a religion. 9 According to Jeff Siddiqui, a local Islamic activist, Muslims were identified as enemies in history because of their different religious belief and success in civilization and trade. He also informed that since then, Muslims have been usually considered as top suspects for terrorism in the western world. An example of this would be the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995. Before investigators discovered that Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols were responsible for the attack, it was initially believed that the attack was organized by a group of Muslim terrorists. This information was displayed on several national television networks. Eventually, it was proven that the terrorist group was not involved with the bombings. 10 Islam teaches Muslims to not support any Islamic terrorist in any way. It is not fair to accuse Muslims of a crime that they did not do. By pointing the finger at a few Muslims, it brought the idea to accuse people whom we dislike, in this case, all Muslims. 11

A common misconception made about Muslims is that Muslims are violent terrorists and that Islam was spread with the sword. This is absolutely mistaken. In reality Islam does not permit the murder of innocent people. It is stated in the Koran, "Fight in the cause of God against those who fight you, but do not transgress limits. God does not love transgressors." During the time of Islam's revelation, there were many holy wars, known as jihad. Holy wars were sometimes used to expand Islam’s boundaries and defend Islam. It is certainly true that sometimes Islam was spread through wars. However, most of it was spread through preaching, negotiations and exposure. For instance, Indonesia, Malaysia, and China have some of the highest populations of Muslims in the world, yet no jihads have ever taken place in any of those areas. People had been exposed to Islam through Muslim traders and missionaries, and decided to convert to Islam through the examples that the Muslims portrayed to them. Also, in history when the Mongols invaded Europe, Iran, and eventually stopped in Egypt, the majority of them had switched their religion to Islam.  Jeff Siddiqui commented: "It is apparent that the Mongols were not converted by the sword, because after all, they were the ones that held the sword." 11

It is also perceived by many non-Muslims that all Muslims are Arabs, but this is completely false. Muslims are a heterogeneous group of people, meaning that it is composed of a society of diverse ethnicity. 12 In fact, only 18% of the Muslims are Arabs, 30% are from the Indian subcontinent, 20% from sub-Saharan Africa, 17% from Southeast Asia, 10% from the former Soviet Union and China, and the rest are from non-Arab Middle East. 6

The misinterpretation that all Muslims are Arabs has affected non-Arab Muslims in some ways such that they feel segregated from the rest of the Muslim community because they are not Arabs. Many non-Muslim Arabs have also been persecuted because they were thought of as Muslims, so all the misconceptions about Islam were made about non-Arab Muslims as well. Along with this, many Arabian symbols that represented the Arabian culture now represented an image of barbaric Muslim terrorists. For example the kaffiyyen, is a traditional checkered garment that is worn on the head for protection from the sun and to show identity. 13 Instead, this cultural Arabian garment has been used on signs, pictures, and other displays to harass Muslims and Arabs. 11

For several years, many non-Muslims have come to believe that women are greatly oppressed under Islam. The media has portrayed Muslim women as insignificant people under cruelty and abuse. Many are shown physically abused by men and are not given any equal rights. But these methods of unjust gender cruelty are not at all expressed in the teachings of Islam. Practices that put women under any harm or degrading are committed by non-Islamic people who are sick and absurd. Since the time Islam was revealed and spread, it had brought the concept of equality among both genders. Islam had revolutionized the lives of women by replacing their rights and dignity. Since more than 1,400 years, women were considered full people under the Islamic Law, they had the opportunity to vote, own property, earn money, inherit, initiate divorce, control their wealth, and received equal pay and respect as men did. 3 The Hijab, a cloth that as worn around the head of a Muslim woman, is often misunderstood as a way to keep women hidden and inferior to men. However, wearing the hijab is a voluntary decision. Not all Muslim women decide to wear it. If a woman does wear it, her motivation is to represent modesty that so others will focus more on their personality rather than their appearance. 13

Though Muhammad is highly respected by every rightful Muslim, he is still considered as a messenger of God, and no more than that. Muhammad is not the founder of the religion of Islam nor do Muslims worship him, as commonly believed by non-Muslims. It is crucially stated in the Koran to believe in God, and only God, and it is a great sin to worship anyone else other than God. If Muslims were to worship Muhammad, then they would have to accept Muhammad as God. But to Muslims, Muhammad cannot possibly be God because Muhammad worshipped God and was his faithful messenger. Because of that misconception, Islam has also been frequently known among non-Muslims as "Muhammadism." The religion of Buddhism is called Buddhism because Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) was the founder of the religion, but as we know Muhammad is not the founder of Islam. Muhammad is not considered the founder of the religion because Muslims believe that Islam has also been sent before by the previous prophets (Adam, Noah, Moses, Jesus, etc.). It is essential that non-Muslims understand that Muslims do not worship Muhammad, but respect him for being a faithful messenger for God. 14

Though much prejudice has been generated towards Muslims in the past and present, many non-Muslims have developed in interest towards the religion. Numerous non-Muslims are now eager to understand the religion and comprehend why Islam is the not the way it may seem. With this awareness by non-Muslims, it is necessary that Muslims explain Islam the way it should be.

Some Muslims have also developed misinterpretations on other religions as well. These misconceptions have also produced many crimes of hatred and prejudice against non-Muslims. But it is not the misinterpretations that create the hatred among us, it is the ignorance and lack of tolerance of other religions. As illogical as at it may seem, many people tend to believe anything that is portrayed to them and use that misinterpretation to attack or hurt innocent people. It is time that people around the world take the time to study other religions and realize how similar we actually are. Outwardly, religions may seem significantly different through rituals and practices. However, the heart of every religion has the same message. It is essential that we discover that. Religion was intended to unite humans, but instead it has been used to segregate us. We cannot allow this discrimination to flow in our society any longer. Healing can begin if Muslims and non-Muslims become aware about these stereotypes and view each other as brothers, sisters, and friends.

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References used:

  1. "Basics of Islam." Noboni Computers, (2000).
  2. Matthew Gordon, "Islam World Religions," Brown Publishing, (1991), Pages 74 to 80.
  3. Abdul Malik Mujahid, director, "Islam: A Closer Look," Video, Taiban International, (1995).
  4. Op Cit, Gordon, Pages 4 & 5.
  5. Op Cit, Gordon, Pages 28 to 34.
  6. Aminuddin Ahmad, "Islamic contributions to Science," UMR, 2004-FEB-19, at: http://web.umr.edu/
  7. Richard Wormser, "American Islam: Growing up Muslim in America," Walker and Company, (2002), Pages 3 to 7.
  8. "Foreign Affairs," Encyclopedia Britannica, 2003 edition.
  9. Op Cit, Wormser, Pages 7 to 9.
  10. "Oklahoma City Bombing." Encyclopedia Britannica. 2003 edition.
  11. Jeff Siddiqui, Telephone Interview, 2004-JAN-20.
  12. Ellis Goldberg, Telephone Interview, 2004-JAN-10.
  13. Anon, "Arab Americans," Seattle Times 2001-SEP-16, Page A12. Online at: ProQuest, at: http://gateway.proquest.com.
  14. Huma Ahmad, "Top Ten misconceptions About Islam," Baha’i Faith, 2003-SEP-05, at: http://www.bci.org/.
  15. Oleg Grabar, "Islam," World Book, 2000 edition.

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Copyright © 2004 by Semonti Hossain
Originally posted: 2004-JUL-25
Latest update: 2004-JUL-25
Author: Semonti Hossain

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