Visiting the Islamic Center
Here are answers to 100 of the most frequently asked questions about Islam.
1. What is the difference between the words “Islam,” “Islamic,” “Muslim,” and “Arab?
Islam is the name of a religion, as Christianity and Judaism are names of religions. In Arabic the word Islam is commonly translated as “submission or surrender to God” or “peace.” Combining both translations results in the combined meaning “peace through following God’s guidance.” For Muslims, this is the goal and objective of Islam: to first establish peace within oneself by following God’s commandments, and as a result to interact peacefully with one’s family, neighborhood, city, etc and to work towards a peaceful and just society. Islam is considered a way of life for Muslims because it includes beliefs, practices, and good works in all aspects of a person’s life.
Islamic is an adjective that modifies a non-human noun, for example, Islamic art, Islamic architecture, Islamic beliefs, etc. This term should not be used to refer to a person.
A follower of Islam is called a Muslim. More commonly, a Muslim is defined as a person who believes in the oneness of God and the prophethood of Muhammad.
While the term “Arab” has been used in the past to reference members of an ethnic group from the Arabian Peninsula, today, the word “Arab” refers to people from Arabic-speaking countries, most of which are in the Middle East and North Africa. The term “Arabian” was historically used to describe an inhabitant of the Arabian Peninsula. Today “Arabian” is used as an adjective to describe a non-human noun (e.g., Arabian coffee); it should not be used to refer to people.
2. What does Islam teach?
Islam’s primary message is a continuation of the monotheistic, Abrahamic tradition’s belief in one God. The three major dimensions of Islam include: beliefs, ritual practices, and doing good works. There are six major beliefs in Islam. There are also five central practices which are referred to as the Five Pillars. The last dimension of Islam focuses on good works and excellence in character in both one’s spiritual relationship with God as well as in one’s everyday actions.
3. What are the major beliefs of Muslims?
The six major beliefs in Islam are: belief in God; belief in angels; belief in God’s prophets/messengers; belief in God’s revelations in the form of holy scriptures sent to the messengers; belief in an afterlife which follows the Day of Judgment on which people will be held accountable for their actions and compensated accordingly in the afterlife; and belief in God’s divine will and His knowledge of what happens in the world.
4. How do Muslims practice their faith?
Muslims practice their faith in many different ways, but the major practices are known as the Five Pillars, which include: the profession of faith, namely that there is only one God, and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God; the five daily prayers; required annual donation in the amount of 2.5% of one’s excess wealth; fasting during daylight hours in the month of Ramadan; and making a pilgrimage to Mecca once in a lifetime, if one is mentally, physically and financially able.
5. What are the primary sources of knowledge about Islam?
The primary sources of knowledge about Islam are the Qur’an, which Muslims believe to be the divinely revealed word of God, and the Sunnah, which refers to the example or precedent of the Prophet Muhammad (i.e., what he said, did, approved, disapproved, caused, ordered, or allowed to happen). Much of what is known about the Sunnah is from the collection of sayings or reports known as hadith, or prophetic tradition. The hadith describe actions of the Prophet Muhammad or actions that his companions attributed to his teachings. Hadith also elaborate and provide context to the Qur’an.
In addition to these primary sources, Muslims have also traditionally relied on the following: Scholarly consensus which basically means that knowledgeable scholars agree upon a particular issue that is not addressed specifically in the previously mentioned; primary sources; and analogical reasoning, which means applying principles or laws derived from the Qur’an and Sunnah to similar situations not explicitly addressed by them. For Shi’as, the rulings of the twelve imams are also considered a primary source.
THEODICY (Argument in defense of God’s goodness despite the existence of evil.)
6. Why do some people suffer so much in this life especially the innocent such as children?
Muslims believe that God tries people in different ways, through both hardship and ease. While the cause of suffering is not always evident, the way that people respond to difficulty is a test of their moral fiber. Responding to hardship with patience and fortitude is a virtue for which Muslims believe a great reward is promised in this life and the afterlife. Additionally, there may be a silver lining behind every difficulty. For instance, major disasters often bring out the best in people, inspiring them to perform remarkable acts as they respond to a personal or another’s hardship with compassion and courage. Muslims believe that they are responsible for coming to the aid of suffering people and will be held accountable in the afterlife for how they respond to those in need. Muslims also take comfort in their belief that life doesn’t end after death.
7. God’s love for humanity is a central theme in Christianity. Are there similar teachings in Islam?
Actually, the Qur’an mentions God’s compassion and mercy 192 times, as opposed to God’s wrath, which is mentioned only 17 times. Two of God’s main attributes are the “Compassionate” and the “Merciful.” Both of these names denote God’s love and care for all creation. These are the two most often mentioned names of God since all but one of the 114 chapters in the Qur’an begin with “In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful.” The Qur’an cites 99 different names or attributes of God, many of which also emphasize these characteristics, including “the Loving,” “the Giving,” “the Forgiving” and “the Kind.”
8. What do Muslims believe about angels?
Angels are mentioned many times in the Qur’an and hadith (prophetic sayings). Unlike humans, angels are described as not possessing free will, but are assigned different duties. Two of the most prominent angels mentioned by name in the Qur’an are Gabriel (Jibril) and Michael (Mikhail). Gabriel is the angel of revelation and Michael is the angel of compassion.
9. What does Islam say about Satan?
The word “jinn” refers to a third type of creation, in addition to humans and angels. Humans are said to have been made from clay, angels from light, and jinn from fire. While Islam teaches that some jinn are good and submit to God, it is believed that others, such as Iblis or Shaytan (Satan), try to tempt people to do evil, similar to the belief in Christian theology.
10. How do the stories of the prophets in Islam compare with those in Christianity and Judaism?
The stories of the prophets in the Qur’an are similar to and often reflect the stories that are in the Bible. Some examples include: the story of Noah and his ark; the story of Abraham and Sarah and the birth of their son Isaac, who is also considered a prophet; the story of Jacob and his twelve sons, including Joseph, who is also considered a prophet; and the most oft-mentioned prophet in the Qur’an, Moses, and the story of his mission in Egypt to rescue his people. All of these stories are recounted throughout the Qur’an and bear striking similarity to Biblical versions with the main difference being the belief by Muslims that none of the prophets committed major sins.
11. Were there female prophets?
Some Muslim scholars hold the view that there were female prophets. Two of the women regarded by these scholars as prophets are Asiyah, the wife of Pharaoh, and Mary the mother of Jesus, because they both received revelation from God. Whether one takes the position that they were prophets who brought a specific message to their people or not, Muslims revere them as two amongst the many righteous and saintly women mentioned in the Qur’an.
12. Why do you believe that the Prophet Muhammad is the final prophet?
Because the Qur’an states that the Prophet Muhammad is the “Seal of the Prophets” or the final prophet, and Muslims believe that the Qur’an is the revealed word of God that has been preserved in its original form.
13. Why can’t you have images of the Prophet Muhammad? Why the uproar over the Danish cartoons or the recent film?
Out of a sense of great respect, Muslims generally refrain from depicting the Prophet Muhammad and actually all the previous prophets, including Abraham, Moses, or Jesus, who are all highly revered in Islam. This is a position similar to Rabbinic Judaism and a number of other anti-iconic Christian denominations. But the issue with both the Danish cartoons and the film was that they did not merely portray the Prophet Muhammad – they did so in an offensive and provocative manner.
While Muslims believe in the right to freedom speech, note that even under the U.S. Constitution, there are limits on speech that balance one’s right to free speech against the rights of others, including limits on “the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or ‘fighting’ words – those which by their very utterance inflicted injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.” (Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942) 62 S.Ct. 766, 769.) This is why people generally avoid racist or anti-Semitic speech or representations. Additionally, in most Muslim countries, as in many countries throughout the world, control of speech is regulated by the government (ie. China, Russia), which is why many Muslims wrongly assumed that the U.S government supported the film.
At the same time, reacting to such representations with violence or other extreme actions contravenes the very example of the Prophet Muhammad and Islamic teachings which prohibit such behavior. Every American Muslim organization and Muslim leaders worldwide condemned these attacks and offered condolences for the death of the American ambassador, who was a much loved friend of Arabs and Muslims. The following week in Benghazi, thousands marched to protest the militants. It is important to note that the attacks on the embassy in Libya and the resultant deaths have been called into question by both Libyan and American officials as having been a pre-planned attack by militants, rather than a reaction to the film.
Many pundits have also opined that the reaction to the film was as much in response to American foreign policy that in the Muslim world has been viewed as anti-Muslim for a long time, as to the film itself. Specific issues often cited are continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have killed thousands of civilians, long time U.S. support for dictators in many Muslim countries, and other foreign policy issues.
It has also been pointed out by multiple sources that the numbers of people taking part in the largely non-violent protests that followed the initial ones in Egypt and Libya were a small fraction of the total population, and far less than the huge numbers of people who rallied for weeks and months against their own rulers during the Arab Spring. At the same time period there were huge demonstrations in Russia against the Russian President Vladimir Putin, while thousands turned out in Portugal and Spain to protest austerity measures.
14. Jesus was a non-violent reformer while Muhammad fought in wars. Why the difference between Jesus and Muhammad in terms of their approach?
While Jesus lived and interacted with others as a prophet and reformer, he did not embody the various roles exemplified by the Prophet Muhammad during his lifetime. The Prophet Muhammad, for example, held the positions of religious leader, husband, father, social reformer, statesman, judge, and military leader. This provides a complete picture of his actions under different circumstances.
During the first thirteen years of Muhammad’s prophethood in Mecca, he did not fight back against the severe persecution of his followers, some of whom were killed while others were subjected to a severe boycott, had their property destroyed or confiscated, or were forced to emigrate. It was only after the Prophet Muhammad was in a position to defend his community without harming civilian populations that he responded to the Meccans. By then, the early Muslims had been forced to migrate to Medina, where hostilities against them continued by the Meccans who were threatened by their growing number and influence in the region. (Fighting to defend oneself against oppression or to prevent oppression against someone else is permitted in Islam, whereas fighting as an act of aggression is not.)
15. Why did the Prophet marry so many women?
According to Islamic teachings, the Prophet Muhammad was married to only one wife during the prime of his life—from the age of 25 until he was over 50. In fact, his first wife Khadija was actually 15 years older than him, meaning she was 40 and he was 25 when they were first married. Only after Khadija’s death did the Prophet Muhammad marry more than one wife, all but one of whom had been divorced or widowed. According to Muslim historians, these marriages were contracted to assist needy widows and divorcees, and to solidify the community of Muslims by forging alliances among the tribes in and around Medina. It is important to note that polygamy was prevalent in Arabia in the 7th century as it was in many cultures, as demonstrated by references in the Bible to polygamous marriages by many of the prophets or patriarchs.
16. Why did the Prophet Muhammad marry a nine-year old? If she was not nine, how old was she?
Muslim scholars differ about the actual age of Aisha at the time of her marriage to the Prophet Muhammad. While some reports mention that she was nine, recent research suggests that she may have actually been closer to eighteen. Whatever her age, all scholars agree that she had reached puberty at the time of her marriage, since it is prohibited in Islam to have marital relations prior to that time. It is also important to note that any discussion about age and marriage in a pre-modern era needs to be understood in the context of the culture, time, and place. 1400 years ago, it was common for both genders to marry at puberty due in part to a much shorter life span than today. Since Aisha was betrothed to another person prior to her engagement to the Prophet Muhammad, and there are no records of any objection to the first engagement, this indicates that the practice of early marriage was common at the time. This is a practice that continued until the late 19th and early 20th century in much of the world, including Europe and North America.
It may be of interest to note that Aisha became one of the most educated, outspoken, and influential women in early Islamic history about whom the Prophet Muhammad said: “Take half of your religion from this young lady.”
JESUS AND MARY
17. What do Muslims believe about Jesus?
Muslims greatly revere Jesus and believe that he was born to the Virgin Mary through a miraculous act of God, just as Adam was created by God without a father or mother. The Qur’an describes his conception and birth, as well as his many miracles such as healing the sick. The Qur’an also emphasizes that Jesus was a great prophet of God, as well as a messenger who received revelation from God, but that he was, like all other prophets, a human being.
18. Why does the Qur’an talk about Jesus more often than Muhammad?
For Muslims, the Qur’an is not about any one person, but rather is considered to be a source of guidance from God to humankind. However, much of the Qur’an directly addresses the Prophet Muhammad, or relates events that happened to him and his followers, without mentioning his name (such as in Chapters Muzzamil, Muddathir, Dhuha, Inshirah, and Ya-Sin). Muslims believe that since the Qur’an was revealed after Jesus and previous prophets, part of the guidance conveyed by the Qur’an is related through the stories and teachings about these earlier prophets. The most frequently mentioned story in the Qur’an is the story of Moses and his liberation of the Children of Israel. The miracles of Jesus, Moses, David, Abraham, and all the other prophets are mentioned in the Qur’an as well.
19. What do Muslims believe about Mary?
According to Islamic teachings, she is the Virgin Mother of the Prophet Jesus. An entire chapter in the Qur’an is named after her. The chapter called Mary (Maryam in Arabic) and other verses in the Qur’an emphasize her piety, righteousness and her role as example for all people, male and female.
20. Why is it that Muslims do not celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas?
While many Muslims celebrate the period of the Prophet Muhammad’s birth with poetry, songs, and readings about his life and teachings, this observance does not have the same significance as Christmas for Christians (which celebrates the coming of God to the world in human form). Similarly, Christians do not celebrate the births of the prior prophets mentioned in the New Testament. Muslims do commemorate the legacy of previous prophets by reading about their teachings and lives in the Qur’an and by saying, “peace be upon them” after their names.
21. Is the Qur’an only read in Arabic?
No. Since only 20% of all Muslims are Arabs, the Qur’an has been translated into and is read in many other languages, with multiple English translations. However, because Muslims consider the original Arabic text to be the literal word of God, during ritual prayer, the Qur’an is recited in its original Arabic language (similar to some Catholic churches that still perform mass in Latin or synagogues that perform part of their prayer in Hebrew). In order to fully comprehend the Qur’an for instruction and spiritual enrichment, non-Arab Muslims also read the translation in their native language.
22. What forms of prayer do Muslims practice?
Muslims practice three forms of prayer: Salat (ritual prayer), Dhikr (remembrance of God, which is repeated a number of times), and Du’a (supplication, or asking God for a need, desire, or for forgiveness).
23. How long does each prayer (Salat) take?
Each prayer (Salat) lasts 5-10 minutes, depending on the prescribed length of the prayer and the number and length of Qur’anic verses recited. Other factors may also influence the length of time a Muslim prays, including the number of additional (non-obligatory) prayers one chooses to perform, and the pace at which one recites the Qur’an.
24. In large groups women pray behind men. Why is that?
This is because the Muslim ritual prayer is very physical in nature, involving standing, bowing, and prostrating. People are supposed to stand side by side and shoulder to shoulder with those next to them. Most Muslims consider it distracting or immodest to have men and women praying side by side, or for women to prostrate in front of men. Therefore, for the sake of modesty, Muslim women either pray behind men, or parallel to men with a separation between them. The only mosque in which this does not apply is in the mosque built around the Ka’bah where men and women pray in circular formations around it. Muslims like to stress, however, that this separation only applies during congregational prayer or in the prayer hall of a mosque. Moreover, where people stand in prayer has no bearing on their status with God or each other.
25. How do very busy professionals (e.g., firefighters) find the time to pray five times a day?
Depending on their schedules, Muslims probably will not need to perform all five prayers while on the job since prayers are spread throughout the day. In addition, each of the five prayers has a window of time in which the prayer can be performed. This time frame extends from about one hour to as long as four hours depending on the specific prayer and the time of year, since the times shift depending on the season and length of day. However, if, for instance, Muslim firefighters are in the midst of fighting a fire and are unable to take a break to pray, they will perform the missed prayer as soon as they are able to, along with the next prayer.
26. What is the Ka’bah?
The Ka’bah is the cube-shaped building covered with a black cloth in Mecca that Muslims believe was built as the first house of worship to God. Muslims throughout the world face towards the Ka’bah when they perform each of their daily prayers.
27. Who built the Ka’bah?
Muslims believe that Adam built the original Ka’bah and that Prophets Abraham and his son Ishmael re-built and commemorated it as the first house of worship to God.
DAY OF JUDGMENT
28. How will God determine who goes to heaven and hell?
According to Islamic teachings, only God knows where a person will end up in the afterlife since only God knows a person’s intentions, deeds, circumstances and limitations. In the Qur’an, two of God’s ninety-nine names include “the Judge” and “the Just.” Muslims believe that God will judge human beings according to His complete justice on the Day of Judgment based both on their beliefs and actions, taking into account the opportunities and abilities that He gave them.
29. If a person is a good person throughout their life, but does not believe in God, will he/she go to hell?
According to Islamic teachings, God rewards whoever behaves righteously in this life. As for the afterlife, Muslims believe that God knows the innermost secrets of human hearts and He will judge everyone with absolute justice.
30. What good is “free will” if everything is predestined? If God already knows if we are going to heaven or hell, why doesn’t He just put us there?
According to Islamic teachings, unlike angels or animals, humans have the free will to choose to do good or evil in this life. Muslims believe that even though God knows people’s ultimate destination, they themselves do not have that knowledge. Therefore, whatever actions people commit are based on their free will for which they are held accountable.
31. How does Islam view other religions?
The Qur’an emphasizes the place and validity of prior religions: “For each of them We have established a law, and a revealed way. And if God wished, God would have made you a single nation; but the intent is to test you in what God has given you. So let your goals be everything good. Your destiny, everyone, is to God, Who will tell you about that wherein you differed” (Quran: 5:48). Additionally, the Qur’an recognizes the validity of previous prophets and scriptures including Abraham, Moses and Jesus and the holy books revealed to them. Previous religions are viewed as being rooted in the same primordial truths which were conveyed by the prophets or founders of all of major religions. At the same time, the Qur’an describes itself as the last and final message which confirms prior messages in the most complete form. However, Islam teaches that the salvation of all people—Muslims included—lies with God alone.
32. How does Islam view people of other religions?
The Qur’an recognizes and respects the diversity of God’s creation, both in nature and among people and teaches that human differences—including religious differences—are part of God’s plan: “And your Lord would have made humankind one people, had that been the divine will.” (Qur’an, 11:118). Additionally, the Qur’an teaches that God gives humans the free will to choose their faith: “…For every community faces a direction of its own, of which He is the focal point. Vie, therefore, with one another in doing good works. Where ever you may be, God will gather you all unto Himself: for, verily, God has the power to will anything” (Qur’an, 2:148). The Qur’an specifically refers to the followers of the previous Abrahamic holy books as “People of the Book,” generally interpreted to mean Jews and Christians, but expanded to include other faiths when Muslims encountered them in new lands. Islam teaches that the salvation of all people—including Muslims—rests with God in the afterlife since He alone is the judge of all people and only He knows the content of people’s hearts.
33. Who do Muslims consider to be an infidel and how should they treat them?
The term “infidel” did not come from the Muslims nor is it part of Islamic theology, but in fact originates in the 15th century from the Latin “infidelis” or the French “infidele” from in, meaning “not,” and fidelis meaning “faithful.” Today, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, an “infidel” is “one with no religious beliefs; “one who is an unbeliever with respect to some religions, especially Christianity or Islam;” or “of, or relating to unbelievers.”
While some people have translated or conflated the word “infidel” with the Arabic term kafir, it is not synonymous with the Arabic although some aspects are similar. The term kafir was originally defined as a person who rejects God or who hides, denies, or covers the truth. In the Qur’an, the term kafir is generally used to describe a person who not only rejects belief in Islam but also takes an antagonistic stance towards Islam and Muslims; the discourse is generally in the context of the Meccans who opposed and fought against the early Muslims. In most English translations of the Qur’an, the term kafir is generally translated as disbeliever, not infidel. In modern use, the word kafir is often used merely to mean a non-Muslim. Non-Muslims have the same right to be treated with respect and equality as a Muslim.
34. Why are there references in the Qur’an that are highly critical of Christians and Jews? Is that not equivalent to anti-Semitism?
The Qur’an includes narratives about many historical figures and groups, including many of the same stories of prophets and people that are described in the Old Testament. The Qur’an, like the Old Testament is at times critical of some of the groups it describes as a means of conveying a moral lesson to later generations about a particular behavior or attitude. These include some Jews and Christians whom the Qur’an is critical of, not for their religion, but rather for behaving contrary to the principles of their own scriptures. The Qur’an similarly criticizes certain Muslim individuals or groups for their actions which also contradict religious teachings. Muslims view all these references as historical lessons from which to learn. It should be noted that the Qur’an also praises Christians and Jews who follow their own scriptures. Additionally, Christians and Jews are given the special status of “People of the Book.” More importantly, the Qur’an creates a framework for human dignity based on universal principles that transcend religion.
35. Does Islam teach the hatred or subjugation of non-Muslims?
Most Muslim scholars and people do not accept the view that Islam teaches the hatred or subjugation of non-Muslims. Those scholars or individuals who do propagate this ideology are a minority in the global Muslim population, and are generally viewed as extreme in their interpretation of Islam. Most scholars teach that people of other faiths are free to practice their religion, and that it is forbidden to convert anyone by force. They often cite Qur’anic verses, such as: “There is no compulsion in religion” (Qur’an, 2:256), or others that emphasize the plurality of religious practice. Specifically, the Qur’an mentions “People of the Book,” which is generally understood to refer to Jews and Christians. Muslims are commanded to safeguard their right to worship and their places of worship. The existence of old churches and synagogues throughout the Muslim world in places like Egypt, Turkey, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, and Bosnia as well as the existence of minority religious populations in those areas, as well as Hindus in India, demonstrates that this command was historically followed by many Muslim societies. While today there are instances of tensions between Muslims and practitioners of other faiths in their countries, these are typically due to either an extreme interpretation of Islam or the manipulation of religious differences for political purposes by one or both parties.
36. Do Muslims believe in the Bible and Torah?
Muslims believe in the five holy books or scriptures mentioned in the Qur’an as original revelations: the Scrolls as revealed to Abraham; the Torah as revealed to Moses; the Psalms as revealed to David; the Gospel as revealed to Jesus; and the Qur’an as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. While Muslims accept that these holy scriptures were revealed by God, they do not believe that they have been preserved in the original form or language as when they were first revealed. Muslims believe that those aspects of the previous scriptures which were important to preserve are reiterated in the Qur’an, which is viewed by Muslims as the last and final revelation. Therefore, Muslims follow the teachings of the Qur’an rather than the other previous books, but may cite or refer to the Bible and Torah as they may refer to any religious text.
37. What is your proof of the authenticity of the Qur’an?
According to Islamic traditions, as the Qur’an was revealed, it was memorized and recited by scores of people exactly as it is still memorized and recited by multitudes to this day. Islamic traditions also state that the Qur’an was written down as it was revealed and that it began to be compiled shortly after the death of the Prophet at the time of the Caliph Abu Bakr. It was transcribed very carefully, with two people verifying each verse of the Qur’an in terms of both its script and placement in the text. Later, during the rule of the third Caliph Uthman, the completed and unified version of the Qur’an was copied and distributed to the major centers of Islamic civilization where they served as the basis for Qur’anic editions since then. Today the Qur’an has been translated into multiple languages with various translations in English that differ from each other. However, while translations in other languages may vary, the Arabic Qur’an is uniform throughout the world. Additionally, millions of people have memorized the Qur’an in its original Arabic.
38. Is it possible that Buddha is among the “unknown prophets”?
Although Buddha was not mentioned among the 25 prophets named in the Qur’an, because of his advocacy for a life of high moral behavior, some Muslim scholars suggest that Buddha may have been among the “unknown prophets” who, the Qur’an proclaims, were sent to every nation.
39. What is the difference between the Nation of Islam and the religion of Islam?
The Nation of Islam is a nationalistic movement that began in the early 20th century, whereas Islam is a religion that was revealed in the 7th century. The original Nation of Islam was also a single, hierarchical organization. However, In 1975 Elijah Muhammad’s son W.D. Muhammad disbanded the organization and moved his followers towards traditional Islam. The Nation of Islam was revived within a few years by various individuals, with the organization headed by Louis Farrakhan being the most prominent of these. Today, followers of his organization number less than 100,000 people, compared with the majority of African Americans who follow Islam. Unlike today’s Nation of Islam members, most mainstream Muslims are not part of a hierarchical organization.
In terms of ideology the Nation of Islam differs in two major ways: the founder of the movement, W.D. Fard, is considered God incarnate, and Elijah Muhammad is considered a prophet by members of the Nation of Islam. While there are other differences between the two, the Nation has adopted many Islamic traditions, such as women’s dress, holidays, and some Islamic terms.
40. How did Islam spread throughout the world? What was the process?
According to the most authoritative historical narratives, the process was mixed. It was similar to the way that Christianity spread in different parts of the world, with some notable differences. Islam spread throughout Arabia as a persecuted minority preached its message, and entered the Horn of Africa during this period as Muslim refugees fled the persecution. Eventually, the Muslims in Arabia began to defend themselves. From that time, preaching, trade, intermarriage, and military expansion were the main ways that Islam spread. Instances of Muslim military expansion are often not well understood. For example, it is not common knowledge that the intervention of Muslims was sought by oppressed groups in both Spain and Persia during the 7th century. Meanwhile, North Africa and Egypt were part of the Byzantine Empire until the Byzantines conducted aggressive military maneuvers near the Arabian border. When the Muslims responded in kind, war ensued, and the Byzantine Empire lost much of its territory to the Muslims.
When the new Muslims conquered Egypt, Persia, North Africa and India they became the rulers in those areas. However, in these same places, it often took centuries for populations to convert to Islam, mainly through interaction, intermarriage, and missionary efforts that emphasized spirituality (Sufism). Some rulers in the early years of Islamic rule (the Umayyads) actually discouraged conversion, most likely because adult men who converted would no longer pay jizya and would be eligible to join the military. Jizya was a tax paid to the government by non-Muslim men in lieu of their military service (however they were then not required to pay Zakat, which was required of Muslims to aid the poor). Moreover, significant groups living under Muslim rule, such as Christians in Lebanon and Hindus in India, never converted and continued to practice their religions until the present. In other areas, Islam spread mainly through trade and Sufi missionary activity.
However, in a few instances Islam did spread as a result of forced conversions. One well-known forced conversion helps to illustrate the fact that while a few Muslims endorsed forced coercion, they were repudiated by others. Maimonides, a well known Jewish scholar in Islamic Spain, was forced to convert to Islam after the Almohads removed the Almoravids from power. The Almoravid leadership was known for its strict interpretation of Islam, but it had still allowed Muslims, Christians and Jews to live together. Meanwhile, the Almohad leaders were much more severe. Maimonides left Almohad Spain, went to Egypt, and publicly declared himself a Jew. In response one of the most famous Muslim legal scholars of Egypt, Al-Qadi Al Fadil ‘Abd Al-Rahim, ruled that anyone forcibly converted to Islam could not be considered a Muslim.
Other instances of forced conversion have also evoked responses from Muslim scholars. This happened as two well known military leaders in 19th century West Africa forced conversions. Al-Hajj Umar Futi’s policy of forced conversion was repudiated by the Kunti scholars of Timbuktu. Samory Toure’s forced conversion policy was repudiated by the scholars of Kong, who even chose to be executed rather than endorse his policy. Some forced conversions also happened in the Horn of Africa during the 17th century wars between Christian Ethiopia and Muslim Somalis. In the eyes of ING, our affiliates, and most modern Islamic scholars these events are as tragic as Charlemagne forcing the Germanic tribes to convert to Christianity and the severity of the Spanish Inquisition. None of these forced conversions reflect the high calling of either Islamic or Christian doctrine.
SUNNI AND SHIA DIVISION
41. What is the main difference between Sunnis and Shi’as?
The main difference originated from the question of succession after the death of the Prophet Muhammad and is related to differing views about appropriate leadership for the Muslim community. Shi’as believe that succession to the spiritual and political rule of the Muslim community lies only with the family and certain descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. Sunnis believe that the Muslim community is free to choose whoever appears to be the most qualified person. Shi’as believe that God chose Muhammad’s cousin Ali, who was married to his daughter Fatima, to be the Prophet Muhammad’s successor, and that Muhammad formally announced this before his death. Shi’as also view Ali as the first in a line of Imams, or preeminent religious leaders, whom they regard as the spiritual and political successors to Muhammad. In contrast, Sunnis believe that Muhammad did not appoint any particular person to be his spiritual or political successor. Other theological differences exist between the two, many stemming from their divergent views of leadership, the role of the Imams, and resulting variations in beliefs and practices. However, both mainstream Sunnis and Shi’as share the core beliefs of Islam—the oneness of God and the prophethood of Muhammad—and adhere to the five pillars.
42. How and when did the division occur between Sunnis and Shi’as?
Sunni and Shi’a Muslims give differing accounts for the origin of their division. Shi’a Muslims trace the division to the death of the Prophet Muhammad, when Abu Bakr was chosen as caliph rather than Ali. In the Shi’a view, Ali and his followers had a religious basis for their position that the caliph, or successor, must come from the Prophet’s family. Sunni Muslims trace the division to the killing of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, along with his family in Karbala, Iraq, by one of the Umayyad Caliph Yazid’s generals, fifty years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. The people of Iraq regretted their failure to support Hussein which resulted in his death. Subsequently they began a political movement to overthrow the Umayyads, who were not only responsible for his death, but had become corrupt and dynastic rulers. Attempts to overthrow the Umayyads were unsuccessful until the Abbasid revolution in 750 C.E. After the Abbasids came to power, however, the people who supported rule by the descendants of Hussein were increasingly suppressed. Sunnis believe that this political dispute then took on a more theological nature. However, historically, Shi’a groups have taken very different approaches to politics. Some have established governments (such as the Fatimid dynasty in medieval Egypt), while others believe that clergy should stay out of politics.
43. How do Muslims define modesty?
According to traditional Islamic teachings, one aspect of modesty is the innate human characteristic of shyness concerning nudity or revealing body parts regarded as private or sexually attractive, especially in front of the opposite gender. Other aspects of modesty for Muslims include expressing humility towards God and other people.
44. Do Muslim women have to wear hijab (head cover and modest dress)?
Women who choose to wear hijab do so based on a widely accepted interpretation of the Qur’an established in the formative period of Islam that references two verses in the Qur’an (24:31 and 33:59), as well as hadith (prophetic sayings) which made it obligatory for women to cover their heads and much of their body for the sake of dignity and modesty. (Hair is considered part of a woman’s physical attractiveness, which is why it is also covered.) Many Muslim women choose not to wear hijab or believe it is not necessary to do so to be a pious Muslim. (There are also academic scholars of Islam who argue that hijab is not required, but that viewpoint is not accepted by the majority of traditional Muslim scholars.) It is important to remember that hijab is only one aspect of Muslim practice; it is often wrongly emphasized over more important injunctions because of its visibility. A woman who does not wear hijab may be as pious as one who does, and excel in less visible practices, such as prayers, fasting, and charity.
45. Why does a Muslim woman have to cover her hair and so much of her body?
Many observant Muslim women follow an interpretation of the Qur’an established in the formative period of Islam that references two verses in the Qur’an (24:31 and 33:59) as well as hadith (prophetic sayings) which made it obligatory for women to cover their heads and much of their body for the sake of dignity and modesty. (Hair is considered part of a woman’s physical attractiveness, which is why it is also covered.) Muslims point out that covering one’s hair is also referred to in the Old and New Testaments, which is why nuns and orthodox Jewish women traditionally covered and in some cases still cover their hair and much of their body. Similarly, one would be hard pressed to find representations of Mary, the Mother of Jesus without a long, loose robe and hair covering. While some people interpret the wearing of hijab by a Muslim woman to indicate her oppression, on the contrary, this is more often her choice— especially in the U.S.—and an indication of her devotion to Islam.
46. Why do some Muslim women also cover their face?
While there is a difference of opinion among Muslims, the normative practice and understanding is that covering the face is not required. However, some Muslim women cover their face as well for either religious or cultural reasons.
47. Do Muslim men have to cover or dress modestly?
According to Islamic teachings, men are also instructed to be modest in the Qur’an: “Say to the believing men to lower their gaze and guard their modesty (Qur’an: 24:30). While the extent of covering is not as much as it is for women, men are required to cover from the navel to knee and to dress modestly in loose-fitting clothing. If one looks at traditional clothing worn by Muslim men in such places as South Asia, where they wear a loose shirt and pants, or in some Arab countries, where men wear what looks like a long dress (jalaba) and a headscarf (kuffiyah), one finds that the modest nature of men’s and women’s clothing is nearly identical. While it is not as common to see this type of dress in America, one will notice that many Muslim men grow a beard and wear a head covering that resembles a skull cap, similar to observant practitioners in other religious traditions.
48. Are men and women equal in Islam?
Islam teaches the equality of men and women in their spiritual nature, rights, and responsibilities as trustees of God, and in their accountability in the afterlife.
The Qur’an states, “Whoever does right, male or female, and is a believer, We will revivify with a good life; and We will pay them their due according to the best of what they have done” (Qur’an, 16:97). While there are differences between the genders in some of the areas discussed in other questions— as there are in other religious traditions—the great inequalities that exist in some Muslim cultures or misogynistic practices of some Muslim individuals or societies are often a result of cultural influences or extreme interpretations of Islam.
49. How are women treated in Muslim countries?
There is not a uniform answer to this for alll women among the more than 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. This depends on a number of social, political, and economic factors, including the country and region, education, social and economic development, family circumstances, and many other aspects that differ not only from country to country, but also from city to village, and even within the same family. While some Muslim-populated societies, groups or individuals have oppressive or misogynistic attitudes or practices, in many Muslim countries women are involved at the highest levels of education, employment, and politics, with large numbers of physicians, engineers, lawyers and other professions. In fact, Muslim women have even been heads of state in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Turkey and Pakistan. Additionally, it is important to note that the treatment of women often reflects culture rather than purely religious teachings. Where the treatment of women does reflect a particular understanding of Islam, it is important to remember that Muslims do not have a uniform interpretation of Islamic sources; as in many religions, some may have more liberal interpretations while others are more conservative.
50. Do Muslim women have to stay at home or can they work?
There is no Qur’anic text or hadith (prophetic saying) which states that women cannot work outside their homes. Indeed, the Prophet Muhammad’s first wife was a wealthy merchant as well as his employer, an important fact since Muslims see his life as the model Muslim life. While some Muslim couples choose that the wife stays home and takes care of the children, particularly when they are young, increasingly large numbers of Muslim women throughout the world are employed in multiple and high level professions, including those that are male dominated, such as medicine and engineering. This is even true in countries known to have a conservative understanding of Islam, such as Saudi Arabia. According to a multi-year survey of the Muslim world by the Gallup World Poll, majorities of men in virtually every country surveyed, including 62% in Saudi Arabia, 73% in Iran, and 81% in Indonesia also agree that women should be allowed to work at any job for which they are qualified.
51. How does Islam view domestic violence?
Mainstream Islamic scholars categorically prohibit domestic violence or abuse. Indeed, spousal abuse is grounds for a Muslim woman to initiate divorce. Muslims consider the behavior of the Prophet Muhammad to be exemplary, and he never hit a woman or even a child. Indeed, he condemned those who did. There is a Qur’anic verse sometimes claimed to allow wife-beating. Scholars teach that this verse is not to be interpreted without the assistance of other verses from the Qur’an, as well as hadith (prophetic sayings), and the current social context. For example, this same verse states that men are protectors of women. It is hardly logical for a person to be given permission to abuse the very person who they have been ordered to protect from harm. The Prophet Muhammad said, “The best of you are the best to your families.” If some Muslim men cite the Qur’an to validate abusing or harming women, they do this either through their own ignorance of Islam, their desire to control, or other psychological reasons that lead to domestic violence. Note, however, that domestic violence is an unfortunate reality that exists in all cultures, religions, and economic classes.
52. Are there any examples of Muslim women as rulers, judges, or leaders?
The Qur’an relates the story of the Queen of Sheba and refers to her as having been a righteous, just, and powerful ruler; her example is often cited as evidence of women’s right to rule. However, the reality of historic and contemporary male-dominance in most societies (including many Western societies) has tended to place males in political leadership positions. Nevertheless, one finds a number of female rulers as well as powerful wives of rulers who had great influence over state affairs in Islamic history. Some of these Muslim female rulers have included: Al Audr al-Kareema, who ruled Yemen, Shajarat Ad-Durr in Egypt, who was known as a brilliant ruler, and a number of female rulers in India. In recent decades women have been heads of state in Pakistan, Turkey, Indonesia, and Bangladesh. Tawakul Karman of Yemen is the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, which she shared with two other women in 2011. Here in the U.S., Dr. Ingrid Mattson served as the president of the largest Muslim membership organization, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) for two terms recently. Additionally there are dozens of Muslim women who are founders and heads of Muslim organizations. These include Maha Elgenaidi, executive director of ING (authors of this document); Azizah al-Hibri, founder and president of KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights; and Tayyibah Taylor, founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Azizah magazine.
53. Why are/were there so few female Muslim scholars?
This is a misconception concerning Islamic history. According to Muslim historians, virtually all the leading scholarly figures in Islamic history had women among their many teachers. Detailed biographies document thousands of female Muslim scholars throughout Islamic history, many of whom were teachers of renown male scholars. (For example, Rabi’ah Bint Mu’awwad, a great scholar of fiqh, who taught scholars of Madina; A’isha bint Sa’d bint ibn Abi Waqqas, whose pupils included Imam Malik; and the granddaughter of Hasan, Sayyida Nafisa, whose pupils included Imam Shafi’i.)
People who transmitted hadith (prophetic sayings) are also regarded as Muslim scholars. Many of the hadith transmitters were women, with Aisha being the most prominent, having transmitted over 2,000 narrations. Unfortunately patriarchy reasserted itself a few centuries after the death of the Prophet Muhammad and with it an accompanying decline in the number of female scholars.
54. Is there anything in Islam that limits a girl’s right to education?
No, there is absolutely nothing in Islamic teachings that limit a girl’s right to education or her right to seek knowledge. In fact the first word revealed in the Qur’an was “read,” an injunction directed at both men and women. There are also many prophetic sayings encouraging seeking knowledge, which lead numerous Muslim women in history to become scholars, writers, and teachers of both men and women. Those groups or individuals who seek to limit girl’s access to education are acting based on ignorance of Islam’s teachings, or cultural traditions that view education as limited to males; this attitude is not supported by Islamic teachings and is antithetical to Islam’s teachings that men and women are both responsible for seeking knowledge and teaching others.
55. Can Muslims have boyfriends/girlfriends or date?
It is widely agreed upon in Muslim tradition, that if an observant Muslim couple is interested in getting aquainted for the sake of marriage they may do so, but in the company of others or in public places. For Muslims, the idea behind this is that having a chaperone prevents the couple from acting in ways that they would not be likely to in the presence of others. The practice of having a chaperone accompany a couple during courtship was also followed in the U.S. in the not too distant past.
56. Are Muslims allowed to marry people of other faiths?
According to Islamic teachings, Muslim men may marry women who are of the “People of the Book,” traditionally defined as Christians and Jews. In fact, a Muslim husband must guarantee the right of his Christian or Jewish wife to worship according to her religious beliefs. According to traditional interpretations, a Muslim woman does not have the same option of marrying outside her faith because her husband might not guarantee her the right to practice her religion since he does not have the same obligation to respect her religion that a Muslim has towards his Christian or Jewish wife. Since the most important relationship for a Muslim is his or her relationship with God, for the protection of her religion, she needs to marry a man who will give her the right to practice her faith. This view is based on the traditional role for men as heads of household who might wield more power than women. One of the solutions practiced by Muslims to this increasingly common situation is that the man converts to Islam to accommodate marrying a Muslim woman.
57. How do Muslims get married?
Traditionally, the actual Islamic marriage ceremony involves the bride and groom, an officiator, and two witnesses. The ceremony includes the marriage proposal and acceptance, and the presenting of a gift called mahr by the groom to the bride. In some societies, the bride and groom are represented by the heads of their families during this ceremony, and the mahr is not actually presented, but is agreed upon. The wedding celebration after the ceremony varies widely from culture to culture, but always involves food, special clothing, and some form of celebration. In some societies, there may also be several days of celebration leading up to the wedding.
58. Are arranged marriages condoned in Islam?
If by “arranged marriage” one means that a man and woman are not permitted to meet before marriage or are forced to marry against their will, this is a cultural practice in some Muslim societies and is not based on Islamic teachings. In fact, according to Islamic teachings, both the man and the woman must give their permission before marriage, and a person whose consent was not taken can automatically be divorced from his or her spouse. If by “arranged marriage” one means that a couple meets through referrals by family or friends, and freely choose to marry or not afterwards, this is still a common practice among Muslims, although increasingly young people are meeting in college, at work or online. Note that matchmaking exists in other religious traditions, such as Orthodox Judaism, and is a growing option for busy professionals among Americans of all faiths through private and internet matchmaking services.
59. Is it true that Muslim men can marry more than one woman?
The norm in Islam is monogamy as emphasized in numerous Qur’anic verses that discuss the creation of all things in pairs, beginning with Adam and Eve.
Polygamy was not initiated by Islam but existed in many pre-Islamic cultures, including those referenced in the Bible, which mentions, for example, Abraham, David, Jacob, and others having more than one wife. In Arabia before Islam men married women without any limitations on the number. Islam restricted this practice according to very strict, defined conditions. While Islamic teachings allow for more than one wife, the condition for such a marriage is that a man be fair and equal in his treatment of each wife. However, the Qur’an states, “You will never be able to treat women the same, no matter how hard to try…” (Qur’an, 4:129). The verse in the Qur’an allowing this practice was revealed in the context of war and caring for orphans. Polygamy at this point in history provided assistance to widowed women with children who otherwise would have been left to fend for themselves in a brutally patriarchal social order.
Today polygamy is only practiced by a small minority of Muslims, mainly in societies where it is culturally acceptable such as in Africa or the Arabian Peninsula. According to Islamic teachings, a wife who does not accept a polygamous relationship can write this stipulation into the marriage contract and seek a divorce if her husband marries another woman. If Muslims live in a country where polygamy is illegal, which includes many Muslim-populated countries, they must abide by the rules of that country.
60. Can women marry more than one man?
Women marrying more than one man would not fulfill the original purpose of polygamy, which was for men with sufficient resources (economic and spiritual) to provide and care for widowed women and their children. Additionally, in a pre-modern world it would have been challenging to determine paternity of any children from such a marriage.
61. What is the Islamic view of divorce?
The Islamic view of divorce which stems from a prophetic saying is that it is “the most hated lawful thing,” because of the damage it inflicts on the entire family. This is seen to be the case whether a male or female is initiating the divorce. All attempts, therefore, should be made to avoid divorce, including mediation and counseling. However, if all else fails, divorce as a last option is allowed.
62. Can women initiate a divorce?
Yes, a woman can initiate divorce. There are different types of divorce depending on the situation. The easiest way for a woman to obtain a divorce, if there are no obvious grounds, is to return the gift her husband gave her at the time of marriage (in Arabic this is known as khul). Unfortunately some scholars or governments make it difficult for women to get a divorce.
ISLAM AND MODERNITY
63. Is Islam opposed to modernity?
There is nothing about modernity in general that Islamic teachings are opposed to. In fact, many aspects of modernity, such as the use of science, reasoning, and invention as a means for improving our lives are in line with the Islamic philosophy that led to the flowering of science and learning at the height of Islamic civilization. In turn, this blossoming of science and learning contributed to the European Renaissance. Muslims also have a tradition of ijtihad (independent thinking) which facilitates reform and reinterpretation. When nurtured by enlightened scholars, ijtihad revitalizes Islamic societies and moves them forward. Islam is a universal religion compatible with different times and places, with the ability to adopt whatever is positive and good and to modify or avoid what is detrimental. However, Muslims, like members of other religious groups, question some of the specific aspects of modernity that Islam, like other religions, is not compatible with. These include the rejection of the belief in God, or other moral values that have been challenged or rejected in the modern era. Additionally, diverse and multiple groups, including some Muslims in a post-modern era, are increasing pointing out the devastating effects that modernity and its accompanying technological advances, when influenced only by factors relating to economic profit and short-term gain, have had upon our environment and the world.
64. Is Islam at odds with democracy? Why are so few Muslim countries democratic?
No, there is nothing in Islamic teachings that contradicts the ideals of democracy; on the contrary, there are Islamic principles such as the concept of shura, or “mutual consensus,” that reflect the ideals of democracy. Beyond shura, there is no specified form of Islamic governance.
As we witnessed during the 2011 Arab Spring, people throughout the Arab world in countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and Syria have risked their lives in their struggle for freedom and democratic change in their countries. A 2011 Pew poll shows that a majority of Muslims in the world desire democracy. Today, many Muslim-populated countries are experiencing democratic transformations, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Turkey. Where democracy does not exist, it is usually because of post-colonial dictators who have maintained their rule against the will of the people.
It is also important to remember that even in the West, democracy is a recent phenomenon that developed after centuries of despotic rulers. Here in the U.S., the road to a more representative democracy has been gradual, as initially only propertied white men were allowed to vote. Whites without property, African Americans, and women had to fight to gain this right which they achieved only gradually.
65. What does the term “Islamic State” mean? Do any such states exist today?
The phrase “Islamic State” is a new concept created in the 20th century by modernist Islamic thinkers. Generally, the concept is defined as a nation-state that has adopted Shariah as the ideological foundation for its political institutions. This idea is dependent on interpretation and imagination given that the Prophet Muhammad left no specific “Islamic” model of government. Nor does Islamic history offer an example of a purely Islamic state, but instead presents various monarchies that developed shortly after the beginning of Islam and continued until the early 19th century. Throughout most of Islamic history, secular power was invested with the rulers while religious doctrine was determined by Muslim scholars. The latter were often at odds with and even persecuted by the rulers, and feared the corrupting influence of power.
66. Does Islam support individual rights?
Yes, absolutely. The principal of individual rights was established in one of Islam’s earliest documents, the Medina Constitution, which was drafted by the Prophet Muhammad when he migrated with his followers to Medina. The agreement laid out certain rights and responsibilities between the Muslims and the major tribes in Medina, and guaranteed the security and religious freedom of the diverse religious and tribal groups who made up the new community. Many of the rights enumerated in modern day documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or even the U.S. Constitution reflect core Islamic principles. For example, the Qur’anic verse “there is no compulsion in religion” (2:256) is the Islamic equivalent of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. An important focus of Islam is social justice. Many contemporary Muslim thinkers advance an understanding of social justice that includes individual rights and equality, including gender parity.
67. What is Sharia?
Sharia comes from an Arabic word meaning “path to the water.” Sharia is often translated as “Islamic law,” which is not wrong, but incomplete. Sharia is divine guidance that is drawn from the Qur’an and Sunnah (teachings and guidance of Prophet Muhammad) for the purpose of helping humanity worship and draw close to God, and live with love, kindness, and justice towards His Creation.
Sharia has five main objectives: to protect life, property, lineage, religion, and intellect. The overarching objective is to establish social justice, fairness, mercy and security in societies.
Sharia rulings or religious commandments are similar to the Ten Commandments. Both claim divine authority, but require human interpretation, are religiously binding, and in that sense are “sacred law.” Only some of them are social, and of these, only a very few intersect with government law.
68. What are the sources of Sharia and how is it developed?
Sharia is derived from the Qur’an and Sunnah (prophetic tradition) by qualified scholars who use an interpretative process that includes qiyas (reasoning by analogy), ijma (consensus) as well as relying on precedent. Islamic law is called “fiqh” in Arabic, which means “deep understanding.” Islamic law is an interpretation of Sharia and, like Halakha (Jewish law), is an ongoing effort and process.
Sharia addresses both civil and criminal issues, and its principles regulate both personal and moral aspects of life. For the most part, Sharia is overwhelmingly concerned with personal religious observances such as prayer and fasting.
Because much of Sharia is interpretative, it has a degree of flexibility which allows it to function in different societies and cultures. Thus, Islam has historically functioned in diverse areas in the world, generally with a demonstrated record of tolerance and pluralism towards different cultures and religions.
69. What areas does Sharia address?
Sharia can be divided into two broad areas:
- – Guidance in religious worship (ibadat), which is the central focus of Islam.
- – Guidance in worldly matters (mu’amalat) such as visiting the sick, taking care of our parents, marriage, inheritance, investments and business affairs, etc.
It can be further divided into three more specific areas, some of which apply to American Muslims, and some of which do not:
- – Religious worship and ritual: American Muslims practice their acts of worship (prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, etc.) or rituals in the same manner as people of other faiths.
- – Private social interactions (marriage, business, etc.): All religions have rules for marriage and ethical economics. These are private and voluntary, so American Muslims follow Islamic standards (Sharia) for these within the limits of American secular law. For example, civil law prohibits having more than one wife, so American Muslims must abide by this law (since Sharia recommends monogamy, this isn’t a problem).
- – Public law issues (criminal law, war and peace, etc.): These have no application in the U.S. Islamic scholars formulated rules in this area for Muslim majority societies in other historical situations. But Sharia requires Muslims to obey “the law of the land” of the country they live in. The “law of the land” in the U.S. is the Constitution. Sharia requires American Muslims to support and follow the Constitution in all matters related to public law. Most aspects of Sharia are not meant to be government-enforced, because Sharia is largely a matter of conscience.
70. Where do people get their negative views of Sharia?
Some people falsely equate Sharia with criminal or hudud laws, which are centuries-old specific punishments for major crimes such as killing, adultery or theft. If one looks at the context of these punishments in pre-Islamic Arabia where tribal revenge was the norm, these laws were a great improvement on the existing system. However, hudud laws are only a small part of Sharia and can only be applied in a society that has understood and fulfilled the goals and purpose as well as the consequences of breaking those laws. Such laws should be applied fairly and with mercy, in contrast to the way that these laws are often applied in countries such as Saudi Arabia, or by the Taliban and other groups in a manner which contradict the letter and spirit of Sharia and have given it a bad name.
71. What types of Muslims follow Sharia?
Any observant Muslim would consider him or herself to be Sharia-adherent. It is impossible to find a Muslim who practices any Islamic ritual and does not believe himself or herself to be complying with Sharia.
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
72. What happens to a Muslim who does not follow one of the pillars?
Muslims believe that acts of worship should be done for the sake of God and that God alone will judge each person according to his or her intentions and actions.
73. What is the Islamic view on punishments such as capital punishment, stoning, or cutting off someone’s hands?
The traditional Islamic view of punishment is similar to the views and punishments found in the Old Testament, which follow the general principle that individual rights cannot be isolated from the rights of society. The overarching objective of these punishments is to establish social justice, fairness, mercy and security in societies. The application of traditional Islamic rulings regarding crime and punishment are intended for a society that has understood and fulfilled the goals and purpose as well as the consequences of breaking those laws. Currently, so-called Shariah courts throughout the Muslim world apply punishments in societies that have not fulfilled these conditions; therefore these laws are being used in ways that, rather than guaranteeing social justice, are resulting in injustices. This is why some Muslim scholars have called for a moratorium on such punishments. It is also important to point out that the bar for actually prosecuting such punishments is very high which is why, historically, Islamic courts went to great lengths to avoid these harsh punishments. For instance, for adultery the general requirement is four eye witnesses, which is literally impossible to fulfill. Capital punishment for murder—which is the punishment in many Western societies as well— can be avoided if the family of the victim accepts payment for the loss. Depending on the society and scholars judging these cases, these punishments are rarely enforced, but are meant to serve as a deterrent.
74. What does Islam say about “honor killings”?
“Honor killings”—which refer to the murder usually of a female family or clan member by one or more family members who believe the victim has brought dishonor upon the family—are absolutely prohibited in Islam. Honor killings directly contravene a Qur’anic verse that forbids even accusing a woman of indiscretion without having the prerequisite four eyewitnesses, a bar that is so high that it is virtually impossible to fulfill. The Qur’an also states that those who make such accusations without having four eyewitnesses are themselves subject to a severe punishment, which should be a deterrent to such actions. Therefore, while honor killings exist in some Muslim and other societies, they are a cultural practice that have no place or justification in Islam or any religion.
75. What is the Islamic view of terrorism?
Terrorism, defined as the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes, directly contradicts Islamic teachings, which prohibit targeting civilians, even in war. In Islamic law, fighting should only be between armies (combatants), and should not involve non-combatants; in fact Islam prohibits targeting infrastructure that affects the lives of non-combatants, such as food sources, water, hospitals, roads, bridges, and other necessities of a civilian population. Terrorism is close to the Qur’anic term “hiraba” which is defined as “sowing corruption and chaos on earth,” and considered one of the most grievous crimes.
76. Is there anything in Islam that leads to suicide bombings or terrorism?
Nothing in Islamic scriptures or teachings leads to terrorism or suicide bombings, nor has it ever been part of the ethos of Islam’s 1400 years of history and traditions. This is a modern day aberration that, according toTime magazine, was first adopted as a strategy in the Middle East by George Habash (an atheist), with the first hijacking committed by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in 1968. That fact that Muslims follow his tactics does not make his purely secular strategy an Islamic one. Firstly, suicide is strongly prohibited in Islam because no one has the right to take away the life that God has given, except God Himself. Secondly, committing terrorist acts, which kill innocent civilians, is also prohibited. Even during war, it is prohibited to target civilians, particularly women, children, old people, and members of the clergy. Islam also forbids cutting down trees, killing animals, and destroying infrastructure. Islamic teachings about war are similar to the Christian concept of a “Just War,” which is fought in self-defense or on behalf of the oppressed, not as an act of aggression. Such a conflict must similarly be fought between two groups of military personnel, not with civilians.
Terrorism is totally condemned by all mainstream Islamic scholars. Those who do endorse terrorism either have no Islamic credentials or legitimate standing among the masses. Their doctrines represent individual views that have been adopted by other disaffected, uneducated, or mis-educated people as regards to their religion.
77. What does the Qur’an say about war?
Some of the Qur’anic verses which lay out the purpose and nature of war include the following:
To stop oppression: “Victims of aggression are given license because they have been done injustice; and God is well able to help them—those evicted from their homes without reason except that they say, “Our Lord is God.” For if God did not parry people by means of one another, then monasteries and churches and synagogues and mosques wherein the name of God is much recited would surely be demolished. And God will surely defend those who defend God—for God is powerful, almighty.” (Qur’an, Chapter 22:39-40).
Note the mention of all houses of worship, which demonstrates Islam’s respect and concern for other religions as well as the value it places on houses of worship generally.
In self-defense: “And fight for the sake of God those who fight you; but do not be brutal or commit aggression, for God does not love brutal aggressors.” (Qur’an, Chapter 2:190.)
Note that permission is given to fight in self-defense, but not to transgress.
Peace is a desired state: “Now if they incline toward peace, then incline to it, and place your trust in God, for God is the all-hearing, the all-knowing.” (Qur’an, Chapter 8:61).
78. How do extremists justify their actions using the Qur’an and what are some of the verses they cite?
Muslim extremists cherry-pick partial verses in the Qur’an, taking them out of their specific-social-historical context. This means not considering the time, place, and specific circumstances in which these verses were revealed. Using these partial verses to justify targeting and killing innocent civilians is an act that is clearly rejected by Islamic teachings which strongly prohibit taking an innocent life.
The most commonly quoted partial verse must be understood in its context, which was the struggle of the early Muslims against the Meccans who had persecuted them and driven them out of Mecca. This persecution which began in Mecca continued after the Muslims migrated to Medina. Once they established a state and an army, the Muslims fought back for the first time.
The verse says: “Kill idolaters wherever you find them, and capture them and blockade them, and watch for them at every lookout.” (Qur’an, Chapter 9:5)
However the verse continues as follows below, a part that is usually omitted by terrorist organizations: “…But if they repent and practice prayer and give alms, then let them go their way; for God is most forgiving, most merciful. And if one of the polytheists asks you for protection, then protect him, until he hears the word of God: then deliver him to a place safe for him. That is because they are people who do not know.” (Qur’an, Chapter 9:5)
Note that not only are they given a chance to repent, but also that if they ask for asylum, it must be granted.
It is also important to view this and other verses in light of the overall Qur’anic message, which emphasizes general moral imperatives such as mercy, justice, kindness, or goodness. Additionally, the Qur’an and hadith (prophetic sayings), which are the two primary sources of Islamic law, place supremacy on the sacredness of life, security, and peace, and forbid the taking of innocent life. The Qur’an has a dual nature: one that is specific (particular or transitional) to the occasion, time and place, and another that is universal and permanent in nature, dealing with principles that apply for all times and places. The specific cannot be made to apply universally, while the universal always informs the specific. Terrorists who cite Qur’anic verses to justify their actions are either quoting verses out of the context and limits in which they were revealed, or ignoring universal scholarly traditions on how to read the Qur’an and misinterpreting the verses, just as anti-abortionists, white supremacists, and certain militia groups misappropriate scripture to support their skewed interpretations. These groups are primarily political in nature and have emerged out of very specific contexts.
79. What is Jihad?
Jihad is an Arabic word which is often mistranslated as “holy war,” a concept which does not exist in Arabic. The Arabic words for holy war “harb muqadasa,” are not found anywhere in the Qur’an or hadith (prophetic sayings). The term jihad literally means “striving.” The “greater jihad” is described as the internal struggle to avoid negative actions and cultivate good character. The “lesser jihad” is described as the external striving for justice, in self defense or against oppression. One can do this in one’s heart, with one’s tongue or pen, and if these are ineffective, by physically trying to change an oppressive situation, either in self-defense or to defend others against aggression (like the Revolutionary War by the founding fathers against the oppressive policies of the British; or World War II against the aggression of Hitler.) It is this last type of jihad that is misappropriated by extremist Muslims who cite jihad to justify terrorism. In reality, terrorism is the opposite of jihad, and closer to another Qur’anic term, hiraba, which means “corruption on earth.”
80. Does a person like Osama bin Laden have the authority to declare war?
Islam places a great emphasis on order in its political philosophy. Anarchy and arbitrary acts are greatly condemned. Basic principles relating to war are buttressed by these twin considerations. Islam teaches in the Qur’an: “Believers, obey God, and obey the messenger, and those with authority among you.” (Qur’an, Chapter 4:59). Qur’anic commentators mention that the term “those in authority among you” means legitimate political authorities and scholars. This means that only legitimate political authorities can declare war. In their absence, Muslim scholars who are universally recognized for their scholarship and piety can declare war; these are the only people who can rightfully make this call. Since Osama bin Laden was neither a scholar nor a government leader, he lacked the authority to call for war.
81. Do Muslims, particularly those in America, support al Qaeda? Did Muslims support bin Laden when he was alive?
The vast majority of Muslims do not support al Qaeda, nor did they support bin Laden when he was alive. In fact Muslims in America and around the world do not know any more about Osama bin Laden or al Qaeda than what they read about them in the news. While a few Muslim groups overseas supported him and still support al Qaeda because they view it as standing up to America, which they view as an imperial power occupying Muslim lands, polls show that support for al Qaeda has sharply declined among Muslims worldwide over the last decade, perhaps in part because al Qaeda attacks have killed more Muslims than any other religious group.
82. What do Muslims think about the killing of Osama Bin Laden?
While some might argue that it would have been better to capture and try him in a court of law, most American Muslims are hopeful that the terrorism he promoted will be greatly reduced with his death. Terrorism is completely against Islam, which forbids the targeting of civilians and random violence. While many Americans believe that Osama Bin Laden was a widely respected Muslim leader—he was not. He was a mass murderer—including of Muslims. In fact al Qaeda attacks in Muslim countries around the world have killed more Muslims than any other religious group.
83. Why don’t Muslims condemn terrorism?
Muslims around the world condemned 9/11 as well as later other acts of terrorism, most of which have targeted or killed Muslims. All major American Muslim organizations have condemned terrorism repeatedly, as have major scholars and organizations worldwide. For a listing of worldwide condemnations, see Muslim Voices Against Extremism and Terrorism by Sheila Musaji listed on theamericanmuslim.org.
84. In Islam, is it ever justifiable to kill innocent civilians?
According to Islamic teachings, it is never permissible to deliberately target innocent civilians. Islam teaches that even during warfare, combatants should take extreme precautions to avoid harming or accidentally killing civilians.
85. What is the role of American Muslims in combating terrorism?
The role of American Muslims in combating terrorism at home should be viewed as equal to any other American. All Americans should work with the proper authorities to combat terrorism. In fact, American Muslims have the most to lose if another terror attack occurs.
86. Why is there so much conflict between Arabs/Muslims and Jews?
According to Muslim historians, Jews and Muslims lived in harmony in many Muslim-populated countries, such as Morocco, Iraq, Egypt, and in Palestine itself, before the creation of Israel in 1948, following World War II. Jews refer to Muslim rule in Spain in their history books as a period of renaissance for Jewish life. During the Spanish Inquisition when both Muslims and Jews in Spain were forced to convert or leave, many Jews fled to Muslim countries where they lived for centuries in security and prosperity. According to Muslim historical accounts, these Muslim countries never propagated the anti-Jewish sentiment that resulted in pogroms and other forms of persecution known in Europe. It was only with the mass migration of Jews to Palestine in the early 1900’s and the subsequent creation of the state of Israel that this modern-day conflict began.
87. If your religion is about peace, why is there is so much conflict among Muslims?
The perception that there is a lot of conflict among Muslims is most likely based on the large number of stories in the media that focus on conflict and violence. It is important to remember however, that in general the media focuses on conflict and other bad news, even when it is reporting about local news. A person watching the nightly news in the U.S. might also conclude that there is a lot of conflict in America as well, since much of the news deals with killings, violence, and other crimes. It is also important to remember that there are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world and the vast majority of them live in peace. Where there are conflicts, they are generally due to issues of politics, power and control. Below is a basic breakdown of the causes for many contemporary conflicts.
In Iraq and Afghanistan the recent conflicts are a result of U.S. invasions. Violence begets more violence, and when there has been prolonged war as in these two countries, it is difficult to end the violence. The violence in Afghanistan has recently spilled over into Pakistan as well. In Israel/Palestine, Western China (Uigurs), Kashmir, and the Philippines there are conflicts involving people seeking independence from those they perceive to be occupiers of their land or territory. In African nations like Somalia, there are ongoing civil wars related to control of resources and power. While most of these conflicts are rooted in politics, some groups manipulate religion to support their political goals. In the Arab countries where the people have overthrown or are still trying to overthrow their despotic rulers, in places like Egypt, Libya, Yemen and still in Syria, it is important to note that most of the revolutions began peacefully, but often ended in armed conflict because the regime used brutal force to crush the protests.
88. Is there a conflict between being a Muslim and an American?
No, there is no conflict between being a Muslim and an American. This is like asking if there is a conflict between being a Christian and an American. One is a national identity and the other is a religious identity. Both impact one’s life.
Today, second and multiple-generation Americans make up a significant segment of the Muslim population in America. For these American-born Muslims, this is their first and only home; they are entirely American, and, in the spirit of the First Amendment, freely chose Islam as their religion. This is true as well for naturalized Muslims who choose to make America their home.
While issues such as being able to pray or wear a headscarf at work may be challenging in some situations, these are often easily addressed through simple accommodations such as allowing Muslim employees to pray at work. Just like any other religious minority in the America’s long history of religious diversity, American Muslims practice their faith while living as Americans.
89. Why do so many Muslims in the world hate America?
On the contrary, Muslims around the world generally admire America for its technology, liberty, education and accomplishments. During the Arab Spring, protestors in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya used American social media to advocate many Western ideals, such as democracy. However, as indicated in many polls, including a massive multiyear study by Gallup of Muslim majority countries, the concerns many people have with America relate to foreign policy issues, such as its previous support for some of these dictators, such as Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, as well as ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This sentiment is sometimes expressed in religious terms, as with the protests by Muslims in different countries against the film Innocence of Muslims which denigrates the Prophet Muhammad. Many American Muslims have pointed to the fact that these protests may be more related to American foreign policy and marginalization than to merely the film. Views that are critical of American foreign policy and hegemony are not exclusive to Muslims, but have been expressed in polls of many nations around the world, including European countries. Many Americans themselves are critical of American foreign policy, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are increasingly unpopular with Americans. It is important for all people to distinguish between the actions of any government and the will of its people, which are often at odds.
90. Should I be afraid of anyone who is Muslim or from the Middle East?
No. Just as it would be wrong to stereotype or make assumptions about any group of people based on their background, race, or religion, it is unfair to associate all people from the Middle East or Muslims with terrorism based on the actions of a few among the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims. This would be akin to asking if we should be afraid of all young white males from the U.S. because Timothy McVeigh (convicted of the Oklahoma City bombing) was white, or afraid of all Christians because extremist anti-abortionists are Christian, or afraid of the Irish because of terrorist acts in Ireland. There are good and bad people in all countries, races, and religions. (It is also important to remember that most Muslims are not Arab, or from the Middle East.)
91. Can you talk about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism? What contributed to it?
The word “fundamentalism” was actually first used in reference to an American Protestant movement that arose in the early part of the 20th century in reaction to modernism. If we accept this term at face value however, Islamic fundamentalism was to a great extent a reaction to the modernization policies in many Muslim-populated countries in the 19th and early 20th centuries that viewed Islam as backwards, outdated, and a barrier to progress. In the name of modernity, governments in places like Turkey, Iran, and Egypt outlawed or discouraged Islamic schooling, dress, and traditions. In Turkey, the Arabic alphabet was replaced with the Latin alphabet with the belief that the only way to modernize was to adopt Western culture and tradition. Traditional values and practices were replaced with Western modes of dress, culture, economics, and even language, often without the accompanying benefits of such Western values as democracy and justice.
In response to these trends, some 20th century Muslim groups espoused a return to the original practices of Islam as they understood them to have been practiced during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad and his immediate successors. The movement generally ignored the traditions and ideological developments, including that of the four schools of Islamic thought, over the previous thirteen centuries. As a result, they promoted an often narrow, unrealistic and sometimes puritanical vision of Islam. This movement has often taken on political overtones or calls for an “Islamic state” (see question above), and sometimes, but not always, involves a strict or literal interpretation of Islam, or extreme positions, which is often the case with reactionary or nascent movements.
92. How does the Taliban’s practice of Islam compare with mainstream Islam?
The Taliban’s interpretation and practice of Islam reflects a very narrow and inflexible interpretation that is defined more by tribal culture exacerbated by war than authentic Islamic scholarship. This cultural context impacts their views and attitudes in many areas, but mainly in their views and interpretations relating to women. They have been universally criticized by other Muslims for their treatment of women—specifically for their ban on women’s education and work—their strict dress requirements for both genders, and their harsh punishments for violations of their laws. They have also interpreted Shariah to ban a wide variety of activities including education and sports for women, kite flying, beard trimming, recreation, entertainment, and other matters where they have a much more rigid and extreme interpretation than mainstream Muslims.
Additionally, some members of the Taliban have engaged in activities, such as violence against civilians, which Islam prohibits.
93. How does Islamic economics work without interest? How does Islamic banking work?
Islam views money as something to be earned, which is one of the many reasons that gambling is also prohibited . While there are different types of interest and not all types are viewed as being the the same, many Muslim scholars regard interest as generally prohibited because it penalizes the poor for their lack of money and rewards the rich for their abundance of money, making the rich richer and the poor poorer. On the other hand, investment in business is highly encouraged because it involves some risk to the investor, which makes it a fair return. Investment also promotes the circulation of wealth and the growth of new businesses.
Applying this principle in the modern world is a major challenge, yet today there are over five hundred financial institutions offering Islamic finance in over eighty different countries. These institutions generate income through shareholding, leasing, lease purchasing, and rent sharing. Interest-free banking is an experiment in Islamic modernization. The fact that Islamic banks are now worth $1 trillion attests to their modern viability. In fact, many western economists maintain that interest-free economies can be extremely beneficial. An example of this is the growing popularity of interest-free financing in auto sales in the U.S. today as a means of attracting less affluent customers. Additionally, many economists have taken note that during the recent financial crisis, Islamic investments and banks were largely unaffected since they did not deal with interest-based financing such as mortgages or risky speculation.
94. Why can’t Muslims eat pork?
Because the Qur’an forbids the practice, as does the Torah.
95. Why can’t Muslims drink alcoholic beverages?
Because the Qur’an forbids the practice, as do Buddhist teachings. The Qur’an states that while alcohol has some benefits, its harm outweighs its benefits.
96. What is halal?
Halal is an Arabic word meaning lawful or permitted. The opposite of halal is haram which means unlawful or prohibited. While the term is used in relation to many aspects of life, when specifically used in relationship to food, halal refers to any food product that is not prohibited. In reference to meat products, halal means that the animal was slaughtered according to Islamic guidelines, which include reciting God’s name over the animal before slaughter, and draining all the blood from the animal. This practice is similar to the guidelines set by Jewish law that classify meat prepared in this manner as Kosher. It is common to find halal butcher shops or restaurants in most major cities in the U.S.
CONVERSION TO ISLAM
97. How many converts are there in the U.S.?
No exact figures exist on the total number of Muslims in the U.S. in general since the U.S. Census cannot ask about religious affiliation; however, various polls taken over the last decade estimate the number to be between 2.75 and 6 million. Of these, between 15-20% are converts, the majority of whom are African Americans.
SCIENCE AND NATURE
98. How does Islam view science?
Numerous verses in the Qur’an reference scientific phenomena, such as discussions of astronomy, geography, biology, and other aspects of nature and the universe. The Qur’an includes, for instance, a detailed description of the different stages that the embryo goes through en vitro, as well descriptions of the creation of the earth, the interaction between sweet and salt water, and other scientific references. The Qur’anic emphasis on science and learning inspired a period of discovery and learning during the Middle Ages which is commonly referred to as the Golden Age of Islam. Among the many sciences which medieval Muslims explored and contributed to were astronomy, chemistry, physics, botany, mathematics, and medicine. Scientific discoveries today continue to validate writings from the Qur’an, such as the fact that all living things are made from water. Today, large numbers of American Muslims and Muslims worldwide work in science-based professions such as medicine, dentistry, and varies fields of engineering.
99. What is the Islamic view on the theory of evolution?
The Qur’an clearly states that God created Adam and Eve in a unique manner as the first human beings. Thus, if the theory of evolution is taken as a whole, including the idea that humans descended from apes in a godless universe, it would be inconsistent with Qur’anic teachings that humans are the crown of God’s creation, distinct from other created beings. However, the concept that living things evolve from each other or that genetic change through mutation and selection may and does occur does not conflict with Islamic teachings.
100. Describe Islam’s view of the environment and the importance of protecting it?
There are hundreds of verses throughout the Qur’an that describe the wonders of creation and nature and call upon humankind to reflect on them as signs of God. Humans are described as stewards over this earth (as is the case in Jewish and Christian scripture), entrusted with its oversight. There are also numerous Qur’anic as well as prophetic injunctions to avoid waste, excess, and harming other forms of creation. There is even a prophetic saying that forbids wasting water, even when washing in a river. Living a balanced, moderate lifestyle is an important Islamic principal that is mentioned in reference to all aspects of life, including the earth and all of creation.
Courtesy: Islamic Networks Group