text size

Top comments

{{ annotation.praises_count }} Likes
{{ annotation.creator_alias }}
{{ annotation.creator_score }}

There are no comments yet. Be the first to start comment or request an explanation.

Islam is always in the news, and we get it wrong much too often. This is part of a broader problem about understanding religion, but I think it has particular resonance in the case of the most familiar yet most misunderstood religion. While I’m still not sold on the listicle form of an essay, I thought I should give it another crack, this time for the tradition with which I’m most professionally familiar. Thus, in short order, here are 10 things I wish everyone knew about Islam. 1. The Qur’an is to Jesus as Muhammad is to the Bible. Too often, people make this error of analogy: the Qur’an is to the Christian Bible as Muhammad is to Jesus. In fact, something like the opposite is the case. For Muslims, the Qur’an, especially in its recited form, is an incarnation of God on earth, and is thus not just a book, nor even a holy text deserving of respect. Instead, it is God’s words in the proverbial flesh. And much like the Bible is for Christians, Muhammad is the vehicle by which the Muslim conception of the divine was made known. While this doesn’t (I don’t think) fully explain the occasional riot or protest that erupts when news of some desecration of the Qur’an comes out, those of the Christian persuasion might well wonder how they’d react to seeing Jesus (again) trampled upon and abused. 2. Muslims LOVE Jesus. Like, a lot. While Muslims do not hold that Jesus was divine in and of himself, he is considered a prophet of high standing, born to a virgin named Mary, who delivered a revelation to the Jewish people. For many Muslims, especially those of the mystical, Sufi variety, Jesus is a close second only to Muhammad in terms of honor, and Jesus is believed to be the al-Masih (the Messiah) who will come again to usher in the end of times. He is popularly referred to as ruh allah, the Spirit of God. There’s a reason Muslims protested The Last Temptation of Christ when it was released and have protested revivals since — they really dig him. 3. Most Muslims aren’t Arab. While you might know that Indonesia is, by population count, the largest Muslim nation, the next three are Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. Egypt rounds out the top five, but to consider Egyptians “Arab” is somewhat debated. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has only the sixteenth largest Muslim population, behind countries such as Uzbekistan, Ethiopia, Turkey, and Iran. For what it’s worth, Saudi Arabia’s Muslim population is roughly equivalent to China’s. All of this should make us reconsider how we perceive not only Islam, but also the locus of its power and influence. While the Saudi government routinely casts itself as the protector and defender of the faith, they represent only a small fraction of the world’s Muslims. 4. (I’m gonna catch some hell for this, but . . .) Islam is NOT a “religion of peace.” But wait! Neither is it a “religion of violence” or the heinous acts ISIS gins up hoping to generate YouTube views and goad the United States into war. While I laud former president George W. Bush for his helpful PR announcement following 9/11, it’s a conceptual error to think of a — indeed, any — religion as inherently peaceful or inherently barbaric. Instead, as is the case with any religious tradition, a vast majority of Muslim people are peace-loving, and there are a few really bad apples. Whenever someone makes an argument that a tradition is or is not a particular way, what you are really hearing is his or her own interpretation of the tradition. Clearly, there are other ways to think about the same faith, as human history too well illustrates. 5. Analogously, “Islam” does not think, believe, teach, or command anything. This is another conceptual problem: there is no embodied “Islam” out there giving orders — just as there is no Buddhism or Daoism or Jainism giving conflicting advice. Religions are “things” only in an abstract academic or theological sense (what the great Wilfred Cantwell Smith calls the “reified” concept of religion). Rather, Muslims (and Buddhists, Daoists, and Jains) preach and cajole and recommend a great many things, and many of these things can be found — and debated — in the texts and traditions of “Islam,” but to speak of Islam as if it were an institutional voice echoing across the land is a fiction. There isn’t even a Pope of Islam who can claim to speak on behalf of a significant population. Furthermore, to treat Islam (et. al.) as such is to presume a kind of unified, homogeneous, and unchanging tradition, which is also simply untrue. 6. Allah is NOT the name of the Muslim God. Let me break this down. Technically, Arabic has no capital letters, so the word is allah. Second al- is a prefix definite article meaning “the.” The root word lah just means “god.” Thus, al-lah translates simply to The God. “Allah” is the same word Arabic speaking Christians use to speak about God. From a Muslim point of view, the God of Jews, Christians, and Muslims is all the same figure, just as the Christians like to believe their God is the same God of Judaism. It’s not as if “allah” is some other, competing divinity. Christians may not like Muslims laying claim to their divinity, but the Jews are (sigh, again) the truly aggrieved party here. 7. “Islam” as a word means “to submit or surrender.” Stick with me through a bit of philology: Arabic works on a consonant system, usually in sets of three. Thus, the root word of Islam is “salaam” — meaning “peace” — with the root consonants of s, l, and m. The addition of the i changes the noun into a verb. The prefix mu means, essentially, “one who has,” so a muslim — noting the same consonant base — becomes “one who has surrendered.” The surrender or submission, in the context of this word, implies surrender to God’s will and word. Hopefully, this brings the adherent peace — both for herself and her neighbors — although what one does with that submission is always a matter of interpretation. 8. Sharia ought not be a scary word. After all, it just means “legal reasoning” or “canonical law.” There are, at least, five classical schools of sharia (including the Shiite), and they differ radically in in their relationship to both sources of authority and interpretive methods. For example, the Qur’an enjoins one not to be drunk when you pray, not to get drunk, and not to drink fermented date wine. So, what of a cold beer? It likely won’t get you drunk, nor is it made from dates. Is it allowable? Sharia is the means by which this question gets answered, and those answers vary from no alcohol whatsoever to, quite literally, no date wine that leads to drunkenness. Across the Muslim world, you’ll find the whole spectrum of positions. And, just as with Catholics and birth control, you’ll find many Muslims who ignore the prescription regardless. Muslims are people, too. 9. The Sunni/Shiite division is very old, and often overblown. It’s important to know that there are doctrinal divisions within the tradition, and that Sunnis (roughly meaning “consensus of the people”) and Shiites (the “party of Ali”) are the two main groups. There are numerous others, however, and even within one group there are further — perhaps innumerable — divisions. A Sunni Muslim in Detroit might approach his or her faith very differently from a Sunni in Morocco, who differs again from Sunnis in Beirut or Karachi, Paris or Capetown. The Sunni/Shia split revolves around a very basic question: Was the authority of Muhammad transferable by blood? For Sunnis, the answer is no, whereas for Shiites the answer is yes. Groups adhering to one position or another tended to segregate themselves geographically, but also along ethnic and cultural lines. Thus, Sunni Islam predominates in, for example, Egypt, while Shiites found safe haven in classical Persia. Countries like modern-day Iraq are borderlands in this division, while also including other sectarian distinctions (like the Alawites in Syria). So, yes, Saudi Arabia and Iran are mutually antagonistic, and perhaps religious difference plays a role. In some ways this is no different than long-standing tensions between Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians. But these tensions are not solely theological: Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are often at an impasse not because of the status of the prophet, but because each one is jockeying for geopolitical power. 10. Muslims invented modern physics, mathematics, and medicine. Granted, I have a pretty expansive view of “modern” — I’m willing to go back to the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries. But consider that the great Ibn Sina (popularly known as Avicenna, 980­–1037CE) produced a medical text called The Canon of Medicine that was used as a standard reference work in Europe well into the seventeenth century. Or that the painting that adorns the top of the central reading room in the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress associates Islam with physics, likely a nod to the contributions of al-Kindi, ibn al-Haytham, or al-Farabi, all important contributors to modern thinking about optics, physics, mechanics, and astronomy. Or, consider the numbers attending this list — written in Arabic Numerals — the invention of mathematical notation far superior to Latin numerals (though the idea for zero was likely stolen from India). By and large, if you’re counting, you have Muslims to thank for it. Plus, medieval Europe has the Muslim empire in Spain to thank for the transmission of Greek philosophy. Without that, Socrates and Aristotle might have been lost forever. This list could go on and on, but I might end with one last consideration: if we are willing to accept diversity within Judaism, Christianity, and Hinduism, we need to do the same for Islam. Religion is intensely important to both group and individual identity, but the diversity of the human race reflects back on religious identity, changing and transforming how we understand our traditions. One might say that there are as many Islams as there are Muslims under the sun.

read all comments

1 Onfaith User25275 = "I completely disagree Quran was revealed to prophet Muhammad. According to your statement "Muhammad is to bible" however bible was revealed thousands of years before prophet Mohammad, the time when Muhammad was not even born  "
2 Ted S = "Very bad analogies, you are wrong, Muslims do not have any right to riot and kill over such things as cartoons.  You justify this by suggesting Christians would do the same if it were Jesus.  That is a lie Jesus is tramped under the feet of this wicked world every day and Christians do not riot and no one dies.  The difference is Christ teaches peace and Muhammad taught death. Muslims do not count Jesus a prophet, as the say, because if they did they would be rioting when he is defamed, not just Muhammad.It is not the traditions of Islam that make men kill, it is the teaching of the Quran.  Most Imams teach hatred for all things western or not halal. That hatred naturally is manifest in actions of riots etc.You are correct that religions are just things, but they are things that millions have died for and because of.You are wrong again about sharia.  It is a very scary word for anyone that will study how it is used.  Defining words is a useless analogy, words are not used according to any philological definition, rather words are defined by the way they are used.Sharia means the laws of Islamic rule.  How Muhammad taught Muslims to live and subject others to their rule.You are very wrong on most of your points."
3 Jason Carter = "This article is good and well thought out. I am neither Christian nor a Muslim but had the chance to listen to a prayer leader from the local mosque give a lecture today, and many of these points were discussed. After the lecture, and this is article, I am glad there are outlets in which one can find."
4 insert name = "just because jesus was born before muhammad doesn't mean anything, actually what we learned is that the bible was changed by people and so many parts (but not all) of it became false, thats why god made the prophet muhammad introduce us to the last book the quran, which hasn't and will not be changed"
5 Enakshi Ganguly = "Jesus is mentioned more times than Muhammed (PBUH) in the Qur'an. "
6 Enakshi Ganguly = ""
7 Onfaith User27851 = "good idea"