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Saturday, February 11, 2017

Common misconceptions about Islam

Introduction

Islam is the religious choice of a fifth of humanity, it is the dominant faith in areas of the world rich in resources and strategic importance. It has influenced countless trends in philosophy, culture, theology, and the practical sciences. It has not only given us 'Umar ibn Al-Khattab(1), it has given us figures as diverse as Rumi (2) and Muhammad Ali.

Despite these presence of these undeniable facts, there persists a number of myths and misconceptions in the minds of people, Some of these myths have their origins during the time of the Crusades(3) while others are of a more recent creation,

While misconceptions may be held and perpetuated out of simple ignorance, we have to admit that outright distortions of the Islamic message are spread via mass media, movies and the like, out of political interests. In short, the religion of Islam and Muslims are a convenient scapegoat.

This brief article seeks to address the leading misconceptions on Islam. Comments/questions are welcome, and as time allows this writer will seek to address them all.

Who or what is 'Allah'?



Allah is the Arabic name for 'God'. Literally, it is a contraction of two words,"Al" and "Ilah", "The" "Object of worship". It refers to the One and Only God!

It may come as a surprise that Arabic translations of the Bible have God referred to as "Allah"!

The concept of the Divine as given in Islam can be found in well known Quranic references "Say: He is God alone, God the Absolute, He has not given birth to any, nor was he born to any, and there is nothing like him." ( Q 112:1-4)

"He is God {Allah}, besides whom there is none deserving worship but him. (The one who) knows the hidden and the apparent, He is the Merciful, The Compassionate. He is God, besides whom none deserves worship but Him, The Sovereign, The Sacred, The Source of Peace, The Guardian (4) of faith, the Protector, The Mighty, The Powerful, The Great. Glory belongs to God, he is exalted above what is [wrongly] attributed to Him. He is God, The Creator, The Maker, The Creator of Form, To Him belongs the most beautiful of names. To him belongs glory, in the heavens and the earth, and He is The Mighty, The Wise." {Q 59:22-24}


Is Allah a moon god?

This particular assertion has been made in recent years by a handful of Christian polemicists in books and, more popularly, comic-book leaflets. The gist of their argument is that a pantheon of deities were deemed worthy of worship by the Arabs of Muhammad's time, and he simply picked one, a deity associated with the moon!  This, the argument continues, is why the traditional calendar is lunar, mosque domes often have a crescent moon adorning it, and the reason why many Muslim nations have a crescent on their flags!

There is a plethora of evidence to refute this notion and this has been addressed succinctly by others(5), however, this Quranic evidence should be sufficient for an honest reader.

"Do you not see that verily, to God is submissive who is in the heavens, the earth, the sun, the moon, the stars, the mountains, the trees, animal life as well as a goodly number of humans..?{ Q 22:18}

In another Quranic verse, we read that the pagans were asked "If you ask them 'who created the heavens and the Earth and subjected the sun and the moon, they will reply 'God".." [Q 29:61].

The Qur'an repeatedly speaks of both the moon and the sun as being used to measure time [6:96, 10:5, 55:5] and under the control of God. The Qur'an has never given legitimacy to a view that the Moon has Divine properties, or that "Allah" was synonymous with a moon deity!

Allah cannot be seen physically by human beings, because, ultimately, we would not be able to grasp Him in a full and complete manner, This is why God is never depicted in human form [or any physical form for that matter] and no pictures are present in prayer halls. Indeed, we find that if any decorations adorn the Mosques, it would be quotations from the Qur'an itself, designed to remind the visitor of the greatness of God.

"And the mosques are for God, therefore do not supplicate any other than him."[Q72:18]


Islam as the teaching of Prophets preceding Muhammad and coming through Muhammad

Islam is an Arabic word meaning "submission to God". The one who does the act of submission is called a "Muslim". If one were to read about the characters of old, particularly in the Jude-Christian dispensation, we find that indeed, they taught their followers submission to God. It is true that there are some differences in emphasis and rituals, however the core of submission remains.

As Muslims see it, this thread of teachers, scriptures and Prophets ended with the coming of Muhammad. He comes, according to Islamic teachings, as a Mercy from God to be felt universally [Q 21:107], as the Last of the Prophets with the final scriptural revelation { Q 33:40}, and with teachings that correct certain important misconceptions and that will act as an ultimate criterion for judgement between what is authentic and what is spurious, { Q 27:76 and 25:1].

As part of the Muslim practice, we are to pray for peace and blessings to be bestowed on all the Prophets and do not allow any disrespectful language about them.

Islam's relation with Jews and Christians 

The modern discourse has placed the three monotheistic religions alongside each other as reflective of the shared roots in Abraham, thus, the term Abrahamic religions.

While it is true that Islam has strong theological disagreements with the other two faiths, the Qur'an repeatedly calls them as "People of Scripture" and allows both marital and other social ties [Q 5:5].


Terrorism/Violence to spread religion

This is perhaps the greatest myth perpetuated by forces with political interests. It is imagined that Islam has taught its followers to spread the faith at the point of a sword, however, this is far from the truth. The Qur'an itself says "There is no compulsion in religious affairs, as truth stands clear from error.."[Q 2:256].

It says further "And say; Truth is from your Lord, so he who will accept, let him accept, and he who will reject, let him reject..[Q 18:29].

The Qur'an tells us that Noah says to his interlocutors "Shall we compel you to accept while you are hateful of it?" [ Q 11:28]

So we should be able to see clearly that using violence as a means to spread religion is not correct as far as Islam is concerned. In today's world, forces both inside and outside the Muslim community seem to believe otherwise, but all of that is connected to political causes and often are simply masks to disguise other agendas!

Islam is a missionary religion, it does seek to call people to investigate it and accept it. However, it does so by telling the "caller" to use "wisdom and articulate expressions" { Q 16:125}. The Qur'an refers to itself as a scripture given in order to influence people to think [Q 12:4, among other texts], so it is clearly against a blind faith.

Jesus

Depicted as a Prophet and great teacher, Jesus is mentioned by name twenty five times in the Qur'an. Muslims affirm his virginal birth and view him as the Messiah, although the understanding we have on the meaning of that differs from mainline Christianity.

This article does not seek to enter into details on that(6), nonetheless what we should convey is that belief in Jesus as Messiah is part and parcel of Islam. He is loved and respected by Muslims, even though our understanding of his significance differs from Christians,

Women

Increasingly in the West the issue of how women are treated and viewed in Islam has been raised. The most visible Muslim women are of course those who wear Hijaab or other well-recognized dress associated with Islam.

It can be said that certain parochial cultures have a negative attitude towards women, but that reflects their own views, not necessarily the teachings of the Qur'an and Prophet Muhammad. In the time before Arabia accepted Islam, the Arabian custom was to view females with little regards, even practicing female infanticide! The Qur'an, in one of its earliest texts, addressed this horrific practice [Q 81:8-9]. Islam as taught by Muhammad himself gave inheritance rights, leadership roles, rights in choice of marriage and freedom with their own incomes. Indeed, we have an entire Quranic chapter entitled "The Women" [An Nisaa'].

There are guidelines for dress for women, but what is often ignored is that there is a dress code for both men and women. The Qur'an does directly speak on how women should dress [Q 24:31 and 33:59] but what is often ignored is that the context of these regulations, particularly in the Qur'an's chapter 24 as referred to above, speaks on men and women abstaining from inappropriate staring, and behavior in general. In other words, the dress code is connected to a wider set of behavioral guidelines.

How those guidelines are carried out will vary from culture to culture. Nigerian clothing styles differ from those in the Arab world, but so long as modesty and appropriate respectful guidelines are observed, they are all equally Islamic or allowable in Islam!

For women, the dress code includes the covering of the whole body, including hair. This actually seeks to create an environment of respect and appropriateness. It has no relation to oppression of women.


Endnotes

(1) 'Umar ibn Al-Khattab {d.644 C.E.} was initially a foe of Islam, even wanting to kill Prophet Muhammad, but his heart was touched by the Quranic message and he went on to become a strong defender of the faith, even at one point becoming the leader of the Muslim community after the Prophet's death. He is well known for his modesty and sense of justice for all.

(2) Jalaluddin Ar-Rumi [d. 1273 C.E.] was a great poet, philosopher and spiritualist. The Western world absorbs his poetry and often he is seen as having been divorced from Islam. While there is admittedly some controversy surrounding him in Muslim discourse, nonetheless he saw himself as totally in line with Islam. One quote attributed to him says "Be in the community of those who receive Divine Mercy, don't abandon the Sunnah of Ahmad [i.e. Prophet Muhammad], rather, be commanded by it." A book has recently been published, which I have yet to obtain, that speaks on this attempt to divorce Rumi from Islam. The book is called Rumi's Secret by Brad Gooch. A review of it, as well as a very pleasant overview of Rumi's reach, is to be found at [url] http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-erasure-of-islam-from-the-poetry-of-rumi[/url] .

(3) Some of these myths are described well in the book Holy Wars: The Crusades And Their Impact On Today's World by Karen Armstrong [New York, 2001].

(4) Al Mu'min is rendered here as "The Guardian", but it has been variously interpreted. Tafseer Al-Jalalayn has it as informing us about God who is "The truthful, who conveys the truth of miraculous creation". I'raab Al Qur'an  mentions three different interpretations, which include God's "Protecting of his servants from danger." " The Protector of his closest ones [Awliyaaa'] from his own wrath." and "That the believers will testify on judgement day and their testimony will be truthful, verified as true by God.."  This work, by the 10th century Egyptian scholar Abu Ja'far Ahmad bin Muhammad Isma'il An-Nahhas, is a wonderful reference source for examining the grammatical possibilities of Quranic words. The edition we have is published by Dar Al Ma'rifah, Beirut, Lebanon.

(5) The famed Muslim debater and academic Dr. Shabbir Ally has published a thorough refutation of the moon god theory. It can be found at [url]http://www.beautifulislam.net/christianity/robert_moreys_moon_god_myth.htm[/url].

(6) The Islamic understanding of the role of Jesus is explained by this writer at [url] http://shamsuddinwaheed.blogspot.com/2008/01/jesus-in-islam.html[/url].







2 comments:

NonBeliever said...

Thank you for this interesting post. There are other areas of misconception that are
worth discussing. One of great concern to me is whether or not Muslims are tolerant of those who choose to reject the Quran as a universal truth.

I read the following at http://aboutislam.net/counseling/ask-about-islam/what-does-islam-say-about-freedom-of-religion/ and found it terrifying. Indeed, most Muslim-majority countries have strict laws concerning blasphemy and apostasy which bring serious punishment.

"But, there can be an Islamic state where the Quran is accepted as the constitution and the Islamic Shari`ah (law) is in force as the basis of its civil and penal code. In such a state, Muslims can have a special status as citizens, while non-Muslims are given their due rights to believe and practice their religion.
There, if a Muslim openly declares that he rejects Islam, it is tantamount to decrying the constitution of that country and the person will be judged for treason and duly punished."

Shamsuddin Waheed said...

Dear N.B.,

Welcome to the blog, and thanks for your comment.

As a direct answer to your query, I would kindly refer you to a brief article I composed on this subject which can be found at [url] http://shamsuddinwaheed.blogspot.com/2010/11/questions-on-islamic-law-apostasy-in.html[/url]

For the moment, I can briefly say that for Muslims, the first source, both in terms of religious guidance and legal application in Islamic traditional law, is the Qur'an itself. It is seen as the words of God as conveyed to Muhammad, upon whom be God's blessings and peace.

The Qur'an places great emphasis on both religious freedom as well as having intellectual/spiritual conviction. Anything other than that would be hypocrisy. Indeed, in the original post here you can find more Quranic textual references to these facts.

The question becomes "if the scripture says this, why do people think/believe/do something contrary to that?"

That is a question that requires much time to answer, but remember that laws of apostasy were commonplace in the ancient world, even until relatively recently in human history. Moreover, "apostasy" was a term that was [and in many places still] applied to treason against the state, and, as you know, even today, treason is punished rather severely by most governments.

Although this is an explanation that is not very detailed, it is-nonetheless- a summary of how I see it as having entered the traditional Muslim law.

The quote you shared above also alludes to other things, namely the position of Non Muslims within a society that is ruled by Islamic teachings. I think this is another widely misunderstood situation, largely because of mass ignorance of historical realities. While there is no doubt that there has been Muslims who have done oppression towards Non Muslim minorities, the ethos from early Islamic sources- as well as jurists throughout history, is that Non Muslims were to have their rights respected and honored.

There are a number of books by Non Muslim writers which detail these things very well. One writer I would recommend taking a look at is Karen Armstrong. Shes's written so many books, picking up any one of them would help in this regards.

In any case, in terms of looking at the question of accepting or rejecting religion, do have a look at the link above.

Regards,
S.Waheed