It goes without saying that Islam, the faith I practice and that which is practiced by over 1.6 billion people, is the most highly misunderstood religion in the world today. The combination of irrational fear and ignorance has led to the rise of Islamophobia, especially in the West. The Muslim community of Culpeper experienced this first hand in 2016 when it was unjustly denied a routine sewage permit by the local governing body. I’d like to believe we have moved on and learned many lessons from that unfortunate experience. When I was invited to contribute to this column I saw it as an opportunity to educate our friends and neighbors here and build bridges. Today in the age of the internet and mass media It is incumbent upon us as Muslims to define ourselves and our faith or others will do it for us. In this weeks column I would like to focus on the 10 most common misconceptions about Islam.
Misconception#1: Islam was founded by the Prophet Muhammad
It is widely believed that the Prophet Muhammad founded Islam in Arabia 1400 years ago, however this statement is inaccurate. In fact the advent of Islam dates back to the creation of Adam, the first human being who was a monotheist, worshipper of the one true God and therefore upon the religion of Islam. All subsequent prophets and their followers were also Muslims. The word “Islam” means submission. This submission is to the one and only true creator who has no partners, associates or children. A “Muslim” is any person who submits to the one true God and believes that Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was His last messenger.
Misconception#2: Allah is exclusively the God of Islam
Allah is the Arabic name for the “One True God”, creator of the heavens, earth and all that exists in the universe. Arabic speaking Christians and Jews also use the name Allah to call upon God. So essentially our faith traditions share the belief in an all-powerful God whether we call Him Allah, Yahweh or God the Father.
Misconception#3: Muslims worship the Kaaba
The Kaaba is a cube-shaped structure in Makkah and is also referred to as the “House of Allah (God)”. This structure was built by the Prophet Abraham and his son Ishmael centuries ago as the first house of worship of the one true God. The significance of this is that all Muslims wherever they are in the world turn towards the Kaaba in Makkah as their direction of prayer.
Misconception#4: Muslims don’t believe in or respect Jesus
For a Muslim there is no faith without believing in Jesus as one of the greatest prophets to walk the face of the earth. This is because belief in all the prophets is one of the pillars of our faith, along with belief in Allah, the angels, the books, the Day of Judgement and the divine decree of God. Muslims believe Jesus was a messenger of God to the children of Israel and that he was born a miraculous birth to the virgin Mary. He came with many miracles including speaking from the cradle, restoring sight to the blind, curing the leper and bringing the dead back to life, all with the permission of Allah (God).
Misconception#5: Islam is an inherently violent religion
The overriding principle of the religion is love and mercy. This was exemplified by the Prophet Muhammad’s merciful behavior towards the people of Makkah when he returned triumphant to the city he had been cruelly driven out of years earlier. A general amnesty was declared and the people were forgiven for their persecution of Muslims and their past ways. Extremist and militant groups such that kill innocent people in the name of Islam do not represent Islam or the way of the Prophet Muhammad.
Misconception#6: The word “jihad” means holy war
The word jihad is derived from the Arabic word “jahada” which means to struggle. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said the greatest jihad is the battle to fight the evil within ones own soul. Thus jihad primarily refers to an inner struggle to reform oneself and live a life of virtue and submission to God. Military jihad (struggle) is a very misunderstood concept and has been misused by extremist groups. It is not something that any individual or group can declare but must be declared by the leader of an Islamic government in order to resist tyranny, oppression or injustice in the land. Generally this is a defensive struggle to protect the lives, property and freedom of worship of all individuals.
Misconception#7: Women are oppressed in Islam
It is important to note that on a theological and spiritual level men and women are created equal in the eyes of Allah (God). There are however obvious physiological differences in the way Allah (God) created men and women and for that reason the roles and responsibilities may differ. This does not prevent women from playing an active role in society. As a poignant example, there are at least four Muslim majority countries namely Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Turkey that have already had female heads of state while the United States itself is yet to elect its first female president!
Misconception#8: Women are forced to wear the hijab
The head covering and dress of Muslim women known as the hijab is a sign of modesty and is a protection for women. This has been prescribed by Allah (God) himself in the Quran. We as Muslims however feel the hijab should not be forced on any individual because any action or deed that is forced upon someone will lack sincerity. The reality is the overwhelming majority of women all over the world who choose to observe the hijab do so voluntarily out of piety and love for their Creator.
Misconception#9: Shariah is cruel and oppressive
Shariah is simply a set laws that Muslims follow to practice their faith. It is based on the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. It is very similar to the Halacha, which is Jewish law and jurisprudence based on the Talmud. The Shariah primarily guides us on how we worship and apply faith into our daily lives and interactions with others. Islamophobes frequently focus on the legal punishments prescribed under Shariah for such crimes as murder, adultery or theft as a justification for their fear of Islam. The reality is that these are deterrent punishments and the overwhelming evidence required to prove these crimes means they are rarely applied in Muslim countries.
Misconception#10: Muslims are planning to take over America
Today Muslims make up only 1-2% of the entire US population. We are law-abiding, tax-paying citizens who contribute to the economy and well-being of society. For example, it is well known that 10% of all physicians in the United States are Muslims who take pride in caring for the mental and physical health of their fellow Americans. What Muslims ask for today is freedom of worship and the right to be treated equally under the Constitution without discrimination. True there have been some setbacks recently, but as Muslim Americans we love and cherish our country and the freedoms that we enjoy as its citizens.