More than 1 billion followers of Islam largely misunderstood

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 23, 2001

The Associated Press

Sunday, September 23, 2001

As Americans sort through the terrorist attacks on America,

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one fact remains: lots of people are confused about what it means

to be a Muslim.

Unfortunately in the days following the attacks, the United

States has become the scene of several horrible acts of prejudice

as hate crimes focused on Muslims and people of Arab descent have

plagued the country.

In reality, experts say more than 1 billion Muslims live in

the world. And the tenets of the Muslim faith actually denounces


Most, in fact, have denounced the terrorist attacks.

As the religion continues to grow and flourish, Americans need

to become more educated about Muslim issues in order to understand

the religion is quite similar to many of the other popular religions

in the world.

Origins and growth

Islam means ”submission” to God, or Allah, and Muslims are

those who submit to his will as revealed in the seventh century

to the Prophet Muhammad, a merchant from Mecca in what is now

Saudi Arabia.

A dispute over succession after Muhammad’s death in A.D. 632

continues to split the Muslim world into Shiites, who make up

about 10 percent of Muslims, and majority Sunnis. Shiites believe

Ali, the prophet’s son-in-law, was Muhammad’s rightful heir; Sunnis

believe it was Abu Bakr, the prophet’s close associate. Most of

the Arab world is Sunni, as is Afghanistan, while Iran is mostly


Despite the split, Islam flourished and spread into Africa,

Asia and Europe within two centuries of Muhammad’s death. Today,

although most Arabs are Muslims, most Muslims are not Arab.

The most populous Muslim nation is Indonesia, where about 90

percent of the population of 210 million is Muslim. There are

an estimated 4 million to 6 million people in the United States

who identify themselves as Muslims, about 2 million of them involved

with mosques. Worldwide, Muslims number more than a billion.


Arabic is spoken across the Mideast. Dialect and pronunciation

vary from country to country. As the language of the Quran, it

is often the language of prayer and religious study for non-Arab

Muslims. Many non-Arab Muslims have Arabic names.


Islam is the newest of the three great monotheistic religions.

The others are Judaism and Christianity. Muslims recognize aspects

of the two earlier religions but believe Muhammad provided the

final revelation. Muslims worship the same God as Jews and Christians;

”Allah” means God in Arabic.

The revelations compiled in the Quran, Islam’s holy book, are

seen as the only correct continuation of the ideas as originated

by revered figures familiar to Jews and Christians, including

Adam, Abraham, Moses, David and Jesus. While Muslims believe Jesus

was a prophet, they abhor the Christian belief that he is God.

Despite the differences, Muslims believe that Jews and Christians,

whose religions, like Islam, are based on scripture and sprang

up in the Mideast, are part of their broad community.

There are five basic tenets, or pillars, of Islam: affirming

there is only one God and Muhammad is his prophet; praying five

times a day; giving alms; fasting from dawn to dusk during Ramadan,

the lunar month during which the Quran was revealed to Muhammad;

and performing the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Jihad, variously translated as ”holy war” or ”holy struggle,’

is not one of the five pillars of Islam.

But many Muslims believe it is their religious duty to fight

to defend their faith or even to extend it into non-Muslim lands.

Pre-Islamic cultures influence Islamic societies, just as pre-Christian

cultures influence the Western world. Scholars trace many of the

restrictions on women, for instance, to conservative tribal traditions.

Muslim women in the most conservative societies, such as Saudi

Arabia, only appear in public veiled head-to-toe. Elsewhere, they

cover only their hair, or choose to wear no special clothing at


Islam and government

Muhammad governed a theocracy in Medina, located in modern-day

Saudi Arabia, and some Muslims look to him as a model of a spiritual

leader with temporal powers. Others, though, argue that Islam

alone is no solution for the complex problems of the modern world.

Politicians in countries with large Muslim populations, recognizing

Islam’s power to inspire and comfort in troubling times, have

at times promoted fundamentalists whose ultimate goal is the overthrow

of states they see as dangerously secular. When the fundamentalists

begin to threaten their power, political leaders crack down, creating

societal tension.

Two non-Arab countries, Iran and Afghanistan, have seen modern

attempts to rule by Muhammad’s example.

Ruhollah Khomeini, who bore the religious title ayatollah,

led a 1979 revolution that toppled the Shah of Iran and made Khomeini

the first supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Today,

moderate and hard-line Iranian clerics are struggling over the

role of Islam in politics.

Since 1996, the Taliban have ruled Afghanistan according to

a strict interpretation of Islam rejected by most other Muslims.

The Taliban ended schooling for girls older than 8, prohibit women

from working outside the home or even venturing out unless accompanied

by a close male relative, and punish thieves by chopping off their

hands or feet in front of crowds. The Taliban provoked international

outcry this year by demolishing two ancient and monumental mountain

carvings of the Buddha on the grounds that they violated Islam’s

ban on idol worship.

Taliban means ”students.” The movement sprang up in conservative

Muslim schools in Pakistan among refugees of the 1979-89 Soviet

occupation of Afghanistan.

Conflict with other cultures

Medieval Europe launched the Crusades to seize control of the

Holy Land from Muslims, and Muslim armies later conquered Byzantium

and parts of Europe – the Iberian peninsula and the Balkans. Today,

some Muslims say they are again under Western siege.

The global economy driven by the West has created new desires

and new pressures. Liberal ideas associated with the West are

spread through television, movies and popular music – an emphasis

on individual choice that weakens traditional male authority,

the mixing of men and women at school and at work, frank discussion

of sex.

Also fomenting tensions is a sense that in the United States

and Europe secularism is promoted and God’s will ignored.

Another sensitive issue is American troops stationed in Saudi

Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest shrines.

Osama bin Laden, the extremist the United States regards as

its No. 1 terrorist threat, lost his Saudi citizenship over his

criticism of his country’s close alliance with Washington.

The overriding concern, however, is the conflict that has been

fought since the creation in 1948 of Israel as a haven for persecuted

Jews on their biblical land. Israeli statehood made hundreds of

thousands of Palestinians, most of them Muslim, homeless.


Like other world religions, Islam generally abhors violence

unless it is morally justified, as in the defense of life, property,

honor and rights. Muslim leaders have said that describes the

Palestinian fight against Israel.

While some Muslims may have rejoiced over the Sept. 11 attacks

in the United States, very few would claim these were sanctioned

by Islam.

From staff and wire reports.