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
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
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
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
From staff and wire reports.