- From: "Firnando" <geovani_the_italian@xxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Thu, 16 Jul 2009 08:42:52 -0700
The World's Second Biggest Religion Also Is a Way of Life
By Carolyn Ruff
Special to The Washington Post
In a narrow, unadorned room, about 70 women, heads covered by scarves, feet
bare against carpeted floor, face a television set showing a man speaking in
Arabic. The women stand, bow deeply, then get down on hands and knees and
touch their foreheads to the floor.
This is not a scene in Tehran or Cairo or Istanbul but in a mosque in
Northwest. Some women are in traditional loose-fitting tunics, others in
smart business suits. Around the room, small children play, oblivious to
their surroundings. The man on TV is actually in another part of the mosque
where only males are permitted to gather for prayer.
Because the number of Muslims in the Washington area is growing faster than
the space in mosques, Islam's traditional separation of men and women in
different parts of a room for worship has forced the crowded mosque to use
In the main room, the men perform the same rites. Like the women, their
motions are fluid, their prayers memorized, reenacting a 1,400-year-old
ritual repeated daily by hundreds of millions of people throughout the
To observant Muslims, ritual prayer is as natural as sleeping or eating.
Islam is not just one component of its believers' lives, a set of beliefs
remembered on special occasions. Rather, for the devout, it is a way of
life. Its tenets and rules permeate almost everything, often including
politics and government.
In a world swayed by misunderstanding of cultural differences, Islam and its
adherents often are stereotyped and caricatured, branded with the violent or
sexist image of a small minority of zealots. In reality, Islam is no better
characterized by acts of Middle Eastern terrorists, for example, than is
Christianity by acts of Northern Ireland's terrorists.
Islam is an ancient religion with profound historical and theological ties
to Judaism and Christianity. All three religions worship the same God,
acknowledge large parts of the same Bible and revere Adam, Noah, Abraham and
Moses. And, as do Christians, Muslims regard Jesus as the messiah.
In fact, Islam teaches that it represents the modern mainstream of a
primordial, monotheistic religion that began with the earliest humans. Over
millennia, the religion took form with the early Jewish prophets, was
modified significantly by Jesus and finally shaped by Muhammad, the final
prophet, who died in 632.
Among Muhammad's most important acts was rejection of the old Jewish concept
of a "chosen people." Instead, he taught that all people are born Muslim and
that anyone -- regardless of color, nationality or social standing -- can
join the Muslim community simply by submitting to God and reciting the words
known as the shahadah: "There is no deity but Allah (God), and Muhammad is
Because of its powerful, cross-cultural appeal, Islam has won the hearts and
minds of an estimated 1.2 billion people around the world, making it the
second largest religion. Christianity has about 2 billion adherents, and
Hinduism is third largest with about 800 million.
Despite its association in the Western mind with things Arabic, about 85
percent of Islam's faithful are not Arabs. South Asia has the largest Muslim
population, with 275 million believers. Africa is second largest, with 200
million. And, according to the American Muslim Council, China has about as
many Muslims as better-known Islamic strongholds such as Iran, Egypt or
Turkey. According to The Muslim Almanac, an estimated 2 percent of
Americans, or about 5 million people, are Muslims.
It is difficult to determine the exact number of Muslims anywhere because
they do not belong to congregations and because mosques are open to all and
do not maintain membership rolls.
Quite apart from its importance to believers, Islam has performed services
for which all of humanity is in its debt. When Christian Europe sank into
the so-called Dark Ages for about 600 years starting in the late 5th
century, Islamic scholars elsewhere maintained high standards of academic
study, mathematics and scientific research.
Islamic libraries in Baghdad, Cairo and Damascus preserved the writings of
ancient Greek, Roman and Indian scholars even as Europe's leaders rejected
While Europe languished, Islamic mariners, mathematicians, scientists,
physicians and engineers made major advances in many fields. Our words
algebra and algorithm, for example, were derived from Arabic. When the best
European libraries consisted of a few dozen books, Islamic collections held
tens of thousands.
When the Renaissance blossomed in Western Europe in the 14th, 15th and 16th
centuries, it found a trove of ancient knowledge and new discoveries in
translations from the Arabic.
PEACE AND SUBMISSION
Islam is an Arabic word derived from the same Semitic three-letter root --
s-l-m -- as the Hebrew word for peace, shalom, often used as a greeting. The
meaning of "Islam" encompasses the concepts of peace, greeting and
submission. Thus, a Muslim -- the word is derived from the same root -- is
one who submits to God, a stance enunciated in the traditional profession of
faith: "There is no deity but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger."
"Allah" is simply Arabic for "God," the same supreme, supernatural figure
worshipped by Christians and Jews. Unlike most other religions, however,
Islam has no baptism or other initiation ceremony.
"Membership in the community of Muslims is not conferred by man," Thomas W.
Lippman writes in Understanding Islam. "It is acquired by a conscious act of
will, the act of submission, summarized in the profession of faith."
Lippman, a Washington Post reporter who served as the paper's bureau chief
in Cairo for three years, writes that "to become a Muslim, it is sufficient
to make that profession sincerely in the presence of other believers, who
will witness it. But to become a Muslim is also to accept a complex
interlocking body of beliefs, practices and other ethical standards."
Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam has undergone splits into separate
denominations. The biggest occurred shortly after Muhammad died when his
followers disagreed about who should take his role as leader. One branch,
called Sunni, today comprises about 83 percent of Muslims, according to the
Encyclopedia Britannica. The other, called Shi'ah, accounts for about 16
percent, and a few tiny groups make up the remaining 1 percent.
Although Islam has taken root in cultures as diverse as those of Egypt,
China and the United States, in each region acquiring local customs not
mandated by the religion -- such as women wearing veils -- Islamic scholars
say Muslims everywhere share a core of basic principles, the so-called "five
pillars" of the faith.
The first pillar is the profession of faith or, in Arabic, the shahadah. The
Council on Islamic Education, an American organization comprising historians
and academicians, calls this the central theme of Islam because many Muslims
repeat it, in Arabic, several times a day to remind themselves of God's
central position in their lives.
The second pillar is ritual worship, or salah. Muslims are required to pray
formally five times a day -- at dawn, midday, afternoon, evening and night.
At each time, a man summons believers to prayer by calling from atop the
mosque's tower, or minaret, or by using loudspeakers. Those out of earshot
simply rely on a watch.
Muslims may pray alone or in a group as long as they face the Saudi Arabian
city of Mecca, Muhammad's birthplace and the holiest city of Islam. It is
common in many predominantly Islamic countries to see Muslims performing the
salah wherever they happen to be at the appropriate time. After repeating
the prescribed prayer, Muslims may add a personal prayer.
Unlike most Christian or Jewish prayers, the salah requires more than words.
The whole body performs the ritual. It begins as worshipers raise their
hands and say "Allahu Akbar," which translates as "God is the greatest."
Worshippers then bend with hands on knees, kneel with hands on thighs and
finally bow their heads to touch the floor. Each motion is accompanied by
verses from the Koran. A person, sometimes called an imam, may lead the
The third pillar is fasting, or sawm, during the month of Ramadan. Because
Islam uses a lunar calendar, its year is 11 days shorter than that of the
solar calendar governing most worldly affairs. As a result, Ramadan comes 11
days earlier each year. The month is sacred because, as Muslims believe, God
first revealed verses of the Koran to Muhammad during Ramadan.
During Ramadan, Muslims are to refrain from eating, drinking, smoking and
sex from dawn to sunset. Typically during Ramadan, Muslims have breakfast
before dawn and do not eat again until after sunset.
The fourth pillar is almsgiving, called zakah in Arabic. Muslims pay a
specified amount of money, typically 2.5 percent of one's accumulated wealth
each year, to assist the poor and sick. The money is not to support the
mosque or Islamic leaders. The Koran does not say how much should be given.
In some Muslim countries, according to Lippman, it is voluntary, while in
others, the government enforces it.
The fifth pillar is the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, the most recent of
which occurred last month. Islam requires that every believer make at least
one visit to Mecca in a lifetime if physically and financially able to do
The spectacular hajj now brings together more than two million Muslims in a
religious gathering that has continued without interruption for about 1,400
years. Where once pilgrims came on foot or camel, sometimes after more than
a year of travel, most now arrive by air.
The hajj commemorates the sacrifices, faith and obedience of Abraham; his
second wife, Hagar; and their son, Ishmael, at Mecca. According to the
Council on Islamic Education, it is the largest, regularly scheduled
international gathering on Earth.
When the pilgrims arrive, they don special clothing. Men wear two seamless
white sheets, and women usually wear a modest white dress and are prohibited
from wearing veils or gloves. In this uniform attire, the pilgrims feel that
they are equal before the eyes of God and that only virtue and devotion will
set one apart from others.
The demanding rites and prayers last for days. At various points, worshipers
must make a ritual trek, pray from noon through the following morning and
stand in prayer for hours at a time. According to Islamic scholars, the
pilgrims hope that God will accept their effort, after which they can
commence life afresh with a slate wiped clean of sins.
This year's pilgrimage was marred by sweltering temperatures and a stampede
in which more than 150 people were killed when they rushed to perform one of
the last rituals known as "stoning the devil." In this, the pilgrims throw
pebbles at three pillars symbolizing the temptations of Satan.
The focus of worship in Mecca is the Ka'aba, an empty, cubical stone
structure covered by an embroidered black cloth in the courtyard of the
Ka'aba is the source of the word "cube." The Ka'aba is believed to have been
built on the site of an original made by Abraham more than 4,000 years ago,
and Muslims consider it the original house of God on Earth.
NO DEITY BUT ALLAH
Perhaps Islam's most distinctive attribute is a belief descended from that
of the ancient Jews and akin to that of early Unitarians in a single deity,
whether the name be Jehovah, Allah or God. At many times throughout history,
this has been a radical claim because most other religions believe in many
Gods, a position called polytheism. Islamic monotheism goes even further
than its Christian counterpart by rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity,
which holds that Jesus also is a deity, along with a third entity called the
Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit.
The Koran, which is pronounced cur-AHN and which some Islamic groups say is
better rendered from Arabic as Qur'an, is the religion's dominant scripture.
It is considered the literal word of God, dictated by the angel Gabriel in
some miraculous way to Muhammad over 23 years, according to the Council on
Islamic Education's handbook, Teaching About Islam and Muslims in the Public
School Classroom. Muhammad was illiterate, but his followers memorized the
revelations and scribes set them down in writing.
The Koran is viewed as the authoritative guide to proper living, along with
tradition, called the hadith, based on sayings and practices of Muhammad.
Muslims view life as a test, says Sulayman S. Nyang, an expert on Islam at
Howard University. It is a person's responsibility to live as closely as
possible by the words of Allah in preparation for a "Day of Judgment" much
like the one in which Christians believe. Muslims say the world someday will
be destroyed and the dead resurrected, judged and sent to heaven or to hell.
However, sinners may take heart because, according to the Islamic council's
handbook, "the infinite mercy of God is demonstrated in the Qur'anic
statement that those who have even a mustard seed's weight of belief in God
will eventually be admitted into Heaven."
Islam also teaches that each person has a direct relationship with God and
that no intermediary is needed. As a result, Islam has no priests or other
clergy. Some people, however, are considered experts on the Koran and serve
as leaders of the community. Some, for example, are trained to judge how the
Koran applies to social and personal issues. Another leader, called an imam
in the Sunni branch of Islam, leads daily prayer, gives sermons, officiates
at marriages and performs other clerical duties.
Muslims believe that God revealed scriptures to certain prophets who relayed
them to the general public. Among these many messengers were Abraham, Noah,
Moses and Jesus, with the final prophet being Muhammad.
Like some Christians, many Muslims believe that human history began with
Adam and Eve, but they do not believe in "original sin," the Christian
doctrine that all human beings inherit a state of sin from that first
couple's disobedience of the command not to eat the forbidden fruit.
Because Islam does not accept the concept of original sin, humanity did not
need a savior whose death wiped away this sin. Jesus was not crucified, the
religion teaches. Being sinless, he did not need to die and was taken bodily
to heaven, as Catholics believe his mother Mary was.
Incidentally, the Koran teaches that God made Adam and Eve simultaneously by
splitting one human soul, not by making the woman from a part of the man, as
the Jewish and Christian traditions hold. The Koran also teaches that the
serpent in the Garden of Eden seduced both Adam and Eve and that both were
equally guilty. Muslims often cite this teaching in defense against
assertions that Islam is inherently sexist.
LIFE OF MUHAMMAD
No understanding of Islam is complete without knowledge of Muhammad, who was
not, as Muslims reckon it, the founder of Islam. Rather, they hold, he was
guided by God to help humanity return to the original, true religion.
Muhammad was born about 570 in Mecca in what now is Saudi Arabia. Europe was
entering the Dark Ages. Throughout the world, empires were collapsing, new
societies emerging and religions spreading. The region's dominant religions
were polytheistic, worshipping many deities.
Orphaned by age 6, Muhammad was raised by his grandfather and by his uncle
after his grandfather died. Muhammad grew up to be a thoughtful, honest
businessman who eschewed worship of tribal gods. He married and became the
father of six children, two of whom died young.
At 40, he retreated to a cave outside Mecca to meditate. It was there, Islam
teaches, that the angel Gabriel visited him and communicated the first of
God's words to him. Muhammad continued to receive these revelations from God
for the remaining 23 years of his life.
God instructed Muhammad to convey the message of Islam to the people of his
region. This was not easily done. Muhammad asked the people to abandon their
many idols and recognize Allah as the one God. He was met with reactions
ranging from amusement to anger.
Muhammad also taught two revolutionary principles -- that Islam was the
source not just of spiritual authority but also political authority and that
the bond uniting people should not be tribe but shared religion.
Lippman writes that dissenters taunted Muhammad with demands that he work
miracles to demonstrate authenticity. Muhammad claimed that only Allah could
perform miracles. Muhammad insisted that every aspect of nature was an
example of God's power. This did little to win converts.
After 11 years of mounting hostility, Muhammad and his small band of
followers emigrated to the city of Yathrib, about 200 miles away. There he
had better luck, and people embraced his teachings.
Muhammad established himself as the city's political leader and promulgated
Islamic teachings. The city was renamed Medina, meaning "city of the
prophet." After several years, Muhammad and his followers returned to Mecca,
conquered it and established Muhammad as both religious and political leader
of his people. By the time he died at age 63, Islam was established
throughout the Arabian peninsula.
Within a century of Muhammad's death, Islam had spread, as much by military
conquest as voluntary conversion, west to Spain and Portugal and northeast
to Central Asia, establishing Islam as a formidable world empire. Islamic
rule also pushed into northern Africa and other parts of the Mediterranean
basin within the first 20 years of its establishment.
With every advance, Islam adopted and adapted features of many other
cultures. By the Middle Ages, Islam was established in parts of Europe, for
example, Spain in the west and the former Yugoslavia in the east.
In the 1500s, Hispano-Arab Muslim explorers arrived in America from Spain.
In the early 1700s, the slave trade brought the first Muslims -- captured
African slaves -- to this part of the world. By the end of the 19th century,
free Muslim immigrants were reaching North America from the Middle East and
other Muslim lands.
Today, more than 1,300 years after Muhammad, Islam continues to thrive, a
growing, global religion with a powerful ideology that now binds one-fifth
of the human race in a common system of beliefs.
Women's Rights and Islam
Traveling through the Islamic world, visitors notice that the status of
women changes drastically from country to country. Westerners question why
women in many Middle Eastern countries cover their heads and most of their
bodies. They question the nature of freedom where women have very little
political power or social clout.
In many cases, the differences are based on local custom only. Wearing
veils, for example, is not required by the Koran but in some places is local
custom. Other than Islam's requirement that women dress modestly, most
Muslim women are free to dress and to behave like women of any other
Historians note that, before the rise of Islamic culture in the 7th century,
women in much of the world had few rights and were considered little more
than chattel. Against that background, the Koran and Islamic tradition were
positively revolutionary in teaching that men and women are spiritually
equal and that women have the right to own and inherit property, seek
divorce, gain an education, retain one's family name after marriage and the
right to vote.
Muslims such as Rkia Cornell, who teaches Asian and African languages and
literature at Duke University, argue that "every culture is inherently
sexist to some degree." Cornell insists that, as a Muslim woman, she still
has the freedom to control her own life. "Muslim women historically have had
a strong role in Islamic society."
What some see as oppressive, Muslims view as protective. While Americans may
regard a Muslim woman's attire as stifling, Muslims may view the way
American women generally dress as sexist and compromising.
Nation of Islam
The Nation of Islam is a controversial organization in the United States.
Formed by Elijah Poole (who later took the name Elijah Muhammad) in the
1930s, the group gained momentum during the civil rights movement in the
1950s. Formed in response to white racism, the Nation advocates separation
from white society.
Despite its name, the movement is not accepted by mainstream Muslims as
"Because the Nation holds that Elijah Muhammad was a prophet of God and that
his mentor, W.D. Fard, was God incarnate, the Nation cannot be considered a
branch or subset of Islam by mainstream Muslims," writes Susan Douglass of
the Council on Islamic Education.
"Such beliefs are contrary to basic doctrines and tenets of Islam as defined
by the Koran and Sunnah [Islamic tradition].
Furthermore, the race-based orientation of the Nation contradicts the
universalist outlook advocated by worldwide Islam."
The Nation of Islam underwent drastic changes after the death of Elijah
Muhammad in 1975, with most members following his son, Wallace, now named
Warith Deen Muhammad, toward an orthodox branch of Islam called "American
Muslim Mission." This group does not advocate racial separation.
Another faction, led by Louis Farrakhan, kept the name Nation of Islam and
many of the separatist ideas.
Mother of the Renaissance
Muslims were the inheritors and guardians of the body of knowledge that
created modern society and are credited with having kept scholarship alive
through the Dark Ages.
After the decline of Roman government and civic order in the 5th century,
Europe turned from the wisdom of the ancient Greeks, Romans and Indians.
Elsewhere, however, Islam's large universities continued to advance these
Although the Renaissance, which occurred between the 14th and 16th
centuries, is considered the period of revival of art, science and
literature, historians say its roots can be found in the 12th and 13th
Then, medieval scholars began to question traditional ways of viewing
knowledge and regained access to important classical and Islamic texts.
European scholars came to Muslim cities to use the vast libraries. They
translated Arabic works into Latin and, often inadvertently, soaked up
Muslim culture. This was a pivotal time as the legacies of several cultures
began to mingle -- most notably, Greek, Persian, Indian, European and
During this epoch when intellectual curiosity was at a peak, education was
introduced to those outside the Catholic Church hierarchy, creating a
professional class of intellectuals.
Visiting European scholars returned home and helped to establish
universities based on what they had translated from Islamic texts and what
they had experienced from their immersion in Muslim culture. As a result,
large bodies of Islamic knowledge subsequently were transferred to the rest
of the European world.
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