Chapter 1.
What Is the Religion Islam Really Like?
Who Are Muslims?

Mass Media Images of Muslims and Islam

The American public has seen Muslims portrayed over television in various ways. Anwar Sadat, former president of Egypt, who was assassinated by a militant Islamic group in Cairo, was seen as a praying man. Sadat led a war against Israel and also entered a peace agreement with Israel.

Ayatollah Khomeini, the turbaned leader who chased out the Western-leaning shah and established the Islamic Republic of Iran, was viewed by many Muslims around the world as the great Muslim revolutionary who would give Islam superior status in the world. Americans saw him portrayed over mass media as a stern old man who castigated America as satanic, corrupt, and immoral, who supported Islamic jihad movements around the world, and who issued a death sentence upon the head of the novelist Salman Rushdie who wrote The Satanic Verses.

Osama bin Laden has been labeled the leader of the Al-Qaeda terrorist organization who has launched strikes against American targets around the world. In mass media he has issued statements against many entities including America, Jews, and Christians and urged his agents as well as Muslims worldwide to kill Americans and others in the name of Allah and Islam.

Wallace D. Muhammad, the son of Elijah Muhammad who founded the Nation of Islam in America, is portrayed in the mass media as transforming his former American Muslim Mission into an orthodox expression of Islam in the United States. Louis Farrakhan, leader of the current Nation of Islam, is seen in the mass media as a fiery speaker who views Elijah Muhammad as a deity, courts Islamic revolutionary leaders from around the world, and continues a running attack upon Jews and Christians.

Seldom does the American public see the life of a Muslim living in a city or small village who raises a family, provides food for the family, works for a living, yearns for the education of his children, tends to aging parents, says prayers daily, and looks for a better life.

Islam: A Required and Certain Straight Path

The core of Islam, according to the Qur'an and the Hadith, is its required and prescribed set of beliefs and practices. These beliefs are nonnegotiable and provide the worldview of all Muslims. These practices are regular and orderly and also nonnegotiable. They follow an exact calendar of daily, monthly, and yearly rituals and ceremonies.

Islam means “submission.” Muslim means “one who submits.” Islam is a religion of submission to Allah and the truths and practices enunciated in the Qur'an and in the Hadith as clarified by various legal systems and rulings by Islamic specialists. Islam is a religion of the “straight path” (Qur'an 1:6). The path has few deviations and curves in terms of its major beliefs and practices. Whether you are an American Muslim or an Indonesian Muslim or a Saudi Arabian Muslim or President Sadat or Osama bin Laden, the straight path of Islam is the same in the Qur'anic prescriptions.

Required Beliefs From the Qur'an

Five major beliefs are:

1. Islam is a monotheistic religion. It believes in one deity whose name is Allah. The first chapter of the Qur'an, known as the Fatiha or “opening,” summarizes what Muslims believe about Allah. Allah is most gracious and merciful, sustainer of the world, and master of the day of judgment. He is to be worshipped, and his aid is to be sought (Qur'an 1:1-7). The Qur'an requires that Allah be called by his beautiful names though it does not list them all (Qur'an 59:22-24). The Qur'an states that Allah will not forgive idolatry and regards the most heinous sin (shirk) as ascribing partners with Allah. Islam condemns the Christian view of Jesus as expressed in the doctrine of the trinity. Thus the central concept of deity for Islam is the unity of Allah (Tawhid).

2. Angels are a prominent belief of Islam. They are beings who carry out the commands of Allah (Qur'an 2:285; 6:100; 34:40-41; 46:29-32; 72:1-28). The archangel Gabriel is the most famous angel who appeared to Muhammad and brought the Qur'an to him to recite. Other angels include Michael, who gives providence and is guardian of the Jews; Israfil, who summons to resurrection; and Izrail, the angel of death. Islamic Hadith (tradition) teaches that two angels are assigned to each individual at birth. One records good deeds, and the other records the bad. The angels give the individual's accountability at judgment day. Allah has created other spiritual beings called “jinn” with freedom of choice for good or evil. Some Islamic scholars consider Satan an angel, and others consider him a jinn.

3. The Qur'an states that prophets have been sent to peoples of the world with the same message from Allah in heaven (Qur'an 2:38, 177, 252, 285; 4:80, 164; 18:110; 33:40; 17:70). It emphasizes that there is no difference in the messages of the prophets including Moses and Jesus (Qur'an 2:136). The Qur'an mentions some twenty-five prophets by name. Muhammad is the final prophet (Qur'an 33:40, 45-46). Islamic tradition indicates 124,000 prophets. Jesus is mentioned ninety-seven times in the Qur'an and referred to as Messiah, word of Allah, spirit of Allah, born of the Virgin Mary, and worker of miracles. The Qur'an states that Jesus was no more than a messenger like those before him. Islam does not believe that Jesus was crucified on a cross or that he was raised from the tomb.

4. Islam believes that the Qur'an contains the very words of Allah and that the “mother of the book” is with Allah in heaven (Qur'an 85:21-22; 43:3-4; 13:39). Traditional Islam views the Qur'an as a miracle, an uncreated word or book, given in the Arabic language. Therefore, literary or historical criticism is not acceptable. It is composed of 114 chapters or suras and 6,616 verses or ayas, and 77,934 words. From the night the angel Gabriel came to Muhammad with the words to recite the Qur'an in ad 610 until Muhammad's death in ad 632, the Qur'an was given. By ad 652 the Qur'an was canonized as the authorized version. Muslims believe it contains guidance for all matters of life. They memorize it, recite it, and create artistic expressions from it. The Qur'an refers to other scriptures such as the Torah and the Injil (Gospel) which Allah gave to the Jews through the prophet Moses and to the Christians through the prophet Jesus. However, Islam believes that these scriptures were corrupted through various translations and interpretations and that the Qur'an is the final perfect expression of Allah's revelations.

5. A day of judgment resulting in rewards in paradise or hell is described in the Qur'an. As Allah created all, so Allah judges all. Judgment day is described variously as a day of wrath, decision, truth, and retribution. The final hour will come suddenly. There are scenes of apocalyptic doom with natural disasters and graves being opened (Qur'an 75; 82; 84). At judgment day each individual will stand before Allah where a scroll will be brought out for an accounting of all deeds (Qur'an 17:13-14). Paradise is a place of great delight to enjoy the presence of Allah and also to have sensual and sexual delight (Qur'an 3:14-15; 47:15; 55). Hell is described as a burning and odious place of boiling brains and molten lead poured into ears. It is the abode of idolaters, unbelievers, and the unrepentant (Qur'an 14:50; 76:4).

Various Islamic traditions refer to the return of Muhammad and Jesus at the judgment day to assist Allah in matters related to the final journeys to paradise and hell. A Sunni Muslim tradition tells of the return of Jesus as Messiah. He breaks the cross, kills all pigs, dies, and is buried beside Muhammad. The eschatological figure in Islam is called the Mahdi, the one to return and bring the world to judgment and Satan to submission.

Required Practices of the Qur'an

Some scholars write of the five pillars or practices of Islam. Some scholars write of the six major practices of Islam which include jihad. Six of the major practices are:

1. The great confession (Shahada) of Islam is composed of seven Arabic words, “Ilaha illa Allah. Muhammad rasul Allah.” “There is no deity but Allah. Muhammad is the messenger of Allah” (Qur'an 3:81; 5:83-84; 2:255; 3:18; 3:144; 4:87; 7:172; 33:40; 48:29; 64:8). Muslims believe that when these words are said, one is converted to Islam and it makes a Muslim a Muslim. These words are whispered in the ears of a newborn child. The confession is uttered daily in the formal prayers. It is said numerous times a day and during the last funeral ceremonies. The confession states the fullness of Islam in that it is based on monotheism and the prophethood of Muhammad.

2. The giving of one's resources to Islam is known as almsgiving (zakat) and is required by the Qur'an (Qur'an 2:43, 83, 110, 177, 277; 9:60, 103; 24:56; 27:3; 57:7; 59:7; 98:5). Zakat is 2.5 percent of one's wealth. The monies are used for building and supporting mosques, for printing Qur'ans, for the education of children in Qur'anic schools, and for worldwide missionary programs. Muslims may give an endowment (waqf) in money or property to build mosques, libraries, hospitals, and schools. Islam teaches that one is a trustee of Allah's creation and that giving purifies one's soul.

3. Muslims are known around the world for their five daily stated prayers. They must be voiced in Arabic. They may be done individually or in community, usually in a mosque. They must face in the direction of Mecca. The words and gestures are highly specific as Muslims line up in orderly rows. Men and women are segregated. The Qur'an requires that they be accomplished just as it states (Qur'an 2:3, 117; 11:114; 17:78; 20:14, 130; 30:17-18). The five prayers are said between dawn and sunrise, noon and mid-afternoon, mid-afternoon to sunset, sunset to twilight, and from twilight to dawn. A ritual washing is required of parts of the face, hands, and feet before each prayer. A leader called an imam stands before the people in the mosque, and they emulate his words and movements. Also, there are informal, extemporaneous prayers (doa) which serve as petitions, pleas, and praises to Allah, as well as for some Muslim groups to Islamic heroes and saint types. These may be voiced in one's native language.

4. The Qur'an requires fasting of all Muslims unless there is a health problem at the time (Qur'an 2:183-185). It is held during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. The calendar varies from year to year so that the fasting season will rotate seasonally. Fasting must be observed from sunrise to sunset, during which time there is no eating, drinking, frivolity, or sexual intercourse. After sunset and before dawn meals may be taken. The festival of Id Fitr (breaking the fast) is held at the end of Ramadan as a time of celebration for adhering to the fast and its meaning for physical and spiritual life. Large gatherings around meals and gift giving are part of the celebration.

5. The pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca is required by the Qur'an for every man and woman who is physically and financially able to go at least once in a lifetime (Qur'an 2:196-201; 3:97; 22:26-29). Mecca is the holiest city of Islam. It is the birthplace of Muhammad. It is the city faced by over one billion Muslims in their daily prayers. Tradition associates Abraham and his son, Ishmael, with the city where they built an altar (Ka'bah) for the worship of Allah. The religion of Abraham was corrupted by Arab tribes. Muhammad later removed the 360 idols of the Ka'bah and instituted it as a place of worship for Muslims to Allah. Some two million Muslims each year make the pilgrimage where they perform ceremonies around the Ka'bah and mosque and in the near vicinity of Mecca. Some pilgrims travel two hundred miles to the north of Mecca to the second most sacred city of Islam, Medina, where Muhammad established his first Muslim community (Ummah), built the first mosque, and was laid to rest in a special tomb in ad 632. Only Muslims are allowed to enter Mecca.

6. Jihad is a prominent part of Islam (Qur'an 2:244; 9:5; 9:29; 22:78; 47:4; 49:15). It has two meanings. The basic meaning is “to struggle or to strive” to fulfill the straight path for which the Qur'an calls. It is the battle waged by a Muslim against sin and disobedience and for observing all the practices of Islam. A second meaning of jihad is the traditional holy war waged against the enemies of Allah and Islam. Thus, jihad is both a personal and a community commitment to defend and spread the religion Islam by the tongue, by the heart, by the hand, and if necessary by the sword. Tradition approves of violence against infidels and unbelievers and those who leave their native religion in apostasy. The Qur'an promises to the martyr (shahid) in battle a place in paradise and an honorable name bestowed upon one's family (Qur'an 47:4-5).