Exploring Islam

Kate Fechter / Washburn Review

Islam is the second-largest religion in the world. According to religioustolerance.org, Islam is practiced by 21 percent of the world’s population. It is second only to Christianity at 33 percent of the population. Islam may also be one of the most misunderstood religions in the United States.

Post Sept. 11, 2001, many ideas have been floating around about what Islam is about. An all-too-common thought is the idea that Muslims believe in the idea of “convert or die.” Barry Crawford, Washburn religion professor, said that this isn’t so and explained some of the basics of Islam.

“A lot of what people hear on television is not fully accurate,” said Crawford. “Most people hear about Islam from the news, Glenn Beck or Bill O’Reilly. Islam is just as diverse as any religion; and extremists are as rare as the Ku Klux Klan is in Christianity.”

Crawford went on to explain that Islam has no centralized agency to act as a spokesperson for the followers. An example of this would be the pope in Vatican City for the Roman Catholics.

Religioustolerance.org has a two-part introduction to Islam as part of its extensive information about Islam and other religions. The name Islam is derived from the Arabic word “salam,” which is often interpreted as meaning “peace.” Crawford and the Web site agree that it really means “submission.”

“Islam is fiercely monotheistic,” said Crawford. “God is the boss and you are not, is the belief. So you submit to Allah.”

Allah is the name for the Islamic god, which means “the One True God.” Followers of Islam are called Muslims. Most religious historians believe that Islam was founded around 622 CE by the Prophet Muhammad. It began in Mecca after the angel Jibril, who is the Angel Gabriel from the Christian tradition, told Muhammad about the first revelation. Because of the time of its founding, Islam is considered the youngest of the major world religions.

The Quran or Koran, as is the common English spelling, is the holy book of Islam. It is believed that the angel Jibril dictated the Quran to Muhammad over a period of 23 years. Crawford said the Quran is regarded as the voice of Allah.

Islam has six major beliefs. First is the belief in the one god Allah. Second, Islam strongly believes in angels. Next, it reveres the scriptures. These include the Torah, the psalms, other parts of the Bible and the Quran. Another important belief is the belief in the Messengers of God. These are prophets and include Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus and Muhammad. Next is the belief in a Judgment Day. Finally, Muslims believe that Allah’s will reigns supreme.

Muslims have duties described in the Five Pillars of Islam. At least once in their lifetime, Muslims recite the Shahadah, though most do it daily. The creed reads “there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet.” Next is to perform the salat. This is to pray five times during the day.

“There used to be a man who’d climb and announce the hours of prayer,” said Crawford. “Now it’s recorded and can be heard all over Middle Eastern cities five times per day. No matter where you are at the hour of prayer, your day temporarily stops.”

Islam has morning prayer, noon prayer, afternoon prayer, prayer at sunset and a night-time prayer. Another practice is to give through zakat. This is a 2.5 percent tax given to charity by upper- and middle-class Muslims.

Finally, if physically able, all Muslims are required to make at least one trip to Mecca in their lifetime. This is called a hajj. Mecca is located in Saudi Arabia.

One very misunderstood Islamic term is jihad. Jihad is thought to mean “holy war.”  In reality, jihad is seen as a personal, internal struggle with oneself.

Another important Islam idea is that the Quran speaks against suicide. In the Quran (4:29) it says, “Do not kill yourselves as God has been very merciful to you.” Only Allah is allowed to decide whether life is taken.

There are three major types of Islam: Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims and Sufism.

“Ninety percent of Muslims are Sunni,” said Crawford. “Shiites are 9 percent and Sufis are like 1 percent of Muslims. Sufis are looked on with puzzlement because they believe in mysticism. Sunnis are very conservative. Under Sunni and Shiite there are a lot of different subdivisions. Some Muslims observe the rules strictly and some not so strictly.”

For more information on Islam, Crawford recommends books written by John Esposito and Karen Armstrong.