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Islam, The Myth and the Real

Imam Yahya Hendi

Georgetown University

Islam, the religion of close to 1.2 billlion Mulsims worldwide, including 190 million Arab Muslims and 8 million American Muslims; has been the most discussed religion in the public arena since the tragedy of September 11th. What Islam is and is not will be the theme of this article.

Nearly four thousand years ago, Abraham lived with his wife Sarah in the Holy Land. They had not been blessed with any children. In the hopes of Abraham fathering a child, and keeping with tradition, Sarah suggested that Abraham should marry Hagar, their slave girl. He did and it was not long after that Hagar had a little boy named Ishmael. Years later God promised Abraham another son, but this time the mother of the child would be his first wife, Sarah. This second son was called Isaac. God told Abraham that from his two sons many nations and many prophets would be sent to guide humanity to the worship of The One Almighty God. Abraham was then directed by God to take Hagar and Ishmael away from Palestine to a new land.

These events were an important part of God’s plan, for the descendants of Ishmael would form a nation from which would come a great prophet, who would guide the people in the way of God. This prophet was to be Muhammad, which Muslims believe to be the last of God’s messengers to humanity. From the descendants of Sara’s child, Isaac, would come Moses and Jesus.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam each has a special claim on Abraham. Jews believe he was the original covenant maker with God, so Abraham was a Jew before the Torah. St. Paul, in Christian tradition, saw Abraham’s unconditional faith in God as a model of Christian justification by grace, and so Abraham was a Christian before the Gospel. For Muslims, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son is the prototype of submission (Islam), and so he was a Muslim before the Qur’an. The Qur’an argues that “Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian; but he was true in faith and bowed his will to God’s, and he joined no gods with God.” 3:67. Such unconditional submission is called “Islam”.

The word Islam is derived from the Arabic root SLM which means, among other things, peace, purity, submission and obedience. In the religious sense the word Islam means submission to the Will of God and obedience to His law. The connection between the original and the religious meanings of the word is strong and obvious. Only through submission to the will of God and by obedience to His Divine law can one achieve true peace and enjoy lasting purity. Submission is given only to Allah and not to Muhammad.

Muslims believe that Muhammad is neither the founder of Islam nor is he Divine. He is God’s servant and messenger. Therefore, Islam is the name of the religion and not Muhammadenism. Mohammadaneism implies that Muslims regard Muhammad in the same way Christians see Jesus Christ. Muslims believe that He was a living proof of what man can be and of what he can accomplish in the realm of excellence and virtue. The original founder was God Himself, the Origin of all revelations to all the prophets. Thus, Islam should not be called after him. Muhammad was commissioned by God to teach the Qur’an, the Muslim Holy Scripture, and lead an exemplary life.

Muhammad called on his followers, Muslims, to worship the God of his brothers- Abraham, Moses, and Jesus Christ. Allah is just the Arabic word for God. God is the Creator of all things, the Mighty, the Wise to Whom belongs everything in the heavens and on the earth. The transcendent One God is at the root of the Islamic faith and the belief of Muslims. The Qur’an declares that God begets not, nor was He begotten. There is none co-equal comparable unto Him. It is to this God Muslims worship and pray.

Muslims are required to offer daily prayers as a sign of gratitude, give charity to show sympathy with the needy, fast the month of Ramadan to learn perseverance and to remember the needs of the poor, and to make pilgrimage to Mecca as a reminder of the shared tradition Muslims have with Abraham. Jihad is the noblest of all religious practices

The word jihad has been frequently used by the western press to mean “holy war” The term “holy war” does not have a counterpart in the Islamic glossary, and jihad is certainly not its translation. Jihad means: “striving, struggle or exertion.” In its primary sense it is an inner struggle, within the self, to rid it from debased actions or inclinations and to exercise constantly perseverance in achieving a high moral standard. Since Islam is not confined to the realm of the individual but extends to the welfare of the society and humanity in general, a Muslim cannot strive to improve himself or herself in isolation from what happens in his or her community or in the world at large, hence the Qur’an reminds its readers of the task of “enjoining good and forbidding evil.” The means to change vary, and in our modern world encompass all legal, diplomatic, arbitrative, economic and political instruments.

However, Islam does not exclude the use of force by which to curb evil, if there is no viable alternative. Force becomes permitted and has to be carried out by the Khalifah, leader, of all Muslims to stop aggression and ensure security. Jihad is not a declaration of war against other religions and certainly not against Jews or Christians as some would like it to look. Permissible fighting in Islam is equal to the Christian concept of the “Just War”.

Islam teaches peaceful co-existence with Jews and Christians. Jews and Christians are considered fellow inheritors of the Abrahamic tradition. The Qur’an teaches it’s followers:

“say: We believe in God, and the revelation given to us, and the revelation given to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and the Tribes, and that given to Moses and Jesus, and that given to all prophets from their Lord: We make no distinction between one and another of them, and to him we are submitters. 2:136.

Islam teaches that: “there is no compulsion in religion.” 2:256. Islam teaches that “Christians and Jews have our rights and owe our duties.” Prophet Muhammad used to repeat to his followers that “whoever hurts a Christian or a Jew, it will be as though he hurt me personally.” Our differences are a fact we can debate and talk about but not a reason for waging wars and hatred. Only God will judge between us as the Qur’an declares.

The Qur’an enhances religious diversity and pluralism. God Himself declares in the Qur’an:

“O mankind! I have created you from a single pair of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes that ye may come to know one another.” 49:11

As Muhammad recognized that wars are inescapable realities, his constant reminder to Muslims within the battlefield was: “If you come across a temple or a church do not destroy them. If you see a rabbi or a worshipper to do not kill them. If you come close to aged civilians, women or children do not harm them. If you come across a plant or tree don’t bring it down.” Those are the ethics Muslims ought to follow even in the midst of the war. If God honors His creation, we must do the same also. The Qur’an teaches that we must honor all people Muslims and non Muslims and men and women,

Over 1400 years ago and in the midst of darkness that engulfed the world, the divine revelation echoed in the wide desert of Arabia with a fresh, noble and universal message to humanity:

“O mankind, keep your duties to your Lord who created you from a single soul and from it created its mate and from them twain has spread a multitude of men and women.” Q 4:1.

Stressing this concept, the Qur’an states:

“He God it is who did create you from a single soul and therefrom did create his mate, that he might dwell with her in love” Q 2: 189. Q 4:1.

The Qur’an provides clear-cut evidence that women are compatible with men in the sight of God in terms of their rights and responsibilities. The Qur’an does not hold women responsible for the mistake committed by the first Adam or even Eve. Each is responsible for his or her own deeds. As the woman’s right to decide about her marriage is recognized, so also her right to seek an end for an unsuccessful marriage is recognized.

Women are equal to men in the pursuit of education and knowledge. When Islam enjoins the seeking of knowledge upon Muslims, it makes no distinction between man and woman. Almost fourteen centuries ago, Muhammad declared that pursuit of knowledge in incumbent on every Muslim, male or female.

All members of the Muslim community are held up to those and many other standards. None is above the law. If one desires to achieve peace in the society, then they must find that peace within themselves first. The first step to such peace is the unconditional willingness to find that peace with the Creator and then with the created.

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