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As Imam Hassan al-Qazwini makes his way to the U.P., there is perhaps no better time to learn the history and culture of Islam. With 1.7 billion followers, it is a faith that has spread to nearly every country worldwide. Yet this religion, which preaches acceptance and peace, is often one of the most misunderstood, thanks in part to a small group of radicals. But once the stereotypes are peeled away, what remains is a religion rich in history and culture.
What is Islam?
new, arriving around the year 600 of the common era (CE), a measurement of time centered around Gregorian calendar. According to Islamic faith, around that time in the city of Mecca, the Prophet Muhammad began receiving revelations from God. He repeated these revelations to others. People began to follow Muhammad and memorize the revelations word for word, reciting them to the next generation of Muslims.
However, Muhammad was more than just a religious leader. According to NMU history professor Keith Kendall, he played a much bigger role in the political landscape of Mecca and was also a skilled military leader.
Much like other religious leaders, Muhammad’s message was one of peace and acceptance, and was considered liberal for the time. This was illustrated in his treatment of women.
“He allowed women to speak, and he valued their opinions,” Kendall said.
Through political and peaceful means, Muhammad was able to expand the reach of Islam. According to NMU philosophy professor Donald Dreisbach, this expansion was motivated by something more than religion: Muhammad tried to unify the varied Arab tribes, which had a history of violence.
“It was a way to stop the tribes from fighting,” Dreisbach said.
After Muhammad’s death in 632 CE, Muslims who memorized his teachings took on new importance. However, when Muslims began to expand their empire, which resulted in wars with the Byzantine and Persian empires, many who learned the teachings died in battle. In response Muslims wrote down the recitals into a text which became known as the Qur’an.
According to Dreisbach, the importance of the Qur’an to the Islamic faith cannot be overstated. Much like Jesus Christ was the presence of God in the world for Christians, the Qur’an is the worldly presence of God for Muslims.
With the Qur’an, Islam became established on a global scale. And with that came not only a broader acceptance of other faiths but an acceptance of other cultures within Islam.
The Five Pillars of Islam
After Muhammad’s death, Islam grew to encompass many different cultures.
However, there is one aspect of Islam that all Muslims can agree on: the Five Pillars.
“Culturally, Muslims are very diverse,” Kendall said. “But religiously, all Muslims would agree on the Five Pillars.”
The Five Pillars are: Bearing witness to one God and the Prophet Muhammad, prayer, fasting during Ramadan, charity and the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca.
According to Health professor Mohey Mowafy, a life-long practicing Muslim born in Egypt, Muslims consider a close connection to God very important, which is strengthened through the second pillar, prayer.
“You disconnect (from the material world) and try to seek connectedness with the divine,” Mowafy said.
Muslims are encouraged to pray five times a day; however, that number may increase depending on the sect. A strong sense of connectivity with God also helps when Muslims enter the holy festival of Ramadan, a 28-day festival celebrating when the Qur’an was first introduced to the Prophet. During this time Muslims fast each day from sun up to sundown. But Ramadan is about more than fasting.
“It is a month of total devotion and spiritual calm,” Mowafy said, adding that Muslims are encouraged to pray more, show more discipline and more charity during this time.
In fact, charity is such an integral part of Islam that it makes up the fourth pillar. Mowafy said that it’s important for Muslims to help the poor and underprivileged all year around, not just during Ramadan. Traditionally, Muslims are encouraged to donate 2.5 percent of their income to the needy.
Lastly, adult Muslims are to make at least one pilgrimage to the city of Mecca in their lifetime. This pilgrimage helps establish the belief that all are equal before God.
The Five Pillars are an essential part of Islam because of the varied cultures within it, Dreisbach said. He said that another aspect that helps unite Muslims is the mosque.
“Muslim immigrants that come to the United States still have the feeling of a community in the mosque,” he said. “(The mosque) transcends ethnicity.”
However, it’s not surprising that, given the varying cultural backgrounds, many misconceptions and stereotypes began to emerge. Especially when it is put into the context of current political events, there may be no religion as misunderstood as Islam.
Dispelling Common Myths
There are myriad stereotypes facing Muslims today, ranging from common misconceptions to phrases rooted in bigotry.
Many of these stereotypes come from a small sect of Islam called Wahabism. In America, Wahabism is better known as the religion of the Taliban and Saudi Arabia.
Wahabism makes up a small fraction of total Muslims, and according to Dreisbach, it’s not indicative of the whole of Islam.
“To a lot of Muslims, the Wahabists are crazy,” Dreisbach said.
When it comes to the Wahabist’s militant approach, Mowafy agrees it’s not reflective of Islam, and only causes more harm than good.
“With that kind of religiosity, it really is a mental illness,” Mowafy said.
There are many stereotypes that the Wahabists embody, but there are some that arise just from a general lack of understanding Muslims. The first is that the Islamic God is different than the Judeo-Christian God. However, this is simply not true, Kendall said.
“Muslims call God ‘Allah,’ which is literally Arabic for the word ‘God,'” Kendall said.
But not only do Muslims worship the same God, the Qur’an mentions many Judeo-Christian figures. According to Mowafy, Jesus is mentioned 128 times, whereas Muhammad is mentioned only once.
Islam is also generalized as a religion whose community is made entirely of Arabs. But as Mowafy points out, only 20 percent of Muslims are Arabs, with countries such as Indonesia being the most populous Muslim-majority nation worldwide.
Perhaps the biggest misconception is that Islam, more so than any other religion, was spread not through means of peace and dialogue but war. For Mowafy, this stereotype is the most prevailing and most troublesome.
Many people incorrectly point to the rapid expansion of Islam in the century that followed Muhammad’s death as evidence that Islam is a blood-thirsty religion. However, as Kendall put it, these wars were not about religion.
“I think control of trade routes was the major factor for Islamic expansion in the early days,” Kendall said. “It’s a very empirical conquest.”
Along with incorrectly being labeled a violent religion, Islam is also accused of promoting terrorism and suicide bombings. However, the Qur’an explicitly states otherwise on multiple occasions, with Muhammad saying that the killing of innocent people is the second greatest sin in Islam, only behind viewing another person or object as God. It’s on this particular issue where Mowafy feels the media isn’t helping
“Sometimes I feel the media feeds into the stereotype,” he said. “It’s not productive.”
Many also incorrectly assume that Islam is intolerant of other religions. But during the time of expansion, Islam made up a fraction of the population. As Driesbach said, Muslims were very open to allowing citizens to practice their own religion, regardless of what it was.
“[Muslim leaders said] what God you want to worship is really up to you,” Dreisbach said, adding that they used this interaction with other faiths to not only advance their religion but advance their society.
“During the Dark Ages, they had beautiful, flowering cities,” he said.
The last of the major stereotypes is perhaps one that will take the longest to be erased — the notion that all Muslim men are sexist.
But for Kris Mowafy, Mohey’s wife as well as a practicing Christian, this couldn’t be further from the truth. She says Mohey has always seen her as an equal individual.
“I was very surprised (when I first met him) at how both supportive and pleased Mohey was with my independence,” Kris said. “He always wanted me to maintain my independent self.”
She said that, when it comes to sexism, the Wahabists unfortunately help perpetrate many stereotypes.
“They believe that (everything) should be the way it was during the time of Muhammad,” she said. “They don’t believe in moving into the future.”
According to Mowafy, many of the above stereotypes stem from ignorance, and if any community wants to move away from ignorance, they need to develop what he calls interfaith relations.
Comparing Islam to Christianity
lthough Islam and Christianity are separate religions, they have a lot in common:
– Both Islam and Christianity are monotheistic religions, meaning they believe in only one God.
– Muslims believe that their God is the same God that’s worshipped in both Judaism and Christianity.
– All three monotheistic religions are Abrahamic religions, meaning they all believe Abraham was the patriarchal father of the prophets.
– Judaism and Christianity follow a slightly different line of Abraham’s genealogy than Islam does. Judeo-Christian religions follow the patriarchal line of Abraham’s son Isaac, while Muslims follow the line of Abraham’s other son, Ishmael.
– Unlike Jesus, Muhammad was not an object of worship to Muslims.
– Although Muslims hold Jesus in high regard, they do not believe he was the son of God.
Interfaith Relations in Marquette
minantly of Christians. Despite this, Mowafy said that having an open dialogue between people of different faiths is key to progressing as a society.
“No one is free until we are all free,” he said. “No one is saved until we are all saved.”
Senior international studies and Spanish major Alicia McCauley agreed that an open dialogue is very important.
“People tend to fear that which they do not understand,” McCauley said.
“Since this is such a homogenous area, many may find it difficult to understand the tenets of Islam, among other religions.
“If we can learn about each other, we won’t have anything to fear.”
McCauley recognized the importance of interfaith dialogue in helping people recognize that everyone, regardless of background, is deserving
“Once we can cross the interfaith divide, it (becomes) obvious that we are all humans who aren’t so different from one another,” she said.
One campus organization that’s helping further this dialogue is the Interfaith Club. The club means a great deal to Mowafy.
“My connection with the interfaith group is the most spiritually enriching experience for me,” he said.
An inspiring example for Mowafy came to him in a book titled “The Faith Club,” a series of memoirs written by three women from different religious background: Ranya Idliby, a Muslim, Suzanne Oliver, a Christian and Priscilla Warner, a Jew. In it they learn to come to terms with their own bigotry and work to erase stereotypes. “Club” stands as an example of the importance of interfaith relations to our society.
“This world has no hope for a future if we do not have interfaith harmony and respect for each other,” Mowafy said.