Nearly half of Americans have a generally unfavorable view of Islam, according
to a 2006 Washington Post-ABC News poll, a number has risen since the Sept. 11,
2001, terrorist attacks. That climate makes it easy to lose sight of the fact
that the majority of mainstream Muslims hate terrorism and violence as much as
we do -- and makes it hard for non-Muslims to know where to begin to try to
understand a great world faith.
Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam originated in the
Middle East. As F.E. Peters shows in "The Children of Abraham," the
commonalities can be striking. Muslims worship the God of Abraham, as do
Christians and Jews. Islam was seen as a continuation of the Abrahamic faith
tradition, not a totally new religion. Muslims recognize the biblical prophets
and believe in the holiness of God's revelations to Moses (in the Torah) and
Jesus (in the Gospels). Indeed, Musa (Moses), Issa (Jesus) and Mariam (Mary)
are common Muslim names.
Muslims believe in Islam's five pillars, which are straightforward and simple.
To become a Muslim, one need only offer the faith's basic credo, "There is no
god but God, and Muhammad is the prophet of God." This statement reflects the
two main fundamentals of Islamic faith: belief in the one true God, which
carries with it a refusal to worship anything else (not money, not career, not
ego), and the crucial importance of Muhammad, God's messenger.
Muhammad is the central role model for Muslims -- much like Jesus is for
Christians, except solely human. He is seen as the ideal husband, father and
friend, the ultimate political leader, general, diplomat and judge.
Understanding Muhammad's special place in Muslim hearts helps us appreciate the
widespread anger of many mainstream Muslims -- not just extremists -- with the
denigration of a Muhammad-like figure in
Salman Rushdie's 1988 novel "The Satanic Verses," the controversial 2005
Danish cartoons depicting Muhammad in unflattering lights or
Pope Benedict XVI's 2006 speech quoting a long-dead Byzantine emperor who
accused the prophet of bringing "only evil and inhuman" things into the world.
Karen Armstrong's "Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time" and Tariq Ramadan's "In
the Footsteps of the Prophet: Lessons from the Life of Muhammad" provide fresh,
perceptive views on his modern-day relevance.
The three next pillars of Islam are prayer, which is to be performed five times
daily; giving alms, in the form of an annual wealth tax that helps support the
poor; and fasting during daylight in the holy month of Ramadan. The fifth
pillar requires that Muslims perform the pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca at least
We tend to equate Islam with the Arab world, but the largest Muslim communities
are found in
Nigeria. Only about one in five of the world's 1.3 billion
Muslims are Arabs. Islam is the second-largest religion in
Europe and the third-largest in the United States.
The treatment of women under Islam is also wildly diverse. In countries such as
Saudi Arabia, women must be fully covered in public, cannot
drive cars and struggle for the right to vote. But elsewhere, Muslim women
freely enter politics, drive motorcycles and wear everything from saris to
pantsuits. Women can get university educations and pursue professional careers
Malaysia and Indonesia; they have been heads of state in
Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia.
Anyone who has followed the news from
Iraq has heard a lot about Sunnis and Shiites, the faith's two
major branches. About 85 percent of the world's Muslims are Sunni, with about
15 percent Shiite. The division stems from a bitter dispute after Muhammad's
death over who should take over the leadership of the newly founded Muslim
community. Sunnis believed that the most qualified person should succeed the
prophet, but a minority thought that his descendants should carry his mantle.
That minority was known as the followers or partisans (Shiites) of Ali; they
believed that Muhammad had designated Ali, his cousin and son-in-law, as his
heir. Historically, Shiites have viewed themselves as oppressed and
disenfranchised under Sunni rule -- a longstanding grievance that has flared up
again in recent years in such countries as Iraq,
Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain
and Pakistan. Vali Nasr's "The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will
Shape the Future" does a fine job of distinguishing between theology and
politics in today's Sunni-Shiite rivalries.
Muslims also argue over what some refer to as Islam's sixth pillar, jihad. In
the Koran, Islam's sacred text, jihad means "to strive or struggle" to realize
God's will, to lead a virtuous life, to create a just society and to defend
Islam and the Muslim community. But historically, Muslim rulers, backed by
religious scholars, used the term to legitimize holy wars to expand their
empires. Contemporary extremists -- most notably
Osama bin Laden-- also appeal to Islam to bless their attacks.
My book "Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam" tackles this theme, as does
Fawaz Gerges's "Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy."
The Gallup World Poll's helpful section on the Muslim world (
sheds some light on the views and aspirations of more than 1 billion Muslims.
My years studying those attitudes suggest that Muslim hostility toward the West
is mostly political, not religious, and that Muslims hope the West will show
their faith more respect. In our post-9/11 world, the ability to distinguish
between Islam itself and Muslim extremism will be critical. Only thus will we
be able to avoid pushing away mainstream Muslims around the world,
marginalizing Muslim citizens at home and alienating the allies we need to help
us fight global terrorism.