The power of Islam: the true story behind the world’s most misunderstood religion – Special Report

THE RELIGION OF ISLAM has had a lot of bad press recently. The terrorists who destroyed New York’s World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon have been described as “Islamic extremists.” The Taliban, who until recently controlled Afghanistan and stomped on everyone’s rights, did so in the name of Islam. A group called Islamic Jihad has taken credit for a series of recent terror bombings in Israel.

Are those examples representative of the religion of Islam? In no way, shape, or form, say most Muslims. To most of the world’s almost 1.5 billion Muslims, those examples describe only a very tiny minority of the faithful. Muslims say to brand a whole religion with the crimes of a few is grossly unfair and hurtful–similar to blaming Christianity for the actions of terrorists in Northern Ireland.

To Muslims, Islam represents not the darkness of terrorism, but the light of faith. Here, in question-and-answer form, are some of the basic truths behind the world’s second largest (only Christianity is larger) religion:

Q: What does Islam mean?

A: Islam is an Arabic word meaning “submission [to God].”‘

Muslim is an Arabic word meaning “one who submits [to God’s will].” The Arabic word for God is Allah.

A Man Named Muhammad

Q: How did Islam begin?

A: Islam began more than 1,300 years ago in what is now Saudi Arabia. According to Muslim belief, in the year 610 in the city of Mecca, a merchant named Muhammad was meditating in a cave in the hills above the city. Suddenly, he heard a thundering voice.

“Speak!” commanded the voice.

Muhammad saw nothing but felt as if powerful hands were gripping his body. He was terrified. Muhammad did not know what the voice wanted him to say.

Then–in a flash–Muhammad understood. The voice was that of the angel Gabriel. Muhammad asked Gabriel what he wanted. The angel commanded him to teach the true religion in the name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful.

Muhammad rushed home to tell his wife what had happened. She called her cousin, a Christian, to find out what Muhammad’s experience meant. The old Christian man said that Muhammad must have been chosen by Allah, as had prophets in earlier times, to deliver God’s message.

Muhammad returned to the cave many times during the next 23 years. Each time he memorized, and had scribes later write down, the words of Allah as told through the angel Gabriel.

Q: What did Muhammad do with the words?

A: The words became the Koran, the holy book of Islam. Muslims believe that the Koran is the revealed word of God and use it as the prime source of their faith and way of life. The Koran teaches of a single, all-powerful God, Allah. It also teaches that Allah is just and merciful and wants people to repent their sins so they can enter paradise after death.

Not only does the Koran talk about the importance of belief but it also lays out detailed guidelines for proper human conduct. The Koran stresses charity and brotherly love among Muslims. It also teaches that Muslims must be humble in spirit, refrain from drinking alcohol, and be brave and just in their dealings with other Muslims.

Islam teaches that death is the gate to eternal life. The tortures of Muslim hell resemble those in the Christian Bible. The Muslim heaven is often described as a beautiful garden with flowing waters and luscious fruits.

Q: How did the influence of Islam spread?

A: Muhammad soon began to preach the words of the Koran to the people of Mecca. But he at first attracted only a small group of followers. The rest of the people, who worshiped idols, persecuted the Muslims. This persecution grew so severe that in the year 622, Muhammad and his followers fled Mecca for the city of Medina, 260 miles to the north. This event, called the Hegira, marks year one in the Muslim calendar.

In the year 630, Muhammad and his followers returned to Mecca with an army and conquered the city. Shortly thereafter, just about all of Mecca’s population converted to Islam.

Conquest by War

When Muhammad died in 632 at the age of 63, most of the people of Arabia had already converted to the new religion. Muhammad’s followers elected Abu Bakr caliph, or successor, to Muhammad as the leader of the faith. Abu Bakr declared the first in a series of jihads, or holy wars, in which Muslim armies exploded out of Arabia to conquer much of Asia, North Africa, and parts of Europe.

Within a century after Muhammad’s death, Islam had spread all the way to Spain in the west and as far as China in the east. Only military defeat at Tours, France, in 732 kept the Muslim armies from conquering large parts of Europe.

The Koran allows jihads against unbelievers who threaten the Muslim faith. Today, almost all Muslim clerics, however, interpret this part of the Koran to apply only to major wars between countries, not terrorist acts.

Many books credit the rapid spread of Islam to the fighting abilities of Muslim armies. But many Muslims themselves say that at least as much credit must be given to the great appeal of Islam as a new religion for millions of converts.

Q: What is the extent of Islam today?

A: The world’s Muslims come from a vast collection of peoples spread across the globe–from China and the southern Philippines to western Africa. (See map on page 2.) Islam is the fastest-growing religion in Africa. It is also one of the fastest-growing religions in the United States. (See “Islam in the United States,” page 4.)

Q: What are the fundamental principles of Muslim life today?

A: Islam, perhaps more than any other religion, is also a way of life. Muslims learn a way of looking at the world and society that sometimes seems strange to non-Muslims. The Muslim way of life is summarized in what are known as “the five pillars of Islam”:

* Faith. A Muslim must daily repeat the shahada, a simple declaration of faith. In English, the shahada is “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his prophet.”

* Prayer. Salat is the name of prayers that must be performed five times a day by Muslims. Prayers are said at dawn, noon, midafternoon, sunset, and nightfall. In Muslim countries, the call to prayer, announced over loudspeakers from minarets, or tall towers, on mosques (Muslim places of worship), determines the rhythm of the entire day.

* Charity. Zakat is the Muslim belief that all things belong to God and that wealth is held by human beings only in trust from God. Each Muslim is encouraged to put aside part of his or her wealth for those in need.

* Fasting. Every year, for the entire Muslim month of Ramadan (the ninth month of the Muslim calendar), all Muslims who are able must eat no food from sunup to sundown as homage to God. In 2001, Ramadan began on November 16. This year Ramadan will begin on November 6.

* Pilgrimage. All Muslims, if they are physically and financially able, must make at least one pilgrimage during their lifetime to Mecca, the birthplace of Islam. The hajj, as this obligation is known, draws about 2 million people from every corner of the globe to Mecca each year.

Q. What are Islamic customs regarding women?

A: Many commonly held ideas in the West about women in Islam are not true. One myth is that every Muslim woman must wear a long, loose dress with a veil covering her face.

In some strict Muslim nations, such as Afghanistan when it was ruled by the Taliban, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, that is true. But elsewhere in the Muslim world, women wear everything from business suits to blue jeans.

Another common misconception about women in Islam is that they have no rights. Though in some Muslim countries, such as Kuwait and Iran, women do have far fewer rights than men, in other countries, such as Iraq and Egypt, they have most of the rights that men have.

Q: What is Islamic fundamentalism?

A: In many Muslim nations today, Islamic fundamentalism–a movement to bring society back to the days of Muhammad–has become a major force. Islamic fundamentalists claim to want to “purify” Islam by eliminating all non-Islamic influences and getting rid of all laws except the law of the Koran. The Taliban are Islamic fundamentalists. Many of Osama bin Laden’s supporters are Islamic fundamentalists who are willing to use terror to destroy Western influences and establish Islam the way it was in the days of Muhammad.

Fundamentalists, however, form a very tiny portion of the world’s Muslim population. The vast majority of Muslims condemn the acts of terrorists as counter to the teachings of the Koran and feel that fundamentalists give all Muslims an undeserved bad name.

CONSIDER THIS … In what ways have fundamentalists warped how non-Muslims think of Muslims? What can Muslims do to correct mistaken views of Islam?

Get Talking

Ask students: What is Islam? What is a Muslim? When they give their answers, point out how the news or the popular press influences people’s opinions about other people, religions, and cultures.


Muslims do not always speak with one voice. The main division in Islam is between Sunnis and Shiites. Originally, the Sunnis, meaning majority, were people who, soon after Muhammad’s death, believed that the prophet should be democratically elected. Shiites, meaning partisans, believed that the successor should be a blood relative of Muhammad.

Most Muslims today–80 percent–are Sunnis. Shiites, although they make up only about 20 percent of all Muslims, form the majority of the population in Iran, Iraq, and Bahrain. Shiites say that Shiite holy men are appointed by God and cannot make an error in their teachings. Therefore, they reason, they are entitled to make decisions on political matters. The rulers of many Muslim countries consider this idea a threat.

For both Sunnis and Shiites, the mosque, or Muslim place of worship, is the most important building. All mosques have a mihrab (niche) that points towards the holy city of Mecca. Mosques, like churches, also have a pulpit for a preacher and a book stand to hold the Koran. Another important part of a mosque is a minaret, a tall tower from where a person called muezzin calls the faithful to prayer. Many mosques also have a religious elementary school, and some also have a madrasah (religious college) for advanced students who want to become mullahs, or religious teachers.

Doing More

The amazing growth of the Arab and Muslim empire in the two centuries after Muhammad’s death has been the subject of many books. Students might research in their school or town libraries to write reports on how the Arab armies were able to conquer so much territory so quickly. Another fruitful area of study that demonstrates the ultimate misunderstanding and conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims is the Crusades. Students may report on each crusade, its causes, and its outcome

Link It

* The Detroit Free Press’ Guide About Arab Americans

* The Islam Page

COPYRIGHT 2002 Weekly Reader Corp.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group

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