Tuesday, August 23, 2011

How much do you really know about Islam?

Khadeeja Mosque (West Valley City, Utah)
This is the first installment in The Culturalist's 2011 Series on Islam.
Pop Quiz!

1. True or False? In the Qur'an, all women of the faith are commanded to wear face covering, but many women who practice Islam in the United States choose not to do so, because it is unpopular. 
2. True or False? The teachings of Islam include the belief in the second coming of Jesus.

3. True or False? Muhammad, whom Muslims revere as the last prophet, performed many miracles, including healing the sick.

4. True or False? There is a global consensus among the believers of Islam that any war Muslims fight against non-Muslims may be considered a "Jihad," or Holy War.  

5. True or False? The Arabic version of the Qur'an is entirely in rhyme. 

6. True or False? In 2009, there were an estimated 25 hundred Muslims living in Utah.
    Answers Below:

    1. False. The Qur'an's scripture commanding women to cover their faces was specifically intended for the wives of the prophet. Although some Muslim women choose to cover their faces, it is generally understood that the Qur'an's standards for women and modesty require covering all parts of the body except the face, hands, and feet. Strict adherence is not required when a woman's company is limited to other women, or her immediate family members.

    2. True. Muslims do not believe that Jesus Christ is deity, but they regard him as a prophet. They believe his return in the last days will be one of the prophetic signs that the final judgment is just around the corner. They also believe in the same miracles of Jesus recorded in the New Testament, including the immaculate conception (that Mary was a virgin). There is one exception: Muslims do not believe that Jesus was resurrected. Some believe he did not really come back to life after his crucifixion, others believe he survived the crucifixion or that he wasn't really crucified at all.

    3. False. Muhammad performed only one miracle, the revelation of the Qur'an. Muhammad was illiterate, which makes the miracle more astounding. Muslims believe that over the course of 22 years, he received the Qur'an as a series of revelations from the archangel, Gabriel. The book is similar to the Old and New Testaments of the Holy Bible, and is considered by Muslims to be the uncorrupted version, a restoration of the true record. Because it came by the mouth of an angel, they regard the Qur'an as the literal word of Allah (Muslims don't refer to Deity as "God.")

    4. False. Although Islam does not have a global hierarchy with a single leader (like the pope), it does have many well-respected leaders throughout the world who share consensus on different issues. According to this consensus, there are two kinds of Jihads. The first kind, the "Big Jihad," is the daily personal struggle to do what is right. The second kind, "Small Jihads," may be declared by a leader of merit--and it must refer to a battle that is fought to defend freedom and humanity, a fight against oppression. It is also relevant to state here that these leaders of merit have denounced Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban, and the terrorist actions of 9-11-2001.

    5. True. Muhammad himself never wrote his revelations down. The Qur'an was first memorized by Muhammad's followers, and then recorded. Rhyme is an important characteristic of a successful oral tradition.

    6. False. In 2009 there were an estimated 25 Thousand Muslims in Utah.

    The Presentation

    Saturday morning (August 13th, 2011), I attended an Islam presentation as part of the Salt Lake City Public Library lecture series, “Exploring World Cultures and Traditions.” Our presentation leader was a certified speaker with Islamic Networks group (ING), Maysa Kergaye. Maysa was a tall, slender woman in her early 30s. She had fair skin, and facial features that looked Middle-Eastern to me. She was very approachable, and introduced herself as having a bachelor's degree in math, with a minor in psychology, and said she formerly served as the principal of Salt Lake City's only Islamic school. She currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. Maysa was not born in the United States, but her accent was very slight. She mentioned towards the end of the meeting that her father was Lebanese, and her mother, Syrian.

    Woman in Hijab (head scarf)
    We were a small audience (26 of us), filling up most of a small library conference room. All but one person in the audience was white. Most in attendance were women (maybe 5-7 were men). Two of the women in the audience wore hijabs (and of course Maysa did, too). Most of us were dressed casually; however, one man in the audience wore a gray suit, and a handful of women were wearing skirts. Most in attendance appeared to be between 50 and 70 years old. At the beginning of the presentation, Maysa asked us to share what brought us to the meeting. Many audience members said they were part of Osher, University of Utah's continuing education program for people age 50+. A few others said they were chaplains or public school teachers interested in learning more about Islam as part of their multicultural education (so that they can better meet the needs of the wide variety of people they teach, and serve).  

    Correct Terminology

    I didn't know this before: "Islamic" is an adjective meant to describe things, but not people. "Islamic poetry," "Islamic customs," but not "Islamics" or "Islamic people." It's more correct to say, "Muslims," or "Muslim people." Both "Qur'an" and "Koran" are accepted spellings for the Muslims' book of scripture.

    Islam and Women's Rights

    Maysa seemed particularly interested in addressing topics associated with negative prejudice about Muslims, for example, the stereotype that Muslim men are male-chauvinists. She reiterated several times throughout the presentation that she is not an expert on customs in the middle-east or in other areas with dense Muslim populations. She said, however, that she had done a little research, and found some interesting facts. 

    The number of female engineering students enrolled in universities in Iraq before the war exceeded the number of male engineering students enrolled. Most of women there have higher education, they simply aren't represented in the work force, because they choose to stay home to raise children.

    She went over a list of women's rights that existed in densely Muslim countries centuries before the United States suffrage movement, because they are outlined in the Qur'an.

    The right to education
    The right to own property
    The right to work
    The right to marry according to her own choice
    The right to divorce

    This set of customs seems entirely different from the Muslim culture portrayed in news media coverage of the Middle East--why is that? Maysa didn't claim to have an official answer. She said it seems to her that the media is exaggerating things by focusing only on Muslim extremist areas, and acting as if the Taliban were the essence of mainstream Islam, when it really isn't.

    "I guess I would call myself a feminist," Maysa said, and added that in a Muslim home, a women is expected to honor her commitment to her marriage by having a sexual relationship with her husband, and by caring for, and nurturing her children. Other than those commitments, there are no obligatory "woman's duties." She said in their home, she and her husband mutually determined their own way of dividing up the household chores.

    Muslim Prayer Prostration
    Indonesian women in prayer
    Maysa also addressed the question of women and leadership in an Islamic congregation. The congregational leader of a mosque is called an "imam," which means "prayer leader." She said that women don't act as imams (except in women-only prayer groups), because of the traditional arrangement of people during prayer. A Muslim prayer consists of repeated units of recitation (memorized in Arabic) performed in several specific positions, one of which is prostration: kneeling down with one's head to the floor. In the mosque, and other places where Muslims gather to pray, they are typically arranged side-by-side, close together in rows, with the imam at the front, and everyone facing the same direction. That's why men take the front rows, and women take the back. It would be considered immodest for a man to be directly facing a woman's backside. So this is why, traditionally, women do not take the role of the imams in mixed gender prayer groups. Maysa also explained that an imam is not a congregation leader in the same way a priest, minister, pastor, or bishop is. The imam is not believed to be a leader of special inspiration, power, or prophecy. Neither is the imam believed to be the congregation's link to Allah. The imam is just what the literal meaning of the title dictates, the one who leads the recited prayers.  Although there is a significant global controversy about female imams, Maysa seems content with the traditional standard. She has a couple of significant religious leadership roles, herself: in addition to giving presentations on Islam, Maysa is also a hospital chaplain.

    Islam and Acceptance

    At one point in the presentation, a middle-aged man in the front row tried to ask Maysa a question. He hardly got through it, it seemed to me he was afraid his question would seem offensive, and was trying his darnedest to put it into the right words. "Do Muslims usually value tolerance for other . . ."

    Maysa jumped in, "I don't like the word, 'Tolerance,'' she knew where the question was headed. She explained her dislike for the word based on its connotation of enduring the presence of others grudgingly. "I like to use the word, 'Acceptance,' instead," she added. Maysa said that the Muslims she knows are accepting of all people regardless of religion. She gave statistics about the large Muslim populations in various countries across the globe, and reasoned that while some extremist groups don't care for acceptance, there are a greater majority of Muslims all over the world who are accepting, and not inciting terrorism or other forms of violence toward people who are different. 

    Mark Paredes, former U.S. Diplomat to Israel, writer for the Jewish Journal, writes a Middle East Matters column for the Utah's Deseret News. In his most recent article, "Positive Fruits of Islam," he gives credit to the many, many ordinary, faithful Muslims in the Middle East courageously fighting against extremist terrorism, and corruption.

    The doctrine of Islam specifically discourages conquest and vengeful behavior. Following Maysa's presentation, I picked up a book from her display of free Islamic resources she had to give away. I chose, My Mercy Encompasses All: The Koran's Teachings on Compassion, Peace and Love, a collection put together by a widely published Muslim scholar and tranlator, Reza Shah-Kazemi. Shah-Kazemi's publication is intended for Non-Muslims, it even uses the word, "God" in place of "Allah." I like this selection from the Qur'an, because it emphasizes the doctrine that war should only be for defense:
    ". . . If they [the adversaries of the Muslims] leave you alone, and do not wage war against you, and offer you peace, then God does not allow you to fight them" (Qur'an 4:90).
    Here's another:
    "Truly We revealed the Torah--wherein is guidance and light--by which the prophets who submitted judged the Jews, as did the rabbis and the priests . . . In the Torah We prescribed for them a life for a life, and eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, and ear for and ear, a tooth for a tooth, and for a wound, proportionate retaliation. But whoever forgoes this, as an act of charity, it will be an atonement for him" (Qur'an 5:44-45).
    Shah-Kazemi adds a footnote to the above quotation, giving the following explanation:
    That is, if a person commits the charitable act of forgoing his legal right to retaliation, it will serve as an atonement, in the eyes of God, for him. See Exodus 21:23-25 and Leviticus 24:19-21 for the laws being referred to here. In this case, as in so many other instances, one sees the way in which the Koranic teaching is a synthesis of the legal aspect of Jewish scripture and the spiritual aspect of the Christic message. The law of retaliation must govern the social order, whereas the spirit of forgiveness must infuse the soul of the individual and thus, on occasion, take precedence over the law. (My Mercy Encompasses All, page 42)
    "Legal right to retaliation" is an awkward phrase, in my opinion. After a close reading, however, it seems that the author means to clarify that the scripture does not suggest that personal retaliation is ever appropriate--He means that asking for the justice afforded by whatever legal system you're in is an okay way to respond to having a crime committed against you, but forgiving the crime (dropping the charges) is an act of charity that will bless the forgiver with forgiveness of his own sin.

    Okay, back to Maysa's presentation. She explained that in addition to emphasizing acceptance and peace toward all, the teachings of the Qur'an especially encourage a warm relationship of respect with followers of Islam's sister religions, Judaism, and Christianity. For example, Maysa explained, if a Muslim man marries a Jewish or Christian woman, he is commanded not to compel her to convert to Islam, she must be free to follow her own religion.

    A few more interesting things you might not know about Islam

    Muslims believe in angels. In Muslim belief there are famous angels with specific roles, such as Gabriel, the messenger. Additionally, each person has two angels beside him or her at all times, one on the right, the other on the left. These two angels are not there to guide or tempt, rather, they are there to record all our actions. One records the good deeds, the other records the bad ones. Maysa said that Muslim parents like to remind their children of this doctrine to help them focus on personal accountability.

    There are several iPhone and iPad Apps specifically geared towards helping Muslims through fasting periods such as Ramadan (30 days of fasting from sunrise to sunset.)

    99 Names of Allah
    Muslims take the commandment against idolatry very literally. They don't create visual depictions of Allah at all. Instead, it's common for a Muslim family to display a decorative plaque listing, in Arabic, the 99 names, or attributes of Allah used in the Qur'an.

    While all Muslims are commanded to make the Hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca at least once in their lifetime, the Qur'an does more than make an exception for those who can't afford it. It basically says that if you would have to go into debt to make the trip, you're commanded not to go.

    According to the Pew Research Center (2009), Muslims make up 23% percent of the world's population. Although the Middle East, and North Africa are where you will find the countries with dense Muslim majorities, most (over 60%) of the world's Muslims live in Asia. These large numbers of Asian Muslims are represented by the largest circles in the Pew Research Center Map below:

    Distribution of Muslim Population by Country and Territory

    1 comment:

    1. Fabulous, Karen. I have a hard time convincing a few people I know that the extremely violent Muslims are NOT the norm. One person close to me that shall remain nameless, is adamant that the Koran teaches that all non-believers should be killed and that alone is a reason to do whatever is needed to chastise them for THEIR lack of understanding and acceptance. Completely hypocritical, I know. The first thing I usually ask him is "when have YOU actually read the Koran?". I'll admit that I haven't read the whole thing, but from all that I've read, Love of The Almighty's creations and peoples is paramount.