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June 14, 2005 > The mosques behind the myth

The mosques behind the myth

by S. Reshma Yunus

Islam and Muslims have come under close scrutiny since the events of 9/11/01. Every day, articles appear in the media accompanied by private and public discussions across the nation and around the world. Not since the crusades has there been such curiosity about Islam, the religion that emerged from the desert sands of the Middle East, and the people who follow the path illuminated by the message of the Prophet from the Hijaz.

America's popular vocabulary has absorbed many new words of Middle Eastern origin. The word "jihad", which primarily means "struggle", has become especially infamous, developing a life of its own with menacing connotations, depending on who is using the word and in what context. The word "burqa," a head to toe covering worn by some Muslim women, has become prominent and well known to the general US population thanks to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Then, with the advent of the ban of religious symbols in France, America learned about "hijab" or the modest attire for women prescribed by the majority of Muslim religious scholars. However, despite an avalanche of information and the proliferation of self-styled experts on Islam, many questions about Islam and Muslims remain in the minds and hearts of Americans of all faiths including Muslims themselves. Recent discussions with friends of different faiths reveal that stereotypes and misconceptions prevail.

Many are aware of the stereotypical Hollywood bearded hook-nosed "Sheik" with veiled dark-eyed women in the background. Since 9/11, the image and impressions of Muslims has become even more sinister. Fear and distrust is common against people of Middle East origin or those who resemble them such as men of the Sikh faith. Muslim communities have themselves perpetuated stereotypes by remaining insular and attempting to propagate "ideal" Muslims. One can see this ideal Muslim family in Islamic books and videos - father with a beard, and a topi (small prayer cap), mother and daughter, no matter how young, both covered from head to toe with just the round face and perhaps hands visible.

The reality is that there are over a billion Muslims in the world and they, just as people of any other faith, come in all sizes, shapes, colors, and political inclinations with a variety of fashion sense. The one uniting factor is that they profess to follow the religion of Islam. Islam is an Arabic word that means peace and submission to the will of God. Muslims refer to God as "Allah" which literally means, "The God" in Arabic. A Muslim is one who submits to the will of God in all aspects of life. Muslims believe that Muhammad (peace be upon him) was the last and final Prophet of God in a long succession of Prophets starting with Adam and including Abraham, Moses and Jesus. Muslims say "peace be upon him" (abbreviated to pbuh) after taking the Prophet's name as a sign of respect and reverence.

The holy book of the Muslims, the Quran was revealed in Arabic to Muhammad (pbuh) over the course of his lifetime beginning from the age of 40, verse by verse, via the angel Gabriel and divine inspiration. The verses were memorized or written down in various pieces of parchment and even on shoulder blades (Hallaq, pg.33) by people of that time. The book was formally compiled several decades after the death of the Prophet during the reign of the Caliph Uthman (644 AD to 655 AD) (Hallaq, pg.33). The task was given to Zayd b. Thabit, the scribe of the Prophet who managed to pull together a standard text (Hallaq, pg. 33).

Although the message was received in Arabic, the majority of Muslims are not Arab. The largest group of Muslims is in Indonesia. In the United States, though there has been no formal count, there are an estimated six to seven million Muslims, the majority from South Asia( For believers, Islam is a total way of life, and not just limited to one day of the week. To be a Muslim, one must practice "taqwa" or God consciousness, in all aspects of life, no matter how mundane. If done with the right intention, even a simple act such as offering water to a thirsty traveler becomes an act of devotion to God. American Muslims have struggled, as have other immigrant groups to incorporate their religious teachings and cultural heritage within the framework of America, the land of opportunity and freedom.

The principles of Islam are founded upon "five pillars". These are: 1) Faith in the oneness of God; 2) practice of regular prayers, five times a day; 3) fasting during the holy month of Ramadan; 4) payment of "zakat" or tithe towards the poor and needy; and finally 5) to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca (Haj) at least once in a lifetime, provided one has the means to do so.

The core beliefs of Islam are stated in verse 002.177of the Quran:

'It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces Towards east or West; but it is righteousness- to believe in Allah and the Last Day, and the Angels, and the Book, and the Messengers; to spend of your substance, out of love for Him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask, and for the ransom of slaves; to be steadfast in prayer, and practice regular charity; to fulfil the contracts which ye have made; and to be firm and patient, in pain (or suffering) and adversity, and throughout all periods of panic. Such are the people of truth, the Allah-fearing. (YusufAli Translation).' (Note that the reference to turning one's face to east or west is referring to the act of prayer as performed by Muslims).

Islamic Law, known as the "Sharia," is primarily based upon the Quran. It is also based on the example and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). These are known as the Sunnah of the Prophet. Reports of the Sunnah are known as the Hadith. The Prophet's example is considered the living embodiment of the principles outlined in the Quran as well as the more detailed explanation of injunctions outlined in the Quran. For example, Believers in the Quran are exhorted to pray regularly although the exact manner of prayer is not stated within the Quran. One has look to the Hadith to learn how to pray.

The Hadith were in fact formally complied two hundred years after the death of the Prophet. This delay led to the massive proliferation of dubious and fabricated Hadith. One of the best known Hadith collectors is Imam Bukhari. He was born in Bukhari in hijra 256 (878 AD) or hijra 270 (892 AD) ( Imam Bukhari was said to have collected close to 600,000 Hadiths after wandering through different cities and villages ( He carefully sifted and applied stringent standards to be as authentic as possible and ended up with 2,600 Hadith (

The Islamic Sharia is also based on ijtihad (interpretative legal reasoning - primarily by jurists) when there is no clear cut, specific answer from the main sources - Quran and Sunnah of the Prophet. The word ijtihad is derived from the word infamous word jihad and in this context means intellectual striving (Islam on the move website www. From ijtihad, the jurists attempt to arrive at ijma (consensus). The doors to ijtihad had closed in the fist 10 centuries of Islam (see Islam on the move website -, thus "freezing" the law as the jurists believed all pertinent matters of law had already been resolved. Recently, especially with respect to the rights of women, there has been a great demand to "open the gates of ijtihad" especially by those who believe that closing it has left Islam in the Middle Ages ( vzeo9k8k/id13.html). Another critique of the Sharia is that the jurists have mostly been male and thus their interpretation is primarily from a male and sometimes a misogynistic point of view.

Muslims today, especially in the United States, are struggling, continuing the inner jihad as it were, to re-identify what it means to be a Muslim in the 21st century. Some strongly identify with the Sharia as it stands and believe it is heresy to state that there is any need for change. Others believe that we need to look back to the sources of our faith, the Quran and Sunnah and perform a modern day ijthihad to provide guidance for current times.

We will briefly cover the history of the emergence of Islam in the second of the three part series and fast forward to 2005 in the last part. The topic of Islam and Muslims is complex and thus we are including a reference list for those who wish to learn more.

Resources quoted and other references

Heath, Jennifer, The Scimitar and the Veil Extraordinary Women of Islam, Mahwah, New Jersey, Hidden Springs 2004

Hallaq, Wael, The Origins and Evolution of Islamic Law, Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press 2005

Rogerson, Barnaby, The Prophet Muhammad, A Biography, Mahwah, New Jersey, Hidden Springs 2003

Armstrong, Karen, Islam New York, NY, Random House, 2000

Stowasser, Barbara Freyer, Women in the Qur'an, Traditions, and Interpretation, New York, NY, Oxford University Press 1994.

Websites utilized - Author

Recommended Qur'an Translation
Yusuf Ali
Mohammad Assad.

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