|When many non-Muslim Americans think of Islam, they envision angry mobsters burning American and Israeli flags. They may think of an old and angry looking Ayatollah, sitting on a Persian rug, resisting pleas from Americans to free American hostages. They may think of women being forced, by men, to wear clothing which covers their bodies, including heads and faces, and not being allowed to go to school or vote or even walk outside the home without being accompanied by a man. Certainly, they think of terrorists flying airplanes into buildings or strapping bombs onto themselves to blow-up themselves and innocent people to protest against Americans and those America supports, like Israelis. |
However, Islam is more than this. Muslims are adapting to a variety of different cultures. They are not all the simplistic stereo-types shown on the media, in headlines. Some Muslim women are going to school, voting, and even serving in political offices. Yes, some wear head scarves, as a personal choice, and some do not. Some wear western dress. Many Muslims disagree with Osama bin Laden. Many do not like the Taliban. Many are as unlike the terrorists in the headlines as any typical American.
To be a Muslim, one must accept the Five Pillars of Islam: One must make a declaration of faith, that there is no god but God [Allah] and Muhammad is the messenger of God. One must engage in prayer five times daily: at daybreak, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, and evening. One must engage in “purification” rituals, which consists of giving to the poor. One must fast during the month of Ramadan, and one must, when one can, make a pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca. Sometimes referred to as a sixth pillar, although it has no official status, is the jihad, the struggle to be a good Muslim, to be virtuous, to defend Islam. Some people consider the later to be “holy war,” and extremists such as bin Laden have used it for their own purposes.
Prior to Islam, in 7th century Arabia, People roamed in tribes and families. Religions like Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism were represented, and so were polytheistic pagan religions. The tribes would often fight among each other to take what they could and survive by being most fit.
Mecca was a commercial center, as it is now, and tribes would often stop there to trade goods, to the extent that private property and fair trade was respected.
The most powerful tribe in Mecca, in the late sixth and early seventh century, was the Quraysh. In 570 C.E., Muhammad was born into this tribe. His parents died when he was still very young, so his uncle, Abu Talib, a respected member of this tribe, raised Muhammad.
A woman named Khadija, a widow who was 15 years older than Muhammad, (He was 25, and she was 40.) approached him, married him, and hired him to manage her caravans. He became known for his honesty and contemplative nature, and he would often retreat to a hilltop to reflect on the meaning of life. On one such night, in 610 C.E., he heard a voice commanding him to recite, and, as Muhammad reported, it turned out to be the voice of the Angel Gabriel revealing to him, Muhammad, what would latter be collected and complied into the Quran, basically a correction of what had been corrupted over time from the prophesy which was in the New Testament in the Bible.
Much of Muhammad’s message was unwelcomed by tribal leaders and the business community. He denounced the status quo and called for social justice for the poor and for women and children. He was, like prophets before him, persecuted by those who had different religious views.
In 622 C.E., Muhammad and 200 of his followers emigrated to the town of Medina, approximately 250 miles away from Mecca. Here, they set up a community where the call for prayer, five times a day, went out over the roof-tops. It was the first Islamic community-state, even though non-Muslims also lived there.
There were conflicts with the Meccans. They fought wars with each other, and, ultimately, Muhammad and his force at Medina, although overcoming greater odds, won. This established Muhammad as a great leader, and his influence spread. His followers grew.
One problem, however, was that some Jews at Medina did not accept Muhammad as a Prophet. They made a deal with the Meccans to attack, in the Battle of the Ditch, from the rear. After the Medina victory, Muhammad had all the male Jews killed. He saw them as traitors and treated them in the customary way traitors in those times were treated. However, many people today, including Osama bin Laden, cite this as support for anti-Semitism.
Later, when Muhammad and his followers subdued Mecca and consolidated his rule over Arabia, he was magnanimous in his victory. He allowed pagans and non-Muslims to co-exist with Muslims, but most would freely convert to Islam. The pagan idols were destroyed.
Muhammad died in 632 C.E.. The decision about his successor split the Muslims into two camps. The majority thought the successor to Muhammad should be the most qualified person. They chose, as caliph, Abu Bakr, and they became the Sunni Muslims. The minority thought the successor should be hereditary within the Prophet’s family and that Ali, Muhammad’s first cousin, should be the leader, the imam. They became the Shiis, or “Party of Ali.”
Ali was passed over for the position of caliph three times but finally got the position after 35 years, but he was assassinated a few years later. His son, Hussein, and a small band of followers revolted but were massacred by Caliph Yazid, a Sunni. This event is reenacted each year in a passion play, and it brings tears to the eyes of grown men sympathetic to the Shiis. There is lots of emotion in the Muslim community.
For the Sunnis, Islam experienced a golden age. It spread from North Africa to South Asia. It continued to expand, as a religion and a political power, from the 8th to the 12th centuries. While Greek and European civilizations were going trough a dark ages, the Muslim world flourished. The built elaborate mosques with intricate architecture, and they made contributions to philosophy and science. Much of what we have from Greece’s golden age, the age of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle was preserved and restored by the Muslims. However, the Christian Crusades massacred Muslims in Jerusalem. When the Muslims took over, they were much less cruel. Later, when the Muslims left Spain, their wonderful buildings were either destroyed or taken over by Christians.
Today, Muslims are dealing with images of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, of profiling, and of discriminatory laws. In France, a country with a large Muslim population, a law was passed forbidding women from wearing scarves in classrooms, but they made no such law forbidding Jews or Christians from wearing their religious trappings. Is this fair? In Spain, there are still public celebrations of the expulsion of Muslims when Ferdinand and Isabella took over. This has got to be offensive to Muslims.
Muslims have lots of challenges in getting along in cultures around the world. They are doing so. There are Muslims who are traditional, and there are Muslims who are secular, who think Islam should be personal and not political. The Five Pillars of Islam are still followed by all Muslims (They were not followed initially by the Black Muslims of Elija Muhammad, in the 60s.), but Muslims are finding ways to fit into cultures. Islam is the third largest religion in America, behind Christianity and Judaism, and it is the second largest religion in Europe. It is growing.