Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Intro to Islam - Top 10 World Religions Series

This is part 2 of our look at the Top 10 World Religions. Islam boasts the 2nd largest number of adherents of any organized religion in the world. Find out the basics of this supremely controversial and hated religion below.

Love and Lyte,

Fire Lyte

If there is a more misunderstood, reviled religion than paganism it is possibly Islam. Sure, from the pagan standpoint we all would like to see Christians take a long walk off a really short pier. Well…not me, but they’re out there. We all know them. I actually recently read an article in which the writer bemoaned how people say Islam is a religion of peace, but yet he sees news articles and stories everyday of Muslims killing people.

A quick digression: One’s religion does not necessarily stop one from committing crimes. You can misinterpret scripture and dogma, twisting their true meanings until their intentions are lost. As this is a rant that could go on forever, I’ll just leave it at that. Aren’t you proud of my succinctness?

Just like with Christianity I will go over the very basics of Islam, answering the questions who, when, where, what, and how. Also like with Christianity, you may already know some of this information, but I guarantee you will not know all of it. And as we make our way down the list of religions, we’ll be learning the basics together.

First question first: Who practices Islam? A comprehensive 2009 demographic study of 232 countries and territories reported that 23% of the global population or 1.57 billion people are Muslims. Of those, 87–90% are Sunni and 10–13% are Shi'a, with a small minority belonging to other sects. Approximately 50 countries are Muslim-majority, and Arabs account for around 20% of all Muslims worldwide. The majority of Muslims live in Asia and Africa. Approximately 62% of the world's Muslims live in Asia, with over 683 million adherents in Indonesia, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. In the Middle East, non-Arab countries such as Turkey and Iran are the largest Muslim-majority countries; in Africa, Egypt and Nigeria have the most populous Muslim communities. According to a recent study in the United States, the People's Republic of China has the eighth highest Muslim population with up to 65.3 million individuals but other figures show only 20 million. Islam is the second largest religion after Christianity in many European countries, and is slowly catching up to that status in the Americas and Australia.

In America, specifically, estimates as of 2009 put the Muslim population at about .8% of the population, or 2.5 million people. The population of Muslims in the United States only makes up approximately.2% of the total population of Muslims worldwide.

I mentioned the terms Sunni and Shi’a as various sects of Muslims. A quick explanation of these terms is necessary. Sunni Muslims represent the largest faction of Muslims. Sunni Islam is the more traditional, orthodox Islam, supposedly practiced as Muhammad deemed. The word Sunni is derived from an Arabic word meaning ‘tradition’ or ‘habit.’ On the flip side is Shia Islam, which is the second largest denomination. Shiite Muslims still base their practices on the basic tenets of Islam, but follow the teachings of Ali. Ali was Muhammad’s first cousin and succeeded him as prophet. These names will become a bit clearer when we break down the beliefs of Islam later on.

Where and When did Islam originate? Islam originated with the prophet Muhammad. According to Muhammad, Allah - their name for God - had many prophets throughout the ages that preached various messages. 5 of these were what is known as Imams or great leaders. The first was Nuh or Noah. The second was Ibrahim or Abraham. The third was Musa or Moses. The fourth was Isa or Jesus. And Muhammad was to be the final Imam. Shiite Muslims believe that Muhammad’s cousin Ali was a 6th Imam and a subsequent prophet.

It is believed that the Qur’an states that Muhammad was to be the last prophet, a subject of obvious contention since a large portion of Muslims believe in the teachings of Ali. Muhammad was a diplomat, merchant, philosopher, orator, legislator, reformer, military general, and prophet. Supposedly, Muhammad was born in 570 AD in Mecca, was orphaned, and worked as a merchant and shepherd. Married by age 25, Muhammad became discontented with his life and retreated to a cave outside of Mecca for introspection and meditation. In that cave during the month of Ramadan - the Islamic month of fasting and prayer - Muhammad had his first divine revelation at the age of 40. Within the next three years, the prophet was preaching Islam.

Though the prophet had few followers early on, he and his followers moved to Medina to escape persecution in 622. In 632 he died, but by that time most of the Arabian peninsula had converted to Islam. He had also managed to unite the disparate tribes of Arabia into a single Muslim collective state.

Now for the big question:

What is Islam? Islam, the word, literally means ‘peace in submission to the will of God.’ Or, depending on which etymology you look at, it can mean either submission to the good will of God or simply submission to God. This is pretty much laughed at by people on all sides of the political and religious aisles. We’ll talk about that in-depth later. The core beliefs of Islam are best expressed through what is known as the 5 Pillars of Islam. They are as follows:
1. The shahadah, which is the basic creed or tenet of Islam that must be recited under an oath with the following specific statement: “I testify that there is none worthy of worship except God and I testify that Muhammad is the Messenger of God." This testament is a foundation for all other beliefs and practices in Islam. Muslims must repeat the shahadah in prayer, and non-Muslims wishing to convert to Islam are required to recite the creed.
2. Salah, or ritual prayer, which must be performed five times a day. Each salah is done facing towards the Kaaba in Mecca. Salah is intended to focus the mind on God, and is seen as a personal communication with him that expresses gratitude and worship. Salah is compulsory but flexibility in the specifics is allowed depending on circumstances. In many Muslim countries, reminders called Adhan (call to prayer) are broadcast publicly from local mosques at the appropriate times. The prayers are recited in the Arabic language, and consist of verses from the Qur'an
3. Zakat, or alms-giving. This is the practice of giving based on accumulated wealth, and is obligatory for all Muslims who can afford it. A fixed portion is spent to help the poor or needy, and also to assist the spread of Islam. The zakat is considered a religious obligation (as opposed to voluntary charity) that the well-off owe to the needy because their wealth is seen as a "trust from God's bounty". The Qur'an and the hadith also suggest a Muslim give even more as an act of voluntary alms-giving.
4. Sawm, or fasting during the month of Ramadan. Muslims must not eat or drink (among other things) from dawn to dusk during this month, and must be mindful of other sins. The fast is to encourage a feeling of nearness to God, and during it Muslims should express their gratitude for and dependence on him, atone for their past sins, and think of the needy. Sawm is not obligatory for several groups for whom it would constitute an undue burden. For others, flexibility is allowed depending on circumstances, but missed fasts usually must be made up quickly. Some Muslim groups do not fast during Ramadan, and instead have fasts at different times of the year.
5. The Hajj, which is the pilgrimage during the Islamic month of Dhu al-Hijjah in the city of Mecca. Every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it must make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in his or her lifetime. When the pilgrim is about ten kilometers from Mecca, he must dress in Ihram clothing, which consists of two white seamless sheets. Rituals of the Hajj include walking seven times around the Kaaba, touching the black stone if possible, walking or running seven times between Mount Safa and Mount Marwah, and symbolically stoning the Devil in Mina. The pilgrim, or the hajji, is honored in his or her community, although Islamic teachers say that the Hajj should be an expression of devotion to God instead of a means to gain social standing.

It should be noted that while Islam derives from the same doctrines that Judaism and Christianity does, Muslims do not believe in the Doctrine of Original Sin. The book Islam in Focus by Hammudah Abdalati examines all aspects of what it means to be Muslim, and he takes an in-depth look into this idea in his section on what a true Muslim believes. An excerpt:

The true Muslim believes that every person is born free from sin and all claims to
inherited virtue. He is like a blank book. When the person reaches the age of maturity
he becomes accountable for his deeds and intentions, if his development is normal and
if he is sane. Man is not only free from sin until he commits sin, but he is also free to
do things according to his plans on his own responsibility. This dual freedom:
freedom from sin and freedom to do effective things, clear the Muslim’ s conscience
from the heavy pressure of Inherited Sin. It relieves his soul and mind from the
unnecessary strains of the Doctrine of Original Sin.

Just as with other religions of the book, and religions that are a few thousand years old, Islam discusses laws that must be adhered to. Islamic law is called Sharia and is derived from two different sources: the Quran and the teachings of the prophet Muhammad. Also like any religion of the book that has laws, Islamic law covers all aspects of life from diet to ritual worship to how to give charitably and rules on marriage and divorce. Discussing Islamic law could take up a whole podcast. Rather, it could take up several podcasts. Suffice it to say, like any set of laws, their interpretation has been used for justice and the good of countless Muslim people. On the flip side, these laws have been used around the globe for the detriment of countless people. So spare me your emails about the evils of Muslim laws. A law is not necessarily evil, the person twisting its interpretation and using it to justify them doing whatever the hell they want…that’s evil. Speaking of evil…

When you hear the word terrorist, here at the end of the first decade of the new millennium, exactly whom do you see? Is it the blonde guy from the 80s who is one kick-flip away from victory? Is it the burly Russian from the 50s who just wanted to nuke everything? Is it possibly the Asian from the 70s who was killing Americans in the jungle? No. Let’s get real. You see a Middle Eastern guy. This is all due to the misappropriated, widespread usage of the term ‘Jihad.’

A Jihad is a holy war. And it’s not. Well, actually the word ‘Jihad’ literally means ‘struggle.’ Some call Jihad the 6th pillar of Islam. A jihad is thought of in two different ways: literal physical warfare and a more academic idea of struggle.

Second one first. The struggle of jihad can be considered struggling to live a moral and righteous life, a life that would please God - Allah. This makes a lot of sense if you think about it. Choosing to do the right thing is a struggle. When you’re faced with putting together a bowl of salad or unwrapping a chocolatey treat, which is the easiest choice? Which is the more fun, appealing choice? When you’re driving home after working a 10-hour shift and it’s late and the light just won’t turn green, do you run the red light? It’s easier. It’s illegal, but it’s easier. It’s easy to lie or be rude or do a host of things people shouldn’t do to one another. It’s really freaking hard to do the right thing all the time. Struggle. That’s a good word for it.

See, Islam allows for mistakes. The Quran, the Muslim Holy Book, states that you can mess up and still come back and ask for redemption and a second chance. And a 57th chance. And an innumerable number of chances, as long as you’re doing so with a pure heart about the matter. Scholars call this more spiritual form of jihad the Greater Jihad. Greater Jihad is the spiritual struggle, while Lesser Jihad talks about actual warfare. Greater Jihad - or literally the Greater Struggle - can best be summed up by the scholar Mahmoud Ayoub, "The goal of true jihad is to attain a harmony between islam (submission), iman (faith), and ihsan (righteous living)."

The Lesser Jihad deals with the famous warfare that is a favorite topic of Fox News and every other media outlet that doesn’t mind using the big stereotyping brush. Supposedly, the reason this type of jihad is called the Lesser is due to a story that Muhammad, upon return from battle, said that he was returning from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad. However, scholar David Cook writes, “In reading Muslim literature -- both contemporary and classical -- one can see that the evidence for the primacy of spiritual jihad is negligible. Today it is certain that no Muslim, writing in a non-Western language (such as Arabic, Persian, Urdu), would ever make claims that jihad is primarily nonviolent or has been superseded by the spiritual jihad. Such claims are made solely by Western scholars, primarily those who study Sufism and/or work in interfaith dialogue, and by Muslim apologists who are trying to present Islam in the most innocuous manner possible.”

I’ll let the words of Abdalati do the talking about this more physical form of jihad.

“The Qur’ an makes it clear that, whether we want it or not, war is a necessity of
existence, a fact of life, so long as there exist in the world injustice, oppression,
capricious ambitions, and arbitrary claims. This may sound strange. But is it not a
matter of historical record that humanity – from the early dawn of history up till now
– has suffered from local, civil and global wars? And is it not also a fact that, more
often than not, victorious allies settle their disputes over their gains and the status of
their defeated enemies through wars and threats of war? Even today humanity lives
under constant fear and buzzes of war over many hot spots in the world. Could God
overlook these facts of life? Or could the Qur’ an fail to deal with the matter in a
realistic and effective manner? Certainly not! And that is why Islam has recognized
war as a lawful and justifiable course for self- defense and restoration of justice,
freedom and peace. The Qur’ an says:
Fighting is prescribed for you, and you dislike it. But it is possible that you dislike a
thing, which is good for you, and that you love a thing, which is bad for you. God
knows, and you know not (2:216)
And did not God check one set of people by means of another, the earth would indeed
by full of mischief: But God is Full of bounty to all the worlds (2:251). And did not
God check one set of people by means of another, there would surely have been
pulled down monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques in which the name of
God is commemorated in abundant measure (22:40)
Although realistic in its approach, Islam never tolerates aggression from its own side or from any other side, nor does it entertain aggressive wars or the initiation of
aggressive wars. Muslims are commanded by God not to begin hostilities, or embark
on any act of aggression, or violate any rights of others. In addition to what has been
already said in the previous chapter, some particular verses of the Qur’ an are of
significant bearing. God says:
Fight in the cause of God those who fight you, and do not transgress limits (begin not
hostility): For God loves not transgressors. And slay them wherever you catch them,
and turn them out from where they have turned you out; for tumult and oppression are
worse than slaughter; but fight them not at the Sacred Mosque, unless they (first) fight
you there; but if they fight you, slay them. Such is the reward of those who suppress
faith. But if they cease, God is Forgiving, Most Merciful. And fight them on until
there is no more persecution or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in God;
but if they cease, let there be no hostility except to those who practice oppression
War is not an objective of Islam nor is it the normal course of Muslims. It is only the
last resort and is used under the most extraordinary circumstances when all other
measures fail.”

See, it’s not that Muslims or Islam promote war, but they do not shy away from the concept of war. I know I said I wouldn’t make comparisons between paganism and the religions we discuss, and I’m not going to, but just to help you understand… It’s like how pagans don’t shy away from the more socially deplorable notions of having sex. It is a social norm to abhor the very idea of sex outside of a monogamous union, while pagans say, “You know what, I have these urges, I have this body, I accept any and all consequences, and I’m not going to abuse the privilege, but I also acknowledge that sex is just a necessary part of being human.”

That only leaves us with how. How is Islam practiced today? Well, I think the answer to that depends on which definition of Jihad you subscribe to. Also, it depends on if you’ve been brainwashed by the awful terrorist leaders using the religion as a scapegoat to blame all of their desires for power and vengeance on, thereby absolving them of their actions. If you’re a part of the vast majority of Muslims, you are a peaceful person who errs on the side of modesty. You like your life pure and pious, and you are deeply spiritual. You struggle to do the right thing, and ask forgiveness when you slip up. You’re human. You’re basically good, and you don’t believe you have to make up for sin that supposedly happened at the dawn of man.

Let us please remember that Islam is just a religion. The Quran is just a book. It is the actions, interpretations, and views of its practitioners and interpreters that give it the bad name it currently has. There are many beautiful, practical lessons to be learned from Islam.

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