Crash Course in Islam
Summary: Crash Course in Islam is a production of the Voices and Visions Project from the Center for the Study of Global Change at Indiana University. This weekly podcast debunks common myths about the Islamic faith in brief, informational segments. Learn more at CrashCourseinIslam.org
You may have heard of the Five Pillars of Islam, but have you heard of the Six Articles of Faith? The Five Pillars of Islam ndash; the profession of faith, prayer, zakat, Ramadan and the Hajj ndash; are considered the foundation of the faith. But the Six Articles are also important ndash; without them, there is no faith. To be a Muslim one must believe in all six. A Muslim must believe in the oneness of Allah ndash; God had no parents, siblings or children. Allah is singular and unique. Another article of faith is the belief in the existence of angels. A Muslim must also have faith in the revelations of God ndash; these include the Qur'an, Torah and the Gospels. Additionally, Muslims must believe in the prophets, many of whom are responsible for bringing Allahrsquo;s revelations to man. Among the prophets are the Prophet Muhammad, Jesus and Moses. Resurrection and a day of judgment, which are crucial to the Christian faiths, are also crucial to Islam. A Muslim must believe he or she will one day be resurrected and be judged for his or her deeds on earth. The final article of faith is the belief in predestination. A Muslim must believe Allah knows everything ndash; past, present and future. Also, that God controls everything that exists and has ever existed.
In the early 20th Century something was happening in the United States. In addition to the struggles of the Depression and two world wars ndash; Islam in America was changing. At least among one population. In the early 1930rsquo;s a form of Islam was being born centered on the African American experience. Wallace D. Fard Muhammad drew from both the Qurrsquo;an and the Bible when he took his message of black spiritual liberation to the streets of Detroit. Muhammad preached of black withdrawal from white society. After his disappearance Elijah Muhammad took over and took the ldquo;Nation of Islamrdquo; national. In the beginning this early form of Black Islam differed quite a bit from mainstream Islam. The Nation of Islam did not recognize the Five Pillars or major Muslim holidays and Ward D. Muhammad was declared to be Allah. Since those early days the beliefs of the Nation of Islam have come more in line with those of Sunni Islam ndash; thanks to the reform efforts of people like Malcolm X and Warith Deen Muhammad. The group has even changed its name to the ldquo;American Muslim Mission.rdquo; A branch of the ldquo;Nation of Islamrdquo; does still exist that retains its black separatist theologyndash; lead by Louis Farrakhan. Although even this branch has begun a slow move toward more orthodox Muslim belief.
For Muslims, Friday is the day of prayer. It is the one day a week Muslims are expected to pray in the mosque, but because Friday is a work day this can sometimes complicate things for Muslims in the workforce. Of course, thatrsquo;s only outside Muslim countries ndash; typically Friday is the day off there. There is no prohibition against Muslims working on Friday ndash; itrsquo;s not set aside as a ldquo;day of restrdquo; ndash; but many feel that, once the call of prayer is given they cannot work. A verse from the Koran even states that after the call a Muslim must ldquo;leave off business.rdquo; The prayer service takes place just after noon ndash; in some work places Muslims will go into the office early to get the dayrsquo;s work done before leaving for prayer. Others will work longer hours through the rest of the week to make up for the hours they might miss on Friday. While still others will return to the office after the service is over. In the United States employers are required to provide ldquo;reasonable accommodationrdquo; to people to practice their faith ndash; as long as it doesnrsquo;t create an ldquo;undue hardshiprdquo; on the employer. It usually just takes a sit-down with the boss.
You may have heard the term fatwa before ndash; especially if yoursquo;re a fan of writer Salman Rushdie ndash; and you may think a fatwa is a kind of death sentence. Well, itrsquo;s not. A fatwa is simply an opinion handed down by an Islamic scholar about some aspect of Islamic law. For Sunni Muslims, a fatwa is a non-binding opinion. For members of the Shirsquo;a sect, it can be binding depending upon the scholar. And while a fatwa may not necessarily be binding ndash; it can be used by judges when making legal decisions. Past fatwas have dealt with everything from banning the smoking of cigarettes by Muslims to banning the stockpiling of nuclear weapons by Muslim nations. Of course, it was media coverage of Rushdie affair of the 1980rsquo;s ndash; when Iranrsquo;s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa saying Rushdie should be put to death for his book ldquo;The Satanic Versesrdquo; ndash; that the term ldquo;fatwardquo; became synonymous with death sentence. Itrsquo;s a misunderstanding that continues to be perpetuated by many in the media.
One issue that comes up quite often in discussions about Islam is the role of women in the faith ndash; with many non-Muslims wondering if women are seen as ldquo;second class citizensrdquo; in the religion. While it is true there are some Muslim countries where women have very little, if any, rights. That can also be said of some non-Muslim countries. Within the Islamic tradition women often had important roles to play. In fact it was Muhammadrsquo;s first wife, Khadija, who encouraged the Prophet to do Allahrsquo;s work. She was, in many ways, the first Muslim. During the Prophetrsquo;s time women also fought on the battlefield along side men and took part in commercial transactions. Muhammadrsquo;s wife, Aisha, is considered one of the most important transmitters of the hadith ndash; or sayings of the Prophet. And one school of Islamic law even says women can serve as judges. There are verses in the Qurrsquo;an which, if taken literally or out of context, can be seen as portraying women as less then men. But there are also other verses that give women status equal to that of men.
For many people shaking hands when meeting someone is as routine as taking a breath. But for some Muslims shaking hands isnrsquo;t that easy. Many conservative Muslims believe unrelated men and women should never touch one another ndash; in Great Britain a Muslim asylum seeker lost a prize for volunteer work when he refused to shake a womanrsquo;s hand. But thatrsquo;s not to say every Muslim will refuse to shake the hand of someone of the opposite sex ndash; scholars from different schools of Islamic law all say different things. With some even saying no such prohibition exists. And this is not just about gender hellip; there are moments when even shaking the hand of someone of the same sex can pose a problem. For some traditional Shias any contact with any non-Muslims, male or female, makes the Muslim spiritually impure. After such contact a believer most go through ritual purification. There are even some Sunni for whom all non-Muslims, regardless of gender, are impure. But Sunnis typically donrsquo;t require ritual purification after touching non-Muslims.
Each year, you can count on most businesses being closed Christmas and Thanksgiving. Easter, too, is a holiday when an office might close up for the day. For Muslims, though, the major holidays are the two Eids ndash; Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. Eid al-Fitr marks the end of the Muslim month of fasting known as Ramadan. Eid al Adha is a commemoration of Ibrahimrsquo;s willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael to Allah ndash; luckily for Ishmael Allah replaced the boy with a ram. (In the Jewish and Christian traditions it is Isaac that is saved from sacrifice.) This Eid also marks the end of the Hajj ndash; the required pilgrimage to Mecca. There are some employers who are beginning to recognize these holidays, and allow their Muslim employees to take time off for them. There is a bit of a problem, however, because the holidays may be marked on different days by Shirsquo;a and Sunni Muslims. Another problem for employers can be simply the fact that Muslim holidays are marked by the lunar calendar and can vary from year to year ndash; unlike holidays like Christmas which are marked by a specific day each year.
With the current state of the economy itrsquo;s hard not to have money on the mind. Or not to wince when hearing reports of gauging by payday lenders. While, for most of us, those payday lenders seem a little like loan sharks ndash; in Islam theyrsquo;re not really allowed at all. There is a whole industry surrounding Islamic finance and banking. Itrsquo;s considered un-Islamic to practice usury ndash; or, in plain English, to charge people a lot of interest on a small loan. What payday lenders do. Usury is seen as a way for the wealthy to make money off the backs of the poor, as well as encourage selfishness and chip away at community cohesion. When it comes to personal banking, charging interest is a big no-no. Although, therersquo;s limited support for the idea that the interest generated on government bonds and regular savings accounts is okay. But, for most Muslims, any interest at all is un-Islamic. When it comes to investing, therersquo;s even an Islamic way to go there. Corporations like the Amana Fund put their money in companies that follow precepts of Islam. So, they avoid investing in companies that might sell alcohol or pork products, two things which are prohibited in Islam. Harvard University has devoted part of its Islamic Legal Studies Program to the study of Islamic finance.
If yoursquo;ve ever heard Muslims greet each other, yoursquo;ve probably heard the standard Muslim greeting. One person says: Asalaam Alaykum ndash; roughly translated to ldquo;Peace be upon you.rdquo; And the other person responds with: Wa rsquo;Alaykum Asalaam ndash; which means ldquo;And peace be upon you also.rdquo; The greeting comes from the Qurrsquo;an and is meant to help promote a sense of brotherhood among Muslims and to reflect the peace that should exist between Muslims from all walks of life. Whether or not these greetings can be used with non-Muslims is up for debate. There are some scholars who say a Muslim should never use them with non-Muslims, while others say the greetings may be used in times of great need or when non-Muslims use them first.
While Muslims do not celebrate the Sabbath like Jews or Christians, they do have a day of prayer that is a lot like many Christian church services. This day is Friday ndash; in fact, the very word for Friday in Arabic comes from the name for the special prayer that is done only on that day. Itrsquo;s also the day Muslims are expected to pray at mosque ndash; all other days of the week Muslims may pray in private. All men are required to attend Friday prayers; women can attend voluntarily. And men and women are separated once inside, praying in different areas. In some countries, Muslims go to mosque when the call to prayer is sounded from the nearest tower. The call is similar to church bells in Christianity, calling congregants to worship, although the call, itself, is a prayer. In places where there is no call to prayer, the tradition of gathering on Friday is still observed. For Muslims these prayers are a powerful act of remembrance of Allah and an important part of community building.
Islam arose out of the Arabian Desert ndash; its most holy places are Medina and Mecca in what is now Saudi Arabia and the original practitioners were, indeed, Arabs. So there may have been a time centuries ago when you could say all Muslims were Arabs. Thatrsquo;s no longer the case. Since its founding Islam has become the fastest growing religion in the world ndash; believers can be found in places like China, India, the Caribbean and even the United States. In fact, the largest Muslim countries arenrsquo;t even found on the Arabian Peninsula or in the Middle East at all. The CIA Factbook lists Indonesia, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, in that order, as the largest Muslim countries. Arabs make up a little less than 20% of the worldrsquo;s Muslim population.
Islam, like some branches of Christianity, adheres to the idea of predestination. For Muslims, Allah knows and sees everything ndash; he knows the outcomes good or bad. Nothing happens in this world that Allah does not know, that Allah has not permitted. Even things considered ldquo;evilrdquo; are not outside Allahrsquo;s realm ndash; itrsquo;s thought the evils that happen now will eventually result in human good man cannot understand. But, although God knows all, that does not mean there is no free will in Islam. Muslims believe Allah has written down all things in the Preserved Tablet ndash; all that happens or will happen is in there; itrsquo;s there now because God exists outside time. So, Allah knows what choices men and women will make, but does not stop them from making them. Quite often, when Muslims refer to the future they preface what they say with the phrase ldquo;Insharsquo;Allahrdquo; or ldquo;god willingrdquo;. Itrsquo;s an acknowledgment that humans do not know whatrsquo;s coming ndash; they can only hope for certain outcomes but, in the end, it all rests in Godrsquo;s hands.
In the news we hear a lot about imams ndash; men who lead specific mosques or Muslim communities. But, unlike other faiths, there is no hierarchical structure in Islam. So there is no one religious authority who can pass judgments on what is, and what is not, good Muslim practice. An imam, in the most common sense of the word, is simply the person who leads prayer at mosque. He might also be a person members of the community turn to with questions of faith. There are also sheikhs in Islam. A sheikh is simply an elder in the community, typically someone who is an Islamic scholar who has spent much of his life studying the Qurrsquo;an as well as the Hadith ndash; the oral traditions surrounding the Prophet Muhammadrsquo;s life. This is, of course, the most basic explanation. Because Islam is divided along the Sunni-Shia line, and further divided by cultural practice, there are really no hard-and-fast rules for who is qualified to be a religious leader and who is not.
Traditionally, a person is excommunicated from Christianity and Judaism when he or she commits a sin that disrupts the religious community or is simply unforgivable. Not so in Islam ndash; there is no formal structure in Islam to excommunicate a Muslim. However, there are sins that are considered unforgivable. The core belief in Islam is that there is only one God, and nothing else can be associated with God. Like the Christian first commandment ndash; you shall have no other gods before me ndash; Muslims must believe in Allah as the supreme being, extremely unique, unlike anything else imaginable. Associating Allah with anything or turning to a false idol is considered to be an unforgivable sin. However, this does not mean that you will be excommunicated. It simply damages your relationship with Allah beyond repair. So, you may still be a part of the religious community, but Muslims believe that you have abandoned Islam in your heart by committing this sin.
Muslims believe Arabic words have holy power and a special relationship with Allah. Because of this, Muslims pray and read the Qurrsquo;an in Arabic, no matter what their native language. Of course, not all Muslims become fluent in Arabic ndash; many only know enough to understand the Qurrsquo;an and prayers. To members of other faiths this may seem odd. Christians have translated the Bible into hundreds of languages ndash; very few Christians feel the need to read it in its original languages. And, although many Jews learn the Torah in Hebrew, the language is not essential to Judaism. But in Islam, Arabic is considered a sacred language because Allah recited the Qurrsquo;an to Muhammad in Arabic. Arabic is the language of God and is untranslatable. Just speaking the words is a religious act. In some cultures, even Arabic newspapers or fiction novels are considered sacred.