ISLAM BEHIND THE STEREOTYPES
An essay by Semonti Hossain
Islam is the fastest growing religion on the entire planet, yet
it is misunderstood by millions. Islam (meaning peace and submission to God), is
a religion of ethics, obedience, harmony, and is based on a faithful belief
system. It exists in various parts of the world, spreading its tranquility to
all Muslims (adherents of the religion). Since the time the religion was
revealed, Islam has laid out a religiously pure belief system and has promoted
advancements in several branches of science. Interestingly, Islam has also been
considered as a religion of cruelty, oppression, and brutality. Soon after
Muslim immigration into America and other regions in the western world, Muslims
have found it increasingly difficult to endure these misconceptions. The
religion of Islam is not a religion of hatred and violence, but a religion of
respect for all humans and God. This is the true Islam, the religion of
equality, morality, and faith.
Islam enforces its belief system by establishing several rules and regulations.
The five pillars of Islam constitute the foundation of the religion. The pillars
symbolize the necessary duties of every Muslim. By obeying to the commandments
of the five pillars, Muslims will become religiously pure and are ensured to
enter heaven in the afterlife. The five pillars include belief, five daily
prayers, fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, alms, and pilgrimage to the
holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The first pillar, belief, requires every
Muslim to believe that Allah (Arabic word for God) is the only God and that
Muhammad was his last messenger. The second pillar, five daily prayers, obliges
Muslims to pray five times each day. The five prayer times are early morning,
afternoon, late afternoon, evening and night.
1 The third pillar, fasting, asks Muslims to fast from sunrise
to sunset everyday during the holy month of Ramadan. The fasting allows Muslims
to save food to donate to the poor and experience the hunger that a person in
poverty endures. The fourth pillar, charity, compels Muslims to donate 2.5% of
their wealth yearly to the poor and needy. The last pillar, pilgrimage, requires
every Muslim who is financially stable to pray at the Ka'ba in Mecca, Saudi
Arabia during Eid-ul-adha (the religious festival of sacrifice). 2 Sometimes for regular daily
prayers, Muslims usually gather to pray together and discuss Islam in a Mosque,
much like a church for the Christians, or the synagogue for the Jews. Along with
these requirements, there are a series of actions that are forbidden in the
Koran (the holy book of Islam), among them are adultery, gambling, cheating,
consuming pork and alcohol, lending or accepting money for interest. It is vital
that a Muslim has respect for everybody, is charitable to the poor, helps others
in need, is clean, honest, generous, hard working, and ethical. 3 It is obvious that Islam is a
religion that guides Muslims to a path of ethics, morals, and peace.
However, many of these rules and regulations do not apply to some branches of
Islam. The two major branches in Islam are the Sunni branch and the Shi’a. The
Sunni Muslims make up a total of 80% of the Muslim population and they do adhere
to the rules and regulations that have been explained. The Shi’a Muslims are a
minority and the more radical branch of Islam. Unlike Sunni’s, Shi’a Muslims put
much priority on jihad (to struggle and fight through and for Islam). Their
interpretation of jihad permits them to be violent and sometimes harmful towards
non-Muslims and some Muslims. Martyrs are also very much honored by Shi’a
Muslims, mostly because Shi’as have a strong support for Ali, who was a martyr
and Muhammad’s son-in-law. This strong belief in fighting for religion promotes
much of the radicalism among Shi’a Muslims. Along with this belief, Shi’a
Muslims also follow a slightly different version of the five pillars of Islam.
Instead of praying five times daily, they combine the prayers into three
prayers, and they fast from sunrise to noon, rather than sunset. Though they are
a minority, Shi'a Muslims change other people's understanding of Sunni Muslims.
Islam originated in the Middle East, in the mountains not far from the thriving
city of Mecca. A man named Muhammad was meditating in a cave on Mount Hira
around the year of 610 CE. Muhammad was a kind,
intelligent, and well-respected man from Mecca, but he was very much troubled by
the selfishness and greed of the Meccan people. One night, Jibril (angel
Gabriel), appeared in Muhammad’s cave and recited the first message from Allah,
"Read in the name of your lord who has created everything, who has created
man from a clot of blood." Initially, Muhammad was very much shocked and
frightened by this magnificent creature that claimed to have a message from the
great Lord himself. But he did soon realize that this was a great revelation and
that he had been chosen by Allah to spread these words and become the last
prophet. Muhammad took action rapidly and lectured about the commands of Allah
to many of the residents in Mecca. People at first were reluctant to listen to
his speeches, but they were soon moved by his divine preaching and personality.
During this time period, Muhammad routinely received new messages from Allah
though the angel Jibril. As Muhammad was spreading the word, there were groups
of people who victimized Muhammad because he had been spreading this unknown
religion called Islam. Even under tremendous persecution, Muhammad and his
faithful companions managed to spread the faith of Islam throughout Arabia. 4 After the death of Muhammad,
there were many caliphs that followed after him. These were successors to
Muhammad as head of Islam; they originally had full political as well as
religious power. Among them were Abu Bakr (the first Meccan to convert to
Islam), Umar ibn al-khattab, Uthman ibn Affan, Ali, and Mu’awiyah. They spread
Islam through exposure, negotiations, and some wars. 5
Soon after the establishment of Islam, civilization, science, and technology had
improved significantly. The Islamic Empire was the first to develop the
scientific tradition of that time (early 6th century CE).
Islamic science consisted of mathematics, astronomy, medicine, and philosophy.
Many do not realize that the concept of algebra and the number zero was actually
introduced by Muslims. Muslims have also formed the trigonometric function as
well as introduced Arabic numbers to Europe and taught the concept of arithmetic
to the West. Astronomy was greatly studied by Muslims at that time. Islam
follows the lunar calendar, making the Muslims dependent on the movement of the
stars and moon to keep time. Muslims have formed tables and charts on the
movement of planets that had been discovered, produced the safihan (a type of
astrolabe), and have developed theories on stellar movement. Muslim doctors and
experts in medicine made great contributions in medicine by discovering new
diseases, classifying diseases, and creating theories for the causes of several
diseases. It is amazing how much Muslims discovered with their limited resources
at the time. They also made major contributions in other studies as well, such
as geography, civilization, physics, and metaphysics. 6 From the very beginning, Islam
has encouraged humankind to seek and gain knowledge. Prophet Muhammad also
clearly stated that obtaining education is an obligatory duty of a Muslim. This
crucial commandment from God had promoted much of the educational development
among Muslims, introducing new ideas and concepts to the entire world.
This essay continues below.
As time passed, Muslims from the Middle East and Asia begin to immigrate into
the Western world. Muslim immigration into America began in the 1960’s with a
small population and became more evident as more Muslims immigrated to the U.S.
Many Muslims immigrated for economic opportunities, education, and to escape
wars, civil wars, and revolutions in the Islamic world. Non-Muslims were very
welcoming towards the new Muslims and accepted their culture and way of life.
Muslims had also added more diversity and culture to the American society and
lived successfully in their new lives. Mosques and Islamic schools were opened,
and Islam began to be an integral part of American life. 7 However events like Jimmy
Carter’s failure with Iran in 1979 8
and September 11th, 2001 have portrayed Islam negatively. Many non-Muslims began
to wonder if Islam was truly a religion of peace.
Unfortunately, these minor misunderstanding slowly turned into serious hate
crimes towards Muslims. Mosques and Islamic centers had been attacked and even
torn down by angry non-Muslims. Muslims in the western world were persecuted
physically and mentally because of the portrayal of Islam as a corrupt and
antagonistic belief. Islam has not always been easily accepted, beginning in the
past when it became a religion. 9
According to Jeff Siddiqui, a local Islamic activist, Muslims were identified as
enemies in history because of their different religious belief and success in
civilization and trade. He also informed that since then, Muslims have been
usually considered as top suspects for terrorism in the western world. An
example of this would be the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995. Before
investigators discovered that Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols were responsible
for the attack, it was initially believed that the attack was organized by a
group of Muslim terrorists. This information was displayed on several national
television networks. Eventually, it was proven that the terrorist group was not
involved with the bombings. 10
Islam teaches Muslims to not support any Islamic terrorist in any way. It is not
fair to accuse Muslims of a crime that they did not do. By pointing the finger
at a few Muslims, it brought the idea to accuse people whom we dislike, in this
case, all Muslims. 11
A common misconception made about Muslims is that Muslims are violent terrorists
and that Islam was spread with the sword. This is absolutely mistaken. In
reality Islam does not permit the murder of innocent people. It is stated in the
Koran, "Fight in the cause of God against those who fight you, but do not
transgress limits. God does not love transgressors." During the time of
Islam's revelation, there were many holy wars, known as jihad. Holy wars were
sometimes used to expand Islam’s boundaries and defend Islam. It is certainly
true that sometimes Islam was spread through wars. However, most of it was
spread through preaching, negotiations and exposure. For instance, Indonesia,
Malaysia, and China have some of the highest populations of Muslims in the
world, yet no jihads have ever taken place in any of those areas. People had
been exposed to Islam through Muslim traders and missionaries, and decided to
convert to Islam through the examples that the Muslims portrayed to them. Also,
in history when the Mongols invaded Europe, Iran, and eventually stopped in
Egypt, the majority of them had switched their religion to Islam. Jeff
Siddiqui commented: "It is apparent that the Mongols were not converted by
the sword, because after all, they were the ones that held the sword." 11
It is also perceived by many non-Muslims that all Muslims are Arabs, but this is
completely false. Muslims are a heterogeneous group of people, meaning that it
is composed of a society of diverse ethnicity.
12 In fact, only 18% of the Muslims are Arabs, 30% are from
the Indian subcontinent, 20% from sub-Saharan Africa, 17% from Southeast Asia,
10% from the former Soviet Union and China, and the rest are from non-Arab
Middle East. 6
The misinterpretation that all Muslims are Arabs has affected non-Arab Muslims
in some ways such that they feel segregated from the rest of the Muslim
community because they are not Arabs. Many non-Muslim Arabs have also been
persecuted because they were thought of as Muslims, so all the misconceptions
about Islam were made about non-Arab Muslims as well. Along with this, many
Arabian symbols that represented the Arabian culture now represented an image of
barbaric Muslim terrorists. For example the kaffiyyen, is a traditional
checkered garment that is worn on the head for protection from the sun and to
show identity. 13 Instead,
this cultural Arabian garment has been used on signs, pictures, and other
displays to harass Muslims and Arabs. 11
For several years, many non-Muslims have come to believe that women are greatly
oppressed under Islam. The media has portrayed Muslim women as insignificant
people under cruelty and abuse. Many are shown physically abused by men and are
not given any equal rights. But these methods of unjust gender cruelty are not
at all expressed in the teachings of Islam. Practices that put women under any
harm or degrading are committed by non-Islamic people who are sick and absurd.
Since the time Islam was revealed and spread, it had brought the concept of
equality among both genders. Islam had revolutionized the lives of women by
replacing their rights and dignity. Since more than 1,400 years, women were
considered full people under the Islamic Law, they had the opportunity to vote,
own property, earn money, inherit, initiate divorce, control their wealth, and
received equal pay and respect as men did. 3
The Hijab, a cloth that as worn around the head of a Muslim woman, is often
misunderstood as a way to keep women hidden and inferior to men. However,
wearing the hijab is a voluntary decision. Not all Muslim women decide to wear
it. If a woman does wear it, her motivation is to represent modesty that so
others will focus more on their personality rather than their appearance. 13
Though Muhammad is highly respected by every rightful Muslim, he is still
considered as a messenger of God, and no more than that. Muhammad is not the
founder of the religion of Islam nor do Muslims worship him, as commonly
believed by non-Muslims. It is crucially stated in the Koran to believe in God,
and only God, and it is a great sin to worship anyone else other than God. If
Muslims were to worship Muhammad, then they would have to accept Muhammad as
God. But to Muslims, Muhammad cannot possibly be God because Muhammad worshipped
God and was his faithful messenger. Because of that misconception, Islam has
also been frequently known among non-Muslims as "Muhammadism." The religion of
Buddhism is called Buddhism because Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) was the founder
of the religion, but as we know Muhammad is not the founder of Islam. Muhammad
is not considered the founder of the religion because Muslims believe that Islam
has also been sent before by the previous prophets (Adam, Noah, Moses, Jesus,
etc.). It is essential that non-Muslims understand that Muslims do not worship
Muhammad, but respect him for being a faithful messenger for God. 14
Though much prejudice has been generated towards Muslims in the past and
present, many non-Muslims have developed in interest towards the religion.
Numerous non-Muslims are now eager to understand the religion and comprehend why
Islam is the not the way it may seem. With this awareness by non-Muslims, it is
necessary that Muslims explain Islam the way it should be.
Some Muslims have also developed misinterpretations on other religions as well.
These misconceptions have also produced many crimes of hatred and prejudice
against non-Muslims. But it is not the misinterpretations that create the hatred
among us, it is the ignorance and lack of tolerance of other religions. As
illogical as at it may seem, many people tend to believe anything that is
portrayed to them and use that misinterpretation to attack or hurt innocent
people. It is time that people around the world take the time to study other
religions and realize how similar we actually are. Outwardly, religions may seem
significantly different through rituals and practices. However, the heart of
every religion has the same message. It is essential that we discover that.
Religion was intended to unite humans, but instead it has been used to segregate
us. We cannot allow this discrimination to flow in our society any longer.
Healing can begin if Muslims and non-Muslims become aware about these
stereotypes and view each other as brothers, sisters, and friends.
"Basics of Islam." Noboni Computers, (2000).
Matthew Gordon, "Islam World Religions," Brown Publishing, (1991), Pages 74 to 80.
Abdul Malik Mujahid, director, "Islam: A Closer Look," Video, Taiban International, (1995).
- Op Cit, Gordon, Pages 4 & 5.
- Op Cit, Gordon, Pages 28 to 34.
Aminuddin Ahmad, "Islamic contributions to Science," UMR, 2004-FEB-19, at:
Richard Wormser, "American Islam: Growing up Muslim in America," Walker and Company, (2002), Pages 3 to 7.
"Foreign Affairs," Encyclopedia Britannica, 2003 edition.
- Op Cit, Wormser, Pages 7 to 9.
- "Oklahoma City Bombing." Encyclopedia Britannica. 2003 edition.
- Jeff Siddiqui, Telephone Interview, 2004-JAN-20.
- Ellis Goldberg, Telephone Interview, 2004-JAN-10.
Anon, "Arab Americans," Seattle Times 2001-SEP-16, Page A12. Online at: ProQuest, at:
Huma Ahmad, "Top Ten misconceptions About Islam," Baha’i Faith, 2003-SEP-05, at:
- Oleg Grabar, "Islam," World Book, 2000 edition.
Copyright © 2004 by Semonti Hossain
Originally posted: 2004-JUL-25
Latest update: 2004-JUL-25
Author: Semonti Hossain