A Westerner’s Guide to Islam

bo butler
bo butler
Jan 9, 2015 · 9 min read

Or, Let’s Maybe Take the Hate Down a Few Notches

In America, we aren’t given much in the way of Islamic education, and Arabs and Muslims — which aren’t the same thing; more on that later — don’t figure prominently in popular culture. Just about everything I knew about Islam came from the character Sayid on Lost…

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…a fictional show with a fictional character played by a British man. That was where I got my info on Islam. Silly, right?

Needless to say, I got a lot of things wrong. Not just Lost, but the vast majority of American media sources get Islam wrong. Or, more often, they simply don’t know enough to get it right. So, in light of the attack in France and in light of the swell of Islamophobia that’s all over social media (and elsewhere), I’m going to tell you the things I got wrong. Because you might have them wrong too.

Everyone in the Middle East — except Israel — is an Arab

The very first day of my very first Arabic class, I learned how absolutely wrong I was about this. Iran is a Persian country; they don’t even speak Arabic but a whole different langauge call Farsi. Pakistan? Afghanistan? Also not Arab countries and also don’t speak Arabic. Even Iraq isn’t an entirely Arab country, with a solid one-third of it being Kurdish.

What’s important to remember is that the area of the world that we call the Middle East has had humans living in it far, far longer than just about everywhere else. Remember your early social studies classes? Remember something about civilization starting in Mesopotamia? The Fertile Crescent? Yeah. That’s the Middle East. Mesopotamia means “between the rivers” and the rivers in question are the Tigris and Euphrates…two other names that may ring a social studies bell. Wanna know where those two rivers are?

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Yep. Iraq, mostly. Plus Syria.

The reason this matters is that the longer you have a group living in an area, the more social structures come into play. One of the most important social scructures is family. Families become tribes, after a few generations and a little luck. And long before much of anything was going on in Europe or the good ol’ U.S. of A., tribes were moving into and out of and into and out of the various regions of the Middle East. Over the ensuing centuries, the tribes would become what we know as Arabs, Persians, Kurds, Afghans and so on.

All Arabs are Muslims

Nope. Wrong again. Arab refers to an ethnic identify. Muslim to a religious one. Exchange Arab with Whites and Muslims with Christians. Are all Whites Christians? Of course not.

There are Arab Jews and Arab Christians. There are also Arab Druze…such as George Clooney’s wife, or at least her family. (A friend of mine says the Druze have the best accent.) There are Arab Copts, Gnostics, Agnostics and Atheists. And so on.

All Muslims are Arabs

Yeah…no. Also not true for the same reasons listed above.

Islam — the word — means “peace”

Wrong again, though the word for peace is close: salaam. Islam means “submission.” Specifically, Islam is the submission to God’s will.

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The reason the two words sound similar is due to how Arabic works. And while I won’t go into it — this piece is long enough — I will say that I have personally witnessed large groups of Muslims submitting in prayer, and it really is one of the most peaceful things I’ve ever seen. So there may be something to the idea of “peace” and “submission” being related.

Islam is older than Christianity

I’m not sure where I got this idea. Probably it was a hold-over from being rather young when I noticed that my Bible was in English but the Quran was in…well, whatever it was it looked cool and really old. (Turns out it’s in Arabic, in case you don’t know.)

In truth, Islam began roughly 600 years after the man named Jesus died. In fact…well, let’s build what I was going to say into a larger point:

Islam and Christianity (and also Judiaism) are not compatible

This is categorically untrue. In fact, it’s worth noting that all three religions had their respective beginnings within a few hundred miles of each other. The reason that matters is that the plights of early Jews are told in the Torah, the Bible and the Quarn. Each of these Books, aside from being holy texts of their respective religions, are also history books. So the story of Moses leading people out of Egypt is a story that is told in all three. In fact, Islam and Christianity — which are the only two of the three that I can really speak to — share many of the same Prophets: Abraham, Issac, Joseph, Noah, and yes, even Jesus.

The other important thing to note is that these three religions are monotheitstic — recognizing only one God. The peoples of the region at the time were largely Zoroastrian, or otherwise part of other polytheistic religions. The history of Jews, Christians and Muslims is a history of groups of people coming to worship one Supreme Being over several.

The Bible and the Quarn are both insistant on the Oneness of God. The first two of the Ten Commandments in Christianity are “I am the Lord, your God” and “Thou shall have no god before me.” In the Quran, much space is given to the “greatest sins” of assigning “partners” to God.

Finally, the Quran specifically tells it followers to “care for the People of the Book.” By which it means Jews and Christians. So, yeah. I’d say the three religions can get along just fine, even though their members often don’t.

Muslims do not recognize Jesus

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Just one instance of Jesus in the Quran. Surah Al-Baqarah, Ayat 253

As I said, Jesus is mentioned in the Quran so this is patently untrue. He is recognized as a prophet who served God, who did good works and tried to show the people God’s Signs.

But he is not accepted as God’s Son. The God of the Quran needs no Son, for all follows according to God’s will. The notion that God would send his Son down to save people is superfluous, to say the least. God will “lead to the straight path” those who “follow His Signs.” The Quranic God needs no Son to do that work for him.

The Quran promises virgins in the afterlife for martyrs

I didn’t know this until less that a year ago, but Islam has a second holy text. It’s a multi-volume work called, collectively, Hadith (haa-DEETH). These are recollections and observations of just about literally everything the Prophet Muhammad said or did.

Let me interject upon myself real quick just to say that Muslims do not worship Muhammad. In fact, the Quran warns against worshipping prophets. So that’s something else I had wrong.

Anyway, everything in the Hadith has a source and a lineage. Think along the lines of “Ali witnessed the Prophet do this…” and you’ve got the idea. Some of the hadith (each individual account is also called a hadith, which is confusing and so I use a capital-H to refer to the collection and a lowercase-h for individual hadith) are well sourced, as my example above would be, since Ali was a friend and close companion to Muhammad.

The point is, the bit about the promised virgins isn’t in the Quran, but the Hadith. And it’s not a well-sourced hadith at that. Which means, even though it’s included in something of a holy text, it’s not at all considered a good accounting of something Muhammad said. Nevertheless, you can presumably understand why radical Islamists use it to recruit suicide bombers. People in every religion will bend a religious text to say what they want it to say.

Jihad means “holy war”

Uhm…yes and no. The word literally means something more like “struggle” or “refutation.” But to struggle against or refute another religion would be a holy war, yes.

Jihad is required of Muslims

I never thought this was the case, but I heard people say it. The answer is a little complicated, and to talk about it we also have to talk about

The Quran requires Muslims to kill infidels

The Quran is interesting to read in that it’s incredibly aware of the region and time into which it came. So while on the one hand the Quran denounces killing — killing anyone — as haram (the Arabic word for sin or sinful), it also allows that you might have to kill people who fight you.

So, no, Muslims are certainly not required to kill people of other faiths. Nor are Christians or Jews or really any religion I’ve ever heard of. But, according to the Quran, one’s sin for killing someone who fights you is not as great as a sin for flat-out murder.

What’s in question, and what radical Islamist throughout history have exploited, is: What qualifies as “someone who fights you”?

Some Caliphs (rulers of the Muslim community or communities), Ayatollahs (rulers of the Shi’ite communities) and imams (the leader of a mosque) have throughout history proclaimed that jihad is, in fact, obligatory, that all Muslims must engage in holy war or help those who do. And if you look at what the Quran says in a certain light, you could argue that’s what it says. Others then come along and reverse that decision, again using the Quran to support the reversal. That’s why it’s complicated.

But the other part? The “who’s fighting against you” part? That’s so subjective as to be nearly random. For example, the war in Syria and the mess with ISIS in Iraq? The Quran expressly forbids Muslims to kill other Muslims. But…you’re kind-of okay to kill people who fight against you, so…what’s the ruling?

Or, does a group of cartoonists and their editors who draw and publish images of your Prophet count as people who “fight against you?” To me? No. To millions of other Muslims? No. To three French radical Islamists? I guess so.

And, one last thing:

Muslim women have basically no rights

While, yes, some Muslim women have very few rights, I have personally found very little basis for this in the religion. The Quran, in fact, insists upon very specific rights for women — divorce being one — and insists that men treat women as equals. Yes, the Quran also allows a man to marry as many as four women, which seems reprehenisble to Christians, but it says that you should be able to provide for all four women equally.

My own unscientific conclusion on this matter is that it’s not Islam that results in some of this unfair treatment, but the cultures in which these women live. For example, when a Palestinian friend of mine approached her mother about going to college in America, her mother said it wasn’t the money or anything but that it’s just not something women do. That is a cultural statement, not a reglious one.

Finally, the hijab.

Yes, the Quran encourages women to cover themselves — not in order to be hidden away from society but in order to preserve their bodies for their husbands. And maybe we in the West think that’s wrong. But every single Muslim woman I’ve met wears hijab by choice. They value modesty in dress to just about the same degree that Americans value immodesty. Which is fine, on both counts. What’s not fine is when one culture imposes its values upon another, or views another culture as somehow “less” or “less free” because it doesn’t share that value.

There are places in which women in the Muslim world are treated very poorly. They are beaten, they are raped, they are treated as property. But I can say the exact same thing about some women here in America, land of the free. So let’s maybe not blame that on Islam and instead place the blame where it belongs: on men.

(Sorry. That got a little preachy.)

So there it is. Everything I thought I knew about Islam followed by everything I’ve unlearned over the past year. As we go forward after the Charlie Hebdo attack, I would encourage you to remember that three people do not represent an entire religion or cutulre. I would encourage you also to remember that the only things we’re going to hear about from the Muslim world, here in the West, are the atrocious things. The reprehensible things. Because that’s what sells. We won’t hear of the acts of charity and giving done by Muslims all over the world (as required by the Quran) simply because it doesn’t generate web traffic.

Thanks for your time. I know this was a long read.


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