This week, I continue the series on world religious beliefs, focusing on the second largest block of religions, Islam. If you missed chapter one, you can see it here.
In America, prior to 1979, Islam was “unknown” in the sense that it was ignored and misunderstood. For the most part, it still is. With the hostage crises in Iran, Americans were introduced to a form of Islamic government, which was largely taken to be the Islamic religion. Just as within Christianity, charismatic leaders often pervert the teachings of the religion. Over the following years, we assisted Muslims in Afghanistan, using them as our proxies against the Soviets. When the Soviets left so did we, and in the power vacuum the Taliban took control, building in fanaticism up to the attacks on 11 September 2001, tarnishing the name of Islam and all Arabs.
To this day, Islam is associated with terrorism, not the peace from which the name “Islam” is derived. A total lack of understanding has resulted in “revenge” assaults against Muslims, and in fact anyone who appears to be Muslim. Sikhs, a radically different religion, wear turbans, and have been the target of anti-Muslim attacks.
As you can see, Islam is as splintered as Christianity. I have not been able to get accurate numbers of the members of the various sects (the word “sect” is commonly used rather than denomination, more on that later). Sunni is the largest sect, making up as much as ninety percent of all Muslims. Shias follow with as many as ten percent, and the remainder make up as many as six percent. As you noticed, those numbers don’t add up, but they do indicate how few Muslims fall into the “other” category.
Like Christians, Muslims have certain sects they universally agree do not fit into Islam, most notably the Druze, but the reason that the groups are called “sects” rather than “denominations” is that, for the most part, members of each sect see outsiders as not being part of Islam.
Also much like Christianity, within a sect are sub sects, also called “orders” or “schools”.
And like anything else in the world, there are extremists and people who don’t follow what their sect is about.
Also like Christianity, Islam is based on reading and understanding the holy scriptures, in this case the Quran. Take my next words very slowly. More than half of Muslims are illiterate. This is not a prejudice against Islam, it is a fact born out in study after study. There is nothing genetically wrong with Muslims, and many great minds happen to be Muslim. As a whole, the community resides in parts of the world where education is lacking, and is simply not available. Add to that the sects and extremists who prohibit the education of women, and you end up with people who are unable to understand the meaning of their religion.
The Quran is a history of the prophet Mohammed. It tells his story. In the same way that the Old Testament is misquoted by Christians (who have been given charge of “The New Word” by Christ and should only live their lives by his teachings), some Muslims either take scriptures out of context or misinterpret them. When God tells Moses to commit genocide, that does not mean that we should continue doing so today. Neither do passages in the Quran apply outside the context in which they occurred.
While justice is harsh in the Quran, there are many non-Muslims in the world today that may wish severe corporeal punishment would be allowed. The crime rate in Muslim countries is markedly lower than other countries. The Quran also prescribes mercy and compassion, and states that justice is to be dispensed by a court, not a street gang.
It should be remembered that one famous American Muslim, Muhammed Ali, refused to enter military service because of his interpretation of the Quran’s teachings on war. In his typical, authentic style, Ali said “I ain’t got no quarrel with the VietCong, no VietCong ever called me nigger”.
You may hear Muslims refer to “True Islam”. This again can be compared to Christians who feel that certain “Christian” groups are not following the teachings of Christ. You may be familiar with this situation. Both sides claim to be following the root religion, one side is obviously wrong. In my experience, the side advocating violence is usually the side that is wrong.
As I said last week, just because someone claims to be a follower of a particular religion, they do not necessarily follow the teachings of that religion, or speak for any other members of the religion. One of the most common forms of propaganda is called “Bandwagon”. It is used to make others feel that your message is shared by a majority, and it also affects the members of your group, making them feel united with a larger cause. This form of propaganda is common in advertising, and very popular in politics. It is quite common with extremists, in trying to gain support or bolster their sense of importance, and it is also used destructively, as when we ascribe the beliefs of extremists to an entire group.
This is what brought me here. I am angered by those who tarnish my beliefs as a Christian with the actions of such groups as the Westboro Baptist Church. It occurred to me that perhaps I tend to see all of Islam as the Taliban. I was considering that when Christian extremists act in violence, they are operating outside the teachings of Christ, but when Muslim extremists act in violence, they are following the teachings of Mohammed. I was wrong. I started to realize that I might be wrong when I made the argument “Violence is caused by crazy people, it doesn’t matter what religion they belong to”. Islam is just another religion, it can be followed or perverted.
Many thanks to Lena Winfrey Seder for her insights into Islam. She also recommends the following books to anyone interested in exploring further; Ar-Raheeq Al-Makhtum (The Sealed Nectar) which is about the Biography of Prophet Muhammad and Islamic Awakening Between Rejection and Extremism: by Dr. Yusuf al Qaradawi.
Next week I’ll be focusing on “Oriental” religions, if there is anyone who would like to be involved you may contact me via comment, just ask that I not publish your comment if you wish.