Although Islam is the world’s second-largest religion, many in the West have huge misconceptions about what it actually professes. Many Muslims face confusion and ignorance from people around them, and an alarming number report outright discrimination and violence.
This ignorance is particularly damaging when it’s endorsed by the president of one of the most powerful nations on Earth. Donald Trump has frequently spoken out against Islam and has several times attempted to pass bills baring people from Muslim majority nations from entering the United States. Again and again, Trump has used national tragedies like the recent Manhattan terrorist attack to condemn an entire religion on the basis of one or two people’s actions.
While such Islamophobic tactics have proven to be politically successful, they are rooted in complete ignorance. Few who proselytize against Islam have even a basic understanding of the religion or its followers. And in the age of the internet, where millions of people are just a click away, it’s easier than ever to correct these misconceptions, if you’re willing to learn!
“When we eat pork… nothing happens it’s just really bad. Seriously I get asked this on the daily or whenever I and a few friends order a pizza. It’s like, “Hey you can’t eat like, pork right?” “Right” “Well what happens if you do?” “Lightning strikes me and I turn into Charlize Theron.” “Heck, really?” “No dude, I just feel guilty for a few hours.” It’s haram or whatever, yeah, and I don’t eat pork—but I’m not gonna explode unless you put dynamite in the darn thing.” (Redrapper) While foods like pork are haram (meaning that they’re forbidden by Islamic teaching) the prohibition isn’t fatal or extreme. Stories like the one President Trump referenced recently, where deceased general John J. Pershing allegedly dipped bullets in pigs’ blood to send his Muslim opponents to hell, are completely ridiculous.
“Allah is the same as the Judeo-Christian God, not some other deity. Arab Christians worship Allah. On a similar note, Muslims revere Jesus Christ as not only one of the greatest prophets, but as the Messiah, and we believe in the second coming. When it comes to Jesus, we are functionally the middle ground between Christians and [Jewish people], affirming his status as the Messiah, but rejecting that he is divine.” (kingoflint282)
Misunderstandings about Islam are so widespread that even the most simple facts about the religion remain unknown to many in the West. One common misconception is that “Allah” is a strictly Muslim God. In fact, “Allah” is just the Arabic word for “God,” and so a non-Muslim Arabic speaker might refer to “Allah” just as easily.
This misconception has taken hold in part because of the belief that Muslim = Arab. In fact, the majority of the world’s Muslims aren’t even Middle Eastern! A 2017 Pew Research study found that almost two-thirds (62 percent) of Muslims live in the Asia-Pacific region. And just as not all Muslims are Arab, not all Arabs are Muslim. In many Middle Eastern countries, Arab Christians are a substantial minority.
And, unlike many think, Muslim people don’t worship the prophet Muhammad. Muslims believe that Muhammad is one of the prophets (like Adam, Noah, Abraham, David, Solomon, Moses and Jesus), but they don’t worship him. In fact, the complimentary phrase “peace be upon him,” which is often attached to Muhammad’s name, may also be attached to the names of the other prophets.
“I don’t want to impose Sharia on anybody. This stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of what Sharia is. It is religious law synthesized from the Qu’ran, so by following the Sharia, you are following the tenets of Islam. Some countries have adopted “Sharia legal systems” and many of the laws contained have no basis in Islam. Furthermore, Sharia commands Muslims to obey the laws of the land in which they are living, provided they don’t directly conflict with the core of the religion.” (kingoflint282)
American pundits and politicians frequently denounce Sharia law, or Islamic religious law, as some sort of creeping threat to the nation. Their understanding of sharia is as false as it is extreme. “Sharia,” in Arabic, means “the path,” and there are many different interpretations of how it should guide the lives of devout Muslims.
First of all, sharia is not primarily a legal system. While it covers rules for marriage, inheritance, and criminal punishment, much of it is about how an individual should practice their faith and live their daily lives. It includes “the principle of treating other people justly, of making sure that the financial system treats people fairly … and most importantly the basic principles of Islamic fate,” according to Harvard Law professor Noah Feldman.
While many Westerners see the legal punishments prescribed by the Quran as “barbaric,” they fail to take into account the time period in which it was written. While flogging for a minor offense might seem out of proportion, it was an improvement on pre-Islamic laws in the region, which included burying people alive for similar offenses. A similar example occurs in the book of Leviticus (important to both the Christian and Jewish religious traditions), where “an eye for an eye” was a strong improvement on earlier laws that promoted disproportionate retribution.
And while Westerners often see “sharia” as a threatening monolith, there is an entire field of study dedicated to interpreting it (‘fiqh’), and interpretations often differ. While countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran claim to be ruled by Sharia Law, they differ in how they implement it, and many disagree with the countries’ interpretation.
In fact, many Western countries have rules close to those embodied in the Quran than so-called “Islamic countries”. A 2014 study of 208 countries found that the country with economic rules the closest to Quranic teaching was Ireland, with Denmark, Luxomberg and New Zealand following. The study’s author, Hossein Askari of George Washington University, said, “We must emphasize that many countries that profess Islam and are called Islamic are unjust, corrupt, and underdeveloped and are in fact not ‘Islamic’ by any stretch of the imagination.”
“[A] fatwa does not mean a death sentence. It means a legal opinion expressed by a prominent religious scholar about how Islamic laws apply to a certain situation. For example, if a new species of fish enters the market, an observant Muslim may inquire a religious scholar he trusts whether this species is halal (OK to eat) or haram (forbidden to eat). The scholar would then research about the fish and compare it against religious laws about food and issues a fatwa saying whether he believes this specific fish is halal or haram. That’s all fatwa is.” (payaam )
The most famous fatwa, at least among non-Muslims, is the 1989 fatwa against author Salman Rushdie for his book “The Satanic Verses.” After finding elements in it that he considered blasphemous, Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared that devout Muslims should kill him. The fatwa has never been formally revoked.
However, few fatwas are that extreme. A fatwa is simply “a ruling on a point of Islamic law given by a recognized authority,” and fatwas are not universally binding or accepted. For example, Egypt’s Grand Mufti issued a fatwa in 2001 saying that the trivia game “Who Will Win the Million?” was un-Islamic, but the Sheikh of Cairo’s Al-Azhar University rejected his claim.
Fatwas are as diverse as the religious scholars declaring them. There have been fatwas dealing with smoking, Pokemon, Coca-Cola, the stockpiling of nuclear weapons, and government proposals to build nuclear power plants. And while some fatwas (like the one against Salman Rushdie) encourage violence, others condemn it as un-Islamic.
Indeed, one recent fatwa in America directly challenged the idea that Muslim people can’t be good American citizens. The Fiqh Council of North America (FCNA), a group of Islamic scholars, released a 2011 fatwa declaring that there was no contradiction between a commitment to Allah and a commitment to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
“Whoever tries to explain Islam as either a religion of pure peace or pure evil is doing a disservice. Islam is the word of God Himself, as per our belief. Therefore we consider it to be inherently good overall. But since it’s the word of God, it’s also pragmatic. It accepts that resorting to war is a natural human tendency and will happen one way or the other, so rather than having an unrealistic ban on war and getting mowed down by your enemies, Islam instead gives you a code of war. What to do, what not to do. Kill enemies, but not those who surrender. Treat them with kindness even after you have captured them. Don’t kill women and children. Hell, don’t even kill people who made it to the battlefield but decided not to fight from there, etc. So yes, it does tell us to fight in certain contexts, but it also gives us the rules of engagement. Most people misconstrue that part.” (mizraabian80)
One of the most common (and most damaging) misconceptions about Islam is that it is an inherently violent religion and that its practitioners have no respect for human life. This widespread fear, driven by the 9/11 hijacking attacks, has been exploited by politicians who want to use fear to gain political power. And it has had serious consequences for Muslims and Arabs across the Western world who have faced bigotry and hate crimes for the last sixteen years.
“Something widely quoted by the Muslim ‘man on the street’ is that the most difficult jihad is the one of the soul,” says Noha Aboulmagd-Forster, who teaches at the University of Chicago’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. “The biggest trouble is not with your enemy but with yourself.”
The Quran does include the idea of a “jihad of the sword,” or an external struggle. But it emphasizes that the battle should be fought only against people who have committed injustices or directly transgressed against you and that it should not be fought against children or civilians. While extremist groups may use the language of jihad, their understanding isn’t widespread or supported by the Quran.