Want to Understand Islam?



What with all the hysteria over terrorism in this political season, I found it satisfying to find this straightforward explanation published in the Washington Post by professor of religions at Georgetown University  John L. Esposito onSunday, July 22, 2007.

Nearly half of Americans have a generally unfavorable view of Islam, according to a 2006 Washington Post-ABC News poll, a number has risen since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. That climate makes it easy to lose sight of the fact that the majority of mainstream Muslims hate terrorism and violence as much as we do — and makes it hard for non-Muslims to know where to begin to try to understand a great world faith.

Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam originated in the Middle East. As F.E. Peters shows in “The Children of Abraham,” the commonalities can be striking. Muslims worship the God of Abraham, as do Christians and Jews. Islam was seen as a continuation of the Abrahamic faith tradition, not a totally new religion. Muslims recognize the biblical prophets and believe in the holiness of God’s revelations to Moses (in the Torah) and Jesus (in the Gospels). Indeed, Musa (Moses), Issa (Jesus) and Mariam (Mary) are common Muslim names.

Muslims believe in Islam’s five pillars, which are straightforward and simple. To become a Muslim, one need only offer the faith’s basic credo, “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the prophet of God.” This statement reflects the two main fundamentals of Islamic faith: belief in the one true God, which carries with it a refusal to worship anything else (not money, not career, not ego), and the crucial importance of Muhammad, God’s messenger.

Muhammad is the central role model for Muslims — much like Jesus is for Christians, except solely human. He is seen as the ideal husband, father and friend, the ultimate political leader, general, diplomat and judge. Understanding Muhammad’s special place in Muslim hearts helps us appreciate the widespread anger of many mainstream Muslims — not just extremists — with the denigration of a Muhammad-like figure in Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel “The Satanic Verses,” the controversial 2005 Danish cartoons depicting Muhammad in unflattering lights or Pope Benedict XVI’s 2006 speech quoting a long-dead Byzantine emperor who accused the prophet of bringing “only evil and inhuman” things into the world. Karen Armstrong’s “Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time” and Tariq Ramadan’s “In the Footsteps of the Prophet: Lessons from the Life of Muhammad” provide fresh, perceptive views on his modern-day relevance.

The three next pillars of Islam are prayer, which is to be performed five times daily; giving alms, in the form of an annual wealth tax that helps support the poor; and fasting during daylight in the holy month of Ramadan. The fifth pillar requires that Muslims perform the pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca at least once.

We tend to equate Islam with the Arab world, but the largest Muslim communities are found in Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and Nigeria. Only about one in five of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims are Arabs. Islam is the second-largest religion in Europe and the third-largest in the United States.

The treatment of women under Islam is also wildly diverse. In countries such as Saudi Arabia, women must be fully covered in public, cannot drive cars and struggle for the right to vote. But elsewhere, Muslim women freely enter politics, drive motorcycles and wear everything from saris to pantsuits. Women can get university educations and pursue professional careers in Egypt, Syria, Iran, Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia; they have been heads of state in Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia.

Anyone who has followed the news from Iraq has heard a lot about Sunnis and Shiites, the faith’s two major branches. About 85 percent of the world’s Muslims are Sunni, with about 15 percent Shiite. The division stems from a bitter dispute after Muhammad’s death over who should take over the leadership of the newly founded Muslim community. Sunnis believed that the most qualified person should succeed the prophet, but a minority thought that his descendants should carry his mantle. That minority was known as the followers or partisans (Shiites) of Ali; they believed that Muhammad had designated Ali, his cousin and son-in-law, as his heir. Historically, Shiites have viewed themselves as oppressed and disenfranchised under Sunni rule — a longstanding grievance that has flared up again in recent years in such countries as Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Pakistan. Vali Nasr’s “The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future” does a fine job of distinguishing between theology and politics in today’s Sunni-Shiite rivalries.

Muslims also argue over what some refer to as Islam’s sixth pillar, jihad. In the Koran, Islam’s sacred text, jihad means “to strive or struggle” to realize God’s will, to lead a virtuous life, to create a just society and to defend Islam and the Muslim community. But historically, Muslim rulers, backed by religious scholars, used the term to legitimize holy wars to expand their empires. Contemporary extremists — most notably Osama bin Laden — also appeal to Islam to bless their attacks. My book “Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam” tackles this theme, as does Fawaz Gerges’s “Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy.”

The Gallup World Poll’s helpful section on the Muslim world ( http://www.muslimwestfacts.com) sheds some light on the views and aspirations of more than 1 billion Muslims. My years studying those attitudes suggest that Muslim hostility toward the West is mostly political, not religious, and that Muslims hope the West will show their faith more respect. In our post-9/11 world, the ability to distinguish between Islam itself and Muslim extremism will be critical. Only thus will we be able to avoid pushing away mainstream Muslims around the world, marginalizing Muslim citizens at home and alienating the allies we need to help us fight global terrorism.

John L. Esposito is a professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University and the author of “What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam.”

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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17 Responses to Want to Understand Islam?

  1. The issues are not “what Most Muslims believe about the differences between Christianity and Islam “. The doctrines in what is considered “Holy Writ” as in the Quran, the Hadith, and the Bible ,are where the devout religious rulers and followers go for directions that are the matter.
    If you study those differences you will see everything clearly in a way that makes sense, and explains our current and historical situation. And you will see this professor from Georgetown University is not even close to the root of the matter. In fact, he has it totally wrong.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      @ CCT,
      Doctrines are interpretations and if you prefer yours to theirs, that’s fine, but professor Esposito in my opinion is simply pointing out that the religion itself isn’t the problem, the interpretation is. However, in my experience in a variety of Christian churches, nobody has come close to making rational sense of the inconsistent collection of writings that make up the bible. I submit that Christianity as practiced in the world is no less subject to venality, greed, misogyny and hypocrisy than any other religion. If you disagree, then I invite you to be more specific. Thanks for visiting.


  2. Elyse says:

    Thank you for posting this, Jim. It’s so important that all of us learn to not demonize folks of other religions, because it is that act that leads to so much hatred. Respect is key. Sadly, it is disappearing from our discourse.

    I work in a multi-cultural office. Out of 15 staff members, there are Buddhists, Sieks, Christians, two Hindus and minimal to-non-believers. I am fortunate to see on a daily basis that really, everybody is more or less the same. We sleep, we eat, we raise our families. We laugh and we cry. The rest? The warmongering and the religious persecution and the violence that results from it? That’s all a matter of choice. And the choice is all of ours.

    Hats off to Professor Esposito.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. aFrankAngle says:

    Excellent find. I imagine that most Americans don’t know a 20% of the info above. … and 20% may be generous.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jim,

    I don’t see Professor Esposito’s brief explanation of Islam as particularly helpful. In fact, I thought it was kind of naïve and apologetic. I would hope his book on the subject is much better. But a quick stop by Wikipedia would probably be more informative.

    Regardless of Dr. Esposito’s platitudes, the Abrahamic religions, all three of them, have been and continue to be the most violent in human history. And their adherents act in ways that betray the teachings of their founders. Christians, for example, at least those here in the U.S., are loath to admit that Jesus is the poster child for socialism. Just read the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), and then read a little Karl Marx to see what I mean.

    These religions all suffer in greater or lesser degrees from hypocrisy, inconsistency, inequality, denial of science, cherry-picking, reliance on afterlife rewards rather than personal responsibility, and the inability to solve conflicts peaceably. That, of course, is my opinion – as a retired Presbyterian.

    Sadly, I see the polar opposites within and between these religions as being unable to find common ground. There is a vast difference between Pope Francis and Pat Robertson, just as there is between Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Malala Yousafzai.

    Anyway, thanks for posting Mr. Esposito’s efforts to help mitigate the misunderstanding of Islam. And for indulging my comments.



    • Jim Wheeler says:


      I did find it helpful to know that Islam is neither more nor less definitive of its adherents’ actions than is Christianity. Both religions, because of the inconsistency of their founding documents, are subject to, in your words, “hypocrisy, inconsistency, inequality, denial of science, cherry-picking, reliance on afterlife rewards rather than personal responsibility . . . “ I don’t disagree with any of that. Islam has its jihadists, its misogynistic attitudes and Sharia laws and Christianity has its Jim Joneses, its TV preachers, and groups like the Westboro Baptists, e.g. The bible was even used to justify slavery, for God’s sake (pun intended). Thus, I think the principal value of this is to understand that Islam, like Christianity, may be (and is) practiced nonviolently and with good intentions by many people. If the war on ISIL becomes a war on Islam, humanity will suffer for ages. That’s what I worry about.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Jim,

    Here’s an great essay on ISIS (ISIL?) written by a blogger who I have followed for the last 7 or 8 years. Hoffmann is Harvard and Oxford educated, and regarded as one of the leading experts on anything Christian. And he is an excellent writer. With a focus on Islam, he nonetheless gives us a profound perspective on the Abrahamic religions. I thought it might be helpful to the conversation here.



    Liked by 1 person

    • Jim Wheeler says:

      @ Herb,

      I think Hoffmann’s essay is helpful but I think it is only one example of how vulnerable ancient and arcane writing is to manipulation. He makes a valid point that the Quran is considered inerrant, but then so is the bible in the Christian faiths I am aware of. That might not be so true, perhaps, of the Roman Catholics who write missals and catechisms to help lesser people understand otherwise confusing scripture.

      Clearly, ISIL wants to stamp out rationality with doctrine, but surely there are Muslim scientists who must be aghast at their destruction of artifacts and history. Faith and rationality would seem to be opposites and yet, humanity seems capable of both simultaneously. Or at least most of humanity. A few of us, not so much, eh?

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Jim Ruebush says:

    We all can use more openness and education about this and many other topics. Thanks for the post.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Opinions in the Shorts: Vol. 286 |

  8. Thank you for posting this, it is a good start isn’t it? When I tell Christians Allah is God, the same God they pray to they are aghast, then they tell me either I am a liar or stupid. I have stopped having the discussion.

    I think I will add the book to my reading list


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