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Q & A on Islam and Arab-Americans

This article is presented in an effort to clear up misunderstandings Americans may have about the Islamic religion.

Q What is Islam?
A Muslims believe in one God and in the Day of Judgment and individual accountability for actions. Muslims believe in a chain of prophets beginning with Adam and including Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, Issac, Jacob Joseph, Job, Moses, David, Solomon and Jesus. God's message was reaffirmed and finalized by the Prophet Muhammad. Islam is a religion of peace, mercy and forgiveness. Muslims pray in a mosque in the same way that Christians pray in a church.

Q What is the Koran?
A The Koran, or Quran, is the Muslim holy book, like the Bible is to Christianity. It is the record of the exact words revealed by God to the Prophet Muhammad. It was memorized by Muhammad and then dictated to his companions.

Q What does "Islam" mean?
A The Arabic word "Islam" means "submission," and it derives from a word meaning "peace." In a religious context it means complete submission to the will of God. "Allah" is the Arabic name for God, which is used by Arab Muslims and Christians alike.

Q What are the "Five Pillars" of Islam?
A These are the framework for Muslim life:

1. The Declaration of Faith: "There is no deity but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God."

2. Prayer: Muslims perform five obligatory prayers each day. Islamic prayers are a direct link between the worshiper and God. Islam has no hierarchical authority or priesthood.

3. Zakat: One of the most important principles of Islam is that all things belong to God and that wealth is held in trust by human beings. Zakat, or charitable giving, "purifies" wealth by setting aside a portion for those in need.

4. Fasting: Every year in the Islamic lunar month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. The fast is another method of self-purification.

5. Pilgrimage: A pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, or Hajj as it is is called in Arabic, is an obligation for those who are physically and financially able to make the journey.

Q Who are the Muslims?
A People who follow the Islamic faith come from all over the world. No more than 20% of Muslims live in the Arabic-speaking world. The country with the largest Muslim population is Indonesia.

Q What about the American Muslim community?
A An estimated 7 million Muslims live in the USA. They are made up of people from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds and national origins. Islam is one of the fastest-growing religions in the United States and around the world.

Q What is the role of women in Islam?
A Under Islamic law, women have always had the right to own property, receive an education and otherwise take part in community life. Men and women are to be respected equally. The Islamic rules for modest dress apply to women and men equally.

Q Why do Muslim women cover their hair?
A Islam teaches modesty for women and men. Women are required to cover their bodies so that their figure is not revealed and only their faces and hands are shown. The head scarf is called a hijab or chador. The long, robelike garment is called an abayah, jilbab or chador. This requirement is designed to protect women and give them respect. The dress of Muslim women is similar to that of Christian nuns, who also cover their bodies and hair. Muslim women are not required to cover their faces as is done in some Middle Eastern countries.

Q Some Arab men wear a checked garment on their heads. What is that?
A It is called a kafiyyeh, and it is traditional, not religious. Wearing the kafiyyeh is similar to an African-American wearing traditional African attire or an Indian wearing a sari. The kafiyyeh shows identity and pride in one's culture.

Q What is Jihad?
A Jihad does not mean "holy war." Literally, jihad in Arabic means to strive, struggle and exert effort. It is a central and broad Islamic concept that includes struggle against evil inclinations within oneself, struggle to improve the quality of life in society, struggle in the battlefield for self-defense or fighting against tyranny or oppression.

Q What does Islam say about Christianity?
A Islam teaches that Christians and Muslims are both "people of the book." By that it means that the two religions share the same basic beliefs articulated through the Bible and the Koran. The main difference between Christians and Muslims is that Muslims do not believe that Jesus was the son of God. Muslims believe that Jesus was a prophet who was granted special powers by God to show people the power of God.

Q What does Islam say about Judaism?
A Islam teaches that Jews and Muslims are both "people of the book." By that it means that the two religions share the same basic beliefs articulated through the Torah and the Koran. The main difference between Jews and Muslims is that Jews do not believe in the prophets after the Jewish prophets including Mohammad and his teachings. Muslims, on the other hand, believe in all the prophets including Moses, Ibraham, Jackob, Ishmael, Issac and Jesus.

Q How does Islam view terrorism?
A Islam does not support terrorism under any circumstances. Terrorism goes against every principle in Islam. If a Muslim engages in terrorism, he is not following Islam. He may be wrongly using the name of Islam for political or financial gain.

Q Does Islam tolerate other beliefs?
A Yes. It is one function of Islamic law to protect the privileged status of minorities. Islamic law also permits non-Muslims to set up their own courts, which implement family laws drawn up by the minorities themselves.

Q What is an appropriate way to greet an Arab-American?
A This is not difficult or tricky. Remember that most Arab-Americans grew up in the USA and do not require special greetings. Be yourself, and let them be themselves. If they are practicing Muslims or recent immigrants, watch for cues. A smile, a nod and a word of greeting are appropriate in most situations. Some Muslims feel it is inappropriate for unrelated men and women to shake hands. Wait until the other person extends his or her hand before you extend your own.

Source - Published in USA Today, September 18, 2001
Copyright © 2001 - USA Today - Muslim WakeUp! seeks to bring together Muslims and non-Muslims in America and around the globe in efforts that celebrate cultural and spiritual diversity, tolerance, and understanding. Through online and offline media, events, and community activities, Muslim WakeUp! champions an interpretation of Islam that celebrates the Oneness of God and the Unity of God's creation through the encouragement of the human creative spirit and the free exchange of ideas, in an atmosphere that is filled with compassion and free of intimidation, authoritarianism, and dogmatism. In all its activities, Muslim WakeUp! attempts to reflect a deep belief in justice and against all forms of oppression, bigotry, sexism, and racism.

Islamic Studies - Non-Muslims who'd like to learn more about Islam can turn to this site, developed by Dr. Alan Godlas, a professor in the department of religion at the University of Georgia. Unaffiliated with any particular sect, it offers a non-polemical view on Muslim beliefs and explores related topics, such as the mystical sufism.

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