Introduction to Islam

Preface

Basics of Islamic Belief

The Six Articles of Faith

The Five Pillars

Controversial Issues Regarding Islam

 

Preface

The purpose of this page is to provide a brief introduction to Islam and its beliefs.

To any non-Muslims who are visiting this page, I encourage you to take the time to learn more about Islam. Talk to Muslims and read what they have written. There are more than 1.2 billion Muslims in the world, and as many as 6-7 million Muslims in the United States. Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the United States and in the world. There must be something about it that is appealing to a lot of people, and satisfying to a lot of people! Don’t just take the word of the media on it, read and learn for yourself and make your own decision.

Note 1: To learn more about the 1.2 billion Muslims around the world, visit my World of Islam page.

Note 2: To see a different kind of example of Islam’s diversity, check out my Links About Latino Muslims; learn about Latinos who are converting to Islam.

Note 3: Learn why The Nation of Islam is Not Islam. The name may be the same, but the beliefs are totally different.

For many years I was an agnostic and whenever I read anything about religion written from a Christian perspective, it didn’t reach anything in me. I thought that because I didn’t believe in the Christian concept of God I might not believe in God at all. It was as I studied and learned about Islam that I saw how wrong I was. What is most appealing about Islam to me is its purity, its simplicity, and its common sense. You don’t have to be a theologian or a learned scholar to understand its basic doctrines: what could be easier to grasp than “There is no god except God“?

 

Basics of Islamic Belief

The Quran teaches us that monotheism is part of the “fitra“, an Arabic word which means “the way God has created us” (see Surah ar-Rum verse 30). About this, the Prophet Muhammad (peace and the blessings of God be upon him) said, “Every child is born according to the fitra then its parents make it a Jew, a Christian, or a Zoroastrian“. Today we could add “or a Hindu, a Buddhist, an atheist, etc”. Recognition of God’s oneness is part of our innate human nature, it is just that we clutter it up with doctrines and ideas we have created.

The Quran also teaches us that we have only to look at the world around us to see the signs of God’s handiwork. In literally hundreds of verses, it points to some feature of the natural world and says “these are signs for those who think” or a similar phrase. When we look at a beautiful work of art, do we imagine that it came into being randomly and by chance, or do we know that there must be an artist behind it who designed it and created it? We know that there must be an artist, of course! So how is it that we look at our beautiful world, which is beautiful on the largest scale (solar systems, galaxies, etc) and the smallest scale (cells, atoms, etc), and which we as humans could not even begin to replicate no matter how we tried, and we think that it came into being randomly and by chance? If you said that about a painting or another work of art, people would think you were irrational, even mad. So why is it that when it is said about the universe we live in, it is called “scientific”? Surely the beauty and design of the world we live in point to One who desinged and created it.

So Islam teaches us that monotheism, faith in God alone, is something that is innate to us as human beings, something we know instinctively, and it is also something that we can easily rediscover by looking at the world around us. What is more simple or natural? Islam also teaches us that the fundamental error of human beings is forgetfulness or heedlessness. Even though we have been given this knowledge as part of our inborn make-up and even though it is easy to re-affirm through looking at the created world, we are still easily distracted by our own fancies and the caprices of our minds into forgetting.

It is in order to counter-act this tendency towards heedlessness that God sends prophets, messengers from Him, with a reminder to us. The Quran tells us that God has sent a messenger to every nation of humankind. He would not leave anybody without His guidance! Unfortunately, our heedlessness is so great that we have forgotten or corrupted the messages that were sent to us. It is for this reason that God has also sent a Scripture for us to keep by us and to read in order to remember. This Scripture is the Quran. It is a message for all the world, teaching us about God, about the world that He has created, and about how He wants us to live.

If you didn’t know that Islamic beliefs are like this, then you definitely owe it to yourself to study and learn more. How can you say that you reject Islam, when you don’t even know what it’s about?

 

The Six Articles of Faith

Islam does not have a complicated theology like Christianity does (3=1?, 100% human and 100% divine at the same time?), although some of the most sophisticated thinking on theological issues has been done by Muslims. There are only six articles of faith, which are as follows:

1) God. There is no god except God. God is ONE. He has no parents, no children, no associates, no partners. Nothing is like Him. The famous “99 names” are names of His qualities. These include The Real (al-Haqq), The Alive (al-Hayy), The Powerful (al-Qawiyy), and The Good (al-Barr). Everything we have we owe to God: our existence, our life, our ability, our goodness. If He ever stopped sustaining us, we would vanish into non-existence at that instant. If a person provided you with everything that you have, your shelter, food, clothing, money, etc, wouldn’t you be utterly thankful to that person? Wouldn’t you want to do whatever you could to give back to him for it? Wouldn’t you feel that if he asked you to do something, you should try to your utmost to do it, just because he deserves it from you? So why is it that when God has given us far more than any human being ever could, we scorn Him and act ungratefully to Him, and refuse to do what He asks of us?

Note: The name Allah is just the Arabic word for God and is used in the Arabic Bible

Aside: Please see An Introduction to Islamic Monotheism to learn a bit more about how Muslims think about God.

2) Angels. We’re not talking about those syrupy New Age angels people seem to be so enamored of these days, nor of cute little babies with wings and bows and arrows (?), nor of pale, sighing maidens with wings. These are God’smessengers. Certainly there is Gabriel, the angel who brought the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h.). There are also the two angels assigned to each human being to record his or her deeds (see Surah al-Infitar verses 10-12 and Surah at-Tariq verse 4); the angels who question each soul in the grave (mentioned by the Prophet Muhammad); the angel of death (Surah as-Sajda verse 11); an angel who is the gate-keeper of Paradise; angels placed in charge of meting out the punishments of Hell (Surah at-Tahrim verse 6); and angels of battle (Surah al-Anfal verse 12). This is just a brief summary. The angels will descend in ranks on the Last Day of this world as a sign of the imminence of the Judgment (see Surah al-An’aam verse 8 and Surah al-Furqan verses 25-26). The angels are God’s chosen way of sending His commands into the world, and of taking reports on the fulfilment of these commands. Thus it is obligatory for every Muslim to have faith in angels as part of having faith in God and His ways.

3) Prophets. Notice the plural. The testimony of faith one makes to become a Muslim includes in its second part “And Muhammad is a Messenger of God“. But in fact, it is obligatory for a Muslim to have faith in all of God’s prophets. Those the Quran has named include Adam, Noah, Abraham, Lot, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, David, Solomon, Elijah, Job, Jonah, Zachariah, John (the Baptist), and Jesus, plus of course Muhammad (peace be upon them all). The reason for God’s sending so many of His messengers has been discussed above. It is also important to understand that the Quran confirms certain details of the history that is told in the Bible (although it makes certain corrections to that history.) In short, the first stage of God’s plan was to send messengers to every nation. The second stage was to send a scripture to a single nation who would show the way. This nation was the Children of Israel and the scripture was the Torah. But this was not the end of the story. Nor was the universal religion that God established to replace Judaism meant to be Christianity, much less in its modern, Trinitarian form. No! Jesus was a human being only, and a prophet and messenger of God sent to the Children of Israel to prepare them for the coming of the last prophet. The third stage of God’s plan is the revelation of the Quran, a scripture for all humankind. Thus Islam has a similar but rival vision to Christianity. It is not some weird “cult” believing in some strange god named “Allah” (Allah is just the Arabic word for “the one God”, even as the French call Him “Dieu”, the Germans “Gott”, etc. Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians use Allah when they talk about God). It is the culmination and perfection of the same religious tradition that for Jews and Christians began when God singled out Abraham (p.b.u.h.) and his descendants. If there is any one thing that I hope people come away from reading this with, it is the understanding that Islam’s history is familiar not foreign.

4) Scriptures. Notice again the plural. Muslims of course believe in the Quran, but we also believe that God revealed the Torah to Moses (p.b.u.h), the Psalms to David (p.b.u.h.), and the Gospel to Jesus (p.b.u.h.). Are the Torah, the Psalms, and the Gospel that are known today the ones that were originally revealed? Even Christian and Jewish scholars don’t seem to think so anymore. Here’s another interesting fact: Did you know that the coming of a prophet like Moses (p.b.u.h.) with a new scripture is promised by the Torah? Read Deuteronomy 18:15-20. Not only was this prophecy delivered by Moses, but the Children of Israel are specifically commanded to obey the new prophet. And did you know that Jesus (p.b.u.h.) promised a prophet to come after him, with the explanation of all things? Read the Gospel of John especially 16:7-15. Not only was this prophecy delivered by Jesus, but the Christians are specifically commanded to obey the new prophet. The only prophet who has come who is like Moses and brings a scripture like the Torah is Muhammad, with the Quran. The only prophet who has come at all after Jesus is Muhammad. So why do not the Jews obey their own scripture and accept the prophethood of Muhammad, and why do not the Christians obey their own scripture and accept the prophethood of Muhammad? The fact of the matter is, if you truly obey every commandment in the Torah, you have to accept the prophethood of Muhammad, and if you truly obey every commandment given by Jesus, you have to accept the prophethood of Muhammad. Read these passages without any preconceived notions. If possible, read what it says in the original language (Hebrew for Deuteronomy, Greek for the Gospel of John) so that you are not instead reading the interpretation of the translator. You will find that these passages are quite clear and unambiguous.

Note: To check out some resources for learning more about the Quran, visit my Quran Page.

5) The measuring out. This is from the Arabic phrase “al-qada wa al-qadar” which is usually translated to mean “the divine decree and the predestination“. But qadar actually means “to measure out“. God has measured out every thing. He has measured out the sustenance in the world, and He also measures out what He has given us, the span of our life, the amount of our goodness and our evil, the things that happen to us. The question of predestination versus free will is a challenge in any religion and is certainly beyond the scope of this simple introduction. Rather than get into it, I will simply mention two of the most frequently used phrases of Muslims. One is “inshallah” which means “if God wills“. It is used whenever a statement about the future is made. For instance, “Next I am going to discuss Judgment Day, if God wills”. We all know that very often things do not go as planned. I could be interrupted by anything from a telephone call to an earthquake and never get back to writing my introduction. What we have willed does not always happen. What God has willed does. The second phrase is “mashallah” which means “what God has willed“. This is used in two ways. One is a statement of acceptance of whatever happens, e.g., “I didn’t get the job. What God has willed”. The other is as a compliment of something good. In this sense it might be interpreted as “What a good thing God has willed”. For instance, “What a beautiful flower that is! What a good thing God has willed”. By the use of this phrase, we acknowledge that all things, both bad and good, happen according to God’s will. I think the two phrases “inshallah” and “mashallah” provide a simple, practical demonstration of how Muslims think about “the measuring out”.

6) The Last Day. This refers to the last day of this world, aka Judgment Day, aka The Day of Resurrection. The Day of Judgment and the Hereafter are essential beliefs. Muslim thinkers sometimes talk about three “roots” of belief, which are monotheism, prophecy, and the judgment. Monotheism and prophecy have already been discussed in the essay above and in the articles of faith devoted to them. Judgment Day and the Hereafter are crucial too. They are a necessary aspect of God’s justice. Judgment Day isn’t for God to discover our good and our evil. He already knows it. He is delivering His judgment to us, so that we can know it. Now, we all know that things happen in this world that aren’t fair. Innocent people suffer. Evil seems to go unpunished. These are the results of our free will, and through them God tests us. Will we still remember Him when times are rough? How would it be a fair test for us if He stepped in every time somebody did something wrong? Think about it. Religion’s answer to the question of the existence of evil has usually been that it is a result of God’s justice regarding our free will. But at the same time, it isalso an essential component of His justice that the good will be rewarded and the evil punished. The Hereafter is necessary because it is there that the reward and punishment will come. Moreover, as the Quran says, the Hereafter is “better and more abiding” than this world. The suffering we may undergo now will seem as fleeting as a nightmare when we look back at it. So will the pleasures and joys of the things of this world. But the pain of Hell will last forever for those whom God condemns to it, and the joy of Paradise will last forever for those whom God admits to it. In this way, the reward of the good truly is a just recompense for what they worked, and the punishment of the evil likewise. This is part of God’s design and plan for us and belief in it is an essential part of having faith in Him and His ways.

 

The Five Pillars

Above, I have given a very brief introduction to the six articles of faith of Islam. These are what define a belief as Islamic rather than being of some other religion. There are also five practices which define the Islamic religion. These are known as the “five pillars” because they support the foundation of Islam just as pillars support a building.

1) The Shahadah. Shahadah is an Arabic word meaning “testimony” or “bearing witness“. The Shahadah is therefore the testimony of faith that every Muslim must make. It is the necessary ritual for conversion to Islam. It consists of the following statement in Arabic, “Ashhadu an laa ilaha ill’Allah wa ashhadu anna Muhammadan rasul Allah“. This translates as, “I testify that there is no god except God, and I testify that Muhammad is a messenger of God“. The Shahadah is repeated in the daily prayers (see below) and therefore is said many times a day by observant Muslims. It may be said that any person who recites the Shahadah is a Muslim; however if he or she does nothing else they are a lapsed Muslim. We can also say that by bearing witness that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is a messenger of God, it necessarily means that we are bearing witness that the Quran is a message from God – a messenger is defined by the message he brings. And since everything we have is due to God, we should necessarily desire to obey what He tells us. Therefore, by bearing witness that the Quran is a message from God, we are also stating our willingness to obey the Quran to the best of our ability. It is in this way that obedience to the Quran becomes obligatory on Muslims even though it is not one of the five pillars. Rather, the five pillars are the forms of worship that have been prescribed for Muslims.

2) The salat. Salat is an Arabic word meaning “prayer” or “blessing“. It refers to the prayer service through which Muslims praise God. The salat is to be offered in a fixed form, at fixed times during the day. Muslims also offer spontaneous prayers for their needs. This is called du’a which means “calling (on God)“. However, the ritual prayer, or salat, is an essential part of Islamic observance. The five prayer times are dawn, mid-day, mid-afternoon, sunset, and nightfall. Being able to complete the salat at its appointed time is very important to observant Muslims, and is often a concern on the job. The salat must be offered in a state of ritual purity and facing towards Mecca. It involves standing, bowing, prostrating, and sitting, and recitation from the Quran and praise and glorification of God, as well as the recitation of various other ritual phrases. Although many people may feel that ritual, fixed-time prayer must be a burden or joyless, most Muslims feel that it is a good “time-out” from a busy day to get in touch with what is really important, and that it is easier when the form is fixed so that you don’t have to decide on the words each time. To learn a bit about the salat, see Manner of Performing Salat.

3) The zakat. Zakat is an Arabic word whose root meaning is “purification“. It refers specifically to purifying one’s wealth by giving a portion of it to help those who are less fortunate. The zakat is due on that wealth which is “hoarded” for one year; that is, on money that is not spent towards meeting one’s needs. There is a sort of “standard exemption”; what this means is that if your income equals your expenses so that you have no money “hoarded” then no zakat is due, and if your income exceeds your expenses by this “standard exemption” or less than it then no zakat is due. It is only on your surplus wealth above the “standard exemption” that the zakat is due. For cash (including precious metals and the like) the rate of the zakat is 2.5%, or 1/40 of the surplus. Besides the zakat, spontaneous giving to the needy is strongly recommended; it is called sadaqa.

4) The Ramadan fast. Ramadan is a month in the Islamic calendar. The Islamic calendar is purely lunar and each month begins at the sighting of the new crescent moon. It thus lasts for 354 or 355 days, while a solar calendar (such as the Gregorian calendar used in the West) is 365 or 366 days long. Because the lunar calendar is shorter, a given date, such as the first of Ramadan, will fall 10 or 11 days earlier according to the Gregorian calendar each successive year. Over a period of 33 years, it will cycle through all the seasons and come back to where it started. The lunar month is 29 or 30 days. Observance of the Ramadan fast entails refraining from any kind of food or drink, and (if you are married) from sexual relations between dawn and sunset. Especially in northern latitudes, the fast may be relatively short when it falls in winter, and quite long when it falls in summer. Over a lifetime, therefore, a Muslim experiences both easy fasts and difficult fasts and it balances out. For the year 2001, Ramadan is predicted to start on November 17. The fast is a marvelously spiritual experience. It requires discipline to maintain the fast when you are aware that only God will know if you keep it or if you cheat. It is often the most difficult at about the three-week point, then becomes easier near the end. I have also found that there is a wonderful sense of community to know that Muslims all over the world are observing the fast at the same time.

Aside: I have a section on my site devoted to Ramadan, which includes some articles for non-Muslims.

5) The hajj. Hajj is an Arabic word meaning “pilgrimage“. It refers to the pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. This is obligatory on each Muslim once in a lifetime, but only if one is financially capable of the journey. I have not yet made the hajj. The most interesting thing about the hajj is that the rituals are not about the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) or events in his life, but instead they commemorate events in the life of the patriach and prophet Abraham (peace be upon him) and his family. The hajj takes place in the Islamic month of Dhu’l-Hijja, during the eighth to twelfth days. Millions of Muslims from all over the world gather each year. Read the impressions of Malcolm X about the hajj.

 

Controversial Issues Regarding Islam

So far I have attempted to provide a brief, simple introduction to Islamic beliefs and worship practices. God willing, this should refute some of the more outlandish ideas that are sometimes put forth about Islam, such as that it is not a “real religion” or that it is a “cult” about the foreign god “Allah”. However, there are some serious concerns that many people may have with Islam and that a sincere Muslim must address. In two words, these are terrorism andwomen. I would like to say a few words about each in turn, God willing.

Terrorism

who kills a single soul...

In the wake of the horrific terrorist attacks on America on September 11, 2001, I have posted several special links.

It is especially difficult in the wake of the attacks to write about the issue of Islam and terrorism, yet it is perhaps even more necessary than before. What these people did IS NOT ISLAM. No sane person could ever believe that God has allowed much less “commanded” such an abhorrent act. Whoever did this must be deranged, psychotic. Please do not rush to judgment or condemn all Muslims, or Islam, because of this act. I have provided some links above showing what Islamic sources and what individual Muslims really have to say about what happened.

But we need to look at the larger issue. Why do some Muslim individuals commit violent acts? And why is there such a pervasive idea that violence and terrorism are somehow Islamic? These questions are worth your careful reading and serious and thoughtful consideration. Each is discussed in turn.

1) Muslim groups are not the only ones who commit violent acts. Equally notorious, at least to their own people, are the IRA (Irish Republican Army) in Ulster, the ETA Basque separatists in Spain, the Shining Path guerrillas of Peru, and the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, to name just four. The conflict in Northern Ireland is specifically defined by the religion of the two sides, Catholics versus Protestants. Yet we do not attribute the acts of these groups to Christianity. Instead, we recognize that those who give the name of Christianity to it are distorting their claims, and that they have political motivations instead. We cannot have a double standard that assumes that all violent actions committed by Muslims or even given the name of Islam are in fact commanded by Islam, and that ignores any political motivations that these Muslims may have. The Palestinians, the Chechens, and the Kashmiris are all engaged in political struggles against what they perceive as oppression by, respectively, Israel, Russia, and India. This is just the same as the IRA, who perceive oppression by Great Britian, and the ETA, who perceive oppression by Spain. The very least we can do is give the Palestinians, Chechens, and Kashmiris the same thoughtful consideration that we do the causes of the IRA and the ETA. Don’t just go by what you read or see in the mass media. See what human rights groups such as Amnesty International have said about the conduct of Israel, Russia, and India. Are all Muslims terrorists – or may some be freedom fighters?

Aside 1: Read Understanding Terrorism, by John M. Gates, a military analyst. This article discusses what the proper definition of “terrorism” is, whether some “terrorist groups” are actually national liberation movements, and whether states can inflict terrorism on their own citizens. Also see The Politics of Terrorism, by William Pfaff.

Aside 2: View official statistics on global terrorism against the U.S. by region and on domestic terrorism in the U.S. by group. The Middle East and Muslims are not as high on the list as you would think.

2) Some violent acts committed by militant Muslim groups cannot be justified even by their struggle against what they perceive as oppression (such as the horror that occured on September 11). These acts are committed against people not involved in their situation, or against innocent civilians including children. There can be no excuse for these acts (read my Condemnation of the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001) and no moral Muslim could ever make such an excuse. Are you aware of criticism by Muslim leaders of terrorist acts? (visit my Muslims Condemn Terrorist Attacks page) Have you read what they say and what sources they quote to assert that such actions are not permissible under Islamic Law, and are certainly not commanded by it? (read my articles Some Quranic Verses on Jihad and What Islam Really Says About Killing the Innocent) There are over 1.2 billion Muslims in the world. The number of terrorists is an infinitesimal fraction of this. More than 99% of all Muslims have no connection whatsoever to terrorism and have never taken any sort of violent action as part of a political struggle. If asked, most of them would roundly condemn terrorism. Those who have the knowledge could cite the sources of Islamic law to prove that all such terroristic acts are forbidden in Islam. Why are such voices not sought out? Why this relentless focus on the 0.001% of Muslims who are engaged in terrorism and depiction of them as typical without any consideration of the lives and beliefs of the other 99.999%?

Aside 1: I have written A Field Guide to Islamic Activists, which provides a brief survey and history of contemporary Islamic movements and how “militant Islam” fits in. I encourage you to read this and to learn more about the context of the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden.

Aside 2: Read some interesting perspectives by Western journalists on the September 11 terrorist attacks and what political motives might have led to them.

Terrorism by Muslims is indeed a problem. So is the way it is all too often depicted in the West. In this depiction, all Muslims and indeed Islam itself are tarred with the actions of an very tiny minority of extremists. No attempt is made to determine if the actions of these extremists are in fact motivated by politics rather than religion and it is just that they think religion makes a good-sounding rationale for their actions. This double standard has to end. You have never met me and you do not know anything about what I have done, and of my beliefs you know only the little that I have written here. If you think that I must be a “fundamentalist” or that I advocate violence just because I have told you I am a Muslim that is prejudice. You have pre-judged me, because of my religious belief. There can be no fair and productive discussion of terrorism until there is an end to the prejudice that assumes that Islam is by its nature terroristic or that all Muslims advocate violence. To learn more about anti-Islam prejudice, visit my page of links on stereotyping of Arabs and Muslims. Worst of all, this kind of prejudice can all too easily lead to violence taken against innocent Muslims. See A Month of Backlash for reports on the backlash against Muslim and Arab-Americans in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Also: Read Faith and Terror, by Robert Malley. Is it “Islamic terrorism”, or “terrorists who happen to be Muslims”?

Another good article is America’s New Crisis: Understanding the Muslim World, by John L. Esposito. The author is a noted scholar of Islam.

Also, for comparison, read about Jewish and Hindu fundamentalism. These have a very real effect on the policies of, respectively, Israel and India. Are they a “threat” too?

Women

Almost as pervasive as the association of Islam with terrorism is the idea that Islam is a religion that is uniquely oppressive of women. Again, it would be folly to deny that some men and some societies injure women and give the name of Islam to it. However, there are again some issues that are worth your thought and consideration.

1) More or less all Muslim countries are part of the developing world. When we look at the situation of women in Muslim countries, we should compare it to other developing countries, not to the wealthy, developed West. What is the status of women in China, or India, or sub-Saharan Africa, or Central and South America? Are some women in these countries abused by their fathers and husbands? Are they subjected to cruel or oppressive practices that are called “traditional”? And what is this due to? Their religion? Or their hopeless poverty? There is another double standard at work here, and again it attributes everything to Islam and negates the idea that there could be any other motivations for the actions of Muslims. Given that women in desperately poor families and desperately poor societies are frequently oppressed and abused, why are the oppression and abuse in Muslim countries uniquely attributed to Islam, and the socio-economic factors are ignored?

2) Sometimes also the ways of a conservative religion are treated as “oppressive”. If you want to see sexism, look at the status of women in Orthodox Judaism, or traditional Christianity. In the former, men pray every day, “Blessed is God…who has not made me a woman” (see a discussion by a Jewish feminist of this at The Role of Women in the Synagogue) while in the latter women are unequivocally declared subordinate to all men (1 Corinthians 11:3) and to have been created for the benefit of men (1 Corinthians 11:9). You owe it to yourself to study both the Bible and the writings of traditional Jews and Christians. You will find that Islam is far from alone in conservative ideas about women.

Note 1: To read an interesting study of the place of women in traditional Judaism and Christianity and how it compares to the place of women in Islam, read Women in Islam Versus Women in the Judeo-Christian Tradition.

Note 2: Also, you can read an interesting comparison of Islam and Judaism at Maidens and Warriors, by Israel Shamir. The author is an Israeli Jew.

Despite the points I have made above, some aspects of Islam are treated as uniquely oppressive, such as polygyny (i.e., the taking of multiple wives, more commonly known as polygamy) and the hijab or modest dress.

Concerning polygyny, a few points should be made. First, the sex ratio is the same in Muslim countries as in the rest of the world, i.e., one man to one woman. This fact alone means that polygyny must necessarily be limited – there aren’t enough women to go around for it to be very common! The vast, overwhelming majority of Muslim men have a single wife. Second, Islamic law requires a man to treat his wives equally in terms of his money and his time (see Surah an-Nisa verse 3 and also verse 129 of the same surah). Only a wealthy man can afford to support more than one wife even if there were a surplus of women. It should also be noted that Muslim men are limited to four wives even if a given man could support many more than that. The Quran also warns men “You will not be able to be entirely just among your wives, even if you are vigilant” (Surah an-Nisa verse 129) and says “if you fear that you will not be just [to two, three, or four wives], then a single one only” (Surah an-Nisa verse 3). In short, polygyny is a concession to human nature and is limited both in practice and under the law, rather than being something that is commanded or even encouraged for all men or that has no restrictions on it. It must also be noted that polygyny is mentioned in the Bible. It was practiced by Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, and Solomon, among others. It is specifically legislated for (Deuteronomy 21:18-17). Jesus mentions a wedding of a man with ten women without any condemnation (Gospel of Matthew 25:1-13 – read it!) while Paul places restrictions on polygyny only for priests and bishops (see for example 1 Timothy 3:12). Clearly, Islam did not “establish” polygyny, which was already well-known, but instead regulates it.

Note: To read about polygyny and Christianity, see my page on Polygyny in Christianity.

Then there is the hijab. Feminists in the West decry the treatment of women as sexual objects and the use of scantily clad women to sell products or the expectation in our culture that a woman must look like an actress or a model. Yet when a Muslim woman decides to take her sexuality out of the picture, somehow this is seen as a great oppression. Another thing that we value in our culture is individuality and standing up for what you believe. Yet when a Muslim woman goes against the tide by wearing her hijab, and does it to stand for what she believes, this is again seen as some kind of great oppression on her. In a culture where primary school girls are starting to dress like Britney Spears (see Britney Brigade from Time Magazine) and a woman’s cleavage seems to jump out from every other ad, for a woman to cover all of her body except her face and hands takes a lot of strength and self-confidence. The sheer amount of attention that is given to the hijab suggests that women are still very much judged by how they dress. Last thing: a man in his business suit covers everything but his head and his hands, and his hair is short and plain in style. Isn’t a Muslim woman who covers all of her body, and who makes sure that her hair is not a decoration, doing the same thing? Why not encourage women to be equal to men in their business dress?

Note 1: Read my message to non-Muslims about anti-hijab discrimination. This vilification of hijab needs to stop.

Note 2: Is there such a thing as “Christian hijab”? Read my article on The Veil in Christianity to learn more about this forgotten commandment of the Bible.

Note 3: Read my response to the question “Why Do You Dress Like That?” to learn more about the rules governing hijab.

Note 4: To learn more about the issue of hijab and its place in Islam, read On Veiling…

Note 5: Read about young Muslim women and why they choose hijab at Hijab: This Is My Struggle. This is a great article and gives a real feel for why Muslim women love hijab.

Note 6: The rules and restrictions that the Taliban impose on women are not only not part of Islam, they are actually anti-Islamic. In an interesting article, The Social Degradation of Women is a Crime and a Libel on Islam, written in1927, the British convert and Islamic scholar Mohammad Marmaduke Pickthall discusses very similar rules that were being imposed in India. This article still reads well today. Pickthall discusses why the total seclusion of women and the preventing them from obtaining an education are contrary to Islamic teachings.

As a final comment on the issue of Islam and women, I would like to draw to your attention the fact that Islam has some surprisingly positive things to say about women. I have compiled a list of Quran verses that describe the value of women in God’s sight, the reward that women can expect in the world and the Hereafter for their actions, and the responsibility of women under the law, all as they compare to the value, reward, and responsibility of men. Check it out. You might be surprised at what it says. You can find it at: Men and Women in the Quran

Note 1: Also learn about the exalted position of mothers in Islam at Mothers in Islamic Teaching. Did you know that the person with the greatest right over a Muslim man is his mother?

Note 2: Is “Islamic feminism” a contradiction in terms? Not according to many Muslim reformers. To see some examples of Muslims who seek to advance women’s rights while remaining true to Islam, visit Muslim Women’s League,Karamah, and Kamilat. Also, here are some good articles written from a similar perspective:

 

Afterword

Read some non-Muslims’ opinions on why people should seek to learn more about Islam at:

 

Some other resources

1) Visit my page of Books about Islam for Non-Muslims.

2) See some sites on Islam created by ordinary Muslims.

3) Interested in becoming a Muslim? Visit my converts page.

 

The materials on this page are written by Al-Muhajabah. You may copy, display, or distribute these materials for non-commercial purposes as long as you give me proper attribution as the author.

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