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Exploring Islam - The World's Second Biggest Religion Also Is a Way of Life

By Carolyn Ruff
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 13, 1998; Page H01

In a narrow, unadorned room, about 70 women, heads covered by scarves, feet bare against carpeted floor, face a television set showing a man speaking in Arabic. The women stand, bow deeply, then get down on hands and knees and touch their foreheads to the floor.

This is not a scene in Tehran or Cairo or Istanbul but in a mosque in Northwest. Some women are in traditional loose-fitting tunics, others in smart business suits. Around the room, small children play, oblivious to their surroundings. The man on TV is actually in another part of the mosque where only males are permitted to gather for prayer.

Because the number of Muslims in the Washington area is growing faster than the space in mosques, Islam's traditional separation of men and women in different parts of a room for worship has forced the crowded mosque to use separate rooms.

In the main room, the men perform the same rites. Like the women, their motions are fluid, their prayers memorized, reenacting a 1,400-year-old ritual repeated daily by hundreds of millions of people throughout the world.

To observant Muslims, ritual prayer is as natural as sleeping or eating. Islam is not just one component of its believers' lives, a set of beliefs remembered on special occasions. Rather, for the devout, it is a way of life. Its tenets and rules permeate almost everything, often including politics and government.

In a world swayed by misunderstanding of cultural differences, Islam and its adherents often are stereotyped and caricatured, branded with the violent or sexist image of a small minority of zealots. In reality, Islam is no better characterized by acts of Middle Eastern terrorists, for example, than is Christianity by acts of Northern Ireland's terrorists.

Islam is an ancient religion with profound historical and theological ties to Judaism and Christianity. All three religions worship the same God, acknowledge large parts of the same Bible and revere Adam, Noah, Abraham and Moses. And, as do Christians, Muslims regard Jesus as the messiah.

In fact, Islam teaches that it represents the modern mainstream of a primordial, monotheistic religion that began with the earliest humans. Over millennia, the religion took form with the early Jewish prophets, was modified significantly by Jesus and finally shaped by Muhammad, the final prophet, who died in 632.

Among Muhammad's most important acts was rejection of the old Jewish concept of a "chosen people." Instead, he taught that all people are born Muslim and that anyone -- regardless of color, nationality or social standing -- can join the Muslim community simply by submitting to God and reciting the words known as the shahadah: "There is no deity but Allah (God), and Muhammad is his messenger."

Because of its powerful, cross-cultural appeal, Islam has won the hearts and minds of an estimated 1.2 billion people around the world, making it the second largest religion. Christianity has about 2 billion adherents, and Hinduism is third largest with about 800 million.

Despite its association in the Western mind with things Arabic, about 85 percent of Islam's faithful are not Arabs. South Asia has the largest Muslim population, with 275 million believers. Africa is second largest, with 200 million. And, according to the American Muslim Council, China has about as many Muslims as better-known Islamic strongholds such as Iran, Egypt or Turkey. According to The Muslim Almanac, an estimated 2 percent of Americans, or about 5 million people, are Muslims.

It is difficult to determine the exact number of Muslims anywhere because they do not belong to congregations and because mosques are open to all and do not maintain membership rolls.

Quite apart from its importance to believers, Islam has performed services for which all of humanity is in its debt. When Christian Europe sank into the so-called Dark Ages for about 600 years starting in the late 5th century, Islamic scholars elsewhere maintained high standards of academic study, mathematics and scientific research.

Islamic libraries in Baghdad, Cairo and Damascus preserved the writings of ancient Greek, Roman and Indian scholars even as Europe's leaders rejected them.

While Europe languished, Islamic mariners, mathematicians, scientists, physicians and engineers made major advances in many fields. Our words algebra and algorithm, for example, were derived from Arabic. When the best European libraries consisted of a few dozen books, Islamic collections held tens of thousands.

When the Renaissance blossomed in Western Europe in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, it found a trove of ancient knowledge and new discoveries in translations from the Arabic.

PEACE AND SUBMISSION

Islam is an Arabic word derived from the same Semitic three-letter root -- s-l-m -- as the Hebrew word for peace, shalom, often used as a greeting. The meaning of "Islam" encompasses the concepts of peace, greeting and submission. Thus, a Muslim -- the word is derived from the same root -- is one who submits to God, a stance enunciated in the traditional profession of faith: "There is no deity but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger."

"Allah" is simply Arabic for "God," the same supreme, supernatural figure worshipped by Christians and Jews. Unlike most other religions, however, Islam has no baptism or other initiation ceremony.

"Membership in the community of Muslims is not conferred by man," Thomas W. Lippman writes in Understanding Islam. "It is acquired by a conscious act of will, the act of submission, summarized in the profession of faith."

Lippman, a Washington Post reporter who served as the paper's bureau chief in Cairo for three years, writes that "to become a Muslim, it is sufficient to make that profession sincerely in the presence of other believers, who will witness it. But to become a Muslim is also to accept a complex interlocking body of beliefs, practices and other ethical standards."

Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam has undergone splits into separate denominations. The biggest occurred shortly after Muhammad died when his followers disagreed about who should take his role as leader. One branch, called Sunni, today comprises about 83 percent of Muslims, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. The other, called Shi'ah, accounts for about 16 percent, and a few tiny groups make up the remaining 1 percent.

Although Islam has taken root in cultures as diverse as those of Egypt, China and the United States, in each region acquiring local customs not mandated by the religion -- such as women wearing veils -- Islamic scholars say Muslims everywhere share a core of basic principles, the so-called "five pillars" of the faith.

The first pillar is the profession of faith or, in Arabic, the shahadah. The Council on Islamic Education, an American organization comprising historians and academicians, calls this the central theme of Islam because many Muslims repeat it, in Arabic, several times a day to remind themselves of God's central position in their lives.

The second pillar is ritual worship, or salah. Muslims are required to pray formally five times a day -- at dawn, midday, afternoon, evening and night. At each time, a man summons believers to prayer by calling from atop the mosque's tower, or minaret, or by using loudspeakers. Those out of earshot simply rely on a watch.

Muslims may pray alone or in a group as long as they face the Saudi Arabian city of Makkah, Muhammad's birthplace and the holiest city of Islam. It is common in many predominantly Islamic countries to see Muslims performing the salah wherever they happen to be at the appropriate time. After repeating the prescribed prayer, Muslims may add a personal prayer.

Unlike most Christian or Jewish prayers, the salah requires more than words. The whole body performs the ritual. It begins as worshipers raise their hands and say "Allahu Akbar," which translates as "God is the greatest." Worshippers then bend with hands on knees, kneel with hands on thighs and finally bow their heads to touch the floor. Each motion is accompanied by verses from the Koran. A person, sometimes called an imam, may lead the service.

The third pillar is fasting, or sawm, during the month of Ramadan. Because Islam uses a lunar calendar, its year is 11 days shorter than that of the solar calendar governing most worldly affairs. As a result, Ramadan comes 11 days earlier each year. The month is sacred because, as Muslims believe, God first revealed verses of the Koran to Muhammad during Ramadan.

During Ramadan, Muslims are to refrain from eating, drinking, smoking and sex from dawn to sunset. Typically during Ramadan, Muslims have breakfast before dawn and do not eat again until after sunset.

The fourth pillar is almsgiving, called zakah in Arabic. Muslims pay a specified amount of money, typically 2.5 percent of one's accumulated wealth each year, to assist the poor and sick. The money is not to support the mosque or Islamic leaders. The Koran does not say how much should be given. In some Muslim countries, according to Lippman, it is voluntary, while in others, the government enforces it.

The fifth pillar is the hajj, or pilgrimage to Makkah, the most recent of which occurred last month. Islam requires that every believer make at least one visit to Makkah in a lifetime if physically and financially able to do so.

The spectacular hajj now brings together more than two million Muslims in a religious gathering that has continued without interruption for about 1,400 years. Where once pilgrims came on foot or camel, sometimes after more than a year of travel, most now arrive by air.

The hajj commemorates the sacrifices, faith and obedience of Abraham; his second wife, Hagar; and their son, Ishmael, at Makkah. According to the Council on Islamic Education, it is the largest, regularly scheduled international gathering on Earth.

When the pilgrims arrive, they don special clothing. Men wear two seamless white sheets, and women usually wear a modest white dress and are prohibited from wearing veils or gloves. In this uniform attire, the pilgrims feel that they are equal before the eyes of God and that only virtue and devotion will set one apart from others.

The demanding rites and prayers last for days. At various points, worshipers must make a ritual trek, pray from noon through the following morning and stand in prayer for hours at a time. According to Islamic scholars, the pilgrims hope that God will accept their effort, after which they can commence life afresh with a slate wiped clean of sins.

This year's pilgrimage was marred by sweltering temperatures and a stampede in which more than 150 people were killed when they rushed to perform one of the last rituals known as "stoning the devil." In this, the pilgrims throw pebbles at three pillars symbolizing the temptations of Satan.

The focus of worship in Makkah is the Ka'aba, an empty, cubical stone structure covered by an embroidered black cloth in the courtyard of the Great Mosque.

Ka'aba is the source of the word "cube." The Ka'aba is believed to have been built on the site of an original made by Abraham more than 4,000 years ago, and Muslims consider it the original house of God on Earth.

NO DEITY BUT ALLAH

Perhaps Islam's most distinctive attribute is a belief descended from that of the ancient Jews and akin to that of early Unitarians in a single deity, whether the name be Jehovah, Allah or God. At many times throughout history, this has been a radical claim because most other religions believe in many Gods, a position called polytheism. Islamic monotheism goes even further than its Christian counterpart by rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity, which holds that Jesus also is a deity, along with a third entity called the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit.

The Koran, which is pronounced cur-AHN and which some Islamic groups say is better rendered from Arabic as Qur'an, is the religion's dominant scripture. It is considered the literal word of God, dictated by the angel Gabriel in some miraculous way to Muhammad over 23 years, according to the Council on Islamic Education's handbook, Teaching About Islam and Muslims in the Public School Classroom. Muhammad was illiterate, but his followers memorized the revelations and scribes set them down in writing.

The Koran is viewed as the authoritative guide to proper living, along with tradition, called the hadith, based on sayings and practices of Muhammad.

Muslims view life as a test, says Sulayman S. Nyang, an expert on Islam at Howard University. It is a person's responsibility to live as closely as possible by the words of Allah in preparation for a "Day of Judgment" much like the one in which Christians believe. Muslims say the world someday will be destroyed and the dead resurrected, judged and sent to heaven or to hell.

However, sinners may take heart because, according to the Islamic council's handbook, "the infinite mercy of God is demonstrated in the Qur'anic statement that those who have even a mustard seed's weight of belief in God will eventually be admitted into Heaven."

Islam also teaches that each person has a direct relationship with God and that no intermediary is needed. As a result, Islam has no priests or other clergy. Some people, however, are considered experts on the Koran and serve as leaders of the community. Some, for example, are trained to judge how the Koran applies to social and personal issues. Another leader, called an imam in the Sunni branch of Islam, leads daily prayer, gives sermons, officiates at marriages and performs other clerical duties.

Muslims believe that God revealed scriptures to certain prophets who relayed them to the general public. Among these many messengers were Abraham, Noah, Moses and Jesus, with the final prophet being Muhammad.

Like some Christians, many Muslims believe that human history began with Adam and Eve, but they do not believe in "original sin," the Christian doctrine that all human beings inherit a state of sin from that first couple's disobedience of the command not to eat the forbidden fruit.

Because Islam does not accept the concept of original sin, humanity did not need a savior whose death wiped away this sin. Jesus was not crucified, the religion teaches. Being sinless, he did not need to die and was taken bodily to heaven, as Catholics believe his mother Mary was.

Incidentally, the Koran teaches that God made Adam and Eve simultaneously by splitting one human soul, not by making the woman from a part of the man, as the Jewish and Christian traditions hold. The Koran also teaches that the serpent in the Garden of Eden seduced both Adam and Eve and that both were equally guilty. Muslims often cite this teaching in defense against assertions that Islam is inherently sexist.

LIFE OF MUHAMMAD

No understanding of Islam is complete without knowledge of Muhammad, who was not, as Muslims reckon it, the founder of Islam. Rather, they hold, he was guided by God to help humanity return to the original, true religion.

Muhammad was born about 570 in Makkah in what now is Saudi Arabia. Europe was entering the Dark Ages. Throughout the world, empires were collapsing, new societies emerging and religions spreading. The region's dominant religions were polytheistic, worshipping many deities.

Orphaned by age 6, Muhammad was raised by his grandfather and by his uncle after his grandfather died. Muhammad grew up to be a thoughtful, honest businessman who eschewed worship of tribal gods. He married and became the father of six children, two of whom died young.

At 40, he retreated to a cave outside Makkah to meditate. It was there, Islam teaches, that the angel Gabriel visited him and communicated the first of God's words to him. Muhammad continued to receive these revelations from God for the remaining 23 years of his life.

God instructed Muhammad to convey the message of Islam to the people of his region. This was not easily done. Muhammad asked the people to abandon their many idols and recognize Allah as the one God. He was met with reactions ranging from amusement to anger.

Muhammad also taught two revolutionary principles -- that Islam was the source not just of spiritual authority but also political authority and that the bond uniting people should not be tribe but shared religion.

Lippman writes that dissenters taunted Muhammad with demands that he work miracles to demonstrate authenticity. Muhammad claimed that only Allah could perform miracles. Muhammad insisted that every aspect of nature was an example of God's power. This did little to win converts.

After 11 years of mounting hostility, Muhammad and his small band of followers emigrated to the city of Yathrib, about 200 miles away. There he had better luck, and people embraced his teachings.

Muhammad established himself as the city's political leader and promulgated Islamic teachings. The city was renamed Madinah, meaning "city of the prophet." After several years, Muhammad and his followers returned to Makkah, conquered it and established Muhammad as both religious and political leader of his people. By the time he died at age 63, Islam was established throughout the Arabian peninsula.

Within a century of Muhammad's death, Islam had spread, as much by military conquest as voluntary conversion, west to Spain and Portugal and northeast to Central Asia, establishing Islam as a formidable world empire. Islamic rule also pushed into northern Africa and other parts of the Mediterranean basin within the first 20 years of its establishment.

With every advance, Islam adopted and adapted features of many other cultures. By the Middle Ages, Islam was established in parts of Europe, for example, Spain in the west and the former Yugoslavia in the east.

In the 1500s, Hispano-Arab Muslim explorers arrived in America from Spain. In the early 1700s, the slave trade brought the first Muslims -- captured African slaves -- to this part of the world. By the end of the 19th century, free Muslim immigrants were reaching North America from the Middle East and other Muslim lands.

Today, more than 1,300 years after Muhammad, Islam continues to thrive, a growing, global religion with a powerful ideology that now binds one-fifth of the human race in a common system of beliefs.

Women's Rights and Islam

Traveling through the Islamic world, visitors notice that the status of women changes drastically from country to country. Westerners question why women in many Middle Eastern countries cover their heads and most of their bodies. They question the nature of freedom where women have very little political power or social clout.

In many cases, the differences are based on local custom only. Wearing veils, for example, is not required by the Koran but in some places is local custom. Other than Islam's requirement that women dress modestly, most Muslim women are free to dress and to behave like women of any other religion.

Historians note that, before the rise of Islamic culture in the 7th century, women in much of the world had few rights and were considered little more than chattel. Against that background, the Koran and Islamic tradition were positively revolutionary in teaching that men and women are spiritually equal and that women have the right to own and inherit property, seek divorce, gain an education, retain one's family name after marriage and the right to vote.

Muslims such as Rkia Cornell, who teaches Asian and African languages and literature at Duke University, argue that "every culture is inherently sexist to some degree." Cornell insists that, as a Muslim woman, she still has the freedom to control her own life. "Muslim women historically have had a strong role in Islamic society."

What some see as oppressive, Muslims view as protective. While Americans may regard a Muslim woman's attire as stifling, Muslims may view the way American women generally dress as sexist and compromising.

Nation of Islam

The Nation of Islam is a controversial organization in the United States. Formed by Elijah Poole (who later took the name Elijah Muhammad) in the 1930s, the group gained momentum during the civil rights movement in the 1950s. Formed in response to white racism, the Nation advocates separation from white society.

Despite its name, the movement is not accepted by mainstream Muslims as truly Islamic.

"Because the Nation holds that Elijah Muhammad was a prophet of God and that his mentor, W.D. Fard, was God incarnate, the Nation cannot be considered a branch or subset of Islam by mainstream Muslims," writes Susan Douglass of the Council on Islamic Education.

"Such beliefs are contrary to basic doctrines and tenets of Islam as defined by the Koran and Sunnah [Islamic tradition].

Furthermore, the race-based orientation of the Nation contradicts the universalist outlook advocated by worldwide Islam."

The Nation of Islam underwent drastic changes after the death of Elijah Muhammad in 1975, with most members following his son, Wallace, now named Warith Deen Muhammad, toward an orthodox branch of Islam called "American Muslim Mission." This group does not advocate racial separation.

Another faction, led by Louis Farrakhan, kept the name Nation of Islam and many of the separatist ideas.

Mother of the Renaissance

Muslims were the inheritors and guardians of the body of knowledge that created modern society and are credited with having kept scholarship alive through the Dark Ages.

After the decline of Roman government and civic order in the 5th century, Europe turned from the wisdom of the ancient Greeks, Romans and Indians. Elsewhere, however, Islam's large universities continued to advance these intellectual interests.

Although the Renaissance, which occurred between the 14th and 16th centuries, is considered the period of revival of art, science and literature, historians say its roots can be found in the 12th and 13th centuries.

Then, medieval scholars began to question traditional ways of viewing knowledge and regained access to important classical and Islamic texts.

European scholars came to Muslim cities to use the vast libraries. They translated Arabic works into Latin and, often inadvertently, soaked up Muslim culture. This was a pivotal time as the legacies of several cultures began to mingle -- most notably, Greek, Persian, Indian, European and Islamic.

During this epoch when intellectual curiosity was at a peak, education was introduced to those outside the Catholic Church hierarchy, creating a professional class of intellectuals.

Visiting European scholars return-ed home and helped to establish universities based on what they had translated from Islamic texts and what they had experienced from their immersion in Muslim culture. As a result, large bodies of Islamic knowledge subsequently were transferred to the rest of the European world.