Understanding Islam: Scholars Demystify Religion

by Adriane Foss (Editor's note: Adriane Foss is the associate editor of the Fort Knox "Inside the Turret" newspaper.)

Dr. Dave Damrel teaches world religion, specializing in Islamic civilizations and religious traditions, at Arizona State University. He is one of many scholars, politicians, and religious experts who are desperate to get one point across after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S.:

Islamic terrorism is a contradiction in terms.

Despite the fact that 7 million of the 1 billion world-wide followers of Islam live in the United States -- and most are not of Middle Eastern origin -- the U.S. public continues to associate the Islamic faith and Muslims (followers of the faith) with terrorism, said Damrel.

"It's because when people think of Islam, they have all these automatic stereotypes of Muslims dressed a certain way, of the dessert, of camels, and all these outdated stereotypes," Damrel said in a telephone interview.

But, he said, Muslims are as varied as the countries they inhabit, pointing out that the vast majority of believers live in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

"To be a Muslim is a religious choice, just like Christians come in every conceivable background," Damrel said. "One of my Muslim students said that when you hear news about the violence in Northern Ireland, you never hear them mentioned as Roman Catholic (or Protestant) terrorists. They talk about the Irish and the British fighting. This is no different."

According to Amir Hussain, a Muslim and professor of religious studies at California State University Northridge, about one-third of the Muslims in the United States are Middle Eastern, one-third African-American, and one-third South Asian.

Islam is one of the fastest growing religions in the world, he said, ranking second behind Christianity. Its 1.2 billion followers make up a quarter of the world's population, and American Muslims now outnumber the nation's Episcopalians.

The word "Islam" gets its meaning from the Arabic word for submission to God, peace, and purity. Closely related to Judaism and Christianity, it is a monotheistic faith.

"It's seen as having a kind of family relationship with both religions, meaning that all three share critical religious figures, as well as ideas and world views," said Damrel.

Islam shares the God of the Christian and Hebrew bibles, and all three faiths recognize prophetic figures Abraham, Noah, Iassac, David, Jacob, and Jesus, among others.

Muslims believe that Allah-the Arabic word for God-revealed his message to a 7th century merchant named Muhammad, who is said to have received these revelations through the messenger angel Gabriel and recorded them into the Qu'ran (Muslim bible). These sacred scriptures are considered to be the unedited and literal word of Allah.

Devoutly religious, Muslims are encouraged to pray five times a day in order to maintain a continual and humble relationship with Allah. All Muslims recognize the Five Pillars or requirements of their faith:

Shahadah. The declaration that there is no other God besides Allah and Muhammad is his prophet.

Salah. Praying five times a day while facing Mecca, Islam's holiest city because that is where Allah and his word were revealed to Muhammad.

Sawm. Fasting during the ninth month of the lunar calendar.

Zakat. Taking care of the poor and less fortunate. Many of those who are able are asked to give two and a half percent of their income to charity.

Hajj. Making a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once time in a lifetime, if finances allow.

Islam considers murder to be a grievous sin. Experts say the Qu'ran is quite clear on that fact. One scripture notes that a person taking another person's life is the same as taking the life of mankind, and a person who saves the life of one person is the same as saving the life of mankind.

Even the murder of enemy soldiers is considered sinful if not committed in self-defense, and "for some Muslims, those who commit suicide are no longer considered a Muslim," said Damrel.

For that reason, many followers of Islam insist that the suicide bombers who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks are not true Muslims.

"Muslims prize human life, and strive to live in a fair and just society," said Damrel. He also noted that all of the major Muslim organizations in the U.S. and Europe voiced strong and immediate condemnation of the perpetrators in the Sept. 11 attacks.

Rather than think of the terrorist attacks in religious or ethnic terms, Damrel said it should be considered a political struggle in which "one side is using some of the symbols and language of Islam for political purposes, but not really expressing the truth of Islam.

"But it's important to remind everybody how much of a minority position that is. These groups are about as representative of Islam as the KKK is representative of Christians."

Damrel said Osama bin Laden -- a Saudi-born Islamic radical and No. 1 suspect for planning the attacks against America -- doesn't represent the formal Muslim faith.

"Basically, Islam is a religion that has many of the same values as conservative Christianity", said ASU professor Dr. Mark Woodard, who has lived and traveled throughout several Muslim nations.

"It places a great deal of emphasis on personal piety and personal and public morality. You're not supposed to drink and other things like that. Basic Muslim values would go over real well with Southern Baptists."

Despite the similarities, Woodward said within two weeks of the bombings, a prejudicial backlash against Arab-looking persons has caused many of his students to pack up and return to their homes overseas. Most were urged home by parents who feared for the students' lives.

"Particularly after the report about the fellow who was shot in Phoenix," said Woodward, referring to an Indian gas station attendant who fell victim to ethnic stereotyping after the attacks.

"He was not an Arab. He was not even Muslim," said Woodward, "but Indians wear the (traditional clothing) and turbans."

He explained that the cause behind recent terrorist activity dates back to the 1950s.

"They have defined the governments of almost all Arab states as non-believers, as non-Muslims, because of their affiliation with either Western or Soviet powers and therefore, they say that it is the duty of Muslims to struggle against these Arab governments and the foreign powers that support them," he said.

This struggle is known as a "jihad", which literally means struggling or striving. Commonly called a holy war, a more accurate term would be holy struggle, said Woodward.

In the more common religious sense, a jihad is described by the Qu'ran and Muhammad's teachings as the internal struggle to be a good Muslim.

"This is the greater jihad, which is a spiritual struggle against our own imperfection," said Woodward, "and it's almost mystical in nature."

The lesser jihad is the religious duty of the Muslim community to defend itself when attacked. The Qu'ran teaches that the defense of God and religion is a supreme task, but when a jihad is declared to protect the faith against others, it may be carried out using economic, political, diplomatic, or legal means. When no peaceful resolution can be found, it may take the form of a military campaign.

Even then, scholars agree that there are strict rules of engagement. Because Allah is sovereign over all things, state affairs also fall under religious law. Therefore, a jihad can only be declared by a religious cleric, or scholar, said Damrel.

"For example, during the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein tried to motivate a jihad, but no one took him very seriously because they know he's not a religious scholar," said Damrel.

In the case of the Al Qaeda, a terrorist organization led by bin Laden, very precise reasoning is used to defend its terrorist activities in the name of Islam.

"This is the scary part, because it means the people who do these things genuinely accept this as their religious duty," he said.

Woodward, after reading some of bin Laden's writings, explained his rationale this way:

"Because the people of the U.S. knew about a whole series of atrocities, including the Gulf War, our support of Israel during the 1967 war in Palestine, and outrageous horror stories and lies about American soldiers barbecuing and eating Somalian children.

"He says because we knew about and chose to do these things, we are all combatants. And therefore it's okay to kill us. There are no innocents in the U.S."

Those are not the thoughts of a madman, said Woodward.

"This is very important, because in the general sense, it's very clear," he said. "The killing of innocents is forbidden. This is not a crazy person like mad bomber Ted Kazinsky. This is a carefully constructed philosophy, strongly associated with the American presence in Saudi Arabia," where approximately 5,000 American troops have remained since the end of the Gulf War.

Many of bin Laden's Anti-American sentiments were fueled after he returned to his Saudi Arabian homeland in 1991 following his efforts against the Russians in Afghanistan.

U.S. troops had been sent to the region to help liberate Kuwait from Iraq. When Iraq initially invaded Kuwait, bin Laden informed the royal family that he and the mujahedin, a group of Arab rebels, were capable of defending the kingdom. Instead, the government sought U.S. military protection and invited into its border thousands of American soldiers.

Bin Laden has also attributed the country's alleged failing economy to the Western forces.

Since then he has been exiled to Afghanistan, where he is believed to fund terrorist training camps and oversee dozens of terrorist groups throughout the world. He continues to live in Afghanistan under the protection of the extremist Taliban government, which took control of the country during a military coup.

"I'm very certain that there is a large number of Muslims serving in the American military," said Woodward, "and they're going to be there fighting, shoulder to shoulder, with everybody else.

"The thing for everyone to remember is that bin Laden's view is one that less than one-tenth of one percent of the world's Muslims share."

Woodward said he has received legal writings via e-mail signed by 75 Muslim scholars, some of those who are strongly opposed to U.S. foreign policy. Yet all denounced the recent attacks.

He said a note from former Indonesian president Abdurahman Wahidk read: "Bin Laden is not doing anything that he has not done before, but I can't understand why he has associated it with Islam."

Source:  Army News Service