I have lived in the US for my entire life where the dominant religion is Christianity. I am a Coptic and Greek Orthodox Christian and I have never thought about what it would be like to be of a minority religion. I will not deny that being Orthodox is difficult in the US. Many people do not know what Orthodoxy is and some people do not believe we are Christians at all (which in fact we are, but that is another discussion). For the last 4 months, I have lived in a country that is predominantly Muslim and now I am the minority. The roles have been switched and I have decided that I will take advantage of it and learn as much as I can about the Islam.
I know that many people at home know very little about the religion, and I think it would be ignorant of me not to write on this, keeping in mind that this blog is an outreach project. The blog as a whole is supposed to teach people about Egypt and the Middle East including the different aspects of life in comparison to back home. So the point of this post is to be objective and report on the core beliefs and a brief history of mainstream Islam. The point is not to dispute the beliefs against my own or to engage in a political discussion. Also I do not in any way call myself an expert, so I apologize in advance if I offend anyone or if I have misunderstood or misinterpreted anything along the way. I will not address all of the beliefs due to my limited knowledge, but if you have more questions, I would urge you to read or ask someone who will know more than I do.
Islam is about 1400 years old and a quarter of the world’s population from every corner of the earth are believers and followers. It is the third Abrahamic religion of the world proceeded by Judaism and Christianity. The main belief that one must completely embrace is that there is only one God and Mohammad is his prophet. Being an Abrahamic religion, Muslims believe in many of the Old Testament prophets. Jesus Christ is also regarded as a prophet. The main difference between Christianity and Islam on the beliefs surrounding Jesus are that of his death. In Islam, Jesus was taken straight to heaven by God, rather than dying on the cross and rising from the dead.
Mohammad is the last of the prophet and God appeared to him by means of the Angle Gabriel through revelations or visions. During these visions, Mohammad was given the word of God also known today as the Qur’an, which he memorized and passed down to his followers. The Qur’an is considered to be one of the greatest miracles, because Mohammad was illiterate and the Qur’an was passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth for about 200 years before it was written down on paper.
There are five pillars that Muslims are to follow. The first is the testimonial and believing that there is only one God and Mohammad is his prophet, like I had mentioned before. The second is prayer. There are five main prayers a day. The mosque is the place of prayer, although not every prayer must be done in the mosque. Friday is considered to be a holy day and people go to the mosque to pray and learn. In predominately Muslim countries, mosques are found quite frequently and they have speakers that are used to make the call for the five prayers every day. The third pillar is alms-giving, for those who are able to give a portion of their wealth. The fourth is fasting. During one month of the year, the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast for the daylight hours from all food or drink. It is considered to be one of the only thing the God specifically ask of His followers. The fifth and final pillar is the pilgrimage. For all Muslims who are able to, they are to travel to the city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia at least one time in their lifetime. Mecca is considered that holiest city because it is the birthplace of Mohammad and where the first vision from God took place.
Islam spread very quickly following the time of Mohammad, and the Islamic state was born (please keep in perspective that this was during the mid-600s A.D.) After his death, came the Golden Age of Islam that lasted about 30 years. During the Golden Age came the four Rightly Guided Caliphs: Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali. After the Rightly Guided, came the era of dynasties that ruled the land until the Ottomans took control. There was much dispute over Ali becoming one of the caliphs. He was only accepted by part of the population and from this dispute came the biggest division in Islam between the Sunni and the Shi’a (who supported Ali).
There was no concept of separation between religion and government. According to one of my professors, the biggest assumption at the time was that life was governed by a specific set of thoughts—the Islamic way of life. This assumption was true up till the 19th century. Today, we see that there is a clear division between the majority of Muslims who have refuted this concept and those who still believe it strongly. This division is especially clear after the Arab Spring revolutions and the rise of terrorist groups like ISIS or DASH.
The concept of Sharia Law or Islamic law is also an important concept to discuss. A professor who I have this semester explained that Sharia Law comes from five main source—(1) the Qur’an (the sacred word of God), (2) the Hadith (the second most important book in Islam. It is a collection of stories and teaching of the prophet Mohammad that was passed down by man. It is not considered sacred.), (3) Consensus of the religious scholars also known as ishma in Arabic, (4) the use of logic and being able to compare similar historical situations also known as Qiyas, and (5) interpretation also known as ishtihad.
During the early times of the Islamic Empire, Sharia Law was a major drawing point in Arab political thought. Today, there are many conflicting opinions on how incorporated Sharia Law should be in the governmental laws.
Jihad is also a major concept in Islam. The literal translation is to struggle. I learned in a history class I actually took back home at UC that there are two types of jihad. The one we here most about through the media is the struggle between men that leads to fighting and “holy wars”. The second, more common type is the inner struggles people face. Unfortunately, jihad has a very negative connotation because of its use to justify acts of terror.
Concerning women, I want to make sure that it is clear that it is not required by Islam that women are veiled with the hijab or cover their face with the niqab. It is done by choice and interpretation. In Middle Eastern countries, the hijab and the niqab are quite common. There is a debate on whether or not the veil and the niqab are a violation of human rights. In countries like France they have made it illegal to wear the niqab. If you are interested here is a very interesting debate between two Muslim women and their conflicting views on situation in France.
Before I end this blog post, I want to make sure that you readers understand there is a difference between Islam as a religion and Islamism, the political ideology. Islamism and Islamists represent Islam as a political strategy which very much of the time is an extreme and radical view of the religion. Above, I have discussed Islam as a religion disregarding the political forces that are driving the western media today. There is a distinction between the two and I think that is very evident in the Arab Spring revolutions, particularly in Egypt. It took only a year or so for the Egyptian people, who are again predominately Muslim, to oust the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist political party, from power. There is a false assumption, specifically in the West, that all Muslims are Islamist. I personally have never believed this, but after living in Egypt, I know that without a doubt the assumption is wrong.
There is a very interesting debate that took place in Oxford earlier this year that I would encourage you all to watch. It is a bit lengthy, but it shows the two main opinions on Islam: the general Western opinion and the mainstream Muslim. The debate is to answer this main question: Is Islam a religion of war or a religion of peace? I learned a lot from it and I know you will no matter what side of the debate you support. If you do not have time to watch the whole thing at least watch the speaker the starts at about 40:20. This part of the video was circulated by some of the friends I made at AUC. I think the speaker does a very good job at distinguishing between Islam and Islamism.
I hope you all learned something from this blog. For those of you wondering, I got most of my information from classes that I have taken, people I have talked to here in Egypt, different tours that I have taken while here, and from the debate I told you all about.
I think it is important that we as educated people learn as much as we can about the world around us. I also believe that no matter what religion you believe in or if you do not believe in one at all, we should all learn about each other. And learn about each other in an objective sense with as little bias as we can. It doesn’t matter if you are atheist, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. We should be interested in understanding and respecting one another.
Thanks for reading!