By Reza Nekumanesh
We are continually bombarded with negative images on social media and stories in the media about Islam and Muslims; Muslims are portrayed as terrorists and Islam is touted as a religion that promotes violence. It is for this reason that on Nov. 14, the Uprooting Racism Project and the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno held an Islamic diversity training program to combat these and other stereotypes and share with the public the true face of Islam.
Stereotype #1: Islam is an Arab religion, and most Muslims live in the Middle East.
There are more than 1.7 billion Muslims in the world with the vast majority, more than 62%, living in South and Southeast Asian countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan, India and Malaysia. The Middle Eastern and North African countries, which are most commonly referred to when discussing Islam and Muslims, make up less than 20% of the world’s Muslim population. In contrast, there are more Muslims in China and Russia than there are altogether in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain and Jordan.
It is true that the birth of the Prophet Muhammad and the religion of Islam was in the Arabian Peninsula, the holiest of places for Muslims is the Ka’aba in Makkah and the language of the Holy Qur’an and the daily prayers is in Arabic, but Islam is not an Arabic religion and most Muslims are not Arab. Like Christianity, Islam is ethnically, linguistically, culturally and racially diverse.
Stereotype #2: Islam is a monolithic religious expression.
Islam, like most other religious expressions, is varied and manifests itself in different sects, schools of thought and practice. The two major sects in Islam are Sunni and Shi’a and within these two there are differing schools of thought, four Sunni schools and one Shi’a school, Muslims generally adhere to.
However, across all these differing paths in Islam, all Muslims are united on many things. Among the common threads are the following:
All Muslims believe in one All Merciful and Powerful Creator God who sustains the creation and is unbound by time, space, gender and human understanding.
This Merciful God, because He wanted to share with us His expectations of humankind, sent a series of prophets beginning with Adam, including Noah, Moses, David, Jesus, John the Baptist and many more, and ending with the last messenger the Prophet Muhammad. Each and every prophet came with two basic teachings: 1) there is one God whom we must worship and 2) we have responsibilities toward each other as we are brothers and sisters in creation. Each prophet might have delivered the message differently and utilized different rules of law, but they all did so to come to these two points.
This life is not the end-all. Everyone is born, will die and then be brought back to life for the Day of Judgment when we will face our Creator with all of the works, good and bad, that we did in our lifetimes.
One complete and unaltered copy of the Holy Qur’an, the Divine Word of God for Muslims. Sunni, Shi’a, Sufi, Ismaili, left-wing, right-wing, Chinese, Arab, African, all have the exact same book, in Arabic word-for-word, stroke-for-stroke. Translations, of course, differ due to the human effort to understand the Divine Word, but the original Arabic that is taught and recited regardless of one’s own tongue, is consistent everywhere around the world and has been unchanged since the early 7th century when Prophet Muhammad received its revelation.
Stereotype #3: Islam is a violent religion and Muslims are terrorists.
Before I begin, I would offer up a question: If Islam taught Muslims to be violent and the Holy Qur’an commanded them to carry out acts of terror, considering that the world is more than one-fifth Muslim, would anyone today be safe or even alive?
The Holy Qur’an is full of verses with commands to be peaceful and to respect and honor all of humanity and creation. Among such beautiful verses are the following:
“O mankind, indeed We have created you from a male and a female and made you peoples and tribes that you may get to know one another.” (49:13)
“…whoever kills one soul unless for a soul (in recompense) or for corruption (done) in the land (crime and justice)—it is as if he had slain mankind entirely. And whoever saves one soul—it is as if he had saved mankind entirely.” (5:32)
“God does not forbid you to be just and to do good towards those who did not go into battle against you (over matters of faith), and did not expel you from your homes. Deal with them justly. God loves those who are just!” (60:8)
Islam, like most other world views, gives humans the right to defend lives and homes from violence and aggression. Jihad, wrongly translated as holy war, is one of the most misused terms in the world today. The word actually means to strive or struggle: against one’s own desires, against injustice and also in defense. The Prophet Muhammad actually said that “the greatest jihad is a just word to an unjust ruler.”
Peace is the default for Muslims, and only in certain circumstances does Islam allow Muslims to defend themselves. However, even in defense, the Holy Qur’an is clear that Muslims can never be the aggressors or initiators of violence: “…if they leave you alone, refrain from fighting you, and offer you peace, then God gives you no excuse to fight them” (4:90) and “you may fight in the cause of God against those who attack you, but do not aggress; God does not love those who are aggressors.” (2:190)
Firmly stated, and continuous throughout the Qur’an are three basic principles when it comes to fighting: God wants peace and commands Muslims to act harmoniously in peace with others, He only allows Muslims to fight in defense, and does not love, and is not on the side of, anyone who acts against justice and peace.
There may be groups of Muslims or individuals who carry out violence erroneously in the name of Islam, but God, Prophet Muhammad and his tradition, the Holy Qur’an, and the overwhelmingly vast majority of Muslims are all innocent of their claims and acts of barbarism. In addition, the greatest number of victims of terrorism and violence carried out by these criminals are in fact Muslims themselves.
Unfortunately, the list of Muslim stereotypes goes on and Muslims will forever have to proactively promote the true teachings of Islam and stand against those who target our faith as well as those who misuse our faith. Thanks to the Uprooting Racism Project, the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno again had the privilege of sharing a sincere and true understanding of Islam with those who attended.
Reza Nekumanesh is the director of the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno. For more information, visit www.icfresno.org, like Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno and Uprooting Racism Project on Facebook, or contact firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.