Like millions of other Americans brought up Christian in the first three quarters of the 20th century, I was able to live my entire childhood and youth with neither a significant personal experience with any Muslim nor even a basic knowledge of Islam. Obviously, I knew of sports figures who became Muslims and subsequently changed their names and, on the news, I heard about political events like the Iran-Iraq war or turmoil in Jerusalem/Palestine. This common ignorance of Islam began to historically change with fundamentalist Iran holding the American Embassy in Tehran hostage (11/4/1979-01/20/1981) and the bombing of American troops in Lebanon by Islamic militants (10/23/1983). During the 1990s, other terrorist acts by extreme adherents to Islam only reinforced the violent, negative image of Muslims in the mind of the typical westerner. Furthermore, with the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Hollywood had to find a new onscreen villain and in many cases Muslim radicals were chosen. So for a twenty-plus year period, Islam received more attention in the American media than in the previous eight decades, however, the portrayal was generally quite negative. One of the unusual aspects of this era is that the typical United States citizen still did not possess a basic knowledge of what Muslims believed and practiced.
The general obscurity of Islam as a religion forever changed on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Throughout the history of mankind, there has been a tendency for extremists from many different faiths to promote their agendas through violent means in the supposed name of religion. The Holy Books of Judaism, Christianity and Islam give accounts of such efforts in vivid details. The Irish Republican Army's 25 year campaign in Protestant Northern Ireland is a recent example of using terrorist acts against those of a different faith to try to gain a political advantage. Just as it would be unfair to categorize all Catholics as prone towards acts of terrorism due to a handful of extremists in the United Kingdom, so it is unjust to generalize the warped beliefs of the 9/11 terrorists as a reflection of the vast majority of true peace-loving Muslims. The fact that they did commit these acts in the name of Islam created an interest by the average American to learn more about the tenets and practices of this faith. This desire was perceived and subsequently filled by the national media. Indeed, during the first 100 days after the 9/11 attack more news, documentaries and programs on Islam were broadcast in the United States than during the previous 100 years combined. Although it can still be said that most westerners do not have a fair understanding of Islam, at least they are not as ignorant to the beliefs of Muslims as had been true in previous generations.
The events of September 11 affected individuals throughout the world in different ways. It was particularly wrenching for me because I am an American who was called to the religion of Islam. I lived 11 years in a predominantly Muslim country where the call to prayer was announced from minarets five times a day. As mentioned previously, I also had the chance to visit several other Muslim countries. I can honestly say that not once during those years did I ever recall meeting a single terrorist. In fact, I am hard-pressed to remember a single conversation where a Muslim advocated obtaining some type of political gain through violent means. On the contrary, I met some truly special individuals. My only really negative experience was when I got the film from my camera confiscated after taking an unauthorized photograph of the prime minister of Bangladesh (although, admittedly, even in that situation the security gentleman was anything but rude). If I were to give a stereotype of a real Muslim it would be someone who is very kind, generous, honest, trustworthy, and morally upright. As someone who personally experienced being taken advantage of as a visitor in London, the near fear of asking in English for directions in Paris, and being looked down upon in Germany for having Deutschland ancestry but being unable to speak the language, I have been treated as a foreigner far nicer in Muslim countries than I have in more "civilized" western nations.
To become a Muslim one must sincerely confess: There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is His prophet (messenger). The very first theological decision I had to make when I was learning about Islam was whether or not the Judeo-Christian God of the Bible was the same as the Allah of the Quran. After both research and contemplation I reached the decision that they were simply two names for the Creator of the universe. The second part of the confirmation places the person of Muhammad as the messenger of Allah. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him, d. 632) lived in Arabia among a people who worshiped many gods. The High God of the polytheists in this land was known as "the-God" or "al-Lah." The prophet preached a message of monotheism to his fellow Arabs that al-Lah was not only the High God of their pantheon but the only God truly in existence. In the Old Testament, a religious person who preached to polytheists that Yahweh was the only true Supreme Being was known as a prophet; so this term is also applicable for Muhammad. He is also commonly known as a messenger because the Quran was given to the Muslims through revelations he received over a period of twenty-three years.
There are many similarities between the beliefs of Christianity and Islam that are simply not emphasized enough by either religion. Instead of constantly dwelling on ways they are different, Christians and Muslims need to have dialogues that promote healthy understanding and cooperation between them. It will surprise many Christians to learn that even though they have traditionally felt closer to Judaism theologically (thus the title: Judeo-Christian), Islam actually has many tenets of faith which are similar to Christians but completely absent among Jews, while others are found among all three. A short list of relatable beliefs include:
- Jesus (Isa) was born to a virgin
- Jesus was sinless
- Jesus performed miracles
- Jesus was the Messiah
- Jesus was the Spirit of God
- Jesus will return to earth before the end of the world
- The Quran acknowledges both Old and New Testament prophets
- The Quran is a confirmation and a continuation of the messages found in both the Old and New Testaments
- The Quran promotes the worship of God through prayer, fasting and the giving of alms to the poor
- The Quran teaches that there is an afterlife with a heaven and a hell
The basic principle of ISAISLAM consists of incorporating acceptance of the Messiah's sacrifice for sin with the worshiping of Allah under the umbrella of Islam. Why? Although I know from experience that God can and is glorified in churches, in many ways I feel that the praise given by faithful Muslims can be a purer form of worship due to its insistence on personal participation. In a Christian church service, it is possible for an individual to sit in a pew (row), choose not to sing, pray, or give an offering while others do, not pay attention to what the preacher says, and then walk away from the "worship" service. Such passivity is impossible for a Muslim going to congregational prayers in a mosque. He must wash before praying, say certain prayers aloud, physically show his submission to Allah by kneeling before Him, and greet fellow Muslims afterwards. He must also fast during the month of Ramadan from sunrise to sunset, an expression of sacrifice and self-discipline that is anything but passive.
Before closing this section, I would also like to mention the role of women in Islam, since that is another area of misinterpretation commonly emphasized by the western media. Not all Muslim women wear a black gown (burqa) although a considerable number choose to wear a headscarf (hijab). What is important is that Islam teaches modesty in actions and dress between men and women who are not related. In a mosque the women pray behind (or above) the men so that their posteriors will not be viewed by males while bowing before Allah. When women come to a mosque they always do so with appropriate and modest clothing. This contrasts with what takes place in many Protestant churches, where young ladies with make-up on sing on a platform in front of men while some girls in the youth group may choose to wear tight blouses and shorts. If pure worship requires not only participation but concentration on Allah, with as few social distractions as possible, then that can be accomplished easier in a mosque than in a church. Thus, isaISLAM.