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Some Questions and Answers About Islam

What's the best day for learning more about something? Today, of course. Here we reprint some questions and answers about Islam, courtesy of the "Discover Channel" web site. The answers are provided by expert Jean AbiNader of the Arab American Institute.

Q: What does the word "Islam" mean?

A: Islam from its root means "peace," and is derived from the same source as the word "shalom" in Hebrew. A more literal translation is entering into a condition of peace and security through God.

Q: Do Muslims want to force all others to adopt their religion?

A: No. According to the Qur'an, the Muslim holy book, you cannot force an individual to become a Muslim. "There shall be no compulsion in religion."

Q: Does Islam permit the killing of people who disagree with the religion?

A: No. Killing another person is unequivocally condemned in the Qur'an. It is considered a sin that leads straight to Hell.

Q: What is a jihad?

A: Militant, radical Islamic fringe groups have emphasized this term as meaning a "holy war" waged against non-Muslims. The true meaning is "to strive in the cause of God" and it is generally applied to the internal struggle of individuals to follow the laws of the Islamic religion. Through this effort Muslims attempt to show, by word and example, not through violence, that Islam is the true faith. Physical, violent war is only permitted in self-defense.

Q: Does Islam encourage terrorist acts in defense of the religion?

A: No. In fact Muhammad himself, the most important prophet in the religion of Islam, established firm rules on how a war of self-defense should be waged: "In avenging the injuries inflicted upon us, do not harm the non-belligerents in their homes; spare the weakness of women; do not injure infants at the breast, nor those who are sick. Do not destroy the houses of those who offer no resistance; and do not destroy their means of subsistence..." The Qur'an says: "Fight in the cause of God against those who fight you, but do not transgress limits. God does not love transgressors." (2:190)

Q: Islam is an intolerant religion. True or False?

A: False. The Qur'an says: "As regards those who do not fight against you because of your religion and do not drive you out of your homes, God does not forbid you to treat them with goodness and to be just to them." (60:8) It is one function of Islamic law to protect the privileged status of religious minorities, and this is why non-Muslim places of worship have flourished all over the Islamic world.

Q: How do Muslims view death?

A: Like Jews and Christians, Muslims believe that the present life is only a preparation for the next realm of existence. Basic articles of faith include: the Day of Judgement, resurrection, Heaven and Hell. When a Muslim dies, he or she is washed, usually by a family member, wrapped in a clean white cloth, and buried with a simple prayer preferably the same day.

Q: Do Christianity and Islam have different origins?

A: No. Together with Judaism, they go back to the patriarch Abraham, and their three prophets are directly descended from his sons Muhammad from the eldest, Ishmael, and Moses and Jesus from Isaac. Abraham established the settlement which today is the city of Makkah (Mecca), and built the Ka'abah towards which all Muslims turn when they pray. In fact, Christians and Jews are thus afforded a special, protected place in Islamic tradition and are known as "People of the Book."

Q: Islam is a monolithic religion that does not allow debate or discussion on matters of faith. True or False?

A: False. There are important divisions within the Muslim community, the most significant of which is the split between Shiites (about 10%) and Sunni (the majority) Muslims. There are many different interpretations of Islamic law, and there is no final doctrinal authority or clergy per se (such as the Papacy in Catholicism). Thus, when militant, fringe groups issue a fatwa or decree (such as bin Laden's injunction to kill Americans), it is in no way binding on Muslims.

Q: What does it take for a person to be able to issue a fatwah? Is Osama bin Laden a cleric, or can anyone issue one?

A: Bin Laden is a Sunni Muslim. Sunnis believe that a fatwah can only be issued by ulema religious judges sitting in council. However, in certain cases individual clerics may announce the fatwah in their name and refer it to the council.

Osama bin Laden is a self-proclaimed cleric. He may have acquired the blessings of the religious leader of Afghanistan as well. Usually, one must complete a rigorous religious training program and undergo questioning by senior ulema to become a cleric. No one knows if this has been done in bin Laden's case.

Q: If Islam is tolerant of other faiths, please explain why two young American Christian women are currently imprisoned and sentenced to death in Afghanistan for simply professing their faith?

A: The Taliban regime is not a mainstream Islamic group. Its leaders are fundamentalists who interpret the Qur'an literally. According to the Taliban, the two women are being imprisoned because they tried to convert Muslims in Afghanistan to Christianity and that is considered a religious crime in Islam. To convert to another religion from Islam is considered harram, or forbidden.

Q: Could you please tell me what the difference is between a Sunni and a Shiite Muslim?

A: There are no significant doctrinal or ritual differences between the two when it comes to the basic beliefs and practices of Islam. Sunni Muslims believe that leadership of the religion can be passed on after the prophet Muhammad only through election by elders. The Shia believe it should be passed down to Muhammad's nearest living male relative. Sunnis now make up about 85 percent of Muslims worldwide. The Shia live mostly in Iran and Lebanon; the Sunni and other minor sects are everywhere else. The two groups also differ in their interpretation of Islamic law. The Sunni are orthodox; that is, they believe that the law is immutable and cannot be changed beyond the basic texts assembled within the lifetime of the prophet Muhammad and his contemporaries. The Shia believe that the law can be interpreted to keep time with current needs. The Afghanis and the Taliban are Sunni Muslims.

Q: I would like to understand the Islamic faith better. Is there a book you would suggest reading?

A: Check our Web site at for lots of suggestions. Books and articles by John Esposito of Georgetown University's Center for Christian-Muslim Understanding are a good place to start. The Web site has lots of brief papers that are useful for all ages.

Q: Does Islam rely solely on the Qur'an for its doctrines? Do Muslims use the Old Testament in their beliefs?

A: Islam relies on three sources for the sharia, or religious law: the Qur'an, which is the primary source since Muslims consider it the revealed word of God/Allah; the Hadith, which are the sayings of the prophet Muhammad on matters of faith and life as remembered by his contemporaries; and the Sunnah, which are commentaries on the Qur'an and Hadith by Islamic scholars and jurists in the first century of Islam. Sunnis believe that the entire basis for the law then closed. Shiites believe that the Sunnah can continue to be interpreted. The Old Testament does not have a direct impact on Islamic beliefs, but parts of the Old and New Testament are contained in the Qur'an.

Q: How do Muslims view Jesus Christ?

A: He is considered a prophet, but not the son of God.

Q: Is suicide an acceptable way to achieve paradise in Islam?

A: No.

Q: Why don't other Muslims, those who adhere to the true teachings of Muhammad, speak out more actively and loudly against radical Islamic fringe groups, and why don't they do more to stop these kinds of activities?

A: As a matter of fact, all the major Muslim countries have spoken out quite harshly against the tragic events of Sept. 11, and they are very much aware that groups such as bin Laden's pose a threat to their own societies. From Tunisia and Algeria to Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and the Gulf states all have Islamic radical groups operating within their borders that they're trying to keep in check or remove. As President Bush said, it's going to take an international effort, diverse resources and a lot of time to do so. We need to help Muslim countries govern in ways that strengthen ties with their people, not alienate them. And we need to have U.S. policies in place that do not degrade and humiliate people, which is how many in the Middle East view our policies toward the Iraqis and Palestinians.

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