Exploring Islam

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Exploring Islam

The World's Second Biggest Religion Also Is a Way of Life

In a narrow, unadorned room, about 70 women, heads covered by scarves, feet bare against carpeted floor, face a television set showing a man speaking in Arabic. The women stand, bow deeply, then get down on hands and knees and touch their foreheads to the floor.

This is not a scene in Tehran or Cairo or Istanbul but in a mosque in Northwest. Some women are in traditional loose-fitting tunics, others in smart business suits. Around the room, small children play, oblivious to their surroundings. The man on TV is actually in another part of the mosque where only males are permitted to gather for prayer.

Because the number of Muslims in the Washington area is growing faster than the space in mosques, Islam's traditional separation of men and women in different parts of a room for worship has forced the crowded mosque to use separate rooms.

In the main room, the men perform the same rites. Like the women, their motions are fluid, their prayers memorized, reenacting a 1,400-year-old ritual repeated daily by hundreds of millions of people throughout the world.

To observant Muslims, ritual prayer is as natural as sleeping or eating. Islam is not just one component of its believers' lives, a set of beliefs remembered on special occasions. Rather, for the devout, it is a way of life. Its tenets and rules permeate almost everything, often including politics and government.

In a world swayed by misunderstanding of cultural differences, Islam and its adherents often are stereotyped and caricatured, branded with the violent or sexist image of a small minority of zealots. In reality, Islam is no better characterized by acts of Middle Eastern terrorists, for example, than is Christianity by acts of Northern Ireland's terrorists.

Islam is an ancient religion with profound historical and theological ties to Judaism and Christianity. All three religions worship the same God, acknowledge large parts of the same Bible and revere Adam, Noah, Abraham and Moses. And, as do Christians, Muslims regard Jesus as the messiah.

In fact, Islam teaches that it represents the modern mainstream of a primordial, monotheistic religion that began with the earliest humans. Over millennia, the religion took form with the early Jewish prophets, was modified significantly by Jesus and finally reaffirmed by Muhammad, the final prophet, who died in 632.

Among Muhammad's most important acts was rejection of the old Jewish concept of a "chosen people." Instead, he taught that all people are born Muslim and that anyone -- regardless of color, nationality or social standing -- can join the Muslim community simply by submitting to God and reciting the words known as the shahadah: "There is no deity but Allah (God), and Muhammad is his messenger."

Because of its powerful, cross-cultural appeal, Islam has won the hearts and minds of an estimated 1.2 billion people around the world, making it the second largest religion. Christianity has about 2 billion adherents, and Hinduism is third largest with about 800 million.

Despite its association in the Western mind with things Arabic, about 85 percent of Islam's faithful are not Arabs. South Asia has the largest Muslim population, with 275 million believers. Africa is second largest, with 200 million. And, according to the American Muslim Council, China has about as many Muslims as better-known Islamic strongholds such as Iran, Egypt or Turkey. According to The Muslim Almanac, an estimated 2 percent of Americans, or about 5 million people, are Muslims.

It is difficult to determine the exact number of Muslims anywhere because they do not belong to congregations and because mosques are open to all and do not maintain membership rolls.

Quite apart from its importance to believers, Islam has performed services for which all of humanity is in its debt. When Christian Europe sank into the so-called Dark Ages for about 600 years starting in the late 5th century, Islamic scholars elsewhere maintained high standards of academic study, mathematics and scientific research.

Islamic libraries in Baghdad, Cairo and Damascus preserved the writings of ancient Greek, Roman and Indian scholars even as Europe's leaders rejected them.

While Europe languished, Islamic mariners, mathematicians, scientists, physicians and engineers made major advances in many fields. Our words algebra and algorithm, for example, were derived from Arabic. When the best European libraries consisted of a few dozen books, Islamic collections held tens of thousands.

When the Renaissance blossomed in Western Europe in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, it found a trove of ancient knowledge and new discoveries in translations from the Arabic.

Islam is an Arabic word derived from the same Semitic three-letter root -- s-l-m -- as the Hebrew word for peace, shalom, often used as a greeting. The meaning of "Islam" encompasses the concepts of peace, greeting and submission. Thus, a Muslim -- the word is derived from the same root -- is one who submits to God, a stance enunciated in the traditional profession of faith: "There is no deity but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger."

"Allah" is simply Arabic for "God," the same supreme, supernatural figure worshipped by Christians and Jews. Unlike most other religions, however, Islam has no baptism or other initiation ceremony.

"Membership in the community of Muslims is not conferred by man," Thomas W. Lippman writes in Understanding Islam. "It is acquired by a conscious act of will, the act of submission, summarized in the profession of faith."

Lippman, a Washington Post reporter who served as the paper's bureau chief in Cairo for three years, writes that "to become a Muslim, it is sufficient to make that profession sincerely in the presence of other believers, who will witness it. But to become a Muslim is also to accept a complex interlocking body of beliefs, practices and other ethical standards."

Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam has undergone splits into separate denominations. The biggest occurred shortly after Muhammad died when his followers disagreed about who should take his role as leader. One branch, called Sunni, today comprises about 83 percent of Muslims, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. The other, called Shi'ah, accounts for about 16 percent, and a few tiny groups make up the remaining 1 percent.

Although Islam has taken root in cultures as diverse as those of Egypt, China and the United States, in each region acquiring local customs not mandated by the religion -- such as women wearing veils -- Islamic scholars say Muslims everywhere share a core of basic principles, the so-called "five pillars" of the faith.

The first pillar is the profession of faith or, in Arabic, the shahadah. The Council on Islamic Education, an American organization comprising historians and academicians, calls this the central theme of Islam because many Muslims repeat it, in Arabic, several times a day to remind themselves of God's central position in their lives.

The second pillar is ritual worship, or salah. Muslims are required to pray formally five times a day -- at dawn, midday, afternoon, evening and night. At each time, a man summons believers to prayer by calling from atop the mosque's tower, or minaret, or by using loudspeakers. Those out of earshot simply rely on a watch.

Muslims may pray alone or in a group as long as they face the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca, Muhammad's birthplace and the holiest city of Islam. It is common in many predominantly Islamic countries to see Muslims performing the salah wherever they happen to be at the appropriate time. After repeating the prescribed prayer, Muslims may add a personal prayer.

Unlike most Christian or Jewish prayers, the salah requires more than words. The whole body performs the ritual. It begins as worshipers raise their hands and say "Allahu Akbar," which translates as "God is the greatest." Worshippers then bend with hands on knees, kneel with hands on thighs and finally bow their heads to touch the floor. Each motion is accompanied by verses from the Koran. A person, sometimes called an imam, may lead the service.

The third pillar is fasting, or sawm, during the month of Ramadan. Because Islam uses a lunar calendar, its year is 11 days shorter than that of the solar calendar governing most worldly affairs. As a result, Ramadan comes 11 days earlier each year. The month is sacred because, as Muslims believe, God first revealed verses of the Koran to Muhammad during Ramadan.

During Ramadan, Muslims are to refrain from eating, drinking, smoking and sex from dawn to sunset. Typically during Ramadan, Muslims have breakfast before dawn and do not eat again until after sunset.

The fourth pillar is almsgiving, called zakah in Arabic. Muslims pay a specified amount of money, typically 2.5 percent of one's accumulated wealth each year, to assist the poor and sick. The money is not to support the mosque or Islamic leaders. The Koran does not say how much should be given. In some Muslim countries, according to Lippman, it is voluntary, while in others, the government enforces it.

The fifth pillar is the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, the most recent of which occurred last month. Islam requires that every believer make at least one visit to Mecca in a lifetime if physically and financially able to do so.

The spectacular hajj now brings together more than two million Muslims in a religious gathering that has continued without interruption for about 1,400 years. Where once pilgrims came on foot or camel, sometimes after more than a year of travel, most now arrive by air.

The hajj commemorates the sacrifices, faith and obedience of Abraham; his second wife, Hagar; and their son, Ishmael, at Mecca. According to the Council on Islamic Education, it is the largest, regularly scheduled international gathering on Earth.

When the pilgrims arrive, they don special clothing. Men wear two seamless white sheets, and women usually wear a modest white dress and are prohibited from wearing veils or gloves. In this uniform attire, the pilgrims feel that they are equal before the eyes of God and that only virtue and devotion will set one apart from others.

The demanding rites and prayers last for days. At various points, worshipers must make a ritual trek, pray from noon through the following morning and stand in prayer for hours at a time. According to Islamic scholars, the pilgrims hope that God will accept their effort, after which they can commence life afresh with a slate wiped clean of sins.

This year's pilgrimage was marred by sweltering temperatures and a stampede in which more than 150 people were killed when they rushed to perform one of the last rituals known as "stoning the devil." In this, the pilgrims throw pebbles at three pillars symbolizing the temptations of Satan.

The focus of worship in Mecca is the Ka'aba, an empty, cubical stone structure covered by an embroidered black cloth in the courtyard of the Great Mosque.

Ka'aba is the source of the word "cube." The Ka'aba is believed to have been built on the site of an original made by Abraham more than 4,000 years ago, and Muslims consider it the original house of God on Earth. 




By Carolyn Ruff
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 13, 1998; Page H01


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