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Islam: A religion of many faces, misconceptions

Discussion / Activity

September 28, 2001 Posted: 3:54 PM EDT (1954 GMT)
The Great Mosque in Mecca
The Great Mosque in Mecca  

By Helyn Trickey

(CNN) -- Why do they hate us? It's a question Professor Yvonne Haddad hears over and over in her classes at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. following the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Haddad teaches the history of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations at the University.

She finds there are no easy answers to her student's inquiries, and there seem to be as many misconceptions as questions about the Islamic religion and those who are faithful to its doctrine Muslims.

CNN's Bill Delaney examines the relationship between Christians and Muslims in America (September 28)

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It is not as if a religion can hate, Haddad says from her office in Washington.

Grouping all Muslims together into one category and labeling them terrorists is just wrong, she adds.

According to Haddad, nearly 1.1 billion people worldwide are Muslim, and close to 6 million of them live in the United States.

The people who worship in the Islamic tradition are as varied as the nations where they live. The nation with the largest Muslim population is Indonesia, which has nearly 100 million followers of Islam, says Haddad.

Pillars of Islam
Islam: Key facts

But Islam has a big presence in other nations around the world like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Turkey, Iran and even Nigeria. Muslims can be found from the West Coast of Africa to the Philippines.

The Islamic religion is the second largest faith on the planet next to Christianity, and the tradition shares some of the same core beliefs to which Jews and Christians subscribe.

Sharing the same God

"Islam is a religion in the line of Judaism and Christianity. It believes in the same God," says Haddad.

Islam, which literally means, "surrender to God," recognizes Jesus as a prophet, but credits the prophet Muhammad, born in about A.D. 570, with founding the religion.

According to Islam, Muhammad had a life-changing religious experience when, at the age of 40, he had a vision of the angel Gabriel.

Gabriel told Muhammad to spread the word of Allah, or the One God, to the Arabs. To guide him, the angel gave Muhammad the Koran, or the literal word of God.

The Koran is the Muslim equivalent of the Christian Bible or the Jewish Torah.

The way the Koran is interpreted is a dividing point in the Islamic religion. The majority of Muslims believe the Koran needs no interpretation and can be taken at its word. They are called Sunni Muslims.

Those who believe The Koran must be interpreted by a religious figure are called Shiite Muslims, and make up only about 15 percent of the total Muslim population, Haddad says.

Struggle for justice

The tenets of the religion require its followers to lead virtuous lives that embody humility, generosity and courage.

"There is a great deal about justice in the Koran," says Haddad.

In order to live an honorable life, Muslims' greatest calling is the jihad, or struggle, to constantly veer away from evil and continue "the daily struggle to maintain a righteous life," Haddad says.

A smaller jihad placed on Muslims is the theory of war, says Haddad.

Information on Afghanistan, Pakistan, bin Laden  

What happened on September 11?  

"It is based on a verse in the Koran which sanctions fighting. Fighting is prescribed on you when you are persecuted for your faith. It is your duty to defend yourself and the faith," she says.

Haddad emphasizes that the Koran does not advocate violence against those who do not believe in Islam, rather it advocates violence only as a defense mechanism.

Self-sacrifice and religion

Another common misconception about Islam is the idea that Muslims are fanatical religious martyrs, Haddad says.

Indeed, the idea of sacrificing your life for a principle is prevalent in most religions including Christianity and Judaism

Haddad compares the Muslim idea of self-sacrifice to the story of Samson in the Old Testament.

Samson was fighting the oppression of the Philistines and brought down the pillars of the house on his enemies, sacrificing himself along with the Philistine leaders.

"Samson is considered a hero" by both Jews and Christians, she says.

• Georgetown University Library's Guide to Research Religions

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Updated September 21, 2002

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