Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on Islam

 

I lecture widely on Islam, conflicts in the Muslim world, and women. 

Here are answers to some of the most oft-repeated questions.

 

Are there 72 virgins in Paradise?

Heaven in the Islamic faith does not include 72 wide-eyed sex goddesses. The Arabic word for ‘virgin’ is a mistranslation; the original word is ‘raisin’ or ‘closest companions’ according to Muslim scholars, not virgins. The number ‘72’ does not appear anywhere in the Quran. Nor does the word “suicide” (intihar in Arabic) appear, which is a word used interchangeably with martyrdom. The confusion that exists arises over one oral tradition by Imam Tirmidhi. He cleverly crafted the “72 virgins” that has now become instilled in the minds of radicalized and misinformed Muslim men. The real tragedy is that so few scholars have accepted that this controversy exists or have failed to challenge the misinterpreted verse “of the 72 virgins” in the Quran. You can read more here.

 

What does Islam stand for?

Literally, Islam is the Arabic word for surrender and obedience to the will of God. Followers of Islam are called Muslims, who follow the same tradition as the Judeo-Christian figures Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus—all of whom preceded Muhammad, the last and final Prophet. Muslims believe in the five pillars of Islam: the testimony of faith (There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His messenger), prayer, fasting, zakat, and the Haj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. To learn more, click here.

 

What’s the difference between a Sunni and a Shia?

Sunni and Shia Muslims share the most basic beliefs of Islam. However, they differ on the question of leadership and political authority. Their political differences have spawned internecine conflict, civil wars, and regional crises. The split between Sunnis and Shias dates back to the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 AD. At the age of sixty-three, the messenger of Islam fell ill and as his sickness worsened, the whole of Arabia began to question: if Muhammad died, who would succeed him? Who would take over? Who would lead?

It might have been simple if Muhammad had sons. But his sons died in infancy and he had four daughters from his loving first wife, Khadija. When the Prophet passed, the Muslim community elected their first leader, Abu Bakr, who was Muhammad’s closest friend and an elderly statesman. Some Muslims believed that Ali, Muhammad’s first cousin and his adopted son as well as his son-in-law—the Prophet’s nearest male relative—should have been the first leader or the Caliph. Read more.

 

Do women have rights in Islam?

Before Islam, women and girls had no rights. Pagan Arab tribes governed women and girls. Tribal men believed in female infanticide, for example, and men traded their wives like cattle. After Islam, Prophet Muhammad honored women by giving them the freedom of choice: women have the right to choose a spouse, inherit property, fight in battle, earn a living and much more. “Whatever men earn, they have a share in that and whatever women earn, they have a share in that,” according to the Quran (4:32). And in marriage, a girl has the right to say yes or no.

Among His Signs is this, that he created for you mates from among yourselves, that they may dwell in tranquility with them, and He has put love and mercy between your hearts. Verily in that are signs for those who reflect.” (Quran 30:21)

Muslim women considered the Prophet the first feminist for granting them dignity at a time when women were disgraced and defamed by local tribes. Therefore, Islam’s message for women was revolutionary at the time (610 AD) and the religion uplifted women from the status of underprivileged and poor to reverence and respect. After Islam, women gained the honorific title of ‘mothers of the believers’ and were prized persons of faith, not the petty possessions of men.

Today, across the Muslin world, different countries treat women differently. One female Muslim scholar says that some Muslim women are oppressed by men, which does not come from Islam but from laws made by men. For example, some countries’ family law marginalizes women by confining women to the private space (the home) and prevents them from entering the public space. Honor killings, child marriage, easy and unfair divorce, and rape are abuses committed by some men in the name of Islam. However, these savage acts are unjustified and unwarranted by Islamic scripture. Abusive men are held accountable by Islamic law for this extreme behavior.

The Quran is clear on speaking out against injustice and ending oppression (5:8; 42:42-43), as well as reminding victims of abuse to seek help and find a place on God’s earth free of oppression (4:97).

 

 What is Shariah?

Shariah is a broad term that refers to moral and religious law. Literally, the Arabic word means a path to be followed. The scholars’ collection of fatwas, including their alternative interpretations and opinions on any point of law based on a wide range of ethical-moral principles, is called the Shariah. In the West, the Shariah conjures images of cut hands for theft, flogging for adultery, and mandatory veiling for Muslim women.

However, in truth, the Shariah is richly diverse, containing a matrix of opinions and judgments by scholars known to be God’s law. The defenders of the Shariah seek to reformulate Islam as a simple, rational and easily applicable faith. For centuries, the Sharia served as a symbolic guide to Muslims and those who upheld it were guardians of the people in any given society—it was a powerful symbol of Islamic identity. Read more.

 

What is jihad?

Jihad is a living, breathing concept. The Arabic root word of jahada means struggle or effort. The greatest jihad is a personal, spiritual struggle of each Muslim to do good and forbid evil. The Prophet Muhammad famously said, “The best jihad is the one who strives against his own self,” known as jihad bil nafs (jihad of the Self). Jihad of the pen or jihad bil qalam refers to the struggle to learn—to acquire knowledge and spread it to others.

Jihad of the sword or jihad bil sayf is a specific reference to ‘defensive warfare’ that gave permission to the first Muslims to fight when and only if they were attacked by the enemy. The Quran says, “Fight in the way of God those who fight against you; and do not exceed the limits. Verily Allah does not love those who exceed (the limits).” (2:190). God allows Muslims to defend their homes and honor but warns against aggression—Muslims are told not to exceed the limits. Thus, jihad is a system of checks and balances that ensures transgression does not occur. Several verses in the Quran make this clear: “And did not Allah check one set of people by means of another, the earth would indeed be full of mischief; but Allah is full of Bounty to all the worlds.” (2:251)

Western media accounts of jihad as ‘holy war’ is inaccurate and misleading. Jihad is not a violent concept nor is it a declaration of war against other religions. This usage of jihad as ‘holy war’ is a call for Muslims to fight against non-Muslims and other secular Muslims in the name of religion. This is not unique to Islam. Other faiths have used religious justifications to wage wars against other faith-based followers.

 

What is a fatwa?

First, a fatwa is a legal pronouncement issued by a highly regarded expert in Islamic law, also called a mufti. Fatwas can relate to a specific issue and/or a singular intention. It is non-binding although the Muslim community is expected to follow a mufti’s ruling.

Second, muftis are chosen. To be a mufti, a scholar needs to meet the following qualifications: know the Quran, Islam’s holy book; learn the hadith, a body of literature containing the sayings and deeds by the Prophet Muhammad; master the Arabic language, including syntax, morphology, grammar, idioms, linguistics, and rhetoric; know the scholars’ legal precedents including arguments or consensus on a given topic; distinguish between supportive and oppositional verses in the Quran; and know the culture and customs at the time of the Prophet and succeeding generations.

Undoubtedly, only a few gifted men and women will be able to meet the essential requisite for a mufti. An additional prerequisite is an understanding of the context and culture of the community to which a scholar resides. After all, no two fatwas are alike nor will they be relevant to everyone. For example, a fatwa issued in Indonesia may be irrelevant to Muslims in Ireland. Read more.

 

Are there fatwas (rulings) against violence?

To counter violent extremists, moderate muftis have released rulings to denounce violence. In a recent fatwa titled “This Is Not The Path To Paradise,” world-renowned Mauritanian Muslim scholar Sheikh Abdallah bin Bayah believes in fighting the idea of violence by cultivating the culture of peace in the Islamic heritage. “If you don’t defeat the ideas intellectually, then the ideas will remerge,” he said. In the same spirit, American scholar and Shaykh Hamza Yusuf refuted ISIS and their idea of establishing a Caliphate in a recorded Friday sermon.

Increasingly, Muslim countries and councils are coming together to dishonor violent fatwas with new rulings to promote peace, mercy and coexistence. Consider the following: in 2016, speakers at the Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies Forum in Abu Dhabi dismissed the Caliphate system and debased the extremists’ call to the Caliphate as a scam to lure the youth; the scholars agreed that correcting misconceptions about Islam is the only way to debunk extremists’ policies and practices aimed to divide Muslims. In 2015, Morocco’s Council of Scholars issued a fatwa against terrorism after the Paris attacks—the fatwa stated that violence and coercion is alien to Islam. The same year, the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada issued a historic fatwa on joining ISIS/ISIL—their fatwa became the first formal document to use Islamic law to debase the extremists’ arguments for waging war.

Earlier, in November 2009, Jordan’s King Abdullah II convened an international Islamic conference with 200 of the world’s leading scholars to draft three key points in a document called The Amman Message; their fatwa abased the declarations of apostasy or takfir, a common concept used by extremist groups to declare war on Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

 

If Islam is peaceful, then why do some Muslims kill?

Violent extremists are ignorant of Islam. They have misread, misunderstood and misapplied the Quran and the hadith literature, a collection of sayings about the life of Prophet Muhammad.

Extremist groups’ practice of Islam is based on principles of justice, jihad and Jannah (or Paradise), all of which are misplaced in a violent context to achieve the political goal of creating a Muslim state. Aside from killing non-Muslims, extremists have killed more Muslims in local and regional conflicts. Extremists justify violent attacks against Muslims by claiming that they are not Muslim enough, denouncing them as apostates for their relationship with non-Muslim leaders and peoples.

 In addition to their ignorance of Islam, extremists are motivated by multiple factors. The political driver is the denial of basic political rights and civil liberties as well as widespread corruption in poorly governed and ungoverned areas. Another key driver is the presence of protracted, violent local conflicts as well as new conflicts with autocratic regimes. Individual motivations point to personal grievances that could include revenge and ideological fervor. With nearly twenty years of research, I have argued that the drivers of violence will vary from one individual to the next and one conflict to the next. Despite these differences, key patterns exist to help explain why some Muslims kill. To read more, see Invisible Martyrs.

 

What is the meaning of martyrdom in Islam?

In Islam, a martyr is a person who makes the ultimate sacrifice by being a witness to God’s laws. When a martyr dies in God’s way, he/she is called a ‘shaheed’ which means an ‘eyewitness.’ For their sacrifice, the Quran describes rewards for the martyr: And never think of those who have been killed in the case of God as dead. They are alive and they are with their Lord receiving provision.” (3:169).

Martyrdom is founded on moral and ethical convictions; it is never based on killing and being killed. Nor is a martyr one who commits suicide.

The concept of suicide is strictly forbidden in Islam.

The Quran says, “Do not take any human life, which God has declared as sacred, other than in the pursuit of Justice.” (6:151)

The Prophet of Islam set strict guidelines for warfare that did not include killing or attacking innocent civilians. Those rules prohibited collateral damage and he instructed his followers to protect women, children, non-combatants, the elderly, animals, and nature. Contrary to Islam, violent extremists create their own rules for warfare to include suicide attacks, beheadings, and assassinations. The extremists’ myopic definition of martyrdom is unsupported by the Prophet and forbidden in the Quran.

To learn more, read the social psychology of martyrdom by Cassie Brandes.

 

 What does the Quran say about mercy?

Forgiveness is a beautiful concept that has a deeper meaning in Islam. Among God’s attributes are Ar-Rahman or “The Most Gracious” and Ar-Rahim or “The Most Merciful.” Every verse in the Quran begins with the words of mercy. Bismillah Ar-Rahman Ar-Rahim (In the Name of God, The Most Gracious, The Most Merciful).

The Quran describes God’s mercy in every living creature and creation, including the air and water that are essential for our survival. My Mercy embraces all things. (Quran 7:156).

God’s mercy is endless and the believer is rewarded for showing compassion to others. According to a famous saying by Prophet Muhammad, “The merciful are shown mercy by the All-Merciful. Show mercy to those on earth and He Who is in Heaven will show mercy on you.” Muslims believe God sent the Prophet as “a mercy to the worlds.” (Quran 21:107)

 

 

 

 

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