Understanding Islam

In 2005, I had an experience that changed my life when I was asked to explain the history of Islam and modern-day conflicts to hundreds of U.S. military Captains. I was invited to Maxwell Air Force Base by the Commandant and asked to deliver a lecture on why Muslims are fighting each other in the Arab world.  Why are Sunnis and Shias battling each other?  What caused the split? And how do their beliefs differ?

I remember saying to the commander: 

I am not an imam. I do not hold a degree in Islamic law and I am not fluent in Arabic.

I’ll never forget that night I spent on base in the General’s Suite. I turned on the television set and listened to a man with a powerful and kind voice, a man of reason and faith, and a man known for his megawatt smile.

Joel Olsteen caught my attention. I watched him speak with purpose and passion. He had the voice that changed hearts and minds. And so the next morning, I, like Olsteen, was determined to speak with the same purpose. 

And that’s how I delivered my very first lecture on Islam. After watching a Christian preacher say that Your time is coming. Keep looking forward. The joy is coming. Get ready for doors to open that you could not open. Keep doing the right thing. Get ready for acceleration. Get ready for favor you have not seen. Don’t get discouraged by the process. Keep passing the test. Keep doing the right thing. 

The next morning, when I was introduced, I smiled to an audience of 500+ U.S. Captains. “Assalamu alaykum” (Peace Be With You), I said and then walked off the stage to talk about Islam. 

Those were the early days of teaching the faith. I found my calling and continued to write and teach Islam when asked by the U.S. government, military and other audiences worldwide. 

Real Love in Islam

Years later, I discovered devout Muslim leaders with a voice and a message that moves the heart. From California, a Muslim convert named Mark Hanson and now Shaykh Hamza Yusuf became my spiritual guide from afar. His sermons are as emotional as they are educational. He teaches Muslims that Islam is love. 

Islam is a faith of mercy, compassion, tolerance, and forgiveness. The Shaykh says open your heart and have love for everyone. Because each person has a soul and that is reason enough to show kindness.

Understanding Islam

Shaykh Yusuf and other imams convey a message that I had believe in. A message of love and hope. 

Today, in any lecture I give on Islam, I begin with a simple, poignant question: What are some common stereotypes about Islam? Why is Islam so poorly misunderstood?

There are plenty of resources today on the most common stereotypes that continue to misguide and misinform the public. I’ve listed a few here:

  • Muslims sympathize with violent groups. The truth is most Muslims hate extremists like ISIS and Al Qaeda for several reasons, including the number of Muslims killed.
  • Muslims only follow Prophet Muhammad. Muslims believe Muhammad is the final Prophet in a line of Prophets, including Jesus and Moses. Thus, Muslims love all the messengers of God.
  • Muslims hate LGBTQ. It’s true that homosexuality is banned in Islam and Muslims may not befriend this group. However, Muslims also know that God has given each person a soul and each person deserves respect, kindness, and help, if asked. 
  • Muslims hate dogs. God created every living creature, including dogs and pigs. While Muslims are forbidden to eat pork, and many Muslims will not touch or own a dog, there is no reason to be violent towards these animals. 
  • Muslims believe fighting is real jihad. Muslims are encouraged to seek knowledge and spread it. The Greater Jihad is to learn and teach, rather than fighting useless wars for which there is no reward.

Some of these stereotypes and gross generalizations of Muslims continue to persist, despite greater engagement with the Muslim community at home and abroad. 

Ignorance is not a gift.

Today, teaching Islam is as important as studying it. One of my favorite oral traditions or hadith is this: “There is no beauty better than intellect.” 

To learn more about Shaykh Hamza Yusuf and his institute, the Zaytuna College, click here or the image below. 


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