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LEADER RESOURCE 1: Islam Background

The Islamic faith is in the news almost every day, yet it is widely misunderstood. One and a half billion people, nearly one in four people on Earth, are Muslim, so it is important for non-Muslims to better understand this faith and its followers.

Surrender and Peace. The name of the faith, Islam, means "surrender," or sometimes "submission," depending on the translation. It has roots in the Arabic for "peace." So, Islam means the peace that comes from complete surrender to God. Following God's wishes with complete loyalty is central to Muslim life.

Sacred Texts. The most important sacred text of Islam is the Holy Qur'an, which Muslims believe was revealed directly to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel over a 20 year period. Also important is the large body of books called Hadith (pronounced hah-DEETH), which chronicles many of the teachings, actions, and lifestyle of Muhammad. Muslims look to the Qur'an and Hadith for directions or illustrations for nearly every situation they encounter, trusting them to provide a guide for faithful living in accordance with the Prophet Muhammad's teachings.

Symbols. Islam has no official symbols. However, symbols notably associated with Islam are the name of Allah in Arabic script and the crescent moon and star.

Where Are the Muslims? While Islam began in the Middle East, the majority of Muslims today live in the Asia-Pacific region, in nations including Indonesia, India, Pakistan, and China. About 20 percent of the world's Muslims live in the Middle East and North Africa. Islam is practiced on all continents, in every country. While estimates of Muslims in the United States vary by millions, a review of many sources suggests there are between 2 and 2.8 million Muslims in the U.S.

Islam in the News Today. In most Western societies, negative images of Arab people and Muslims are common. In the United States, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, there has been a tendency, based on the actions of a small minority, to suspect all Muslims of terrorism and to see Islam as a violent religion. Characterizing all Muslims as terrorists goes directly against our first Principle of respecting the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Also, it creates an atmosphere of distrust that works against finding peaceful solutions to the world's problems. Since September 11, many Unitarian Universalists have worked to build alliances with Muslim communities and counter misinformation and fear.

Islam and Women. Sharia law exists in a variety of countries, sometimes as the only law (theocracy), and sometimes together with civil (non-religion-based) law. At a fundamentalist extreme, Sharia laws contain violent punishments for violations of the law, for example, stoning a woman to death for committing adultery, and cutting off the hand of a thief. While the breadth and consistency of its enforcement does vary from community to community, Sharia always includes restrictions on women that do not pertain to men. For example, in Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive; under the Taliban in Afghanistan, women are not permitted to pursue education and are excluded from professional jobs.

Islam's rules for women are based on a religious belief that women have a special role as caretakers of home and children and a need for protection, while men have a special role to earn money in the outside world to support their families and to protect women. Sharia law is intended to safeguard these special roles. While the Qur'an affirms Muhammad's approval of women's right to own property and right to seek divorce, literal interpretations of Qur'an also inform Sharia laws' many restrictions on women.

Where a non-Muslim might see the wearing of the hijab as discriminatory, many Muslim women embrace wearing a head or full body covering and comply with this restriction by personal choice.

The question of women's rights in Islam raises a broader question: With so many different interpretations possible of religious texts, how can someone tell what a faith truly demands? How can one know when a faith practice is being used to authorize a social or political agenda? When do the practices of a society over a thousand years ago become inappropriate for the 21st century? Who decides?

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Last updated on Thursday, October 27, 2011.

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