Leader Resource 1: Islam Background
The Islamic faith is in the news almost every day, yet it is widely misunderstood. Approximately 1.8 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 as many as 3.3 million Muslims in the U.S. or about 1% of the U.S. population. (2015, Pew Research Center)
Islam in the News Today. In most Western societies, negative images of Arab people and Muslims are common. In the United States, there has been a tendency to suspect all Muslims of terrorism and to see Islam as a violent religion after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 which perpetrators claimed to do in the name of Islam. Prejudice persists, despite the broad condemnation of terrorism from Muslim clerics and communities in the U.S. and abroad. Since September 11, many Unitarian Universalists have built alliances with Muslim communities to counter misinformation and fear. For Unitarian Universalists, characterizing all Muslims as terrorists goes directly against our first Principle of respecting the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Also, such bias feeds an atmosphere of distrust that works against finding peaceful solutions to the world's problems.
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. Sharia laws contain violent punishments for violations, for example, stoning a woman to death for committing adultery and cutting off the hand of a thief. Scholars have pointed out that mere accusation does not suffice. For example, adultery must be witnessed by four people before punishment can be meted out. Many believe that these punishments are intended as deterrents to discourage behaviors that are bad for the whole community. While the breadth and consistency of its enforcement varies from community to community, Sharia law always scrutinizes and restricts women in ways that do not pertain to men. For example, in Saudi Arabia, women are under the guardianship of male relatives at all times and must be completely covered in public; under the Taliban in Afghanistan, women are not permitted to pursue education.
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 laws pertaining to women are intended to safeguard these roles. While the Qur'an affirms Muhammad's approval of women's right to own property and right to seek divorce, some interpretations of Qur'an inform Sharia laws' many restrictions on women.
Where a non-Muslim might see the wearing of the hijab or burka as discriminatory, many Muslim women embrace wearing a head or full body covering by personal choice.
The question of women's rights in Islam raises many questions. How can one know when a faith practice is being used to authorize a social or political agenda? With an ancient text, the Qur’an, subject to multiple interpretations, how can a Muslim know what their faith truly demands? When daily faith practices and rules for social behaviors were established more than 1,000 years ago, who may decide their value for people living in the 21st century?