America is now a Middle Eastern country. I bet you didn’t know that, did you? Well, we are. We occupy and control a large portion of Iraq. We have relations with Saudi Arabia. We are best friends with Israel. You don’t think Iran makes a move these days without considering the response and reaction of the United States? Dream on. We are happen to be a Christian nation, America is, and that faith, like many others, was born there. Christ lived there. So this makes us all Middle Easterners. All of us.
Okay, so it doesn’t, but it’s an interesting concept. And one that the growing global nation of which we are all a part of allows more and more. People like to say that we are all citizens of the world. Sure. Cheesy, but sure. We are.
Two weeks ago I posted some thoughts on the Cat Stevens debacle, and it elicited a flurry of responses. Most were thoughtful and generous, but some were just retarded. They dealt, specifically, with the idea that Cat Stevens had somehow changed. That he was not the same peace loving hippie strummer many had grown to love over his recording career. That he was now, perhaps, a man of hate. The underlying current was that Islam had somehow changed him.
I find it hard to be diplomatic in the face of stupidity, or even just bland lack of curiosity. But after I had thought about it I realize that many times in this global conversation about right and wrong, about what each faith purports or does not, that most of us genuinely do not know what the fuck we are talking about.
Much is written about terrorism. Very little about Islam itself. That bothers me a little, but what bugs me more is that there is not much effort to find out more. The discussion never says it was hate-filled, bigoted, small minded men who attacked America on September 11. It was terrorists. Islamic fundamentalists.
I said in that piece that terrorism is to Islam as the KKK is to Christianity. You can find perversion in any faith. In fact, if you look at the history of Christianity, you will find plenty of it. And disgusting atrocities at that. This is neither here nor there with me. Belief does not, in and of itself, pervert people. There is always something more, something far removed from the central point of any Good Book.
But it bothers me to read discussions of our large global problem and to see any religion thrown into the mix. Still, the majority of terrorist’s attacks carry a Muslim faith. That is a hard fact to see around. But breathe for a second. Just pause. Take a minute to think. Because religion, at its heart, has very little to with these acts as acts. The religious connection is as much a matter of convenience as it is the stated reason. We have to do a better job of separating the man or men from the faith they happen to believe. I have a feeling they could be of any belief system, and the fact that we pissed them off, legitimately or not, and they would have used any tool at their disposal to justify the things that happen next. Maybe I’m wrong. Of course I’m oversimplifying, but as complicated as things have become, it’s it time for a little simplicity.
And this is my little living room. And today I’m going to use it as I want. This is what I know about Islam, from the keys of a man who knows very little about it. I studied religion in college for 4 years, and have continued reading about it since. I am fascinated by it, but that takes me far from being truly qualified. These are not the words of an expert, more of a plea from a concerned global citizen.
The word Islam means “surrender to the will of God.” Literally. That is how it is translated. It’s a beautifully simplistic term. It means exactly what it is. Christianity could be said to mean the same exact thing for many people. Muslims take their faith from a series of revelations that were handed down from God to the Prophet Mohammed. This is the exact same God, but the way, who spoke to Abraham, who tortured Job, who gave Moses the slabs, and who offered His only son, Jesus, as a sacrifice for sins.
Well, almost the same God. Because to Christians, Jesus is the Son of God, divine and human at once, part of the holy trinity. Muslims believe in Jesus too. He is in the Qur’an, but to Muslims he is one of a line of prophets that God passed his word to, a succession of men that ends with Mohammad. The revelations were handed down to him by the angel Gabriel, and are supposed to make whole God’s message to men.
There are two different branches within the system: the Sunnis and the Shias, both of whom view the line of success for religious leaders from very different perspectives. Shias believe the leader must of direct descent from Muhammad. The Sunnis feel that he must meet their high standards of faith and knowledge.
For the members of faith, oddly as it is with others, Islam is not just a system of belief. It is also a code of conduct. A guide for how to live a good life.
There are, as I understand them, 5 central pillars of the Muslim faith. You can find them, as I did, on a wonderful site, Beliefnet, which is an amazing forum for anyone curious about any of the world’s religions. This is what the website puts down about the 5 pillars of Islam.
The First Pillar of Islam
There is no god worthy of worship except God and Muhammad is His messenger. This declaration of faith is called the Shahada, a simple formula which all the faithful pronounce. In Arabic, the first part is la ilaha illa Llah - 'there is no god except God'; ilaha (god) can refer to anything which we may be tempted to put in place of God - wealth, power, and the like. Then comes illa Llah: 'except God', the source of all Creation. The second part of the Shahada is Muhammadun rasulu'Llah: 'Muhammad is the messenger of God.' A message of guidance has come through a man like ourselves.
The Second Pillar of Islam
Salat is the name for the obligatory prayers which are performed five times a day, and are a direct link between the worshipper and God. There is no hierarchical authority in Islam, and no priests, so the prayers are led by a learned person who knows the Qur'an, chosen by the congregation. These five prayers contain verses from the Qur’an, and are said in Arabic, the language of the Revelation, but personal supplication can be offered in one's own language.
Prayers are said at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset and nightfall, and thus determine the rhythm of the entire day. Although it is preferable to worship together in a mosque, a Muslim may pray almost anywhere, such as in fields, offices, factories and universities. Visitors to the Muslim world are struck by the centrality of prayers in daily life.
The Third Pillar of Islam
One of the most important principles of Islam is that all things belong to God, and that wealth is therefore held by human beings in trust. The word zakat means both 'purification' and 'growth'. Our possessions are purified by setting aside a proportion for those in need, and, like the pruning of plants, this cutting back balances and encourages new growth.
Each Muslim calculates his or her own zakat individually. For most purposes this involves the payment each year of two and a half percent of one's capital.
A pious person may also give as much as he or she pleases as sadaqa, and does so preferably in secret. Although this word can be translated as 'voluntary charity' it has a wider meaning. The Prophet said 'even meeting your brother with a cheerful face is charity.'
The Prophet said: 'Charity is a necessity for every Muslim.' He was asked: 'What if a person has nothing?' The Prophet replied: 'He should work with his own hands for his benefit and then give something out of such earnings in charity.' The Companions asked: 'What if he is not able to work?' The Prophet said: 'He should help poor and needy persons.' The Companions further asked 'What if he cannot do even that?' The Prophet said 'He should urge others to do good.' The Companions said 'What if he lacks that also?' The Prophet said 'He should check himself from doing evil. That is also charity.'
The Forth Pillar of Islam
Every year in the month of Ramadan, all Muslims fast from first light until sundown, abstaining from food, drink, and sexual relations. Those who are sick, elderly, or on a journey, and women who are pregnant or nursing are permitted to break the fast and make up an equal number of days later in the year. If they are physically unable to do this, they must feed a needy person for every day missed. Children begin to fast (and to observe the prayer) from puberty, although many start earlier.
Although the fast is most beneficial to the health, it is regarded principally as a method of self purification. By cutting oneself off from worldly comforts, even for a short time, a fasting person gains true sympathy with those who go hungry as well as growth in one's spiritual life.
The Fifth Pillar of Islam
The annual pilgrimage to Makkah - the Hajj - is an obligation only for those who are physically and financially able to perform it. Nevertheless, about two million people go to Makkah each year from every corner of the globe providing a unique opportunity for those of different nations to meet one another. Although Makkah is always filled with visitors, the annual Hajj begins in the twelfth month of the Islamic year (which is lunar, not solar, so that Hajj and Ramadan fall sometimes in summer, sometimes in winter). Pilgrims wear special clothes: simple garments which strip away distinctions of class and culture, so that all stand equal before God.
The rites of the Hajj, which are of Abrahamic origin, include circling the Ka'ba seven times, and going seven times between the mountains of Safa and Marwa as did Hagar during her search for water. Then the pilgrims stand together on the wide plain of Arafa and join in prayers for God's forgiveness, in what is often thought of as a preview of the Last Judgment.
In previous centuries the Hajj was an arduous undertaking. Today, however, Saudi Arabia provides millions of people with water, modern transport, and the most up-to-date health facilities.
The close of the Hajj is marked by a festival, the Eid al-Adha, which is celebrated with prayers and the exchange of gifts in Muslim communities everywhere. This, and the Eid al-Fitr, a feast-day commemorating the end of Ramadan, are the main festivals of the Muslim calendar.
I am not a subscriber to faith myself (and as I read that I’m aware that it looks more like I’m talking about a magazine or idea, but I’m not), I hold no belief system other than one that is very personal to me, one that is persona. I’m skeptical about religion in general, whether it is Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism. And yet I am deeply respectful of the things that people hold dear to themselves. Faith, true faith (not the kind spoken over megaphones, shouted from a pulpit, used to justify a bigotry or hateful stance on women’s rights, or the kinds that leads someone to love their religion so much—and all religions are guilty of this—that they hate anyone who doesn’t believe the same) is an inspiring thing. But religion, to me, and this is only one man’s view, can be an incredibly destructive, divisive, and vitriolic in nature. The books that hold the keys to many people’s beliefs are not bludgeons, as they often can be in the loud but small minority of people who use them as such.
These are complicated, frustrating, confounding and expanding times. I think, personally, that because of the tilt of axis we find ourselves on right now, the world needs faith more than it probably ever did. But I’m less and less sure that it needs religion. That being said, religion is a fact. It is not going anywhere, it will be here as long as we are. While I may be skeptical and weary of canonized and dogmatized belief, while I am natural distrusting of the effects of organized and codified religion, I know it is not going anywhere. But I also know that faith, your own personal belief, can be as powerful a force as we have. I don’t know what to do about that; there really is nothing to be done.
Here is what I believe, personally, put down for the first, and probably the last time. I think if God does exist, and there must be something out there, then It is probably a wise being. It knew that different people lived under radically different conditions in distinct and varied regions. It knew that what was acceptable in one area, what was true or real, would not be so for another. So it couched itself in different forms, presenting itself to people as it would be easy for them to understand. Out of this different religions were formed, but they all seem to be founded on one basic premise. It’s simple, to me at least. Love. The rest of it are just details.
I don’t know if I believe in something or not. There are many times that I’ve felt there had to be something out there, that it had to be distinct. But too much happens that I struggle with for this to give me much calm, too many things have happened in my life for those ideas not to be shaken and jumbled around and messed up and polluted. I don’t believe in a benevolent form, but sometimes I do.
But for me, what I do believe is personal, mine, and none of your business. I think that there must be something out there, and I think It must understand why I struggle with the idea as I do. But I do keep looking. For myself, and no one else.
My purpose in putting these things down here is not to espouse the virtues of one particular faith over another. But we live in a time where Islam dominates much of our public conversation, many of our inner thoughts. Especially in America. And most of the time, as sad as it is to say, our opinions are based more on summations and an ad hoc, knee jerk kind of fear based understanding than anything grounded in fact. We just don’t seem to know what the fuck we are talking about. I wish we did.
I want to stress, I am not an expert on this. What I put down about Islam are things I learned in college, and things I found since then. The rest are my own opinions, based on the experiences of my own life.
[Editor's Note: It seems this entry was linked to by an anti-Islam site whose members have been egregiously abusing our blogger. While we welcome dissenting views and differing opinions (as Jarret does), and encourage all readers to respond thoughtfully to everything we post, we will not tolerate abuse and threats against our writers. We have therefore turned off the comments for this particular blog entry to avoid more needless, profane invective. -- George Murray, Associate Editor]