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In the Name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful

 Getting Acquainted with Islam and Muslims

Presented by Mark Hamza Dougherty <mdougher@vt.edu> as part of the Seminar:

Understanding Islam and Muslims, Blacksburg, VA, Oct. 16, 2001


In the name of God.  Good evening and thank you all for coming tonight to a session that will hopefully get you better acquainted with Islam and Muslims.  What I would like to do in my presentation is two-fold. First, I would like to discuss something of the beliefs and practices of Muslims.  After that, I will attempt to classify some of sources available for information about Islam and Muslims.


Virginia Tech, as we know, is becoming a more diverse community, partly because of the increased awareness and exposure on the part of interest groups, but also largely because of the internationalization of the university community.  According to the university administration, this is a good thing.  Islam, a major world religion, is well represented on campus.  This is reasonable and expected, given that about one in four persons worldwide is a Muslim.  As our staff and student body becomes more representative of world demographics, the number of Muslims is likely to increase even more.  This should certainly not be a cause for concern or anxiety.  On the contrary, I hope you will find Muslims at this institution to be, by and large, highly motivated and of high self-esteem, qualities that make them successful candidates for the intellectual challenges of university life, and for life in general.


So what are some of the things that Muslims believe?  Muslims understand that no one of us, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, is perfect; and that God alone, the Creator, is perfect.  Consequently, Muslims believe that humankind has always been in constant need of guidance and mercy from God; thus, the need for prophets and messengers.  Muslims believe that we, as humans, cannot see God, since He is of a completely different nature from His creation.  He, Allah, is Omnipotent, constrained by neither time nor space.  As the Qur’an clearly states, “He begets not, nor was He begotten, and there is none co-equal or comparable unto Him” (Noble Qur’an, 112th chapter).  Muslims believe that the religious practices (as well as the prohibitions) enjoined on us by our Creator are for our good.  Muslims, by and large, seek to please God within the framework called Islam, each according to his or her ability and each according to his or her level of knowledge about the religion.  I would like to repeat this point for clarity because we may find ourselves coming back to it.  Muslims seek to please God within the framework of Islam, each according to his or her ability and each according to his or her level of knowledge about the religion. 


What kind of impact does this framework or way of life called Islam have on Muslims as they interact within a non-Muslim society?  I believe that it is precisely the day-to-day interactions that occur between Muslims and non-Muslims in a country like the US that help increase understanding.  This has also been the case throughout history, as during the so-called Golden Age of Muslim Spain, when Muslims, Jews, and Christians borrowed and learned from each other in a wide range of human endeavors.  To be brief, I will concentrate on some of the issues that most often identify a person as a Muslim within society.  These can be divided into roughly three categories; prayer, diet, and social conduct. 


Prayer:  The Muslim man and woman is obliged to establish ritual prayer five times each day.  It is important to note that the Muslim can make these prays anywhere, as the Qur’an establishes the whole earth as a place of prayer (2:150).  In an institution like Virginia Tech, the best place for prayer would be a place that is clean, dry, and secure from unexpected interruption.  In addition to daily prayers, Muslim men are required to attend weekly Friday congregational prayer.  Currently, there are three Friday services available to Muslims in this area.


Diet:  Pork and alcohol are not permitted to a Muslim.  Any substance or drug which clouds the mind is prohibited, except in the case of legitimate medical need.  The Qur’an allows a similar dispensation in the prohibition of pork in the case of severe hunger (5:3).  During the lunar month of Ramadan, all Muslim men and women (who are able) are obligated to fast from dawn to sundown.  Those who have a valid excuse are permitted to make up their fast at a later time. 


Social conduct:  Conduct between men and women is regulated to a certain extent in Islam for the benefit of the society as a whole.  Gazing unabashedly at a member of the opposite sex who is not a proper relative is prohibited.  Being alone in a closed room with a member of the opposite sex who is not a proper relative is prohibited.  For students, faculty, and staff on this campus, this would also include seemingly innocent acts as traveling alone in a car or shaking hands with a member of the opposite sex, both of which would be discouraged in Islam.  An interesting and perhaps controversial hypothesis to make is that if Islamic values of social conduct were practiced in the work place, it would preclude many of the current sexual harassment problems that we see.  Finally, the most noticeable Islamic trademark pertaining to social conduct is probably the Islamic covering for women, often thought to include only the head scarf.  What is not widely known is that both men and women in Islam are prescribed a dress code by the Creator, both for modesty and to identify themselves as Muslims. 


Professor Charles Kimball, Chair of the Religion Department at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina was recently asked by a reporter, “What should non-Muslims know about key similarities and differences between Islamic and Judeo-Christian traditions?”


He said, in part, “The best answer to this question is for non-Muslims to engage in a thoughtful study of Islam.“ [ http://www.csmonitor.com/2001/1004/p25s1-wosc.html ]


I personally believe an important key to understanding Muslims (on this campus and elsewhere) is to realize that Muslims are not an ethnic group (because Islam cuts across all races and borders).  Also, Muslims (by and large) do not see themselves as living either an alternate (man-made) lifestyle or as a marginalized minority group.  This is simply not what the Qur’an teaches.  Islam, for Muslims, is a complete way of life prescribed by the One who created all humankind (5:3).

I would suggest that to engage in the type of thoughtful study that Dr. Kimball recommends requires of the serious student two things; an open mind and a willingness to look deeper than what appears on the surface.  As an illustration, let’s look at the many different sources of information about Islam and loosely classify them into workable terms.  First, we can accurately describe a central core of information about Islam made up of two main parts;1) the Arabic Qur’an (which Muslims worldwide attest as the revealed word of God) (26:192-195), 2) the authentic sayings and practices of the Prophet (peace be upon him) called Sunnah or Hadith.  Together, the Qur’an and authentic Hadith, along with the agreed-upon-decisions of the contemporary companions of the Prophet (pbuh), are the main sources of Islamic belief, legislation, and scholarship.


Several levels of knowledge emanating from these core sources are available in English, including translations of the meaning of the Qur’an and Hadith.  Three widely available translations of the meaning of the Qur’an in English are 1) The Noble Qur’an (1996), by Drs. Taquiuddin al-Hilali and Muhsin Khan from the Islamic University in Saudi Arabia, 2) The Holy Qur’an (1934-1937, Lahore, Pakistan), by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, and 3) The Meaning of the Glorious Qur’an (1930, London), by Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, an English man of letters who accepted Islam.  I am happy to report that the works just mentioned are currently available in Virginia Tech’s Newman Library.


The authenticity of the most respected compilations of Hadith have been verified through a rigorous scientific methodology which traces each narrated Hadith directly from the Prophet (pbuh), through a chain of reliable transmitters, up until the time of its compilation.  The two most highly respected compilations of Hadith are Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim, both of which are available in English (the word sahih in Arabic meaning authentic).  Unfortunately, Newman Library does not appear to have any copies of authentic Hadith compilations, but there are several web pages where copies of these works, in English, can be ordered (two of them are www.islamicmedia.com and www.islamicity.com ).


Now I would like to loosely classify the remaining body of literature about Islam that is available to the average American.  As mentioned, the Qur’an and authentic Hadith are direct sources of Islam traceable back to the 7th century Prophet himself.  We can read these documents for ourselves, at least translations of the meaning.  The next level of literature available would be the numerous books written by classic Islamic scholars in either Arabic, Persian, and Urdu, some of which have been translated into English, but the majority of which have been left in their original languages.  These writings, unfortunately, represent a vast store of knowledge that is virtually inaccessible to the English-speaking person.


Next, we have a large collection of books about Islam written by Muslims.  Many of these books are available in English in the popular press.  Some are quite scholarly in their use of detailed references.  In general, I suggest that if one is seeking the most reliable book from a Muslim author, select an author that quotes from the Qur’an and authentic Hadith, with reference citations.  That way, you can verify for yourself the evidence the author is using to make his or her point.  This may sound like research, but I believe it is in line with the type of thoughtful study that Dr. Kimball is recommending for those who engage in a thoughtful study of Islam.  Three examples of this type of informative literature on Islam are the following books; 1) Muhammad: his life based on the earliest sources, by Martin Lings, 2) What Everyone Should Know About Islam and Muslims, by Suzanne Haneef, and 3) Towards Understanding Islam, by Sayd Abul A’La Maududi.  All of these books, I am happy to say, are currently available in Tech’s library.


The next level of information about Islam and Muslims, I would suggest (and I have in my mind a picture of a series of concentric circles emanating from the knowledge base, the Qur’an and authentic Hadith), are the large number of books in English written by non-Muslims (see Figure 1, below).


A. Qur’an & Authentic Hadith





Muslim Readership

Western Readership



 Figure 1.  Suggested classification of written information about Islam in English:     

A.    Authentic sources (translations of the meanings),

B.    Books about Islam by Islamic scholars,

C.    Books about Islam by Muslims,

D.    Books about Islam by non-Muslims,

E.     Media (film, popular press, western news media).


Now here is where we can begin to get into trouble, at least from a Muslim point of view.  For while it should not be assumed that a non-Muslim writer will necessarily be biased against Islam, a large portion of the literature written about Islam that is currently sitting on the shelves of the Newman Library in Virginia Tech, I dare say, falls under the category of biased scholarship.  To more fully describe the charge that I am making, I will cite Dr. Jamal Badawi, a Muslim scholar living in Canada.  Dr. Badawi has classified some of the devices used by non-Muslim writers in the past to criticize Muhammad (pbuh).  In his booklet The Prophethood of Muhammad (available from the Islamic Foundation of America, 6606 Electronic Drive, Springfield, VA 22151), Dr. Badawi cites a Polemic Era, whose writers seem to have been motivated by religious prejudices and, to put it nicely, did not reflect an honest spirit of inquiry.  Rather, many of their writings succeeded in creating a poisonous atmosphere from which the Crusades against Muslims were perhaps an implication.  Blatant distortions, misrepresentations, half-truths, and at times sheer fabrications were freely used.  We have provided a web page address of a speech given by Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont in France, on November 27, 1095 that resulted in the first Crusade as an example of what is a polemic. [ http://gbgm-umc.org/umw/bible/crusades.stm ]


Dr. Badawi states that as the Polemic Era lost its momentum through the centuries, a more careful “disguised Polemic” was introduced.  Writers in this group criticized their predecessors as extremists, yet their motives were little different from them.  Writers of this era, which took place during the colonial period, realized that sheer fabrications were no longer effective in the midst of the more highly educated masses.  After the colonial period, a more tolerant, yet perplexing attitude came into being among non-Muslim critics as some actually began to give credit to Islam as a powerful and viable ideology and to Muhammad (pbuh) as a man with positive and moral qualities. One thing, however, was left out.  Was Muhammad a true prophet who received divine revelation from God, and was the Qur’an really a divine book, or was it of Muhammad’s own making?


As Dr. Badawi concludes, no matter how courteous, mild, or apparently objective these writers may seem to be, a serious question of consistency would inevitable arise here.  How consistent is it to admit the sincerity and high moral character of Muhammad (pbuh) while implying that he was not truthful when he claimed to be a prophet of God; or when he claimed that he did not derive his teachings from any human source?


It is for these reasons, as well as others, that Muslims read with caution the works on Islam written by non-Muslims, and is partly the reason for Muslim distrust of the Western media, which often appears to lack sound information about Islam.  Going back to our model of the concentric levels of information emanating from the authentic sources of this world religion (figure 1), we can perhaps picture the outer-most circle as the one most often in contact with and in interaction with the non-Muslim readership.  I can assure you that for those who wish to scratch deeper beneath the surface so often presented by the media, the information about Islam is available, including:

  1. a large body of translated scholarly works by Muslims, including reliable translations of the meanings of the Qur’an and authentic Hadith,

  2. an increasing number of English-speaking Muslim writers and speakers,

  3. alternate sources of news and literature, such as http://islamicity.com/ and finally

  4. an increasing number of Muslims as neighbors, associates, and colleagues to interact with. 


The last case is relevant to me, as it was over ten years that I had a roommate from Turkey that took the time to share something of his beliefs with me.  I hope I have passed on some of that same favor to you tonight.  Thank you and may God’s peace be with you.




“Indeed we have sent Our Messengers with clear proofs, and revealed with them the Scripture and the Balance (justice) that mankind may keep up justice.  And We brought forth iron wherein is mighty power (in matters of war), as well as many benefits for mankind, that Allah may test who it is that will help Him (His Religion), and His Messengers in the unseen.  Verily, Allah is All-Strong, All-Mighty.


The Noble Quran 57:25 (translation of the meaning)

E-mail icb@islamview.org with questions or comments.
Last modified: 06/26/06