"Have you read any books about Islam?"
"Do you have any Muslim friends?"
"Have you taken any other course on Islam?"
"Tell me what you think you know about Islam."
The responses are immediate: "Islam is a violent religion that oppresses women." "It conquers by the sword." "It opposes the pursuit of happiness, liberty and justice." "It wants to obliterate free speech and freethinking." "The prophet they worship is a pedophile." "Islam wants to take over the world."
"If you have never taken a course on Islam, or know any Muslims or read any books on Islam, how have you learned all of this?"
"From the media," many of my students reply.
I teach about Islam to high school sophomores. On our first day together, I ask the students why they enrolled in the course. They tell me they are ignorant about Islam. Islam couldn’t be as bad as it is portrayed, and yet the message that it is a "bad religion" is so clearly consistent they don’t know what to think.
I can turn to many examples to support the students’ views, like the U.S. News and World Report special issue on the "Secrets of Islam," an in-depth look at the "mysteries" of Islam, and at too many articles written by journalists who present Islam as simplistic, monolithic and foreign and who assume that "moderate" Muslims have escaped the inherent perversity of Islam. The reporting of world events through the lens of this ignorance is dangerous, as I see just some of the consequences in the microcosm of my classroom.
Religious illiteracy of this sort is harming us. Let me address just three words related to this coverage that have become a part of our national dialogue about Muslims and Islam—violence, Qur’an and women.
The term Islam derives from the three-letter Arabic root, s-l-m, which generates words with connected meanings, including surrender, submission, commitment, peace, wholeness and security. Muslims believe that by practicing their faith, through submission to God alone, they can achieve peace and security in their lives and for the sake of humanity.
Muslims who are violent are not representing Islam. Rather, they are criminals, even if they proclaim their actions to be taken in the name of Islam.Holy war does not exist in Islam, nor will Islam allow its followers to be involved in a holy war. Jihad is not another word for holy war; it is an Arabic word, the root of which is jahada, which means to strive for a better way of life, to endeavor, to strain, to exert, to put forth effort, to be diligent, alert and open to possibilities. The effort put forth with jihad assists Muslims to move out of a life mired in meeting others’ obligations to a life filled with desire, integrity, curiosity and commitment.
Jihad also means to be willing to fight to defend the dignity of life, which allows one to choose faith and freedom. When can one fight? When is it just to take up arms? Islam has defined what a just war is and, under its parameters, America’s participation in World War II constituted a just war, not a holy war. When one fights to protect one’s nation from attack, Islam prohibits—as all just war theories do—terrorism, kidnapping, hijacking, killing civilians, and other horrendous acts. Whoever commits such violations is considered a murderer.
How to overcome misconceptions? With my students, I refer to American history. How many, I ask them, would assert that the KKK is a form of Christianity? Members of the Klan set forth the look and feel of a Christian witness with crosses, prayer meetings, biblical mandates, and committed fellowship. Yet we don’t think of the Klan as some "violent" form of Christianity; in fact, since we know the basic precepts of Christianity, the Klan is not conflated with Christianity at all. Still, Klan members used Christian rhetoric to advance their political agenda. Terrorists do the same with Islam.
Most Americans think that because Muslims believe the Qur’an is the literal word of God, they must read the Qur’an literally, just as Christian literalists do. Since there are Christians who think the world was created in seven days because the Bible describes creation as happening in that way, then Muslims must read the Qur’an with the same certainty. They don’t.
The Qur’an warns its readers that there is danger in taking the words literally: "This divine writ contains messages that are clear in and by themselves as well as others that are allegorical." (3:7) Verses continue to admonish the reader to take advantage of that which is unclear and make it clear by their arbitrary nature because, "None save God knows its final meaning." To assume that one knows with certainty how every word is to be interpreted would be blasphemous.
For Muslims, the Qur’an is the gift of revelation to the world, as Jesus Christ is the revelation to the world for Christians. The Qur’an is treated with the same awe and respect as Christians treat Jesus Christ. No Christian would say they know with 100 percent certainty that they know who Jesus Christ was and is. The experience of knowing Jesus—through faith, prayer, the Bible and tradition—informs them of how Jesus Christ blesses their lives. For Muslims, the experience of the Qur’an—through faith, prayer, recitation and tradition—informs them of how the Qur’an blesses their lives. For Christians, Christ is the sacred presence. For Muslims, the Prophet Muhammad delivered the sacred presence. Neither Christians nor Muslims embrace monolithic definitions of their faith.
To overcome students’ misconceptions, I use the Qur’an. Throughout the Qur’an, allegory and symbolism describe the majesty of God’s grace and the privilege and the choice humanity has to embrace God’s gift of life. Such grace extends to all Ahl al Kitab, People of the Book, which includes Jews and Christians.
Journalists can help Americans understand how Muslims live within Islam. Such reporting can illustrate how those who commit criminal acts in the name of Islam are outside of the religion. Report, of course, about Muslims who commit heinous acts, but also tell of Muslim individuals and institutions that work against perception, such as al Fatih Academy in Virginia, started by Afeefa Syeed to "raise children who can balance their Islamic values with their American identity." At this academy, children learn Muslim traditions and read the Qur’an along with their study of American traditions and values.
Throughout history women have been struggling to free themselves from misogyny, abuse and mistreatment. Christianity and the West, until recently, did not provide women sanctuary from these prejudices, nor did pre-Islamic Arabia. Women were treated as slaves. Infanticide was practiced, and girls were sold or traded. Muhammad’s reform brought equality to his people through Islam. Throughout the Qur’an, the verses state that men and women have equal rights and obligations because "women are the shaqa’iq (the exact equal) of men.
How can journalists help readers, viewers and listeners overcome the misconception that Islam abuses women? Learn, and then incorporate into your reporting, that shari’ah (Islamic) law entitles women to education, work, businesses, ownership and inheritance, even if political leaders in the name of Islam, such as the Taliban, smolder these rights. In an Islamic marriage, too, a woman keeps her name, retains full rights of her own, and can keep or dispose of her property without any interference.
Journalists have the obligation to familiarize themselves with Islam—possibly to overcome their own wrong assumptions—so consumers of news will come to know it not as a foreign religion, but as part of a great monotheistic tradition. This will help Americans distinguish between those who abuse religion and those who strive to live up to its ideals. Thoughtful reporting, involving nuance, is essential, especially at a time when deadly sectarian violence is so frequently portrayed in the news.
I take my students to observe Friday prayers held here on campus. One student wrote in his final paper, "While attending Muslim prayers, I underwent a great paradigmatic shift, discovering something that watching CNN (where Muslims are portrayed as terrorists first, humans second) for nearly my whole life had shielded from my eyes: Islam is not something to be scared of; its adherents will not be the end of the line for Jews in Israel, nor will they cause worldwide catastrophe. In fact, my sentiments towards the religion became completely opposite to those presented by the media. I am no longer scared of their tradition …."
His words offered a potent reminder that only through confronting our ignorance—and working to overcome it—will we have the ability to live in a pluralistic society with respect for each other.
Jamie L. Hamilton is a teacher of religion at Phillips Exeter Academy and is an Episcopal priest with a summer parish in Dublin, New Hampshire.