April - June 2008, Islam

10 Common Questions People Ask About Islam

By Shabir Ally


Based on the booklet “Common Questions People Ask About Islam”.

1. What does Jihad mean?
The word Jihad represents a concept which is much misunderstood in the West. The concept is explained nicely by the Christian scholar Ira 6. Zepp, Jr. in his book entitled A Muslim Primer on pages 133-135. We adapt from his answer the following:

The essential meaning of Jihad is the spiritual, psychological, and physical effort we exert to be close to God and thus achieve a just and harmonious society. Jihad literally means “striving” or “struggle” and is shorthand for Jihad fi Sabeel Allah (struggle for God’s cause). In a sense, every Muslim is a Mujahid, one who strives for God and justice.

Al-Ghazali captured the essence of Jihad when he said: “The real Jihad is the warfare against (one’s own) passions. Dr. Ibrahim Abu-Rabi calls Jihad “the execution of effort against evil in the self and every manifestation of evil in society.” In a way, Jihad is the Muslim’s purest sacrifice: a struggle to live a perfect life and completely submit to God.

Another form of Jihad is the striving to translate the Word of God into action. If one has experienced God and received guidance from the Qur’an, one struggles to apply that guidance in daily life. So the larger, more prevalent meaning of Jihad is the spiritual struggle of the soul. In this case, Jihad is always present for the believer whether there is an external enemy or not. We should never reduce Jihad to violence.

A third level of Jihad is popularly known as “holy war.” The classic passage is found in the Qur’an:
Fight in the way of Allah those who fight against you, but transgress not the limits. Truly Allah likes not the transgressors (Qur’an 2:190).

It is crucial to note here that what is condoned is defensive warfare; Islam cannot justify aggressive war. Muhammad and the Tradition are also against killing non-combatants, torturing of prisoners, the destruction of crops, animals and homes. Adapted from Ira 6. Zepp, Jr., A Muslim Primer (1992, Wakefield Editions, US) pp.133-135.

Robert Ellwood of the University of Southern California has the following to say about the Muslim concept of Jihad:
Out of the community ideal of Islam comes the concept of jihad, or holy war, which is designed to defend Islam and allow its social practice, though not to force individual conversions, which is forbidden. Since Islam in principle is a community as well as a religion, presumably only an absolute pacifist would be able to reject the theory of jihad out of hand, since other communities also fight to defend or expand their ways of life. (Many Peoples, Many Faiths by Robert S. Ellwood, 4th edition, Simon & Schuster, US, 1982, p.346).

2. What are some of the rights given to women in Islam?
The Qur’an places men and women on a similar relationship before God, and promises both the final goal of paradise for those who believe and do right (see Qur’an 3:195; 4:124; 16:19; 40:40). The Qur’an also speaks of similarity in terms of creation. God tells us that He created a single soul and from it its mate, then He made countless men and women from those two (see Qur’an 4:1) The Qur’an does not contain the belief that the man alone is created in the image of God. Because of this fundamental similarity between men and women, the Qur’an declares that women have rights similar to the rights against them according to what is equitable (see Qur’an 2:228).

In a time when women were devalued and female infants were buried alive, the Qur’an raised the value of women and prohibited female infanticide. Due to the Qur’an, this practice was abolished, but in recent times advances in the science of genetic selection has encouraged some unbelievers to practice a modern form of female infanticide.

The Qur’an also abolished the practice whereby inheritance went to only the oldest male heir. Instead, a woman can inherit from her father, her husband, and her childless brother (see Qur’an 4:7, 32, 176).

In Islam when a woman gets married she does not surrender her maiden name, but maintains her distinct identity. Some Muslim women have adopted the surnames of their husbands, but this is due to cultural influence, not Islam.

In a Muslim marriage the groom gives a dowry to the bride, not to her father. This becomes her private property to keep or spend, and is not subject to the dictates of her male relatives. Any money she earns or receives is similarly her very own.

Under Islamic Law a woman cannot be married without her consent. She has final approval on a marriage partner and she can repudiate a marriage arranged without her consent. She also has the right to initiate a separation from marriage if her rights under marriage are not being granted. Widows have the right to remarry, and they are in fact encouraged to do so.

The Qur’an places on men the responsibility of protecting and maintaining their female relatives. This relieves women of the need to earn their own living. It also means that a man must provide for his wife even if she has money of her own. She is not obligated to spend her money in the maintenance of her family. Incidentally, a woman is also not required to cook for her family, although she may do so out of love and compassion. The example of our noble prophet, on whom be peace, is that although he was such a great leader, he assisted in the housecleaning and mended his own clothes.

In return for the added responsibility, the Qur’an gives men the degree of leadership (see Qur’an 2:228; 4:34). This does not mean that men should dominate women, but rather that they should deal with them in kindness, mercy, and love (see Qur’an 4:19; 30:21).

3. What does Islam say about Domestic violence?
Islam condemns domestic violence. Once a number of women came to the prophet, on whom be peace, to complain that their husbands had beaten them. The prophet announced that men who beat their wives are not good men. The prophet also said: Do not beat the female servants of Allah.

Allah knows that life is not always a bowl of cherries. And so He stipulates that a man must be kind to his wife even if he happens to dislike her (Qur’an 4:19). Allah offers a good reason as to why men should not dislike their wives. Allah says that He has placed much good in women (Qur’an 4:19). In this regard the prophet Muhammad, on whom be peace, said that no believing man should hold a grudge against a believing woman. So what is a husband to do if he dislikes some things about his wife? This is bound to occur, since no human being is perfect. The prophet instructed that men should look for the agreeable traits in their wives rather than focus on their faults. (See Saheeh Muslim, chapter on advice relating to women).

The prophet also advised men that if they wish to benefit from marriage they should accept their wives as they are rather than try to straighten them out and thus end up in divorce. In the following verse of the Qur’an, Allah warns men that if they retain their wives in marriage it should not be to take advantage of them. The verse reads:
Retain them in kindness or release them in kindness. But do not retain them to their hurt so that you transgress (the limits). If anyone does that he wrongs his own soul. Do not take God’s instructions as a jest (Qur’an 2:231).

Once the prophet, on whom be peace, was asked what are the obligations of husbands toward their wives. He replied:
Feed her when you eat, and provide her clothing when you provide yourself. Neither hit her on the face nor use impolite language when addressing her (See Mishkat, chapter on the maintenance of women).

The prophet equated perfect belief with good treatment to one’s wife when he said:
The most perfect believer is one who is the best in courtesy and amiable manners, and the best among you people is one who is most kind and courteous to his wives (see Tirmidhi, chapter on the obligations of a man to his wife).

Finally, the prophet, the best example of conduct said:
The best among you is the one who treats his family best.

Some of the last words of the prophet delivered during the farewell pilgrimage enjoins that men should hold themselves accountable before Allah concerning the question of how they treat their wives. Therefore his advice to all men, is as follows:
You must treat them with all kindness.

4. Jesus said that he is the way and that no one can come to God except through him. What do Muslims say about that?
Muslims believe that Jesus, on whom be peace, was indeed the way. This means that he showed the way by which people should approach God. He expected that people should follow him and imitate him. His early followers were called followers of the way because, obviously, they followed Jesus, and Jesus was the way (see Acts 9:2; 18:25; 19:9; 19:23; 22:4; 24:14; 24:22). They were also called Christians, which means ‘imitators of Christ’ (see Acts 11 :26). This shows that the early followers of Jesus copied and imitated him.

Jesus had said that his true followers will hold on to his teachings, then they will know the truth, and the truth will set them free (see John 8:31-32). God did reveal His truth in these last times. And true followers of Jesus will readily accept that truth, for they will find it in agreement with the unadulterated teachings of Jesus. In these last times God has sent a messenger and declared that anyone who claims to love Him must follow His messenger, on whom be peace. God directs His messenger as follows:
Say! If you love Allah then follow me. Allah will love you and forgive your sins. Surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful (Qur’an 3:31).

Now this messenger, Muhammad, on whom be peace, has brought God’s final message for all of humankind. If we love God we must follow him. He brought the truth which Jesus said his true followers will recognize. The truth sets people free from unreasonable doctrines and dogmas.

Confusion arises in the minds of some who imagine that Jesus is the only way for peoples of all times and all places. Clearly, the Old Testament prophets directed people to Yahweh, the only God. They showed therefore the way to Yahweh. In fact, people were calling on the name of Yahweh since the time of Adam (see Genesis 4:1).

Jesus was the way for his time; now Muhammad is the way. We believe in both of them, and we worship the one God whom they both worshipped. These men showed us the way to worship God. Jesus, for example, fell on his knees and worshipped God (see Luke 22:4 1). He also fell on his face and worshipped God (see Matthew 26:39). Muhammad too adopted similar postures of humility in worshipping God. Likewise is the practice of the true imitators of Jesus and Muhammad, peace be upon both of them.

Finally, we should recall that Jesus is the way, not the destination. He spoke of one who is greater than himself (see John 14:28). And he said that, that one alone is the only true God (see John 17:3).

God has sent numerous prophets and messengers. Each in his time was the way to God. No one can approach God in a way contrary to the way of God’s messenger. This is why God said that He will call to account anyone who does not listen to His prophet who will speak in His name (see Deuteronomy 18:19).

5. Muhammad is dead. But Jesus is alive. Doesn’t that mean that Jesus Is superior to Muhammad?
Muslims believe that Jesus and Muhammad were both prophets and messengers of Allah. Peace be upon both of them. Muslims will not belittle any of God’s prophets or reject their message. The Qur’an tells us to declare our faith in all of the prophets including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, and that we should make no distinction among them (see Qur’an 2:136; 3:84; 2:285). This means that since each of them preached the true message of God, it would be wrong to say we believe in some but not in others.

The prophets themselves were humble servants of God. They did not try to prove themselves superior to others. It would be wrong for their followers to argue over who is superior. Once a Muslim and a Jew were arguing. The Muslim said that Muhammad is superior over all the people. The Jew said that Moses is superior over all the people. When this was related to the prophet Muhammad, on whom be peace, he said:
Do not give me superiority over Moses (This is recorded in Sahih al-Bukhari, vol.4, p.410, Arabic- English edition).
He also said “None should say that I am better than Jonah, son of Matta” (ibid, p.413).
He also instructed,”Do not give superiority to any prophet among Allah’s prophets” (ibid, p.414).

Once the prophet was asked, “Who is the most honorable among the people?” He replied, “The most God-fearing”. When he was asked to name a specific individual, he replied:
The most honorable person is Joseph (i.e. the son of Jacob) (ibid, p.390).

This humility was shared by other prophets too. The prophet Jesus, on whom be peace, is reported to have said:
I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist (Matthew 11:11).

But John the Baptist was also humble. He did not claim that greatness for himself. He spoke of a greater one who was to come after him. He is quoted as saying:
After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie (Mark 1:7).

When God sent the angel Gabriel to take the prophet Muhammad to the Aqsa Mosque one night, the prophet, on whom be peace, led the prayers there, and the other prophets followed his lead. He also related the truth that on the Day of Judgement he will lead the banner of Praise under which will be all the other prophets. But the prophet Muhammad did not boast about this. He instructed Muslims that they should not praise him as the people praised Jesus, son of Mary. He said:
Call me a slave of Allah and His Messenger (Bukhari, vol.4, p.435).

What is important is not to try and prove one prophet superior over another, but to believe in both of them. The prophet Muhammad, on whom be peace, said:
If a man believes in Jesus and then believes in me, he will get a double reward (ibid. p.435).

6. Muslims say that the Qur’an is a Miracle. What is so miraculous about a book?
Previous prophets performed miracles to prove that their message was not their own but God’s message. In the case of the Qur’an, the message itself is the miracle.

The prophet Muhammad, on whom be peace, did not know how to read or write. Yet the Qur’an which was being revealed to him was (and still is) the highest pinnacle of literary beauty and excellence in the Arabic Language. It was beyond the ability of the prophet to produce this book. And God declares that it is beyond the ability of all of humankind and spirit-kind to produce a book like the Qur’an.

The Qur’an was revealed piece by piece over a period of twenty-three years. During this time, God challenged humankind four times to produce a book like the Qur’an, and they couldn’t do it. When the prophet and his followers were being persecuted in Mecca, God showed the persecutors a simple way by which they can wipe out the message of the Qur’an. God stated that this book cannot be produced by men or spirit creatures. Obviously, if they pooled together their abilities and composed a book like the Qur’an they would have proved the Qur’an to be false in its claim. But they couldn’t. And here is what the Qur’an claims:
Say: If the whole of mankind and Jinns were to gather together to produce the like of this Qur’an they could not produce the like thereof, even if they backed up each other with help and support (Qur’an 17:88).

Although people ardently wished to block the message of the Qur’an and they tried every thing they could to stifle it, yet they did not try this obvious strategy. Why? Because it cannot be done. So God reduced the challenge for them: never mind the whole book; produce just ten chapters if you can. This challenge is mentioned in Surah 11:13 in the Qur’an. Again they couldn’t do it. And they were the literary giants of their day. They held fairs to promote their own literary masterpieces. They hung their prized compositions on the door of the house of pilgrimage for all to see. But they could not match the stunning verses of the Qur’an.

God reduced the challenge further still (see Qur’an 10:38). If they cannot produce ten chapters then how about one chapter? Just one! And they couldn’t do it, so they eventually pulled down their proud exhibits from where they were hung. The Qur’an had proved its point: this is no man-made book.

Yet they tried everything to banish the Qur’an from the face of the earth. They even made an attempt on the life of the prophet. He fled to Madinah, another city. And there the Qur’an kept coming to him piece by piece. The challenge was repeated yet again. This time God reduced the emphasis as if to say, okay you couldn’t produce a chapter like it; now produce a chapter even remotely like
it. This challenge is mentioned in the Qur’an in chapter 2, verse 23. They failed again. And the world has failed since. The challenge is still there in the Qur’an, and everyone who disbelieves the Qur’an can still pool together their abilities and resources to try and produce one like it. But they cannot. Isn’t this an awesome miracle?

7. Why does the Qur’an agree with the Bible in some things and disagree in other things?
The Bible is an important means by which people had access to God’s message for thousands of years. It contains many truths from God. Throughout history many prophets were sent by God to guide humankind. The Qur’an teaches that prophets were sent to every people to call them to shun false gods and worship only the one true God. Some of the truths which those prophets taught are recorded in the Bible. A seeker of truth cannot deny those truths.

The Bible has had more impact on western civilization than any other book. The Bible’s emphasis on the belief in the one and only God has helped millions of people to turn away from worshipping idols and other false gods. Famous commandments like ‘you shall not murder’ have become universal principles. Many of the Bible’s moral principles have helped to convert some of the worst people into compassionate, good citizens.

Obviously, if the Qur’an were to disagree with these moral and theological truths the Qur’an would have to teach the opposite of truth. This the Qur’an does not do. Where the Bible is true the Qur’an is also true, since they agree on many fundamental truths. This agreement, however, does not mean that one book copied out of another as some individuals are quick to conclude. This we have already demonstrated in our answer to Question 6. The reason the Qur’an agrees with the truths in the Bible is that those truths and the Qur’anic passages all come from the same source, namely God. Since He alone revealed the Qur’an and all the truths of the Bible, it is only logical that the truth will be one, regardless in which book it is found.

When the Qur’an disagrees with the Bible it is also for a reason. The Qur’an was revealed at a time when people knew the art of writing, and so designated scribes were able to write down the revelation immediately to ensure its preservation in written form. At the time people were also accustomed to memorizing eloquent compositions. With God’s help they began a practice of memorizing the Qur’an, thus ensuring its preservation also in the hearts of millions of believers throughout history. Due to these two preservation methods, the Qur’an available all over the world today is the same in its original language whether you buy a copy in Canada, Australia, or China.

Therefore the Qur’an can be trusted in its entirety, and a believer can confidently say, “All of it is from our Lord” as the Qur’an states in 3:7. God has promised that He will safeguard the book (Qur’an 15:9). He further says that no falsehood can get into the Qur’an (Qur’an 41:42). He tells us that He sent the Qur’an to confirm the truth of what is in the previous scriptures and also to expose the errors that crept into those scriptures (Qur’an 5:48). So one reason the Qur’an differs from the Bible can be understood best in light of the transmission history of the two books.

Another type of difference between the two books pertains to the specific instructions that God gave. God always gives instructions which are suitable for the varying conditions of human life. Some of the instructions in the Bible, were meant for a particular historical circumstance, and are therefore no longer applicable. Since the Qur’an is newer, it contains God’s latest instructions which are still applicable to our present conditions, and which provide the best solution for some of life’s most pressing problems today.

8. Why is it that Muslims do not accept the doctrine of original sin?
The reason Muslims do not accept this doctrine is that the word of God, the Qur’an, does not agree with it. The Qur’an teaches that God is ever willing to forgive anyone who turns to him in sincere repentance. We find in the Qur’an that God taught Adam and Eve how to seek His forgiveness. When they did as God taught them, God forgave them (see Qur’an 20:122).

Adam and Eve were created with the potential to do either good or evil. They had a free choice either to obey God or disobey Him. They did not realize how deceptive the devil was, and so prompted by him, they made the wrong choice. Will God remain forever angry with them over that one mistake? No! Instead, God taught them how to repair their relationship with Him by praying for forgiveness. Muslims still often recite the same prayer, as follows:
Our Lord, we have wronged our souls. If you do not forgive us and have mercy on us, then surely we are lost (Qur’an 7:23).

What we obtain from that incident is not original sin, but original forgiveness, and an original lesson on how to seek that forgiveness. God set the precedent that He will forgive those who turn to Him in sincere repentance. We will all find ourselves in a similar situation as Adam and Eve. The prophet, on whom be peace, said that every child of Adam is a sinner, and the best of them are those who turn back to God in sincere repentance.

This shows that God does not demand absolute perfection from us humans. That would be an impossible demand, since God alone is absolutely perfect. To err is human. God wants us to know that he will accept us as we are, shortcomings and all, as long as we are trying our best to obey Him. Even in our human situations, it is well understood that absolute perfection is not to be demanded from anyone. Suppose teachers were to demand that all students must score 100% on all their tests, and that if they make even one mistake they will not pass. No one of sound mind will demand this, for it is clearly beyond human capacity. Similarly, God does not demand from people what is beyond their capacity (see Qur’an 2:226).

Some will say that Adam was created perfect and that when he sinned he ruined that perfection. This suggestion makes no sense. If perfection meant that Adam had no ability to choose between good and evil, then how did he exercise that choice which he supposedly did not have? And if he had the ability to choose, as Muslims believe, then why would God remain forever angry with him for his first mistake? Humankind was then in its infancy. We needed someone to pick us up when we fall, not someone to bulldoze us with a tremendous burden of sin and guilt.

Some will say that God could not forgive Adam even if He wanted to do so, since God is Just and He must exact justice. This is as if to say that justice is contrary to mercy, and that God is so fenced in by His own law that He has no freedom to do what He wants to do. How silly! The truth is that God warns us of His punishment, but He also promises forgiveness for those who sincerely repent. If He decides to save sinners, who is there to say He cannot do what He wishes?

9. You said that every child of Adam is a sinner. Does that mean we are born with sin?
No. Muslims believe that every child is born in a pure, natural state. Left to their own, children will grow up instinctively seeking the one true God, Allah. However, environmental influences and parents turn a child away from the pure, natural state. A saying of the prophet, on whom be peace and the blessings of God, confirms this. It says that each child is born in a natural state just as, for example a baby animal is born without any brand on its body; then the owner brands it with his own mark. Similarly, parents too would give a newborn their own religious identity (see Sahih al-Bukhari, Arabic-English, vol.8, no.597 and Sahib Muslim, Eng. Trans. vol 4, no. 6423).

The saying “every child of Adam is a sinner” means that every human being is a sinner, sin being an inevitable outcome of a fallible human nature. No matter how righteous a person is, he or she may at times disobey God through ignorance or forgetfulness. The prophet, on whom be peace, meant to emphasize that the best person is the one who seeks forgiveness for his or her sins. Furthermore, he said that one who repents from sin is like one without sin. God says in the Qur’an that He will replace the evil deeds with good for those who repent, believe, and do righteous deeds (see Qur’an 25:70).

Another saying of the prophet indicates that God actually intended that humans will be a species that commit sins so they can turn to Him and He would forgive them (see Sahih Muslim, Eng. Trans., vol.4, nos. 6620-2). This is a much better explanation than the popular conception according to which God at first sees that humans are good, then God discovers that they are wicked and so, being sorry that He made them in the first place, God eventually decides to wipe them off the face of the earth; but then he changes His mind again and lets them eventually procreate and fill the earth although they are still sinful as ever. The better explanation is that God knew in advance that we would sin, and we turned out just the way God planned. God does not discover new things – He knows everything always.

So, simply put, the Islamic belief is that people are not born in sin but they will eventually commit sins for which they should sincerely repent, and God will wipe out their sins. People do not inherit sins. Sin is something you do wrong. You couldn’t have done anything before you were born, therefore you were born without sin. The Qur’an teaches that God does not hold us responsible for what others did before we were born, and no innocent person would carry the guilt of another (see Qur’an 4:111; 6:164). This coincides with our own sense of justice. No one considers it right to blame children for the sins of their ancestors, or to punish the innocent so that the guilty may go free.

10. Dr. Robert Morey proves in his book that Allah is the name of the moon god worshipped in Arabia before Islam. Is he right?
The book you refer to is entitled The Islamic Invasion:
Confronting the World’s Fastest Growing Religion, published by Harvest House Publishers, Oregon, US, 1992. The author, Dr. Robert Morey, sees Islam as an invasion into North America and a threat to his religious heritage. Unfortunately, Dr. Morey has resorted to dishonest tactics in combating Islam. To prove his contention that Allah is not the God of Christians and Jews, he quoted from several books in such a dishonest fashion that the quotations say the opposite of what we find in those books (see quotations on pages 47-53 of Dr. Morey’s book).

Dr. Morey quoted from the Encyclopedia Britannica to support his case. But in fact the Encyclopedia says:
Allah is the standard Arabic word for “God” and is used by Arab Christians as well as by Muslims (Britannica, 1990 Edition, vol.1, p.276).

Dr. Morey also quoted from H.A.R Gibb to support his case. But Gibb actually says the opposite. In his book Mohammedanism, Gibb says on page 26 that both Muhammad and his opponents believed in “the existence of a supreme God Allah.” Gibb further explained this on pages 37-38 (see Mohammedanism by H.A.R. Gibb, Oxford University Press, 1969). Dr. Morey should have checked his references more carefully before his book went into print.

Dr. Morey said that Alfred Guillaume agrees with him, and he refers to page 7 of Alfred Guillaume’s book entitled Islam. But here is what Alfred Guillaume actually says on page 7 of his book:
In Arabia Allah was known from Christian and Jewish sources as the one God, and there can be no doubt whatever that he was known to the pagan Arabs of Mecca as the supreme being (Islam by Alfred Guillaume, Penguin, 1956, p.7).

How could Dr. Morey misquote like this? Furthermore, Dr. Morey quoted from page 28 of a book by another non-Muslim writer Caesar Farah. But when we refer to that book we find that Dr. Morey gave only a partial quotation which leaves out the main discussion. The book actually says that the God who was called Il by the Babylonians and El by the Israelites was called ilah, al- ilah, and eventually Allah in Arabia (see Islam: beliefs and Observances, by Caesar Farah, Barron’s Educational Series, 4th Edition, p.28). Farah says further on page 31 that before Islam the pagans had already believed that Allah is the supreme deity. Of course they had 360 idols, but, contrary to Dr. Morey’s assertion, Allah was never one of the 360 idols. As Caesar Farah points out on page 56, the prophet Muhammad, on whom be peace, personally destroyed those idols.

Dr. Morey also quoted from William Montgomery Watt. But Watt says on page 26 of his book that the Arabic word Allah is similar to the Greek term ho theos which we know is the way God is referred to in the New Testament (see Muhammad; Prophet and Statesman by William Montgomery Watt, Oxford University Press, 1964, p.26).

Dr. Morey also quoted from Kenneth Cragg’s book entitled The Call of the Minaret. However, on page 36 of Kenneth Cragg’s book we find the following:
Since both Christian and Muslim faiths believe in One supreme sovereign Creator-God, they are obviously referring when they speak of Him, under whatever terms, to the same Being. (The Call of the Minaret by Kenneth Cragg, Oxford University Press, 1964, p. 36). Further on the same page, Cragg explains that the One whom the Muslims call Allah is the same One whom the Christians call ‘the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’, although the two faiths understand Him differently.

Dr. Morey should know that as a scholar he has the academic obligation to quote honestly. He should also know that as a follower of Jesus, on whom be peace, he has an obligation to speak the truth.