“Beware! Whoever is cruel and hard on a non-Muslim, or curtails their rights, or burdens them with more than they can bear, or takes anything from them against their free will; I will complain against that person on the Day of Judgement.” So said the Prophet Mohammed, preaching tolerance, kindness and understanding towards us heretics. It isn’t the picture most people have in their minds of the Islamic faith – and that is, perhaps, unfortunate. The reason could be related to the rising number of acts of aggression against the western world, ostensibly in the name of Islam. But as many Muslims would be at great pains to point out, these acts of terrorism strike against the very kernel of what it is to be a member of the Islamic faith.
I’m not religious in the least but I have always been curious about the concept. When I moved to Dubai I was able to learn a little bit about Islam. I could probably write 20 ejos on the subject, but I won’t. What I’d like to do is shed some light on a belief system and way of life that is sometimes shrouded in mystery, and quite often veiled by misinterpretation. If I can bust just one myth or clear up one misconception for anyone that’ll make me happy. I’m hardly an expert though; what follows is just a few personal observations backed up with a bit of research.
Let us begin. The reason Muslims call their deity Allah is to differentiate him from other gods – it is the personal name of Islam’s one true god. Whereas the word “god” can be pluralised and genderised, the word Allah cannot. Allah is merciful and compassionate, and really just a very nice god indeed. For instance, if you intend to do a bad deed and then don’t actually go through with it, he won’t hold it against you (even though, of course, he is fully aware that you did think about it). It is only when you act on the intention that it counts against you. Furthermore, if you truly regret what you did, the slate automatically wipes clean. The simple act of repentance leads to Allah’s forgiveness.
Some people wonder about the importance of the Prophet Mohammed in the faith. He was just one of many thousands of prophets, but Mohammed is the greatest of them all because he was the last prophet, the one that completed all of Allah’s revelations and sealed them together to create the teachings of Islam as they have been known, unaltered, for the last 1400 years. He is second only to Allah in importance.
The word Muslim means “to submit” and Islam is based on its believers living out the will of Allah, as far as humanly possible. It is founded on five pillars. They are:
1) testimony of faith, i.e. accepting that there is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is his messenger.
2) praying five times a day;
3) Zakat, which is the giving back to the community of a certain amount of money, usually as a charitable donation;
4) fasting during Ramadan; and
5) pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca at least once during a Muslim’s lifetime (for those who are physically and financially able).
The second pillar of Islam is prayer. Muslims are required to pray five times a day– furthermore they must be “clean” when they do so. A ritual ablution occurs before the prayer and this includes washing the face, arms and feet so as to be pure when presenting themselves to Allah. To facilitate this in Dubai, every toilet (private and public) has a long hose and nozzle in it so that wherever they may find themselves at prayertime, a Muslim is able to wash in preparation. It is also why, sometimes, when entering a bathroom after a Muslim you may find it absolutely soaking wet. I guess in striving to become clean, it is sometimes necessary to create a mess. You get used to it.
Zakat is the requirement to donate to charity or to give to those less fortunate. Muslims are obligated to give 2.5% of any income they’ve earned for the year which is surplus to their family’s requirements. This is usually collected and distributed during Ramadan.
Ramadan is the month of the Islamic calendar during which Muslims must fast – refraining from eating, drinking, smoking, having impure thoughts or engaging in sexual activity during daylight hours. These sacrifices transcend physical discipline and bring the faster closer to Allah. This year Ramadan has fallen during August, which happens to be the hottest time of year. Fasters have been going without food and water for up to 15 long hours a day, which as you can imagine is super difficult. Hunger and thirst remind fasters of others who are less fortunate and who go hungry and thirsty everyday. It also serves as a trigger to commune with Allah, to give thanks, and also to atone for any sins committed during the year. It is an extremely important time of year for all Muslims. To read more about Ramadan check out Ejo #9 – Ramadan In Dubai (What It Means And What To Expect).
As with all religions, some things are considered right, and others wrong. “Halal”encompasses everything which is good (and thus permitted in the eyes of God), whereas “haram” describes the opposite – all which is harmful (and thus forbidden). The word halal actually refers to a wide spectrum of things, but is most commonly used to describe meat that has been prepared in an approved way. A lot of animals these days are killed by electrocution – but this method is deemed haram by Muslims. The animal suffers and so it is forbidden to eat its meat. To be considered humane, the knife that will kill the animal must not be sharpened in front of it. Animals should be killed quickly, and as comfortably as possible, and one animal must never witness the slaughter of another as this would frighten it, making the meat haram. The animal should be well fed and watered despite the fact that it shall soon be lunch.
Intoxicants, such as alcohol, are considered haram – the reason being that alcohol decreases your ability to control your own mind and body. There is an old Islamic fable: “A man was told to either rip up the Holy Quran, or murder a child, or bow in worship to an idol, or drink one cup of alcohol, or sleep with a woman. He thought the least sinful thing to do was drink the cup, so he drank it. Then he slept with the woman, killed the child, tore up the Quran and bowed in worship to the idol”. Being a Muslim is all about controlling your impulses and you attain closeness to God when you restrain yourself from physical and mental urges. Alcohol takes away all of that restraint, rendering one vulnerable to the temptations of the devil (and anyone who’s ever been drunk can surely attest to that – I know I can!).
The Quran clearly refers to men and women as being equal. Oppression of women tends to be more culturally and nationalistically based, than theistically. But often the culture fostering the oppression is so closely entwined in an Islamic identity it is difficult to separate the two. Although women are thought of as being equal to men, the physical differences between them has been taken into account and because of this women have been granted the right of protection by (and from) men. One of the major components of Islam is modesty (for both sexes, albeit predominantly for women). As such, men are required to not look upon women sexually and women are required to cover up in public. Islam sees the covering up of a woman’s body as the opposite of female repression. Because it hides her womanliness they believe that it is really a form of female liberation, allowing her to be appreciated for her character and mind, and not just for her body. Nowhere in the Quran or in the prophet’s messages does it state that women must cover their faces – to force a woman to do so (as the Taliban do in Afghanistan) goes against the very spirit of Islam.
Even with all this covering up though, occasionally a person might find themselves sexually aroused in a public place by a person who is not their spouse. Hey, it happens! One of my favourite of prophet Mohammed’s recommendations is that, should this occur to you, you must immediately hurry home to your husband (or wife) and satisfy that sexual urge honourably. Yipee!
While men and women are created equal, they most definitely have different roles to play in marriage and family life. The husband is expected to provide for the family and the wife is expected to look after him and the household (including children when/if they have them). This doesn’t mean a woman can’t go out and work if she wants to. She can, but she must still fulfil her obligations at home too (what else is new, right?). The role of housewife and mother is regarded as one of the most honourable occupations in Islam. Staying home to raise a family garners the greatest respect from the community, because it is arguably one of the most difficult jobs to do.
Polygamy is permitted in Islam but not in the way most people imagine. Men are allowed to marry up to only four women, and there are many restrictions. For instance, a man can only marry another woman if he can afford to keep her in the same way he keeps his first wife; giving them the same amount of food, clothing, leisure, living space, time and compassion. Plus, he actually needs the permission of his first wife in order to take another. Theoretically, anyway. Polygamy was sanctioned, initially, with the intention of providing security and a stable family life for the women left behind after the first Islamic war. Rather than leave the many widows and orphans to fend for themselves it was encouraged for families to give them a home – and since a woman and a man who are not married are forbidden from living under the same roof, marriage was the solution. Today, however, women are able to support themselves. This negates the requirement for a man to marry multiple women. Governments look after those in need, providing welfare to ensure financial stability and security. The burden of this responsibility has been removed from the man, however polygamy (of course) still occurs.
Well, that’s just a drop in the ocean. If you have any questions about Islam please feel free to ask and I will try and get an informed answer from one of my Muslim colleagues. Look out next month for another episode from The Misadventures Of Dangerous Doug.