Answers to Frequently Asked Questions About Muslims


ING has been delivering educational presentations about Muslims and their faith for over two decades. The following are answers to some of the most common questions that ING and its affiliates across the country have encountered in that time. While many of the answers address issues like the creed that are well established because of a clear citation in the Qur’an or hadith (prophetic sayings)—such as the six major beliefs or the five pillars—others focus on areas that are more open to interpretation. These answers reflect the fact that Islamic teachings are the product of a dynamic conversation among Muslim scholars and between the scholars and the laity who apply their best understanding of the primary sources of Islam rather than a fixed set of laws and regulations.

This points to the fact that Islam, like all religions, does not live or speak apart from the people who practice it. There is therefore no monolithic Islam, since, like any other religion, Islam exists only as it is understood and practiced by its adherents.

As in other faith traditions, Muslim scholars have developed varied positions and responses to the numerous questions and issues that have been raised and discussed over the past 1400 years in the various lands where Islam is practiced. These perspectives and resulting practices differ partly because of the diversity within the Muslim community in geography, ethnicity, culture, and age. There are about 50 countries in the world today with a majority Muslim population, each having its own distinct history and culture (or multiplicity of cultures). And there are sizeable Muslim minorities in many other countries, including the United States and virtually all the countries of Europe, that are living Islam in their own unique situations. These Muslim communities likewise have a variety of cultures and histories and live in varied social, cultural, and political circumstances, all producing significant variety in the way that they understand and live out Islam. In addition, there are various sects among Muslims, most notably Sunni and Shi’a, as well as various groups within each major sect. These differences in varieties of Islamic understanding and practice also reflect Muslim scholars’ long tradition of recognizing the diversity of peoples and circumstances and the opinions that should reflect that reality of diversity as well as of our shared humanity.

Therefore, it is important to be clear that the answers to the following questions reflect the views of the American Muslim scholars that ING has worked with. In other words, we do not speak for or on behalf of all Muslims. In most cases, however, the views of these scholars probably reflect the views of the majority of Sunni Muslims in the U.S. and worldwide.

There are new realities and issues that are specific to the time and place experienced by American Muslims today, who are the main focus of ING’s work. These issues cannot always be addressed by the laws of past eras or different cultures in Asia or Africa. Here, we attempt to address these questions in a way that is traditional, yet compatible with the realities of the American experience in the 21st century. In these matters, we strive to be descriptive, respecting the diversity of Islam as lived religion, but our reference point is the Islam we believe in and practice as American Muslims; in most cases, but not necessarily all, this is in accord with Islam as believed in, practiced, and lived by the majority of Muslims worldwide.

We start from five basic principles that ING subscribes to as basic to our vision of Islam in America. These are fundamental values shared by most of the world’s major religious traditions today:

  1. We affirm and uphold the sanctity of all human life, the taking of which is among the gravest of all sins.
  2. We affirm the right to freedom of thought, religion, conscience, and expression.
  3. We affirm the right to security in one’s livelihood, profession, and residence.
  4. We believe that God created us with all the diversity of race, religion, language, and belief to get to know one another, respect one another, and uphold our collective human dignity.
  5. We believe that Islam is above all a religion of peace and mercy and that as Muslims we are obligated to model those traits in our lives and characters and to work for the good of our homeland and society, wherever that might be.

Wherever possible, we indicate which of these principles the basis for our responses to these questions is.

Finally, it is important to note that most of the following questions are actual questions that were asked of our speakers, including some of the most repeatedly asked questions in an educational setting where we supplement curriculum relating to Islam and Muslims in the context of world history, social studies, or cultural diversity programming.


1. What is the difference between the words “Islam,” “Islamic,” “Muslim,” and “Arab”?

Islam is the name of a religion, as Christianity and Judaism are names of religions. The Arabic word “Islam” is based on the root “slm,” which means peace or surrender to God. Combining both translations results in the combined meaning “the state of peace through following God’s guidance.”

Islamic is an adjective that modifies a non-human noun, as for example, “Islamic art,” “Islamic architecture,” “Islamic beliefs,” etc. This term should not be used to refer to a person.

A follower of Islam is called a Muslim, or “one who is in a state of peace by following God’s guidance.”

While the term Arab has been used in the past to refer to members of a Semitic ethnic group from the Arabian Peninsula, today the word “Arab” refers to people from Arabic-speaking countries, most of which are in the Middle East and North Africa. The term Arabian was historically used to describe an inhabitant of the Arabian Peninsula. Today “Arabian” is used as an adjective to describe a non-human noun (e.g., Arabian coffee); it should not be used to refer to people. The following questions about basic Muslim beliefs (2 through 12) are answered in accord with the scholars mentioned above, reflecting majority Sunni views.

2. What does Islam teach?

Islam’s primary message, as understood by the overwhelming majority of Muslims, is the continuation of the Abrahamic monotheistic tradition’s belief in one God. The three major dimensions of Islam include beliefs, ritual practices, and the effort to improve one’s character and actions. There are six major beliefs in Islam and five central practices that are referred to as the Five Pillars.

The last dimension of Islam focuses on the cultivation of excellent moral character to better oneself and the world around oneself. It teaches a set of values that promote life, liberty, equality and justice. Some of these values include:

  • Respect for the earth and all creatures
  • Care and compassion for those less fortunate
  • The importance of seeking knowledge
  • Honesty and truthfulness in word and deed
  • Striving continuously to improve oneself and the world

3. What are the major beliefs of Muslims?

The six major beliefs in Islam, as understood by the majority of Sunni Muslims, are:

  • belief in God;
  • belief in angels;
  • belief in God’s prophets/messengers;
  • belief in God’s revelations in the form of holy scriptures sent to the messengers;
  • belief in an afterlife that follows the Day of Judgment on which people will be held accountable for their actions and compensated accordingly in the afterlife; and
  • belief in God’s divine will and His knowledge of what happens in the world.

4. How do Muslims practice their faith?

Muslims practice their faith in many different ways, but the major practices for both Sunni and Shi’a Muslims are known as the Five Pillars, which include:

  • the profession of faith, namely that there is only one God and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God;
  • the five daily prayers;
  • required annual donation to charity in the amount of 2.5% of one’s excess wealth;
  • fasting during daylight hours in the month of Ramadan; and
  • making a pilgrimage to Mecca once in a lifetime, if one is mentally, physically, and financially able to do so.

5. What are the foundational sources of Islamic beliefs and practices?

The primary sources of knowledge about Islam are the Qur’an, which Muslims generally believe is the divinely revealed word of God, and the Sunnah, which refers to the example or precedent of the Prophet Muhammad (i.e., what he said, did, approved, disapproved, caused, ordered, or allowed to happen). Much of what is known about the Sunnah is from the collection of sayings or reports known as hadith, or prophetic tradition. The hadith describe actions of the Prophet Muhammad or actions that his companions attributed to his teachings. Hadith also elaborate and provide context to the Qur’an.

For Shi’as, in addition to the aforementioned, the rulings of the twelve Imams are considered a primary source. Other sources may exist for different Muslim sects.

In addition to these primary sources, Muslims have also traditionally relied on the following: scholarly consensus, that is, the agreement of knowledgeable scholars upon a particular issue; and analogical reasoning, which means applying principles or laws derived from the Qur’an and Sunnah to similar situations not explicitly addressed by them. The lived experience of Islam, which naturally varies widely not only in different cultures but also with different individuals, also impacts and determines a Muslim’s understanding and practice of Islam.


6. Why do some people suffer so much in this life, especially the innocent, such as children?

This is a challenging issue for all religions that proclaim a belief in a God who is at once omnipotent and beneficent. We believe that God tries people in different ways, through both hardship and ease. While the cause of suffering is not always evident, the way that people respond to difficulty is a test of their moral fiber. Responding to hardship with patience and fortitude is a virtue for which we believe a great reward is promised in this life and the afterlife. Additionally, there may be a silver lining behind every difficulty. For instance, major disasters often bring out the best in people, inspiring them to perform remarkable acts as they respond to their own or another’s hardship with compassion and courage and come to the aid of those in need. Muslims also take comfort in their belief that life doesn’t end after death.

7. God’s love for humanity is a central theme in many religions. Are there similar teachings in Islam?

We believe that God’s love for humanity is indeed central to our faith. The Qur’an mentions God’s compassion and mercy 192 times, as opposed to God’s wrath, which is mentioned only 17 times. Two of God’s main attributes are the “Compassionate” and the “Merciful.” Both of these names denote God’s love and care for all creation. These are the two most often mentioned names of God, since all but one of the 114 chapters in the Qur’an begin with “In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful.” The Qur’an cites 99 different names or attributes of God, many of which also emphasize these characteristics, including “the Loving,” “the Giving,” “the Forgiving,” and “the Kind.”


8. What do Muslims believe about angels?

Angels are mentioned many times in the Qur’an and hadith (prophetic sayings). Unlike humans, angels are described as not possessing free will but as being by nature assigned to specific duties. Two of the most prominent angels mentioned by name in the Qur’an are Gabriel (Jibril) and Michael (Mikhail). Gabriel is the angel of revelation and Michael is the angel of compassion.


9. What does Islam say about Satan?

Satan (Shaytan in Arabic) is believed to be a third type of creation, in addition to humans and angels, known as a “jinn.” Humans are said to have been made from clay, angels from light, and jinn from fire. While the Qur’an teaches that some jinn are good and submit to God, it states that others, such as Iblis or Shaytan (Satan), try to tempt people to do evil, as in the belief about Satan in traditional Christian theology.


10. How do the stories of the prophets in Islam compare with those in Christianity and Judaism?

That depends on which prophet we are talking about. In many cases, the stories of the prophets in the Qur’an are similar to the stories that are in the Bible. Some examples include:

  • the story of Noah and his ark;
  • the story of Abraham and Sarah and the birth of their son Isaac, who is also considered a prophet;
  • the story of Jacob and his twelve sons, including Joseph, who is also considered a prophet; and
  • the most oft-mentioned prophet in the Qur’an, Moses, and the story of his mission in Egypt to rescue his people.

Some of the major differences between the biblical account of some of these prophets and the Qur’an stem from the fact that the Qur’an holds that all prophets were immune from major sins. The stories of Prophet Jesus are close to the Bible in their descriptions of his virginal birth and miracles but differ sharply in their account of the divinity of Jesus and crucifixion; the Qur’an states that Jesus was only a man, not divine, and that before the crucifixion Jesus was taken into heaven and replaced by a person who looked like him.

11. Were there female prophets?

Some Muslim scholars hold the view that there were female prophets. Three of the women regarded by these scholars as prophets are Eve, the wife of Adam, Asiyah, the wife of Pharaoh (who in the Quran is the one who adopts Moses as her son, as opposed to the daughter who does so in the Bible), and Mary the mother of Jesus, because they all received revelation from God. Whether one takes the position that they were prophets who brought a specific message to their people or not, Muslims revere them as three among the many righteous and saintly women mentioned in the Qur’an.


12. Why do Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad is the final prophet?

The majority of Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad is the final prophet on the grounds that the Qur’an and hadith state so.

13. Why can’t you display images of the Prophet Muhammad?

There is no specific teaching in traditional Islamic sources forbidding images of the Prophet Muhammad, and in fact one can find representations of Muhammad and other prophets in different periods of Islamic history. What scholars warn against is the worship of such images, which in more recent times has led some groups to promote the idea that it is forbidden to represent the Prophet Muhammad.

14. Why did some Muslims respond with protest and violence against portrayals of Muhammad in cartoons and film?

This question refers to protests, sometimes erupting into lethal violence, as in the recent attack in Paris, against cartoons published in a French satirical weekly and against the film The Innocence of Muslims. These protests raise the question of freedom of expression, and the instances of violence clearly violated the principle of respect for life.

The great majority of American Muslims and many Muslims elsewhere affirm freedom of expression even for material that is offensive. Muslim leaders and organizations worldwide, even in countries that restrict the publication of such offensive material, vigorously condemned the instances of violence.

Violent reaction to these images was almost certainly fueled by political issues rather than purely by anger at the offensive images. Libyan President Mohamed Magariaf insisted that the Benghazi attack, claimed to be a spontaneous response to caricatures of Muhammad published in Denmark, was in fact long planned by militants, while the Paris atrocities were the work of militants who may well have been striving to recruit French Muslims to al-Qaeda by creating an incident that would isolate them from other French people. In either case, the images served only as a pretext.

15. Jesus was a non-violent reformer while Muhammad fought in wars. Why is there a difference between Jesus and Muhammad in terms of their approach?

This question, as posed, assumes that there is only one way of looking at Jesus, as a “non-violent reformer.” This is not the case, just as it is not the case with Muhammad, who has been and is seen in many different ways by Muslims.

In his book Jesus through the Centuries, church historian Jaroslav Pelikan depicts and analyzes the varied views of Jesus at different times and in different cultures. He devotes a whole chapter to Jesus as both “Prince of Peace” and instigator of divine warfare—sometimes at one and the same time.

The representations of Muhammad are likewise multiple. In her book The Lives of Muhammad, Kecia Ali writes “Far from being uniform or non-changing, both non-Muslim and Muslim views of Muhammad have been diverse, multifaceted, and subject to dramatic changes over the centuries.”

Even when one considers Jesus and Muhammad as historical figures, it is important to keep in mind a significant difference between their positions. Jesus founded a community of believers that was politically powerless and had to function in the shadow of the overwhelming power of the Roman Empire. Muhammad, on the other hand, eventually found himself at the head of a new political community in Medina and was therefore called upon to function as a political and even military leader. Whatever differences one may find between Muhammad and Jesus should not obscure the fact that, in our vision of Islam, both Christianity and Islam uphold the principle of respect for life.

16. Why did the Prophet Muhammad marry so many women?

Polygamy was common in 7th-century Arabia, as it has been in many other cultures, especially for a political leader; for instance, the patriarchs in the Hebrew Bible are shown as having multiple wives, and the kings of Israel are described as having harems numbering in some cases into the hundreds. According to Muslim historians, the Prophet Muhammad’s marriages were contracted to assist needy widows and divorcees and to solidify the community of Muslims by forging alliances among the tribes in and around Medina. In light of the time and place, there was nothing unique or unusual about Muhammad marrying several women.

17. Why did the Prophet Muhammad marry a nine-year old? If she was not nine, how old was she?

The actual age of Aisha at the time of her marriage to Muhammad is disputed, but, the marriage could not have been consummated until she reached puberty. In many cultures, women are or were married years before a marriage is consummated. The custom of early betrothal and marriage continued until the late 19th and early 20th century in much of the world, including Europe and North America, where there are still many states that allow for underage marriage.


18. What do Muslims believe about Jesus?

Muslims overwhelmingly revere Jesus and believe that he was born to the Virgin Mary through an act of God, just as Adam is believed to have been created by God without a father or mother. The Qur’an describes his conception and birth, as well as his many miracles such as healings of the sick. The Qur’an also emphasizes that Jesus was a great prophet of God, as well as a messenger who received revelation from God, but that he was, like all other prophets, only a human being.

19. Why does the Qur’an talk about Jesus more often than Muhammad?

Most of the Qur’an depicts itself as a text addressed to Muhammad; it therefore talks less about Muhammad than it does to Muhammad about other subjects, including previous prophets such as Jesus.

20. What do Muslims believe about Mary?

Muslims generally believe that she is the Virgin Mother of the Prophet Jesus. An entire chapter in the Qur’an is named after her. The chapter called Mary (Maryam in Arabic) and other verses in the Qur’an emphasize her piety, righteousness, and status as an exemplar for all people, male and female. The Qur’an describes her as the greatest of all women: “God chose and preferred her above all the women of the worlds.” (Qur’an, 3: 42)

21. Why is it that Muslims do not celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas?

While Muslims greatly revere Jesus, Christmas is generally considered a Christian holiday and not a part of Muslim cultures except where there are Christian minorities. There is even debate among Muslims over the celebration of Muhammad’s birthday. However, some Muslims celebrate Christmas as part of an American cultural observance like Thanksgiving or Independence Day.


22. Is the Qur’an read only in Arabic?

Since only 20% of all Muslims are Arabs, the Qur’an has been translated into and is read in many other languages, with multiple English translations. However, because Muslims consider the original Arabic text to be the literal word of God, during ritual prayers, the Qur’an is recited in its original Arabic language (just as some Catholic churches still perform mass in Latin or synagogues perform part of their prayer in Hebrew). In order to fully comprehend the Qur’an for instruction and spiritual enrichment, non-Arab Muslims also read the translation in their native language.


23. What are the different kinds of prayer that Muslims practice?

Prayer among Muslims can take many forms. Three very common forms are Salat (ritual prayer), Dhikr (remembrance of God, which usually involves the repetition of God’s names), and Du’a (supplication, or asking God for a need or desire or for forgiveness).

24. How long does each prayer (Salat) take?

Each prayer (Salat) lasts 5 to 10 minutes, depending on the prescribed length of the prayer and the number and length of Qur’anic verses recited. Other factors may also influence the length of time a Muslim prays, including the number of additional (non-obligatory) prayers one chooses to perform, and the pace at which one recites the Qur’an.

25. In large groups women pray behind men. Why is that?

The separation of men and women in prayer is not universal among Muslims. In the mosque built around the Ka’bah, men and women are not separated, but pray together in circular formation around the shrine. In some mosques women pray in balconies above the prayer hall for men, and in some American mosques women pray parallel to men while in others they pray behind the men.

The reason usually adduced for this practice involves notions of modesty. The Muslim ritual prayer is very physical in nature, involving standing, bowing, and prostrating oneself. While in congregational prayers, Muslims are supposed to stand side by side and shoulder to shoulder with those next to them. Many Muslim cultures have considered it distracting or immodest to have men and women praying side by side or to have women prostrate themselves in front of men.

26. How do very busy students or professionals (e.g., firefighters) find the time to pray five times a day?

Depending on their schedules, Muslims probably will not need to perform all five prayers while on the job since the prayers are spread throughout the day. In addition, each of the five prayers has a window of time during which each prayer can be performed. This time frame extends from about one hour to as long as four hours depending on the specific prayer and the time of year, since the times shift depending on the season and length of day.

Throughout most of the year, the prayer time for the noon prayer does not end while students are at school, so they can perform it when they return home. During the time of year when the prayer time ends while students are still in school, they can take a few minutes during recess or lunch to pray. Students can ask their teachers if they can pray in the classroom or library.

In the case of Muslim firefighters, if they are in the midst of fighting a fire and are unable to take a break to pray, they will perform the missed prayer as soon as they are able to, along with the next prayer.


27. What is the Ka’bah?

The Ka’bah is the cube-shaped building covered with a black cloth in Mecca that is believed by Muslims to have been the first house of worship to God. Muslims throughout the world face towards the Ka’bah when they perform each of their daily prayers.

28. Who built the Ka’bah?

Muslims believe that Adam built the original Ka’bah and that Prophets Abraham and his son Ishmael rebuilt and consecrated it as the first house of worship to God.


29. How will God determine who goes to heaven and hell?

We believe that only God knows where a person will end up in the afterlife, since only God knows a person’s intentions, deeds, circumstances, and limitations. We also believe that God will judge human beings according to His complete justice on the Day of Judgment based on both their beliefs and actions, taking into account the opportunities and abilities that He gave them. In the Qur’an, God’s ninety-nine names include “the Judge” and “the Just.”

30. If a person is a good person throughout his or her life, but does not believe in God, will he/she go to hell?

We believe that God rewards whoever behaves righteously in this life and that God knows the innermost secrets of human hearts and will judge everyone with absolute justice.


31. What good is “free will” if everything is predestined? If God already knows if we are going to heaven or hell, why doesn’t He just put us there?

We believe that, unlike angels or animals, humans have the free will to choose to do good or evil in this life and that even though God knows people’s ultimate destination, they themselves do not have that knowledge. Therefore, whatever actions people commit are based on their free will, for which they are held accountable.


32. How does Islam view other religions?

We believe that respect for freedom of religion and conscience is a basic Islamic principle, and we believe that diversity, including religious diversity, is part of God’s divine plan. Moreover, we believe that the salvation of all people, Muslims included, lies with God alone.

33. Who are “People of the Book” and what does the Qur’an say about them?

The Qur’an refers to the followers of the previous Abrahamic holy books as “People of the Book,” which is generally interpreted to mean Jews and Christians. They are called People of the Book because Muslims believe their scriptures originally came from God; “book” in the Qur’an is often a reference to scripture. The Qur’an gives the People of the Book special status by declaring their meat lawful for Muslims and by allowing Muslims to marry women from them. As it does with Muslims, the Qur’an describes some as pious and righteous adherents to their religions, while pointing out that others fail to follow the commandments that were sent to them. The Qur’an also takes issue with some of the beliefs of Judaism and Christianity, such as the Christian belief in the Trinity.

34. Whom do Muslims consider to be “infidels” and how should they treat them?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the English word “infidel” means “a person who does not believe in religion or who adheres to a religion other than one’s own.”

The Arabic word kafir (plural kuffar) is sometimes translated as “infidel”. A more common translation of the word is “disbeliever” or “unbeliever”. In the Qur’an, kafir usually refers to a person who not only rejects the beliefs of Islam but also takes a hostile stance toward Muslims and their religion; it is used primarily to refer to the Meccans who attacked and fought against the Muslim community. In modern Arabic, kafir is often used to mean simply “non-Muslim,” without any necessary negative connotation.

We strongly believe that people of other faiths should be treated with love and respect, affirming the Islamic principle respect for freedom of religion and conscience. According to recent polls by Pew Research, strong majorities of Muslims in every country support the right of non-Muslims to practice their religion freely.

35. Why are there references in the Qur’an that are highly critical of Christians and Jews? Is that not equivalent to anti-Semitism?

The Qur’an contains passages critical of those who fought against the early Muslims, including some pagans, Christians, Jews, and even hypocrites within the Muslim community. These passages speak to the specific historical circumstances in which they were revealed. They are not condemnations of Jews and Christians in general but of the behaviors of specific people— including, as noted, some Muslims.

We hold that respect for freedom of religion and conscience is basic to our vision of Islam.

36. Does the Qur'an teach the hatred or subjugation of non-Muslims?

We understand the Qur’an to explicitly forbid hatred towards, subjugation of, or forcible imposition of religion on any person or people when it states “there is no compulsion in religion” (2:256) and describes religious pluralism as part of God’s plan. The existence of old churches, temples, and synagogues throughout the Muslim world in places like Egypt, Turkey, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, India, and Bosnia and the presence of minority religious populations in those areas demonstrates that this command was historically followed by many Muslim societies.

37. Do Muslims believe in the Bible and Torah?

While the majority of Muslims believe in the five holy books or scriptures mentioned in the Qur’an as original revelations to the prophets (the Scrolls as revealed to Abraham; the Torah as revealed to Moses; the Psalms as revealed to David; the Gospel as revealed to Jesus), they do not believe that they have been preserved in the original form or language in which they were first revealed. However, we believe that the Qur’an contains the same principles included in these previous scriptures.

38. What is your proof of the authenticity of the Qur’an?

Muslim historians and scholars describe the history of the Qur’an and the efforts of Muslims since the early days of Islam to preserve the Qur’an in its original form. During the Prophet Muhammad’s life, scores of people memorized, recited, and wrote down the Qur’an. Shortly after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, the Qur’an was compiled and transcribed by experts who carefully verified every verse by matching it against both the written word and memorized verses. The completed transcript was then copied and distributed across the growing Islamic empire. These copies served as the basis for all copies of the Qur’an written or printed since. Today these earliest written versions of the Qur’an are similar to contemporary copies of the Qur’an.

While translations of the Qur’an may vary, all copies of the Qur’an in Arabic contain nearly identical language. This standardization, coupled with the millions of people who continue to memorize the entire Qur’an, ensures the text’s authenticity.

39. Is it possible that Buddha is among the “unknown prophets”?

Although Buddha was not mentioned among the 25 prophets named in the Qur’an, some Muslim scholars suggest that, because of the high moral standards he advocated, Buddha may have been among the “unknown prophets” who, the Qur’an proclaims, were assigned for every nation. The same may have been true of founders or major figures in other religious traditions.

40. What is the difference between the Nation of Islam and the religion of Islam?

The Nation of Islam is a nationalistic movement that began in the early 20th century, whereas Islam is a religion that was revealed in the 7th century. The original Nation of Islam was also a single, hierarchical organization. However, in 1975 Elijah Muhammad’s son W.D. Muhammad disbanded the organization and moved his followers towards traditional Islam. The Nation of Islam was revived within a few years by various individuals, with the organization headed by Louis Farrakhan being the most prominent of these. Today, followers of his organization number less than 100,000 people, far fewer than the number of African-Americans who follow Islam.

In ideology the Nation of Islam differs from the beliefs of the majority of Muslims in two major ways: the founder of the movement, W.D. Fard, is considered God incarnate, and Elijah Muhammad is considered a prophet. While there are other differences between the two, the Nation has adopted many Islamic traditions, such as women’s dress, holidays, and some Islamic terms.


41. How did Islam spread throughout the world?

It varied depending on the location and period of time. Islam in its early years unified the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula, and this new unity led to conflict with the nearest major powers, the Byzantine and Persian empires. The result was a major spread of Muslim rule and the establishment of a Muslim empire; but Muslim rulers in this empire did not force, and often did not even encourage, conversion to Islam.

Conversion to Islam, even in areas under the control of Muslims, was a gradual process fostered through interaction, intermarriage, and missionary efforts emphasizing spirituality (Sufism). In areas like Indonesia (now the largest Muslim-majority country) and other parts of Southeast Asia, Islam spread mostly through traveling merchants and Sufis. In sub-Saharan Africa (mostly West Africa, but also parts of Ethiopia), Islam spread mostly through trade and commercial relations. Rulers would sometimes adopt Islam while much of the population continued to practice their traditional religions. In many areas currently or formerly ruled by Muslims, large segments of the population have maintained their ancestral religions. For example, Christians are a significant minority in largely Muslim Lebanon, and Hinduism remained a majority faith through centuries of Muslim rule in South Asia.

This is not to say that Muslims have never violated the principle stated in the Qur’an that “there is no compulsion in religion.” Some forced conversions occurred, for example, in the Horn of Africa during the 17th-century wars between Christian Ethiopians and Muslim Somalis, as they did in other times and places.

Today we believe that forced conversions or violating the religious rights of people of other faiths are as much a violation of Islamic principles as the forced conversion of the Germanic tribes under Charlemagne or the forced conversions of some Native Americans or African slaves under colonial rule are seen as violations of Christian principles in the eyes of most modern Christians.


42. What is the main difference between Sunnis and Shi’as?

The majority of both Sunnis and Shi’as share the core beliefs of Islam—the oneness of God and the prophethood of Muhammad—and adhere to the Five Pillars.

The main differences between them today are their sources of knowledge and religious leadership. In addition to the Qur’an and hadith, the Shias and the many sects that comprise them rely on the rulings of their Imams and resulting variations in beliefs and practices.

Historically, the difference originated from the question of succession after the death of the Prophet Muhammad and is related to differing views about appropriate leadership for the Muslim community. Shi’as believe that succession to the spiritual and political rule of the Muslim community lies only with the family and certain descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. Sunnis believe that the Muslim community was free to choose the most qualified person as ruler. Shi’as believe that God chose Muhammad’s cousin Ali, who was married to his daughter Fatima, to be the Prophet Muhammad’s successor, and that Muhammad formally announced this before his death. Shi’as also view Ali as the first in a line of Imams, or preeminent religious leaders, whom they regard as the spiritual and political successors to Muhammad. In contrast, Sunnis believe that Muhammad did not appoint any particular person as his spiritual or political successor.

43. How and when did the division occur between Sunnis and Shi’as?

Sunni and Shi’a Muslims give differing accounts for the origin of their division. Shi’a Muslims trace the division to the death of the Prophet Muhammad, when Abu Bakr was chosen as caliph rather than Ali. In the Shi’a view, Ali and his followers had a religious basis for their position that the caliph, or successor, must come from the Prophet’s family. Sunni Muslims trace the division to the killing of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, along with his family in Karbala, Iraq, by one of the Umayyad Caliph Yazid’s generals, fifty years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. The people of Iraq regretted their failure to support Hussein that resulted in his death.

Subsequently they began a political movement to overthrow the Umayyads, who were not only responsible for his death but had also become corrupt and dynastic rulers. Attempts to overthrow the Umayyads were unsuccessful until the Abbasid revolution in 750 C.E. After the Abbasids came to power, however, the people who supported rule by the descendants of Hussein were increasingly suppressed. Sunnis believe that this political dispute then took on a more theological nature, with the supporters of Ali’s line as the legitimate leaders of the Muslim community becoming the precursors of the Shi’as.

44. Why is there so much conflict between Sunnis and Shi’as today? Does the conflict impact American Muslims?

Much of the conflict between Sunnis and Shi’as is more political than religious. For instance, in Iraq before the Second Gulf War, Sunnis dominated the government. After the war, rule was shifted to Shi’as, and this has produced tensions that have often been exploited by extremists on both sides.

In three Arab Spring countries (Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain), the sectarian divide has also been among the many factors playing a role in the conflicts, but the conflicts began for the same political and social reasons that they erupted in other Arab Spring nations. In Syria, the long-time ruler and his father Bashar and Hafez Assad belong to a minority Shi’a sect that has ruled for decades over a majority Sunni population. Assad’s allies are Shi’a – Iran and Hizbollah – who want to keep the status quo, while Saudi Arabia and Turkey—Sunnis–support the opposition. So while the two sides appear to be divided along sectarian lines, the conflict there is more a fight between an oppressive dictator and his historic allies than a specifically religious conflict. In Yemen, the Shi’a-Sunni divide has also played a role, with Saudi Arabia and Iran also supporting opposing sides in the ongoing war there. In Bahrain the Shi’a minority has protested the Sunni government, often suffering repression as a result.

Shia-Sunni conflict in Pakistan has its roots in the ruling party’s political exploitation of sectarianism to win the favor of Sunni religious authorities at the expense of the Shia minority.

While these conflicts are of concern to American Muslims who have family in the countries involved, the sectarian conflict has not impacted the larger American Muslim community, in part because Sunni and Shi’a leaders in this country have made concerted efforts to demonstrate unity and prevent discord.


45. How do Muslims define modesty?

The Oxford Dictionary defines modesty as “behavior, manner, or appearance intended to avoid impropriety or indecency.” What constitutes modesty is understood differently by Muslims in different cultures, and can include the type of dress as well as the level of interaction with the opposite gender. For some Muslims, modesty also includes humility towards God and other people. Modesty is described by the Prophet Muhammad as an important virtue.

46. What is hijab?

The Arabic word hijab literally means “curtain.” When used to refer to dress, it either implies modest dress that includes a head scarf or refers only to a head scarf.

Hijab” is often incorrectly used interchangeably with the terms burqa and niqab. “Hijab” is generally used to refer to a headscarf, ”burqa” to a covering of the entire body including the face, while “niqab” refers to a face covering that conceals most of the face but exposes the eyes. Some Muslim women wear hijab while others do not and expressions of hijab vary greatly by culture, individual taste, and conviction.

47. Do Muslim women have to wear hijab (cover their hair)?

The answer to this question depends on whom you’re talking to.

Many Muslim women accept an interpretation of the Qur’an established in the formative period of Islam that references Quranic verses and hadith (prophetic sayings) as obligating women to cover their hair and much of their body for the sake of modesty.

The wearing of hijab is, however, a matter of free choice by women in most Muslim-majority countries. Women who choose to wear it do so for a variety of reasons: as a sign of identity, as an act of devotion to their faith, or to indicate that they do not want to be judged by their physical characteristics.

48. Why do some Muslim women cover their faces?

Women in some Muslim cultures understand modesty to require covering not only their whole body and head but also their faces. Therefore, when in public, they wear a burqa (a loose garment which covers the body and face) or niqab (a covering for the face that leaves the eyes exposed).

49. Why don’t men wear hijab? Why are standards of modest dress different for men and women?

The answer again depends on whom you are talking to. The Qur’an instructs both men and women to be modest, but how this is practiced varies greatly. One understanding of modest dress for men in some Muslim traditions requires them to cover from the navel to knee and to dress modestly in loose-fitting clothing. The traditional clothing worn by Muslim men in such places as South Asia, where they wear a loose shirt and pants, or in some Arab countries, where men wear what looks like a long dress (jalaba) and a headscarf (kuffiyah), differs little in the extent of covering from the traditional dress of Muslim women. While it is not as common to see this type of male dress in America, many Muslim men grow a beard and wear a head covering that resembles a skull cap, as do observant practitioners in some other religious traditions.


50. Are men and women equal in Islam?

Many Muslims, in America and elsewhere, advocate and demand complete equality between men and women. Women hold and have held many positions of authority and leadership in the American Muslim community. In Muslim-majority countries women today work as physicians, businesswomen, engineers, and lawyers and have served as heads of state.

In other Muslim communities, depending on social, historical, and cultural conditions, the position of women is very different and is not equal either in theory or practice.

51. What does the Qur’an say about women’s rights?

What the Qur’an is understood to say about women’s rights depends on the interpretation of the Qur’an in specific communities and cultures.

52. Are there any verses in the Qur’an or prophetic sayings that speak to the issue of women’s rights?

Yes, there are many verses and sayings that speak to the issue of women’s rights. They include the following:

Equal responsibilities and reward: “For the men who acquiesce to the will of God, and the women who acquiesce, the men who believe and the women who believe, the men who are devout and the women who are devout, the men who are truthful and the women who are truthful, the men who are constant and the women who are constant, the men who are humble and the women who are humble, the men who give charity and the women who give charity, the men who fast and the women who fast, the men who are chaste and the women who are chaste, and the men and women who remember God a lot, God has arranged forgiveness for them, and a magnificent reward.” (Qur’an, 33:35)

“And their Lord answered them, ‘I am never unmindful of the work of a worker among you, male or female. You are from each other.’” (Qur’an, 3:195)

“Whoever does right, male or female, and is a believer, We will revivify with a good life; and We will pay them their due according to the best of what they have done.” (Qur’an, 16:97)

Right to earn money: “. . . to men is allotted what they earn and to women what they earn.” (Qur’an, 4: 32)

Right to inherit: “For men is a share of what the parents and close relatives leave, and for women is a share of what the parents and close relatives leave, be it little or much – an obligatory share.” (Qur’an, 4:7)

Rights of a daughter: “Whosoever has a daughter and does . . . not insult her, and does not favor his son over her, God will make him enter into paradise.” (Hadith/Prophetic saying)

“Whoever has three daughters and treats them kindly, they will be a protection for him against the Fire.” (Hadith/Prophetic saying)

“Parents cannot force daughters into a marriage.” (Hadith/Prophetic saying)

Rights of a wife: “The best of you is the best to his family, and I am the best among you to my family.” (Hadith/Prophetic saying)

53. How are women treated in Muslim countries?

There are some 50 Muslim-majority countries in the world. They differ widely on women’s rights, depending on a variety of factors, including political development, social and economic circumstances, and cultural views and practices; even within a single country, there may be considerable differences because of region (urban or rural), education, and even family circumstances. Religion may or may not play a significant role in the rights women have, and there are great differences concerning the religious interpretation of women’s rights in different communities and cultures.

So, for example, in many Muslim-majority countries women are involved at the highest levels of education, employment, and politics, with many female physicians, engineers, lawyers, and other professionals. Muslim women have even served as heads of state in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Turkey, Kosovo, Mauritius, and Pakistan. However, in some places women’s freedoms are seriously inhibited by oppressive patriarchal attitudes and practices and by economic, political, cultural, or other factors.

54. Do Muslim women have to stay at home or can they work?

This depends on the family’s culture and circumstances; it is not necessarily based on religion. According to the scholars we rely on, nothing in the Qur’an or hadith (prophetic saying) prohibits women from working. In fact, in most Muslim communities, Muslim women work outside the home. Increasing numbers of Muslim women throughout the world are employed in various highlevel professions, including those that are male dominated, such as medicine and engineering. This is true even in countries known to have a conservative understanding of Islam, such as Saudi Arabia.

55. How does Islam view domestic violence?

Domestic violence and spousal abuse violate the Islamic principle of respect for human dignity; if severe enough, they may even violate the principle of respect for life. According to classical Islamic law, spousal abuse is grounds for a Muslim woman to initiate divorce. The extant biographies of Muhammad record him as never having hit a woman or even a child and as condemning those who did.

56. Are there any examples of Muslim women rulers or leaders?

In recent decades women have been heads of state in several Muslim-majority nations:

  • Sheikh Hasina, prime minister of Bangladesh, 1996-2001 and 2009-present.
  • Khaleda Zia, prime minister of Bangladesh, 1991-1996 and 2001-2006.
  • Benazir Bhutto, prime minister of Pakistan, 1998-1990 and 1993-1996.
  • Tansu Çiller, prime minister of Turkey, 1993-1996.
  • Megawati Sukarnoputri, president of Indonesia, 2001-2004.

Muslim women have also exercised leadership in many other areas:

  • Tawakul Karman, a leader of the Arab Spring in Yemen, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.
  • Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan, famous for her defense of women’s right to education, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.
  • Dr. Ingrid Mattson of the U.S. served two terms as the president of the largest Muslim membership organization in the country, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA).
  • Maha Elgenaidi, founder and CEO of Islamic Networks Group (ING).
  • Azizah al-Hibri, founder and president of KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights.
  • Tayyibah Taylor, late founder, publisher, and editor-in-chief of Azizah magazine.

While most rulers in Muslim history have been male, as in most societies, there have been a few female Muslim rulers in past centuries and in modern times. They include Al-Audr al-Kareema of Yemen, Shajarat Ad-Durr of Egypt, and several female rulers in India.

Muslims who support women’s authority and leadership often appeal to the Qur’an’s depiction of the Queen of Sheba as a righteous, just, and powerful ruler, citing her example as evidence of women’s right to rule.

57. Why are/were there so few female Muslim scholars?

This is a misconception concerning Islamic history. According to historians, there have been thousands of female Muslim scholars throughout Islamic history, many of whom were teachers of renowned male scholars. Some notable examples include:

  • Rabi’ah Bint Mu’awwad, a great scholar of fiqh (jurisprudence), who taught scholars of Medina.
  • A’isha bint Sa’d bint ibn Abi Waqqas, whose pupils included Imam Malik.
  • Sayyida Nafisa, the granddaughter of Hasan, whose pupils included Imam Shafi’i.
  • A’isha bint Abu Bakr, wife of the Prophet and narrator of over 2,000 hadith (prophetic sayings).

There are also many active female Muslim scholars today, including these examples:

  • Dr. Zainab Alwani, professor of Islamic studies at Howard University, Vice President of the Fiqh Council of North America.
  • Dr. Intisar Rabb, professor of law at Harvard Law School and a director of its Islamic Legal Studies Program.
  • Dr. Hafez Barazangi, research fellow at the Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Cornell University.
  • Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar, noted author and translator, famous for her translation of the Quran into English.
  • Dr. Aminah McCloud, professor of religious studies and director of the Islamic World Studies Program at DePaul University.
  • Dr. Ingrid Mattson, professor of Islamic studies and holder of the London and Windsor Community Chair in Islamic Studies at Huron University College at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario.
  • Dr. Zareena Grewal, professor of American studies and religious studies at Yale University.
  • Dr. Kecia Ali, professor of religious studies at Boston University.
  • Dr. Asifa Quraishi, professor of law at the University of Wisconsin Law School, who in 2010 was part of a public delegation accompanying Hillary Clinton to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.
  • Dr. Amina Wadud, author of the books Qur’an and Woman and Inside the Gender Jihad and co-founder of the organization Sisters in Islam.

58. Are there any Islamic teachings which limit a girl’s right to education?

There are many hadith (prophetic sayings) encouraging the seeking of knowledge that have led numerous Muslim women in history to become scholars, writers, and teachers of both men and women, as noted in the previous question. These include sayings such as “Seeking knowledge is obligatory for every Muslim.” In fact, the first word revealed in the Qur’an was “read,” an injunction directed at both men and women.

We affirm as a fundamental Islamic principle that to seek education and knowledge is not only a right but an obligation incumbent on both men and women, and find nothing in Islamic texts or teachings, as interpreted by the scholars we rely on, that limits a girl’s right to seek education and knowledge. Those who limit women’s rights to education are doing so based on patriarchal influences and understandings, not on religious texts.


59. Can Muslims have boyfriends/girlfriends or date?

Individual Muslims follow differing guidelines in this matter. Our understanding from the Qur’an and hadith (prophetic sayings) is that people of the opposite gender should avoid situations, relationships, or actions that might lead to a violation of the principle that couples should abstain from sexual intimacy until after marriage.

60. Are Muslims allowed to marry people of other faiths?

Today there is great diversity in both thinking and practice on this question.

Traditionally, Muslim men may marry women who are of the “People of the Book,” generally defined as Christians and Jews. In this case, a Muslim husband must guarantee the right of his Christian or Jewish wife to worship God according to her religious beliefs.

The reverse, i.e., a Muslim woman marrying a man outside her religion, has traditionally not been allowed, on the grounds that her husband might not guarantee her the right to practice her religion, since he may not to have the same obligation to respect her religion that a Muslim has towards his Christian or Jewish wife. Therefore, for the protection of her freedom of religion, a Muslim woman has traditionally been required to marry a man who will give her the right to practice her faith—that is, a Muslim. This view is based on the patriarchal assumption that the man wields the dominant power in the household and has, therefore, been called into question by some contemporary Muslims, who also cite the absence of a specific text prohibiting such a marriage.

61. How do Muslims get married?

Marriage ceremonies among Muslims, like marriage ceremonies everywhere, vary widely in different locales and cultures. However, the actual Islamic marriage ceremony generally includes the bride and groom, the bride’s father or guardian, an officiator, and two witnesses. The ceremony includes the marriage proposal and acceptance and the presenting of a gift called mahr by the groom to the bride. The wedding celebration after the ceremony varies widely from culture to culture, but generally involves food, special clothing, and some form of celebration. In some societies, there may also be several days of celebration leading up to or after the wedding.

62. Are arranged marriages condoned in Islam?

This depends on what one means by “arranged marriage” and on the culture one is dealing with.

If by “arranged marriage” one means simply that a couple first meets through referrals by family or friends (“matchmaking”) and then is free to choose to marry or not, this is still a common practice among Muslims, although increasingly young Muslims, like young people of any other religion, are meeting in school, at work, or online.

If, however, “arranged marriage” refers to a situation in which a person (this can impact both the man or the woman, but is generally associated with the woman) is forced into a marriage against his or her will, then many contemporary Muslims cite prophetic sayings that uphold a woman’s right to accept or reject a marriage proposal.

63. Is it true that Muslim men can marry more than one woman?

It depends on the conditions.

We believe that monogamy is the ideal in marriage, as reflected in God’s creation of life in pairs of male and female, according to the account given in various Qur’anic verses.

In countries where polygamy is illegal, which is the case in the United States and other Western as well as in many Muslim-majority countries, Muslims should not engage in this practice.

The Qur’an does, however, allow a man to marry more than one wife, with the condition that he treat all wives equally, a standard that even the Quran warns is difficult to achieve, clearly implying a preference for monogamy.

The Qur’an declared polygamy permissible 1400 years ago in the context of war, when caring for orphans was a major concern; polygamy in this situation was supposed to assist widowed women with children who otherwise would have been left to fend for themselves in a brutally patriarchal social order.

Polygamy was not peculiar to the Arabian Peninsula; it was widespread in many cultures, including that of ancient Israel as portrayed in the Hebrew Bible, where many of the Patriarchs are described as having multiple wives and Israelite kings had harems numbering in the hundreds.

64. Can women marry more than one man?

Since polygamy was only permitted to provide for widowed women and their children, this purpose would not be served by polyandry, i.e. the marriage of a woman to more than one man, so it was not permitted.


65. What is the Islamic view of divorce?

While divorce is allowed and the Qur’an describes the different steps in a divorce, there is a hadith (prophetic saying) describing divorce as “the most hated lawful thing,” because it breaks up the family. The Qur’an also urges couples considering divorce to first make use of counseling and mediation. However, if these attempts fail, divorce as a last option is allowed and may, in some situations, be the best outcome.

66. Can women initiate a divorce?

While the Qur’an describes situations where women can initiate divorce, the ease with which she can do so is often informed by interpretations or practices of Islam that vary widely from country to country. In some Muslim-majority countries, a woman can get a divorce relatively easily while in other countries the continuing influence of patriarchy makes this much more difficult.


67. Is Islam opposed to modernity?

This depends on both what is meant by “modernity” and the varied interpretations by Muslims on this subject. If by modernity one means science, the scientific method and technological advances, then we know that scientific exploration and technological innovation flourished in the Islamic cultures of the Middle Ages, commonly known as the Golden Age of Islam. And today, millions of Muslims are involved, often in leading positions, in the fields of science, mathematics, medicine, engineering and other scientific fields.

If by modernity one means democracy and individual rights such as freedom of thought, expression religion, and conscience, then Muslim attitudes vary.

While some Muslims view these rights as secondary to religious principles conveyed by Islam, others, including, as we explain in the introduction to these questions, consider these rights to be fundamental principles of Islam; a Pew poll of Muslims worldwide taken in 2013 showed substantial majorities in favor of democracy and religious freedom. Some Muslims cite the tradition of ijtihad (independent thinking) as an essential aspect of Islamic scholarly tradition that fosters reform, reinterpretation, and the exploration and advocacy of new ideas.

However many Muslims, like members of other religious groups, are concerned about the devastating effects that modernity and its accompanying technological advances, when influenced only by factors relating to economic profit and short-term gain, have had upon our environment and the world.

68. What does Islam say about democracy?

On this as on other questions, there is no monolithic Muslim position. Pew polls in 2011 and 2013 have shown that a substantial majority of Muslims worldwide favor democracy. And as we have witnessed during the 2011 Arab Spring and beyond, people throughout the Arab world in countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and Syria have risked their lives, and in some places are still risking them, in their struggle for freedom and democratic change in their countries.

Additionally the Islamic principle of shura, or “mutual consensus,” is eminently compatible with democracy.

69. What does the term “Islamic State” mean? Do any such states exist today?

The phrase “Islamic State” is a new concept created in the 20th century by some modern Islamic thinkers. Generally, the concept is defined as a nation-state that has adopted some version of Sharia as the ideological foundation for its political institutions. This idea is dependent on interpretation and imagination, given that the Prophet Muhammad left no specific “Islamic” model of government. Nor does Islamic history offer an example of a purely Islamic state, but instead presents various monarchies that developed shortly after the beginning of Islam and continued until the early 19th century.

Throughout most of Islamic history, secular power was invested with the rulers while religious doctrine was determined by Muslim scholars. The latter were often at odds with and even persecuted by the rulers, and feared the corrupting influence of power. In this way, Muslims practiced a form of separation of church and state for much of their history.

70. Does Islam support individual rights?

It depends on whom you are talking to and what rights you’re talking about. Muslims differ on this as they do on other questions, and are in more agreement about some rights than others, such as the right to life, or freedom from persecution and oppression.

There is precedent for such affirmation of individual rights in Islamic tradition. The principle of individual rights was established in one of Islam’s earliest documents, the Medina Constitution, which was drafted by the Prophet Muhammad when he migrated with his followers to Medina. The agreement laid out certain rights and responsibilities between the Muslims and the major tribes in Medina and guaranteed the security and religious freedom of the diverse religious and tribal groups who made up the new community. In the context of its time, it embodied a remarkably strong affirmation of human rights.

Some rights s such as freedom of expression and freedom of religion which some Muslims view as fundamental Islamic principles, have been challenged in recent times by other Muslims or groups who see limits to these rights. The question of how to deal with material that offends religious sensibilities is a particularly contentious issue, not only for Muslims but for many others also.

A Pew poll taken in 2013 showed a substantial majority of Muslims worldwide in favor of democracy and of freedom of religion. While the poll did not ask questions specifically about freedom of expression, it is likely, in view of their answers to the aforementioned questions, that a substantial majority would favor these rights as well.

There is, nonetheless, a minority among Muslims that does not embrace, or does not embrace fully, the affirmation of individual rights that we consider basic to Islam.


71. What is Sharia?

The term Sharia comes from an Arabic word meaning “path to the water,” which reflects the concept that Sharia is divine guidance drawn mainly from the Qur’an and Sunnah (teachings and guidance of Prophet Muhammad) for the purpose of helping humanity draw close to God and live in kindness and justice with His Creation. The term Sharia is used by Muslims to refer to the values, code of conduct, and religious commandments or sacred laws which provide them with guidance in various aspects of life.

While Sharia is often translated as “Islamic law,” a more accurate term for “Islamic law” in Arabic is fiqh which refers to the human endeavor to interpret and apply Sharia.

72. What are the sources of Sharia and how is it interpreted?

Sharia is derived from the Qur’an and Sunnah (prophetic tradition) by qualified scholars who use an interpretative process that includes qiyas (reasoning by analogy) and ijma (consensus) and also relies on precedent. This process of interpreting Sharia is called fiqh in Arabic, which means “deep understanding.” Fiqh is determined by qualified religious scholars who use their knowledge, understanding, and individual judgement to interpret religious law, often arriving at different conclusions with their interpretations. Fiqh is an interpretation of Sharia and, like halakha or Jewish law, is an ongoing effort and process. Because much of Sharia is interpretative, it has a degree of flexibility that allows it to function in different societies and cultures. Thus, Islamic law or fiqh has historically functioned in diverse areas in the world, generally with a demonstrated record of tolerance and pluralism towards different cultures and religions.

73. What issues does Sharia address?

Sharia addresses both personal and communal aspects of life. For the most part, Sharia is concerned with personal religious observances such as prayer and fasting.

Sharia can be divided into two broad areas:

  • Guidance in religious worship (ibadat), which is the central focus of Islam.
  • Guidance in worldly matters (mu’amalat) such as visiting the sick, taking care of our parents, marriage, inheritance, investments and business affairs, etc.

It can be further divided into three more specific areas, some of which apply to American Muslims and some of which do not:

  • Religious worship and ritual: American Muslims practice their acts of worship (prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, etc.) or rituals in the same manner as people of other faiths.
  • Private social interactions (marriage, business, etc.): All religions have rules for marriage and ethical economics. These are private and voluntary, so American Muslims follow Islamic standards for these within the limits of American secular law. For example, civil law prohibits having more than one wife, so American Muslims must abide by this law (since Sharia recommends monogamy, this isn’t a problem). There are other aspects of marriage laws such as the mahr (gift from the husband to the wife) or the religious marriage contract which Muslims do observe. Since the Constitution allows such practices for all religions, it is also acceptable to practice this aspect of Sharia in America.
  • Public law issues (criminal law, war and peace, etc.): These have no application in the U.S. Islamic scholars formulated rules in this area for Muslim-majority societies in other historical situations. But Sharia requires Muslims to obey “the law of the land” of the country they live in. The “law of the land” in the U.S. is the Constitution. Sharia requires American Muslims to support and follow the Constitution in all matters related to public law. Most aspects of Sharia are not meant to be government-enforced, because Sharia is largely a matter of conscience.

74. What types of Muslims follow Sharia?

Any observant Muslim would consider him or herself to be Sharia-adherent. It is impossible to find a Muslim who practices any Islamic ritual and does not believe himself or herself to be complying with Sharia.

75. How does sacred law such as Sharia interact with secular law?

Almost all religions have some kind of sacred law. Sacred law derives its authority from God or the religion’s founder, appeals to the heart and conscience, and is a spiritual guide for the believer.

In America, the religion clauses of the First Amendment state that the government must protect itself from the imposition of any religion while at the same time protecting people’s rights to practice their own religion. (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”) This means that, in the United States, individuals, families, and religious and private groups are free to follow their own sacred laws, as long as:

  • they do so voluntarily,
  • people are free to join or leave these groups, and
  • the freedom and rights of others are respected.

Secular law also provides parameters or limits on following sacred law, to ensure that the public interest is protected (e.g., the United States prohibited Mormons from practicing polygamy).

76. How do American democracy and Sharia relate to each other?

American democracy is based on the Constitution. The Constitution protects rights such as religious freedom, privacy, and private property. The Constitution allows people to follow their conscience as it relates to culture, behavior, and lifestyle, so long as they respect others’ rights and their actions are compatible with the common good.

American Muslims can follow Sharia (Islamic values and way of life) in the same way that adherents of other religions follow their sacred laws, values, and lifestyles. The basic parts of Sharia (rituals, marriage and family life, charity and ethical business practices) are private and voluntary.

77. Is Sharia being substituted for the U.S. Constitution?

Since Muslims make up 1 to 2% of the American population there is little danger of Sharia being substituted for U.S. law in American courts and no evidence that anything of the sort is happening or contemplated by anyone. However, the First Amendment clearly provides protection for the free exercise of religion, which includes protecting the rights of Muslims, as of observant Jews and Christians, to observe their own laws in matters of faith, including the observance of rules regarding personal worship and of some family laws. However, no religious law can supersede state or federal law. Moreover, Sharia commands Muslims to observe the law of the land in which they reside.

78. What is a fatwa?

Fatwa” is an Arabic term that means a ruling or legal opinion that has been deduced by a qualified Islamic scholar (or someone claiming authority in Islam) on issues pertaining to Islamic law that generally have not previously been decided. Since these opinions are non-binding, Muslims are free to choose whether or not to follow them.


79. What happens to a Muslim who does not follow one of the pillars?

We believe that acts of worship should be done for the sake of God and that God alone will judge each person according to his or her intentions and actions.

80. What is the Islamic view on punishments such as the death penalty, stoning, or cutting off someone’s hands?

There is no monolithic Muslim view on this question. Any answer must take into account the differing interpretations of Islam in different historical and cultural contexts. In other words, the “Islamic” view of punishment will vary depending on the individual doing the interpreting and on the period, circumstances, culture, and country under consideration.

The severe punishments listed in the question (known as a special class of penalties called huddud) were practiced 1400 years ago in the tribal society of Arabia and even then were only rarely imposed because the conditions for imposing them were so strict. For instance, the punishment of stoning for adultery could be carried out, according to the Hadith, only at the testimony of four eyewitnesses—a virtually impossible condition. Capital punishment for murder could be avoided if the victim’s family agreed to monetary compensation for their loss—a normal practice in the society of the time.

These punishments are very similar to those found in the Hebrew Bible, which, like the Qur’an, spoke to social conditions and attitudes vastly different from those of later times and different places. Jews today, even the most strictly Orthodox, do not practice these punishments, and Christians generally regard them as superseded by the ethic of Jesus.

Today, most Muslim-populated countries do not practice these punishments, and where they are practiced, such as under the Taliban or ISIS, the required due process that makes many of these punishments nearly impossible to enforce are not followed, which is why many scholars have condemned their use.

81. Does Islam encourage honor killings?

No, “honor killings”—which refer to violence, generally against girls or women, by one or more family member who believe the victim has brought dishonor upon the family—are prohibited by Islam on the basis of not just one but several principles. First, they violate the sanctity of life, which is considered sacrosanct; second, they fail to respect the right of due process for anyone accused of a crime; and, third, they contradict the principle that each individual is responsible for his or her own actions and that no individual or family member should be held responsible for the behavior of another. In fact, the Qur’an specifically prohibits even speaking ill of a woman without the testimony of four witnesses and calls for the punishment of one who does so without this virtually impossible requirement.


82. How do Muslims view terrorism?

The vast majority of Muslims unequivocally condemn terrorism. Terrorism, defined as the use of violence and threats to intimidate, coerce, or exact retribution, especially for political purposes, flagrantly violates at least three interrelated Islamic principles: respect for life, right to due process, and individual responsibility. The principle of respect for life prohibits the targeting of innocent civilians even during a state of war.

83. Is there anything in Islam that leads to suicide bombings or terrorism?

Not based on our reading. Suicide bombings violate the prohibition against suicide and terrorism violates the prohibition against murder, one of the gravest sins prohibited by the Qur’an.

84. How do extremists justify their actions using the Qur’an?

While one cannot speak for their motivations or methodology, Muslim extremists use the Qur’an the same way that Christian extremists such as the Ku Klux Klan and Aryan Nations or Jewish extremists such as Meir Kahane and Baruch Goldstein in Israel use the Bible: by taking phrases out of context and developing interpretations that serve their agenda.

They also ignore principles of the interpretation of texts followed by legitimate scholars of religion, above all the principle that a text must be understood with reference to the time, place, and situation in which it was given. The Qur’an, like other seminal religious texts, has a dual nature: one that is specific (particular or transitional) to the occasion, time, and place, and another that is universal and permanent, dealing with principles that apply for all times and places. The specific cannot be made to apply universally, while the universal always informs the specific. Ignoring this principle leads to arbitrary interpretations tailored to fit political agendas.

Most of the terrorism committed by people claiming Islam as their motivation is justified by a methodology that bypasses the bulk of classical scholarship. Various legal issues that pertained to the majority of the Muslim community were often left to the discretion and judgement of qualified scholars. ISIS and other similar groups, however, discount the role filled by traditional scholars. They promote themselves as “scholars” and then produce rulings far removed from what Muslims traditionally would find normative, acceptable, or humane.

85. In Islam, is it ever justifiable to kill innocent civilians?

We believe that Islamic teachings clearly prohibit killing innocent civilians. While there are obviously extremist Muslims who disagree with this stance, the position of the Muslim majority is clear, as demonstrated by repeated condemnations by Muslim scholars and leaders across the world.

86. Do Muslims, particularly those in America, support al-Qaeda? Did Muslims support bin Laden when he was alive?

In a Pew Research survey taken in Middle Eastern countries and Indonesia (the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country) in 2011, only 15% of Muslims expressed favorable views of al- Qaeda, and only 16% had any confidence in bin Laden “to do the right thing in world affairs.” Among U.S. Muslims, terrorism has even less support; in the same year, 86% of American Muslims said that suicide bombing and other violence against civilians in defense of Islam are never (81%) or only rarely (5%) justified.

87. Why don’t Muslims condemn terrorism?

This question rests on a misconception, as Muslims have consistently and repeatedly denounced terrorism since September 11, 2001. For a large sampling of such condemnations, see this list.

Unfortunately, these statements are rarely noted in the mass media in the US, leading many people to think erroneously that Muslims have not denounced terrorism.

This question, however, could also be answered with another question: why should Muslims be expected repeatedly to condemn terrorism? Are Christians or Jews expected to denounce every irresponsible or destructive statement or action made in the name of their religions? The question seems to assume that Muslims support or condone every act committed in the name of Islam unless they specifically state otherwise. This assumption is clearly unjust and unreasonable.

88. Why are there so many Muslim terrorists?

In a total world population of around 1.8 billion Muslims, radicals and terrorists are a minuscule minority. A recent article by CNN estimates the total number of members of Muslim terrorist groups as around .00625% of the world’s total Muslim population. Even if one assumes that there is a total number of Muslim terrorists several times that figure, to account for “lone wolf” extremists and currently unknown groups, one still finds only a very tiny percentage of Muslims involved in terrorism or extremist violence.

What is true is that Muslim terrorists are very much in the public eye, especially in the U.S. and Europe, to the extent that some people erroneously believe that extremist violence is unique to Muslims. There are several reasons for this:

  • Many actions of Muslim (and other) terrorists are deliberately designed to draw attention. The perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks knew, and intended, that images of these atrocities would dominate news around the world. Indeed, terrorism, which, on the scale practiced today, is something new in history, is intended precisely to draw public attention to the terrorists and their grievances.
  • Closely related to the foregoing fact is the reality that terrorist violence can and does strike Western countries and hence poses a real danger to their citizens; it is, therefore, inevitably a matter of legitimate concern to Western publics (although the chance of one’s being killed in a terrorist attack is about the same as being crushed by falling furniture).
  • There appears to be some clear media bias to emphasizing terrorism and extremism from Muslims over that from other groups—even when terrorism from other sources poses a clear danger to people in the U.S. Until the murder of 49 patrons of a gay bar in Orlando, Florida this past June, the number of people killed by Muslim terrorists in the U.S. was actually slightly less than those killed by right-wing extremists who often identified themselves as Christians. Nonetheless, the Journal of Communication reports that 81% of domestic terrorism suspects are identified as Muslims in TV news, while the FBI reports only 6% of terrorism suspects are Muslim.

In other words, while there are only a small number of Muslim extremists and terrorists, especially in comparison to the world’s total Muslim population, they loom very large in the public mind—for reasons both legitimate and not.

89. What is the role of American Muslims in combating terrorism?

There is no reason to assign a special role to American Muslims, who are overwhelmingly opposed to terrorism. American Muslims do, however, have a responsibility to educate Americans of other faiths about Islam, increase Islamic literacy in the American Muslim community, and to clarify that terrorism is prohibited in Islamic teaching.

90. What does the Qur'an say about war?

Like other holy books, including the Bible, there are a number of verses about warfare in the Qur’an; they address the struggle of the early Muslims against the Meccans who fought and persecuted them first in Mecca and then after they established a state in Medina, where Muslims fought back for the first time. However, they make up a small percentage of the 6,000 verses of the Qur’an. In addition, it is important to keep in mind the following:

    1. A reading of the “warlike” verses in their context in the Qur’an invariably shows that they refer to situations in which the Muslim community was under attack, either through direct military aggression or forcible denial of legitimate rights of freedom of religion and expression—that is, they refer to, and permit, only strictly defensive warfare. Aggression is clearly prohibited (Qur’an, 2:190).
    2. The earliest verse related to fighting (22:39) states that “permission [to fight back] is given to those who have been wronged,” clearly indicating that such permission is an exceptional allowance responding to a specific situation, and that peaceful conduct is assumed to be the norm for Muslims.
    3. There are strict rules of warfare outlined by the Prophet Muhammad and his successors that prohibit targeting civilians, specifically women and children, or even harming infrastructure or crops used by civilians.

91. When do Muslims consider war to be justified?

While there are differing views among Muslims on their interpretation of Qur’anic verses about war, as about other subjects, the majority of Muslim scholars today interpret the Qur’an to allow war only for self-defense, as delineated in the following verse: “Fight in the cause of God against those who fight you, but do not transgress limits by aggressing; surely God does not love transgressors” (Qur’an, 2:190).

The other justification for war in the Qur’an is to protect others from harm, but this is permissible only if the harm prevented is greater than the harm caused by the acts of war. This is the same as the principle of proportionality in the Christian doctrine of just war, which bears other similarities to the concept of war in the Qur’an.

According to the following Qur’anic verses, protecting others from harm includes defending people of other faiths: “To those against whom war is made, permission is given to fight, because they are oppressed. Verily, God is capable of aiding them. They are those who have been expelled from their homes in defiance of what is just, for no other reason than that they say, ‘Our Lord is God.’ Had God not restrained one set of people by means of another, monasteries, churches, synagogues, temples and mosques wherein God’s name is oft-mentioned would have been destroyed. God will certainly aid those who aid His cause” (Qur’an, 22:39-40).

92. What is Jihad?

The Arabic term jihad literally means “striving.” Jihad is often mistranslated as “holy war.” While the word can refer to military action against an aggressor, this is by no means the only meaning of the term. Traditionally, Muslim sources distinguish between the “greater” and the “lesser” jihad. The “greater jihad” is described by Muslim scholars as an internal struggle to avoid negative actions and cultivate good character. The “lesser jihad” is the external striving for justice, in self-defense or against oppression. One can do this in one’s heart, with one’s tongue or pen, and, if these are ineffective, by forcibly trying to change an oppressive situation, as, for instance, the colonists waged the Revolutionary War against the oppressive policies of the British, or as the Allies in World War II went to war against the aggression of Hitler. It should be noted, however, that violent revolution was often seen by classical scholars as the absolute last resort. The social chaos and mayhem that could ensue from overthrowing an oppressive leader was often viewed as much worse than the reign of an oppressor.

93. What does the Qur’an say about peace?

The Qur’an describes the desirability of peace and the means of attaining it in various passages, including the verse, “If they incline toward peace, then seek you peace also,” which clearly demonstrates that peace is a desired state to be striven for. Another verse describes the blessings of peace: “’Peace,’ a word from a Merciful Lord” (Qur’an, 36: 58). Furthermore, Salaam alaikum – “peace be upon you” – is the universal Islamic greeting; and as-Salaam is one of the 99 names of God, meaning “The Giver of Peace.” One of the best-known prophetic supplications is: “O God, You are peace, peace comes from You. Blessed are You O Possessor of Glory and Honor.” Furthermore, one of the various names for heaven is Dar al-Salam, “Abode of Peace.”

94. Are there any Muslim peacemakers?

Muslim peacemakers are working throughout the world building bridges between people of different faiths. We believe the work we’re doing (at ING, authors of this document) in the United States to increase religious literacy is the best antidote for conflict.

Contemporary Muslim advocates of nonviolence include Sari Nusseibeh in Palestine, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan in India, Muhammad Yunus in Bangladesh, and women leaders such as Rebiya Kadeer in the Uighur region of China and Iltezam Morrar in Palestine, who led a successful nonviolent effort to keep Israel from building its “separation wall” through the middle of a Palestinian village.

In recent history, examples of Muslim peacemakers include Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a close associate of Gandhi in India, who called nonviolence “the weapon of the Prophet” and organized the world’s first nonviolent army, the Khudai Khidmatgar or “Servants of God”; and, in Iran, the late Grand Ayatollah Muhammad ibn Mahdi al-Shirazi, a major leader among Shi’a Muslims, who upheld the tradition of Muslim nonviolence.

95. Why is there so much conflict between Arabs/Muslims and Jews?

Which Arabs and Muslims and which Jews are you referring to? Throughout the world where Arabs, Muslims and Jews are living as minorities in Christian populated countries, they tend to be allies on shared interests and concerns such as the promotion of religious literacy and the fight against anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Muslims and Jews are also often allied on questions of social justice.

Where Jews live today as minorities in Muslim majority countries, such as Iran, the views are mixed. Some say they live in harmony with their Muslim compatriots, and others say that Jews are discriminated against.

Historically, Jews and Muslims generally lived in harmony in many Muslim-populated countries, such as Morocco, Iraq, and Egypt (and, at least until the mass migration of Jews to Palestine in the early 1900s, in Palestine itself). Jews refer to Muslim rule in Spain in their history books as a period of renaissance for Jewish life. During the Spanish Inquisition, when both Muslims and Jews in Spain were forced to convert or leave, many Jews fled to Muslim countries where they lived for centuries in security and prosperity. These Muslim countries, with rare and short-lived exceptions, never propagated the anti-Jewish sentiment that resulted in pogroms and other forms of persecution known in Europe.

If the question is about the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, then this is a recent conflict which began with the twentieth-century mass settlement of Jews in Palestine, and the subsequent creation of the state of Israel. In the eyes of most Muslims, this is less about religion than about the displacement and dispossession of many Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian, as the state of Israel was formed, which is why Christian Palestinians such as Hanan Ashrawi have been active about this issue.

It must be understood, however, that most Jews have a different view of Israel’s birth; the different narratives accepted by both sides are part of the challenge of bringing peace to the area.

Today, the evils of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia have brought Jewish and Muslim communities in America together in a mutual effort to denounce bigotry and prejudice against religious minorities, as exemplified by the fund raising efforts of American Muslims following the desecration of Jewish cemeteries. In this way, Jews and Muslims are increasingly uniting in response to a common threat that challenges both communities.

96. If Islam is considered to be a religion of peace, then why is there so much conflict in countries where Muslims live?

This question makes two assumptions: first, that there is more conflict among Muslims than among followers of other religions, and, second, that conflicts involving Muslims result primarily from their religion.

The first assumption is a false perception. Of the 50 Muslim-majority countries, the vast majority are at peace. Furthermore, many countries with non-Muslim majorities are involved in conflict. The United States, for instance, a Christian-majority country, is the world’s largest arms exporter and is involved currently in several armed conflicts. The two largest world wars in history were fought mostly between Christian-majority countries (i.e., World Wars I and II).

The second assumption is likewise misleading. While religion is sometimes invoked by parties to support a war, religion is at most one factor among many in producing conflict, and usually not the most important one. Ethnic, economic, and political issues are generally the underlying causes behind most conflicts, including those involving Muslims.


97. What factors contributed to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism?

The word “fundamentalism” was actually first used in reference to an American Protestant movement that arose in the early part of the 20th century in reaction to modernism. If we accept this term at face value, however, Islamic fundamentalism was to a great extent a reaction to the modernization and Westernization policies in many Muslim-populated countries in the 19th and early 20th centuries that viewed Islam as backwards, outdated, and a barrier to progress. In the name of modernity, governments in places like Turkey, Iran, and Egypt outlawed or discouraged Islamic schooling, dress, and traditions. In Turkey, the Arabic alphabet was replaced with the Latin alphabet, in the belief that the only way to modernize was to adopt Western culture and tradition. Traditional values and practices were replaced with Western modes of dress, culture, economics, and even language, often without the accompanying benefits of such Western values as democracy and civil liberties.

In response to these trends, some 20th-century Muslim groups espoused a return to the original practices of Islam as they understood them to have been practiced during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad and his immediate successors. The movement generally ignored the traditions and ideological developments, including that of the four schools of Islamic thought, over the previous thirteen centuries. As a result, they promoted an often narrow, unrealistic, and sometimes puritanical vision of Islam. This movement has often taken on political overtones or issued calls for an “Islamic state” (see question 68 above) and sometimes, but not always, involves a strict or literal interpretation of Islam, or extreme positions, as is often the case with reactionary or “restorationist” movements.

98. What is Wahhabism?

Wahhabism began as an 18th-century reform movement in the Arabian Peninsula and focused on what its founder Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab perceived as the deviation of Muslims from what he believed to be “pure Islam.” Wahhabism then evolved into an ultra-conservative and puritanical form of Islam which is practiced mainly in Saudi Arabia but has spread through other Muslim-populated countries through well-funded literature and educational campaigns. Today, the majority of Muslims worldwide, including American Muslims, reject this strict and intolerant version of Islam and those who attempt to impose it upon other Muslims.

99. How does the Taliban’s practice of Islam compare with mainstream Islam?

The Taliban arose from the mujahideen who fought the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan in the 80’s and 90’s. The backdrop for their rise is multi-faceted and includes both the conflict and aftermath of decades of war as well as intervention by various regional players. Most Taliban are members of the Pathan ethnic group that resides in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Actions by the some members of the Taliban have shown a clear rejection and violation of several of the principles we identify as fundamental to Islam, including respect for life, for human dignity, for freedom of religion and conscience, and for freedom of thought and expression. The Taliban’s interpretation and practice of Islam reflects a very narrow and inflexible interpretation that has been informed by external and internal influences that have come into play during decades of warfare, including among them tribal culture that is extremely patriarchal. This cultural context impacts their attitudes in many areas, especially their views and interpretations relating to women. They have been widely criticized by other Muslims for their treatment of women—specifically for their ban on women’s education and work—their strict dress requirements for both genders, and their harsh punishments for violations of their laws.

They have also interpreted Sharia to ban a wide variety of activities, including education and sports for women, kite flying, beard trimming, recreation, entertainment, and other matters where they have a much more rigid and extreme interpretation than most Muslims. Additionally, some members of the Taliban have engaged in actions viewed by the great majority of Muslims as prohibited by Islamic teachings, such as violence against civilians.

100. Is Islam a political movement or ideology?

No. Islam is a religion which focuses primarily on cultivating good character and drawing close to God. Like people of other faiths, American Muslims participate in American political life by voting in elections and getting involved in community organizing around issues or candidates.


101. Is there a conflict between being a Muslim and being an American?

Neither “Muslims” nor “America” are monolithic entities. But there is generally no conflict in being both. This question is like asking whether there is a conflict between being a Christian and an American. One is a religious identity, while the other is a national identity. Both impact one’s life, but they play different roles in shaping one’s identity. America has traditionally been a land of immigrants from diverse cultures, religions, and backgrounds. The challenge for new immigrants has been to maintain their identity and culture while living in a multicultural, multi-religious society, a challenge that various groups have struggled with, including some Muslim immigrants, particularly post 9/11.

However, like the values of other Americans, the values held by the great majority of American Muslims as fundamental to their vision of Islam—values such as respect for education, hard work, family, democracy, individual rights, and liberty—are mainstream American values.

102. Why do so many Muslims in the world hate America?

Which Muslims and what aspects of America are we talking about? Neither Muslims nor the United States are monolithic entities. “Hate” is also a very strong word.

According to polls, Muslims around the world generally admire America for its technology, liberty, education, and accomplishments. During the Arab Spring, protesters in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya used American social media to advocate many American ideals, such as democracy.

If some Muslims disagree with specific aspects of foreign or domestic policies, this cannot reasonably be described as “hatred” of America as a whole.

103. Should I be afraid of anyone who is Muslim or from the Middle East?

There is no more reason to mistrust or fear a Muslim or a person from the Middle East than a person of any other religion or background. One should not relate to any group of people on the basis of stereotypes.

To dispel fear based on stereotypes or misperceptions, we’ve launched the Know Your Neighbor: Multifaith Encounters Summer Campaign that you might be interested in. Take a look here.

104. How many converts to Islam are there in the United States?

While there are no exact figures on the total number of Muslims in the U.S. in general, since the U.S. Census cannot ask about religious affiliation, various polls over the last decade estimate the number to be between 3.5 and 6 million Muslims in America. Of these, around 20% are converts, the majority of whom are African-Americans.

105. Why do Muslims have such a negative image in the U.S.?

Since most Americans do not know many Muslims personally, the media is often the main source of people’s information about them. This can be problematic, since in general the media tends to focus on negative events and issues and does not consider good news newsworthy. The media also has a fixation on sensationalism and hype since it attracts an audience. That is why the majority of news stories about Muslims are related to violence and terrorism. It is rare to see stories about the everyday lives of Muslims who are ordinary people, at work or in school, let alone positive stories about the contributions of American Muslims.

Media Tenor, a research organization that analyzes mass media, reported that between 2007 and 2013, 80% of news coverage of Muslims on ABC and CBS and 60% of coverage on Fox News was negative, usually focusing on terrorism and violence. When a Muslim commits an act of violence the media tends to focus on the act longer then when it is committed by a non-Muslim.

A recent study by researchers from Georgia State University found that an attack perpetrated by a person who identifies as a Muslim receives on average four and a half times more media coverage than an attack perpetrated by a non-Muslim. This means that a small fringe (ISIS or other extremist groups or individuals) is seen as representing the entire Muslim community, painting all Muslims in a negative light. Media reports often mirror the government’s attitude towards a particular nation or group, and at present we are a country at war with certain Arab or Muslim groups in the Middle East.

In addition, the media often misinterprets any action committed by a Muslim as a reflection of his or her religion, when the person’s motivation may have more to do with politics, economics, personal background, culture, or any number of other factors that are considered when discussing negative actions by people from other groups.

106. What are American Muslims doing to counter Islamophobia?

While it is unreasonable to expect that American Muslims should bear the double burden of both dealing with the prejudice against them and working to prevent it, today American Muslims have been engaged in various campaigns and projects to counter hate and bigotry. As was the case with previous ethnic and religious groups such as Jews, Catholics, Germans, Irish, and Japanese, this may turn out to be a prolonged struggle for civil rights; for African Americans or Latino Americans, this struggle is ongoing, and American Muslims join other groups in calling for an end to bigotry of any sort.

The following are some of the ways that American Muslims and their allies are working to combat Islamophobia:

    • Since Islamophobia is based on ignorance, education about Islam and Muslims is one of the most potent weapons against it. ING, founded in 1993, has delivered thousands of presentations about Islam and Muslims in the San Francisco Bay area and, through its network of affiliates, nationwide. These presentations not only provide authentic and accurate information about Muslims and their faith but also give audiences an opportunity to interact with a Muslim face-to-face, often for the first time. ING’s impact studies demonstrate the effectiveness of ING’s work in dispelling stereotyping of and prejudice against Muslims.
    • Islamophobia often leads to violations of Muslims’ civil rights. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and Muslim Advocates are the leading organizations in the country addressing this issue.
    • Interfaith allies are key to improving Muslims’ standing in the U.S. Many people of various faiths have come out in support of Muslims, particularly when Muslims are under attack. The steps they have taken include:
      • Organizing multi-faith vigils around mosques.
      • Publishing articles and letters in support of Muslims.
      • Holding counter-protests against Islamophobic demonstrations.
      • Encouraging congregants to visit mosques and build relationships with Muslims.
      • Welcoming Muslims into interfaith organizations and events.
    • A number of national organizations exist specifically to build solidarity between Muslims and people of other faith traditions, including Shoulder to Shoulder, Peace Catalyst, and Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom. The national Know Your Neighbor Coalition, founded at the White House in December, 2015, and Multifaith Encounters, its grassroots outreach, which is led by ING, bring Muslims and people of other faiths together to build interreligious understanding and respect.
    • Many mosques also engage in interfaith outreach. Open houses and interfaith iftars have become popular ways of reaching out to neighbors of different faiths and have met with great response.
    • Much is being done by both Muslims and their allies to combat Islamophobia, but more needs to be done, and help is always welcome. For more information about Islamophobia and ways to counter it, see ING’s Answers to FAQs about Islamophobia.


107. Why can’t Muslims eat pork?

Because the Qur’an forbids the practice, a dietary restriction also followed by observant Jews.

108. Why can’t Muslims drink alcoholic beverages?

Because the Qur’an forbids the practice. The Qur’an states that while alcohol has some benefits, its harm outweighs its benefits. This prohibition is similar to Buddhist teachings.

109. What is halal?

Halal is an Arabic word meaning lawful or permitted. The opposite of halal is haram, which means unlawful or prohibited. While the term is used in relation to many aspects of life, when specifically used in relationship to food, halal refers to any food product that is not prohibited. In reference to meat products, halal means that the animal was slaughtered according to Islamic guidelines, which include reciting God’s name over the animal before slaughter and draining all the blood from the animal. This practice is similar to the guidelines set by Jewish law that classify meat prepared in this manner as kosher, except that Jewish practice does not include the invocation of God’s name. It is common to find halal butcher shops or restaurants in most major cities in the U.S.


110. How does Islamic economics work without interest? How does Islamic banking work?

Muslim economists view money as something to be earned, which is one of the many reasons that both gambling and most forms of loaning at interest are prohibited. While there are different types of interest and not all types are viewed as being the same, many Muslim scholars regard interest as generally prohibited because it penalizes the poor for their lack of money and rewards the rich for their abundance of money, making the rich richer and the poor poorer. On the other hand, investment in business is highly encouraged because it involves some risk to the investor, which makes it a fair return. Investment also promotes the circulation of wealth and the growth of new businesses.

Applying this principle in the modern world is a major challenge, yet today there are over five hundred financial institutions offering Islamic finance in over eighty different countries. These institutions generate income through shareholding, leasing, lease purchasing, and rent sharing. Interest-free banking is an experiment in Islamic modernization. The fact that Islamic banks are now worth a trillion dollars attests to their modern viability. In fact, many western economists maintain that interest-free economies can be extremely beneficial. An example of this is the growing popularity of interest-free financing in auto sales in the U.S. today as a means of attracting less affluent customers. Additionally, many economists have noted that during the recent financial crisis Islamic investments and banks were largely unaffected, since they did not deal with interest based financing such as mortgages or risky speculation.


111. How does Islam view science?

There are numerous verses in the Qur’an that reference scientific phenomena, including discussions of astronomy, geography, biology, and other aspects of nature and the universe. The Qur’an includes, for instance, a detailed description of the different stages that the embryo goes through in the womb, as well as descriptions of the creation of the earth and of the interaction between fresh and salt water.

These repeated Qur’anic references to nature and injunctions to seek knowledge helped create a fruitful environment for science in Islamic history when during the “Golden Age of Islam” in the Middle Ages, Muslims were in the forefront of such fields as mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, botany, zoology, and medicine. Unfortunately, the economic and political decline of the Muslim world in later centuries brought about a decline in scientific and technological endeavor until recent decades.

Today, many American Muslims and Muslims worldwide work in science-based professions such as medicine, dentistry, and various fields of engineering, and many are leaders in their fields. In the United States, two of the most popular professions of Muslims are medicine and engineering.

112. What is the Islamic view on the theory of evolution?

There is not one answer to this as it depends on who one talks to. Some Muslims accept the theory of evolution in its entirety. Others accept the basic concept of evolution, that living beings evolve via genetic change through mutation and natural selection, but do not include human beings in this process. They cite the Qur’an’s description of the creation of Adam and Eve as the first human beings as contrary to the idea that human beings evolved from more primitive primates.

113. What is Islam’s view of the environment and the importance of protecting it?

There are hundreds of verses throughout the Qur’an that describe the wonders of creation and nature and call upon humankind to reflect on them as signs of God. Humans are described as stewards over this earth (as is the case in Jewish and Christian scripture), entrusted with its oversight. There are also numerous Qur’anic as well as prophetic injunctions to avoid waste, excess, and harm to other forms of creation. A prophetic saying forbids wasting water, even when washing in a river. Living a balanced, moderate lifestyle is an important Islamic principle advocated by most Muslim scholars that applies to all aspects of life, including care of the earth and all of creation.