Understanding Islam and Muslims after the Tragedy of September 11th

by Shahid Athar

        In every tragedy and after every loss, there is something good that may come out of it.  Thus, after an earthquake, we try to rebuild our lives and after manmade disasters such as September 11th 2001, we try to rebuild our faith.  A question I have been asked is whether such tragedies are an act of God or an act of the devil.  My position has been that these are acts of humans who are not acting on orders of God but are acting on orders of the devil.  Thus, the role of religion in instilling peace, non-violence and love for each other, becomes so important that we must safeguard the sanctity of life and “desire for others which we desire for ourselves”.  The attack on the WTC and Pentagon was not an attack by a particular faith on other because people of many  faiths died in that tragedy or were affected in many ways.  Unfortunately, only one particular faith was blamed and therefore, the defenders of that faith were asked to explain about their faith.  The Quran says clearly “ O mankind, we created you by a single pair of man and woman and made you into nations and tribes that you know each other, not that you despise each other” (49:12).   Thus, one of the purposes of the creation was that we know others, their culture and their faith and live in harmony with them, not in contempt with them.  If is for this reason the value of interfaith is in our lives.  In a given faith, even in a single family, all of the members are not at the same level of spirituality and belief, therefore interfaith takes place within each family in each house.  We must extend this to our neighborhoods, our organizations and our work place.  It is the apprehension of others that leads to hostility.  We should never do things to others which we would not like to have done to us.  Interfaith is a window of showing your faith, not merging your faith nor compromising your faith.  Our country is a country of 85 different nationalities and 14 different religions that were represented in the parliament of world religions in 1999 where I participated.  To me, people of different faiths are like a flower garden with flowers of different colors and smells adding to the beauty of the garden or they are like mountain climbers trying to reach the same peak from a different direction.  The fact that in this interfaith conference, Islam has been invited to participate and  Muslim has been asked to be a keynote speaker, attests to the diversity and greatness of our nation.  I am here today on behalf of Muslims and on behalf of the Interfaith leadership to share with you my understanding of Islam, the religion of peace, whose image has been distorted by some people professing to be in that faith but not living up to that faith.  This can also be said by some other folks living in other faiths, but I am not here to point fingers.  You are well aware of them.  I begin my presentation about understanding Islam and Muslims with an Islamic greeting “Assalamulaikum” peace be upon you and the return of peace is peace be upon you too, “Wa alaikum assalam”.  But, I must tell you that this is not a greeting of Muslims only, this is a greeting of peace from all religions.  If you consult the Bible, you will read in Matthew 10:5, “ As you enter the house, give it your greeting, let peace rest on it and let peace return to you.”  There is a need for Americans to learn about Islam because of the prevailing misconceptions about Islam.  Most Americans, when poled in 1993 L.A. Times, did not have a favorable opinion about Islam.  When asked “ What is you  opinion of Islam?”, 64% said either that they did not know or were not aware of much about Islam.  Only 14% had a favorable impression and 22% had an unfavorable impression.  When asked “ Do you think Islam is compatible with western style political democracy?” 31% said that Islam is an anti-democratic religion, 10% said it was compatible with democracy and again, 49% did not know.  When asked “ Does Islam pose a threat to the security of the United States?” and again, remember that this was in 1993, 37% said there was no threat, 29% said there was a threat and 34% did not know.  But, the perception of Islam worsened after the tragedy of September 11th.  A study published in July 2003 showed that 44% of Americans now believe that Islam is more likely to encourage violence than other religions which is up from 25% in 2002.  54% of conservative Christians and 32% of liberals hold the above view of Islam.  Only 22% of Americans feel that Islam and their faiths have some common features which is down form 37% in 2001. 

        I have been asked to say a few words about the basic tenants of my faith.  To be specific, Islam is not a new religion.  We believe it is the continuation of the same religion which was revealed to Adam and subsequent prophets.  In Quran ( 2:136), we hear “ We believe in God and that which is revealed to us and what was revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and the tribes, to Moses and Jesus and to other prophets by their Lord.  We make no distinction among any of them and to God we have committed ourselves.”  One becomes Muslim by declaring “ there is no God except one God and Mohammad is a messenger of God.”  The five pillars of Islam are faith, prayer, fasting, charity and Hajj.  Charity is of 2 types.  One is obligatory charity called Zakat that one must give a part of their money ( 2 ½ % of savings) for the welfare of the needy and non-obligatory or sadaqa.  Faith in Islam means not only believing in one God and the prophet Mohammad but believing in the other prophets and angels and belief in the holy books given to those prophets and belief in the concept of destiny that whatever happens in ones life, good or bad, is God’s will and finally the belief in the day of judgment and life thereafter.  The divine books that we are supposed to believe in are Torah  of Moses, Psalms of David, Gospel of Jesus and finally the last testament that is Quran.  The message of Quran and Bible in terms of morality is very similar.  If you compare the 10 commandments to references in Quran, you will find a very comparable description of all the injunctions.  These have been outlined in my booklet,  “ 25 Most Frequently Asked Questions About Islam”.  Part of our ritual is 5 daily prayers.  These are in addition to any prayer that you can make while carrying on with your day to day life.  The formal prayer 5 times is in standing, then bowing down then prostration.  These are done at appointed times and they can be done in congregation or individually.  But, again this prayer is not new to Islam.  If you read in the Bible, Deuteronomy 8:8, Ezra praised the great Lord and all people lifted their hands and responded Amen, Amen.  They  bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.  Once a year, those who can afford it in their lifetime, can go for pilgrimage to Mecca to participate in the rituals of the prophet Abraham, who along with his son Ishmael, built the first house of worship, that is called Kaba   About 2 ½ million Muslims each year, coming from every direction of the world, pray there for several days.  This is the annual Hajj.  After Hajj, one is purified and becomes sinless if Hajj is accepted. 

         About Mohammad, the prophet born to a noble tribe from the descendents of Abraham in the line of Ishmael.  Karen Armstrong has written a very nice book on the life of Mohammad (p).  His father died before his birth and his mother died when he was 6.  He did not attend a formal school as he was raised first by a nurse, as was the custom in those days and then by his grandfather and uncle.  As a young man he was know to be a righteous person.  He used to meditate in a cave.  At age 10 he was given prophet hood and the angel Gabriel appeared in the cave.  Subsequently, the revelations came over 23 years and were compiled in the form of a book called Quran which Muslims consider the final revelation from God.  The Quran has been preserved, unchanged in its original form.  When the angel appeared in the cave and asked him to recite Quran, Prophet said that he was illiterate and did not know how to read.  The angel asked 3 times and he refused.  Then the angel embraced him and the knowledge came to him.  This event is mentioned in the Bible in Isaiah, 29:12 “ The book is delivered to him that I have not learned, saying read this and I pray thee and he said I am not learned.”  Again in the Bible in Deuteronomy verse 18 we read, “ I will raise them up a prophet from among their brothers, like unto thee that is Moses and I will put my words into his mouth and he shall speak unto them all that I command.”   Jesus had foretold the coming of a new prophet in John 14:16 “ Unless I go away the counselor will not come to you and he will not speak on his own, he will speak on what he hears and will tell you what is yet to come.”  He was a man of compassion, not a terrorist and one of his famous sayings  when asked what are the most excellent actions, he said to gladden the hearts of human beings, to feed the hungry, to help the afflicted, to lighten the sorrow of the sorrowful and to remove the suffering of the injured.  What about Jesus?  We consider him a prophet of Islam.  We love him and we believe in miracles that were given to him including speaking as an infant from the cradle.  We believe in the miraculous birth and we are told that the signs which were given to Him from God including healing the blind and the lepers, making birds from clay and reviving the dead.  We also believe that He was not crucified and we are waiting for His return.  There are many misconceptions about the most misunderstood religion, Islam.  One of them is the treatment of women.  Islam gave many rights to women.  Unfortunately Muslim men have taken back some of those rights. 

        According to Quran men and women who are believers and protectors of each other, God will reward both men and women in the life hereafter equally and punish them equally.  A woman is the owner of her own earnings and women in Islam can own property.  A woman has the right to inherit her rightful share.  She has the right to choose her husband and she has the right to seek separation or divorce if she wishes.  These rights were given to Muslim women in the year 570 when Christian women and other women in the world, like in India, had no specific rights.  As time went by, because of cultural influences and colonization, women were confined to their houses and some of these rights were taken away from them by Muslim men in some countries.  Hajab or head cover, came for the protection of women because women were being molested in the streets of Mecca at the time of the prophets and it was necessary that Muslim women be identified and Muslim men will go after protecting them.  The extent of hajab is a personal choice and the classical burqa that you see being used by the Taliban and other tribal people is not necessarily an Islamic injunction.

         Holy war is not Jihad.  In fact, no war is holy.  Jihad means striving in the cause of God.  It is an inner struggle to achieve peace.  It is also described by prophet as a struggle to control evil temptations.  We are asked to do jihad by pen, which is by writing and jihad by charity and use the Quran for jihad, although Quran is not a weapon.  A form of jihad is taking up arms in defense of Islam and Muslims when Islam and Muslims are attacked.  That form of jihad has to be declared only by a practicing Muslim head of state or a group of religious scholars.  The individual jihad is always an inner struggle, which we call internal jihad.  Quran clearly says about jihad in 2:190, “Fight in the cause of God against those who fight against you but begin not the hostility.  God does not love aggressors”. And “ How should you not fight in the cause of God and of the oppressed people, men, women and children who are crying our Lord, save us from oppressors, give us a protecting friend and protector” (4:75)

        Now, coming to terrorism.  According to Webster’s dictionary, terrorism is creating intense terror in the opponent by using brutal, cruel, merciless, immoral, improper and unsanctioned means of creating fear.  There are many forms of terrorism, not only just religious terrorism.  There is individual and group terrorism, state and political terrorism, terrorism by mafia and criminal gangs and verbal terrorism.  Verbal terrorism is no different than a shouting match on 2 sides of the Atlantic.  On one side we hear the shouts of “death to America”, “the great Satan” and “jihad against enemies of Islam”, not knowing that they themselves are the enemies of Islam by misrepresenting Islam.  On the other side we hear false statements against Islam and Muslims by many evangelists and anti-Islam writers in the media.  However, there are people who are peace-loving, understanding and speak the truth on both sides.  There are Muslim leaders and heads of state who have denounced terrorism and participated in interfaith dialogues, trying to bring peace and sense to this world and on the other side there are Christian and Jewish leaders who have done the same.  Not only writers like Karen Armstrong, who speaks highly of Islam and Mohammad but we have a Pope this time who spoke in 1979 addressing Catholics in Turkey, “ my brothers, when I think of this spiritual heritage (Islam) and the value it has for man and society, its capacity of offering guidance for life, filling the gap left by materialism, I wonder if it is not urgent, especially today, when Christians and Muslims develop a spiritual bond that unites us in order to preserve and promote peace, liberty and social justice for the benefit of all men.”  Islam is against terrorism and for the sanctity of human life.  We are told in Quran that anyone who has killed one life as if he has killed all mankind and anyone who has saved one life as if he has saved all mankind but having said that, we know that Muslims do act in violence as do people of other faiths.  Unfortunately, it is the media who always call Muslims who do violence terrorists but if someone like Tim McVay does violence, he is not called a terrorist, so the name is reserved just for Muslims.  For me when asked the question “ How are terrorists created?”  I must say that battered children become abusive parents and violent adults as we learn in Psychiatry and so the youths growing up in refugee camps with anger and no hope for justice, aim to strike against all those who they see responsible for their misery, directly or indirectly.  You leave them with AK 47s but no food and see what happens.  Terrorists try to take up the cause of these oppressed people to get media attention.  One may ask the question “ How should Muslims fight terrorism?”  This goes back to what Prophet Mohammad has said “ If you see an evil act, stop it by your hand with force.  If you can not, then by your tongue speak against it and if you are so weak that you can not do either, then feel bad in your heart”.  So, in summary what it means is use all means at your disposal to fight terrorism and wrongdoing.  I feel that terrorism is like a modern plague.  Like disease, it is an epidemic now and affects people of all faiths.  Terrorists may be born into a particular religion but have no faith.  It is our common enemy and our common jihad to eradicate it from all corners of the world at any price.  The moderate Muslims who speak against it need to be supported by everyone who is fighting terrorism.  In an article by an Israeli writer Amos Oz, in the L.A Times, under the title “ The Cure for Islam Gone Mad”, he says, “ I believe that the cure for Islam gone mad can be found within the realm of moderate sane Islam.  The same is true for other cultures that contain seeds of internal insanity.  We cannot cure madness by smashing it rather than wag our fingers at Islam, or at Jews, or at the West, let us find and reinforce the moderates in every society.  Let us help them prevail, tame and heal the contaminated parts of their own family”.  As an American citizen, it is so painful for me to see not only our people being affected by terrorism but also, in spite of all of our efforts and all of the aid we give to the rest of the world, the popularity of the USA is falling.  Again, in the PEW study reported in the New York Times on September 11, 2003, the popularity of the USA in Morocco had fallen from 77 % to 27 % from 2000 to 20003, Indonesia 75 % to 15, % Turkey 52 to 15 % and Pakistan from 23 to 13 %.  But these are the “ friendly” Muslim countries.  Look at the Western countries in which you will see in Germany the popularity fell from 78% to 45%, France from 62% to 43%, South Korea from 58% to 36% and Brazil from 56% to 34%.  One may wonder why.  I am not a politician to answer this question, but I feel that once America is seen as a liberator and a benefactor to the oppressed people, this popularity will improve again.  One of the E-mails that I received from California by a Chaplain  Paul  who wrote that “ we Americans must not sing God Bless America but we should sing God Bless the World.  According to him, keeping God’s blessing just for us was a selfish act.  We should share it with the rest of the world.”


Lecture presented at Second Annual Interfaith of Topeka Conference on October 11 ,2003 . Dr Athar is an Islamic Speaker and writer (web page www.islam-usa.com  and e mail sathar3624@aol.com ) . He new book is “ Healing the wounds of Sept.11,2001”

( 1stbooks library )

Reprint Requests:

Shahid Athar, MD
8424 Naab Road
Suite 2D
Indianapolis, IN 46260