Islam is probably the least understood and most demonized religion today. The critics of Islam have created this persona based primarily on misconceptions, ignorance and malice.
Misconception # 1: Violence and Terrorism is the Muslim Creed
Islam and Muslims have become synonymous with terms like terrorism, extremism and fundamentalism. The involvement of some so-called Muslims in the acts of terrorism in the past few decades does not justify the labeling of a whole faith and its people as terrorists. Nobody called Timothy McVeigh a Christian terrorist after the Oklahoma bombing in the 90’s, neither is the IRA labeled as a Christian terrorist group, so why is it that when a Muslim does something wrong it is the fault of his religion?
Apparently, logical arguments do not carry any weight in this debate, which is fueled by sensationalism and vested interests at the highest levels of governments. Citing verses of the Qur’an out of the context is the favorite tactic of the proponents of this misconception. There are several verses in the Qur’an that clearly state the opposite of this misconception. For example, “Fight in the cause of God against those who fight you, but do not transgress limits. God does not love transgressors.” (Qur’an 2:190). Another verse says, “If they seek peace, then seek you peace.” (Qur’an 8:61)
Misconception #2: Jihad Means Killing Non-Muslims
If opposition to Islam can be summarized today in one word, it is ‘Jihad’; the all-inclusive term for Islam bashing. Disregarding its true meaning and historical perspective, jihad is decisively equated with the violence that has been perpetrated in the last few decades in the name of Islam by individuals. There are several forms of Jihad; an armed struggle which may involve killing the enemy is ‘Qital’, which is considered by most non-Muslims to be the only form of Jihad. However, according to Islam, one of the most important types of ‘Jihad’ is ‘Jihad bil nafs’ (struggle against the self), every other struggle stems out of this. Jihad bil nafs involves constantly struggling to overcome and control our desires.
Misconception #3: Women are Oppressed in Islam
Saving Muslim women from the ‘tyranny’ of Islam is one of the favorite rallying cries of the people who consider Islam an evil force. Just like many other misdeeds wrongly attributed to Islam rather than to the individuals who commit them, unfair treatment of women is also considered to be the Islamic way of treating women. Setting aside the malicious propaganda, the reason behind this misconception is probably the fact that Islamic teachings about the role, responsibilities, status and treatment of women are judged according to the western practices and beliefs. If anything, Islam liberated the women in Arabia by giving them rights that were unheard of at that time in most nations. The stereotype of veil wearing, home-bound Muslim woman is used to argue that women are oppressed. However, this viewpoint is completely devoid of the knowledge of the status and rights of Muslim women. If we look into how other major religions look at women, we will find surprising revelations. In the New Testament, St. Paul declares, “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I don’t permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.” In contrast, this is what Qur’an has to say, “Whoever works righteousness, man or woman, and has faith, verily to him/her we will give a new life that is good and pure, and we will bestow on such their reward according to the best of their actions.” (16:97)
The right to hold property is considered to be fundamental for human beings, yet no major religion other than Islam actually allowed women to have property. Not only this but Muslim women have full control of their property and their husbands have no share in it.
Misconception #4: Muslims don’t Believe in Jesus
Many Christians are made to believe that Jesus (peace be upon him) and other prophets are not considered by Muslims as God’s messengers. A cursory reading of Qur’an or other Islamic literature shows that Muslims remember all of the prophets mentioned in the Christian and Judaic scriptures with great respect and reverence. Jesus has been mentioned in Qur’an in several places such as “O Mary, God gives you good news of a word from Him whose name shall be the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, honored in this world and the Hereafter, and one of those brought near to God. He shall speak to the people from his cradle and in maturity, and shall be of the righteous.”(Qur’an chapter 3)
Misconception #5: Propagation of Islam is the result of Force
This misconception may be the result of making wrong inferences from the early Islamic history about the expansion of the Muslim state up to the time of Caliph Umar Farooq. The Muslim state indeed spread very quickly in the early years, but the conversion to Islam was never forced upon the people of the conquered territories. If anything, the Qur’an instructs Muslims to deal with them in a kind and just manner “God forbids you not, with regards to those who fight you not for [your] faith nor drive you out of your homes, from dealing kindly and justly with them; for God loveth those who are just.” (Qur’an 60:8). The most clear-cut statement against conversion by force or coercion comes straight from the Qur’an, “There is no compulsion (or coercion) in the religion (Islam)” (2:256)
The comments of T.W. Arnold on this matter are evidence of the folly of this misconception “… of any organized attempt to force the acceptance of Islam on the non-Muslim population, or of any systematic persecution intended to stamp out the Christian religion, we hear nothing. Had the caliphs chosen to adopt either course of action, they might have swept away Christianity as easily as Ferdinand and Isabella drove Islam out of Spain ….So that the very survival of these Churches to the present day is a strong proof of the generally tolerant attitude of the Mohammedan governments towards them.”
Another historian De lacey O’Leary also negates this myth, “History makes it clear however, that the legend of fanatical Muslims sweeping through the world and forcing Islam at the point of the sword upon conquered races is one of the most fantastically absurd myths that historians have ever repeated.”
Furthermore, it must be pointed out that Muslims ruled and fully controlled India for 800 years and Egypt for even longer than that. Yet the vast majority of the population in India remains Hindu till today, and a small minority of Coptic Christians remains in Egypt today. If Muslims practiced forced conversions there is no way such communities could have survived for over a millennium.
Misconception #6: Islam is Intolerant of Other Religions
Religious intolerance is high on the charge-sheet against Islam and Muslims. Many non-Muslims believe that Islam does not tolerate other religions and it instructs Muslims to kill all the infidels. Equating the actions of a handful of bad apples with the teachings of Islam about people of other faiths is a grave injustice. There are numerous examples throughout Islamic history that clearly show the extent of religious tolerance in Islam. What could better exemplify it than the verses from the Qur’an and ahadith of Muhammad (pbuh).
“There is no compulsion (or coercion) in the religion (Islam)” (2:256)
“Beware! Whoever is cruel and hard on a non-Muslim minority, or curtails their rights, or burdens them with more than they can bear, or takes anything from them against their free will; I (Prophet Muhammad) will complain against the person on the Day of Judgment.” (Sunnan Abu Dawud)
Misconception #7: Muslims are Savages with no Regard for Culture and Civilization
Many texts portray Muslims as uncivilized and barbaric people but nothing could be further from the truth. Even a cursory glance at history proves otherwise. War is one instance where showing no mercy is considered to be a tactic. Islam, on the other hand, does not allow Muslim armies to mutilate the dead, kill children or elderly, destroy crops, trees, livestock etc., demolish buildings, harm civilians and break agreements/pacts. With clear rules of engagement like these for war, it would be grossly unfair to call Muslims barbaric.
The influence and contributions of Muslims towards culture and science are widely known and acknowledged by scholars. “It is highly probable that but for the Arabs, modern European civilization would never have arisen at all; it is absolutely certain that but for them, it would not have assumed that character which has enabled it to transcend all previous phases of evolution,” Robert Briffault, a social anthropologist.
Misconception #8: Islam was founded by Muhammad (peace be upon him)
Despite an abundance of literature on Islam, there are some who believe that Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) founded Islam and Muslims worship him as well as Allah. Any serious attempt to learn about Islam will right away debunk this misconception. In order to enter into the fold of Islam, a person must pronounce the Shahadah (the testimony of faith); the meaning of which is
“I bear witness that there is no God worthy of worship except Allah and I bear witness that Muhammad (SAW) is His slave and messenger”..
Also in chapter 33 of the Qur’an it is stated, “O Prophet, verily We have sent you as a witness and a bearer of glad tidings and a warner and as one who invites unto God by His leave and as an illuminating lamp.”
Misconception #9: At least Four Wives for Muslim Men
Some aspects of Muslim culture have been universally accepted as the defacto standard such as four wives for Muslim men. Most westerners believe that every Muslim has a ‘harem’ with at least four wives. First of all, it should be clearly understood that it is an option not a compulsion. There are social and cultural reasons behind the practice of polygamy which can only be understood with the knowledge of Arab society at that time. There are strict conditions that must be met such as equal treatment of the wives. It surprises me that the people who make a huge fuss about polygamy in Islam, have no issue with promiscuity in western cultures where extra-marital relationships and children born out of wedlock are accepted with open arms.
Misconception #10: The Crescent and Star is the Symbol of Islam
It is a common misconception even among Muslims that the crescent moon and star is the official symbol of Islam. However, in the days of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) Muslims did not have a symbol and they used solid-colored flags. In fact, the crescent was adopted as a symbol by the Turks during Ottoman Empire’s conquest of Constantinople.