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The Perception of Islam
In the west, the news media is a major source for information about Islam. The image of Islam, as projected by the news media is often fragmented and clouded by the fast moving political events and crises in the Middle East. The perception of Islam, at times, is painfully distorted. Khomeini, Qadafi, and Saddam Hussain are seen as inflated demons with dark shadows reaching our shores. Sometimes, a selective and unfamiliar aspect of a particular Muslim country's social behaviour is projected as if it were a universally practiced tradition of Islam. During the Gulf War, for example, Saudi Arabia's restriction on Muslim women's driving privilege received a good deal of publicity in American press.
The entertainment industry, especially the film-makers in Hollywood, with very few exceptions, have shown deep bias presenting Arabs or Muslims of the Third World countries as uncouth, uncivilized rogues. Thus, ridicule is added to an already blur and dismal perception of Islam in the west.
A large majority are unaware of the fact that every fifth person on earth, i.e. almost one billion people in total, are Muslims; more than 40 countries are predominantly Islamic, Arabs being less than 20% of the total Muslim population.
The largest number of Muslims, 150 million, are Indonesians. Then there are 20 million Chinese, 55 million Russians, 100 million Indians, 95 million Pakistanis, and 90 million Bangladeshis. And millions upon millions Africans who live in Nigeria, Mali, Sudan, Algeria, and Morocco and adhere to the religion of Islam. Islam is a global phenomenon, embracing in its fold over 4000 ethnic groups.
It is unknown to many that Muslims were the torch bearers in the fields of arts, sciences, medicine, agriculture, architecture, philosophy, literature and mysticism, while a greater part of Europe was submerged in the Dark Ages. The general public rarely comes to know the closeness of Islam to Christianity and Judaism; and the commonalities among the three major monotheistic religions are seldom brought to light.
Therefore, to allow ourselves to form a dreadful or disgraceful image of Islam, as most often the case in the media, would constitute an extremely unfair and regrettable attitude towards the second largest religion on earth. It would be as if some one tries to understand Christianity by reading the news of what is happening politically and religiously in Northern Ireland or of apartheid in South Africa. It would be like attempting to understand the teachings of Jesus Christ through reading about hundreds of tragic and bloody wars fought among the European Christian nations. It would be highly inappropriate to dwell on racism, lynching, witch-hunting, and The Inquisition in order to understand the true teachings of Torah and the Gospels.
It would be like finding fault with Christianity and Judaism by reading news about the horrible stories of murder, rape, child abuse, incest, teenage pregnancies, AIDS, alcoholism and drug abuse - the evils that infest Judeo-Christian modern Western societies.
The problem of Islam being misunderstood has its deep roots in the anti-Islamic attitude taken by the Western medieval writers and clergymen. Dr. Philip K. Hitti, a foremost Arabic scholar, historian and a former chairman of Princeton's Department of Oriental Studies, writes in his book "Islam and the West" that in medieval literature "the prophet (of Islam) is generally displayed as an imposter, a false prophet, the Koran as his pretentious fabrication and Islam as a licentious way of life, both here and the next world." Dr. Hitti further states:
"Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and other less highly developed religions were never subjected to such a barrage of abuse and condemnation as Mohammadanism was. They posed no threat to the Medieval West and offered no competition. It was therefore primarily fear, hostility and prejudice that colored the Western view of Islam and conditioned its attitude. Islamic beliefs were enemy' beliefs and, as such, suspect if not false." (ISLAM AND THE WEST : pp48-49, Philip K. Hitti: 1962).In concurrence with Dr. Hitti's evaluation of Western attitude towards Islam, Dr. George N. Malek, a United Methodist minister, writes in his article entitled "Confessional Theology: The Way to Dialogue between Christianity and Islam",
"The Christian West has traditionally seen Islam through Dante's eye: "The Inferno". Dante placed Muslim philosophers alongside Greek ones in the moderate punishment quarters of Hell. But to Muhammad, the Muslim prophet, he assigned the ninth of the ten ditches in Hell, leaving the Heart of Hell -- the tenth ditch -- to Satan himself. But it was upon Muhammad that the most sadistic punishment was to be inflicted, not Satan. Dante, as Christian history shows, advocated a more fierce struggle against Islam than against the "Christian" devil himself. Dante, then, and we, now, in the west, saw Islam not as a religion, but as a life of licentiousness ... It is in this context that Islam is still viewed by European attitudes, subverted by American misconceptions, to be heresy derived from Christian teachings, borrowed by Muhammad from the Monk Bahira. In the west, Muhammad's religious success is seldom ascribed to his divine revelation; it is more to his approval of "licentious living." Accordingly, for much of the past history, and up to the middle of the twentieth century, we, in the West, regarded Islam as a religion that also acknowledges the one true God; in fact the same (Christian) God, Creator of the Universe. But Islam distinguished itself by its denial of the Christian doctrine of trinity. In any case, Islam stands now, finally, acknowledged as a valid religion by Christian; in fact, Islam today challenges Christianity itself as a valid religion for the coming centuries."The attitude of Roman Catholic Church towards Islam took a definitive turn through the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). In its Declaration on the Relationship of Church to Non-Christian Religions (the section commonly referred to as "NOSTRA AETATE"), it declared the Roman Catholic Church's esteem for Muslims because the Muslims worshiped One God by seeking to submit completely to His will. The late Cardinal Pignedoli, president of the Vatican Secretariat for Non-Christians, made the following statement about Muslims:
"Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, and His virgin mother. At times they call on her, too, with devotion. In addition they await the day of judgment when God will give each man his due after raising him up. Consequently, they prize the moral life and give worship to God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting."
In January 1981, THE PLAIN TRUTH, an internationally popular monthly magazine distributed free of charge, printed in seven languages by the Worldwide Church of God, with its headquarters in Pasadena, California, published an article under the heading "Seeing the World Through Islamic Eyes" [written by Keith W. Stump]. It starts by stating:
"The middle East is in ferment. At the center is Islam. It is time to dispel widespread myths and misconceptions about this important religion, and to see what the Bible says about Islam and world future... From Morocco to Indonesia, Islam is re-emerging as political and religious force that cannot be ignored. Moslems are reasserting their faith - culturally, spiritually and politically. "God may be dead in the West", one observer has commented, " but He is very much alive in the Middle East!" Few topics have created as much misunderstanding in the Western world as that of Islam. Most Westerners do not begin to comprehend the religion and culture of that important faith. Yet few topics are as vital to understand during this momentous quarter or the 20th century! Moslems are well aware of how Western cartoonists depict them, how Hollywood portrays them, how westerners write about them. The exaggerated and misleading stereotypes of the robed, hooked-nosed camel driver is well known - widely resented - throughout the Middle East. To fill this void we publish this article for our readers."
In the November 1981 edition, the monthly magazine, COLUMBAN MISSION, a publication of the Columban Fathers, out of St. Columban, Nebraska, dedicated a major portion of its pages to Islam. It had the Ninety Nine names of Allah decoratively written on its cover with the Islamic creed "There is no God but God" superimposed on the front side. In its editorial, it observed:
"The word, Muslim, conjures up images of OPEC oil sheiks and rising fuel bills, terrorism, despotic governments that oppress women and Christians, frenzied crowds screaming death threats, internal violence in Iran, Lebanon and Philippines. For the Muslims, the word, Christian, can produce similar repugnant pictures. These images cloud and obscure for us the true nature of Islam just as they hide from Muslims the truth about Christianity."
"the people who submit - who honor God under the name of Allah, and Muhammad as His messenger and prophet." The article continues: But who is this God called Allah, who is His prophet Muhammad? Allah ... is none other than the same supreme God worshiped by Jews and Christians - the Torah's "El" of Elohim, the Lord God Jehovah of Christians. And Muhammad, according to Muslims, is the last of His prophets or messengers in a line that commences with Adam and includes Abraham, Noah, Isaac, Jacob, Isaiah, King David, and of particular interest to Christians, John the Baptist and Jesus Christ."To further facilitate the needed change in Christian attitude towards Muslims, COLUMBAN MISSION in the same issue printed excerpts from an article on St. Francis of Assisi, who was "for one moment in time ... a bridge between Islam and Christianity". This article states:
"We are convinced that to arrive at a more Christian understanding of our brothers in Islam, it is important for us to adopt the attitude adopted by St. Francis of Assisi and meditate on a phase of his life that has perhaps escaped a number of biographers and admirers; namely, the mysterious bonds that united the saint to the founder of Islam, the Arab prophet Muhammad."
On June 22nd President Bush to offer each and every American Muslim his heartfelt best wishes on the Islamic religious Festival of Eid ul Adha (Feast of Sacrifice) on June 22. In his televised message, President Bush mentioned that Abraham's example, who was ready at God's command, to sacrifice his own son, inspires three great religions:
"As children of Abraham, American Muslims gather today to honor their ancient faith. As Americans, your celebration affirm this nation's allegiance to religious freedom for all. The notion of religious tolerance lies at the heart of the American ideal. Many of our founders came here because the land promised religious tolerance."But, unfortunately, this professed religious tolerance was not demonstrated to millions of Muslims who were brought from Africa in chains of slavery. As the slaves were stripped of their original names and cultures, freedom and human dignity, so was their religion snatched away from them. Their masters not only imposed their Christian names upon them, but also got them converted to Christianity under duress.
Who will win and who will lose, only almighty the (God/Jehovah/Allah) knows best. My hope and prayer is that the healthy process of advancement in mutual respect and trust, love and compassion should always remain the real winner among Christians, Muslims and Jews - all the Children of Adam and Eve.
[Large portions of this Article are taken from THE CHANGING PERCEPTION OF ISLAM IN AMERICAN PLURALISTIC SOCIETY by Mubashar Ahmad]
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* pbuh - Peace be upon him; It is a Muslim practise to convey prayers of peace whenever the name of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and other prophets is taken.