Islam 101: The Very Basics

The first time I posted about Islam on the Internet, it was, oddly enough, on a Star Wars messageboard. One of the responses was PM that informed me of certain "facts" about Islam that were more than slightly off the mark. Things haven't changed so much in the ensuing decade, really, and perhaps have even gotten worse. Those opposed to religion want to include Islam in their criticism, but often fail to understand even the basics about it. Given that most online sources are either very much in favor or totally against Islam, who can really blame them?

I aim to provide an alternative, starting with the definition of the words "Islam" and "Muslim."

Western Muslims seeking acceptance of Islam lean towards defining Islam as "peace." However, there is more to the definition than that. Linguistically speaking, it makes about as much sense to overhype the word "Islam"'s shared root with the Arabic word for "peace" as it is to do so with its link to the word for "tanning leather."

Still, it is hard to argue with the many Muslims worldwide who insist that Islam means "peace." Even in their views, however, it is important to note that said peace is supposed to be attained through the submission of one's will to that of Allah.

A Muslim, then, is one who submits his or her will to that of Allah. Proving that someone is a Muslim is a tall order, to say the least. How does Islam assess whether or not someone has done so, then?

It's quite simple, despite all the talk of submitting one's will. All someone has to do is "take shahada," or pronounce the declaration of faith, "I bear witness that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is his messenger," in Arabic, as well as in whatever is his or her native tongue, and he or she would be henceforth considered a Muslim. Even those who do not practice Islam are considered to be Muslims as long as they have said those words at some point in their respective lives.

Although Muslims do love to accuse other Muslim of not being actual Muslims for various reasons, according to Islamic law, the only way for a Muslim to leave the faith is for him or her to denounce the declaration of faith without later recanting. I'm pretty sure that declaring one's apostasy via Facebook, laying low for a while so as not to shame the family, and then dishing about it as an atheist feminist skeptic qualifies, but then again, the Quran didn't predict the Internet.

In terms of Western Islam, the relative ease of conversion as well as the prohibition on declaring self-identified Muslims to be not actually Muslims, combined with Islam's prohibition of inter-religious marriage for Muslim women, has led to the curious phenomenon of "Cupid's Muslims," or men who take shahada so that they can marry their Muslim girlfriends. Many of these men just say the words and never follow up on the whole "Islam is not just a religion, but a way of life" thing about which most Muslims are quite adamant, but as is human nature, denial and valuing appearances over reality takes precedent over the truth.

Main image via.

Heina Dadabhoy

Heina Dadabhoy [hee-na dad-uh-boy] spent her childhood as a practicing Muslim who never in her right mind would have believed that she would grow up to be an atheist feminist secular humanist, or, in other words, a Skepchick. She has been an active participant in atheist organizations and events in and around Orange County, CA since 2007. She is currently writing A Skeptic's Guide to Islam. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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    1. I'm pretty sure that also depends on your family. I come from a secular family but most of my friends in primary school were muslims (bad neighbourhood) and there were more and less religious parents. If I think of my friend's sister refusing to wear a veil and still playing football and not being what their parents were wanting her to do, I cannot imagine they'd give her more crap for being atheist than coming from a very christian family. 
      I mean, talking about religious nutcases, these families at least seemed a lot more tolerant than, I dunno, the families I see regularly on certain American tv shows. 

    2. Outsider,
      It also depends on the country in which you live.  Unfortunitally it is still the case that In some Muslim societies, you can be put to death for leaving Islam.   However, few ex Muslims have to worry about losing their lives over their aposity if they live in liberal secular countries.

  1. I'm confused, is "the very basics" of Islam simply: a) you are a Muslim if you make the correct declaration of faith, b) you are no longer one if you denounce your prior declaration of faith, and c) you can recant your denunciation to become a Muslim again?
    Or is this part of a series of articles?

    1. If I could compare it to christianity. The very basics of christianity is  that you believe (or claim to believe)  Jesus was the son of god who died on the cross for peoples sins and was resurrected afterwards. Everything else is more or less optional or debatable. 

  2. If the submission of one's will to Allah is inseparable from Islam then Islam seems, theoretically / academically / theologically, somewhat worse than Christianity, which admits of several sects who don't demand penance or even worship and admit of adherents who do nothing more than follow the moral teachings of Jesus. Perhaps this is a stretch from traditional interpretations, but could the same be said of less well-known sects of Islam? That is, do there even exist Muslim communities who do not, even perfunctorily, expect full submission of the will from their members?
    Moreover, in your view, does this theological caveat give some legitimacy to positions, like Sam Harris's, that Islam is fundamentally more dangerous than the other monotheisms? or, more fairly, does this caveat strike you as something that contributes to the danger of religious belief?
    I'm looking forward to future installments of this series!

    1. I'm skeptical of any doctrinal statements that are supposedly universal. Yes, most Muslims will state that submission to Allah is integral to Islam… except the ones who don't. Do they exist? I have no idea. If exceptions existed, they would be a minority, so we wouldn't hear much about them. We are aware of Christian excemptions to the rule (which you note) because we are in a Christian culture and exposed to all variants.

      1. That's true, and important to keep in mind. I hope that this 101 series delves further into the cultural and geographic diversity of Muslims worldwide, with (needed) disproportionate emphasis on subgroups that are less well-known or -understood.
        While we're on the subject of definitions, though, i hope we can address a point about these definitions (and more broadly about scripture) that is commonly made by secularist atheists. (I think Ayaan Hirsi Ali makes it, too, albeit through a cultural lens.) The point is that more absolutist, othering, and violent canon can make a religion worse by making absolutism, othering, and violence more common. For instance, is it plausible that this scriptual emphasis on submission has had the effect of insulating Muslim societies to a greater extent than Christian societies (both in turn more than Buddhist) would have under similar conditions? Is the emphasis even actually scriptural, or is it cultural? (Is Islamic canon actually any worse in this respect than, say, Judaic?)

      2. I was defining the term "Islam." That's what the definition is, full-stop.
        The "Muslims" you're describing would be like, say, Christians who don't believe in Jesus. Maybe they exist, but WTF?

  3. Thank you for this article Heina. I remember a well natured conversation with a two building workers on a construction site in the Sinai , one young and one older . In broken English they tried to explain the declaration of faith to me.
    As the younger man was trying to explain the interpretation of the first tenant as " There is no god but Allah".. the older man interjected and with clarity explained it like this " There is no god.(full stop) there is only Allah" at which point he he threw open his arms as to take in everything we could all see. (The brackets are mine.)
     He made the point again "There is NO god". This was the beginning of many conversations on the nature of Islam.

    1. That's so awesome.  That's kind of similar to my lack of belief – I'm an atheist pagan, which makes for some interesting conversations.  For me it's not about belief or worship or anything like that, just about acknowledgement of how awesome (in the true sense of the word) the universe is.  I like to be aware of the cycles of nature and mark their passing, so that's why the paganism, but it's out of a sense of joy at the world and the complexity of nature rather than any belief that it's guided by anything.  

  4. I really appreciate these posts.
    The thing I keep in mind re: Islam is that, like other religions, it's not monolithic. It's a cultural product. Muslims don't have magic telepathy that makes them all believe the same thing. (Including how to interpret the old book they all claim their faith is based on.) It's really quite irrational to assume every Muslim has some sort of immediate connection to, or responsibility for, the activities of people all over the world who happen to fall under the Muslim umbrella.
    It's an easy mistake to make, because Muslims do share two universal traits: That they are "Muslim", and that their religion comes from their old book*. Well, the first is true. They all share a label. But does Islam really derive fully-formed from the Qur'an?
    I haven't read it, but I have read the Bible (both parts). I can say without a  doubt that Judaism and Christianity DO NOT spring forth from the text. (Judaism is closer, but you have to know how much to selectively ignore.) Both religions are products of culture (and histoy) that draw inspiration from their book but interpret it in wildly different ways. In short, we still have Catholics AND protestants. Obviously the Bible is not a recipe for a religion.
    I will be reading the Qur'an soon and I will keep these questions in mind. But I'm pretty sure that since we have Shi'ites AND Sunnis (and Salafists, and whirling dervishes, etc, etc) there is more than one interpretation of the Qur'an. We are not speaking about a monolithic entity.
    So really Sam Harris's nightmare of all Muslims wanting a secret Jihad on the "west" is paranoid fantasy (not to mention intensly xenophobic.)
    *I'm not denying nearly-across-the-board defining elements, like "taking shahada", just as almost all Christians are supposed to agree on some key facts about Jesus. But i'm guessing that there are exceptions.)

    1. Abby,
      Its not just Sam Harris that believes that the more religious a Muslim is, the more violent he will be.  He's also not the only one who believes in "Stealth Jihad."  The term was actually first coined by Robert Spencer, probably America's most infamous anti Muslim bigot.

  5. Heina,
    Thanks for writing this.  Islam is an interesting subject and people need to hear more from non Muslims willing to look at it critically who are not bigots.  It seems that too many people critical of Islam right now are hate mongers, in one way or another and that's not good.

  6. I'm currently reading a tremendously interesting book, edited by Omid Safi: "Progressive Muslims". It's an essay collection by a number of progressive thinkers within *Islam. I note, there, that while their approach is distinctively Muslim in nature, and while Islam is highly important to them, they are humanists. They put all humans at the same value – men, women and anything in between, gay, straight and anything in between, whatever skin color, creed, ideology or culture they might have.
    They strongly distance themselves from exclusivist interpretations of Islam, such as Wahhabism and its derivatives, and advocate immediate action for change from with the faith.
    I can't help but like them.

  7. Wait a second…you're telling me that the Koran *didn't* predict the internet?!  I believe you may have overlooked sura 80, verses 34 – 38:

    "On the day when a man fleeth from his brother

    And his mother and his father

    And his wife and his children,

    Every man that day will have concern enough to make him heedless (of others).

    On that day faces will be bright as dawn"

    Clear as bean-dip, right?  I accept your apologies.

  8. Honestly this doesn't seem all that different from Christianity. (While I love these posts I lament the need for them). I meet so many born-agains especially who say "all yo have to do is say Christ is my savior from sin" or some such.
    Judaism is a bit different, in that sense, because Jews define themselves as a people as well — while conversion to Judaism is possible it isn't encouraged as it is in either Christianity or Islam. You can be born a Jew, but strictly speaking you aren't born a Muslim or Christian. (Obviously in a cultural sense you're drawing a lot from Christianity or Islam, depending on where and when you are born — a person born in Egypt is going to be steeped in an Islamic culture whatever religion they are, jut as someone born in highly-secular France will be surrounded by the background noise of Catholicism, but that's different). Christians — if you are an anabaptist, that is, any of the sects that mandate "adult" baptism, make it rather explicit. (Basically, most US sects are anabaptists, at least formally — you are suppoed to be baptized when you can make a declaration of faith, understanding what you are doing. AFAIK it's only Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherans(?) get away from this a bit).
    This is what makes Judaism sort of weird to Christians — Jews often will separate the concept of sin and evil. That is, it is a great sin to eat pork, but no rabbi I know would call it evil. Christians very often conflate the two. For example, a common refrain among the more fundamentalist types is that man has a sinful nature, or that homosexuality is a sin, and that makes you a bad person. A Jew would say that while eating shellfish or workig on the Sabbath is a sin and against the law of the Torah, that doesn't make you a bad human being. It's also, I submit, a much older relationship between one's God and the self. In that sense conversion was a big innovation on the part of early Christians.
    I'd be curious where Islam fits in this spectrum. Intuitively I'd say it is more in line with Christianity in that you aren't born a Muslim (again, strictly speaking, IIRC there are Muslim countries in which the custom is to have children make a declaration of faith at some point, rather like anabaptists). I'd also be curious as to how sharp the line is for Muslims between sin and evil. Islam seems to lean in the direction of more austere sects of Christianity in that regard. But I'd be interested to know from a Muslim.

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