Islam and September 11: A Teacher's Guide
What is Islam?
Islam is a religious and legal system practiced today in various
forms by over one billion people. "Islam" is an Arabic
word which means "submission." A related word, "Muslim,"
denotes a person who is a member of the Islamic faith. The practice
of Islam differs among various ethnic groups and between different
Muslim sects. There are also differences in outlook between those
who adhere to various interpretations of Islam, from the mystical
to the legalistic.
Nearly all Muslims agree on five "pillars" of Islam:
- Shahada means "bearing witness." It is the
Muslim declaration of faith: "I bear witness that there is
no god but Allah and I bear witness that Muhammad is his prophet."
- Salat denotes the five required daily prayers.
- Zakat is an obligatory charity tax of approximately 2.5%
of one's wealth, often given to religious charitable institutions.
Shi'ites pay the khums tax, a fifth of one's wealth.
- Sawm refers to the daily fast from first light until
sunset observed during the Islamic lunar month of Ramadan.
- Hajj is the pilgrimage to Mecca, required of everyone
capable of making the trip.
How did Islam get started?
Islam began as the articulation of the ethical and theological
principles of Judaism and Christianity to Arab audiences in the
Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century. Muhammad, the prophet of Islam,
received divine inspiration to preach God's word in his home town
of Mecca, but the pagan townspeople rejected his message. Exiled
with a small number of followers to the nearby town of Yathrib,
he gradually won enough converts to beat pagan armies on the battlefield
and conquer most of Arabia through a combination of evangelism and
After Muhammad's death, his followers continued his wars of conquest
far beyond Arabia and built one of the largest landed empires in
the history of the world. The teachings of God that Muhammad had
preached were preserved in Arabic as the Qur'an, Islam's
holy book. Muhammad's own sayings and deeds, known as Hadith,
are remembered through chains of transmission spanning generations.
Qur'an and Hadith form the basis of Islamic law and religious practice.
How did Islam grow to become the second largest empire in the
history of the world?
Since the 7th century, Islam has spread through a combination of
war and proselytism. Many of Islam's heartlands - for example, Iraq,
Iran, Syria, and Egypt - were conquered by Muslim armies in successive
incursions. The Muslim regime administered these lands without imposing
the new faith on subject peoples; the conversion process was gradual
and in some cases took several hundred years.
Islam's military expansion occurred over successive Muslim empires.
In the first century of Islamic history, from the era of the prophet
Muhammad's life to the end of the Umayyad caliphate of Damascus,
the Islamic state came to engulf Syria, Palestine, Egypt, North
Africa, Spain, Armenia, Iran, and as far as Chinese Turkestan A
later phase of conquest under the Abbasid empire of Baghdad, mostly
through the 10th century, added various Mediterranean islands, such
as Sicily. During this period, Islamic culture consolidated and
conversion in conquered provinces became commonplace. The conquest
of India took place in stages, beginning around the year 1000, culminating
200 years later.
The fringes of the Muslim world in Asia and Africa embraced the
new religion largely through voluntary conversion growing out of
commercial relationships with traders from Islam's heartlands. In
east Africa, colonies of Muslim merchants established trading depots
on the shores of the Indian Ocean; their conviviality and rapport
with locals won converts far and wide. Indonesia, now the largest
Muslim country in the world, owes its Islamization to a process
that began with a Muslim trading post in northwestern Sumatra in
the 13th century.
What happened to the Muslim empire and what stands in its place
The fall of the Abbasid caliphate of Baghdad in 1258 marked the
end of a nominally-unified Islamic polity. But numerous Muslim empires
carried the torch of Islamic civilization forward for centuries
after, notably the Iranian Safavid and Ottoman Turkish empires.
The latter ruled Islam's Arabian, eastern Mediterranean, Anatolian
heartlands, and portions of eastern Europe - and survived into the
second decade of the 20th century. The fall of the Ottoman caliphate
after World War I marked the end of an era of Islamic empires spanning
well over a millennium.
The Muslim world of Asia and Africa today is demarcated by nation
states. Most are either constitutional monarchies or secular authoritarian
republics, although a small number has attempted to apply Islamic
law and identify as Islamic republics. The vast majority of Muslims
live in the religion's historic heartlands. But far-flung communities
of émigrés and converts are growing rapidly, particularly
in Europe, Latin America, and North America.
Who is a Muslim? Are all Muslims Arabs?
The vastness and diversity of the Muslim world today reflects the
rich history of Islamic civilization. Although Islam is commonly
associated with Arabs, the majority of Muslims are not Arabs. (And
not all Arabs are Muslims; many are Christians and Jews.) The rest
hail mainly from the Indian subcontinent, east and south Asia, and
west Africa, with important historic communities in eastern and
central Europe. Converts from all over the world are joining this
billion-strong community in larger numbers every day.
Muslims in America form a microcosm of the larger Muslim world.
Immigrants from the Muslim east and their children form a significant
part of the community. But a strong contingent (and probably the
largest Muslim ethnic group in America) are African-Americans, mainly
first- and second-generation converts to Islam.
Muslim communities are dynamic and evolving. Levels of religiosity
differ, as do attitudes toward tradition and practice. The largest
sect are known as Sunnis and form nearly 90% of the global Muslim
community. The second largest group are Shi'is. Although doctrinal
and theological differences distinguish the two, Sunnis and Shi'is
have a great deal in common. While many Muslims practice a legalist
form of the religion tradition and others adopt a spiritual interpretation
known as Sufism, the majority of Muslims practice a form of Islam
that fuses elements of both.
How does Al-Qaeda fit?
Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century,
many Muslims have lamented the loss of a unified Muslim polity and
longed for the reestablishment of a world empire. Some have organized
movements with the imposition of a Muslim world order as their end
goal. In recent years, there have been numerous such movements,
some but not all adopting a strategy of armed struggle.
Al-Qaeda is one such group. It is a coalition of armed movements
espousing a refined form of Wahhabism, a stringent interpretation
of Sunni Islamic law that informs the state ideology of Saudi Arabia
and until recently Afghanistan. Usama bin Laden and his followers
wish to make Islam the only religio-political force in the world.
In practice, this means reclaiming Muslim countries now ruled by
secular governments they view as illegitimate, reconquering lost
Muslim lands like Israel and Spain, unifying the entire Muslim world
under a new caliphate, and ultimately, advancing into new territories
and claiming them for Islam. America's position as the only superpower
pits it inherently against their ambitions. Thus, weakening America
is a fundamental part of their agenda.
Is Usama bin Laden just angry about American foreign policy?
Usama and his followers oppose much of America's foreign policy.
They oppose America's support for Israel, sanctions against Iraq,
military presence in Saudi Arabia, support for India in its rule
over the dispute region of Kashmir, and support for Middle Eastern
governments like Egypt that have tried to put down Islamist political
groups. At the core, Usama and his followers oppose America because
it is the only superpower that stands in his way.
Does Al-Qaeda really think it can succeed?
Bin Laden uses some of the lessons of Islamic history to instill
a sense of optimism in his followers. In his many sermons and recruitment
speeches, he points out that the prophet Muhammad and a much smaller
group of supporters managed to defeat not one but two superpowers:
the Byzantine and Sasanian empires.
Do American Muslims support Al-Qaeda?
The people who carried out the atrocities of September 11 were
not Americans, but resided in the United States and used the American
Muslim community as a cover for their terrorist activities. Law
enforcement officials are concerned that there are still such activists
among us. No matter how many remain, however, they are a tiny subset
of Muslims residing in America, and the vast majority of Muslims
living here oppose them as much as other Americans do. Many Muslim
Americans have volunteered their energy, language skills, and cultural
knowledge to the FBI and other law enforcement organizations to
help root out the threat of Al-Qaeda from American soil.
Are we at war with the Muslim world?
To understand the American campaign called "Enduring Freedom"
as a war against Islam is to accept Usama bin Laden's vision of
the world. A number of armed movements in the Middle East have declared
war on America. We are at war with these groups and their supporters.
But the majority of Muslims around the world share with America
common values of family, education, freedom, human rights, and democracy.