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:

  1. 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."
  2. Salat denotes the five required daily prayers.
  3. 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.
  4. Sawm refers to the daily fast from first light until sunset observed during the Islamic lunar month of Ramadan.
  5. 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 force.

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 now?

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.