Historically, Islam was invisible from our educational system, training of diplomats, and in the media. The interest in Islam started with the Iranian revolution. This interest was triggered by a negative factor of trying to understand “the enemy.” Many people choose to see Islam through the lens of terrorist actions, despite the fact that this is a very small percentage of the 1.4 billion Muslims across the globe. People also try to understand Islam through the actions of Muslim majority countries like Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, or Iran. People tend to equate Islam with the Arab world or the Middle East, even though the majority of Muslims are not Middle Eastern. Since the Iranian revolution much has changed. Islam is now found in many educational institutions and in the media. Nevertheless, media is driven by headlines which focus on negative aspects such as crimes and conflicts.
What is the proper lens through which Islam should be understood? The fact of the matter is that there are many lenses and perspectives in all religions and cultures. However, there are certain lenses that the vast majority of people would agree are wrong. For instance, the vast majority of Christians throughout the world would concur that the KKK is not representative of Christianity. Christianity should not be judged or understood through the lens, actions, or hate speech of the KKK. Similarly, Islam should not be understood through the actions of terrorist organizations or individuals. Islam has no pope figure. Therefore, one will find a plethora of opinions and interpretations about what constitutes authentic Islam. This does not mean that truth does not exist and that all opinions and interpretations are valid. One can easily sift out the incorrect interpretations by looking at the majority of Muslims. Like the majority of Christians, most Muslims despise terrorist groups. Islam must be understood through the lens of Muslim scholarship.
Scholars are those who study the religion and have the necessary expertise to determine the meaning and contexts of religious teachings. The world is a complicated place and not everything is black and white. Scholars of terrorism have long reached a consensus that radicalization is seldom caused by a single factor, including ideology. Islam, like all other religions, can be misused to promote evil agendas. However, because these evil agendas exist does not mean that they stem from the religion. Rather, there are multiple reasons terrorism and extremism exist such as reactions to foreign invasions, sanctions, dictatorships, illegal occupation, and economic inequality.
Islam is a religion that is over 1400 years old. It has a long history of scholarly tradition and Islam inspired many great contributions to the world. When one surveys this tradition and the beliefs of Muslims, there are certain things that Muslims agree on. Among them is, the prohibition of killing innocent civilians, prohibition of dictatorships, and rejection of wrongdoing. It encourages doing good, prayer, charity, chastity, modesty, religious freedom, justice and economic security. In fact, Muslim legal scholars have highlights the aims of Islamic law to be six elements:
- Protection of Religion: Islam prohibits the coercion of religious beliefs on any person or community.
- Protection of Life: Islam prohibits the murder innocent people is prohibited.
- Protection of Honor: Islam prohibits backbiting, slandering, and false testimony. It also promotes honesty and concealing people’s mistakes.
- Protection of Intellect: Islam encourages people to care for their mind and intellect. Intoxicants and drugs that cloud judgment and result in individuals making bad decisions have negative impact of society. Therefore, in attempt to protect individuals and society, Islam prohibits intoxicants and drugs.
- Protection of Family: Fornication, adultery, and cheating destroy families. Islam encourages marriage and family values.
- Protection of Wealth: Economic justice is key to the stability of all societies. Usury, cheating, and withholding charity from the less fortunate all lead to economic imbalance. Islam seeks to protect the wealth of both the individual and society by requiring that all wealth be obtained through legitimate means.
Ultimately, Islam is not represented by a single person, country, or ruler. Islam is properly understood through the what Muslim scholars have identified to be the main teachings of Islam. It is essential to distinguish between Islam and the actions of extremists actions or dictatorships. This will prevent people from misunderstanding Islam and marginalizing and demonizing Muslims. The best way to begin understanding Islam is by talking directly with Muslims who have studied the teachings of Islam.