A column by Bles Carmona
For the week of Oct. 8-14, 2014
EDUCATING MYSELF ON ISLAM: THE BEGINNING
I am currently taking a class called “The Nature of Islam” at Chabot College because I wanted to gain knowledge about this widely misunderstood culture. There are several requirements for the course. One of them was to watch a PBS documentary called “Islam: Empire of Faith.”
The religion and people of Islam have had a bad rap since 9/11. Islam’s reputation took a nosedive, becoming “evil.” In my mind, I compared this negative reaction to Muslims to an event centuries ago as described in the documentary. When Al-Hakim (described by a scholar in the film as “a madman”) ordered the burning of the Christian church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem in the year 1009, immediately the backlash was the impression that Muslims are intolerant, mad, heretics. By year 1095 there was a widespread anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe, and in my mind, this sentiment was what contributed to the massive downplaying of Islamic contributions to the culture of Europe, Asia, and Africa.
In “Empire of Faith,” Islam was portrayed in a positive light by showing Muslim developments and inventions in the second part of the documentary. This period of high achievement even predates the European Renaissance by hundreds of years. Starting with the concept of trade as an instrument for transmission of beliefs, Islam was shown to spread from Mecca to Europe and China. The film tackles Baghdad, a city of wealth rivaled only by ancient Athens or Rome, being made the best city in the world at that time by the presence of scholars. These scholars came from all over the world: Muslims, Christians, and Jewish alike, all searching for answers to some of the most daunting problems of the community at that time. Muslim scholars recognized the need for science and thus came up with the scientific method to solve problems in engineering, public hygiene, and commerce, among others.
Among the Islamic inventions and concepts mentioned in the film were Arabic numerals; algebra, engineering, and astronomy; germ theory to explain disease; separating patients with different diagnoses into different wards; a system of human anatomy; optics; treating cataracts using the needle; paper; and of course the exquisite architecture in Baghdad and Cordoba used for their mosques, hospitals, libraries, and parks. The film talked about Alhambra as the most famous example of Islamic architecture, and it was truly a wonderful sight to see!
Honestly, my reaction to the recounting of Muslim inventions was one of surprise. I have been “brain-washed” to believe that all the good inventions came from Europe. I grew up in the Philippines and even in my own country, we Catholics and Christians tended to look askance at Muslims. Since I was small, my impression of Muslims, based on a few neighbors and acquaintances, was that Muslims were hard to deal with, easily angered, and could “run amok” at any time. These are, of course, unfair generalizations on my part.
Since 9/11, Muslims have been portrayed in a negative light, lumped together as if they were not unique individuals. It is the negative slant of the media that makes unfair assumptions. For example, journalists are quick to label “Islamic extremists” as such but if those from other religions are the perpetrators, we don’t see them identified as “Catholic extremists” or “white fundamentalists.” Is the media’s use of certain words to describe Islam and Muslims a deliberate attempt to demonize this specific religion and culture?
Last week, I was invited to share lunch with my good friend Ahmed and his wife Aisha (not their real names) who graciously welcomed me to their modest home. Since Aisha knew only some English, Ahmed had to translate between his wife and me. She cooked some wonderful authentic Afghan cuisine items which Ahmed complemented with “Afghan wine,” which is actually an in-joke to describe yogurt milk due to its tendency to make a person drowsy after a meal. The couple also showed me their beautiful, healthy, and well-behaved almost 2-month old baby daughter Samirah. Their pride in that little bundle of joy is justified.
Last week, too, Muslims all over the world were celebrating the Eid al-Adha or the Festival of the Sacrifice. I think that we as non-Muslims are more familiar with the Eid al-Fitr (Lesser Eid) at the end of Ramadan, and together with the Eid al-Adha (Greater Eid), they comprise the two official holidays in Islam. Eid al-Adha occurs around 2.5 months after Eid al-Fitr, coming at the end of the pilgrimage to Mecca. Muslims commemorate God’s mercy to Abraham, allowing the patriarch to substitute an animal instead of his son for sacrifice. In honor of this, Muslims worldwide sacrifice goats, cows, and lambs on the Greater Eid and distribute the meat among family, friends, neighbors, and the poor.
Here is a paragraph from the book “American Muslims: A Journalist’s Guide to Understanding Islam and Muslims” issued by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR): “Journalists can use these celebrations and holy days to showcase the positive aspects of Muslim life. For instance, journalists can write about Ramadan dinners in the mosque or interfaith events, Muslims feeding the hungry, Muslims distributing meat to the poor, Muslims celebrating Eid, Muslim family life during Ramadan, how different cultures break the fast, or children praying and fasting despite intense school schedules (p. 31).”
In one of our professor’s early lectures, we learned that the first commandment of Islam is for people to educate themselves. Its aim is to produce individuals who have faith and knowledge, one sustaining the other. Knowledge without faith is not only partial knowledge but can be a kind of new ignorance. Acknowledging that wisdom is the fruit of true knowledge, Islamic education insists on the fact that piety and faith must be recognized as integrated parts of the educational system. (Prof. H. Siddiqi’s lecture, 8/27/14)
There is no compulsion in religion (Qur’an 2/256) and indeed, Muslims have been taught to coexist peacefully with people from other religions. Man always has free will and freedom of choice. “If it had been your Lord’s will, all who are in the earth would have believed together. Will you then compel humankind against their will to believe?” (Qur’an 10/99).
Let’s educate ourselves about Islam before being overcome by the stereotypes we foist on it. Interacting with Muslim individuals, families, and communities may just open your mind. Did you know that the literal meaning of the Arabic word “Islam” means “to be safe and secure, to submit and surrender, and peace?” Assalamu Alaikum (Peace be upon you.)
Find advisor Blesilda44 at KEEN.com, 1-800-ASK-KEEN (1-800-275-5336), extension 05226567 either by phone or chat: Mon-Fri 7-10 pm, Sat-Sun 7-11 pm Pacific. I speak English, Tagalog, and some Spanish. For personal readings, email me here: firstname.lastname@example.org