What is Islam?

Iraq-born Islamic theologian Dr Zuhair Araji, a migrant to New Zealand five years ago, and Asian studies academic Dr Tim Behrend, of the University of Auckland, answer the questions about Islam they hear most often.

What does the word Islam mean?

Zuhair Araji: Islam means submission to God. Islam is the idea that gives people motivation for excellence and to guide people, especially spiritually.

Muslims, unfortunately, sometimes have not attained this excellence. Each country takes their religion but blends it with their culture - that's why Indian Muslims are different from Malaysian Muslims, and European Muslims are different from African Muslims. You see different habits, and approaches, and understanding of the religion itself.

Those people who embrace violence in the name of Islam are far away from its essence, which is peace, loving, caring, community, knowledge, and learning.

What is the theological underpinning of Islam?

Tim Behrend: The most important and fundamental theological teaching of Islam has to do with [the Arabic] 'ilm tawhid, the science of God's absolute oneness.

Other important principles are the direct, unmediated relationship between the individual and God; the unity of the community of Muslims (ummah); the equality of all before God.

Other major teachings of the Koran have to do with the history of God's dealings with humanity and the final judgment. The Koran and the "sunnah" - the things that Muhammad said, did, and allowed during his life, as observed and passed on by his companions - are the sources of these teachings and every other aspect of Islamic theology and law.

What is the importance of the Muslim holy book, the Koran?

ZA: It is the last word of God, that concludes all the goals of messengers sent by God, including [those of] Judaism and Christianity.TB: The Koran plays a role parallel to that of Christ in Christianity. In Christianity, the word was made flesh, and became the path by which salvation can be achieved. In Islam, the word was made text.

What are the five pillars of Islam? 

ZA: The profession of faith - there is no God but God and Mohammad is his prophet - prayer five times daily; fasting during Ramadan, pilgrimage to Mecca, and giving to charity.

Why pray five times a day - why not once?

We go by the religious text. It's a matter of faith that we pray five times. There are certain things you cannot analyse.

What is the significance of Mecca in Saudi Arabia?

TB: Historically, Mecca was the trading centre where the tribe that Muhammad belonged to had their urban seat. The epicentre of Mecca is a shrine called Ka'bah. It's this great, black cube of a building which was always, for Arabs, a central shrine.

What does the word jihad mean?

TB: Jihad is the personal struggle to follow the path of Allah. Living a good life. Missionary work is a type of jihad. Education is a type of jihad. Jihad as "war against infidels" is defined as wars of self-defence that becomes a religious requirement when a Muslim nation or the ummah at large is under attack.

In certain cases it is a religious requirement to personally contribute to such defensive wars. The vast majority of Muslims today do not consider the sort of generalised, world-wide jihad called for by Osama bin Laden to be a valid understanding of the concept.

What is Islam's relationship with Judaism and Christianity?

ZA: The link is in believing one God, and believing that Jesus is a messenger of God; the moral and ethical codes in both religions are the same. There is a unity of source. All the divine religions came from the same source.

How have geo-politics contributed to the west's views of Islam?

TB: Historically, Islam has been the most powerful culture faced by Europe. Islam and Christianity have been rubbing against each other for much of history. As the idea of European civilisation was coalescing ... all the characteristics Europe ascribed to itself - its rationalism, its discipline, its masculinity, the rule of law - it gave the opposite to its greatest competitor. It was an opposition between Europe and the other. Where Europe was rational, the Oriental was irrational, a society governed by despots. It's historical, and these ideas are still with us today.

Why do Muslim women wear scarves (hijab)?

ZA: It's a religious duty - if you are a good Muslim, you have to cover your hair and your body. It's a matter of faith but it also has a social dimension: if you cover up you are less vulnerable to sexual abuse or attack.

Are women equal in Islam?

ZA: Yes, in principle they are equal. It is clearly mentioned in the Koran that men and women are created equally. There are differences in equality, especially in inheritance ... a woman always has someone to finance her lifestyle - a father, a husband - that's why inheritance will be two parts to the male and one share to the female.

TB: I'd say yes. We certainly have feminist movements in the Islamic world that base themselves on points of view they consider congruent with the Koran's teaching.

If the Koran says women are equal, why in some countries are women apparently so oppressed?

ZA: It's culture and in some countries culture is more dominant than religion. People - ignorantly or knowingly - try to mix culture with religion.

TB: Whenever patriarchy has developed in a society and men have dominated - as in agricultural or post-agricultural nations - there have been religious justifications. In Saudi Arabia, women are largely behind closed doors. That's not Islam, that's a particular form of Arab culture.

So why do men and women pray separately in mosques?

ZA: Separation of men and women is not undermining women. It's not because they are not equal. They are equal in front of God but both have different roles in life. They can mix, but they mix with chastity.

Why can women have one husband at a time, but men several wives at once?

ZA: Polygamy is allowed, but neither is it a must, nor is it commonly practised. The norm, according to the Islamic legal system, is a monogamous marriage. Polygamy is a solution for certain periods of time, such as after wars, where women outnumber men in society.

Women are not allowed to have multiple husbands due to the fact that the lineage of the children will be obscure. Socially, who should discipline the child? Which husband has the authority? How many sets of family rules can be applied to one family by several heads of household? In short, the primary focus of polygamy is not what may benefit a man, but rather on the rights of the disadvantaged child or woman.

Why does meat have to be killed a certain way for Muslim consumption?

ZA: We believe since the animal has been created from God, we need permission to kill it, to kill one of his creations.

TB: It's the same as for Jews keeping kosher. Ritual cleanliness is important in Islam - ablutions before prayers, for example. Meat must be slaughtered a certain way in order to be ritually clean. The reason for it? Allah so commands.

Why don't Muslims eat pork?

ZA: It's a matter of faith. There is no practical basis.

TB: Most societies and religions have prescriptions against eating certain meats or foods. Among Semitic peoples - Hebrews and Arabs - the pig and dog were especially abhorrent. The rule in Islam is that the flesh of land animals that eat flesh is forbidden. There is no practical basis, although many modernists point to scientific discoveries that seem to justify the practice.

Why don't Muslims drink alcohol?

ZA: Again, it is a matter of faith. But alcohol affects the brain and changes the mental attitude: Islam wants people in perfect mental health.

Why are Sunni and Shia Muslims so antagonistic?

TB: Its roots are in a disagreement over succession going back almost to the very beginning of Islam.ZA: It's like the Protestants and the Catholics. After the prophet Muhammad died [in 632], Islam took two directions. 

Is there anything in Islam which condones taking an innocent life?

ZA: No. Those [bombers] in London are criminals - they are taking the life of innocent people that God created. They don't have the authority to do that.

But what drives them to it?

ZA: The wrong interpretation of Islam - using the sword rather than words. They forget the saying of the prophet who said that the "ink of scholars is better than blood of martyrs". They are killing people - you cannot call them martyrs. We need to distinguish radical Muslims from Islam, which is a moderate religion.

TB: If you look at the last 30 years and the Arab-Israel conflict, you've seen very poor, very under-armed, non-state combatants resisting the Israeli occupation of Palestine by delivering weapons personally on their bodies.

The use of terror as a political tactic is forced on opponents who have no alternative. So the idea of martyrdom and protecting Islam comes together.

Violence originates in states where the rule of law is compromised, where the state itself has practised extra-judicial violence against its political opponents.

The Koran can be marshalled to explain and justify, just like in Christianity.

What's more important - the law of the land or the law of Islam?

ZA: The law of the land is very important to secure the lives of people - I don't see a contradiction between the law of Islam and the law of the land.

What will it take for perceptions of Islam to improve?

ZA: That we live together with respect and tolerance, regardless of our differences and communicate ideas rather than impose them.

TB: Exhaustion of the oil wealth of the Middle East. Twenty-five more years of emigration [from Islamic countries] to the United States and Europe. The wrestling of power from the Christianist groups that have so much influence on the United States. The conversion of the Pope. Who knows?

Journalists working to return moderation and neutrality to their coverage of both religious affairs and political issues that are superficially clothed in religious language will certainly help.

Islam must become familiar and be cleansed of the taint of deep "otherness" that attaches to it now in mainstream political discourse.

Should we worry that extremists are among us?

ZA: We shouldn't be worried, but we should be vigilant. Since New Zealand is not actively involved in Muslim countries' internal affairs, it seems unlikely that New Zealand would be a target.

TB: No, not here in New Zealand. Even if there are people here who support Osama bin Laden's programme - and there certainly are - political support does not necessarily translate into violent direct action. And there is nothing to indicate that bin Laden and similar leaders have any interest in New Zealand. They are more concerned with the big players.

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