For many Americans, the introduction to Islam came on a bright September morning in 2001, when in two horrific hours 19 suicidal terrorists invoked the ancient faith in laying waste to the World Trade Center and taking 2,749 lives. “Infidels,” the assassins called the Americans in answering the call to jihad—a struggle to defend their religion that they believed would earn them a martyr’s place in paradise.
The scapegoating of America’s more than 5 million Muslims was immediate and lasting. As late as 2004, the Council on American-Islamic Relations reported a 70 percent increase in Muslim bias and violence in the United States. And in countless media accounts, Muslims have complained of exclusion, discrimination, and harassment. The acts of 9/11, it seemed, had only reinforced the impression of Islam as a militant faith that has spread by war, not peaceful conversion.
With 1.2 billion followers—and the distinction as the world’s second-largest and fastest-growing religion—Islam demands to be better understood.
The word Islam itself, meaning “submission,” is a derivative of a Syriac word for “making peace.” It is a faith that calls for charity, humility, and service. And it resembles the other great monotheistic religions to a remarkable degree. Like Christians and Jews, Muslims believe they are descended from Abraham. They worship the same God and believe in the prophets. They hold that Jesus was a great prophet, although not the Son of God. In the Koran, there are more references to the Virgin Mary than in the New Testament.