WANT TO UNDERSTAND ISLAM? START HERE
Nearly half of Americans have a generally unfavorable view of Islam, according to a 2006 Washington Post-ABC News poll, a number has risen since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. That climate makes it easy to lose sight of the fact that the majority of mainstream Muslims hate terrorism and violence as much as we do -- and makes it hard for non-Muslims to know where to begin to try to understand a great world faith.
Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam originated in the Middle East. As F.E. Peters shows in "The Children of Abraham," the commonalities can be striking. Muslims worship the God of Abraham, as do Christians and Jews. Islam was seen as a continuation of the Abrahamic faith tradition, not a totally new religion. Muslims recognize the biblical prophets and believe in the holiness of God's revelations to Moses (in the Torah) and Jesus (in the Gospels). Indeed, Musa (Moses), Issa (Jesus) and Mariam (Mary) are common Muslim names.
Muslims believe in Islam's five pillars, which are straightforward and simple. To become a Muslim, one need only offer the faith's basic credo, "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the prophet of God." This statement reflects the two main fundamentals of Islamic faith: belief in the one true God, which carries with it a refusal to worship anything else (not money, not career, not ego), and the crucial importance of Muhammad, God's messenger.
Muhammad is the central role model for Muslims -- much like Jesus is for Christians, except solely human. He is seen as the ideal husband, father and friend, the ultimate political leader, general, diplomat and judge.
Understanding Muhammad's special place in Muslim hearts helps us appreciate the widespread anger of many mainstream Muslims -- not just extremists -- with the denigration of a Muhammad-like figure in Salman Rushdie's 1988 novel "The Satanic Verses," the controversial 2005 Danish cartoons depicting Muhammad in unflattering lights or Pope Benedict XVI's 2006 speech quoting a long-dead Byzantine emperor who accused the prophet of bringing "only evil and inhuman" things into the world. Karen Armstrong's "Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time" and Tariq Ramadan's "In the Footsteps of the Prophet: Lessons from the Life of Muhammad" provide fresh, perceptive views on his modern-day relevance.