December 13, 2000

I was in a convenience store in Monroe where I often shop the other day. The owner is a very sweet, kind man. We chatted briefly, and then he reminded me that he was fasting for Ramadan, the holy month of Islam.

He’s an Arab Muslim. What images arise in your mind from those two words? Fanatics with bombs strapped to themselves, immoral oil-rich sheiks, “ragheads” on camels? If you are a non-Muslim, unfortunately, these negative stereotypes tend to come to mind.

What a shame.

There are five dominant religions in the world: Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism and Islam. Islam has just as many adherents, worldwide, as Christianity.

In this country, we prefer to think that we are uniquely tolerant of religions other than our own. Yet nowadays, all too many Americans of different faiths live in fear of social ostracism and even personal attack.

We think of old stereotypes of Muslims, which are often based on the warfare in Israel and characters from movies.

On the other hand, my personal experience with Muslims has exposed me to gentle, kind, hardworking and tolerant people. How can this be?

Whenever I have told a Muslim that I was raised a Jew, he or she responds, “My brother under Abraham.” Isn’t that cool?

But to understand this religion, you have to understand its origins. It’s a religion that goes back almost fifteen hundred years, when the prophet Mohammed was born.

Mohammed was a mortal man and he was an inheritor of the ancient tradition of Abraham and Moses. Like Moses, he was mortal. And, like Moses, he was chosen by God (or Allah) to receive His message.

During Mohammed’s youth, the Arab Peninsula was populated by warring tribes that had long since lost any sense of connection to a God. One city in particular was considered a den of evil: Mecca.

When Mohammed was forty years old, the angel Gabriel delivered God’s message to him. That message is now called the Koran.

In the message were the questions regarding who we are and who Allah is. The message was that there is a God and that the purpose of life is to worship and serve Allah. This revelation also promised an afterlife as reward for good deeds. It spoke of the innate good in people — unlike Christianity. By serving Allah and being true to their own natures, people could ascend to heaven.

There is one story about Mohammed that I especially like. When he was twelve, he went with an uncle on a trip to Syria. When they reached the town of Bosra, they met a monk called Bahra who showed great kindness to the boy and his uncle. This monk had never been in the habit or receiving or entertaining guests before, but he told the uncle that he readily recognized in this boy a prophet, saying, “This is the master of all humans. Allah will send him with a message which will be a mercy to all beings.” The uncle asked how the monk could know this. The Monk responded, “All stones and trees prostrated themselves before him, which they never do except for a prophet. I can recognize him also by the seal of prophethood, which is below his shoulder like an apple.”

(What do you know, another apple! Just like in Christianity…deserts, forty years, apples, beginning to sound familiar?)

From the time he was a boy, Mohammed liked to take time to meditate, but at about forty he got really into it, which served to widen the gap between him and his compatriots. He meditated on things like the nature of the universe, and he was bothered by all the evil he saw around him.

Around this time, the angel Gabriel came to him and began a six-month period of instruction that provided Mohammed with revelations about the nature of Allah. In the beginning, Mohammed did not quite trust this angel thing. He distrusted those who pretended to know what was and what wasn’t. He did come to a point of acceptance, but he also had these moments of doubt. This doubt would cause him great despondency, but in the nick of time Gabriel would show up again saying, “Oh Muhammad! You are indeed Allah’s Messenger of Truth,” and Muhammad’s heart would quiet.

From all of these revelations came the sacred text known as the Koran.

Ultimately, Mohammed united the warring tribes and brought peace and faith to the Arab world. It is unfortunate that when so many of us think of Mohammed, we think of the sword — in fact, he was really a person of peace. It is said that during his wars no more than a few hundred died, whereas during the wars between the tribes tens of thousands died. Keep in mind also that the Great Crusades were the Catholic church’s attempt to commit genocide on all Muslims.

At the time, Mecca was the center of the Arab world, and apparently it was kind of like Sodom and Gomorrah. Mohammed won the city, purifying it, yet in victory he showed mercy to its inhabitants. It is toward Mecca that all Muslims pray in their daily adorations of their God.

No Muslim believes that Mohammed performed miracles — only Allah can do that — and just as dictated in the ten commandments, Islam teaches that no man or thing can come before God.

Muslims pray to one God, Allah. They find Christianity confusing because of all the prayers to the saints, which seems like a polytheistic practice to them.

Mahatma Gandhi, who usually got stuff right, was fighting for equality in South Africa when he said the following:

Someone has said that Europeans in South Africa dread the advent of Islam – Islam that civilized Spain, Islam that took the torchlight to Morocco and preached to the world the Gospel of brotherhood. The Europeans of South Africa dread the advent of Islam. They may claim equality with the white races. They well dread it, if brotherhood is a sin. If it is equality of colored races, then their dread is well founded.

So folks, what are we really afraid of here? What is our dread of Muslims? You say they are violent. Violent, much like the Christian in Oklahoma City who blew up a federal building? Or the fundamentalist Jew who assassinated Prime Minister Rabin for seeking peace between Jews and Muslims? Every religion has its zealots; no doubt Islam is no different in this regards.

Muslims believe in an afterlife. Dig how you can get there:

The freeing of a slave, or giving food upon a day of hunger to an orphan or a needy man in misery. Become of those who believe and council each other to be steadfast, and counsel each other to be merciful. Besides helping his fellowmen in this way, man should also be truthful and honest with them and fulfill his promises to them. He should not infringe upon their rights, especially those of life.

With 1.4 billion Muslims worldwide, Islam is something worth learning about — it is a force to be reckoned with. You probably have Muslim neighbors and don’t even know it. To all of my Jewish brothers and sisters who tend to see Muslims as the devil incarnate, you of all people should realize the danger and pain of assumptions and stereotypes.

To all of you in this season of love, take your stereotypes and shove them up your biases where the sun don’t shine. Take the time to meet the truth.

This is the holy month of Ramadan, the time when Mohammed received the words of Allah. Respect it!

If you send cards that say “Peace To the World,” where and with whom do you think that peace begins? Joy to the world doesn’t happen if it doesn’t start with you, does it?

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