The Essence of Islam is a chapter from the book American Muslim Agenda available at Amazon and Kindle
Islam remains a myth to many a people, including Muslims, simply because its purpose was rarely explained and its role vis-à-vis the humanity is seldom understood.
Muslims have reduced Islam to the rituals. Many of them believe that it is all about the five pillars, burqa, beard, and headgear. Sadly, that is how it is understood by fellow humans. Islam is much more than that. It is a way of life; Deen as Muslims prefer to call it.
In 2003, I undertook the difficult task of mining the essence of each religion by going beyond the rituals. The bottom line question was how each religion contributed to a better world. When Jesus says to Christians, “Follow me,” Krishna appeals to Hindus, “Surrender to me,” and Allah guides Muslims, “Submit to my will,” what does it mean? Will the man on the street who has no idea of God or religion will understand this?
So we took to the air, and for every day, five days a week, we talked about religion. Every Monday, it was Christianity for an hour, Hinduism on Thursday, and Islam on Friday. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, we alternated among atheism, Baha’i, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, Judaism, interfaith, Earth-based traditions on our radio talk show.
The clergy from each faith had to relearn on communicating how their traditions contribute to the overall well-being of humanity. We assumed our audience had never heard of God or religion and how they would take it. We did a total of 780 hours of the radio show called the Wisdom of Religions, All the Beautiful Religions.
We also did a fifteen-minute segment called Festivals of the World where we shared the essence of each major festival happening that week. My friend Shri D. D. Maini once asked me, “What is the purpose of this program?” Right then, his son Rajiv stepped in and said, “Daddy, I learned about Karva Chauth (a Hindu festivity) from his radio.” Indeed, most people got the gist of one another’s festival of all religions.
To make the point about learning the essence of Islam, I am taking you on a bus trip to Jerusalem. There were forty of us, mostly Americans and a few Europeans on a Middle East peace initiative by the Universal Peace Foundation of ReverendMoon.
As the bus started moving, the tour guide came on the public address and said, “Today I am going to share about Islam. Islam has six pillars, and they are jihad, pledge . . .” I let her finish the long spill then got up and said, “I am a Muslim, and there are only five pillars in Islam, and jihad is not one of them. Can I explain that to my fellow passengers?” There was a dead pause for a few seconds, and it appeared like an eternity.
The passengers were my teammates, and in unison, they shouted, “Let him.” Of course, I explained, and the two Dutch imams also joined me. She protested, but we insisted that we are Muslims and we knew the faith and produced her a printout upon return to the hotel. She promised to pass it on to the tourism ministry as they were the ones who approved the script. Islam is deliberately misrepresented in Israel; of course, the Palestinians do the same. As responsible members of the society, we have to work on learning about one another as we are—the good, bad, and ugly among us.
It was Ramadan, and we were fasting. The passengers asked us to follow the rituals. One of the imams did call for the prayers (adhan) in the moving bus on the public address system. Of course, I translated the adhan, and the bus pulled over for the four of us to pray, including a Muslim woman in the group. The Palestinian Christian bus driver produced dates and water for us to break the fast. He was the happiest guy on the bus when he proffered the dates to us.
What Is the Need to Understand the Essence of Islam?
When we live as neighbors, fellow workers, students, players, activists, passengers in buses or planes, and inhabitants of the same city, it behooves us to learn about one another’s beliefs, motivations, moments of celebrations, devotions, or commemorations, and what we believe. The more we know about the other, the less mythical they would become, creating a friendly environment for all of us to function efficiently in whatever we do. Knowledge leads to understanding and understanding to acceptance of the otherness of others, leading us into tension-free and sustainable prosperity.
Religion is a system that guides one to live in balance with the self and with what surrounds—life and matter.
Dr. Sheikh Rached Ghannouchi was crystal clear. “The role of religion is to answer the big questions for us, those relating to our existence, origins, destiny, and the purpose for which we are created. It is to provide us with a system of values and principles that would guide our thinking, behavior, and the regulations to which we aspire.” He added, “Islam is a religion of civilization,” which he suggests elsewhere is the essence and purpose of every world religion.
Chief Seattle, a Native American, said this perfectly, “All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man did not weave the web of life. He is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the webs, he does it to himself.”
The great Talmudic sage Hillel said the following in the first century BCE, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. The rest is the explanation of this—go and study it!”
I would say the following from the Quran, “God has created us into different races, religions, sizes, colors, and other uniqueness. Respecting the otherness of others and accepting the God-given uniqueness is the whole truth, and the rest is the explanation of this—to study it.”
This is the essence of Islam: “O mankind! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another. The noblest of you, in sight of Allah, is the best in conduct. Allah Knows and is Aware” (Quran 49:13).
In other words, God has created the universe in balance (Quran 55:8–11) and harmony. He has given us the ability to manage (khalifa) our environment, has given us intellect over other species (ashraful mukhlookhat), and has expected us to preserve that harmony. Indeed, that is God’s will. Among our species, each one of us is created to be unique with our own thumbprint, eye print, taste buds, religion buds, and DNA. That uniqueness causes us to seek security for ourselves, which becomes a source of conflict with individuals or groups competing for the resources. Then he offers guidance through peacemakers in every nation and community and advises us. Most of the conflicts can be removed if we learn about one another, and those who do that, he calls them the best of the creation as they restore harmony.
Islam teaches about building cohesive societies where each one of us has to function together to move forward in life. It involves respecting the otherness of others; honoring freedom of speech and faith, justice, mercy, humility; and treating, feeling, and believing all as equals.
It is time we restore Islam to what it was meant to be. It is one of the many beautiful faiths that contribute to building cohesive societies—a society where each one of us takes the responsibility to be the amin (trustworthy) of the society and cares for fellow humans, believes in Rabbul Aalameen (universal God) and Rahmatul Aalameen (universal Prophet), and become mukhlooqul aalameen (universal being). We have to shed the arrogance and believe that no one is superior or inferior to us. We must become conflicts mitigators and goodwill nurturers and make this world a better place for all of God’s creation with prejudice toward none.
Sadly, a substantial number of Muslims refuse to see another point of view. What is dished out to them is the unquestionable truth. Quran is the word of God and the truth, but all other books in Islam for Muslims are written by humans who make errors and are a source of conflict.
Let me share a few quick examples.
A Yemeni judge offered a choice to al-Qaeda prisoners in his jail, “If you find verses in Quran that advocate killing non-Muslims, I will join your jihad (as they understood to be armed struggle). But if you don’t, would you join me in hunting down and stopping the violent preaching? Sixty days later, the prisoners were angry as they did not find anything in the Quran about killing another soul. Once they felt duped, they wanted to end those nonsensical teachings (see chapter “The Source of Muslim Extremism”) and joined the judge.
The same formula was applied to Pastor Robert Jeffress who said, “The Quran is an evil book written by an evil prophet.” I asked him that if he read that someplace or someone told him about it, then had he verified it? He backed off. I offered him a copy of the right (near right) translation of the Quran to study it, and we would debate. The challenge to him was to find three mistakes in the Quran that we agreed in public. If he would find them, then I would join his ministry; if not, he would have to heed the call from Jesus to be a peacemaker.
Finding the truth is our responsibility. Just because the tradition does not allow certain things, it does not mean it is Islamic; it could be cultural.
The right-wing Muslims have deliberately mistranslated the Quran for political reasons, and so are the hadiths. Some of the hadiths that Baghdadi quotes or the neocons quote are not pulled out of thin air; they are part of our secondary books, and they have wrong information amid the excellent stuff.
I urge fellow humans to have faith in the Quran. You can never go wrong, but remember, God is not a villain of his creation. God loves us all. He is Raheem, Rahman—that is, kind, merciful and just. We must verify the authenticity of our traditions. If they say, “You cannot make friends with Jews and Christians,” we need to study that and find the truth for ourselves. A just god cannot be prejudiced or make deals with us behind others’ backs or vice versa. Some Muslims believe that “Islam is the only religion acceptable to God,” and they quote Quran 3:85. Check out the different translations. That is not what it says.
Quran is not about governance but about guidance. It’s the book of wisdom that helps humanity build cohesive societies.
Islam is not about establishing government, compelling others, or forcing others to obey you or your point of view; it is about living in harmony within and with others. Indeed, Islam is about “live and let live,” and most certainly, mind your faith.
Judging others’ faith or denigrating others faith is an absolute no in Islam. Everyone wants to become God’s assistant, partner, or deputy and pass judgments about others’ faith. We should consciously stop it.
There was never an Islamic government; Prophet Muhammad did not run an Islamic government. He was the head of a pluralistic government, almost identical to what India and Indonesia have, where each community is served by their laws to administer on religious matters. The Prophet did not sign the Madinah treaty of governance as a head of the Islamic state; he signed as a civic leader along with others—the others who had equal rights to their faith and practices.
Here are a few takeaway points:
- ⦁ Islam is about being a good human being
- ⦁ Islam is not about ruling others but creating a better world for all of us.
- ⦁ The best Muslim is one who cares for fellow humans.
- ⦁ The best Muslim mitigates conflicts and nurtures goodwill.
- ⦁ A good Muslim is an exemplary citizen who cares about all fellow humans.
It’s a system devised to restore sanity and common sense in a given society through simple basics like trust, truthfulness, security, justice, “nonjudgmentalism,” humility, kindness, and prayers. These are the principles of building cohesive societies where no human has to live in apprehension or fear of the other. I would say, “If it is not common sense, then it is not Islam.”
Islam has not claimed to be an exclusive religion to earn God’s grace if you are good to his creation (life and environment). He will be useful to you—that’s how simple it is. Ultimately, it is your peace of mind. “Surely, those who believe, those who are Jewish, the Christians, and the converts; anyone who (1) believes in GOD, and (2) believes in the Last Day, and (3) leads a righteous life, will receive their recompense from their Lord. They have nothing to fear, nor will they grieve” (Quran 2:62). Here, the good lord is saying that the basis of your rewards is that you lead a righteous life: caring for his creation—life and matter. Belief in the Last Day merely means that the accountability of one’s actions and that trust in God amounts to the response to the creation.
Islam never claimed to be a new religion as it would negate the existence of other faiths. In fact, it acknowledges the existence of Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, paganism, and other traditions. Not only that, but God also claims he has sent a messenger (peacemaker, prophet, or whatever name suits you) to each tribe and community to restore harmony in that society. I cannot resist quoting the Bhagavad Gita here, where Krishna says, “Whenever there is moral decay or dharma takes over the community, I will emerge among you to restore dharma (righteousness).”
Say, We believe in GOD, and in what was sent down to us, and in what was sent down to Abraham, Ismail, Isaac, Jacob, and the Patriarchs; and in what was given to Moses and Jesus, and all the prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction among any of them. To Him alone we are submitters. (Quran 2:136)
Islam is about free will—it is built into all humans. When Adam was given a choice to eat or not eat a particular item, he ate it, knowing the consequences. The decision was made to remove him from the eternal place—the paradise. The angels must have argued with God why he did not stop Adam from eating, and then God must have said, “Look, I am the god, and I offered him a choice. He picked what suited him. I am the god. If I don’t honor my word, then who will?” Then God decided to upload free will into human DNA. That is why we call that an inalienable right.
To be a Muslim is to be a peacemaker who seeks to mitigate conflicts and nurtures goodwill for the peaceful coexistence of humanity.