By Mohamed El Ghannam
I visited Nebraska during the period from Oct. 19 to Nov. 10, 2007, as a visiting scholar to Doane College in Crete. This visit was a part of the Fulbright Visiting Specialists Program called "Direct Access to the Muslim World." The program promotes understanding of the Muslim civilization through U.S. higher educational institutions that host specialists from the Muslim world for short-term programs of intensive lecturing and public outreach.
The first point I tried to make clear to my audiences was that I am not a man of religion. I am not a sheik, so theological debates are not my field. I declared that the purpose of my visit was to give the perspective of a normal citizen from the Middle East, which is a perspective that I think should be of interest to many Nebraska communities.
This was not my first visit to the United States. I lived in DC for a full year in 2004-2005. When the program first informed me that I had been selected to go to Crete, I was so happy that I would be able to visit Greece. However, I discovered that Crete is not in Greece but in Nebraska. Obviously, I did not know where Nebraska was, but I said to myself, so what, it is not going to be different from Washington, DC. I was so wrong. I was really surprised, in a good way, as I found the people in Crete more cheerful and friendly, and definitely the society is more family oriented. I also formed the impression that in both my country and the United States, the societies are the same and the families are almost identical.
This also deepened my conviction that religions are also similar. I believe that different religions have more common ground than they have differences and that we should be working on emphasizing the common ground instead of looking for what makes them different. As a result, I thought a starting point for me would be to emphasize the common ground between Islam and Christianity. Christians and Muslims constitute more than half of the world's population. If these two communities agreed to have peace between them, then I assume the rest of the world would follow. In addition, I do not follow a comparative approach, or weigh Islam against Christianity. I think a good description of some of the Islamic beliefs could be more beneficial to readers; I leave the comparison, and definitely any decision on the similarity, to them.
Islam is a religion built on monotheism. Muslims believe there is only one God, whom they call "Allah." This is reflected in the first and one of the main pillars of Islam, which is the declaration of faith. Muslims have to declare, and believe, that there is "No God but Allah, and Mohammad (The Messenger of Islam) is his prophet." There are several descriptions of God in the Muslims' holy book, the Quran. The Quran describes God, among other descriptions, as the one and only, who always existed and will always exist, owner of the day of judgment, just, fair, the most compassionate, and the most merciful.
Love of God, and accordingly submission to him, is the foundation of Islam. God is Absolute and as a result, devotion to him must be very sincere. A Muslim can approach God through different means in Islam. Prayers, five times a day, are among the methods to express submission to God, and prayer is commonly practiced by Muslims. Repentance, contentment, and informal supplications are other means of approaching God in Islam.
Muslims believe in angels, who are created from light and worship God as well. They believe that angels are messengers sent from God to the prophets. Some of the angels are mentioned by name in the Quran and prophet Mohammad's sayings, such as Jibril (Gabriel) who is the angels' leader; his mission is to bring revelation to God's prophets. Israfeel (Raphael) is another mentioned angel tasked with blowing the horn to mark the arrival of Judgment Day. Another well-known angel to Muslims is Azrael, who is the angel of death.
One major part of the Islamic faith is to believe in all of God's messengers and prophets. Muslims do not differentiate between prophets and are ordered to respect them all equally. There are several prophets mentioned in the Quran, including Adam, the first human created by God and ordered to settle on earth with his wife Eve; Nuh (Noah), who built the ark and gathered the animals in pairs of two; Ibrahim (Abraham), the father of the faith, and his two sons Ismael (Ishmael) and Ishaaq (Issac); Yusuf (Joseph) son of Yaqoub (Jacob), who had the ability to interpret dreams; Dawud (David) who fought against Goliath and received the Psalms from God; Musa (Moses), who freed the Israelites from the Egyptian pharaoh and received the Torah; and Eisa, also called as the "Messiah" (Jesus), who was born to the Virgin Mariam (Mary) and who was given the Gospel. As a result, believing in Jesus, and his mother Virgin Mary, is part of the Islamic faith. A person cannot be considered a Muslim unless he or she believes in all prophets, including Jesus.
Believing in the scriptures received by the prophets is another part of the Islamic faith. Muslims call the scriptures "books" and are ordered to believe in all of them equally, as they believe in the Quran, which mentions five of the Holy Scriptures. The Quran identifies that the Scrolls were revealed to Prophet Abraham, the Psalms revealed to Prophet David, the Torah revealed to Prophet Moses, the Gospels revealed to Prophet Jesus.
Muslims also believe in the Day of Judgment (and in life after death), which is eternal and will start when all humans are judged based on their actions during their lifetime. Resulting from this judgment, a person whose good deeds outweigh his sins will be rewarded with heaven. On the other hand, a person whose sins outweigh his good deeds will be punished in hell.
Loving thy neighbors is a fundamental principle in Islam. Mohammad, the Prophet of Islam, asserted the principle by advising his companions and Muslims in general that "None of you has faith until you love for your brother what you love for yourself" and "None of you has faith until you love for your neighbor what you love for yourself." This "love" could be interpreted in different ways. It means that you have to take care of your neighbors, to help, assist, and support them.
Finally, readers might question some of the my opinions in this article on the basis of what they hear, watch or read about the actions of some Muslims. My message to those readers is that there is a huge difference between Islam and Muslims. Islam is a religion of almost 1.2 billion followers from different countries and cultures. Islam is a religion that calls for peace and welfare for all people. Don't let the actions of some of the misguided Muslims, hundreds or even thousands, convince you that they represent Islam. They don't.