4 Facts About Islam That Surprise Almost Everyone

As the recent Boston bombings have confirmed, Islam continues to be at the forefront of media attention, but people continue to misjudge or remain misinformed about the teachings of the third Abarahamic faith. This has only fueled ignorance and hatred towards Muslim communities in majority non-Muslim nations.

While numerous misconceptions about Islam exist, these are a few of the more popular myths that continue to negatively influence people's perceptions of Islam.

1. Islam is not only an eastern religion.

Contrary to popular belief, Islam had been a central part of European history for centuries. In Spain, Muslim rule was established and remained entrenched for 700 years until the Spanish Inquisition, where Muslims and other non-Catholics were slaughtered and evicted from the country. Muslims had a huge presence in the Balkans as well, and continue to live there today. David Abulafia argues that it “is a fundamental but simple error to classify the history of the relationship between medieval Europe and Islam as that between two separate worlds”.

Tariq Ramadan, a famous Muslim scholar, asserts that Islam is not the sole basis of one's identity and we should shed this tendency to label Muslims in Europe as foreign. “I am used to saying about myself: I am a Swiss by nationality, my culture is European, my heritage is Egyptian, I am a Muslim by religion, and my principles are universalist”, he says.

2. Suicide bombers are sinners, not martyrs.

Strapping a suicide vest and detonating yourself to kill civilians is not a virtue, but a crime in Islam. There is great irony in justifications for such acts, as they commit not one but two sins in one instance. Suicide bombings have been unanimously accepted by nearly all Islamic scholars to be forbidden. In an initiative undertaken by the Afghan government last year, scholars from around the world, including the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, condemned the practice.

Renowned scholar Robert Pape, in his groundbreaking book Dying To Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, concludes that religion or scripture is not a motive for suicide bombings, but rather political and nationalistic goals serve as a central focus for such acts. Pape further asserts that Muslims are not the only group using the tactic. Strictly secular organizations, such the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka and the PKK in Turkey, have used the practice as well.

3. Jesus is a prophet in Islam.

No doubt exists that Jesus is one of the most important figures in the Islamic tradition, and the Koran is clear in this regard. Many in the West are often unaware that Jesus was a prophet of God. Mentions of Christ in the Koran are several, totaling close to 25 in various contexts, such as:

"...O Mary! God Giveth thee glad tidings of a word from him: His name will be Christ Jesus, the son of Mary..”  (Koran 3:45)

"...O Jesus, son of Mary! Remember My favour unto you and unto your mother; how I strengthened you with the holy Spirit, so that you spoke unto mankind in the cradle as in maturity." (Qur’an 5:109-110)

While Muslims do not consider Jesus to be the son of God, belief in him and the Bible are a fundamental principles for Muslims. Christians and Jews are mentioned in the Koran as People of the Book, and people who share the belief in the oneness of God. 

4. The veil is a cultural tradition, not an Islamic requirement.

The niqab (veil) is often a lightning rod in conversations about Islam. The veil is often assumed to be a requirement in the Koran, to preserve a women’s modesty. Recently, the radical feminist group FEMEN protested outside a mosque in veils, demonstrating a strain of ignorance about Islam that is widespread.

While a woman (as well as a man) should dress modestly as per Islamic injunctions, there is no verse or text in the Koran suggesting a woman should conceal her face in public. Most scholars are in agreement that the veil is not an obligation. Even the small minority that advocate for the niqab are divided in their opinions as to what exactly has to be covered. Many argue that its prevalence in many Muslim countries is a feature of a set of customs that coexist with Islamic practices in those societies.

Bonus: Quotes by famous non-Muslims on Islam

Islam has been studied for centuries, and several key Western authors and writers have shown appreciation for the faith. Author Michael Hart ranked Muhammad as the most influential person in history in his book Top 100, citing his influence in both the secular and religious realms of life.

 "The more I study, the more I discover that the strength of Islam does not lie in the sword."  — Mohandas K. Gandhi (Young India)

"The lies which we [Christians] have heaped round this man, are disgraceful to ourselves only."  — Thomas Carlyle on Muhammad (On Heroes and Hero Worship)

“In my view, Islam is the only religion in the world that will remain eternally practicable in changing times.” — George Bernard Shaw (The Genuine Islam)

Are there any other noteworthy facts you would like to discuss on Islam? Give me a shout-out on Twitter at @UsaidMuneeb16.