An Overview of Islam

Images of car explosions and hostages come to mind when confronted with the idea of a country that is over 98% Muslim, but without a basic knowledge of the religion and a sense of how secularism has affected Turkey, these types of sweeping characterizations are unfair. 

The history of Islam dates to the beginning of the 7th century in the city of Mecca, in today's Saudi Arabia. At the time, Mecca contained what was believed to be the first holy shrine built by Adam and Eve. Later, after Abraham was spared the task of sacrificing his only son, he rebuilt a temple on the same spot and dedicated it to the One True God. This shrine, constructed in the shape of a simple cube (hence the word Kaaba), attracted the devotion of a host of pagan cults and, by the end of the second half of the first millennium, contained over 360 statuettes and cult objects. Pilgrims representing a broad range of cults flocked to the city, and the wealthy and influential members of the community were delighted with the revenue that these pilgrimages brought.  

Mohammad was born in Mecca around A.D. 570 (or CE, for "Common Era") and grew up in a monotheistic family tradition. A naturally pious man, Mohammad often headed off into the hills for moments of isolated contemplation and prayer. On one of these occasions, Muslims believe that the angel Gabriel appeared with a message from God, a revelation that is accepted as the first verse of the Koran (Koran means "The Recitation"). The Koran forms the foundation of the Islamic faith, and is believed by Muslims to be the direct word of God.  

In a world of inequality, poverty, and misery, Mohammad's preachings of purity of heart, charity, humility, and justice gained a devoted following well beyond the borders of Mecca. The tribesmen of Mecca grew alarmed and hostile at these developments, eventually forcing Mohammad and his followers to leave Mecca in fear for their lives. The town of Yathrib welcomed Mohammad and gave him an honored position as leader, changing its name to Madinat al-Nabi or "the town of the Prophet." The town was later to become known simply as Medina.  

Many of the misconceptions of Islam come from models that are related to culture and not religion. The basic principles of Islam are impossible to condemn, as every requirement has a practical purpose. The act of prayer sets specific time aside for the recognition of a greater power, and the act of physical prostration is a constant reminder of one's humility and man's equality. Practically speaking, regular prayer develops a sense of peace and tranquility, of punctuality, obedience, and gratitude. Furthermore, the setting aside of 5 minutes five times a day for introspection and meditation can only have positive effects on one's overall health, especially in the face of the stresses that the modern world has to offer. The month of ritual fasting, or Ramadan (Ramazan in Turkish), reinforces principles of discipline and teaches people to appreciate what they have and to understand what it's like to do without. Ramadan also brings families and communities together in a feeling of brother-hood and unity.  

Islam is a socially conscious religion that attends not only to inner growth but to external affairs as well. The concept of charity is implicit in Islam, which calls for a specific contribution to be made to those less fortunate (2.5%) unless doing so would cause undue hardship to the giver.

Sadly, people tend to dwell on the concepts of polygamy, unequal treatment of women, and terrorist activity associated with the Islamic idea of jihad, concepts which have roots in purity but that have been twisted through cultural interpretations. The idea of multiple wives gained ground at a time when wars were creating an abundance of widows whose only alternative for survival would have been prostitution. Where the taking of additional wives was meant as a social good, in modern times, it has no application.

Islam preaches modesty, and in many societies, particularly in Saudi Arabia and Iran, this concept has been taken to extremes, where women are required to wear a black chador in public. Ironically, there is absolutely nothing in the Koran or any of the hadiths that require a women to wear any specific garment. In fact, to force or coerce a women (or anyone) in matters of religion goes against the true spirit of Islam.  

A divisive issue in Islam dates back to the death of Mohammad and relates to the succession, an area of disagreement that spreads into ideology. Shiite Muslims believe that the true line of imams (or spiritual leaders) is one based on genealogy, and that the rightful representatives of Islam descend from Ali, Mohammad's cousin and son-in-law. Shiites believe that part of the imam's inheritance is divine knowledge, which has resulted in blind adherence, since these imams are believed to be infallible. Sunni Muslims interpret Mohammad's ideology more democratically, and acknowledge the line of succession as one based on merit and "the consensus of the community."

 Turkey, whose Muslims are predominantly Sunni, is the only Muslim country in the world to allow its citizens the freedom to decide his or her own level of observance. While the political atmosphere in Turkey represents both liberal and conservative extremes, Atatürk's reforms on secularism provided the country with the basis for personal freedoms not available to other Muslim countries where national law is based on the shariah (the way of Islam).  

In this way, Turkish Muslims don't feel themselves a part of the Islamic Middle East, but at the same time, are not wholly accepted by Europe. With internal divisiveness over the role of religion in state affairs and an external sense of pseudo alienation, only the future holds the answers to these difficult questions.