Saturday, December 12, 2009

Myths about Muslims, part 2

okay, let's continue with the "misconceptions about Muslims"

4) myth: all Muslims memorise the Qur'an
the Qur'an says [. . . .] so all Muslims follow it to the letter

I have lumped these two together because they both stem from a misconception regarding how much Muslims adhere to the Scripture. We in the West are fully aware that Christians do not follow every single item in the Bible to a "T", and that there is wide variance as to what aspects of the Bible individuals follow or how they interpret it. Yet for some reason we are not willing to apply that same standard to Muslims, if the Qur'an has a passage about something people conclude that all Muslims follow it exactly the same.

For example I have been to a few international seminars in Europe in which some of the attendees are Muslims. Inevitably when we go out to dinner one or two of them has wine or beer with their meal. Someone usually whispers to me "I thought Muslims couldn't drink alcohol", and my response is always "And Christians are supposed to be virgins until they are married.". They usually get the hint. When it comes to how adamantly people follow the scriptures with Islam, like Christianity, the actual application may vary from person to person, and even from culture to culture (see item 1 from my previous blog post).

This ties in with the myth that all Muslims memorise the Qur'an, which I think mostly derives from all of those news reports showing young boys in madrasas rocking back and forth while reciting the Qur'an. Now don't get me wrong, many Muslims try to memorise the Qur'an, or at least parts of it, but "many" is not "all" and a lot don't memorise it (I daresay most do not memorise it but I do not have exact figures). I do not know anyone who has memorised it. I have even asked a couple of people and the response is usually something like "oh that is something fundamentalists or imams do".

Now during Ramadan one of the requirements is for a Muslim to either read the entire Qur'an or listen to someone else recite it (many mosques hold special readings during Ramadan at a set time for this purpose so if you show up every evening you will ultimately listen to the entire Scripture being read). Again not everyone does this, but how necessary would it be if everyone had memorised it already? Don't forget that historically a lot of people were illiterate, which would have made memorisation even more difficult.

And I have found that some Muslims are unaware of some of the passages in Scripture, just like most Christians. For example when I was in Turkey I was at a bar chatting with another traveller about the differences between Turkey and Qatar. He had joked that because of the wealth in Qatar maybe he should find a Qatari woman to marry and I mentioned that in Islam a Muslim woman could only marry a Muslim man, although the reverse was not true as a Muslim man could marry a Christian or Jewish woman. He wondered if the same would apply in Turkey so we called over the bartender (a Turk) and asked if a Turkish Muslim woman could marry a Christian or Jewish man. He shrugged and said "why not?". I guess he didn't know that the Qur'an says she can't (sura 2:221). My Turkish friend was also not aware it was in the Qur'an.

One could argue that maybe Turks don't memorise Scripture because they are "liberal" compared to other Muslim societies but I have found the same in Qatar.

Because I'm interested in different cultures I sometimes have discussions with my Qatari friends about Islam, or why they do the things they do -- whether it is cultural or Scriptural, or chat about specific hadiths, and there is the rare time that I remember something I read in the Scripture or the hadiths that they had forgotten (not drinking from silver cups is one). It is rare, believe me, but it has happened. When we chat further about it the conclusion is usually that the requirements are already ingrained into the culture so it is followed without people sometimes realising its source. My Qatari friends do not wear gold because they knew that it was considered to be for women only and it was unacceptable for Qatari men to wear it. At least one didn't realise it is actually from a hadith, and a Pakistani colleague of mine did not realise it either. I have also met one Muslim here who needed to look up the dietary restrictions because he was unsure about a specific food but couldn't remember all of the restrictions in the Qur'an. So no, all Muslims do not memorise Scripture.

5) myth: all Muslims hate [insert foreigners/Westerners/Jews/whatever]

Another misconception created by the squeaky wheel getting the news coverage. Yes, Islamic terrorists have issues against either the US, Israel, or sometimes just generally the West. Yes, many people attend rallies where flags are burned. Yes, someone threw shoes at Bush. But there are over one billion Muslims in this world and unfortunately "a bunch of Muslims met in Kuala Lumpur and had peaceful discussions about Government farm subsidies" will never appear on CNN.

In the West there are always discussions about immigrants and whether they fit in and whether they are eroding local "culture". It seems to be a topic that never goes away.

Well in Qatar local citizens make up maybe 20% of the total population, probably less. 20%!! And it is not like it has always been this way, Qatar's population has grown so quickly from migration that as little as 8-10 years ago local citizens were in the majority. If such a change were to happen in a Western country there would be citizens rioting in the streets! But in the almost 4 years that I have been here I have never had anyone tell me to "go home", or go back where I came from, or said some anti-Western insult. I have seen a couple of times such sentiment expressed in opinion columns in the newspapers but most locals laugh at the thought of getting rid of the foreigners. Young Qataris have more ambitious plans than to become waiters, store clerks and taxi drivers, and the country's wealth allows them to set their expectations high. The country realises that it needs foreigners to fill most of the jobs, especially the lower paying ones, so the citizens were willing to become a minority in their own country. And no, most of these foreigners are not Muslims, there are thousands of Hindus from India, Christians from the Philippines, and Westerners of whatever religious belief. Many Gulf countries are like this. This would seem at odds with Western perceptions that Muslims hate foreigners or Westerners. The region does have issues with Israel but whether they have issues with Jews per se depends on the individual -- many Muslims realise that Israel is not all of Judaism, and all of Judaism is not Israel. Unfortunately some do think this way, which is no different in prejudice to people who think all Muslims are all the same.

and finally:

6) myth: all Muslims are Arabs, all Arabs are Muslims, all Muslims speak Arabic

Many in the West use "Arab" interchangeably with "Muslim" but the two are not synonymous. Indonesians certainly are not Arabs, Chinese Uighars would never consider themselves Arab, and neither would Turks. In fact most Muslims in the world are not Arabs, the exact percentage would depend on which countries you consider "Arab", but Arabs would form the minority in any event.

As for all Arabs being Muslims one has to remember that countries like Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt have always had significant Christian populations. In Jordan something like 15% of the population of Christian and I believe the number is even higher in Lebanon. When I vacationed in Egypt our guide was a Coptic Christian named Michael. So yes, the majority of Arabs are Muslims but it is incorrect to assume that all Arabs are.

As for Arabic it is widespread in certain parts of the Islamic world but is not spoken in others. Starting from Morocco and going east across North Africa all of those countries speak Arabic, as do the countries in the Arabian Peninsula, but once you reach Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq use of Arabic declines. North of them is Turkey, and despite the population being Muslim for over a thousand years they speak Turkish, not Arabic. East of those countries is Iran, which has always kept its Persian languages such as Farsi, Pakistanis predominantly speak Urdu, Afghanis have a wide range of languages such as Pushtan, and of course Malaysians and Indonesians have their own languages. Individuals will study Arabic as part of reading the Qur'an in its original language, but the vast majority are not fluent in it.

I could go on about Arabic for a while, even within the various countries that speak Arabic the dialects can be so different that it can be a challenge for one Arabic speaker to understand an Arabic speaker from another country. And the Arabic used in the Qur'an is different from the modern Arabic used today. I've had posts about this in the past so search my blog if you want more details.

Okay, rant over. I think Switzerland made a big mistake with their referendum, and I believe that much of their fear or annoyance with Islam is based on a lack of understanding.


Anonymous said...

"I guess he didn't know that the Qur'an says she can't (sura 2:221). "---My translation of this verse (Yusf Ali) says men and women can't marry unbelievers---Christians and Jews are not "Unbelievers"---they are "people of the book".---However, nowhere in the whole verse(221) are "Christians", "Jews" or "People of the book" mentioned.

Glen McKay said...

Try verse 5:5, specifies that Muslim men can marry chaste Christian and Jewish women.

Anonymous said...

It is most deplorable that people in the world do not understand that we are all human beings. Most thankful for your blog and best wishes to you from Nairobi, Kenya x

Glen McKay said...

Thanks for stopping by. Interstingly one of my colleagues is a Kenyan Muslim, it was from him that I learned how closely linked Swahili is to Arabic.