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Who Speaks for Islam? Part 1


| Intro | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3a | Part 3b |Part 4 | Part 5 |


For the rest of this series, each chapter will be summarized, followed by some additional commentary at the end.

Chapter 1 – Who Are Muslims?

If you take the media’s word for it, the answer to the question above is that they are, on the whole, a bunch of violent terrorists. A December 2005 Gallup Poll of Americans found that the majority of them admire “nothing” about Muslim societies.

Most people are not aware of anything regarding Muslim demographics. For example, the percentage of African American Muslims in America, the population of Muslims in China, or even the ethnic makeup of Muslims across the globe spanning countries such as Indonesia and Nigeria (as opposed to just Saudi Arabia or Egypt). There are approximately 1.3 billion Muslims in the world, with about 57 countries having at least a substantial Muslim population. Each of these places also has its own unique culture, and is not restricted to the sky-blue burqa imagery so prevalent in Western media.

But really, who are the Muslims, and what do they think? One interesting tidbit from the book: In the UAE and Iran, women make up the majority of university students.

Muslims are a people centered around their faith. Out of countries with substantial Muslim populations, majorities in many (with several in the 90% range) say that religion is an important part of their daily lives. They regard it as the primary marker of identity and essential to their progress. Those in Muslim countries also want to see Shariah as a source of legislation – exactly similar to the majority of Americans who wish to see the Bible as a source of legislation. Americans and Muslims alike share the importance of family values and a concern for social morality and excessive libertinism in society.

For Muslims, Islam is a core life value that is missing in other societies. When asked if traditions and customs are important or not, over 90% of respondents in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey all said yes. Contrast this with only 54% in the USA, 36% in the UK, and 20% in France.

The book then moves on to define what exactly is this faith that they hold so dear. Esposito and Mogahed must be given an immense amount of credit here for succinctly and accurately describing the basic tenets of Islam. In fact, it is my opinion that the explanations given here should be used in dawah literature that is distributed to Non-Muslim audiences. One example of such an explanation is harmonizing the two definitions often given for “Islam,” peace and submission, by saying, Islam is “attaining peace through commitment to God’s will.”

The testimony of faith that the Muslim bears witness to is explained as such,

“There is no god but God” means that nothing except God deserves to be “worshiped” – not money, ambition, or ego – and this belief permeates every aspect of a Muslim’s life, from prayer to the treatment of a neighbor to the conduct of business. If nothing is worthy of worship except God, then all humans are equal…

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One of the aspects of Islamic faith that is most misunderstood is obviously the concept of jihad. It is a word that carries multiple meanings. As Esposito and Mogahed note,

It is used to describe the personal struggle to lead a good or virtuous life, to fulfill family responsibilities, to clean up a neighborhood, to fight drugs, or to work for social justice.

The Gallup poll asked adults in predominantly Muslim countries an open ended question: Please tell me in one word (or very few words) what jihad means to you? The most frequent descriptions included “duty toward God” or “worship of God” without any reference to warfare.

One vital point the authors noted is the following:

However, it is important to note that for Muslims, whether jihad means a struggle of the soul or one of the sword, it is in both cases a just and ethical struggle. The word jihad has only positive connotations. This means that calling acts of terrorism jihad risks not only offending many Muslims, but also inadvertently handing radicals the moral advantage they so desperately need.

This means that the more the media mis-uses this term to defame Islam and smear Muslims, the more they strengthen the influence of the extremist element.

Muslims are like everyone else, focusing on the aspects of life directly affecting them. When asked about family and culture for example, over 80% of Kuwaitis and Moroccans consider being married and having children as something extremely important to them. Muslims view motherhood as a “gift of God” and a force for moral and social order.

In fact, to put it into perspective, family law is viewed as the heart of the Shariah.

It is no surprise then, that with this focus on family, it is not the freedoms of the West that many Muslims dislike, but rather the moral decay and breakdown of family structure. Some survey responses in this regards include statements like, “They are vulgar with no respect for elders.” This is not an assault on the Western value system as some politicians may lead us to think, but rather a societal concern that is strongly upheld by many of our fellow non-Muslim citizens.

Another way of looking at who Muslims are is to see their hopes and dreams in addition to what they hold important. Respondents to the survey cited,

Better economic conditions, employment opportunities, and improved living standards for a better future. These are followed by the need to improve law and order, eliminate civil tensions and wars…

It is obvious that these concerns are not unique to only Muslims, rather they are shared by many across the globe. In fact, the societal issues that Muslims struggle with in today’s time are the same ones faced by Jews and Christians,

…how their faith relates to reason, science, and technology…evolution, birth control, artificial insemination, transplants, ecology, nuclear energy, and issues of war and peace

Muslims though, face an additional battle,

They are fighting two battles: one against the extremists who claim exclusive ownership of the truth of Islam, and another against those of us who strengthen the extremists by equating this minority with the religion of Islam rather than considering it a dangerous aberration.


Trying to answer the question of who the Muslims are can yield an interesting set of results, especially when taking even a cursory look at non-Muslim media. A stark picture is painted in which women are oppressed, men are barbaric, and all anyone wants to think about is how to kill infidels and die.

It’s important to break the stereotypes that people hold. The fact that only less than 20% of Muslims, for example, are actually Arabs would be an incredulous statistic to many.

The importance of the statistics in this section shows that by nature Muslims on the whole intend good for society. In fact, the data actually indicates that the Muslims are far more concerned about fixing societal problems shared with non-Muslims, then the non-Muslims themselves. This is why initiatives to affect positive change in our communities are vital to our survival in the West. We cannot claim to hold all this concern for society, and feel disgust at the decay of its moral fiber, while sitting by idly twiddling our thumbs. If we care about it, we need to show it.

The problem arises when Muslims are painted with the same brush as political-terrorist groups (the reason this term is used will become more apparent later in the series). Instead of concerned citizens, we are now portrayed as freedom-haters who want to inflict violence upon society. By not being active in society, to some extent, we lose some of our credence in defending against these claims. More importantly though, what non-Muslims especially need to realize is, these stereotypes further strengthen the extremist element amongst Muslims. Instead of being properly portrayed as those who wish to end civil strife, they are attacked and accused of causing it. It is precisely this type of frustration that can feed the emotional frenzy, and strengthen the message, of those who do resort to violence.

Lastly, an underlying point in all of this is for Muslims to go out and actively learn their religion. The only way to defend against false information is to know the truth in the first place. Especially in our present situation, it is essential to learn the fundamentals of our belief, to learn what exactly the goals of the shari’ah are, and most of all to learn how to properly implement our religion in our daily lives as spouses, parents, children, employees, students, and community members.

One example of how learning our religion can properly combat these accusations is something I learned from Sh. Waleed in the Rays of Faith AlMaghrib class. He mentioned how some of the sunnah actions of the Prophet (saw) can be categorized according to the role he played. So for example, there are many ‘sunnahs’ that he did as a husband. We cannot implement those until we are also in the role of husband. Another role he served was head of state, and this is the role from which war was declared (i.e. jihad). Unless someone is in the same position, they cannot make that declaration, and this principle is sufficient to refute, from a knowledge based perspective on Islam, the terrorist groups who try to declare jihad to justify their extremist acts.

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Omar Usman is a founding member of MuslimMatters and Qalam Institute. He teaches Islamic seminars across the US including Khateeb Workshop and Fiqh of Social Media. He has served in varying administrative capacities for multiple national and local Islamic organizations. You can follow his work at



  1. Pingback: Who Speaks for Islam? Introduction |

  2. Manas Shaikh

    April 18, 2008 at 10:03 AM

    Actually this “Surprise! Muslims are normal people!” kind of books are a bit boring to me. But we need “arm” ourselves with these in order to fight against propaganda.

    We need more activism.

  3. ibnabeeomar

    April 18, 2008 at 10:22 AM

    hmm.. i hope it didnt come across that simplistically. this is not a typical “muslims are normal people” kind of book. its far more compelling with the data behind it, but before getting to the other issues, it is important to establish this foundation – especially with the reputation we have of being very abnormal :)

  4. AbuAbdAllah

    April 18, 2008 at 11:39 AM

    bismillah. as salamu alaykum and jazak Allah khayr for continuing this series so promptly. :)

    the more the media mis-uses this term

    most Muslims equate the word crusade with the brutal military campaigns waged by Christians to capture Al Quds from the Muslims in centuries past.

    but the term has only positive connotations for Christians. for them the meanings of crusade are almost the same as the meanings of Jihad for Muslims. in modern usage, whereas Muslims will use the term to describe their own personal struggles, especially the Jihad against the nafs — the Jihad against the morally weak inner self, Christians are less likely to use the term crusade for their personal lives.

    this is so much the case that my Oxford American Dictionary lists as the last definition for the noun crusade:

    • an organized campaign concerning a political, social, or religious issue, typically motivated by a fervent desire for change : a crusade against crime [emphasis added].

    so when a Muslim believes a non-Muslim has misused the term Jihad, he should try the following: replace the word Jihad with the word crusade. if a journalist would easily use crusade in place of the word Jihad, then in the journalist’s mind the term has not been misused — and indeed, it may not have been misused. but if the journalist would flinch at the use, then most likely you have an opportunity to explain the misuse.

  5. Siraaj Muhammad

    April 18, 2008 at 1:15 PM

    Salaam alaykum AbuAbdullah,

    You raise a valid point regarding the use of specific types of language to influence political discourse – pollsters use these techniques to craft messages to create positive associations (or negative associations) as needed by a specific politician’s agenda (see “Words that Work” by Republican pollster Frank Luntz, great book).

    ibnabeeomar, related to this, I just read on cnn that Morgan Spurlock (of Super Size Me fame) has just released a new documentary entitled “Where in the world is Osama Bin Laden?” in which it appears initially to the audience he’s trying to find OBL to try and broker peace and instead travels the Muslim world and portrays Muslims as Muslims to a Western audience. I plan on checking it out soon, insha’Allah.

    Manas, the value of such books, I think, is that it quantitatively gives us a means of having a more accurate discussion, both with Muslims and nonMuslims about our understanding and priorities, and insha’Allah, it can help us make judgements for where we as an Ummah need to direct ourselves in the future.

    Another value I believe a book such as this offers is that when we are raised in one, or maybe two types of cultures, we don’t have the opportunity to really understand how others are – I think this book (and I haven’t read it yet, but from what I’ve seen of IbnAbeeOmar’s review so far) will give Muslims greater insight into their brothers and sisters in other areas. I know some of my fellow desis will be shocked to know that not everyone is hanafi ;)


  6. Manas Shaikh

    April 18, 2008 at 4:01 PM

    Actually that was the first thing that flashed across my mind, before I read the review.

    Nevertheless, I think I could use the book. More reasons shall be apparent as we go along, IA.

  7. Ammar

    April 19, 2008 at 1:05 AM

    I find it odd when muslims try to define Islam as being ‘peace’, or as in this article ‘attaining peace through commitment to God’s will’. Clearly, in the context of religion, Islam is ‘submission to God’s will’ and thats that. Lets not modify definitions to make everyone else happy.

  8. Ammar Diwan

    April 19, 2008 at 12:31 PM

    P.S. “Ammar” is a different person. Just ensuring mix-ups don’t occur

  9. Pingback: Who Speaks for Islam? Part 2 |

  10. Pingback: Who Speaks for Islam? Part 3a- What Makes a Radical? |

  11. Oxnard

    May 8, 2008 at 2:53 PM

    I think this is rather sugary. I think the Koran makes no bones that non-Muslims are to be killed, it says this many times. I’m religion free. I can think for myself. But religion is used to control people, always has been used that way. The problem with Islam in the Middle East is there is no freedom FROM religion. I’ve always wondered why I didn’t hear more from muslims that didn’t think the USA was Satan and that terrorism was wrong. Then I read the koran for myself. It’s members believe in the same lies and myths that christians do. God is all but lost in religion. The worst horrors are done in it’s name on both sides. It is ancient archaic thinking that has no place in this era.

  12. ibnabeeomar

    May 8, 2008 at 3:52 PM

    oxnard – suffice to say if your claim is true, then 1 billion (plus) muslims would all be violent terrorists trying to kill you. either 1 billion people understood and interpreted the QUran wrong (and their scholars as well) while you, reading ar KOran translation got it right – or perhaps the other way around?

    i wonder then, about horrors not done in the name of religion? nuclear bombs on hiroshima and nagasaki? they may have been done by christians, but it was in no way in the name of christianity or religion. how about the holocaust? the victims were jewish, but the ones doing the slaughtering were “free FROM religion” – just to name a few examples

  13. Amad

    May 8, 2008 at 4:48 PM

    Then I read the koran for myself. It’s members believe in the same lies and myths that christians do. God is all but lost in religion

    Oxnard, the problem with your types is the arrogance you exhibit and how you completely ignore data. This whole book and poll opens eyes as to what Muslims really believe. And your brushing it off is proof of your own prejudices. You don’t ponder and think over creation and Creator… so i guess its difficult for us to expect you to ponder over polling data.

    Anyway, more is to come on this book to further prove how little you know.

  14. Pingback: Who Speaks for Islam? Part 3b |

  15. Pingback: Irshad Manji’s Shrill Responses Obilerated by a calm Dalia Mogahed |

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