What is Islam?

By Semya Hakim

The recent attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon have brought to the surface a lot of ignorant beliefs and stereotypes about Islam. Clearly, it is past time for teachers to educate themselves and their students about what is the second largest religion in the world.

One way to start discussions is to ask students to: 1. List stereotypes about Islam and/or Muslims; 2. List everything they know about Islam and/or Muslims.

When I ask about Islam, I often get blank stares, followed by stammerings such as, "Muslims pray a lot," or, "They believe in Allah" (or, as one of my students told me, "They believe in Allan."). Some students have even told me that all Muslim men have, and possibly are required to have, more than one wife.

One common misconception is that Jihad can be easily translated as "holy war." Jihad actually translates as "to strive in the way of God." So a person who studies Islam, preaches Islam, or defends an Islamic country is jihad. It is not someone who initiates violence in the name of Islam. In fact, the literal translation of the word "Islam" is "peace."

This misunderstanding stems, in part, from the fact that many non-Muslim Americans do not understand that Islam is a way of life. Because Muslims don't necessarily see boundaries between nation-states the way Americans do, their patriotism is more about the religion than a particular country. Also, because of religious/racial profiling in the media and elsewhere, Muslims are one of the few groups who are consistently identified by religion when they are accused of committing terrorist acts.


Part of the problem is that many teachers approach Islam as if it were some distant, ancient religion. Yet there are six million Muslims in the United States, and Islam is one of the fastest-growing religions in the country.

Here is some basic information about Islam that can help teachers educate their students.

While this article does not begin to make other teachers "experts," hopefully it can give you some confidence in starting a dialogue in your own classrooms. Here are some websites for further information:

American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), www.adc.org
Arab American Institute (AAI), www.aaiusa.org
American Committee on Jerusalem (ACJ), www.acj.org
American Muslim Alliance (AMA), www.amaweb.org
American Muslim Council (AMC), www.amconline.org
Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), www.cair-net.org
Islamic Institute, www.islamicinstitute.org.

Semya Hakim teaches at St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, MN.

This article is also available as a letter-size PDF for student handouts

Winter 2001 / 2002