Before September 11, I had no idea what Islam was. At school, discussing other cultures and religions was an amusing idea as we were the guinea pigs for President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind Policy” of January 2001. Anything that wasn’t on our end-of-course test wasn’t discussed. We were under a strict schedule to cover and absorb all information that would be on our test. These tests were going to account the ability of our skills and we were made to believe that they would reflect our path in life as to whether we passed or failed. They also reflected our teachers. If we did poorly, the state and George Dubya would be slapping their wrists and questioning their qualifications. We wished we had had time to discuss things like the notion that there are actually different cultures from our own. We were all under the gun. I also grew up in the Bible Belt where Southern Baptist, Free Will Baptist, and Methodist churches dominated the countryside with their brick establishments. There were no temples for the Jewish, Buddhist, or Muslim visitors. I grew up in a Southern Baptist church because it was the closest to my house and generations of my family had attended and been Baptized in the same church. I knew of Buddhism and Judaism but…Islam? I had heard it mentioned on the news with images of the Middle East and I knew Malcolm X did something with it. I wasn’t concerned with watching the news, I wanted my MTV. But then, I was almost thirteen and walking to Algebra for a normal day of test preparation when I caught a glimpse of a teacher’s TV in passing. I did a double-take because first of all, someone had time to turn on a television and leave their EOC prep book? And then, I realized, as I watched the replay of both planes hit the Towers as I stood out in the hall, we were in trouble. And afterwards, the rest of the day and year, Islam was discussed by the media, teachers, and other students. It was everywhere. In the newspapers, on the television, and almost every preacher and student yelled “It’s an evil religion! Muslims are terrorists!” And suddenly, religion was okay to discuss in the classroom but only one religion-Islam and how “evil” it was. Even the media had nothing but absolute hatred for Islam. I became terrified of this religion without even knowing what it was. And I also became terrified of what others would think when if I questioned, “what if Islam is really no different from Christianity?” What about the circumstances in which Christians killed others for the sake of their religion or because ‘God’ told them to? It didn’t mean that all Christians believed in murder. Is it not ignorant to assume that when one person from a culture does something that the rest of the inhabitants of that culture are the exact same way? I kept these thoughts to myself because in lieu of September 11, a witch hunt began for terrorists and ex-patriots. I didn’t want to be thirteen and arrested for un-American thoughts. I was tired of hearing others interpretations of the Koran when they in fact didn’t even know what it was. I was tired of one-sided portrayal of Islam. I was fortunate enough to be given The Handy Religion Answer Book by author Dr. John Renard by my parents. From that book, I learned something besides the Four Pillars of Islam. I learned I couldn’t always trust the media, my teachers, nor my peers for information. In moving to Western Carolina University, I still wanted to know what Islam really is. I had read the facts but I still wanted to actually speak to someone who practiced it. By a twist of fate, I met Shamsa, a Muslim student at WCU. She is Pakistani and from Greensboro, and we met in our communications and speech class. During our interview, she was fasting for Ramadan, a Muslim month mentioned below. In talking to her, I felt like I was finally detaching from the Bible Belt. I hope the following interview will clear any misconceptions Western students may have regarding Islam and their fellow Muslim Catamounts.
WC: What is it like being Muslim at Western Carolina University? Shamsa: So far I haven’t had any problems. People do respect the fact that I am Muslim and want to know more about it as well.WC: What is the basic, core belief of being Muslim? Shamsa: You believe in one God (Allah) and Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) as his last prophet.WC: What are religious holidays that you celebrate? Shamsa: Eid-ul-Fitr and Eid-ul-Azha. WC: What is the Koran? Shamsa: The Koran is the last Holy Book of Allah and it is a complete code of life for Muslims.WC: What is required daily in the life of being Muslim?Shamsa: Praying five times a day, recitation of the Holy Quran or Koran (a few lines), making sure you take care of other people around you who need assistance. What are dating/marriage standards and rules in your religion? Shamsa: Islam does allow men/women to meet the potential partner before marriage but only to the extent of knowing what the person is like. Dating/having a relationship just to see if that works out is not allowed. WC: Does it affect your schoolwork and other school activities? Shamsa: No, praying five times a day only takes up around thirty minutes out of twenty-four hours. Islam is a flexible religion, where one is allowed to pray at a later time if one is sick or visiting with guests.WC: What is your favorite part about being Muslim? Shamsa: The wonderful relationship I have with God (Allah). WC: What should other students respect about your religion? Shamsa: They should respect that Islam is our religion and it means a lot to us and they should not look down on us just because we are Muslims. The U.S. gives everyone the freedom to practice their religion, so why not Muslims? WC: What are your worship practices? Shamsa: Praying five times a day, fasting in the month of Ramadan, reading/listening to the Holy Quran, and being the best I can be as a Muslim and as a human being. WC: What do you believe others assume about your religion? Shamsa: Thinking that Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda represent Islam, (or) that Islam is a religion that condones violence and the killing of innocent civilians, which is totally unjustified because Islam is a religion of peace. Unfortunately, there is no campus support group for Muslims like Shamsa or a campus Mosque (Muslim place of worship). If anything is to be learned from my interview with Shamsa, I would hope it to be the facts that if you are going to truly learn a new religion, do your own research and speak to its members. And whether researching topics from Muslim, Christianity, or even your judgments of others, make sure your sources are valid in every circumstance.
Facts to remember about Islam: • Who is Muhammad? Muhammad was born in 570 A.D. in Mecca, which is now considered the “Holy City” to Muslims. In 610, he underwent audio and visual experiences while seeking solitude in the surrounding hills of Mecca. They were later understood as divine revelations and his fate was to become a messenger of God, a prophet that would correct misinterpretations of earlier prophets from God delivered to Jews and Christians. He left his tribe, Quraysh who controlled a great deal of the Meccans’ lives and began preaching for social justice and equality. They emigrated to Yathrib where Muhammad and his small group of followers could find safety and acceptance towards their new religion. • The Five Pillars of Faith: 1) The belief that Allah is the only god and Muhammad was his prophet. 2) Ritual prayer five times a day. 3) Giving alms to the poor 4) fasting from dawn until dusk during Ramadan. 5) Taking the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once during your life. • What is Ramadan? Ramadan (“high summer”) is the ninth month out of the year (or September) to Muslims in which supposedly, the scripture of the Koran was revealed. During this month, all Muslims are required to fast without even water or sexual activity from sunrise until sunset. It also to remind Muslims to fast from complaining or other negative attitudes so as to break the suffering of desire and constant wanting.