Most people would go to Google to learn about Islam, although many have visited countries or have friends, neighbours or colleagues. A basic Google search for the word “Islam” or “Muslim” (you can try this yourself) would bring up a mish-mash of images and articles that evoke strong feelings and portray things like: scary, high-level politics, security, terrorism and terrorists, angry men, the black cubed ‘Kaaba’, women wearing headscarves or covered in black material, celebrities, Arab-looking men, mosques, tourist destinations, and animals slaughtered for meat.
Yet for all this contact with Islam and Muslims, we can observe two clear factors. Firstly, the level of factual, general knowledge about Islam is very low. Secondly, “Muslim” has become part of political conversations that stir strong feelings of anxiety. Together, this is a disturbing mix.
14 Centuries have passed since the Prophet Muhammad’s time in Arabia and, today, roughly one in every four persons on earth is Muslim. Whilst key religious practices like offering prayers and fasting remain unchanged, much has changed quite naturally over time. The majority of Muslims today do not speak Arabic, for example. Muslims reflect the diversity, spread and influence of Muslim populations in different corners of the world.
Muslims differ greatly in their observance of religion. There is a tendency to group these differences into descriptions like “moderate”, “conservative”, “orthodox”, “liberal” and “extreme”. This is really a very simple or convenient way of looking at these differences. All of these differences, whether in cultures or interpretations, indicate a breadth in Islam, that is, space for interpretation, choice and expression. Historically, when Islam encountered different cultures it ‘blended’ in, rather than being ‘imposed on’ and or to ‘replace’. The focus of Islamic teachings should be on inner values and ethics, seeking right behaviours from wrong, and standing for compassion and equity. These concerns remain as relevant as ever, today.