Stereotypes about islam

Preconceptions, recurrent errors and “half-truths” (on the part of the critics and apologues of Islam)

1)    Is Islam the religion of the Arabs?

Islam originated in Arabia and was revealed in Arabic through an Arab Prophet, Muhammad. The first to be converted to Islam were Meccans belonging to the Prophet’s own family (including Khadijah and Ali, respectively his first wife and his cousin); to his circle of friends; and to members of his tribe – the tribe of the Quraysh. Today, 80% of Muslims are not Arab. Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim-majority country with a population of 242 million with 87% identifying themselves as Muslim, equal that is to the total of all Arab nations together (source: Istituto Geografico De Agostini). Next comes Pakistan that in 2011 counted 177 million inhabitants of which 75% were Sunnis and 25% Shiites, followed by Bangladesh, with a population in 2011 of 142 million, 89% Muslim. Next comes India, a Hindu-majority country but with a Muslim population of over 100 million. The list continues with Turkey with a population of 75 million of which 97% Muslim, and Iran which in 2011 had a population of 75 million of which 98% Muslim. The population in none of these countries is Arab. The largest Muslim-majority Arab country is Egypt, which in 2012 had a population of 81 million, of which 90% Muslim.

It should be borne in mind that numerous Arab countries feature significant religious minorities, mostly Christian, dating back to before the Arabo-Islamic invasion. At the time of the Prophet, it should be recalled, there lived at Medina three Arab tribes that professed the Jewish religion. Arab Jews were in fact present throughout the Arabic Peninsula.

2)    Islam is a religion at the opposite end of Christianity!

In several Koranic verses, it is said that Muhammad is not an “innovator.” Islam in fact doesn’t consider itself a new religion and, although it literally means “submission to God”, it defines itself as an uncorrupted and unaltered monotheistic revelation that started with Abraham and was handed down through a line of prophets, including Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, Salomon, Jesus, John the Baptist. Jesus is considered, alongside Moses and Muhammad, one of the greatest prophets of Islam.

3)    Jihad, holy war, is at the base of Islam!

Jihad means “striving” or “struggling” for the consolidation and diffusion of faith. There are two types of Jihad: The Jihad al-akbar (the Greater Jihad), which is the struggle against the evil and passions within us to achieve spiritual purification, and the “Lesser Jihad,” which is the struggle for Islam, for its spread and defense. Fighting to defend dar al-Islam, the place where the Sharia applies, is compulsory for all Muslims. While there is in the latter a bellicose element, many intellectuals today tend to present the Jihad essentially as an act of self-purification against the evil within man (consider, for example, what an author like Tariq Ramadan upholds). It should nevertheless be recalled that the initial expansion of Islam, which in just over a century spread across three continents, from the Pyrenees to the Indus, was achieved manu militari with a sequence of conquests.

4)    Muslims have been the enemies of Jews right from the outset!

Judaism is the religion that is closest to Islam, which, in turn, considers Abraham as its first great prophet, and the Torah as the Book containing true revelation, the very same book Islam considers to be at its foundation. All the patriarchs of Judaism are considered as prophets who came before Muhammad. The relationship with Jews has been complicated and varying. Muhammad at Medina lived alongside the three Jewish tribes, which, however, did not acknowledge him as a prophet, going as far as collaborating with his pagan enemies from Mecca. The Jews of Medina met with a very harsh fate, exiled, enslaved, killed. Israelites have lived in Islamic territory for well over 14 centuries, often discriminated but hardly ever persecuted as during the Almohad Caliphate. In the history of Islam there is nothing comparable to the inquisition or to mass expulsion. No Muslim in dar al-Islàm was ever executed for heresy. The Jews inasmuch as People of the Book, that is, as people who had received true revelation, were granted extensive autonomy in the legal, educational and religious domains, and had their own tribunals, schools and places of worship. They had to pay a tax to be guaranteed the protection of the Islamic state, but were nevertheless still subjected to a series of discriminations and, consequently, barred from doing a number of things. While Jews, for example, were not allowed to ride horses, bear arms, access specific trades, such restrictions did not prevent them from integrating themselves quite well within the Arab-dominated communities where they lived.

It would only be with the advent of the secular state in the West and its related industry-driven economic development that many Jews would leave the Muslim-governed lands to emigrate in Europe.
The current situation characterized by the embittered relations between Jews and Muslims is due above all to the establishment of the State of Israel and the related Palestinian question. The current situation is therefore the consequence of a politico-territorial dispute, not a religious one.

5)    Muslim women feel Islam discriminates them and demand a radical change to their condition!

A survey by Gallup for the US Department of State in 55 Muslim countries revealed that the majority of women who were asked if they, as women, were discriminated by Islam responded they were not. While some women did aspire for improved conditions, most said that change should take place through Sharia and not against it. In other words, they expressed the wish for a more liberal and modern interpretation of Sharia.

6)    Muslim, Christians and Jews all believe in the same God!
True, but only in part. It is true that when Christians and Jews speak about God they refer to the God of Abraham, to the God of the Torah (Pentateuch), to the God of Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and Jesus. These figures are considered as prophets by the three religions alike. On the other hand, though, Christians with Paul had very early on distanced themselves from the Jews, whom they charged with a number of faults. Christians essentially accused Jews for not acknowledging Jesus’ evangelic announcement and for his nature as the Son of God. They also accused Jews of having altered key passages in the Bible announcing Jesus’ coming.

7)    The Muslim who doesn’t believe in Moses and Jesus is not a good Muslim!
True but nevertheless ambiguous. For Muslims, Moses and Jesus are indeed prophets of Islam, of the monotheist religion handed down by God to a series of prophets, the last of whom is Muhammad. To believe in Jesus as Christians do, that is as the “Son of God,” is anathema. Jesus is “but a man” albeit a very important prophet.

8) Islam is the religion of peace! Muslims, especially those who live in the West, present Islam as a religion and way of life that is entirely peaceful and alien to the use of violence and war. When I hear this being affirmed, I simply ask the following question: “After about a century from Muhammad’s death, Islam, which was present only in a specific area of Arabia, had spread across three continents, from the north of India to the Atlantic. How was this expansion achieved?” Of course, through conquest and war. The Jihad is not merely a “striving towards” the betterment of self, it is also the struggle for Islam and its diffusion. 

9) Islam is misogynous! The stereotypes in this case are often of the opposite kind. Common place statements about women are many both in the West and among Muslims. Many Europeans tend to think that in Islam women are discriminated and kept in a condition of semi-slavery. There is no doubt that in a tribal society as was that of the Bedouins men held a dominant position and women were essentially relegated to the sphere of the family, focusing especially on child rearing.   The advent of Islam improved women’s lives significantly. For example, Islam abolished the widespread practice in pre-Islamic Arabia of killing newborn female babies, considered to be a burden to the family. Women were also granted the right to possess and inherit property. Marriage, too, and divorce, were regulated by law. While discrimination persist, women under Islam acquired rights.

10) Islam respects and protects women! According to some Muslims, not only is Islam not anti-feminist but respects and protects women. Islam protects their physical and moral integrity, their propriety and reservedness. And it does so, one could add, without hearing the opinion of the women themselves. It is a given that women according to the Quran are subordinate to men and that they play no political role and are discriminated as far as hereditary laws are concerned. The Quran even justifies corporal punishment, allowing husbands to beat their wives and going as far as tolerating infibulation as indicated in some passages. To this very day, in not few Arab and Muslim countries women continue to be discriminated, often secluded within the domestic walls, under the guardianship of or invigilated by fathers, brothers, husbands. Access to schools, work, social and political activities in some Islamic countries is strongly conditions if not altogether barred.

11) Islam is unchanging, perennially aggressive! Now, this is the mother of all stereotypes about Islam and is tantamount to equating Islam to a Platonic idea, an essence immutable in time and space, ever unchanging, violent and aggressive, always. What surprises is that many well-regarded scholars, including Bernard Lewis, have espoused this vision/prejudice with all the consequences implied. That, for example, Muslims emigrate to spread Islam and that you must always keep your guard up when dealing with Muslims, whose paramount task in life is to spread Islam around the world. This theory has been defined as the “Essentialist vision of Islam,” in the sense that it reduces a religious, political and cultural movement into a sort of essence, a Platonic idea that is ever unchanging regardless of the time and space of origin. This interpretation is misleading as are those stating Islam as a unitary phenomenon where all constituent characteristics are reiterated. In reality, the Islam that was “officially” established with the Hegira, Muhammad and his followers’ transfer from Mecca to Medina in 622, is according to our calendar 1400 years old. It is a religion that after the death of the Prophet had spread in three continents, from the Fareast, to Portugal, from North Africa to various parts of Europe. In all these paces, it had to confront itself with local cultures that in turn exerted their influence on it. The Islam that spread in the sub-Saharan regions is not the same Islam that developed in Xinjiang or Albania. Similarly, we can affirm that Sunni is not similar to Shi’ite Islam and that over the centuries Islam has undergone mutations in many of the areas where it developed. Not to mention, of course, that Islamic societies in various continents differ widely also internally. While an Afghan shepherd and a woman who teaches at the University of Tunis, a stall holder at a Marrakesh souk and an Albanian engineer or a Parisian youth with parents from the Maghreb are all Muslims, they are not similar in their approach. Their idea even of Islam and the Sunna may differ depending on the traditions they uphold or on the geographical, social and cultural milieus they belong to


Basic introduction to islam

“Oh Muhammad, tell me about Islam”

The Five “Pillars” (arkan) of the religion

«One day, we were sitting with the Messenger of Allah when there appeared before us a man dressed in extremely white clothes, and had very black hair. No traces of travel were visible on him, and none of us knew him. He came in and sat down opposite to the Prophet and rested his knees against his and placed the palms of his hands on the thighs of the Prophet. He said: “O Muhammad, tell me about Islam.” The Messenger of Allah said: “Islam is to testify that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, to establish prayer, to pay Zakah [legal almsgiving], to fast Ramadan, and to perform pilgrimage to the House [the Holy Mosque of Mecca] if you are able to find a way thereto.” He said: “You have spoken the truth.” It surprised us that he asked the Prophet and at the same time he affirmed that the Prophet told the truth. Then he said: “Tell me about belief.” The Prophet said: “It is to believe in Allah, His angels, His Books, His Messengers, and the Last Day, and believe in the divine decree, both good and bad.” Then, the man said: “You have spoken the truth.” He then said, “Tell me about Ihsān [right conduct] (“He said: “It is to worship Allah as if you see Him, for, although you do not see Him, He sees you.” He said: “Tell me about the Hour.” He said: “About that, the one questioned knows no more than the questioner.” The man said: “Then tell me about its signs.” The Prophet said: “The slave girl will give birth to her mistress, and you will see the barefoot, naked, destitute herdsmen competing in constructing lofty buildings.” Then the man departed. I stayed for a while, and then the Prophet said to me: “O ‘Umar, do you know who the questioner was?” I said: “Allah and His Messenger know best.” He said: “That was Jibrīl, who came to teach you your religion.»


The above is a central hadith – legal tradition of an episode concerning the Prophet or Islam –  containing the quintessence of Islam. Herein are outlined the five pillars of the religion, that is the precepts and practices at the base of Islam, which are:

  1. Statement of Faith (Shahada)
  2. Ritual prayer (Salah)
  3. Almsgiving (Zakat)
  4. Fasting in the lunar month (sawm Ramadan)
  5. Pilgrimage to Mecca and surrounding areas (Hajj)

Islamic righteous conduct is above all the practice of the Five Pillars of Religion.

The Shahada is the declaration of faith which consists in the acceptance of the two postulates therein contained: “I bear witness that there is no deity but God, and I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of God.” God is one, absolute, creator of the universe and of man, time and space. He is eternal and cannot be classified or probed with the limited categories of human beings. What God is and wants are determined by He Himself and expressed through Revelation as gathered in the Quran: What he is and wants are not defined by human speculation. The second part of the Shahada attests that Muhammad is the last and, consequently, the most important among prophets. The transmission of revelation ends with him.  A person wishing to convert to Islam must pronounce the Shahada before two Muslim witnesses. And from that moment that person is considered a Muslim, with all the duties this implies.

The second duty is prayer (Salah) recited five times a day. There is a prayer at night after sundown and one in the morning, at sunrise. Prayer can be done both alone or with the community. Friday is the day of communal prayer to be held preferably at the mosque. The direction of prayer is towards Mecca, towards the holy shrine of the Kaaba. The third duty is Zakat, the mandatory charitable contribution that every Muslim must give. It is in all effects a tax that is distributed to the needy. The fourth duty is Sawm, the fasting observed from dawn to dusk during the ninth lunar month of Ramadan. During this holy month, Muslims must abstain not only from food and drink but also from smoking, wearing perfume and sexual activity. Exempted from the Sawm are the sick, the elderly, children, pregnant women and people travelling. The holy month of Ramadan commemorates the sending down of revelation to Muhammad. It is an important religious feast – the most important being the Feast of the Sacrifice in the month where the Hajj takes place – observed by over one billion Muslims around the world. The fifth duty is the Hajj, the pilgrimage made to the Kaaba, the “House of God”, in the sacred city of Mecca that all adult Muslims must carry out at least once in their lifetime. It is a religious duty to be performed by all who are physically and financially capable of undertaking the journey, and of supporting their family during their absence from home. Those who are unable to travel due to sickness may delegate others to do the pilgrimage on their behalf.

As often recalled, Islam is a monotheistic religion that was revealed through a prophet, a Messenger of God. The revelation was gathered, following Muhammad’s death, in a text, the Quran, and through the Hadith, a record of episodes in the life of the Prophet providing not only an example of how Muslims should conduct themselves but also the best interpretation of what revelation prescribes.


Islam is a revealed religion, handed down by God to man through a series of messengers (rasul Allah) and Prophets (Nabi). Revelation began with Abraham (“the friend of God”) and was accomplished with Muhammad, who is for this reason also known as “the Seal of the Prophecy.” In the course of time, revelation was recorded in several holy texts, namely the Torah and the Gospel (which in the Quran is always in the singular). The final text that gathers and completes revelation is the Quran. The name Quran derives from the Arabic Al-quran, “to be recited, to be read.”
For Muslims it as the only holy text, because the previous revelations, addressed to Jews and Christians, with their corresponding holy texts (the Torah and the Gospel), are considered to be flawed, corrupted, in several key parts. For example, Muslims sustain that both Jews and Christians have expunged all reference to the coming of Muhammad. This is why, Muslims when referring to Prophets like Abraham, Moses or Jesus, rely exclusively on the authority of the Quran – the Quran which contains revelation in its entirety, handed down by Allah to Muhammed a number of times in the period of time between 610 and 632 AD.

20 July 610 is an important date for Muslims who refer to it as “Night of Destiny,” because it was when before Muhammad, who had sought retreat on Mt. Hira to meditate, appeared the angel Gabriel, who tells Muhammad he had been chosen by God – that God had chosen him to become His messenger with the task of bringing the word of God to man, of announcing revelation. 632 is the year Muhammad died. For some twenty-two years, barring a short interruption, Muhammad received a series of revelationa through Jibril (Gabriel’s name in Arabic) and in dream.








There started following his death the work aimed at gathering those texts that had been for the most part handed down and memorized by the Prophet’s earliest disciples and very little recorded in writing. The definite edition of the Quran was established by the third caliph of Islam, Uthman, some twenty years after the Prophet’ death.

The Quran is divided in chapters (Surah) and verses (Ayat). The Quran comprises of 114 surahs, arranged by decreasing length, starting from the second. The longest surah has 286 verses while the shortest only three. Surahs come with a title attached to them and are numbered. The title of the Surah generally refers to the argument that is treated, while the number to its positioning. The verses of the Quran are cited by referring to the text and successively to the Surah and to the verse or verses. Therefore, if we read the following citation: Quran, 3:2-3, we refer to the following passage: “Allah, the Ever-Living, the Self-Subsisting, Who sustains the entire order of the universe – there is no God but He. He has revealed this Book to you, setting forth the truth and confirming the earlier Books, and earlier He revealed the Torah and Gospel.” It is Surah number 3 entitled “The Sura of the Family of Imran.” Imran was a Biblical figure – the father of Moses and Aaron – who is cited in this chapter of the Quran. It is a Medinan Surah consisting of two-hundred verses meaning, therefore, that it was revealed to Muhammad when he lived in Medina (until 622) or during the last ten years of his life. Many Surahs, however, consist of verses composed both in Mecca and Medina. The Surahs are arranged by theme and not chronologically. Surahs thus contain verses having the same subject matter.

The Quran is considered a holy text where revelation is recorded, where, that is, the word God addresses to man is collected. The basic tenet of the education for Muslims is the reading and studying of the Quran, often learning by heart most of it.

The Quran is conserved with great care. Often bound, it is kept on the upper shelves of the bookcase and held with reverence, and clean hands.


If the Quran is a recording of revelation, the hadith form the basis of the Sunnah, the teaching that can be drawn from the life and deeds of the Prophet. The hadith is a report that, through a chain of witnesses, goes back to the conduct of the Prophet from which a teaching can be drawn – a deed, a gesture, a statement, even silence from which it is possible to deduce a manifestation of his thought, of his will. The hadith were collected by a range of notable figures after the death of the Prophet. The most authoritative collections are six, among which holding the highest status is that compiled by al-Bukhari, followed closely by that of Muslim. Albeit shorter, also important is that by al-Nawawī.

The hadith provide a key to a very wide range of themes pertaining to both the public and private spheres. The importance of the hadith lies in the fact that Muhammad is considered by Muslims as the example of the perfect believer, of what the Quran calls the “best among men,” the insàn kàmil, “the complete person.” In other words, Muhammad is considered as the best interpreter of revelation, one who all Muslims should imitate. Thus, the hadith are often relied upon to deal with matters that in the Quran receive little treatment or are unclear. The hadith, alongside the Quran, provide the principal source of the Sharia, the holy law one must comply with to uphold a conduct that is in line with the will of God.

A thorny issue regarding hadith is their reliability. An uninterrupted flow of hadith has been produced over the centuries to justify this or that choice or action. Another problematic aspect concerns the fact that a number of Quranic precepts – that is, the will and word of God – have been “merged” with or even transformed by hadith of dubious interpretation. Thus, some hadith justify for example the lapidation of adulterers or apostates, while not a word of this is mentioned in the Quran.


Auxiliary. The original inhabitants of Medina who converted to Islam and fought under the leadership of the Prophet.

Aya (pl. Ayat)

The verses that make up the chapters (Surah) of the Quran.

The Angel Gabriel who appears before Muhammad in a cave on Mt. Hira where the future Prophet had retreated to meditate. The Angel announces that God had chosen Muhammad to be His messenger (Rasul)

Means “striving” towards a goal, towards, that is, the spreading of faith. There is the “Greater jihad,” the struggle against the evil within us, for our spiritual purification, and the “Lesser jihad” against the enemies of faith and may have a defensive character, which is mandatory for all Muslims, or offensive.

Legally relevant records describing action, facts, deeds of the Prophet. Together, the hadith form the Sunnah, the tradition that is the source of law and the rules of conduct in life, second in importance only after the Quran.

Canonic pilgrimage (mandatory) to Mecca: one of the Five pillars of Islam.

a synonym for monotheist, but not belonging to any historical religion. A Hanif was Abraham, a monotheist before being a Jew.

The term signifies the transfer (emigration) from Mecca to Medina. It indicates the severing of all tribal and blood ties to embrace the spiritual values arising from being a Muslim. The Islamic calendar begins from the Hegira, from 622 AD. Muslim tradition sets the first year of the Hegira on 16 July, that is, on the first day of the lunar year and not on 24 September when Muhammad reached the oasis of Yathrib, the location that would become Medina.

Means submission to the will of God; it identifies itself with monotheism. Judaism and Christianity are considered as the first two “phases” of Islam.

Kafir (pl. Kafirun)

A synonym for infidel. The term used to define the polytheists of Mecca who refused to convert to Islam. In time, the term came to be applied also to Christians, non-Muslims in general and even non-orthodox or heretical Muslims. Radical Sunnis consider, in contempt of tradition, Shi’ites Kafirùn accusing them of having adopted “innovations,” practices, that is, considered unorthodox.

Mosque. The place where Muslims pray. Mosques were not originally intended as places for prayer, because squares, esplanades, homes, shops, garages, etc. can be used as places of worship. Prayer can also be also take place in meadows or deserts.

A niche in the wall of a mosque that indicates the qibla, the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca towards which Muslims face when praying.

The raised pulpit from which an imam, the leader of prayer, addresses the congregation.

The person who proclaims the call to the daily prayer five times a day at a mosque. Nowadays in many mosques around the world, prerecorded calls are amplified on loudspeakers.

Munafiq (pl. Munafiqùn)

Literally, “hypocrite,” synonym for “false believer”, term that the Quran applies to the people of Medina who falsely converted to Islam and who on more than one occasion proved to be untrustworthy allies of the Prophet.

Prophet (lawmaker). In the Quran, Muhammad is called Rasùl Allah, the “Messenger of God.”

Literally, “recitation.” Recited, and chanted, the Quran is often memorized by the devout worshipper. The study of the Quran starts from a very early age when passages from the Quran are recited in Arabic, the “holy language.” This is why learning ritual Arabic is considered a devotional act for non-Arabic speakers.

Ninth month of the lunar calendar dedicated to fasting and prayer.

Canonical prayer: One of the Pillars of Islam.

Canonical fasting: Another Pillar of Islam.

Faction of Ali. After the Sunnis, Shia Muslims form the second largest component of Islam. Some 20% of Muslims are Shi’ites and are the majority in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrein.

Declaration of faith. It is an oath – another one of the Five Pillars of Islam – where the two fundamental precepts of Islam, reveled monotheism through prophets. It reads: “I bear witness that there is no deity but God, and I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of God.”

Martyr, witness of God. Those who offer their lives to uphold faith not necessarily in the field of battle.

Chapter of the Quran, which contains 114 Surahs containing the verses revealed both in Mecca and Medina.

The hadith – relevant legal traditions – together form the Sunna. While paramount among them are those concerning Muhammad, the Sunnah may also be related to the generations that came after him.

Community of believers. Muslims, together, form the Ummah.

Canonic tax, a tithe: one of the Five Pillars of Islam.