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There exist many common misconceptions about Islam. The first and the biggest misconception is that Muslims are either terrorists or extremists and violent. Undoubtedly, this belief emanates from the mass media, which almost always represent Muslims in a negative way. If a man with a gun celebrating Judaism assaults a mosque, Catholic IRA guerrillas set off their bombs in urban areas, or Serbian Orthodox military men rape and then kill innocent peaceful Muslim civilians, these facts do not serve as a basis for judgment about the entire faith. Although one will never ascribe these acts to the offenders’ religious beliefs, the phrase “Muslim or Islamic fundamentalism” associated with aggression and violence is rather widespread.

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To get rid of this misconception, people should not believe the media blindly but consider what the Quran says about the matter. The word “Islam” comes from a root word that means “peace.” Just like Christianity, Islam approves of fighting for self-defense, defense of the religion of those people who were violently expelled from their homes. It prohibits harming civil people, destroying crops, livestock, and trees. It stands in the Quran, “Fight in the cause of God against those who fight you, but do not transgress limits.  God does not love transgressors”. Then, for Muslims, war is the last variant, which is the subject to God’s sacred law, “If they seek peace, then seek you peace.  And trust in God for He is the One that hears and knows all things”.

The second widespread misconception concerns the status of women in Islamic society. It is falsely believed that Islam keeps women down. A typical Muslim woman is supposed to wear a veil, forcibly stay home, and be fully dependant on his husband. Although some Muslim countries may really oppress women, this fact does not necessarily stem from Islam. Many such countries do not accept Islamic law (Shari’ah) and stick to their own cultural aspects concerning gender equality. Islam presupposes that either single or married woman has her own rights (these include the right to have an education, dispose and own her earnings and property, choose her husband). A groom presents a bride with a marriage gift for her personal use and a woman tends to preserve her own family name rather than to take her husband’s one. Islam forbids any form of violence towards women, as well as it is forbidden to force the latter against their will. Although divorce is not common for Muslims, one may resort to it under the most desperate conditions. At the same time, parents are not allowed to force their Muslim daughter to marry against her will; they may only suggest a candidate, who, from their point of view, is suitable for her.

The belief that all Muslim men would marry four wives is false, too. Under some circumstances, a man may take another wife, but the Quran grants this right only if the husband’s intentions are honest and fair. Islam does not allow forcing women into such a marriage against their will, and women have the right to strike it off in a marriage contract. Thus, it would be corrupt to assert that polygamy is encouraged by Islam – it is neither obligatory nor encouraged but simply permitted. On these grounds, people should not associate the images of “sheiks with their harems” with Islam; a man may take four wives (not more) only if he is able to treat every woman fairly and provide each with a separate house, etc.

It should be also born in mind that Islam does not associate polygamy with mere gratification of carnal needs and lust – in most cases, polygamy emanates from compassion that a man may feel towards orphans or widows. Moreover, exactly the Quran has set limits to the scope of polygamy among the Arabs, who would have ten or even more wives and treat them as a “property.” Quran approves of polygamy only if it is really necessary. Therefore, the general Islamic rule is monogamy not polygamy. Only a tiny part of Muslims practice the latter all over the world. To change their negative attitude towards Islam and Muslims in general, people should acknowledge that this religion goes deeper into problematic issues of societies and their individuals and comes up with clear legitimate solutions, which are more beneficial to accept than reject. No one would argue that the second or even the third wife, who is legally married and treated fairly and kindly, feels better than a mistress with no legal rights or a former wife depending on the aliments of her former husband. 

Another misconception about Islam deals with the issue of its intolerance of other faiths. According to the Quran, Islam respects and gives freedom to any faith, “God forbids you not, with regards to those who fight you not for [your] faith nor drive you out of your homes, from dealing kindly and justly with them; for God loves those who are just”. Historical evidence proves that Islam is tolerant of other religions. For instance, in 634, when the caliph Omar came to the holy city of Jerusalem, Islam proclaimed freedom of worship to representatives of all religious groups in the city. Having proclaimed to citizens that their lives and possessions would be safe and that their sanctuaries would never be destroyed, Omar asked Sophronius (the Christian patriarch) to show him all the sacred places of the city. In the same way, Islam is tolerant of other races – it proclaims that all people are equal, “O mankind! We created you from a single soul, male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, so that you may come to know one another”.   

No matter how tragic and pitiful it may seem, all the misconceptions named above flourish nowadays as they did a long time ago. What makes the matters worse is that the image of Muslims as aggressive terrorists and suicide bombers has been significantly intensified due to the ever-increasing number of victims of continuous wars, fights, and struggles in the East. Surely, a few people know the true meaning of the word “Islam,” i.e., peace, which rejects any ungrounded aggression and violence. The same can be said about polygamy and the status of women in Muslim society. When one starts thinking about Islam and Muslim men, the first thing that comes to mind is a harem, wherein the woman’s role boils down to her complete obedience to the husband and satisfaction of his whims. Why do we respect a pious Christian nun – covered from head to toe – and laugh at or condemn Muslim women dressed in the same way?

It is all a matter of human prejudice, stereotype, and superficial awareness of the cultural life of other countries and nations. It is common knowledge that religion is the most mysterious and difficult for understanding part of a nation’s cultural life, which means that, without a solid informational background, it is very easy to label any religion or belief as “wrong.” Humans are innately curious and want to know everything, but not every person has enough time and will to delve deeply into the essence of some belief and its peculiarities. That is why people prefer to assert knowledge that is easy to acquire and hardly has any reasonable ground. This is how religious and racial prejudice is born and functions: somebody has only superficial knowledge about this or that religion/belief, which prevents him/her from understanding; then he/she dislikes it because it is not clear and finally labels it as “wrong.” Other people, who are also reluctant to dig deeper, start sticking to this stereotype since it is the easiest thing to do – they already have some widely accepted information, which should not be verified (since they believe it is common, thus, already “checked” knowledge).         

All things considered, is there any chance for us to minimize misconceptions about other religions that are not our own? Yes, people can do that if they learn to understand other cultures. The latter could be achieved in two ways. First of all, we should learn how to become culturally self-aware. For this purpose, one should define certain factors that have shaped his/her cultural identity, values, and beliefs. It is important to know that a person may understand other cultures only if he/she understands his/her own one. Only by being aware of our own cultural identity can we cognize and respect different cultures.

Secondly, it is crucial to stop imposing our own beliefs and values. This argument also implies that humans should become less ignorant and self-assured. We should constantly broaden our world outlook (read, travel, and communicate with other nations as much as possible; besides, the crucial element here is awareness about cultural life); only this way can help us understand the culture and grasp the impact it has on the shaping of religious beliefs. Having realized that every culture has specific values, one should not hurry up to label them as wrong: it is better to try to analyze these values and find grounds for them.

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