For most non-Muslims, what they learn about Islam is through social media or the Muslims surrounding them. The virtual environment can be a confusing experience. On one hand, there are reputable and reliable sources of knowledge; on the other, there is an ocean of opinions sprinkled with anecdotes, personal experiences, and snippets of fact. If you’ve met a Muslim, that could have confused you as well. Some will tell you faith is all about what is in your heart and God knows that – so that’s all that counts. Some will place a great deal of emphasis on specific aspects of their practice, while others will blend in with their cultural norms and portray them as Islamic. So how can a non-Muslim understand what Islam is, and what it means to be a Muslim?
When it comes to the accuracy of online material, we must perform due diligence on the source of information. Let’s talk about Muslims themselves. For the most part, someone raised in a Muslim home may know the basics, in terms of the rituals we perform (daily prayers, fasting, giving charity), and may have heard the Quran recited in social settings like weddings, funerals, and housewarmings. They would have heard the shahada, which says that there is no God worthy of worship other than Allah and that Muhammad, peace be upon him, is His Messenger. But when you ask some Muslims: why they believe that Muhammad is God’s Messenger, or why they believe the Quran is the word of God… you may find them fumbling and defaulting to, “I was raised Muslim, my parents are Muslim.” Which isn’t answering the question.
Like all other religions, some Muslims have blended their cultural practices into Islam. Islam is based on its original sources: the Quran and the Sunnah, which are the sayings and teachings of Muhammad, peace be upon him. Muslims believe the Quran is God’s word, verbatim, revealed to Muhammad, peace be upon him. Over 23 years, Muhammad was given verses of the Quran that applied to the specific situation he faced as he conveyed God’s message to worship Him and Him alone. The Quran was revealed in classical Arabic, a language whose richness and eloquence can be missed in translations. However, many non-Arab Muslims can read the Quran through popular translations. They are still able to contemplate God’s message, which we believe was sent to all of mankind.
If you are sincerely curious about Islam and want to learn about this faith, then don’t limit yourself to observing the Muslims who lack knowledge about Islam. If you learn Islam just from unqualified Muslims, they will likely be able to answer basic questions, but you will risk getting unsatisfactory answers for more complicated questions. Start with the Quran. God describes the Quran within the scripture itself:
- “An absolute truth” (69:51)
- “Guides to what is most upright, and gives good news to the believers” (17:9)
- “Set forth every ˹kind of˺ lesson for humanity” (17:89)
- “It is not ˹possible˺ for this Quran to have been produced by anyone other than Allah. In fact, it is a confirmation of what came before, and an explanation of the Scripture. It is, without a doubt, from the Lord of all worlds.” (10:37)
You can choose to read it from beginning to end. Muslims believe that the order in which the verses flow is also divinely inspired, so there is coherence in how the Quran flows. You can also read some of the shorter chapters, that were revealed to Muhammad, peace be upon him, in Mecca. This was during the earlier stages of Islam and so these verses focus on belief in God’s existence, consistency in the message delivered by all of God’s prophets, and the after-life – the essential tenets of the Islamic faith. The chapters revealed in Medina focus on the Islamic way of living across all aspects of a Muslim’s life, which was the guidance the new Muslims needed after having embraced the faith.
Keeping your heart and mind both open is essential; if you approach the Quran with preconceived biases, God states you will find them fulfilled: “We send down the Quran as a healing and mercy for the believers, but it only increases the wrongdoers in loss.” (Quran 17:82)
Perhaps the way to truly embrace the Quran is to learn about Muhammad’s, peace be upon him, life. Every verse was revealed to him, and so the context of what he and his followers were experiencing in that time really help us, as a reader, to appreciate what God is saying, and why. That helps to clarify the confusion some have when verses are taken out of the context in which they appear in the Quran, or without consideration of the historical events surrounding it. There are many written accounts of the Prophet’s life, find one that has good reviews and is credible.
Through this pursuit of knowledge, one will come to understand the true meaning of Islam. Islam is so much deeper than the rituals associated with it. These offer consistency, discipline, and the venue to stay connected to God and His commandments. But faith comes from the heart and is the essence of the soul. Islam is the intersection at which practice meets faith. One is incomplete without the other. It’s not simply enough to just believe in God without worshiping Him in the manner He has taught us. Nor can the acts of worship such as prayer, reciting the Quran, and fasting be performed without actively seeking a personal connection to God. For anyone who is attempting to learn what Islam truly is, whether they are Muslim or not, all they must do is go back to the religion’s core: contemplating what God says in the Quran and studying the Prophet Muhammad’s, peace be upon him, life.
Finally, whyislam.org is an excellent source for accurate information on Islam. It is an excellent place to start!
Want to learn more? Call 877-WhyIslam.
Saima Mehboob is a Muslim woman, born in Pakistan and raised in the US. She currently resides in NJ, is a full-time corporate professional, and a WhyIslam volunteer.