Islam Awareness Week

No one can deny that one of the media’s hottest topics today is Islam and its followers. Every time we switch on the news on television, radio or the Internet, we are swamped with mentions of ‘Islamists’ here and ‘oppressed’ Muslim women there. Naturally, these kinds of claims leave many people confused. How much does the average person really know about Islam besides that which he learns from hearsay?
In efforts to educate the campus and neighborhood community, the Muslim Student Union of UC Irvine prepared a week of events that addressed common misconceptions about the faith. This week, Islam Awareness Week, consisted of lectures covering a variety of topics, including the basic beliefs of a Muslim and the role of women in Islam. In addition to these lectures, some of the MSU members wore armbands reading, ‘Ask Me.’ When other students asked them about the significance of the armband, they would tell the students about Islam Awareness Week and direct them to the lectures for further information.
To kick off the week, MSU hosted Maria Khani to speak about the Qur’an. She began her lecture with a short recitation of a Qur’anic verse in Arabic. As she explained later in her lecture, although translations of the Qur’an into different languages such as English, French or Spanish help one to understand the meaning of the scripture, Muslims always recite verses of the Qur’an in Arabic because they believe that those specific Arabic words are the words of God and convey the exact meaning of God’s message.
On the subject of translations, Khani stressed the importance of context in the Qur’an. She gave the example of an Arabic word ‘daraba,’ which can mean ‘to hit,’ ‘to travel’ or ‘to make a simile.’ For words that can be defined in ways that vary so greatly, it is clear that the context surrounding these words is the key to uncovering their true meanings in any passages.
Another topic Khani spoke about was the role the Qur’an has in the life of a Muslim.
‘The Qur’an is the constitution for a Muslim, and Islam is a way of life,’ Khani said, adding that the Qur’an, in a sense, provides a set of laws by which a Muslim must abide. ‘Islam,’ which literally translates as ‘submitting to the will of God,’ is the implementation of the laws set down in the Qur’an.
Khani did not simply speak of ideas and figures familiar to Muslims, however. When Khani spoke of prophets in the Qur’an, she narrated an interesting personal experience. One morning some years back, her daughters craved Burger King for breakfast, and Khani decided to indulge their wishes. After eating, Khani and her daughters encountered a Christian man in the streets exclaiming loudly, ‘Jesus is alive! Jesus loves you!’ He turned to Khani and repeated these words, and to this Khani replied, ‘More than you know.’
Her explanation was that she, like Christians, also loves Jesus, who is recognized as a prophet in Islam.
‘I remember Jesus every day,’ Khani said. Khani said that the Virgin Mary, to whom the Qur’an devotes an entire chapter, was actually the only woman mentioned by name in the entire Qur’an. Khani reminded audiences of the amount of respect given by Islam to all the prophets in the Qur’an and not solely Muhammad.
As the week continued, Alia Aboul-Nasr gave a talk about women in Islam. She began the lecture by discussing life for women in pre-Islamic Arabia, which she believes to be uncivilized. Without local or federal law, it was a hedonistic society where tribal warfare was widely prevalent. Since men were generally warriors of great value, women’s status in society proportionally diminished. In fact, women became possessions of their male relatives. A woman lacked voting, ownership, inheritance, marriage or intellectual rights.
According to Aboul-Nasr, the woman’s status in society was elevated after the spread of Islam. The rights that had been denied before were now guaranteed to them in the Qur’an. Hundreds of years before the suffrage movement in America, Muslim women were given the right to vote. No longer could a husband take his wife’s inheritance from her and no longer did a woman have to stay silent during her marriage arrangements; the Qur’an proclaimed that man and woman were in a state of spiritual equality, the highest form of equity. The best example of this was when the Qur’anic verses were recorded, a woman was asked to safeguard the Qur’an, the most holy and sacred book of the Muslims and an honor beyond reckoning to Muslims.
Aboul-Nasr then explained why some women may be seen as oppressed today. Having lived in Saudi Arabia for some time, she was well aware of the fact that women were not allowed to drive or vote there. While Saudi Arabia is predominately Muslim, this denial of rights is not instructed by the Qur’an. When Muslims in Saudi Arabia do this, according to Aboul-Nasr, they are not submitting to the will of God as stated in the Qur’an and are not practicing Islam. The state of Saudi Arabia is not considered an Islamic state because it does not truly practice the laws sent down in the Qur’an, which guarantee basic rights to all; it is a monarchy springing from a specific culture.
At the end of her lecture, she called on women to ‘change their views of themselves’ and to go back to the texts of the Qur’an that give them equality and justice.
Fifth-year anthropology major Kevin Smith said, ‘I really encourage people to come because there can’t be this rampant phobia [of Islam]. The lecture really shows how things are misconstrued in the media. Islam does teach equality, however it’s often just misinterpreted.’
One attendee stressed the importance of ‘diversify[ing] knowledge about other religions and hear[ing] what the Muslims have to say about themselves rather than always listening to what others are saying.’