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Teach Yourself Islam

Title: Teach Yourself Islam
Author: Ruqaaiyyah Maqsood
Publisher: NTC Publishing Group, Chicago, Illinois
Original Copyright: 1994 Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood

I chose to read Teach Yourself Islam because I wanted a deeper understanding of Islam since almost every day western media report violent incidents involving Muslims. Informing myself is a way to safeguard myself against propaganda.  I simply wish to establish my own well-reasoned opinions about Islam and Muslims, although, of course, having read just one book does not make me a scholar; my ignorance, no doubt, still abounds.

Naturally, I tried to read this book with my western bias in check. Also, I know full well my brain lacks the neural networks to support the notion of the existence of God—especially the Abrahamic God—because I find Him to be human, all too human, and thus very anthropogenic. Naturally, then, my interest in understanding Islam is not as a prospective convert.

Now, as silly as it may seem, I am uneasy about publicly posting my not-altogether-favorable thoughts about Islam, especially because of the Charlie Hebdo murders that occurred earlier this year. Nevertheless, the great Enlightenment experiment—which we call America—is still being conducted, and the freedom to express oneself is very basic to this experiment. Thus, theoretically I should have no fear when I choose to criticize religion, philosophy, history, cartoons1, the government, my neighbors, or anything else as long as I don't engage in libel and slander against an individual.

So, without hesitation, I will express my thoughts about Islam and teach Yourself Islam and its author, Ruqaiyyah Maqsood, by saying that I like Teach Yourself Islam very much because it was easy to read, and it never once bored me. I've given it three POT Dots for that alone. Bear in mind it was published after the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center and before 911, so Maqsood (who, by the way, is not of Arabic descent. In fact, she is a caucasian British lady) is probably less defensive in sharing the details of Islam than she might have been had she written the book after 911. Still, though, methinks she doth protest too much with apologetic explanations. Animal sacrifice, for example, is animal sacrifice despite comparing it to slaughterhouse practices in the west as when she writes, “Islamic principles of slaughter are to slay the creature in the kindest possible way . . . . [Muslims] do not regard killing an animal by electrocution, or by firing a bolt into its brain (normal United Kingdom slaughterhouse practices) to be kind methods at all.”  Muslims choose to sacrifice animals during a few of their rituals; one is during Eid ul-Adha, a major festival to celebrate Abraham’s triumph over the temptations of the Devil when he was called upon by God to sacrifice his son Ismail. Maqsood explains that during the time of this festival, “[t]he mind is concentrated on the idea of sacrifice and self-sacrifice, symbolised by the actual sacrificing of a sheep, goat, cow or camel.”  She further explains that the method of slaughter is “ordained by God Himself, and that is why [Muslims] do it.”  Naturally, what comes to mind here is that song by Roger Waters in which the lyrics state, “What God wants God gets. God help us all.”  I only wish this God would want to not slaughter animals (especially in this day and age with advanced nutritional science).2

Truly, I was hard pressed to sympathize with Islam after reading about animal sacrifice; yet, I can appreciate a strong point Maqsood makes later in the book when she compares a particular aspect of Islam to Christianity.  It's a point that gives Islam leverage over Christianity and is probably the reason young westerners are attracted to Islam. The point is that while Muslims acknowledge the existence of Jesus and accept him as a messenger from God, Maqsood writes that Jesus’ “function was not as a sacrifice to save people from their sins--for every person will be judged as an individual, and no one will bear the sins of another.”  This powerful notion gives Muslims a stronger sense of morality and righteousness as well as diminishes the idea of human divinity, and I think it is this divinity of Jesus is one of the strongest ideas that lends itself to the conclusion that God is a human-originated concoction. This advantage of Islam appeals to young westerners who have good reason to question the values, motives, and behaviors of their parents and their governments as western-led military offenses have aggressively sought control of the Middle East ever since oil became our civilization's most important energy source. I’ll digress here to say that oil—not God—is the main reason westerners have been hegemonic in their dealings with the Middle East. Who was it who said, “How did our oil get under their sand?”  It’s a profoundly telling statement. I only wish young people in their quest to counteract the wrongdoings of their parents would become atheists instead of Muslims. Perhaps I am naturally biased towards atheists, but I think atheists are probably better at critical thinking and might come to the conclusion that the West’s rapacious hunger for oil has been the root cause of our problems in the Middle East, and probably the best solution to these problems is to lead the way in developing alternative sources of energy, which is basically what President Carter advocated, and if we had followed that plan, we would be benefiting from superior advances in alternative sources of energy today.

Another more positive aspect of Islam is how Muslims respect their elders. “Muslims do not regard it as acceptable to relegate the care of their old folk to strangers, unless there is absolutely no alternative.”  Furthermore, “It is a disgraceful thing to see children ordering their parents about and being rude to them, or treating them as if they were imbeciles. Muslims see their old folk as wise guides, with a lifetime of experiences behind them.”  Maqsood even quotes Islamic scripture in support of this idea: “May his nose be rubbed in dust who found his parents approaching old age and lost his right to enter Paradise because he did not look after them (Tirmidhi).”

Theoretically, Christians are supposed to be just as respectful towards their elders as well, but somehow it just doesn’t seem to be the case here. Our elderly are shut away in old-folk homes and mostly hidden from public. Nevertheless, this may have to do with the fact that we are a secular nation and not a Christian one (though right-wing fundamentalists would have us believe otherwise). This is sad commentary for secularists, though. Care for the elderly is outsourced, a suggestion that seems so utterly shameful.

Islam, naturally, is also encompassing of children. When a child is born, a Muslim parent will whisper a call to prayer in its ear and later conduct a small ceremony called Tahnik by “touching . . . the lips of the baby with honey or sweet juice or pressed dates, accompanied by prayers for the welfare of the child.”  Maqsood explains that this, “symbolises making the child ‘sweet’, obedient and kind.”

“Obedience,” of course, is a word we modern-day westerners reserve use of for children, but in Islam obedience is the entire main thrust of the religion—obedience to God that is. “Islam,” by the way, means submission to the will of Allah, and the word “Muslim” refers to those who submit. Worshipping, then, is central to Islam. Maqsood writes, “worship is not something confined to special days or particular prayers, but it involves a conscious awareness of God throughout the day, every day, and a conscious desire to carry out His will in every sphere of activity.”

As far as religion goes, I imagine all of them insist that their participants bear essential tenets in the forefront of their minds all of the time, and since it seems most religions teach peace, tolerance, and cooperation, then all should be right in the world. However, it's just not the case.  Moreover, if you compare the main tenet of Buddhism with Islam (i.e., eliminate desire with submit to God’s will, respectively), you can draw a reasonable conclusion that Islam will be more severe in its dealings with the world because imposing the will of God is burdensome whereas eliminating desire is liberating, and just what is God’s will, anyway? It is to love and obey Allah, which entails following the instructions in the Koran and the Hadiths. Subsequently, how are these Islamic scriptures to be interpreted? Maqsood mentions Sunnis, Shiites, and Sufis, all sects of Islam with slightly different interpretations of the religion, and within these divisions, the scriptures are subject to further interpretation, especially because there is no central Islamic authority.

Consequently, regardless of how Islam and Muslims are portrayed in the media, I am wary of Islam—even after reading Teach Yourself Islam, all the more so in fact. Furthermore, when I see Muslims en masse, bowing and praying in unison, I especially worry about the group-think phenomenon and the herd mentality. I’ve even thought about how the brains of Muslims might be since Muslims are to pray five times a day. Such litany over a lifetime must affect the brain as science has suggested—i.e., neuroplasticity, which is realized through repetitive use of neurons.3 I’m exceeding the tiny envelope of my knowledge here, but anecdotally the Islamic meme is well-lodged in the minds of earnest Muslims, more deeply than the Christian meme is in the minds of Christians because the prescription for ritual (i.e., repeated daily prayers) is much more intense.

Finally, while Teach Yourself Islam presents so much more information than I have addressed here, the one paragraph that elicited the most sentimental or emotional response in me is the one about dogs. Maqsood writes, “Muslims are not against dogs . . . but if their saliva touches the clothing, it is rendered unclean for prayer, and the Muslim would have to go home and change.” Now, this is a prime example of what I mean by God being human, all too human. Why bother mentioning dogs at all? If you have a bit of fecal matter on your garment, by all means go home and clean it off! Or if someone sneezes a wet one on your sleeve, good God, do something about it! Certainly, it is not suitable for prayer any more than a dog lick is, but don’t pick on innocent little dogs. There’s no telling how such a rule will be interpreted . . . perhaps eventually there will be a Jihad against dogs. Seriously, though, dogs are extraordinarily special in that they are domesticated and—by definition—rely on the human race for their existence. They’ve been extremely helpful to humankind for eons. Therefore, it is very irresponsible (because they rely on us) and careless (because we rely on them) to condemn them as sacrilegious. In conclusion, I wholeheartedly assure everyone it is worthwhile to read Teach Yourself Islam, but I cannot say the same for following the Islamic religion.

1 By the way, I was tremendously disappointed with all the major broadcast stations who chose to refuse to display the Charlie Hebdo magazine front cover, claiming they wanted to respect all practicing Muslims. Has the tyranny of respect degraded the great American experiment? The cartoonists who died deserved to have had their work publicized as broadly as possible, which would have been the highest honor to award their bravery.

2 Some people claim they must eat meat for the iron and protein, yet there are plenty of sources of iron and protein elsewhere; thus, I conclude it is the vanity of taste that has them eating the flesh of innocent animals. Whether you're from the north, south, east, or west or whether you are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or otherwise, eating animals is a savage act.

3 Wikipedia contributors, "Biological neural network," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed May 3, 2015).