Religious Tolerance In Islam

By Dr. Mahmoud El-Begearmi

Good evening. I am very pleased to see everyone here tonight and I appreciate it very much. My first opportunity to talk to Masons was a few months back. I appreciate opportunities of this kind because it does increase the understanding between us all. We all want to, believe it or not.


We just have different faiths, different ways of thinking but deep down we are all the same. I've spent some time doing similar activities because of my observation that Islam is perhaps, the most misunderstood religion, especially in the Western Hemisphere.


I will spend a few minutes with you tonight talking about Islam, about what ties Islam, Christianity and Judaism share together and about tolerance when it comes to religious thinking about Islam. There is perhaps very little of it mentioned in the news, perhaps none. What constitutes the news is mostly the sensational and when you talk about good things, in most cases that does not qualify as sensational enough to make the headlines, however, everything else does. I appreciate tonight because I know how precious your time is around the holidays. I do appreciate your taking the time to come to listen to this stranger that comes from far away.


Let me start with the concept of God in Islam. The reason I start with this is because it is one of the most important misconception that I see. The word for God in Arabic is Allah. If someone does not understand that then when you say that Moslems pray and worship Allah it becomes a mystery. What is this Allah that Moslems believe in and pray to? Well, Allah is God, the creator of the universe, the creator of everything in our universe. He is the God of Muhammad the Prophet of Islam, of Abraham, of Moses, of Jesus and of John, of Isaac, of Jacob, of Joseph and I could go on and on and on but you get the message. The same God, Allah, that Moslems pray to is also the God that Christians and Jews pray to. That brings us then to what is different or common about Christianity, Islam and Judaism, the three monothetistic religions. That is what we are talking about.


These three religions tie us to the Prophet Abraham who, by the covenant of God given to Abraham, the message, the prophecy and the book of Allah, of God, was given to him and his descendants. His descendants are Ishmal, Isaac, Jacob, David, Solomon, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. So there is a tie here, perhaps not clearly defined in the western culture, that generally refers to religion concepts in the Judao-Christian tradition. The Judao-Christian tradition is also an Islamic tradition because Islam is a part of this tie. The Prophet Muhammad did not invent Islam nor was he unique in terms of Prophets and messengers that were sent by God to human beings to show us the right way. He was one of them.


And, he was asked about that - it was revealed in the Qur'an - that what is your belief? What do you, Moslems, believe, because there were Christians and Jews at that time of the Prophet as well, The translation of the Arabic goes as saying that:


We believe in Allah, in God, and what He has revealed to us and what He has revealed to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their decedents and those that have been given to Moses and to Jesus and all the prophets from God to man, we do not make any distinctions among them. To God, to Allah, we completely surrender.


Surrender is the key of Islam. The meaning of the word Islam is complete surrender to the Will of God. To the Will of God. To me, to be a good believer in Islam is to be a good Moslem. You do not have a belief just in Allah and the Prophet Muhammad but you need to also believe in all the prophets. The messengers from God to man and their message and our understanding of the message has never changed. The message was always a complete surrender to the Will of God. Abraham is the leader of this message of complete surrender to Allah because his followers had completely trusted and surrendered to the Will of God. Indeed, when their tribe did not accept them they had to leave their place and their people and travel down to the valley from what is known today as Iraq to Jericho and Samaria. And indeed, he lived in this area and died in this area where he is buried today in Hebron, on the west bank of the Jordan River. This message was intended for Islam, intended to complete the message of Allah, God, as intended for human being.


There was no rejection in Islam of any messenger or prophet that came with a message before the prophet Muhammad. That is one question that people sometimes ask. Well, if that is the case then there is nothing unique about Islam. In a sense of theology it is true, the only uniqueness about Islam is the fact that there is no association of God with anything else, no man, no angel, nothing. It is the one God, the creator of all, the King of all Kings is Allah, the word in Arabic that refers to God. Allah, is preferred because it does not have any plural or singular as the word of God which could be God or Gods. It does not have a masculine or a feminine as God or Gods because Allah has no equal. Therefore, in our human understanding we can not refer to Allah as we refer to each other. It is not something that is unreachable because he is with us everywhere we go. He is above the human description that we use for each other.


What about the tolerance of Islam? This is something that is probably more difficult for people to understand because of the image that is put forward by the media in a thirty second television news flash. How can we talk about tolerance and people that pack themselves with explosives and blow up a bus or bus stop? It is inconceivable to try to explain how these people are tolerant when you see that on television, especially about the Middle East. This also brings us to another point that it is a point of misunderstanding. Everybody in the Middle East is referred to a Moslem extremist or terrorist. The Moslem extremist is the more polite way of saying that people are terrorists. Let me tell you something about Moslems.


By the United Nation account, there are 1.2 billion Moslems around the world. Most of these Moslems, to the surprise of many, are not Arabs, are not in the Middle East, have nothing to do with Israel and Arabs or the Palestinian question. By and large, they are Asians, and specifically Indonesian and Malaysian and of this general region. The Arab Moslems represent about 18% - 20% of all Moslems around the world. But, I guarantee you if a Moslem from Indonesia walked out of this room and asked someone if he was Moslem, probably no one would know that. If I and that Indonesian Moslem walked out together through this door and asked the majority of the people we met to point out who was the Moslem, they would point to me because I am the Middle Eastern looking individual that CNN said caused the Oklahoma City bombing. That is why we try, in a forum like this, to provide information. True, I am a Moslem but I am neither a terrorist nor an extremist. So, there you have it. Something new! But, back to tolerance.


I will mention a couple of historical incidents that were not written by Moslems. Moslems had, through out the Ottoman Empire control over most of the Middle East. Islam then was extended along the southern Mediterranean coast of Africa and to Spain. Islam was also extended to what we today know as the Balkans up to the doorsteps of Vienna, the capital of the Hapsburg monarchy. But look back at what happened in Spain when the Christians liberated Spain from Moslem domination. Jews were afraid of what was going to happen to them when Christian took control of Spain and this area. What happened? The Ottoman Empire moved all the Jews that wanted to escape the circumstances to Turkey where they preserve, until today, their traditions of religious practices.


I was born and raised in Egypt which was predominantly Christian before Islam. The Eastern Christian Church had its power and its leadership in the exact area of Egypt. When Islam came to Egypt, the synagogues, the churches and all other worship houses were preserved until today. I am talking about sixteen hundred years. History is there for those who want to see it but it is not there for those who want to close their minds to a stereotype with which they are comfortable. The challenge is that the foundation of an individual is shaken by new ideas, new information and new knowledge. Take that person out of his comfortable position to something else, to a different circumstance, that he can not accept without thinking about it and he is uncomfortable. That is why we still see the stereotype that we are talking about tonight. That is why it is still exists. I will give you another example of tolerance.


Christians and Jews in Islam and Islamic tradition have a separate and a recognized position because they are, in addition to what I have explained, fellow believers in one God and they also have the knowledge and revelation that has been received from Allah. So they are termed in the Islamic tradition as people of the book. People of the book, meaning those who have received the revelations before Islam.


A Moslem is, by his religion, allowed to marry a Christian or a Jew. If a Moslem take a Christian or a Jew as a wife, Islam teaches the Moslem not to coerce his wife to accept Islam. If she will, under her free will, accept Islam, than that is her choice but he, at no time, is to pressure her to do so. This is not because of the law of the State or the Constitution of the United States of America but it is because of God's, Allah's, revelation in the Qur'an. Because there is no - to make it very clear - there is no coercion in religion. The truth is clear as well as the untruth is clear. The choice is the individual's choice. Not the State, not the government, not clergy, not the church, not the mosque. The individual has the choice to choose which way his life is to go.


Why is it the choice of the individual? Because everyone of us, at the day of Judgment, will stand before Allah, the Creator, if you want to call it that, it is fine. So long as we all agree that this is the Creator. The one and only. The person must respond to his choice and his behavior that he has done in his life time. There is no Moslem that can explode himself and in blowing himself everywhere will go to Heaven simply because he has done that. That is not such a thing. But you see and hear on the news that these people who do these tasks are given a straight way to Heaven. Let me tell you that from my knowledge of Islam, that Moslem, he has a straight way to Hell and not to Heaven but you don't hear that. I am hear to tell you there is something else.

I thank you for the attention and I would be more than happy to answer your questions if I can. 


Q: Could you tell us the difference between the Sunnies and Shiites?


A: I would be happy too. The Sunnies and the Shiites represent the two denominations following the traditions of Islam. The Shiites, if you will, came after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. They initially believed that the leadership of Islam should be in Muhammad and his descendants. This is a concept that is rejected by Sunni Moslems.


Among the close companions of the Prophet was his cousin, Ali, who was married to the Prophet's daughter and from that marriage came two sons, Hasan and Husayn. The Shiites believe that Ali and his descendants are the ones worthy of the leadership of the Moslems. This is rejected by the Sunni because the Prophet knew Ali and his descendants and he did not appoint any of them to the leadership before he died. He left it to the companions to decide among themselves, in a democratic way. Remember, that was fourteen hundred years ago, before the Constitution of the United States. They were to decide among themselves where the leadership would lie. They chose the closest companion to the Prophet, Abu Bakr, the one that migrated from Mecca to Madina with the Prophet as the first Caliph.


The difference go a lot deeper than this because in the Islamic tradition, Islamic shavi`a, the Laws of Islam, are based upon the Qur'an, the revelation of Allah and the tradition of the Prophet. These represent Islamic law. Shiites refused to take the tradition of the Prophet. They can choose and that is refused by Sunni Moslems because the tradition of the Prophet is taken in its entirety and comprises the law of Islam. That is the fundamental difference.


The second fundamental difference is that in Sunni tradition there is no ayatollah, there is no clergy. This is what Islam is about. The individual and Allah. There is direct communication with Allah, there is no middle layer between the Him and the person. You must qualify as the best caller in Islam to communicate your prays, your fears, your hopes to God, or Allah, at any time, in any form, in any manner. Shiites have the clergy, the ayatollahs that you hear about, and they have different tiers of them. The closer you are to the top are the ones that they could relate to the line of Ali, the cousin of the Prophet, through either of his sons, Hassan or Hussein. Also in the Shiite tradition, the ayatollahs' receive communications from imams, descendants of the prophet. This is a very powerful concept because if you imagine someone who has received communication from Allah, either directly or indirectly, then you give that individual the power that what he says goes, no matter what, because he is the receiver of the communication. This also goes against the fundamental Islamic belief that there is no messenger or prophet after the Prophet Muhamad. The only messenger after that would be the coming back of Jesus for the day of Judgment. I mentioned before, there is no middle person in Islam, it is the individual and God. So, that by itself gives Shiites a very different fundamental belief.


Q: Is there a set of rules in Islam that people have to live by such as the Ten Commandments?


A: Yes. In fact, the creed of Islam, if you want a code of conduct, is the same. The Ten Commandments are recognized in Islam as they are in the Christian and Judao traditions. In addition to them, there are the Five Pillars of Islam. The first one is the testimony or bearing witness that there is no God but one God and that Muhammad is his messenger and that is fundamental to the creed of Islam.


The Second Pillar is the five prayers that you sometimes see or hear about. The five prayers are spread through the day and night. They start at dawn, the second one is at noon, the third one is in the afternoon, the fourth one is at sunset and the fifth one is in the evening about an hour and a half after sunset. Those prayers are obligatory prayers for every Moslem. There is also a supplication prayer where you pray to God again with your hopes and fears and so on. This is done anytime, in any form, in any language.


The Third Pillar is the cap. And the cap is the hybrid between charity and tax. The reason I say this is because there is really no English word to describe cap exactly. It is a charging in a way that the individual Moslem does under no supervision. There is no one who will supervise this. It is a tax because it has to be done but there is no IRS. It is 2.5% of an individual's holding which had been held continuously for one year. I will give you an example. If I have $1000 in the bank and I held that $1000 continuously for one year then I pay $25 or 2.5% as the cap. If I started the year with $1000 and I spent $700 throughout the year to meet my obligations then I would pay the cap only on $300 because that was the only money that I had in my possession for disposal for the one year. It is not a straight tax because you either pay it to an individual in the community who is appointed to collect the cap and use it for the benefit of the needy or you can do it directly yourself if you know someone within the community that is in need. You can go directly to the individual and pay the cap and nobody will know if you did it or not. It is, as is everything else, between the individual and God. No one else needs to know about it, no one else should know about it if you do not want that to happen.


The Fourth Pillar is that of fasting, the observation of fasting in the month of Ramadan. It is the ninth month of the Islamic calender which is a lunar calender. It goes by the moon. The months change with the changes of the moon. In observing that fasting, the Moslems refrain from food and water or anything that goes through the mouth between dawn and sunset for thirty days or twenty nine days depending on the month. In addition to that, they also observe or abstain from any thing that has to do with our worldly life including intimacy between a man and his wife. That could be done after the fasting is complete in a day. After sunset everything is available, food and whatever else. It is a kind of self control, an exercise in controlling one's self to be able to defer the temptations of life that we see in our daily lives. So it is by this exercise that we hope to make the individual not only observe the fasting for fulfillment of religious obligations but also to be able to refrain, in our daily lives, from things that Allah will not accept as good deeds.


The Fifth and last Pillar is the pilgrimage to Mecca once in a life time of the Moslem if he or she can afford to do it physically, mentally and financially. It is not acceptable if the Moslem does not have the means to perform the pilgrimage that he would have to go into debt to do it. Allah would not require it if you do not have the means to do it.


This, in a nutshell, is how Moslems live their lives and why they say that Islam is a way of life because of what I am.


Q: You made reference to Jesus being a Prophet. How does Islam feel about the immaculate conception?


A: First of all, Islam believes in the virgin birth of Jesus. There is no exception. Indeed, Islam also looks at Mary, the mother of Jesus, as an example of the best of the believing woman. Islam, however, does not believe that there is the father, the son and the Holy Spirit. It does not believe that God is the father of Jesus or that Jesus is the son of God. It does not agree with the crucifixion because in Islamic tradition Jesus ascended to heaven and he will be coming back at the day of judgment to set the record straight and to die as you and I to reaffirm his human image.


With all due respect to your belief, as a Moslem, I believe in Jesus as a Prophet of God and not only a prophet of Allah but as one of the most distinguished prophets of Allah because Jesus was sent to man in a way that no one else ever was sent among the prophets, messengers or any other human being because of the virgin birth. I believe that Jesus would shed Allah, God, in his light as a Prophet of God. I also believe that each individual will be asked before God what he has done for his own self and there is no one else that will be responsible for one's behavior and it will be judged that way. I do not know if, at the day of Judgment, Jesus will take the sin of somebody else or not. And, if he does, I do not know if that would be acceptable with God or not. I do not know that. I have no knowledge to either deny or to accept that but the teachings say that each individual by himself or herself will be asked about what he has done in his life time and based on that the Judgment will be cast by the only God whether that individual is worthy to go to Heaven or if not, to go to Hell. It is very clear in Islamic tradition that no one is responsible for someone else's sin or misdeed.

On the day of Judgment each individual will be given his deeds in his lifetime and he will be asked about what he has done and how he sees his judgment. There is no soul that carries the burden of another soul. We will not punish anyone until we send a messenger. That is the word of Allah saying that individuals are treated as individuals, no one carries somebody else's burden and that Allah will not punish anyone before sending a messenger to that individual, to his people.


Q: Could you comment on the treatment of woman in the Islamic tradition, both in the bounds of matrimony and upon the death of the husband?


A; Yes. That is another area where a lot of misconceptions exist. Many people in the West say that Islam treats a woman as a second class citizen or even worse as a property of a man. I am here to tell you that there is not ever an Islamic revelation or a tradition of the Prophet to justify or to excuse such a treatment. A woman is to be treated equally as a man. In Islam, men and women are treated equally in the tradition of family life. Men and women have different roles and responsibilities and as these responsibilities sometimes dictate different treatment of men and women.


I emphasis responsibilities and treatments and I will explain that a little further. In Islam, during a marriage, in the life of a husband and wife, one is not above the other. You also see and hear and read for instance that in Saudia Arabia, a woman is not allowed to drive. That is not Islam.


You also hear from some that under Islam, the man will inherit twice as much as the woman. That gives someone the perception that "You tell me that they are equal but when they come down to something like that they say that the man take two and the woman may not. In an Islamic marriage, the husband is totally responsible for the home. In other words, if the wife has a job and she earns a living, that is hers. That is totally hers. If she decided to spend that money on the house, that is her free choice. She is not obligated to do that. In addition, if she has inherited money, that is also hers, for her to decide what she wants to do with it. The husband has no call in this, absolutely none. If I have the responsibility maintaining her while I am alive, when I die, then our son has that responsibility to his mother and to his sisters. If the son is not there, her brother has that responsibility, then her father has that responsibility. At any time and under any circumstances, a woman, whether she is a mature woman, a married woman, a little girl or an older woman, she is taken care of by the responsible male individuals in her life.


A man can inherit twice as much as a woman in order to meet his responsibility. It is a guarantee for the male to have the resources to fulfill his responsibility. It is not because he is a male and she is a female that he has twice as much as her. It is because of the responsibility of the male individual versus the female individual.


In Islam, a woman has the right to be educated, to hold office and to vote. In the United States of America, a woman has to struggle to achieve her possessions in this society. A Moslem woman has that by the divine decree of God, of Allah. No one could strip her of that. Having said that, is there an example of such a mistreatment? Yes, but this example has nothing to do with Islam. It has to do with man. Man has a way to achieve what he wants to achieve, he has an agenda, whether he is Moslem or non Moslem. That is what we see. I am ashamed when I hear how some Moslem men behave towards their wives or with others. But that is something that all societies have. There is no way that everyone will be just, good hearted, God fearing individuals. There will always be such people around us. The difference that I see is that when a Moslem person does something wrong then it is Islam and all Moslems. When someone else does something, well, he may be considered deranged or strange but he is never referred to as a Catholic or a Jew or something else. It is only Moslems that such actions comes from.


I hope that you go home tonight with a different point of view when you see those terrorist Moslems on television. I hope you will say to yourself that "I have seen at least one Moslem and he was not a terrorist" and that will bee enough for me for traveling from Bangor to Houlton. Thank you.

Originally Presented to the Maine Lodge of Research

March 1998, Lynde Lodge #174, Hermon, Maine

This edited transcript of a second presentation of the same talk given

December 1998, Monument Lodge #96, Houlton, Maine


Copyright © 1998 by the Maine Lodge of Research & Mahmoud El-Begearmi

All rights reserved.