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Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Islam: a religion based on peace

What is the second-largest religion in the United States? Islam. And what is the nation's fastest-growing religion? You guessed it. The Islamic movement is on the rise, and its presence is alive and flourishing at USC.

"Prophet Muhammad prophesized that Islam would become the largest faith," said Karim Vidhani, president of the Muslim Students Association, and a junior majoring in computer science. "But it is also prophesized that there will be an increasing lack of knowledge about Islam, too."

The Muslim Students Association

Vidhani and the MSA, which describes itself as an association that "strives to educate Muslims and non-Muslims about Islam," are intent on moving forward. "We have many goals," Vidhani said. One of those goals is called dawah, which means informing non-Muslims about Islam.

"We hold lectures, hand out flyers, pamphlets and basically just tell people about our faith on campus," Vidhani said. "We welcome questions about our faith; Islam is not a faith that is without answers."

A religion of peace?

Yet some might have the question: Is Islam a religion of peace? "The word Islam means peace in Arabic," said Murat Surucu, a doctoral candidate in biomedical engineering and president of Muslim Students for Dialogue, an organization that helps promote Islamic understanding and interfaith dialogue. "A Muslim can't be a terrorist, and a terrorist can't be a Muslim. So people who want to terrorize people ... either don't know Islam or think they are doing something in benefit of Islam, but, in fact, they are not. They are only damaging Islam."

Aliha Khan, a Muslim and graduate student in electrical engineering, said it's also wrong to say that Islam was spread by violence or force. For example, Indonesia, the most populace Muslim nation in the world, was not converted to Islam through force but, rather, through choice. "And it's the same way in South Asia," she said. "You can't be forced to accept Islam; the desire has to come from you."

The Muslim Student Union

The MSA and MSD are not the only Islamic organizations on campus. The Muslim Student Union describes itself as offering "a warm community for all Muslims, placing emphasis on practicing Islam as a way of life through leadership development, educational workshops, campus involvement, activism and community service."

The MSU holds halaqa (Islamic discussions) at 7 p.m. every Tuesday evening at the University Religious Center. The halaqa serves two main purposes: first, to socially gather Muslims together, second, to teach Islam, said Ahmed Darwish, MSU president and a junior majoring in industrial and systems engineering.

The MSU has had its ups and downs, though. "When I was a freshman, the MSU was dying," Darwish said. "We'd have biweekly meetings and maybe 10 people would show up. Now we have weekly meetings, and up to 20 people show up." Part of the MSU's success is because of working hard and trying to organize as many events as possible, Darwish said.

One event that MSU sponsored last semester was Fastathon, which raised more than $2,000 for the homeless in Los Angeles by encouraging sponsored students to fast for one day during Ramadan. "Islam not only gives me a purpose for life but also helps me to be a force for positive change," Darwish said.

Women and Islam

Yolanda Solis, an adviser to MSA and administrative assistant for the computer science program, said one of the biggest misconceptions about Islam is that the status of women is lower than men.

"There is a high level of importance given to women in Islam," Solis said. "In a lot of religions in their early foundations, women were either unwanted at birth or a great burden. In Islam women are not a great burden."

Women are actually considered an asset in Islam, Solis said. "There is even a part in the Quran where a follower asked the Prophet, 'Who should I respect after God?' And the Prophet said, 'Your mother, and after that, your mother, and after that your mother.' So basically he's telling you that your mom - a woman - is that most important (person)."

Khan said that some women even had a formative role in Islam. "For example, one of Mohammad's wives, Aisha, narrated thousands of sayings of the Prophet," said Khan. "Through her narrations, she contributed one-fourth of the hadiths (a compilation of Mohammad's sayings)."

Erin Moore, an anthropology professor who has studied Islamic cultures in other countries, said that the Christian creation story portrays the woman as the allurer who tempted the man while the Islam has a different account. "The Islamic (Adam and Eve) story is that they both fell together and realized their nakedness," she said. "And there is not something on blaming woman, and there isn't this thing about women as the temptress - that sexuality is OK, and men and women can enjoy each other in the right context."

Women of power: women who wear the hijab

Hijab means 'covering' in Arabic. Hijab can also go by other names, including headscarf or veil, said Fethiye Ozis, a doctoral candidate in environmental engineering.

Ozis, who has been wearing the hijab for six years, said it is nothing more than a sign of modesty to empower women.

"Hijab is a chance for a woman to express herself totally - to express her ideas - to express her identity and personality without being identified as a desirable sex object," she said. "The hijab lets women focus on what's important, what's inside."

Sporting a colorful hijab and pink shirt, Kamile Yuksek, a doctoral candidate in microbiology, said the main reason why she wears the hijab is because it is mentioned in the Quran: "O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters and the believing women that they should cast their outer garments over their bodies (when abroad) so that they should be known and not molested" (Quran 33:59).

You can't be forced to wear the hijab, Yuksek said. "Wearing the hijab is very personal, and wearing it has to come from you," she said. "You are allowed to take off your head scarf off if you are among women and your family: your husband, your father, your uncles, your brothers and your grandparents."

Solis said that she does not wear the hijab because she's a new convert, and it wouldn't feel right for her yet. "You should wear it only when it feels natural to you," Solis said. "I'm probably in a transitional phrase."

Moore said that when we see the headscarf or hijab, we shouldn't have just one interpretation of what that means. "Different individuals that veil have different reasons for veiling," Moore said.

Some people veil out of a sense of ethnic identity, said Moore. "(Veiling for them can be a way to say) 'I am Muslim. I want you to know it,'" Moore said. "Other people veil to tell men that, 'I'm a respectable person and to stay away from me if you're not respectable, too.' Others veil as a declaration against the domination of the West."

All in the family

Moore said that Christians often forget, though, just how similar they are to Muslims. For example, Christians and Muslims follow the same line of prophets and many of the same Old Testament stories. "We're really all related," Moore said. "We have this continuum, and maybe that's why we fight like siblings from the same nest," Moore said. "So I would just like Christians to realize that we are all brothers."


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