Questions, Answers on Islam

Why do we need to know about Islam? • Islam is the second largest religion in the world, after Christianity, … Continued

Why do we need to know about Islam?
• Islam is the second largest religion in the world, after Christianity, and will soon be the second largest in America.
• Muslims are, and will increasingly be, our neighbors, our colleagues and our fellow citizens.
• Our ignorance about Islam distorts our view of one-fifth of the world’s population and causes us to misinterpret important events and phenomena in the US and abroad.
• Peace and safety cannot be achieved in ignorance, but can be promoted through knowledge and the understanding that grows from knowledge.

Why do we need to know about Islam?
• Islam is the second largest religion in the world, after Christianity, and will soon be the second largest in America.
• Muslims are, and will increasingly be, our neighbors, our colleagues and our fellow citizens.
• Our ignorance about Islam distorts our view of one-fifth of the world’s population and causes us to misinterpret important events and phenomena in the US and abroad.
• Peace and safety cannot be achieved in ignorance, but can be promoted through knowledge and the understanding that grows from knowledge.

How did Islam originate?
Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam originated in the Middle East, where monotheism had flourished for many centuries. In the sixth century of our era, Makkah was emerging as a new commercial center with massive new wealth but also with a growing division between rich and poor that challenged the traditional system of Arab tribal values and social security. This was the time and the social environment in which the Prophet Muhammad received his divine revelation and called all to return to the worship of the one God and to a socially just society. Muhammad is thus not considered the founder of a new religion but rather a religious reformer.
The revelations Muhammad received emphasized social justice, corrected distortions of God’s revelations in Judaism and Christianity, and warned that many had strayed. The revelations called on all to return to what the Qur’an refers to as the “straight path” of Islam, the path of God, which was being revealed one final time through Muhammad, the last or “seal” of the prophets.

What do Muslims believe?
Like Jews and Christians, Muslims are monotheists. They believe in one God, the creator, sustainer, ruler and judge of the universe. Muslims believe in prophets—not just the Prophet Muhammad, but also the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, including Abraham and Moses, and of the New Testament, Jesus and John the Baptist. They also believe in angels, heaven, hell and the Day of Judgment. Islam teaches that God’s revelation was received in the Torah, the New Testament and the Qur’an. Thus, Muslims view Jews and Christians as “people of the book,” communities of believers who received revelations through prophets from God in the form of scriptures or revealed books.

As Christians view their revelation as both fulfilling and completing the revelation of the Old Testament, Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad received his revelations from God, through the angel Gabriel, to correct human error that had made its way into the scriptures and belief systems of Judaism and Christianity. Therefore, Muslims believe, Islam is not a new religion with a new scripture; rather, Islam is the oldest religion, because it represents the original as well as the final revelation of the God of Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad.

What role does Muhammad play in Muslim life?
During his lifetime and since, Muhammad has been the model for Muslims to follow as they strive to do God’s will. In contrast to what is often a spiritualized Christian view of Jesus, Muslims look upon and love Muhammad as an entirely human figure—but one who had great spiritual as well as political insight and was guided by God. In turn, they look to his example for guidance in all aspects of life: how to treat friends as well as enemies, what to eat and drink, when to wash or pray, how to divide an inheritance, how to make love and war. Muslims’ observations or remembrances of what the Prophet said and did were passed on orally and in writing. These detailed records of Muhammad’s actions, interactions, judgments, decisions and dicta provide guidance for Muslims as to what is required to follow the word of God.

Where do most Muslims live?
Muslims are the majority in 56 countries worldwide, including Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Egypt, Iraq and Nigeria. In addition, significant Muslim populations can be found in India, China, the Central Asian republics and Russia, as well as Europe and America, where Islam is the second- and third-largest religion, respectively. The majority of Muslims are not Arab—in fact, only 20 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims originate from Arab countries. The largest Muslim populations are in Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India.

Are all Muslims the same?
There is one divinely revealed and mandated Islam, but there are many human interpretations of Islam. There are Sunni and Shii Muslims, representing 85 percent and 15 percent of the world’s Muslims, respectively. Within these two major branches are diverse schools of theology and law; in addition, Islam has a rich mystical tradition. The basic unity of Islamic belief and practice expresses itself in diverse ways within many different cultures around the world.

Who are the Muslims in America?
Although estimates vary considerably, it is safe to say that there are at least six million Muslims in America today, making Islam the third-largest religion in the country, after Christianity and Judaism. Muslims have been present in America since the time of Columbus. Moriscos (Spanish Muslims forced to hide their faith) migrated to both Spanish and Portuguese settlements in America. In addition, between 14 and 20 percent of the African slaves brought to America from the 16th to the 19th century were Muslim, although they were forced to convert to Christianity. Other Muslims, particularly Indians and Arabs, also immigrated as free persons during this period and were able to maintain their spiritual, cultural and social identity.
The numbers of Muslims in America increased in the late 19th century with the arrival of significant numbers of immigrants from Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Many settled in the Midwest and Canada, found blue-collar jobs and assimilated into American society. After World War II, significant numbers of immigrants from Palestine and elites from the Middle East and South Asia came to America. In recent decades, many students from the Muslim world have come to study, and many well-educated professionals and intellectuals have come from South and Southeast Asia as well as from the Middle East for political and economic reasons. Many Muslim immigrants have worked hard to sustain their Islamic identity and pass it down to their children, and to establish institutions and community structures—including mosques, Islamic centers, Islamic schools, Islamic publication organizations, interest-free financial institutions and charitable organizations—to support these goals.

About two-thirds of America’s Muslims today are immigrants or descendants of immigrants. The other third is made up of African-American and other converts to Islam. The largest Muslim communities in the United States are in Boston, New York, Detroit, Dearborn, Toledo, Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles/Orange County.

How is Islam similar to Christianity and Judaism?
Judaism, Christianity and Islam, in contrast to Hinduism and Buddhism, are all monotheistic faiths that worship the God of Adam, Abraham and Moses—creator, sustainer and lord of the universe. All stress moral responsibility and accountability, Judgment Day and eternal reward and punishment.

All three faiths emphasize their special covenant with God, Judaism through Moses, Christianity through Jesus and Islam through Muhammad. Christianity accepts God’s covenant with and revelation to the Jews but traditionally has seen itself as superseding Judaism with the coming of Jesus. So, too, Islam and Muslims recognize Judaism and Christianity, their Biblical prophets (among them Adam, Abraham, Moses and Jesus) and their revelations (the Torah and New Testament).

Peace is central to all three faiths, which use similar greetings: shalom aleichem in Judaism, pax vobiscum in Christianity and salaam alaikum in Islam. All three phrases mean “peace be with you.” Yet leaders of each religion—Joshua and King David, Constantine and Richard the Lion-Hearted, Muhammad and Saladin—have engaged in holy wars to spread or defend their beliefs.

What is Islamic law?

The word islam means “surrender [to the will of God],” and the will of God is articulated in Islamic law, whose purpose is to regulate two types of interactions: those between human beings and God—that is, worship—and those among human beings—that is, social transactions. Throughout history, Islamic law has remained central to Muslim identity and practice, for it constitutes the ideal social blueprint for the believer and provides a common code of behavior for all Muslim societies.

In addition to the Qur’an and the Sunnah (example) of Muhammad, Sunni Muslims recognize two other official sources to guide the development of Islamic law: comparative analogical reasoning (qiyas) and consensus (‘ijma). Shii Muslims accept the Qur’an and Sunnah as well as their own collections of the traditions of Ali and other imams.

The Qur’anic texts provide moral directives, laying out what Muslims should aspire to as individuals and achieve as a community. The Sunnah of Muhammad, recorded in hundreds of thousands of individual narratives describing the Prophet’s private and public life and his individual and communal activities, illustrates Islamic faith in practice, and supplements and explains Qur’anic principles. Qiyas is used to determine parallels between similar situations or principles when no clear guidance is found in the Qur’an or Sunnah. The fourth source of law, ‘ijma, or consensus, originated from Muhammad’s reported saying, “My nation will never agree on an error.” This came to mean that consensus among religious scholars could determine the permissibility of an action.

Differences exist between the major Islamic schools of law that reflect the different geographical, social, historical and cultural contexts in which the various jurists were writing. In the modern world, Islamic law faces the challenge of distinguishing the divine prescriptions and eternal principles of the Qur’an from regulations arising from human interpretations in response to specific historical situations.

Is Islam compatible with democracy?

In pre-modern times all the world’s religions supported monarchies and feudal societies and then moved to accommodate modern forms of democracy. Similarly, Muslims today are debating the relationship of Islam to democracy. While most wish for greater political participation, government accountability, freedoms and human rights, there are many different ways to achieve these goals.

There are various reactions to democratization in the Muslim world. Some argue that Islam has its own mechanisms and institutions that do not include democracy. Others believe that democracy can only be fully realized if Muslim societies restrict religion to private life.

Still others contend that Islam is fully capable of accommodating and supporting democracy. They argue that traditional Islamic concepts like consultation (shura) between ruler and ruled, community consensus (‘ijma), public interest (maslaha) and interpretation (ijtihad ) can support parliamentary forms of government.

Many believe that, just as the modern democracies of America and Europe accommodate diverse relationships with religion, Muslims too can develop their own varieties of democratic states that are responsive to indigenous values.

Why don’t Muslims practice separation of church and state?
While Christians believe in rendering unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God, Muslims believe that their primary act of faith is to strive to implement God’s will in both their private and public lives, calling all to worship God,
promoting what is good and prohibiting what is evil. In their view, religion cannot be separated from social and political life because religion informs every action that a person takes.
The Qur’an proclaims that, like Jews and Christians before them, Muslims have been called into a covenant relationship with God, making them a community of believers who must serve as an example to other nations (Chapter 2 Verse 143) by creating a moral social order. The Qur’an states, “You are the best community evolved for mankind, enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong” (3:110).
In the ideal Islamic state, the political authority carries out the divine message. Such a state is a nomocracy, a community governed by God’s law, and not a theocracy or autocracy that gives power to the clergy or ruler. It should provide security and order so that Muslims can carry out their religious duties. Legal processes in a truly Islamic state implement rules and judgments from the Shariah , rather than creating new legislation.
Does the Qur’an condone terrorism?
The Qur’an does not advocate or condone terrorism. Islam, like all world religions, neither supports nor requires the illegitimate use of violence or acts of terrorism. Islam does permit, and at times requires, Muslims to defend themselves, their families, their religion and their community from aggression.
The earliest Qur’anic verses dealing with the right to engage in a defensive jihad, or struggle, were revealed shortly after the emigration of Muhammad and his followers to Madinah in flight from their persecution in Makkah. At a time when they were forced to fight for their lives, Muhammad is told: “Leave is given to those who fight because they were wronged—surely God is able to help them—who were expelled from their homes wrongfully for saying, ‘Our Lord is God’” (Chapter 22 Verse 39). The defensive nature of jihad is clearly emphasized in 2:190: “And fight in the way of God with those who fight you, but aggress not: God loves not the aggressors.”
The Qur’an also provided detailed guidelines and regulations regarding the conduct of wars: who is to fight and who is exempted (48:17, 9:91), when hostilities must cease (2:192) and how prisoners should be treated (47:4). Most important, passages such as Chapter 2 Verse 294 emphasized that the response to violence and aggression must be proportionate.
However, Qur’anic verses also underscore that peace, not violence and warfare, is the norm. Permission to fight the enemy is balanced by a strong mandate for making peace: “If your enemy inclines toward peace, then you too should seek peace and put your trust in God” (8:61), and “Had God wished, He would have made them dominate you, and so, if they leave you alone and do not fight you and offer you peace, then God allows you no way against them” (4:90). From the earliest times, it is forbidden in Islam to kill noncombatants.
But what of those verses, sometimes referred to as the “sword verses,” that call for killing unbelievers, such as “When the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them, and confine them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush” (9:5)? This is one of a number of Qur’anic verses that are selectively cited to demonstrate the supposedly violent nature of Islam and its scripture. In fact, however, the passage above is followed and qualified by, “But if they repent and fulfill their devotional obligations and pay the zakat , then let them go their way, for God is forgiving and kind” (9:5). The same is true of another often quoted verse: “Fight those who believe not in God nor in the Last Day, Nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by God and His Apostle, Nor hold the religion of truth (even if they are) of the People of the Book,” which is often cited without the line that follows, “until they pay the tax with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued” (9:29).

Are Women Second-Class Citizens in Islam?
The status of women in Muslim countries has long been looked to as evidence of “Islam’s” oppression of women in matters ranging from the freedom to dress as they please to legal rights in divorce. The true picture of women in Islam is far more complex.

The Qur’an declares that men and women are equal in the eyes of God; man and woman were created to be equal parts of a pair (Chapter 41 Verse 49). The Qur’an describes the relationship between men and women as one of “love and mercy” (30:21), so that men and women are to serve as “members of one another (3:195), as “protectors, one of another” (9:71). They are to be like each other’s garment (2:187).

Men and women are equally responsible for adhering to the Five Pillars of Islam. Chapter 9 Verses 71–72 states, “The Believers, men and women, are protectors of one another; they enjoin what is just, and forbid what is evil; they observe regular prayers, pay zakat and obey God and His Messenger. On them will God pour His mercy: for God is exalted in Power, Wise. God has promised to Believers, men and women, gardens under which rivers flow, to dwell therein.” This verse draws added significance from the fact that it was the last Qur’an verse to be revealed that addressed relations between men and women. Some scholars argue, on the basis of both content and chronology, that this verse outlines the ideal vision of that relationship in Islam—one of equality and mutuality.

Women have been assigned second-class status in Muslim society based upon a misinterpretation of the Qur’an’s Chapter 4 Verse 34, which says “Men are the guardians of women, (on the basis) that God has granted some of them merits greater than others and (on the basis) that they spend of their property (for the support of women).” However, contemporary scholars have noted that the “guardianship” referred to in this verse is based upon men’s socioeconomic responsibilities for women. It does not say women are incapable of managing their own affairs, controlling themselves or being leaders, nor does it say that all men are superior to, preferred to or better than all women.

Another justification of second-class status for women may have been derived from the Qur’anic stipulation (2:282) that two female witnesses are equal to one male witness. If one female witness errs, the other can remind her of the truth. Over time, this was interpreted by male scholars to mean that a woman’s testimony should always be given half the weight of a man’s. Contemporary scholars point out that the verse specifies witnessing in cases of a written transaction, contract or court case. At the time the Qur’an was revealed, most women were not active in business and finance, and a woman’s expertise in these fields was likely to have been less than a man’s.

Another area in which gender discrimination has been apparent historically is in the matter of divorce. The Qur’an, however, guarantees women equality with respect to the right of divorce. The Qur’an also restricts the practice of polygamy. Chapter 4 Verse 3 commands, “Then marry such of the women as appeal to you, two, three or four; but if you fear that you cannot be equitable, then only one.” A corollary verse, 4:129, states, “You will never be able to treat wives equitably, even if you are bent on doing that.” Contemporary interpreters have argued that these two verses together prohibit polygamy and that the true Qur’anic ideal is monogamy.
The 20th century has brought numerous significant reforms for women’s rights in both the public and the private spheres. In the overwhelming majority of Muslim countries, women have the right to public education, including at the college level. In many countries, they also have the right to work outside the home, vote and hold public office. Particularly notable in recent years have been the reforms in marriage and divorce laws.

Why does Islam separate men and women?

Many, though not all, Muslim societies practice some gender segregation, the separation of men and women in public spaces. Thus, in many mosques men and women have separate areas for prayer or are separated by a screen or curtain, and unmarried men do not mix with unmarried women except in very specific contexts, such as a meeting between two potential spouses that occurs in the presence of a chaperone.

The practice of separation has both religious and cultural origins. Muhammad’s wives were told to keep themselves apart from society. In the Qur’an (Chapter 33 Verses 32–33) we see, “O wives of the Prophet! You are not like any of the other women. If you fear God, do not be complaisant in speech so that one in whose heart is a sickness may covet you, but speak honorably. Stay quietly in your homes and do not display your finery as the pagans of old did.” Verse 53 tells Muslim men, “And when you ask (his wives) for anything you want, ask them from before a screen. That makes for greater purity for your hearts and for theirs.”
The practice of segregation is also tied to the concept of women as a source of sexual temptation for men. Social interaction between unrelated men and women is regarded as potentially leading to immoral sexual activity. Because modesty and chastity are prized virtues in Islam, some Muslims therefore believe that unrelated men and women should have no contact with each other.

Opinions today vary about the necessity of separation of the sexes. Many Muslims continue to hold fast to the belief that women are the culture-bearers of Islam, as well as the source of male honor, but they also believe that the requirements of modesty can be met through appropriate dress and the limitation of interaction with unrelated males.

John L. Esposito is accepted by Muslims and Christians alike as one of America’s foremost expositors of Islam. He is University Professor of Religion and International Affairs and of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, and Director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. His more than 30 books include What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam, The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?, The Oxford History of Islam and, forthcoming in spring 2004, The Islamic World: Past and Present.
This article appeared on pages 21-28 of the September/October 2003 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

By John L. Esposito | 
July 20, 2007; 10:59 AM ET


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  • TrustObey

    This is a comprehensive overview of Islam, and covers greaty how we(who are we?) may interact with Muslims; it leaves out the most important question; why be a Muslim?Most of the worlds religions are concerned with a better station in the afterlife, so I’d like to include an excerpt I wrote recently, which is pertinent here:THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MOHAMMADIslam means “Submission to God”, as God has told us, “The Lord lifts up the humble; he casts the wicked to the ground. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up.”So the Muslim (meaning “Bows to God’s Will”) will indeed go to Heaven, as long as he submits to God’s will.One verse that jumps instantly to mind is, “God is not willing that any should perish,” God’s will includes demonstrating His righteousness, having upright followers, and that justice be done; but the most important from our earthly standpoint is that God wills that wrongdoers be rectified to Him, “that all should come to repentance.”Islam is in majority alignment with the Biblical understanding of Heaven and Hell; I think this is illustrated nicely in Surah 43 (Adornments), verses 70-77. Heaven is nice, and Hell is hot and eternal.Where Christianity and Islam divide is how to get to Heaven; but how to get to Hell is the same in both religions.Surah 43:74 tells us that “Sinners will be in the punishment of Hell, to dwell there forever.”Surah 83 speaks of our conscience, the Sijjin, a register fully inscribed that will be open on the Day of Judgment; woe to the sinner, his conscience records his wrongdoings.God knows the secret thought life, and has appointed a Judgment Day for all mankind. The Koran accepts Moses as a prophet and the Law of the 10 Commandments which were given to him. “God gave Moses the Scripture and the criteria between right and wrong.” – Al-Baqara 2:53If all sinners will have their punishment in Hell, it’s in our best interest to find out if we’re sinners.Answer these questions truthfully and you’ll know:Have you ever told a lie? What does that make you?Have you ever stolen anything? What does that make you?Have you alwyas kept the Sabbath?Have you ever worshipped money, power, science, or possessions above God?Have you committed adultery?Have you ever used the name of God in Vain?If you’re like me, you’ve broken every one of these, and these are only six of the 10 Commandments. The Bible says that we have stored up wrath for ourselves on the Day of Judgment. The Koran is nearly identical, “On the day when heat will be produced out of the fire of Hell, and it will brand your forehead, your flanks, and your back, “This is the treasure which you stored for yourselves: you then taste the treasure you amassed!” – Immunity 9:35There is a minor difference in the Hell of the Bible and the Hell of the Koran. In the Bible it says that we will beg for a drop of water, but none will come. The Koran says that we will have an overabundance of water, albeit it will be superheated past boiling and we will be forced to drink it, and it will wreak havoc on our insides. Either way, Hell is not somewhere I want to go, nor do I want you to go there.There is a way to be saved from this punishment we have earned, it is the Injeel which according to the Koran was given to the prophet Jesus. Injeel means, “Good News”, and avoiding such a terrible place as Hell is definitely good news.Some think that the good news is that we can work our way out of Hell. Both the Koran and the Bible refer to God as a just judge, so lets see how an earthly judge might relate. Imagine you stand before a judge, there are six clear evidences of your guilt, and the judge puts on you a fine that you cannot possibly pay. You offer the judge your good works, you’ve given to charity, you pray unceasingly, you are nice to people, you ask for forgiveness daily, you help little old ladies across the street, and to top it all off, you washed the judges car on the way in to court. The judge tells you, you should do good things, but you’ve broken the law; he cannot let you go, because despite all of the good you’ve done, justice is due. You cry out in repentance and sorrow, and the judge tells you it’s good that you’re sorry, but there is a fine to be paid, and if you can’t pay it, you will be thrown into prison.This is the earthly judge, how much more Holy and Just is the Judge of the Universe? Payment is due for your transgression, and the Bible and the Koran clearly state that the fine is the eternal fire of Hell.But here is the good news, God gave us the gift of a holy son (Maryam 19:19), born of the virgin Maryam, this son’s name was Jesus, and because he was holy, He lived a perfect unblemished life, he was tempted but didn’t sin; in the writing of Moses about the Passover Lamb, the lamb must be without blemish, a male, taken from amongst its brethren (Exodus 12:5). Another name for Jesus is the Lamb of God (Revelation 5:12). Jesus was offered as the sinless sacrifice to take away the sins of the world (Johannes 1:29). Jesus was hung on the cross outside of Jerusalem on Calvary hill, a hill not two miles from where Ibrahim offered his son as a sacrifice 1700 years prior. Jesus died in our stead, he paid our fine in his own life’s blood. The wrath of God was poured out upon him and it pleased God to do it. Jesus went through Hell so we wouldn’t have to, in an infinite showing of love God sacrificed Jesus so that we can be forgiven, he was the propitiation for our sins.The Koran says that our sins are a stain on the heart, (Al-Mutaffifin 83:14) and Maryam 19:60 says that if you’ll repent and place your trust in the atoning work of Jesus, His righteousness will be attributed to you, then you will be able to see Heaven. Your sins will be forgiven, your stained heart will be replaced with a new heart (Ezekiel 11:19), and you will be born again into the family of God.If any man does this, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. – 2 Corinthians 5:17

  • Branid Lanning

    Great site. I’m one of the many that knows nothing of Islam. Question: I’ve been told that Muslim’s believe Ishmael, and not Isaac, was the chosen son and the Messaih would come through his line. Is this true? Also, I was a little confused when you stated that Joshua and King David engaged in Holy Wars to spread or defend their beliefs. I’m just wondering where you found that in the Bible. We do follow Joshua when he takes over Canaan, but never is religion forced; actually God commanded him to kill everyone he fought against. With David, his whole life was filled with war, but never to spread or even to defend there faith; he just protected the land that God gave to all the Israelites.

  • Asim

    Prof. Esposito,

  • Arun Prakash Singh

    Koran is word of God and therefore as a matter of principle, no human being can refuse to accept it. It sounds good but the confusion starts only here. If it is word of God then every human being should be able not only to understand it clearly but understand it in exactly same manner. But that is not the case. I find not only ordinary folks but even Islamic Scholars differ from each other. The difference in understanding and interpretation is most of the times so serious that there appear totally conflicting views. Then what happens to the word of God which, in theory, can not be altered by any human being even by a comma or a full stop?

  • Verse Infinitum

    It’s a great achievement for Islamic leaders and scholars as well as Newsweek and the Washington post to present this imperative opportunity for inter cultural and global philosophical dialogue. What’s important is that by exchanging our ideas and comments regarding inter religious relations and world events that affect our views of each other as fellow human beings. Since the advent of humanity, We strove to make sense of the world we live in and the lives we’ve experienced. Worldwide curiosities to learn the true nature of life and our universe is an exceptionally rare virtue upon life on Earth. In other words, we’re the only known species on the planet who’ve pursued to unravel these great mysteries and developed written philosophies based upon our understanding of the world around us.

  • Ames Tiedeman

    Iraqi insurgents kill key US allyIsam means peace? Then what does peace mean?

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  • krishnamachary

    Where was the need to explain about Islam ? Daily bombings and killing of innocents speak louder than is needed.