Perhaps more than any other religion, Islam has a bad rap in the United States. What is the truth behind the stereotypes, and how can you act respectfully toward Muslims? Their holy books, the Qur’an and the Sunnah, outline specifics of deeds and dress which may seem unusual. Knowing the context and reasoning behind these practices makes them easier to understand.
Separation of the Sexes
During Islamic prayer and services, men and women remain separate. Muslim men are strongly recommended to perform their five brief daily prayers, or Salat, in the mosque. Women are encouraged to perform it in their homes.
According to Mohamed Siala, the director of the Salman Alfarisi Islamic Center in Corvallis, this separation prevents distraction during prayer, which consists of standing, bowing, and prostrating on the ground. It’s also more comfortable for a woman to prostrate herself without a man behind her, added one woman at Salman Alfarisi.
Siala pointed out that it would be unfair to ask women to come to the mosque five times a day, as they may be pregnant or nursing. It also may not be safe since the time of the first Salat is at dawn and the last one is at night–an important consideration in countries with high crime rates.
Jumuah is a longer service performed every Friday at noon in the mosque. Men should attend this service in the mosque. However, for the same reasons that they can perform Salat at home, it is optional for Muslim women.
During Jumuah, the women typically stand behind the men. At the Salman Alfarisi Islamic Center, they have a separate upstairs area due to space constrictions.
“Women have their own kingdom upstairs where they can socialize,” said Siala, who noted that a woman could breastfeed in the prayer room without having to worry that a man would enter.
A Muslim husband and father is financially responsible for his family. The wife can work if she likes, but she is under no obligation to pay for family expenses.
“The main job of the female is to be the caregiver of the family; that doesn’t limit her from seeking education or a job if she chooses to do so,” said one woman at Salman Alfarisi. “Most women in the Muslim community are highly educated.”
Muslim women are not limited in employment; they can be lawyers, police officers, or political leaders. Siala pointed out that the United States has never had a women president, but Muslim women have served as president of Indonesia and prime minister of Pakistan. They also lead both major political parties in Bangladesh.
Islam requires that both men and women wear modest attire. When Muslim women reach puberty, their beliefs require them to wear as a minimum a hijab (head covering) and a jilbab (outer cloak) when in public and when performing Salat.
“It is not culture, rather it’s required in the Qur’an at a minimum to cover the head, ears, and neck when in public,” said Siala.
Beyond the basic requirements, Muslim women are free to choose what they wear. The burka, which covers the entire body leaving only the eyes visible, is considered by some as an extra. At home with her immediate family and with other women, a Muslim woman may take off her head cover and her outer garment and beautify herself as she wants. In Islam, a woman’s beauty and sexual attributes are not for public display.
“People look on it as a limitation, when on the other hand it’s complete freedom,” said a woman at Salman Alfarisi. “If you take away the hair, how it looks, and the legs, how it looks, and cover all of that–I’ll be dealing with just the person. They’re not going to get looked at and treated as a female; they’ll be looked at and respected for who they are.”
The modest dress also provides security for a wife, as it reduces the likelihood that a husband will be attracted to another woman.
“There’s no tension, there is no cheating or doubts or suspicions–just peace,” said Siala.
The woman at Salman Alfarisi added, “By having this modesty you are preserving the family structure. Imagine a society where all the women are dressed modestly. Would you have all these problems of incest and rape at the same percentage as is happening now?”
While women’s dress is dictated by the Qur’an, the hat or kufi that Muslim men sometimes wear is more a cultural item than a religious one.
All Muslims are required to marry if they can. If circumstances require it, a husband may have up to four wives, but a woman may only have one husband. Historically during times of war, many of the men would be killed. This would leave a shortage of husbands, who provide for the whole family. Having some men take multiple wives helped provide for those women who lost their husbands or could not find one. In reality, it’s an outdated practice.
“People are watching too much TV; they think Muslims have four, five wives. All of it is outrageous, it’s false,” said Siala.
In the rare case when a Muslim man does have more than one wife–usually overseas–the wives must be treated equally.
“If he buys chewing gum X for wife A, he has to buy it for wife B,” noted Siala. “The Qur’an says if you cannot do that, then marry only one.”
Don’t greet a Muslim with a hug; Muslim men can only hug their wives and women who are directly related to them.
“I cannot hug even my sister-in-law, but I can hug my wife, my daughter, my sister, my aunt–whoever is blood-related to me,” said Siala.
Similarly, Muslim men and women are only permitted to dance as husband and wife. Many of these customs, according to Siala, exist to protect males and females from each other.
Other restrictions apply to the dinner table. Muslims are not permitted to consume pork, as it is considered unclean. Alcohol is also forbidden, as they believe the harms outweigh the benefits. If alcohol is served, Muslims must politely excuse themselves from the table.
“It’s not because I’m upset or I look down on them,” Siala emphasized.
When speaking, the Qur’an dictates that Muslim must lower their eyes periodically out of respect. Muslims must also use only the right hand for eating and drinking, as traditionally the left is used to clean oneself after using the bathroom.
“Please understand that the things that are required of me are not required of you,” said Siala. “Every faith has its own rules and regulations.”
The idea that some names can be appropriate for both males and females is foreign to a Muslim, so don’t be insulted if they’re unsure if your name is masculine or feminine.
Despite the above differences, Muslim men and women are held to the same standards of moral conduct.
“Male, female, tall, short–that is irrelevant. The only two things we are accountable for is what we say and what we do,” said Siala.
The sexes are viewed as equal, but with different potentials and weaknesses. Muslims believe that God, or Allah, took full consideration of these factors when establishing the rules that govern their lives.
All of the above may seem like a lot to take in. However, don’t worry too much about your own behavior around a Muslim, Siala suggested. If anything, people in Corvallis are guilty of being too nice.
“I get embarrassed when an old lady opens a door for me in the post office; I’m the one that should open the door,” he said.
The Salman Alfarisi Islamic Center is located at 610 NW Kings Blvd., Corvallis. For more info, call 541-758-0329.
By Jen Matteis