Everything You Need to Know About Islam to Get Your Kids Up to Speed (Okay, Maybe Not EVERYTHING)

Islamic girlYou know what my life is missing? A Muslim kid. There's no doubt that if I had Muslim friends with a Muslim child, I would be telling my 8-year-old a lot more about Islam than I do — not just because I would want her understand her friends' beliefs, but because it would naturally just "come up" more often.

Having a living, breathing religious person in our midst really is the perfect invitation for religious literacy I've ever found. And vice versa! That's part of the reason I'm glad some of my friend's children know about my lack of religious beliefs; it gives those families an opening to talk about atheism and agnosticism in a compassionate way.

That Muslims so far have been given short shrift in my household is particularly disappointing given that Islam is one of the most widely misunderstood of the world's religions. So, starting today, which happens to be Muhammad's Birthday, I'm determined to find a few new ways to work Islam into our conversations. Anyone want to join me? If so, here are the basics:

Islam

Founded: 610

Deity: Allah (“The God” in Arabic)

Famous Dogma: There is only one true Allah, and this Allah neither begets nor is begotten. (This is  different from Hinduism, which encourages the worship of many gods, and Christianity, which encourages the worship of Jesus as Allah’s "only begotten son." Muslims revere Muhammad, but they do not worship him.)

Prayer rugs

Methods of Worship: Prayer (required five times a day, using prayer mats that face a building called the Kaaba in the middle of Mecca), reciting/singing the Qur'an, almsgiving, and fasting during the month of Ramadan. Formal services occur at mosques every Friday at noon.

Symbol: Star and the crescent

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Major Sects: Sunni and Shia

Sacred Texts: The Qur'an and the Hadith

Life-Cycle Celebrations: Naming ceremonies, marriages, pilgrimages to Mecca  — which are called Hajj.

Traditional Views of Afterlife: Righteous believers — those who pray, donate to charity, read the Qur'an and believe in one true Allah — are said to go to Paradise, a garden-like place of pleasure. Hell is depicted as a fiery place where those who do not conform to the teachings of the Qur'an will be banished forever.

BurkasClothing: The Qur'an encourages all Muslim men and women to dress modestly, but some Muslims have interpreted parts of the Qu'ran in a way that requires women to wear hijab (pronounced hee-JOB), clothing that covers the head and/or body. Most American Muslim women wear only head coverings as their hijab, while more devout Muslim women may be seen in face veils and abayas — long cloaks worn over their clothing. Only in very strict countries (such as Afghanistan) do women wear hijab in the form of full burkas, which cover their entire bodies, head to toe, including their eyes.

MuhammadMajor Narrative: Muḥammad was born in 570 CE in the Arabian city of Mecca. He was orphaned at age 6 and placed with family members — first his grandmother and then his uncle. He was a merchant and a shepherd and was known around Mecca as a man of high character. As an adult, Muhammad regularly took a few weeks off to meditate by himself in a nearby cave. During one visit, made when he was 40, Muhammad said he heard a voice speak to him. It was, he later learned, the angel Gabriel (yes, the same Gabriel from Christianity) acting as a sort of liaison to Allah and delivering messages intended just for him. Allah, Muhammad said, told him that there was only one true Allah, and that Muhammad should call himself a prophet and deliver messages about how to be a good Muslim — to be forgiving, charitable and empathetic to those less fortunate. Muhammad did as he was told, and was said to receive messages from God throughout the next two decades. Those messages eventually were compiled into the Qua'ran.

Interesting Fact: Depicting the prophet Muhammad is expressly forbidden in Islam, which is why Arabic calligraphy is such a popular art form in Islamic countries.

Important Holidays: Ramadan (a month of fasting celebrating Allah’s first contacted Muhammad), Eid ul-Fitr (a feast celebrating the end of Ramadan), Eid al-Adha (celebrates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son for Allah), and Mawlid al-Nabi (Muhammad’s birthday.)

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Recommended Reading: My First Ramadan by Karen Katz (ages 3-5); The Best Eid Ever by Asma Mobin-Uddin and Laura Jacobsen (5 and up); Night of the Moon: A Muslim Holiday Story by Hena Khan and Julie Paschkis (6 and up); Celebrating Ramadan by Diane Hoyt-Goldsmith (7 and up); , Muhammad by Demi (8 and up)

Recommended Viewing: Muhammad: The Last Prophet, an animated film about Muhammad’s life, is intended for small children. For slightly older children, there’s Koran by Hearta touching HBO documentary that follows three 10-year-old Muslim children.

Middle Eastern foodRecommended Eating: "Haram" refers to foods not permitted under Islamic law (alcohol and pork being the main prohibitions) "Halal" refers to foods that are permitted — including any meat which has been slaughtered according to Sharia law (for example, the animal must be treated well, must not suffer during death, and must face Mecca at the time of slaughter). Other good stuff: hummus, Baba ganoush, tabbouleh, pita bread, rice, kebabs, chicken shawarma...

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After writing this post, I realized that I do know a Muslim child. In a way, we all do. Malala Yousafzai, who is fighting for the rights of all children to receive an education in Afghanistan, could well be considered the new face of Islam. Non-Muslims may not agree with her religious beliefs, but her actions as a human being transcend all of that. What we hold in common is far more powerful than what what sets us apart. Let's make sure we let our children know that.

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Quick! What the Hell is Eid al-Adha?

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There are certain religions that seem to wear their differences on their sleeves. Stand a Hasidic Jew next to a Sunni Muslim, for example, and I know immediately which is which. The headgear, the clothing. One is praying to God, the other invoking the name Allah. It’s kind of a no-brainer.

But if you remove the clothing and the terminology, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are so darn similar. Allah is just the Arabic word for God, after all. Both the Qur'an and Torah have their roots in the Old Testament of the Bible. And, in all three religions, Abraham was pretty much the shit.

You remember Abraham. He’s the guy who was willing to sacrifice his son to prove his love, loyalty and obedience to God. Pretty heady stuff. Anyway, it’s Abraham's sacrifice that inspired the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha – which occurred yesterday but was completely overshadowed by the damn debt ceiling brouhaha  A day late and a dollar short, as they say. Anyway: Happy Eid! Here's your rundown:

Holiday: Eid al-Adha

Pronounced: Eed el-AH-dah. (Say it out loud, and you’ll find it sounds like “eat-a-lotta.” Given that this holiday is based on food — killing it, eating it and sharing it — this couldn’t be more apropos.)

AKA: "Festival of Sacrifice"

Religion Represented: Islam

Date: Eid al-Adha falls on the 10th day of the month of Dhu al-Hijjah in the lunar Islamic calendar.  In 2013, the date was Oct. 14-15.

Celebrates: The willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son for Allah.

On a Scale of 1 to 10: Eid al-Adha is a 9 or 10. It comes at the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia — which is incredibly important to Muslims.

Star of the Show: Abraham

Back Story: Although the entire story of Abraham is worth noting in its entirety, Abraham is perhaps most famous for being willing to sacrifice his son to prove his devotion to Allah. As the story goes, just as Abraham was about to do the deed, Allah revealed that there was no need — that Abraham’s willingness to make the sacrifice was enough. A ram was sacrificed instead. And Abraham said: “Phew.” (Or, you know, probably did.)

Associated Literary Passages: Genesis 22:1-17Qur’an 37: 100-111.

The Food:  To mimic the slaughter of the ram, many Muslims slaughter an animal — such as a sheep, cow, camel, or goat. Once cleaned and cut, one third of the animal is kept, one third is shared with friends and family, and one third given to the poor and less fortunate. It’s this last part —sharing your wealth with others by giving your meat away — that serves as the heart of this holiday.

The Fun: Here in the United States, Muslims pray, exchange gifts and hold feasts. Meat is distributed throughout the community. Many Muslims go where the needs are — soup kitchens, hospitals, homeless shelters — as well as to graveyards to pay their respects to the dead.

Why Eid al-Adha is Often Misunderstood: The word “sacrifice” causes images of bloody, nasty torture rituals. But that isn’t the case. Eid’s sacrifices are akin to the slaughter of turkeys at Thanksgiving — with one exception: In the Middle East, people traditionally kill the animals themselves, while we have slaughterhouses do it.

Conveying Meaning to Kids: Giving food away is a concept all children can get on board with. You can then explain that Muslims give food away in order to honor Abraham. Maybe listen to some Egyptian music on Pandora while making cookies and then give the cookies away to neighbors. Or donate toys and clothes to local shelters. Be sure to check these delicious-looking Eid recipes out, as well. They'll make your mouth water.

For more from the Holiday Cheat Sheet for Nonreligious Parents, click here.

This post originally appeared Nov. 7, 2011.

 

'Golden Rule' — Beautiful, Universal and Very, Very Old

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It is a common misconception that the Golden Rule began with Jesus. In fact, it's part of the reason some Christians think of their religion as synonymous with morality. After all, to treat others the way you want to be treated is the essence of moral conduct. And it was Luke 6:31 in the New Testament that quotes Jesus as saying: "As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise." (Matthew 7:1-5 also addresses the topic.)

But Jesus didn't invent the ethic of reciprocity anymore than did Muhammad, who said: "The most righteous of men is the one who is glad that men should have what is pleasing to himself, and who dislikes for them what is for him disagreeable." (circa 570-632 AD)

No, the Golden Rule existed long before Christianity or Islam. In fact, no one is quite sure when the idea was first written, much less conceived — it's that old. All we know is that the general idea is as ubiquitous as it is beautiful — having existed in virtually every culture on Earth for thousands of years.

The Golden Rule

Here's Plato: "I would have no one touch my property, if I can help it, or disturb it in the slightest way without my consent. If I am a man of reason, I must treat other's property the same way." (circa 387 BCE)

Confucius said: "What you do not like if done to yourself, do not do to others." (circa 500 BCE)

The Sutrakritanga, part of the Jain Canons, put it quite succinctly: "One should treat all being as he himself would be treated." (circa the 4th Century BCE)

Even the Mahabharata, an ancient Indian epic written in Sanskrit, included the passage: "The knowing person is minded to treat all being as himself." (circa 800 BCE)

Then there's the Jewish Torah, written in 1280 BCE: "Take heed to thyself, my child, in all they works, and be discreet in all thy behavior; and what thou thyself hatest, do to no man."

Undated is this charming African Bush proverb: "If your neighbor's jackal escapes into your garden, you should return the animal to its owner; that is how you would want your neighbor to treat you."

This sort of hilarious version is a Nigerian Yoruba proverb: "One going to take a pointed stick to pinch a baby bird should first try it on himself to feel how it hurts."

And a Sioux prayer puts it this way: "Great spirit, grant that I may not criticize my neighbor until I have walked a mile in his moccasins."

Among the oldest known references appears in the story of The Eloquent Peasant, an ancient Egyptian story that dates back to The Middle Kingdom: 2040–1650 BCE (!): "Now this is the command: Do to the doer to cause that he do thus to you."

The Golden Rule (so named sometime in the 17th Century, by the way) is arguably the greatest wisdom human beings have ever offered the world. It's universally known, pondered  and accepted. And it's a hallmark of virtually every major religion, philosophy and ethical perspective.

So... why don't we follow it?

"We have committed the golden rule to memory, let us now commit it to life." — Edwin Markham, 1852-1940.

[Most of the information in this post came from Sandra and Harold Darling, who compiled a wonderful ruler-shaped book called The Golden Rule  in 2006. It costs $7 on Amazon.]

Quick! What the Hell is Hajj?

Virtually all major religions have holy lands — places they consider to be especially important to their faith — and visiting those places often is deemed to be a crucial show of devotion. For Christians and Jews, that place is Jerusalem; for Hindus, it's the Himalayas; and for Muslims, it's Mecca in Saudi Arabia These religious travels are called pilgrimages, and for Muslims, the pilgrimage (or Hajj) is not just recommended but required of all able-bodied Muslims. Every year, millions of Muslims from throughout the world visit Mecca during Hajj to pray to Allah, ask for forgiveness for they're wrongs, meet and commune with those who share their faith, and recommit themselves to Islam. This year's Hajj (pronounced "Hodge") began yesterday and ends on Monday.

When it's over, they'll celebrate Eid al-Adha. You'll see my rundown on that holiday below.

Hajj is such an interesting pilgrimage because it's so f'ing huge, first of all, and also because there are so many specific things the pilgrims must do to complete it correctly. Firstly, there are rules about what can be worn (white, seamless clothing) and not worn (perfume, deodorant), what must not be done (flirting is a huge no-no) and what rituals must be performed. Arguably, the most important of the rituals is circling the Kaaba counter-clockwise seven times. The Kabaa is the black, cubed-shaped building in the center of Mecca. It is the most holy site in Islam, and when Muslims pray — no matter where they are in the world — they turn their prayer rugs to face that building. I can only imagine what a powerful experience it must be for people who have been praying toward the cube all their lives to finally see it up close. (You'll notice in the picture above the swirl of people around the building. A very cool image, I thought.

Other interesting things about the Kabaa:

• The ancient, brick-and-mortar building is shrouded in a black curtain.

• Inside, it is held up by pillars.

• According to Muhammad, it was built by Abraham himself, with the help of Abraham's son, some 2,000 years ago.

• On one side is the famous "Black Stone," now set in gold. Muhammad was said to have kissed this stone, which is why people touch or kiss it as they pass.

Anyway, the other rituals of Hajj are: walking back and forth between Al-Safa and Al-Marwah (which is now enclosed in a long hallway) seven times, drinking from the Zamzam Well, and visiting  Mount Arafat  (where Muhammad gave his final speech after performing Hajj himself on March 9 in the year 632.)

Now that you know what Hajj is, check out these fantastic pictures of this year's event. I really would love to visit Mecca someday — but probably will never have the chance. For years, the city has been closed to non-Muslims, and something tells me the Arabs aren't going to make an exception for me.

Click here for What the Hell is Eid al-Adha?

For Your Consideration: The Whirling Dervish

This is me prior to last week: A Whirling Dervish? Of course I know what a Whirling Dervish is! A Whirling Dervish is a, uh, what do you call it? The thing in the Sound of Music. The thing Maria throws out of whirl because she's such a flibbertigibbet. A Whirling Dervish is… well, it definitely whirls. Is it a bird or something?  

Oh, what a difference a week can make.

So I’m online, and I’m trying to familiarize myself with some of the less popular religions in the world when I read that Islam has a mystical subset called Sufism, whose adherents (Sufis) are similar to Christian friars or Buddhist monks or Hindu holy Men. They take vows of poverty and chastity and depend directly on the charity of the people they serve. Sufis, especially, are known for abstaining from world pleasures, releasing their egos, and devoting their lives completely to God. (Just like me! Except the opposite!)

I’d heard of Sufism but didn’t know it was related to Islam. And I certainly didn’t know that there was another word for Sufi, and that the other word was... wait for it... Dervish.

You heard it here first, people.

So what is a Whirling Dervish? A Whirling Dervish is an Islamic holy man who, literally, spins in circles. And watching a group of them is pretty much the coolest thing ever. I found this video, and was completely taken in. I could watch these guys all day long.

http://youtu.be/W_Km4j36khA?t=1m

Not all Dervishes spin, of course. Some chant. Some dance. Some breath rhythmically. But the goal is the same: to enter a trance-like state in order to unite with God. Many Dervishes believe these meditations let them glimpse heaven. (See? Mystical.)

Whirling Dervishes wear tall, thimble-shaped hats and full, white skirts — both of which are meant to symbolically shroud the ego. They cock their heads slightly to the right, and spin from right to left, with one palm facing up to receive God's grace, and the other side facing down to deliver that grace to Earth. Some Dervishes learn to spin in childhood, and by the time they it adulthood, can easily surpass more than 100 spins in a row, on the same exact spot. It's mystifying. Although whirling is entertaining for those around them, Dervishes perform for purely spiritual reasons — their own, and the audience's. Rarely do people applaud at the end.

It's hard not to be mesmerized by these guys. Maybe it's their complete devotion to what their doing — the selflessness and simplicity of it all — or just the aesthetic it creates. But Whirling Dervishes are totally going on my bucket list.

And there you have it: I've gone from not knowing what a Whirling Dervish was to planning a trip to Turkey just to see one.

Like I said: What a difference a week makes.