Islam is a religion which is widely misunderstood among people who do not practice it. A number of myths about Islam are both untrue and hurtful, and perpetuating such myths leads to a breakdown in honest dialog and frank discussion about Islam and Muslims around the world. Many Muslim organizations work to dispel myths about Islam so that people have a better understanding of Islamic faith.
Like all religions, Islam is an extremely complex faith with many facets and sects. While all Muslims adhere to the Five Pillars of Faith, Muslims interpret the Qu'ran and other holy texts differently, and there are a variety of ways to read these texts. For example, some people use the fact that the Prophet Muhammad had multiple wives to suggest that Islam promotes polygamy; many Muslims would suggest otherwise.
One of the most commonly disseminated myths about Islam is that Islam is a violent religion. This is not, in fact, the case. While the Qu'ran does support the use of violence in some cases, just as the Bible does, Islam is primarily a religion of peace and learning, and there are numerous sections of the Qu'ran which indicate that violence is frowned upon. Some radical Muslims choose to focus on clauses in the Qu'ran or Sharia which appear to promote violence, and they may use these as justification for violence, but they are condemned by more moderate Muslims.
Much misunderstanding, in particular, swirls around the concept of jihad, or “holy struggle.” Holy struggle takes a number of forms, but many moderate Muslims believe that it is fundamentally supposed to be about the personal practice of faith. Individual Muslims are expected to engage in personal struggle to enhance their faith, taking on difficult challenges both large and small. While jihad sometimes does take the form of war, it is not necessarily violent.
Another of the common myths about Islam is that Muslims are not tolerant of other faiths. In fact, many Muslims believe that all faith is sacred, and that respect should be paid to the practitioners of other religions, along with their holy texts and places of worship. Islam also shares many ideas with the Jewish and Christian faiths, and accepts Jewish prophets, including Jesus, as valid religious figures. While individual Muslims may behave in a way which contradicts this view, they not represent all members of their faith.
Some people also mistakenly believe that all Muslims are of Arab descent, and that all Arabs are Muslim. This is not the case. An estimated 15% of the world's Muslim population is Arab, with many Muslims coming from Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia, and Africa. Arabs can be Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, or any other faith, and they are not necessarily Muslim simply because of their racial descent. Christianity and Judaism both got their start in the Middle East, and both pre-date Islam, so clearly all Arabs cannot be Muslim!
The treatment of women in Islam is also the source of many myths about Islam. Critics of Islam point to fundamentalist governments such as that found in Saudi Arabia to suggest that Islam advocates the mistreatment and abuse of women. In fact, the Qu'ran specifically addresses women's rights in numerous places.
The mistreatment of women in some Muslim societies reflects conservative views and fundamentalist interpretations of the Qu'ran and Sharia, not the moderate beliefs of Islam. The wives of the Prophet were in fact vibrant, outspoken members of society who had distinctive and unique personalities, and while there are sections of the Qu'ran which seem to suggest that women were not viewed as equals, many Muslims have reinterpreted them. Just as many Christians do not believe that women should be stoned to death if they are not virgins on their wedding nights (Deuteronomy 22:21), many Muslims do not think that radical interpretations of the Qu'ran are appropriate.
One of the best ways to dispel myths about other religious faiths is to talk directly to adherents of those faiths, and to religious officiants. Many Muslims are happy to discuss their faith with people who are genuinely curious, and some mosques even hold open house or community days for interested visitors who want to learn more about Islam.