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Before we begin, let's get one thing straight: Muslim and Arab are two different things. Arab is an ethnic group and as such Arabs can be Christian, Jewish, atheist, Muslim or any other religion. Islam is a religion. People often forget that the largest Muslim country in the world is Indonesia and the majority of the world's Muslims are not Arab. Many non-Arab countries around the world have large Muslim populations including Senegal, Uzbekistan, Malaysia, Bosnia, Turkey, Cyprus and Ghana among others.
With the difference between ethnicity and religion now clarified, here are the five things about Islam you should know.
1. Women and men are equal in Islam: "Each of you is equal to the other" (Quran, 3:195). It is true that inequalities exist in many Muslim societies but it is also true that gender inequalities exist in many non-Muslim societies as well. Gender inequalities emanate from cultural practices, not the religion of Islam. In the Quran, men and women enjoy the same rights spiritually, but also socially and politically. Several Islamic countries have also had female heads of state, including Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Turkey.
2. Islam shares many religious figures and historical events with Judaism and Christianity. Muslims greatly respect Jesus. He is considered a prophet in Islam.
3. Muslims fast for 30 days every year for Ramadan, which is one of the five pillars of Islam. Ramadan this year is happening during most of the month of July. Muslims fast to experience what it feels like to be poor and hungry, and to focus on their own inner spiritual journey. Fasting is a great teacher of compassion.
4. Islam is a religion with a deep commitment to social justice. In addition to the practice of Ramadan enabling Muslims to experience hunger as a poor and hungry person might, another of the five pillars of Islam is to help the poor through a donation of zakat. Put simply, Muslims must give 2.5 percent of their savings to the poor, as zakat is a requirement of those who have accumulated wealth.
5. Violence and suicide missions are un-Islamic. At its core, Islam is a religion of peace, a message reiterated many times throughout the Quran. The Quran calls its way "the paths of peace" (5:16) and states that God dislikes any disturbance of peace: "God loves not aggressors" (2:190). Additionally, there has been a fatwa (or religious decree) speaking directly against terrorism and suicide bombings, stating they are unjust, evil and have no place in Islam. People who perpetuate violence in the name of Islam are no more true to their faith than Christians who blow up abortion clinics.
With so much misunderstanding in the world about Islam, I hope these simple facts serve to redress some common misconceptions.