Islam: a misunderstood religion

Coco Millar argues that we shouldn’t allow the right-wing media to dictate our view of Islam

Illustration: Maha Sultan


“Historically, ‘othering’ our fellow humans has been the easy solution for avoiding addressing real problems”

The world is changing and some may argue, ending. The blame for the rise of the alt-right and neo-nazism is almost always based upon a fear of ‘the other.’ Historically, ‘othering’ our fellow humans has been the easy solution for avoiding addressing real problems. Many different peoples have been vilified: Native Americans, Jews, people of colour, women — the list is endless.

The most prominent case of ‘othering’ in our world today is of Muslims and the religion of Islam. As with previous victims, the perpetrators of ‘Islamaphobia’ know very little about those they demonise. Islam is, just as most religions, divided in its interpretation of the word of God, and so to make assumptions about ‘Islamic beliefs’ is ultimately futile. Hopefully by the end of this article you will be able to see the origin and the (not always positive) developments of a beautiful religion which is followed by nearly a third of our world.

History of Muhammad

“The origins of this religion were very much egalitarian and the man to whom the Qur’an was revealed was both peaceful and, in my opinion a feminist”

Muhammad was a feminist who ran an egalitarian state. I got you there didn’t I? Of course, Muhammad lived in a time where feminism wasn’t a concept, so therefore, to say he was a feminist is hyperbole. But I stand with my view and if the Daily Mail and right wing media can spew hyperbolical lies about Islam I feel it is my right to counter it. Mohammed lived in a polygamous world where he had gained status as an honest merchant. He was for all intents and purposes ‘a catch’. He had many fathers trying to get him to marry their daughters but he refused.

Eventually he worked for a widow named Khadijah many years his senior. She was a successful merchant in her own right and it’s said that her trade caravans equalled the caravans of all the other traders put together. Outside of her business empire she fed and clothed the poor and supported her family financially. After his honourable service on her caravans she asked her cousin to propose marriage to Muhammad for her. He accepted. They were married monogamously for twenty five years and while they were married he allowed her to continue with her business. She was Miss Independent and he was, as previously stated, a feminist.

Muhammad was remarkable in many ways, but his treatment of his wife and reliance on her guidance only highlights his belief in equality. After persecution Muhammad and his first followers moved to Medina where they successfully formed what many regard as the first ‘Islamic State’ — don’t worry, it’s nothing like its present day so-called counterparts.

This egalitarian ‘City of the Prophet’ began with Muhammad’s role as a Hakam or neutral arbiter between the two tribes living there, the Aws and the Khazraj. In this role he asked his believers to look towards forgiveness, as the Qur’an states: “The retribution for an injury is an equal injury’, as was the norm, however it adds, ‘but those who forgive the injury and make reconciliation will be rewarded by God” (42:40). In Medina Muhammad also equalised the worth of all citizens so no life could be considered more valuable than another, evident in his abolishing of female infanticide which was commonplace in seventh century Arabia.

Furthermore he gave women the right to own property and they obtained new inheritance and marital rights. He instituted a tithe (one tenth of one’s earnings) called zakat to be paid by all members of his tribe which would then be redistributed to the neediest members of the community. On this, the Qur’an tells believers that piety lies: “not in turning your face East or West in prayer…but in distributing your wealth out of love for God to your needy kin; to the orphans, to the vagrants, and to the mendicants; it lies in freeing the slaves, in observing your devotions, and in giving alms to the poor” (2:177).

Muhammad urged his followers to free their slaves, perhaps because he was orphaned as a young boy and narrowly escaped a life of slavery himself. Interestingly, when he freed his slave Zayd and his father came to retrieve him, he chose to stay with The Prophet because he had been so kind to him. Muhammad then adopted him as a son; there is no question, Muhammad was a remarkable man. So how then has a religion which began with such egalitarian principles developed into a religion so feared and vilified?


“How then has a religion which began with such egalitarian principles developed into a religion so feared and vilified?” 


Primarily, one must realise that the interpretations of the Qur’anic revelations and subsequent texts such as the Hadith have lead to many different strands of the Islamic faith, most notably Sunni and Shi’a. The Hadith began with Muhammad’s closest companions recording, after his death, what he had said or how he tackled certain issues. With each generation the isnad or ‘chain of transmission’ became harder and harder to trace infallibly back to The Prophet, like an unending game of Chinese whispers.

Two centuries after Muhammad’s death there were over seven hundred thousand Hadith circulating, many of which were fabricated for the benefit of certain individuals. As those with wealth and influence would often want to retain their status, they could do so by referring to certain Hadith which helped their cause, for example their views on women’s role in society.

The early commentators who interpreted the Qur’an and the Hadith were, of course, men. So they interpreted this line in the Qur’an to not, ‘pass on your wealth and property to the feeble-minded (sufaha)’ to mean women and children, despite Muhammad’s own contrary actions.

When, 25 years after Muhammad’s death, one of his companions claimed he heard him say: “Those who entrust their affairs to a woman will never know prosperity”, or when Abu Said al-Khudri said that he heard the Prophet tell a group of women: “I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religion than you” they were not questioned despite the many reports of Muhammad’s wives joining him in political discussions and even helping in military preparations.

The Qur’an itself has been interpreted differently purely due to the multifaceted nature of the Arabic language, the verse 4:34 was translated by Ahmed Ali in the Princeton edition as “Men are the support of women…As for women you feel are averse, talk to them suasively, then leave them alone in bed (without molesting them) and go to bed with them (when they are willing)’. The same verse translated by Majid Fakhry published by NYU reads, ‘Men are in charge of women…And for those women that you fear might rebel, admonish them in their beds and beat them.” You may think these differences are impossible but the last word adribuhunna can be translated as “beat them”, “turn away from them” or “have consensual sex with them”.

Despite the male dominance in translations, in recent years there have been many female Muslim scholars who have tried to counter this; one must note that there have now been more female presidents in the Islamic world (Senegal, Turkey, Kosovo, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Bangladesh) than both Europe and North America.

Culture Clash

“The main symbol in the Western world of the subjugation of muslim women is the veil, a simple item of clothing” 

The most contentious issues between the West and Islam today are the female covering of the head with a veil and, of course, the “jihadist” actions of the so-called “Islamic state”. Despite the plethora of female leadership in the Islamic world, women are still afforded less opportunities than their male counterparts, but this can be said for all countries, even those we see as ‘liberal’.

The main symbol in the Western world of the subjugation of muslim women is the veil, a simple item of clothing. In Europe, countries such as France have prohibited certain types of the hijab in the belief that it opposes secularism and their principles of the Enlightenment.

Former french president Nicolas Sarkozy said; “we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen” – implying that said women do not freely choose to wear such garments which arguably is a misogynistic take on their right to self expression. Furthermore, in Chad in 2015 sixty two women were arrested in line with new ‘anti terrorism’ laws because they were wearing the full veil. Some argue that the hijab is a symbol of empowerment in opposition to the Western image of womanhood (where tabloids make millions judging women on their appearance, followed by cosmetic companies feeding on the insecurities this creates).

Malala Yousafzai, a victim of the Taliban’s regime and advocate of women’s right to education, told the Guardian, in regards to the burqa: ‘I don’t cover my face because I want to show my identity…I believe it’s a woman’s right to decide what she wants to wear and if a woman can go to the beach and wear nothing, then why can’t she also wear everything?”

The debate about the veil is far too complex to give justice to in this article but there are a few facts I would like to highlight. Firstly, there are only two counties in which the hijab is mandatory, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Secondly, Muhammad did not encourage all women to wear the veil, he told men and women alike to dress modestly and told his wives to wear the veil in order for them to be treated as such, especially as their home was also the community mosque and would often be very busy.

Finally, women are told all too often what to wear, the important thing is if a women has chosen to wear something autonomously then we must respect that decision. The real problem that needs addressing is male reaction to muslim women veiled or unveiled, because no matter what choice she makes there will be a man somewhere who judges her for either dressing orthodoxly or ‘like a terrorist’ or immodestly ‘like a western woman’.

A Peaceful religion

“The doctrine of jihad or ‘holy war’ was only fully developed years after Muhammad’s death, at a time where religion meant more than nationality and was one’s whole identity” 

Islam was created as a peaceful religion, but sadly it has gained a reputation as one of violence based on the actions of a small minority of believers. As previously stated the Qur’an and Hadith can be moulded to fit one’s personal disposition; if you are inclined to violence you will find tenuous links within Islamic works to support this. The doctrine of jihad or ‘holy war’ was only fully developed years after Muhammad’s death, at a time where religion meant more than nationality and was one’s whole identity. Therefore, religion was what everyone fought in the name of.

Jihad actually means ‘a struggle’ and was more often used by Muhammad to refer to the soul’s inward struggle to overcome temptation and grow closer to God. He reportedly said after a battle, “This day we have returned from the minor jihad to the major jihad.”

The extremists today who wage war against those who do not support Islam have no basis for such beliefs in Islamic scripture, in fact, the God of Islam, ‘Allah’ is the same god of Judaism and Christianity. Furthermore, the religious books of these faiths are believed by Muslims to have been derived from one single book called the “Mother of Books” (13:39). Finally, the Qur’an promises, “all those who believe — the Jews, the Sabians, the Christians — anyone who believes in God and the Last Days, and who does good deeds, will have nothing to fear or regret.”

It must be noted that Muhammad did engage in battles but, as previously stated, that was the norm everywhere in the 7th Century. Those who preach Jihadism and violence today in the name of the Prophet go against everything he stood for, as the Qur’an states, alongside the epithet of Allah Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful, ‘If anyone slew a person- unless it be for murder or corruption- it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.’


To those of you reading who have seen Islam through the lens of the right-wing media and videos posted by so-called followers of the Prophet Muhammad in the so-called Islamic State, I hope you can see that there is so much more than violence and female subjugation. The origins of this religion were very much egalitarian and the man to whom the Qur’an was revealed was both peaceful and, in my opinion — a feminist.

It is a shame that Islam, like most religions has been interpreted by a select few and often to their benefit. I urge you to be open minded about the followers and practices of Islam and avoid seeing Muslims as ‘the other’. Most importantly, remember the oft repeated line from the Qur’an: “Let there be no compulsion in religion.”