Religion 101

Religion 101

Eid al-Fitr 2012

posted by Reed Hall

The end of the Islamic month of Ramadan is fast approaching — and with it, the conclusion of the daylight fasting that Muslims worldwide have been faithfully observing throughout this holiest of months on the Islamic calendar.

No food or drink is permitted from dawn until dusk during the entire month of Ramadan. That, however, will soon come to an end for this year, as the conclusion of the monthlong fast is celebrated by the big celebratory post-Ramadan feast of Eid al-Fitr (“Festival of Fast-Breaking”).

Falling upon the first day of the next month in the Islamic calendar following the month of Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr (or just Eid for short) is a major holiday observed throughout the Islamic world, characterized both by pious expressions of faith and thanksgiving, as well as by joyous festivities.

Eid begins when Ramadan ends — at sunset. Unlike the Western (Gregorian) calendar, according to which each day technically ends and the next day begins at the stroke of midnight, for the Islamic calendar the days end and begin at sunset. On the last day of the month of Ramadan, as soon as the new crescent moon is spotted, that month is over, and the next month has begun — and with it, Eid al-Fitr also arrives.

This year (2012), Eid al-Fitr is anticipated to begin on August 18 or 19, depending upon when the new moon is officially sighted (so this may vary from place to place).

During Eid, special congregational prayers and acts of charity toward the poor are accompanied by elaborate festive communal meals, special foods, family gatherings, and gift-giving. Homes are decorated, and new clothes put on; schools, government offices, and some businesses may close. Eid celebrations can last up to three days, depending upon the country, region, or local cultural tradition.

So, to Muslims everywhere: Eid Sa’id (“Happy Eid”)! And Eid Mubarak (“Blessed Eid”)!

Religious Illiteracy Redux (Part Two)

posted by Reed Hall

In my previous blog post, I cited Newsweek magazine’s 2007 “What You Need to Know Poll,” which stated the following:

“Roughly half (53 percent) are aware that Judaism is an older religion than both Christianity and Islam (41 percent aren’t sure). And a quarter of the population mistakenly identify either Iran (26 percent) or India (24 percent) as the country with the largest Muslim population. Only 23 percent could correctly identify Indonesia.”

My previous blog entry was devoted to addressing the first surprising statistic therein (that nearly half the adult U.S. population doesn’t know that Judaism is older than Christianity and Islam). So now, in this followup blog entry, it’s time to turn our attention to the second surprising statistic therein:

“And a quarter of the population mistakenly identify either Iran (26 percent) or India (24 percent) as the country with the largest Muslim population. Only 23 percent could correctly identify Indonesia.”

Most average Americans’ understanding of Islam is so limited that their lack of knowledge regarding the relative population sizes of the various Islamic countries is perhaps understandable. Islam may be the world’s second largest region, with perhaps 1.6 billion adherents worldwide; but here at home, Islam remains the faith of a very small minority. According to a 2010 Pew Research Center report, Muslims account for less than one percent of the U.S. population.

Americans, then, may perhaps be somewhat forgiven for not knowing very much about a major world religion that is represented domestically in such miniscule numbers. With only 0.8% of the U.S. populace identifying as Muslim, Islam in general may simply not be on most Americans’ religious radars.

However, many Americans often tend to lose sight of the fact that there is actually a much wider world out there, beyond our own shores and borders. And with its 1,600,000,000 followers (comprising some 23% of the total global population), Islam is a major part of that wider outside world.

As the 2007 Newsweek poll indicated, most Americans are in the dark when it comes to putting Islam into some sort of global perspective. According to that poll, 77% of American adults don’t know which nation on Earth has the single largest Muslim population.

Many might perhaps guess at Iran, or Iraq, or Egypt, or Saudi Arabia. If so, they’d be wrong. In fact, many would probably be very surprised to learn that the world’s largest Muslim country isn’t even in the Middle East, at all.

Of the 49 nations of the world that are dominated by Muslim majorities, the land with the single largest number of Muslims who call it home is Indonesia. Yes, Indonesia — that immense chain of tropical islands way off in Southeast Asia and Oceania, nowhere near the hot, dry deserts of the Middle East or northern Africa.

Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country. Some 88% of its 238 million people are Muslims. Those big numbers make Indonesia alone home to some 12.7% of the world’s total Muslim population.

If you didn’t know that Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim country, don’t feel too badly. According to Newsweek, only about 22% of adult Americans are actually aware of that particular factoid.

But the second, third, and fourth largest Muslim-majority countries are not in the Middle East, either. Those honors go to Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, respectively.

Pakistan accounts for 11% of the world’s total Muslim population; India accounts for 10.9% of it; and Bangladesh for 9.2%.

Note that Pakistan and Bangladesh both used to be part of India, but only broke away from Hindu India to gain their independence as separate (and primarily Muslim) lands as recently as 1947. (Bangladesh was actually part of Pakistan — known as “East Pakistan” — until achieving its own separate independence in 1971.) Looked at as a single unit, the region of India/Pakistan/Bangladesh collectively accounts for some 31.1% of the total world Muslim population.

(Note also that India itself is actually 80% Hindu, with a minority Muslim population of only 13.4%. However, with the total population of India currently exceeding 1.2 billion people, that “minority” percentage [of "only" 13.4%] still adds up to some 177,286,000 Indian Muslims, or 10.9% of the total global Islamic population.)

By contrast, only about 20% or so of the world’s Muslims actually live in the Middle East (and North Africa). So much for stereotypes!

Egypt is home to a mere 4.9% of the world’s Muslims. Nigeria accounts for another 4.7%. Turkey is home to 4.6%, and Iran also comes in with 4.6%. Algeria has 2.1%, while Morocco has 2.0%. Iraq has 1.9%, and so does Sudan. Afghanistan has 1.8%, and Ethiopia does, too. Saudi Arabia has 1.6%, and Yemen has 1.5%. Syria has only 1.3%.

If about 20% of the world’s Muslims live in the Middle East, and another 30% or so in the greater Pakistan/India/Bangladesh region, then about half of the world’s Muslims live elsewhere, spread across the globe. China has 1.4% of them, and Russia another 1%. The rest are scattered, as very tiny minorities, throughout most of the rest of the world’s other countries. But, taken together, they all do add up — and to some pretty sizable numbers.

Again, and just to summarize: the total global population of Islam comes to about 1.6 billion Muslims, or roughly 23% of humanity. Only about 20% of that massive populace are Middle Easterners. The largest single national concentration of Muslims exists not in the Middle East at all, but in Indonesia. Taken collectively, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh (second, third, and fourth in ranking), when put together with Indonesia, account for over half of the world’s Muslims.

Now, you know more than what 77% of the adult American populace knows, when it comes to which country on Earth actually has the largest Islamic population(s).



Religious Illiteracy Redux (Part One)

posted by Reed Hall

Here’s a new statistic (well, it’s actually about five years old, now, but it’s a new one to me), which I only just happened to stumble upon the other day. This one surprises even me.

Evidently back in 2007, Newsweek magazine conducted a “What You Need to Know Poll,” questioning American adults on a broad variety of topics. As the weekly magazine itself put it, “The results were mixed, to be charitable.” Among the many large gaps and gaping holes found among average U.S. citizens’ collective common knowledge (or, as the periodical itself phrased it, their “general cultural confusion”), a couple of religion-related items naturally caught my eye.

“Roughly half (53 percent) are aware that Judaism is an older religion than both Christianity and Islam (41 percent aren’t sure). And a quarter of the population mistakenly identify either Iran (26 percent) or India (24 percent) as the country with the largest Muslim population. Only 23 percent could correctly identify Indonesia.”

I want to look more closely at both of those two surprising statistics, but one at a time (and in separate blog entries for each one). So, let’s start with that first finding:

“Roughly half (53 percent) are aware that Judaism is an older religion than both Christianity and Islam (41 percent aren’t sure).”

That’s an awful lot of people who don’t know that Judaism is older (much older) than Christianity or Islam. From my perspective as a comparative religions instructor, being cognizant of the relative ages of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is so essential to any adequate understanding of world religions in general — and to Western religions in particular — that immediate clarification seems rather urgently called for here.

The simple fact of the matter is that Jews were practicing Judaism centuries before Christians were practicing Christianity. (And Christians were practicing Christianity centuries before Muslims were practicing Islam.)

To put it all in a nutshell, the roots of Judaism stretch all the way back to the second millennium B.C. Christianity emerged from Judaism during the first century A.D. Islam appeared on the scene in the seventh century A.D.

So, their respective historical “points of origin” are all separated by many centuries.

Judaism’s age, of course, depends upon which particular incident in its development you want to consider as its specific or actual point of origin. Abraham, generally regarded as the first Hebrew patriarch, is traditionally dated (assuming he existed as an actual historical figure at all) at somewhere around 1800 B.C. Alternately, if one takes the view that Israelite religion as such didn’t really get started until God (Yahweh) gave the Torah to Moses at Mt. Sinai, then that pushes its date of origin up to somewhere around 1250 B.C. (the traditional date of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, under Moses).

(Just to further muddy the waters, many scholars distinguish between Judaism per se, and the ancient Israelite religion which preceded it; according to this view, “Judaism” proper — with its rabbis, synagogues, and scriptural canon — did not technically emerge until after the Babylonian exile of the sixth century B.C. And for that matter, “rabbinic Judaism” as we know it today [as distinguished from the priestly sacrificial system of Temple-based biblical-era Judaism] can be viewed as to some degree a product of the first century A.D., having developed its characteristic “rabbinic” form only in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 A.D. On the other hand, one might conversely argue that, from yet another perspective, Judaism in a sense began with Adam and Eve, at least insofar as those two were traditionally the first humans — and so were also the first humans who presumably believed in, and interacted with, the Hebrew/Jewish God.)

In any case, we can at least affirm that Judaism certainly has roots traditionally stretching perhaps as far back as 1250 or even 1800 years before Christ (literally, “B.C.”). That puts Judaism’s current age at anywhere from 3250 to 3800 years, if one uses either of these very early “traditional roots” dates. A looser, more conservative age of approximately 3000 years might not be too far amiss, if one takes Judaism per se as perhaps having actually developed just a bit later in history.

Insofar as the Christian religion actually began as a Jewish sect before fully separating itself from Judaism, Christianity in a sense shares those same Hebraic roots. But on the other hand, of course, Christianity per se did not actually itself manifest upon the historical scene until the advent of Jesus of Nazareth (4 B.C.? – 29 A.D.?), and the subsequent development of a distinctive new religious movement centered upon an understanding of Jesus as being “the Christ” (by which Christians understand to mean a particular type of divine savior, and one who is also uniquely close to, or even in some sense identical with, God). This early Christian movement soon splintered off from the first-century-A.D. Judaism within which it had been born, eventually becoming an entirely separate “standalone” religion altogether.

The widely adopted Western (Gregorian) calendar counts the years from what its creators  took to be the birth of Christ (e.g., starting with the year 1 A.D.). On that basis, the fact that this is currently the year 2012 amounts to a way of simply saying that Christianity is now 2012 years old (give or take, depending upon precisely when “Christianity” per se, or as a religion, actually got started). Of course, it has also since been determined that the historical Jesus was actually probably born between 6 B.C. to 4 B.C. (not 1 A.D.), so the calendar is off by  a few years, anyway.

But in very round numbers, yes, Christianity is now roughly two millennia old.

Fast forward now to the seventh century A.D., and the birth of Islam. Since the word Muslim simply means “one who submits (to the will of God),” many Muslims sometimes affirm that Adam and Eve were actually the first Muslims, technically speaking, at least insofar as they were the first such “submitters.” From this perspective, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, and everyone else down throughout biblical history can likewise all be seen as “Muslims,” insofar as they also believed in, worshipped, and submitted to the will of that selfsame Judeo-Christian-Islamic God (whom Muslims refer to as Allah, which is not a personal name but simply the Arabic word for “God”).

However, the religion of Islam per se did not arrive on the scene in seventh-century Arabia until the advent of the prophet Muhammad (570-632 A.D.). The series of divine revelations experienced by Muhammad, which would later be collected to comprise Islam’s holy scripture, the Quran (or Koran), began in the year 610 A.D. These revelations continued periodically for the rest of the prophet’s life.

Some view the occurrence of Muhammad’s initial prophetic revelation in 610 A.D. as, in effect, marking the “birth” of Islam. Others instead view the centrally important historical event known as the Hijra (“flight,” “migration”) of Muhammad and his companions from hostile Mecca to welcoming Medina, which occurred in 622 A.D., as the critical “turning point” which marks the real birth of Islam. (The Islamic calendar in fact begins counting its years from the date of the Hijra, which thus begins with the year 1 A.H.)

In either case — regardless of whether one takes 610 A.D. or 622 A.D. as the correct actual “start date” — the upshot is that Islam today is now right around 1400 years old.

So, just to sum things all up (once again, putting it all in a nutshell):

Judaism = at least 3000 years old (3250 years since Moses, 3800 years since Abraham) 

Christianity = about 2000 years old

Islam = about 1400 years old

Now, in my next blog post, we’ll be taking a closer look at that second surprising statistic uncovered by that 2007 Newsweek poll — the finding that 77% of adult Americans don’t know which country in the world has the largest Muslim population.


Previous Posts

On Teaching About Judaism (Part Six)
Specifically Christian newcomers to the study of Judaism frequently puzzle over  why -- as they themselves often put it -- Jews "don't believe in Jesus." The reality is simply that the entire Jewish concept of who and what a Messiah actually is (or does) is just nothing like what Christians them

posted 4:45:00pm Jun. 29, 2013 | read full post »

On Teaching About Judaism (Part Five)
Aside from the several other frequent areas of confusion which sometimes puzzle newcomers to the study of Judaism (areas which I've been discussing in my last several blog entries), there is yet another hazy area that is often uniquely puzzling to specifically Christian newcomers: why, as they thems

posted 10:01:32pm Jun. 27, 2013 | read full post »

On Teaching About Judaism (Part Four)
As discussed in previous blog entries, a fairly sizable percentage of the American public seems to know surprisingly little about many of the basics of Judaism. In my own world religions courses, some students begin the semester with no real knowledge of the Jewish faith, and may even harbor some fa

posted 9:16:07pm Jun. 25, 2013 | read full post »

On Teaching About Judaism (Part Three)
As discussed in previous blog entries, a fairly sizable percentage of the American public seems to know surprisingly little about the basics of Judaism. In my own world religions courses, some students begin the semester with no real knowledge of the Jewish faith, and may even harbor some fairly com

posted 6:27:16pm Jun. 22, 2013 | read full post »

Midsummer (Litha)/Yule 2013
Tomorrow (Friday, June 21, 2013) is the date of the summer solstice within the Northern Hemisphere. In the Southern Hemisphere, by contrast, tomorrow will be the date of the winter solstice. Solstices have long been observed as important seasonal festivals in many traditional cultures. Accordingl

posted 5:05:38pm Jun. 20, 2013 | read full post »

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