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Margaret Lawston: Spending Her Evenings At A Mosque Learning About Islam

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Members of the SALAM center observe the evening prayer. The center is offering a "Discover Islam" class to educate the community about the religion.


Margaret Lawston was reluctant to tell her friends what she was doing on Thursday nights. When she finally told them she was spending her evenings at a Masjid learning about Islam, most of them had the same reaction: Why?


One friend told her it was spiritually wrong. Lawston, a retired schoolteacher and a Catholic, assured her friend that she wasn't going to convert. Lawston just wanted to know more about the faith.


"I decided I didn't want to hear any more propaganda from either side. I wanted to learn about Islam for myself," says Lawston, who is taking a free 10-week course called "Discover Islam" at the SALAM center in Sacramento. "I wanted to get my questions answered and learn about their beliefs from someone who can explain them."


Violent protests over the Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad have sparked renewed questions about and criticism of Islam. Not since the early days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, say some Muslim leaders, have so many people questioned them about their religion.


"A lot of people don't know what to think because there is a lot of misinformation out there," says Imam Mohammed Abdul Azeez of the Sacramento Area League of Associated Muslims Masjid.


Mosque officials expected only about a dozen people to sign up for the course. Instead, 40 showed up.


"Fortunately, a lot of people are saying they want to learn more," Azeez says.


Many of those questions are about Muhammad, the man Muslims regard as the last great prophet and the founder of Islam. The religion that was started by the humble merchant now has 1.2 billion followers and is believed by many to be the fastest-growing faith in the world.


Considering the influence his life has had, most people in the West know little, if anything, about Muhammad. For years, many Westerners incorrectly referred to the faith as Muhammadism or believed that Muslims worship him. They do not.


"We worship God, not the man," says Metwalli Amer of SALAM, which is co-sponsoring an open house and exhibit today called "Muhammad, the Man and the Message: An Art Exhibit and Open House."


The class Lawston is attending at the SALAM center is one effort Muslims are making to educate the public about their faith and their prophet. The Council on American-Islamic Relations recently launched a campaign offering a free DVD of a PBS documentary and a book about the life of Muhammad.


Amer hopes all of this will help people understand what the prophet means to Muslims.


"We want to explain who he was and why Muslims are so angry about the cartoons," says Amer.

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Who was Muhammad?


An orphan who could not read or write, he grew up in the bustling city of Mecca in what is now Saudi Arabia. He was a married man and a father who was widely known for his integrity. Rejecting the custom of his day, Muhammad did not worship idols. Instead, he often meditated by himself in a cave. By the time he was in his forties, Muhammad was a leading citizen of the city, according to Amer.


He became more than that one night in the year 610, according to believers. That night, he was resting in his cave when the angel Gabriel appeared and revealed to Muhammad the first verses of what came to be known as the Quran.


Islam, which in Arabic means to surrender and be content, had a slow start - only 10 converts in the first year, according to "Muhammad" by Yahiya Emerick (Alpha, $14.95 paperback, 336 pages). But by the time Muhammad died at age 63, thousands considered Islam their religion and the principles of the faith had been established.


Although it is common in other faiths to have mental images of their religious leaders - think of Moses, and you can't help but think of Charlton Heston - it is rare to see a physical depiction of Muhammad. In fact, in the only full-length film made about his life, the 1977 movie "The Messenger," Muhammad is off-camera.


That's because Muslims take seriously the prohibition against making an image of a living thing, especially the prophet or God. They avoid movies about God or prophets, even children-oriented animated films, because they believe it is wrong and disrespectful to project such images.


Many Muslims have been offended by the Danish cartoons - some of which depict Muhammad as a terrorist - but they also believe the resulting violence has been worse and much more harmful to Islam. More than 60 people reportedly have been killed.


Shaykh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, chairman of the Islamic Supreme Council of America in Michigan, believes the protests have more to do with politics than religion.


"These Islamists have manipulated the situation, they don't care about Islam," Kabbani says. "If they did, why didn't they say anything about the destruction of holy sites in Mecca? This violence is against the teachings of Islam and against what Muhammad stood for."

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To illustrate that Muhammad was a peaceful man, Kabbani recounts the story of the prophet and his neighbor.


For seven years, Muhammad's next-door neighbor dumped garbage on the front steps to his house. The prophet never told anyone; instead, he quietly removed the garbage. One day, he noticed that the mess was not at the front door and he asked about the neighbor. He was told she was sick. Muhammad visited her to pay his respects. When he walked in, his stunned neighbor became a believer. "For seven years, I tortured you and you didn't tell anyone," she said. "How can that be?"


Such stories about Muhammad would not likely persuade many who believe Islam is a violent religion. They cite the Quran, the Islam holy book, which endorses military struggle on behalf of God.


But Islamic religious leaders say the words and the meaning have been taken out of context.


"Muhammad didn't abuse his sword," says Kabbani. "He wanted to live in peace."


Lawston knew a little about Islam when she decided to take the course at SALAM. In the past few weeks, she has learned everything from the basic beliefs of Islam to how the faith views other religions. She also learned that that many religions have a lot in common.


"Everybody wants to follow the same path," says Lawston. "They just choose different ways to get there."



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