The Islamic Center of America mosque in Dearborn, Michigan

The Islamic Center of America mosque in Dearborn, Michigan

Everything you wanted to know about Islam and Muslims but were embarrassed to ask.


  • Imam Yahya Hendi Director of Muslim Life, Office of Campus Ministry, Georgetown University. He is also the founder and the President of Clergy Beyond Borders.
  • Asma Afsaruddin Professor of Islamic studies in the School of Global and International Studies, Indiana University, Bloomington. Author of "Contemporary Issues in Islam."
  • Dean Obeidallah Comedian and host of The Dean Obeidallah Show on SiriusXM; co-director of the film, "The Muslim's Are Coming"; columnist for the Daily Beast and CNN.

Your Questions Answered

These are some of the most-asked questions, which we discussed on the show. 

What do all Muslims believe?

Imam Hendi says there are three basic principles:

  1. All Muslims believe there is one God, the same God Jews and Christians worship.
  2. All of God’s prophets are equal.
  3. There is an afterlife where the deceased face judgment by God.

What do Muslims do as Muslims?

Dean Obeidallah says it’s impossible to point to one universal characteristic because the Muslim community is just as diverse as any other faith community in the United States. “In the media, we don’t see the spectrum of the Muslim experience,” Obeidallah says. Muslims can be very secular or very religious.

What is jihad?

Afsaruddin says a fundamental ideal of Islam is to promote what is good and prevent what is wrong. The word that best describes the struggle to reach this imperative is jihad. Imam Hendi says the term applies broadly into everyday life. “Working for Habitat for Humanity to build homes for the homeless is a form of jihad,” he says. “Caring for you kids is a form of jihad. Taking care of your cat is a form of jihad.”

What does someone do to become a Muslim?

Imam Hendi says those interested in converting to Islam must believe “there is only one God to whom we surrender ourselves with all being,” and must accept Muhammad as the prophet.

Dean Obeidallah, what kind of questions did you get while touring the country from people unfamiliar with Muslims?

“The biggest question we got by far was about good [Muslims] denouncing the bad ones,” Obeidallah says.

Just as there is a lack of understanding about the range of religiosity amongst American Muslims, Obeidallah says there is a disproportionate responsibility on individual Muslims to speak for the entire religion. “I don’t need Christians to denounce the Klan,” Obeidallah says.

What is Shariah law?

“Shariah is another misunderstood concept,” Imam Hendi says. “Shariah is not law — it’s how do muslims act spiritually and morally.” Hendi says Shariah is a cultural concept about living with justice and compassion, and not a legal concept.

Are Muslims in other countries accepting of other religions?

Joe in Minneapolis asked, “Why don’t we see in predominantly Muslim countries an openness to Judaism and Christianity? You never see Catholic churches in Saudi Arabia. You don’t hear about a Lutheran church in Dubai. Why not a quid pro quo?”

Imam Hendi said while Saudi Arabia, for instance, doesn’t allow for churches and synagogues to be built, that’s the result of the government of the country, not Islam. “The Quran refers to Jews and Christians as people of the book because they’re also monotheistic,” Afsaruddin says.

What are some misconceptions regarding Muslim women?

Asma Afsaruddin says many people do not understand the hijab, or headscarf. “There’s a general misconception that if a woman wears it she’s oppressed,” she says. Afsaruddin adds that many muslim women voluntarily choose to wear the headscarf as an expression of public religiosity. And she notes that there’s been a resurgence in interest in donning the hijab. “Many among previous generation in Muslim majority societies gave up the headscarf as an expression of liberation, trying to join the workforce and be accepted as professionals. Their daughters are consciously adopting Muslim attire,” she says.

The headscarf has made life difficult for many Muslim women in the West, though, Afsaruddin says, noting the ban on headscarves in schools in France.

Imam Hendi says while there are references to the head coverings in the Quran, it is a cultural practice that’s ultimately a personal choice rather than a religious decision.

Lucy in Tulsa asked if it’s okay to compliment a Muslim woman on her hijab.

Afsaruddin encourages it. “Make their day!” she says. “It’s wonderful if someone actually said something positive about the headscarf. I’m sure many of these women get lots of negative comments.”

Where do American Muslims stand on homosexuality?

Fred from Grand Rapids, Michigan asked about the oppression of gay people in some Muslim majority countries and what kind of views Muslims in the United States have toward homosexuality.

Afsaruddin says just as there is a diversity of opinions on this topic within the American Christian and Jewish communities, there is a diversity of views among American Muslims. “You cannot ascribe a singular monolithic view on the Muslim community just like you don’t to other religious communities,” she says, adding that public acceptance of LGBT rights in the United States to homosexuality is still relatively new — something seen only in the last few decades.

As-Salaam-Alaikum? Allahu Akbar? What do these sayings mean?

As-Salaam-Alaikum is a general greeting among Muslims, Imam Hendi says. If someone says As-Salaam-Alaikum to you, you respond Wa-Alaikum-Salaam. The translation is peace be with you, a saying also heard in churches and synagogues.

Julie commented on Facebook. “We are so nervous when we hear Allahu Akbar. What does it mean?”

Afsaruddin says it translates to ‘God is great,’ and is used to show appreciation when something good happens in life. Imam Hendi says it’s not a Muslim term but an Arabic one: “Jews and Christians who are Arabs also say Allahu Akbar!”

What is the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims?

Afsaruddin says the difference began as a political divide rather than a theological one. Shias — the smaller group — believe religious leadership should be restricted to descendants of the Prophet Muhammad while Sunnis see it as an elected role, not hereditary. Afsaruddin says over time, theological differences developed between the two groups.

How can I be a better ally to Muslims?

Richard in Fayetteville, Arkansas and Maggie in Lake Mary, Florida, both asked how they can better support the Muslim communities around them.

The panelists agree the best thing to do is to meet Muslims in person so they can see diversity firsthand. “Problems arise when we see any faith tradition as a monolith,” Afsaruddin says. “Reach out and learn about your Muslim neighbor.”


Imam Yahya Hendi Answers More Of Your Questions

We received so many questions during our discussion, we invited one of our guests back to answer some more we didn’t have time to answer during the live show.  Imam Yahya Hendi is the Director of Muslim Life at the Office of Campus Ministry at Georgetown University. He is also the founder and the President of Clergy Beyond Borders. Here, he answers some listener questions we received on Twitter, Facebook, by email and in the comments section:

Is it okay to shake women’s hands, and does it matter if you are a man or woman?

The culture of hand shake varies from culture to culture and woman to woman. While some believe that religious law does not allow either gender to shake the hand of some one they are not related to, others see no harm in it. Hence, do not assume that you know how some one from the opposite gender would think, and would be great not to assume.

Can you discuss the history or headscarf and its references in the Quran?

Islam spread in areas where scarves and veils of different designs, and colors were expected long before Islam. To this very day, head coverings play a significant role in many religions, including traditional Judaism and some forms of Christianity. But it is only recently that some Islamic states, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, have begun to require women to wear the scarf or hijab. For so many Muslim women, the practice of hijab, or scarves denotes attentiveness and dedication to God, and a form of righteousness done by choice and not force. To them it is a question of religious identity and self-expression. In many cases, the wearing of a headscarf is often accompanied by the wearing of loose-fitting, non-revealing clothing.

Women wearing Burqah, seem to be separating themselves from my U.S. culture. Do they want me to speak to them normally?

Remember that women cover with burqah for so many reasons. For some, they want to be left alone to their own private lives, while others, do not mind engaging in the public square in with dialogue.

What do Muslims think of me, since I am a Buddhist and neither Jew nor Christian?

Islam demands respect of all people and religious communities regardless of faith, religion, and race. The Qur’an declares that only God is the judge:

“Only God will judge between them on issues they have disputed Invite (all) to the Way of they Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and are with them in ways that are best and most gracious:  For their Lord knows best who have strayed from His Path, and who receive guidance.” Qur’an 16:124-125




Recommended Reading About Islam

Here are some books about Islam that Imam Yahya Hendi, the Director of Muslim Life at Georgetown University, regularly recommends:

“The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists” by Khaled Abou El Fadl

HarperSanFrancisco, New York, 2005


“Islam: Religion, History, and Civilization” by Seyyed Hossein Nasr

HarperSanFrancisco, New York, 2003


“The Koran for Dummies” by Sohaib Sultan


“Women, Muslim Society, and Islam” By Lamya Al-Faruqi

Plainfield, IN: American Trust Publications, 1991


“Science and Civilization in Islam” By Seyyed Hossein Naser

Cambridge, UK: Islamic Texts Society, 1987. 230pp.


“Gender Equity in Islam” by Jamal Badawi

American trust Publications, 1998


“Discovering Islam – Making Sense of Muslim History and Society” by Akbar S. Ahmed

London: Rutledge Inc., 1988


“The Islamic Threat – Myth or Reality?” by John L. Esposito

New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. 247pp.


“Holy War: The Crusades And Their Impact On Today’s World” by Karen Armstrong

Anchor Books, New York, 2001

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