Perhaps the most common misunderstanding about Islam is its attitude toward women. In light of modern sensibilities, Islam, as practiced by most Muslims, does retain some pre-modern attitudes. Much of this is cultural; however, some are not. For example, although the home is generally considered the best place for a woman, Islam does not prohibit a woman from a career in the outside world. In fact, many early Muslim women including the Prophet’s wife, Khadijah, were scholars and merchants. While Islamic law does legislate some differences between men and women, they are few in number. The majority of practicing Muslim women do not view them as demeaning because a woman is considered equal to a man before God. The Qur’an clearly states, “Whoever works righteousness, man or woman, and has faith, verily to him will We give a new life, and life that is good and pure, and We will bestow on such their reward according to the best of their actions” (Qur’an, p. 663).

Another aspect of Islam that tends to spark interest is the idea of Jihad or holy war. Some people think Islam condones violence and even terrorism. In reality, Islam rarely permits Muslims to use coercive force and does so only for reasons such as self-defense. Moreover, with the exception of self-defense, only legitimate state authority can exercise coercive force. Although there is a religious duty to fight to defend the lands of Islam, strict rules of engagement apply. The Prophet specifically prohibited the killing of religious people, old people, as well as women and children. Later, Muslim legal theorists included any noncombatants in this prohibition. Sadly, like other religions, Islam has violent fanatics and extremists who justify their crimes by distorting Quranic verses and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) for heinous ends.

Muslims are a racially diverse community, the majority of which are non-Arab. Although Islam began in Arabia, Arabs comprise less than 15 percent of Muslims. The largest Muslim population is in Indonesia, and the second-largest is in Pakistan. There are estimated to be over 60 million Muslims in modern China. Islam is considered to be the fastest-growing religion in the twenty-first century. Islam is the third largest religion in the United States and is expected to be the second after Christianity.