The world of religions is messy, complex, dynamic, diverse, and full of surprises. As if that is not enough to make the study and appreciation of spiritual treasures difficult, there is no one yardstick to measure all of them against one another. Some religions are so different from others that one wonders why people would put them in the same box. Here Buddhism comes to mind. As you know, Buddhism is not a religion like in the Western or Middle Eastern sense of the word. It does not center on God and is not based on the concept of revelation. Similarly, some other religions overlap so much that it makes you scratch your head thinking how they ended up as being two different religions. Here Ahmadiyya comes to mind, which is a kind of sect of Islam, but many Muslims consider the group to be non-Muslims.
But let’s complicate the picture even more. What about the meaning of the word “religion” because that also affects what falls under religion and what fall under philosophy or superstition or an unorganized belief system like Shamanism. Scholars still debate what exactly the word “religion” means.
Well, no wonder in this messy, politically charged, and slippery-sloped world of religions do people mistake one religion for another. Coupled with prejudice and ignorance, these mistakes lead to tragic outcomes. In the past, the media has documented the beating and killing of Sikhs or Hindus because they were mistaken for Muslims. This still continues because in their ignorance, people often associate race and ethnicity with religion. For example, in America where ignorance about the religions of the world runs high despite the diversity of the nation, to be Muslim often means to be an Arab and vice versa. This is manifestly untrue because Arabs are actually a minority in the vast Islamic world.
So, taking into account that Islam is the most misrepresented religion in America and other lesser known religions from the Old World suffer due to their connection to Islam, I thought to write a post that would help separate the non-Islamic religions from Islam. But before I give you the gist of this post, let me make a disclaimer. First, I’m not writing this post to single out Islam via separating it from others and making Islam an easily identifiable object of prejudice. If that’s how you are going to read my post, by writing this very sentence I wash my hands in God’s presence (like Pilate did) that neither I nor my post is responsible for your use of this knowledge for unfaithful, ugly, BS purposes. May God give you back according to what’s in your heart. Second, I affirm that all humans without regard to their race, ethnicity, gender, nationality, religion, and age share a broken image of God, which dignifies every one of us and reminds us to return back to the Father of all. So use this post to develop respect, love, and compassion toward others and their faiths.
That said, below is the list of religions that people tend to confuse with Islam. For various reasons (dress code, race, common origins, language etc.), people often mistake followers of these religions as Muslims unless they know well the religions of the world. If you are in doubt about a person’s faith and want to learn more, I would suggest that you politely ask to which faith they belong while making your positive intention clear. Unlike Americans, people from other nations often don’t see anything taboo with inquiring about other people’s faiths, discussing spiritual matters with them, or even disagreeing (in civil conversation).
This faith was born in India, and Islam — like other religions in the region — influenced its basic concepts. You may recognize male religious Sikhs from their turbans and beards. Some very conservative Muslims wear turbans and long beards too (especially those who live in Central Asia or South-East Asia) though a Muslim’s turban is somewhat different from the typical Sikh turban. Sikhism came into the world in the fifteenth century in Punjab of India. Sikhs believe in one God and the equality of all humans in God’s eyes. They also believe in karma, which is absent from Islam. In addition, they recognize the value of other religions as paths to truth.
Bahaism is another new religion, but this one branched off from Islam. Its founder, the Prophet Bahaullah, lived in Iran in the nineteenth century. Like Sikhs and other monotheistic religions, they believe in one God. They believe that other religions teach truth too because humanity is unified. Bahais have their own sacred texts. The followers of this religion may be mistaken as Muslims most often due to their origins (the vast majority come from the Middle East, especially Iran) rather than because of the way they dress or act. Unlike other faiths, they don’t have arcane rituals with thousands of years of history, and they accept the progressive nature of revelations.
Yezidis used to live in Northern Iraq, Turkey, Armenia, Syria, Iran, etc., but ISIS destroyed some of their communities because they are not considered to be Muslims. Yet Yezidism is another religion that has influences from Islam. Yezidism is an old religion that comes to us from the early Middle Ages of Mesopotamia and brings together influences from Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Judaism, etc. Yezidis believe in one God who rules the world through his seven emanations — angels headed by Melek Taus, the archangel. Yezidis have their own scripture, and their society is divided into castes. Also, they were persecuted by the other main religions of the region. You may mistake them as Kurdish Muslims because they live in the same region, speak the same language, and share the culture.
Another religion with followers whom you might mistake as Muslims is Zoroastrianism. This faith is older than Christianity, let alone Islam. Zoroastrians live in Iran, India, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, etc. Established by the prophet Zoroaster, the religion is considered to be monotheistic by some though it has a strong dualism that separates a good God (Ahura Mazda) from bad energy or a God (Aura Mainyu) that opposes goodness. Zoroastrians have their own scripture (Avesta) and continually burn fire in their temples as a symbol of the good God. Once a predominant religion, Zoroastrianism was persecuted too. People may mistake them for Muslims because of where they come from. Often they speak Persian and share the culture of Iran.
Nation of Islam
This faith is the only indigenous faith to America connected to Islam to the degree that one can mistake it as the traditional Islam from the Middle East. Although strongly influenced by Middle Eastern Islam to the point of sharing the scripture and some basic beliefs (one God/Allah, the prophethood of Muhammad, Jesus, etc.), the Nation of Islam teaches some doctrines that disagree fundamentally with Middle Eastern Islam. For example, Middle Eastern Islam rejects the belief in incarnation while Nation of Islam followers believe that in 1930 God appeared in the person of Wallace Fard Muhammad, the founder of the faith. Also, unlike traditional Islam, the Nation of Islam refuses bodily resurrection and focuses on the plight of black people in America. One can mistake this faith as the traditional Islam because of its name and the overlap of its basic concepts. But here one needs to make a judgment call. Some activists fight for the acceptance of the Nation of Islam as an authentic part of Middle Eastern Islam although the Muslims who come from traditionally Islamic lands feel ambiguous about this American religion.
As you can see, religions are messy: underneath superficial similarities may lie irreconcilable differences, but different appearances may still lead to the same ends. I hope this post will help you pause a minute before you take someone to be a Muslim because of their dress, language, culture, race, or ethnicity. The picture is much more complex and cannot be reduced to simplified caricatures. So, my friend, I urge you to be thoughtful the next time you see someone who looks like a Muslim. They may not be. Of course, there is nothing wrong with being a Muslim, but if you have ambiguous feelings and want to clarify your questions, don’t just assume that the people you approach will necessarily be who you think they are.
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Also, check other articles relevant to Christian-Muslim dialogue (linked below).