The religion of Islam is one of the oldest faiths still in practice today, with an estimated 1.53 billion followers... or almost a quarter of the world's population. Man, if we had a quarter for each of those folks, we could afford to write a better joke here.
Anyway, there are many, many, many misconceptions about the Islamic faith, but what follows are only five that generally relate to a Western viewpoint.
Jihad = Holy War
Those of us living in the Western world tend to associate the word “jihad” with “holy war.” We do not have have great associations with the word.
Truth be told, jihad does not mean holy war. In fact, the word is most often translated as “struggle,” and can be divided into three separate concepts: the struggle to maintain faith, the struggle to improve society and the struggle to defend Islam itself. Each form of jihad is religious in nature. Sound familiar at all?
Many of us immediately associate the word with holy war thanks to former terrorist and current corpse Osama bin Laden's liberal use of the term in attacking who he believed to be Islam's enemies. But of course, the truth is far different from the words of a mad man. In fact, the prophet Mohammad stated that the struggle to maintain one's faith was more important than the warfare that can result from defending the faith. It's in the Quran and everything. Go figure.
The problem is that for whatever reason, we associate Al-Qaeda with Islam, which is about as apt as associating those Army of God guys with Christianity. We call them extremists for a reason, people.
September 11th was Predicted in the Quran
In the months following the September 2001, the public was abuzz with so much conspiracy that Mike Savage's head would have spun if he weren't already dead.
Many found references to the attacks in unusual places. Some, like this unfortunate Starbucks ad, are genuine. Others, like the Windings controversy, are completely false. A popular email forward at the time that people still claim as fact is that September 11th was a prophecy in the Quran.
According to the email, chapter nine verse eleven (see what they did there?) reads like this:
For it is written that a son of Arabia would awaken a fearsome Eagle. The wrath of the Eagle would be felt throughout the lands of Allah and lo, while some of the people trembled in despair still more rejoiced; for the wrath of the Eagle cleansed the lands of Allah; and there was peace.
Eagle? Allah? Conspiracy.
It's just to ridiculously perfect to be real. Quran 9:11 actually reads:
But if they repent and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate, they are your brethren in faith; and we make the communications clear for a people who know.
That's so far from the alleged prophecy that it might as well have been written by Steven King on a restroom stall.
Muslims Are Barbarians
Let's be honest: most of what we learned about the Middle East we learned from Aladdin.
The common portrayal of Muslims is that of a violent, sword wielding fanatic or a sorcerer with a wise-cracking parrot. For ages, the spread of Islam across the world has been portrayed as a violent event itself, with invaders giving their new hosts/victims a simple choice: convert or die.
However, actual history once again proves that the opposite is true. While pop culture would like you to think otherwise, Muslims have a strict code of warfare that includes such rules as not killing women, children or elderly men as well as leaving property and livestock intact (unless using them for food... the livestock that is). In essence it boils down to “don't kill non-combatants and don't break things out of spite” or the more succinct “don't be a dick.”
As for the "spread of religion by the tip of a sword thing", that's strongly contested since it directly contradicts the rules of warfare and basic tenants of Islam (tolerance of other faiths being one of them). As empires spread across Asia, Africa and Europe, caliphs often ruled that preexisting places of worship and holy sites would not be removed. When King Richard fell sick during the third Crusades, Saladin, the Joker to his Batman, sent him gifts despite the fact that they were fighting, presumably to the death. Not really a “convert or die” attitude there.
Women Have No Rights
In the Western world we're pretty familiar with images like these:
Women covered head to toe with only their eyes visible. Likewise, whenever we read about Muslim women in the news, it's usually something odd like getting arrested for driving. The paints an admittedly grim picture and rightfully so: its completely unjust. And it also goes against Islamic teachings.
According to the prophet Mohammad, women are the equals of men, the “twin halves,” and the Quran teaches that they be treated as such. There is nothing stating that women are property of their husbands with no or limited rights. Sisters are doing it for themselves.
But the images are real and the news stories are true, so where do they come from? Some countries in the Arab world create differences between their societies and the traditional teachings of Islam, and while we always hear about the women in these countries getting arrested for seemingly no reason, we never read about the women, say, pursuing a higher education, because that's naturally not news. But if the twisting of Islam into something horrible sounds familiar, good, because it brings us to our final point.
Al-Qaeda = Islam
Most of the misconceptions on this list can be related back to a corruption of the faith itself. This sort of corruption happens in all faiths to justify extreme measures (again, we'll direct you to those Army of God folks), and none do it with quite the notoriety of those classy folks in Al-Qaeda.
At this point you probably don't need much convincing that Al-Qaeda's version of Islam is not the norm and that terrorism is essentially forbidden by the code of warfare. The killing of innocents is explicitly forbidden by the Quran multiple times, eliminating ninety-five percent of the Al-Qaeda business strategy.
Despite what their PR guy would have you believe, Al-Qaeda is not favorably viewed in the a vast majority of the Arab world, and that majority has been growing at a considerable rate over the past decade. Much of this seems to have stemmed from the group's tactics and willingness to kill civilians as well as their aggressive nature (the Quran states that one should act aggressively only in self-defense and never beyond the point of defending one's self). Essentially, they're seen as dragging the name of Islam through the mud.
But groups like Al-Qaeda are often associated with the faith because they use it as a unifying banner and justification for attacking others by claiming their targets are at war with Islam. Their version of jihad doesn't fit and is little more than a means of aggression.