Common misconceptions about Islam and Muslims in Ghana
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Ghana, a country in West Africa, is renowned for its rich cultural heritage and religious diversity.

A key feature of its diversity is a peaceful and vibrant Muslim community that makes up about 17.6 percent of the country’s entire population.

Members of this community are predominantly settled in the northern parts of the country and in settler communities, known as Zongo, that are dotted across the 16 regions.

Why religious misconceptions exist in Ghana

Despite the good amount of socialisation and dialogue that has taken place among various religious and cultural groups over the years, there exist a fair share of misconceptions and misunderstandings that Ghanaians uniquely have about Islam and its followers (Muslims).

This situation could largely be attributed to the lack of information about Islam and Muslims, bad experiences with Muslims, deliberate attempt to misinform the public through propaganda about Islam, lack of encounter with good Muslims, among others.

While these misconceptions are evasive among non-Muslims, they are not exclusive to them, as some Ghanaian Muslims tend to suffer from misconceptions about their own faith due to lack of education about the religion.

This write-up highlights some common misconceptions Ghanaians have about Muslims and Islam in general and provides the needed education to deepen peaceful coexistence and foster better understanding and harmony among all communities in Ghana.

1. The crescent and star are the symbols of Islam

As the cross is to Christianity and the Star of David to Judaism, many people, including some Muslims, think that the star and the crescent are the symbols of Islam.

A symbol of the star and the crescent (the shape of a wanning moon) is often seen on mosque minarets, flags of predominantly Muslim countries, and flyers during festive seasons, among other places.

According to scholars, however, the symbol has no place in Islam as its adoption can neither be backed by the Quran, the hadith literature, nor the practices of early Muslims.

The usage of the star and crescent symbol can be traced back to the Sumerian era, where the star symbolised Ishtar (the Venus) and the crescent depicted the moon god Sin (Nanna).

The symbol was adopted by the Ottoman Empire, which governed the Muslim world for centuries.

It was displayed on their flags, coins, stamps, and buildings, as well as the minarets of mosques.

Through that association, the symbol became synonymous with the religion of Islam years after the fall of the empire, as some Muslim countries under the empire, including Türkiye, Libya, and Algeria, continued to maintain the symbol as part of their national emblem.

2. Observing the hijab is optional for single women and compulsory for married women

“I thought you were married because of how you dressed”. This is the presumptuous remarks single Muslim women are likely to be subjected to for observing the hijab properly.

Ghanaians, including some Muslims, are of the belief that married Muslim women should dress differently from single women.

There are those who would deliberately delay the proper observation of hijab in the hope that they would do so after marriage.

The belief has fuelled the notion that women who cover up all the time are likely not to find suitors since most suitors may assume that they (single women) are married or engaged.

This has been reinforced in the cultural practices of some Ghanaians in predominantly Muslim communities, where, for example, among the items the groom presents to the bride as part of her gift (leefey) before her wedding are bigger veils.

These veils, mostly used for prayers, are to be worn by the woman anytime she attends a gathering or steps out of her home as a new bride.

In the case of a divorce, most women would shun the wearing of such huge veils in place of smaller, lighter veils.

For a religion that has a universal dress code for all women, it should ideally be difficult for one to physically differentiate and discriminate between married women and the unmarried.

On the contrary, however, it has become the norm now to see single Muslim women limit their hijab to just scarfing the head, as married women are expected to have a veil loosely worn around the head and neck or hanged on the shoulders any time they are in public.

Over time, people have come to associate women who wear such bigger veils with marriage, while those wearing smaller veils in relatively revealing outfits are single, widowed, or divorced.

3. Shariah law is all about harsh punishment

In the first place, saying shariah law is a tautology, as sharia means law. Shariah has for years been an often complex and misunderstood area of Islamic teachings that has generated lots of controversies and misconceptions, especially in countries where it is being “implemented”.

It is a kind of Islamic law that is derived mainly from four sources that include the Holy Quran, the traditions of the prophet (sunnah from authentic hadith), qiyas, analogical reasoning among scholars referred to as qiyas, and a juridical consensus known as ijma.

Though not practiced in the law books of Ghana, it has a place in the lives of Muslims, who make up about 17.6 percent of the country’s total population.

For many, especially Ghanaian non-Muslims, the thought of Shariah is about meting out harsh and barbaric punishments to individuals who flout the laws of the societies where it is being practiced.

While this may be true, it is important to note that shariah encapsulates many aspects of social life with a focus on issues such as morality, family law, and business ethics rather than criminal punishments.

It is hinged on prioritising justice, fairness, and compassion while promoting gender equality and protecting the rights of women, including the rights to education, work, own property, and pursue legal recourse.

It is important to acknowledge that the interpretations and implementations of Shariah could vary and be largely influenced by the culture and patriarchal values of different countries, which could be used to oppress women.

4. One must learn to speak Hausa and Arabic to become a ‘correct’ Muslim

It is never true that one needs to speak Hausa or Arabic to become a good Muslim or learn about Islam.

It is also erroneous and stereotypical for one to try to identify the religion of individuals based on the language they speaks.

Even though observing the daily prayers, recitation of the Quran, and other rituals are required to be done in Arabic, it is interesting to note that only 20 percent of Muslims speak Arabic, while the global Muslim population is estimated to be about 1.9 billion.

Hausa, known to originate in northern Nigeria, remains one of the most common indigenous lingua francas in West and Central Africa that has been used to propagate Islam within the subregion.

About 40–50 million people are estimated to speak Hausa as a first or second language.

From the Ghanaian perspective, the spread of Islam in Ghana through the socialisation of Hausa merchants, soldiers, and Islamic scholars mostly from Nigeria with indigenes during the pre-colonial era sets the tone for Hausa to become the common language among the Muslim population.

It has been the mode of exchange of Islamic knowledge in most Makaranta (Islamic and Arabic schools) for decades. and, for that matter, understandable for the Hausa language to be well understood by most Muslims.

That narrative, however, is gradually changing with more people embracing Islam and having the message of the religion relayed to them in English or their native languages.

5. Wearing metallic teeth (silver or gold) is part of Hajj

Hajj Pilgrims would return from Hajj with changes in the texture of smiles at the sight of well-wishers such as relatives, friends, and neighbours.

Chunks of the pilgrims return home with metallic teeth of either silver or gold affixed to their mouths.

Over time, people have come to associate the fixing of the metallic tooth with the Hajj rituals so much that the veracity of being an ‘Alhaji’ or “Hajia” could be questioned if one is not wearing the metallic tooth.

While there is no hard rule in Islam that forbids the wearing of the metallic tooth except that men are not to adorn themselves in gold ornaments, the fixing of a gold or silver tooth is not and has never been part of the hajj rituals, nor is it a religious deed.

On the contrary, it has over the years become a symbol of status or extravagance for people who embark on the pilgrimage.

For a ritual that requires one to be of sound economic status to embark on, many go to the extreme of fixing more metallic teeth to signify the number of times they have embarked on the sacred pilgrimage.

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Some would feel disrespected if they were not accorded the title of ‘Alhaji’ or ‘Hajia’ after clearly showing their hajj souvenir (gold or silver teeth).

6. Arab costumes are the religious attire for Muslims

As a religion with a universal appeal, Islam has enough room to accommodate the culture and circumstances of people irrespective of their time zones, race, and climate.

Therefore, as opposed to prescribing attire except for special rituals like hajj and dressing of the dead, it has general codes of dressing for both gender.

Generally, women are to cover all parts of their body except their faces and hands in non-transparent and loose garments.

Men, on the other hand, are to adorn themselves in garments that cover their navel downwards to beyond their kneecaps.

Muslims worldwide tend to import the dressing culture of the Arabs in affinity with the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, who is an Arab, for that matter.

The popularity of these outfits among the global Muslim population does not make Arab dressing superior to the dressing of other cultures if the outfit meets the general codes of Islamic dressing.

It is worthy of note that wearing Arab costumes is fast becoming a trend for Ghanaian non-Muslims who go to social events wearing such garments.

7.Women cannot slaughter animals for food

One misconception that has lingered for a long time among Ghanaian Muslims is that women cannot slaughter animals, especially when men are present.

While this is a misconception, the idea of slaughtering being a “man’s thing” has been so accepted for decades due to some reasons.

These reasons are not limited to women being too “soft” and “merciful” to be bloody, women being too fearful of animals, and men as head of homes expected to perform slaughtering on behalf of families, among others.

Though some of these reasons could be justified, they do not take away the right of women in Islam to slaughter animals as long as they (Muslim women) overcome their fear and pity and adhere to the ruling of slaughtering for food in Islam.

The rulings guiding the slaughtering of animals include slaughtering with a sharp tool to make the process ‘clean’, mentioning the name of Allah alone upon slaughtering the animal, and that the person slaughtering should be a Muslim of sound mind and mature.

It is also expected that the animal is facing the Qiblah (the direction of the Kabah).

8. Muslims are required to have Arabic names

To address this misconception, we need to understand what a Muslim name is. A Muslim name is any name that has a good meaning and follows the guidelines for naming in Islam.

While Arabic is not the only language that can boost meaningful names, it is preferred that Muslims have meaningful names of Arabic origin for identity purposes.

This preference does not make it compulsory for Muslims, however, especially for reverts when they accept Islam.

In choosing non-Arabic names, however, it is important to ensure that names are not exclusive to provinces or personalities of unbelievers or people of other faiths.

For example, names foreign to Islam like Budha, Krishna, George, Paul, and Gideon, among others, should be avoided.

Other guidelines for choosing Muslim names include avoiding names that attribute servitude or worship to anything or anyone aside from Allah. An example of such prohibited names is ‘Abdul Nabi’ (servant of the Prophet).

One should also avoid names of Allah that befit Him alone, such as Malik al-Amlak (king of kings) and Al-Razak (the sole provider), and avoid names of demons, false gods, and idols.

It is also important for Muslims to avoid names that befit no one but the Prophet Muhammed, such as Abal Qasim.

In chronological order, the best names are the names Abdullah (servant of Allah) and Abdur Rahman (the servant of the merciful), and names that express servitude to Allah (the Beautiful Names of God) that are used with the suffix “abd,” meaning servant.

The rest, respectively, are names of Allah’s messengers and prophets; names of righteous servants, including noble companions of the Prophet and his household; and finally, any name of goodness with a positive meaning.

9. Mallams are ritualists

It is one of the longest-standing misconceptions that Ghanaians have about Muslim clerics in Ghana.

“Mallam” is a Hausa word with Arabic roots that denotes a teacher or a knowledgeable person, such as a schoolteacher, an imam, or a memorizer of the Holy Quran.

The word Mallam has, however, been misconstrued by many non-Muslims to mean anybody who is a ritualist, a soothsayer, or a sorcerer (practices totally forbidden in Islam).

This misconception gains credence from the fact that those ritualists and sorcerers claim to provide supernatural knowledge and guidance to the layperson who seeks their services.

Moreover, most of these practitioners often dress and use certain artefacts synonymous with Muslim worship.

They are likely to be seen in large robes (Agwada), originally a traditional attire of Hausa Muslims in Nigeria, or a smock, which is culturally worn in Northern Ghana, an area with a large Muslim population in the country.

Some ritualists also associate their practice with Islam by trying to justify their acts with verses of the Quran, using the tasbih (rosary for Muslims), and sitting on prayer mats for consultations.

For non-Muslims, all these culminate in describing any Muslim who provides spiritual guidance’ and identifies himself as a Mallam as a ritualist.

It must be noted that at a time when many claim to be men of Allah, identifying the true men of Allah would be difficult, except with the needed guidance from true scholars.

10. Muslims face sunrise direction to pray

This misconception is widely spread in the religious and moral textbooks of schools in Ghana. To this end, students are sometimes cornered into providing the correct answer to the multiple-answer question “Muslims face… to pray”.

While choosing the “east” as an answer is the safest, it is not a hard rule as the direction for prayers in Ghana might vary depending on the location one finds himself.

Muslims, before performing prayers, especially in an unknown territory, are first required to seek out the qibla (direction), which is the Kaaba, a Muslim worship house in Makkah, Saudi Arabia.

The bearing for locating the Kaaba at Aflao, a border on the southeastern corner of the country, would vary largely from that of Navrongo, the capital of Kassena-Nankana District in the Upper East Region.

The safest answer to the question of which direction Muslims in Ghana face when they pray would be to say the Kaaba in Saudi Arabia.

11. Muslims fast from six to six

People of other faiths mostly peddle this misconception to discredit the way Muslims fast, which is said to involve eating throughout the night and fasting during the day.

“Six to Six” is in reference to starting the fast at 6 o’clock in the morning and breaking at 6 p.m.

This assumption is, however, inaccurate, as the Muslim fast generally goes beyond the 12-hour period to 14 or more hours and usually starts as early as 4.30 am.

The Islamic ruling on fasting also generally varies in geographical locations where people experience longer nights and shorter days, or vice versa.

In certain countries, for example, such as Iceland, fasting could last as long as 20 hours as the sun is known to rise as early as 4 a.m. and set at 11 p.m. within certain times of the year.

This means that Muslims in those areas barely have five hours to rest and prepare themselves for the next day’s fast.

Conclusion

it is important to correct misconceptions and promote religious dialogue as a way of building a more inclusive and harmonious society.

Having an open mind and the willingness to learn about one another is a crucial approach to conversations about religion in Ghana.

We must move beyond stereotypes and embrace the rich diversity that exists within Ghana by striving for unity, understanding, and acceptance.

Feel free to add your thought in the comment section on some misconceptions mentioned here and those that were not.

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