Response: Hi, I'm a muslim, and the following are the answers to your questions.
1) The goal of the religion – what do practitioners seek?
A1) Salvation; God's pleasure; inner harmony; basically depends on one's point of view and level of understanding.
2) The communal aspect of the religion – how does this religion bring people together?
A2) Muslim brotherhood; collective prayers; focus on communal welfare; empathy and charity; recognizing others rights upon us
3) Special people in this tradition – who do people look up to as the heroes of the faith?
A3) All prophets since Adam; Prophet Muhammad; companions of the prophets who stood by them in the most trying of circumstances; the 4 Caliphs: Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali, and countless others who through their piety, patience, forbearance and perseverance inspired others
4) Ethical qualities – what qualities most embody the spirit of this religion?
A4) Honesty; charity; recognizing, acknowledging and giving due rights to all, i.e. God, self, fellow humans, all creation; integrity; giving due measure; justice; kindness; compassion;
5) Sacred literature – how are the scriptures used in ordinary daily life?
A5) i)The Holy Quran: primary source of religious knowledge as we believe it to be the true, untampered word of God, and a guidance for all humanity, setting broad parameters for conduct and belief, and detailing where human emotions or judgement may falter and/or override the voice of conscience. to be read regularly, as often as possible, to take guidance for our moral and spiritual well-being;
ii)Hadith books: secondary source of knowledge. a collection of sayings and deeds of the Prophet and his companions compiled many years later (approximately a century or three centuries after the Prophet's demise) to preserve the collective memory of the people. Some people try to live by the example of the Prophet's daily practices in their zeal to express their love and gratitude to him, others take guidance in matters they do not find explicitly mentioned in the Quran;
iii)Books on Jurisprudence developed according to the needs of the times based on the broad parameters and precedence set by the Prophet, basically studied by scholars
6) Sacred places – what are some sacred places of this religion?
A6) Mecca where the Kaaba is: a central place of pilgrimage; all muslims all over the world face in the direction of the kaaba when offering their prayers as a symbol of unity. We believe that the Prophets Abraham and Ishmael (re)built it. It is supposed to be the first house of worship appointed for human beings. (The Holy Quran Chapter 3, Verses 96 and 97)
Medina: the mosque of the Prophet, where he lived after migration until death, and is buried within the precincts.
Arafat, Mina, Muzdaliffah: Sites visited during the annual great pilgrimage to relive the tradition of the great Prophet Abraham, and how he remained steadfast in faith while Satan was ever trying his best to misguide him
7) How was religious faith practiced in your home as a child?
A7) Regular five daily prayers; charity: giving the poor their due, most muslims believe that 2.5% of our earnings belong to the poor and must be disbursed to them periodically, once a year or so, and more voluntary charity if means allow; annual fasting during the month of Ramadhan; pilgrimage to the holy places by those who could afford it; celebration of Prophet Muhammad's birthday; ethical and moral conformance to the guidance provided in the Quran, etc
8) Tell me about some of your favorite religious events in the calendar, and why they are so meaningful to you. How do you celebrate these times?
A8) i)Eid-ul-Fitr: Eid-ul-Fitr marks the end of the fasting month and is a time of celebration for muslims all over the world.(Holy Quran Chapter 2 Verses 183-187)
ii) Eid-ul-Azha: Eid-ul-Azha follows the day of the Grand Annual Pilgrimage and marks the triumph of Prophet Abraham over Satan; Abraham's submissiveness to the will of God by willing to sacrifice his son (God tried Abraham with the ultimate test: to sacrifice his child, and he overcame all impulses and emotions to submit to God's will. Just as he was about to sacrifice his son, God replaced the son with sheep as all God wanted was to try him). Those who go for the pilgrimage offer sacrifice. Those who do not, but can afford to offer sacrifice, do so also. The best part is no meat goes to waste as their is a due share for the person who sacrifices, his/her family, friends and neighbours, and the poor. So all meat is consumed (completing the circle of life in the name of God ) and the memory of Abraham's great tradition lives on in our minds and hearts.
iii) Laylat-ul-Qadr: (The Night of Power )The night when the Quran was sent to earth. We believe that it falls during the month of Ramadhan (the fasting month), and prayers and all good deeds are multiplied by many thousands, as this night is better than a thousand months. (Holy Quran Chapter 97 Verses 1-5; Chapter 2 Verse 185)
9) Tell me about your own personal goals in practicing your religion.
A9) Discovering and living the purpose of my creation; my understanding is that this temporal life is but a trail whereas the hereafter is certain and eternal; that we've been sent here on an open-book exam to live our lives according to the will of God; that to willingly listen to God and believe in Him and walk in the right way is what this life is all about (Holy Quran Chapter 2 Verse 186)
10) Tell me about the most moving or life-changing experience you have had in the practice of your faith.
A10) Every day, every reading of the Quran reveals new layers of meanings; enlightens the mind and develops a better understanding;
On a personal level, God seems to be always around, fixing problems, answering prayers, etc, though its difficult to explain or prove as such things can only be experienced and felt.
When I had gone for Grand Pilgrimage in 2006, we went to circumambulate the Ka'aba (in Mecca), and that evening I was only able to do one set of rounds. My husband said we could return the next morning for more, and I was grumbling that it would be hot and we wouldn't be able to do much. Next morning, as we were getting in the car to go to the Ka'aba, clouds covered the sky, then it started to drizzle, by the time we reached there, the drizzle stopped but the cloud cover remained from morning till afternoon, all the while that we were there. God is truly kind and caring in more ways that we can be grateful for. And countless other people have their own special stories to relate.
One incidence which made me seriously think was a statement a teacher once made. She said that she couldn't bear to imagine
holding her finger-tip next to a flame for even a minute, how could she risk any action which may end her in Hell for eternity? That really was a lesson in humility and priority.
11) Tell me about a person you have known personally who most truly embodies the values of your religious tradition – someone you would regard as an exemplary. What made this person so special?
A11) There are many amazing people. It would be unfair to single out anyone. What I find most impressive and attractive is the understanding of the message of peace and love. The best among us have risen above the fear of hell and reward of heaven to submit their will to God out of love for the God who loves us more than anybody else.
12) Tell me how your religion affects everyday life for you or for your family.
A12) Regular prayers keep reminding us of the true purpose of this life, the moral and ethical obligations to God, self and society, keeping conscience and piety alive. Helps protect from the temptations of sin, and maintains the inner harmony.
13) What are some misconceptions that people believe about this religion?
A13) Islam suffers from many misconceptions, both within and without.
People think Islam calls for blind faith. That is as far removed from truth as possible. We are exhorted countless times in the Quran to observe, think, evaluate the evidences in nature all around and within ourselves, and then reach the conclusion that this is indeed the truth and then believe. God has blessed us with intellect to use, and what better use than to find the truth, the purpose of our existence and to discover God?
Non-muslims perceive it as a warrior religion. The word jihad means to strive in the way of God, by trying to live a pious life, by seeking and spreading knowledge, by doing charitable and compassionate deeds, and countless other ways. To fight (as in combat), the arabic word is qital. Those were specific orders given to the Prophet at special occasions, mostly defensive wars, and most scholars concur that a call for qital (war) can only be given by a muslim head of state, and terrorism by certain minority factions cannot be equated with it.
Non-muslims perceive Islam as gender-biased. That is not the case. Women are regarded very highly and Islam gives them their due rights. Infact, when the world knew nothing about women-rights, Islam pronounced their due share in all fields of life. The way I understand the issue, God has created man and woman differently, complimenting and completing each other. As women are burdened with child-bearing and upbringing, they are specially privileged to not to have to bear the burden of financial responsibilities as well. Men are the qawaam, meaning protectors and maintainers, it is their primary responsibility to earn and spend on the welfare of their parents, wife and children, as well as the needy in society. To carry out these duties effectively, they have been given a degree over women, simply for administrative affairs. You can understand it with the analogy of as a head of state is neccessary for a state, as a CEO or MD is for a business house, similarly each family is also an administrative unit, and to function effectively needs a head. The Quran describes husband and wife as garments for each other, protecting and providing comfort, and in each other they find peace. Such is the concept of the relationship. Women are not barred from doing a job or running a business, in fact they can do whatever they please, yet there is no compulsion on them to spend any of their earnings on anybody. Men do not have that luxury. They have to earn and provide for, it is part of their basic duty.
The violence and other pathetic stories that make the headlines are not part of the religion, but rather they are due to the lack of education and ignorance, as well as a lack of knowledge of the religion. There was a time when Europe was in the dark ages whereas the muslim civilization flourished. Then, for some reason, the muslim nations gave up on the cherished traditions of education and enlightenment, and brought the dark age upon themselves. The Europeans embraced knowledge and inquiry, ethics and morals, and prospered.
The list can go on and on, but this response is already long enough. If you have any specific questions in mind, please do post them. I'll be most happy to answer as many as I can. There is also a collection of the questions I've earlier answered on my blog, it may be of some help.