The topic that most motivates people in discussing Islam is the headscarf. This is a generally acknowledged requirement of womens modesty in Islam. For some reason people in the west see this as an oppression of women - that it somehow means they are dominated by the men. In Islam there are a number of codes of behaviour regarding modesty and men are similarly subject to these codes. Men for example should not wear silk or gold. Women are quite able to study and to work etc with a headscarf on and in fact because they remain modest; they are not so pressurised to look good - at work.
Women in Islam have always had very definite rights and responsibilities and so have men. They are the same in general with the very important exception of the rights and responsibilities in marriage. Here women have more rights e.g. for provision of all their needs, for custody of the children if a divorce happens and the husband has the right basically that the wife doesn't start flirting or worse with other men. The final decisions in matters of the family come down to the husband and because of his duty to provide for the family he has extra inheritance rights in general.
Islam essentially distinguishes between men and women in their roles within marriage granting each gender certain rights and certain responsibilities appropriate to their natures. Islam does not consider women in any way to be second class.
Polygamy is another intriguing subject to the Westerner when investigating Islam. According to Islamic law it is permissible for a man to marry up to 4 women. This can be beneficial in a number of circumstances. After the first world war for example, there were many single women but the number of available men was considerably less. Arguably this was a key factor in encouraging adultery. If the men were allowed to marry more than one woman in such circumstances it would prevent a general corruption in society's sexual morals and fulfil the needs of all those single women.
Leaving other equally important considerations as to when this could be useful, we might look towards the basic nature of people's instincts that have recently confirmed this teaching is consistent with human nature. Whereas the primeval drives of men lead them to look for many women at the same time, the drives of women lead them to look for one man after the next.
Another hot topic is homosexuality. Homosexuality as far as Islam is concerned is a profound mistake (as are all sins if they are not intending to do wrong). Humans are not homosexuals by nature. I would say that people become homosexuals because of their environments. Particularly critical is the environment during puberty. Suggestions, ideas and strange dreams are symptoms of confused attempts to understand new and blunt sexual desires and are rashly interpreted as defining someone as being one sexuality or another. If these conclusions are accompanied by actual homosexual acts they are even more strongly reinforced.
Human instincts can be subjected to acts of will. Sexuality is a choice of identity that follows choices of action, which follow from choices of what to have sexual fantasies about. Human beings are especially able to control their thoughts, entertaining some and dismissing others. However, if this free will is not recognised it is easy to get into a cycle of thinking which starts from accepting a hypothesis about yourself as true rather than as a possible choice (even if the options are sometimes difficult). For example: "I am lazy " could be supposed true by someone. When the person who thinks this lies around in bed in the morning he observes this inaction as evidence of the statement "I am lazy." As he repeatedly chooses to do so the evidence mounts and the idea becomes fixed in his identity. It may even have physical manifestations and change his physiology and psychology. This process can easily occur for any idea good or bad about the self that is based largely on evidence resulting from ones own action. The idea may be "I am 'gay'" or "I am content" or "I love eating lots of food". The truth is - you are what you choose to be; you do what you choose to do; you think what you choose to think. There may be long time delays between the causing choices and the effects but anyone can change himself or herself. There are reformed ex-drug addicts, reformed ex-compulsive gamblers and ex-homosexuals. In all these sins prevention is 1000 times better than cure and much easier.
It has been suggested that homosexuality is genetically inherited and that those who have this 'predisposition' are victims of it, not sinners of any sort. However, there are other things which are probably genetically influenced to give predispositions to for example gambling or alcoholism .It could also be argued (and has been) that it is programmed into men's genetics for them to be unfaithful to their partner. All these things don't make it the right thing to do, nor does it prevent these things from being regarded as sinful. Drinking alcohol will still be regarded as sinful in Islam even if you have a predisposition to be an alcoholic. The trick, as every past alcoholic will tell you, is never to touch another drop after you quit - it is a long slippery slope - your life is better without it. Once a certain desire is connected to your identity strongly and you get in some way hooked on it, it will always be easy to return to it - you are unable to forget the satisfaction. The difficult task is remembering the bad side of the desire, such as hangovers, lost money, self-loathing or a simply sense of loss because of what you missed out on. But if you are to change for the better, you must remember this and the past desires you bound up with your identity can become disconnected from what you choose to become.
... And just to complete the picture - masturbation:
Islam teaches that it is better not to masturbate. Instead you should fast regularly, since it reduces sexual desire and helps you build up self - discipline in controlling your desires. The majority of scholars consider it wrong to masturbate based on the following verse:
Qur'an 23: Verses 1-7
The believers must (eventually) win through, - Those who humble themselves in their prayers; Who avoid vain talk; Who are active in deeds of charity; Who abstain from sex, Except with those joined to them in the marriage bond, or (the captives) whom their right hands possess, - for (in their case) they are free from blame, But those whose desires exceed those limits are transgressors; -
This is a general ruling that you should avoid desiring other than the sex with your spouse.
That said, some scholars consider masturbation a kind of medicinal relief of sexual desires, which prevents one from committing adultery or some other worse sin.
The above verse raises the question about slavery in Islam:
What is the Islamic view about slavery?
At the time when Muhammad taught Islam to the Arabs, slavery was a deeply entrenched institution worldwide. Rather than ban outright the institution of slavery, reforms were introduced to wipe it out over a period of time. The main reform was to ban enslaving people except as a way of keeping prisoners of war. (Whether this is used or not is up to the decision of the military commanders, and even here the preference is for ransoming or setting free prisoners). Slaves already had the right to property. To this was added the right to have their masters agree a price by which they could buy their own freedom.
Buying the freedom of slaves was then set as the price of atonement for various sins and set as a major objective of state redistribution of wealth through compulsory alms (charity)-giving. The children of a slave are not born as slaves - they are always born free. If the child is the result of sex between a free man and his slave, the slave must be married to the free man and she becomes a free woman on his death.
A slave was considered as the dependant of the Master and had rights over the master like other dependants. These included that they should be housed to the same standards as the master, clothed to the same standards as the master and fed to the same standards as the master. For these reasons some of the soldiers who were captured in the early battles which Muslims fought were released because their captors couldn't afford to keep them!!!
These things I think you'll agree contrast sharply with the slavery that took place in the US before the civil war.