Sometimes a verse from the Qur’an will strike the heart with new meanings and possibilities depending on the circumstances of its reader. I had this experience recently with Qur’an 58:11 “O you who believe, when you are gathered, and the opportunity arises, you shall make room for each other to sit. God will then make room for you.”
I sat in a circle of women in the mosque as they practiced reciting Qur’an, habitually skipping over me, assuming my inability. And as they read over the stated verse in Arabic, I choked in despair over memories of struggles passed as well as grief over my current situation, for in that gathering, I had been introduced as “an American married to an Egyptian”, and I’d felt an overwhelming amount of condescending down-cast looks as the women belittled my Islam and assumed I was only there to get to know my husbands culture. I came to Islam far before I knew my husband, and I’ve been practicing for 6 years by my own conviction, and yet here I am being asked if I know how to pray or if I need a copy of the Qur’an in English. Condescension; or well-meaning sisters trying to help me along? All I know is that if I had been introduced as Aisha, the Muslim, people would’ve taken me seriously and engaged me in more productive conversation. As the aforementioned verse insists, I would’ve been welcomed into the circle openly and gracefully, with displays of kind smiles and invites to sit close to a woman who considered me her sister, although we’ve never met. Instead I’m forced on a regular basis to prove my own religious competence in almost any given situation, over and over again. But if being a Muslim has taught me one thing, its been that sincerity is key. I am to aim to impress God alone, with no exceptions; so when I am put in the position, feeling compelled to show off my skills in reading Quran, hoping these sisters will stop the baby-talk, it makes for an uneasy heart.
Anyway, even if I was just an American married to an Egyptian, what’s the shame in that? Safiyyah (God be pleased with her) was a Jewish woman who readily accepted Islam through observance of and marriage to Muhammad (peace be upon him) and she was better than any of todays women. We should never look down on a woman who found Islam as a result of her admiration of a Muslim man. It’s not our fault that many Western men succumb to the norms of our near-valueless society. Then here comes a man with some principals derived from his belief Islam, who can criticize her path to the faith
If they only knew how many new believers left the fold of Islam as a result of their incessant need to correct and judge, they might care to self-correct. Or they might not. But I Care. Because I’ve been in the mosque washroom stall sobbing and asking myself and God “What am I doing here? I don’t belong here! I have nowhere to go.”
God knows we converts will never again be fully accepted by western society at large, at least not in this generation. And we’ll never quite fit into the immigrant Muslim community. Our plight involves cultural shock and differences to overcome for the sake of remaining a Muslim, because there are too few English resources to sustain a persons religion in full. So we can become Pakistani, and cling to their cultural ideologies and feel closer to Islam, or we can become Arab or African, and cling to their versions to the faith. Those are our options.
In a celebration of my daughters birth, I was asked her name, and replied ‘Sofia’, and to my surprise, sparked a controversy. Suddenly, Sofia was not a Muslim name, and I, as a mother, had neglected her right to a good name. I assured my concerned friend that my daughter was named after the Muslim woman who taught me my religion, and continues to be my role-model, and that the name means Wisdom, and that just because it’s not an Arabic name, doesn’t make it a bad name. For Gods sake, I’m American! My name is Brooke! And I’m no less a Muslim than Abdullah from Mecca.
I was confronted once by a Yemeni woman. She told me, five minutes after we first met,” Sorry to say this, but Allah told me to tell you this. You cannot wear jeans. They are mens clothes. You have to wear abaya. Sorry, sweetie, but I have to say that.” I didn’t say anything in response because I understood immediately the flaw in her advice. I knew she was from Yemen and was bringing her cultural values here, confusing them with Islamic values. Allah the Exalted never told her to tell me that. She was mistaken. Had I been of weaker spirit, I may’ve been deeply hurt, and felt lost; or may’ve vowed to excommunicate myself from this people indefinitely, who criticize my every move, from the food I eat, to the name I give my daughter, to the fabric of my clothing. Or if I were a naive new convert, I may’ve taken her word and sold all my denim and worn abaya for a few months until finally I snapped under the pressure of the immense change in my way of life…either way there’s no benefit in her advice, or any advice of that nature. We must avoid it at all costs.
Maybe this phenomenon is a blessing in disguise. There are many people who treat religious institutions as social clubs. ‘Fellowship’ has been the coined phrase; but is it not just showing-off and mingling? Nearly forgetting the devout worship of the God we claim to gather in the name of? That’s why Jesus turned over tables in the temple, as narrated by the story in the Bible. We forgot our purpose there. At least with this feeling of ‘not belonging’, we have only or Lord to turn to for complete solace, there are less social distractions, and it creates a strength and sincerity between the worshipper and the Worshipped; in the best of situations. In the worst of situations, the individual feels despised by his brothers and leaves the faith with a sense of shame and unworthiness as a result of the unexpected ostracism he was met with.
Ironically, Islam is the only religion I’ve heard propagate anti-racism as thoroughly. I say ‘heard’ because that message is ever on our pulpit, but rarely to be witnessed in its entire, deserved proportion in day to day life. The amount of anti-Semitism I’ve encountered, not only in casual conversation, but in circles of knowledge and read in so-called credible books has made me sick. Such rhetoric is mostly non-existing among Muslims who were born here in the west and realize the diversity and humanity of our well-oiled society, but it’s shamelessly prevalent among many immigrants. To be fair, I’ve also encountered many Muslim immigrants who are equally sick of the racism waged against Jews and recognize the difference between the faith and the political Zionist position. And even negative speech directed at Christians needs to stop. How is our faith in Islam benefitted by the utterance of disparaging remarks about our brothers of other faiths? They would likely make better Muslims than us; we who insist on deriving our feelings of superiority through slandering others. Is it not insecurity that allows us to slander others? I mention this because my kith and kin are Jews and Christians. Although I am a Muslim and of course differ with their creed, God has revealed the same moral messages to us since Abraham. And Muhammad (peace be upon him) forbade the mockery of other religions. It’s not only a deterrent to the propagation of Islam, it can be a cause of feud in the families of American Muslims as well as in their hearts.
Now, I’d like to point out some solutions for the problems I addressed. There has to be a collective effort by all who believe in the oneness of God, despite nationality or tribe. We live here in the west and can benefit each other. First, the immigrant Muslim community: you’ve come here with immense potential benefit to western society. But when you come here, you must immediately learn to separate your religion from your culture. Centers should be set up for that; like some sort of initiation process, for newcomers to learn how to conduct themselves in a balanced and appropriate manner.
- You must learn to be open-minded, accommodating, and understanding of the people in the land you’ve chosen to make your home. Judgemental attitudes will only further increase hostilities on both sides, and widen the gap between cultures.
- You must at all costs avoid arguments or controversy concerning the religious issues that scholars have disagreements on.
- I recommend that the ‘tree’ of fiqh (religious legalities) be taught to everyone. The tree consists of the roots, the trunk, the branches and the leaves. So let’s say the roots are the most critical issues, the five pillars and six articles of faith; the trunk are the spiritual qualities of the healthy Muslim, the branches are other important faraid (obligatory duties), and knowledge of the haram (forbidden acts), and the stems and leaves are the silly little subjects where the individuals discretion is called upon, like gelatin, l-cysteine, music, and clothing material. Everyone loves a good discussion about the roots, and the trunk, and even sometimes the branches. But immigrant Muslims should never confront converts concerning the stems and leaves. Theres too much room for error and regret. A man recently embraced Islam in a local mosque and the well-meaning immigrant brothers made sure to approach him to warn him about his career as a guitar teacher, and let him know it was a forbidden profession and he’d have to quit immediately. Needless to say, the brother was never seen in the mosque again. Can we blame him?
Lastly, the North American Muslim community:
- You must take over the translation of traditional Islamic text, acquiring it back from ‘English as a second language’ translators who are not capable of offering us the neither the accuracy nor quality we deserve, nine times out of ten.
- You must master this field, including accurate time/cultural references in some of the works where it’s needed.
- Explain ahadeeth thoroughly, including references to cultural norms of the times, to avoid undue confusion, assumptions and even extremism.
- We need proper centers and classes for new Muslims, taught preferably by someone vastly fluent in English (primarily) as well as Arabic.
- Support groups should be formed to make sure new Muslims are comfortable and all concerns and questions are answered by those who are qualified and trained.
- Recommended reading: The Arabization series of articles on suhaibwebb.com