Being a North American Muslim

 

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

The Better Man Project ™

I would go to the gym today, but…

I would write today, but…

I would weigh less, but…

I would try, but…

I would care, but…

We love our but’s. Take the word but out of your vocabulary. If you do, you have just given yourself unbelievable power to accomplish your dreams. Try saying that sentence again and replace the word but with something else. Go ahead…try it. You are going to sound like a fool trying to figure it out. Then, you will wonder why you are giving yourself a reason why you can’t do it in the first place. You will hear your voice, and find a way to make it happen.

I have a big knee brace that I wear to my workouts. There is no reason why I cannot go harder or as hard as other people in the gym. Sometimes though I have to modify…

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Loading Yourself Well

In learning about coaching, one of the first lessons you get is that it’s not about you. Yup. That’s right. It’s not about your knowledge, or years of wisdom and so forth. It is all about the client. Your warmth, empathy, respect, and genuinity to listen to where they are at in life and supporting, normalizing and validating their experiences, as according to Carl Rogers (1957) and the Albert R. Roberts Model of Crisis Intervention (2002).

From a resiliency point-of-view therefore, while I appreciate understanding the basic tenets of Islam and my Chinese heritage that you do as you are told, I’m confused as to why we feel the need to overload converts with too much information about Islam within a very short amount of time. I mean, the sahabah had like 14 years to understand tawheed before certain bans including alcohol was brought down  (also due to lack of irrigation systems making fresh water more deadly than alcohol for consumption during those times), why is it that we feel such heavy burdens of knowledge is enough to anchor them into their practice. In fact, the same converts in my Muslim class nine years ago have now diverted into the different paths before them anyways which means that all the information does little to permeate into the hearts.

I mean the spread of Islam was due to the character and simplicity of the truth of no god but God which was shared from the Prophet, peace be upon him to Bilaal who converted based on this truth alone, and yes, that Muhammad, pbuh is the last messenger. Why do we make things so very complicated with tons of books, websites, opinions, events, conferences, and the like. I mean, does it really add to the long term practice of a convert? From my experiences in hearing tons of stories, and an advertising media background alhumdulillah, our personal experiences with each other have the most impact, and have the power to negate any huge expensive seminars we have attended.

For instance, you attend a lovely conference with amazing speakers. Hooray. During the course of your conversion to more Islamic ways, you encounter numerous personal difficulties with Muslims around you. Which example will have more of an impact on you? What is idealized and promoted versus what is personally experienced as being valid, regardless of the subjective experience.

To my dismay, it is the latter that is given more credibility and weight than the former. That is to say that while we hear beautiful surahs and wonderful hadeeths, they fall flat when slapped by rejection from members of the Muslim community. This can include ostracism, bullying, targeted comments, or even harsh criticisms disguised as corrections. While some may identify with such treatment, the majority of converts are quite impressionable and vulnerable in their new status of adoption. Orphaned from their old life, and kicked out of their current one. The identity crisis or confusion as to who we are, can be quite overwhelming to the point that old comforts just seem to fit that much more easily.

To save us though, it also only takes one. An individual who expresses they care about us, respect and care for us, as well as love us for who we are, whatever percentage of practice we choose to have because verily only Allah knows what’s in our hearts. If we could promote the idea of kindness to each other to help forgive the cruelties from others, learning will naturally occur as an intrinsic motivation. This would also mean more everlasting lessons and deeper effects in absorbing the material we are given. But perhaps it would be even better to disperse information slowly over a number of years and according to the level of priority.

I don’t know everything, but in watching my convert friends, one after another, leave the close folds of Islam because of negative experiences, it becomes apparent to me that something has to change. Whether it be as simple as encouraging forgiveness to be spoken even when we don’t believe ourselves to be wrong or simply reminding ourselves to make 70 excuses for each other, this is a reminder to myself first. In addition, I think it’s important we also steer clear of negative influences to our practice. It is difficult enough trying to practice our balance of fear and hope without someone tilting it off kilter. But in doing so, it often leads to isolation and ostracism, solutions which perhaps can be found in connecting with others at a distance, insha’Allah.

Loneliness exists in both spheres of Islam and outside of it. The difference is the type of loneliness we feel. It isn’t easy to be inside this cave, but at the same time I feel it’s necessary to lick my wounds that heal with new experiences. In recently venturing out, I was kicked again but this time it pushed me to do something better with my life than the examples I have seen around me. Instead of falling down, I must get back up and evolve my ideas to be even better than what I have experienced.

Change starts with me, and in finding sustainable strategies to encourage the support for each other, I must remember that every point is a learning experience to sharpen my game. In having doors slammed in my face, I humbly step to another one beside me. And in being rejected so many times, I can better empathize with those who are unique and special just like me, insha’Allah, masha’Allah. Ameen.

Anything good is from Allah, and anything bad that I have written I seek forgiveness.

The Convert Network

Greetings and peace be upon you,

It dawned on me that here I am waiting for the perfect moment to be the perfect person, and well, that’s never going to happen.

So here it goes, the Convert Network. The idea is that there is an opportunity to socialize virtually with other converts as remote areas or ostracism has limited what is available for opportunities to speak to another. It could be one-to-one or collaborative as a group with meetings entitled Conversations with Converts done via phone, insha’Allah. It would be a nice way to get to know others in a forum using chat, and/or conversation, insha’Allah. I could improve as I go along in facilitating this, insha’Allah, but it could provide support no matter where the distance is, insha’Allah.

I don’t want to wait until March 15th, 2012 as it seems so far away, thus perhaps I’ll aim for:

Sunday Feb. 19th, 2012 4PM to 5:30PM MST insha’Allah

Skype Chat: ConvertRahRah (Skype ID)
Gmail Talk: ConvertRahRah@gmail.com
Website: http://convertrahrah.com

The idea would be live type chat conversations with each other and go from there, insha’Allah, and audio would be reserved for one-on-one unless well, there was only me and that person. Somehow it would work out, insha’Allah. Or accommodate booked appointments insha’Allah.

May Allah make it of ease, insha’Allah and of benefit and learning how to become better. Ameen.