Monday, December 2, 2013

Keeping it real: some thoughts on the struggles of the Islamic 'convert'.

Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world . This is something acknowledged by friend and foe alike, despite the fact that there are actually very limited [if any] organized efforts at missionary work, of the kind that Christian missionaries engage in. There are many reasons behind this growth, far beyond the scope of this article, but nonetheless there are certain commonalities in terms of the struggles the new Muslim may find themselves in, especially in Western countries. Below are some guidelines, important for both the 'convert' and the Muslim community activists, Imams, employees and teachers.

[1] Muslim: first and foremost

Within the Islamic community as well as the media, titles such as 'convert' or 'revert'[ft.#1] are commonly used. It is our view that such titles, to be used even for people who have been Muslims for over 20 years, are artificial, and, most dangerously, makes an implication that Muslims born into the faith or whose origins are from Islamic nations are more authentic and superior to the newcomer. These sort of assumptions are incorrect and are contrary to the teachings of the Qur'an and Prophetic Sunnah. It should be sufficient to cite the following Quranic assertion:
" Verily, in Allah's sight the most honorable are those with the highest amount of Taqwaa in your midst." [Q 49:13]

[2] Intra community relations

It is often the case that the new Muslim feels alone in the mosque. In  the United States, most of the mosques are filled with a mixture of ethnic groups, sectarian tendencies and even generational differences.The new Muslim may feel disheartened, lonely. It is incumbent on the community to not only be welcoming, but to be accommodating, have classes on the necessities of practice, to build real social relations, but also to have respect for the new Muslim. Know that the new Muslim is not, NOT, required to adopt the attitudes, food and clothing of a different culture. Corrections of each other should never be done in arrogance or spite.
There is suppose to exist a relation of respect and equality between Muslims, regardless of racial backround or history.
"The believing men and women are protecting allies of one another, commanding what is right [by universal standards ] [ft.#2], forbid what is disgusting [Munkar], establishing prayers, pay Zakaat, obey Allah and his messenger, it is they whom Allah bestows mercy, verily Allah is powerful, wise." [Q 9:71]

[3] In the wider society: family and friends

There are a number of trends, both healthy and otherwise, that are found in the enthusiastic brother or sister who has accepted Islam. Indeed, the  struggle to do right and resist the influences of  the pre-Islamic lifestyle are in a tug-of war, being most visible during holidays and in social interactions. Below is a summary of issues and an Islamic response.

[A] Name change

Very often Muslims change their names. While this is acceptable, let it be known that the only names that have to be changed are names that have a bad meaning or names that imply worship of something other than God. In Sunan Abu Dawood, the blessed Prophet Muhammad [sall Allahu 'alayhi wa sallam] is said to have changed a person named shaytaan [satan] to another name, or of a person named Harb [war] to Salm [calmness], and the like. In the Prophet's days, and even today among Bedouins, a rough or ugly name was seen as toughening up the child to survive in a harsh world. But it is the messengers of God who teach that a goodly name is among the best things parents give to their children.

[B] Religious differences creating family tensions

From our side, we are to keep to our religion, but strive to keep good relations with family. The Qur'an itself asserts
[Revere thy parents;] yet should they endeavour to make thee ascribe divinity, side by side with Me, to something which thy mind cannot accept [as divine],  obey them not; but [even then] bear them company in this world’s life with kindness, and follow the path of those who turn towards Me. In the end, unto Me you all must return; and thereupon I shall make you [truly] understand all that you were doing [in life].’'[ Q 31:15, Muhammad Asad translation]
[C] Holidays [Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter etc]

This is probably the most sensitive of issues, because it is during the holiday seasons that serve as the bonding periods among families. Our advice is to not participate in the religious aspects of these activities. After all, Christmas [to highlight an example] celebrates the birth of Jesus, whom Christians believe to be God and the son of God. As Muslims we obviously don't accept these doctrines, so it would make no sense to celebrate it. But we see no harm in dining with the family in this time. Family relations are very important in Islam. So, in the dinners, if pork and alcohol are served, simply don't eat those items. Similarly, if the family observes Non Islamic religious rituals, such as going to Christmas services, don't go to that, but catch up with them later.[ft.#3]


[1] The term "revert" stems from an understanding that Islam is something innate in human beings, therefore, when we accept Islam, we are not changing, rather, we are "reverting" back to our original nature. This understanding itself is based on the hadeeth:  " Every child is born upon the natural disposition [Al-Fitrah], his parents make him Jewish, Christian or Zoroastrian." [Bayhaqi]

[2] Al-Ma'roof: Those healthy, recognized and accepted universal values that are needed for every society.

[3] It is well known that many of the holidays, including the religious holidays such as Christmas and Easter, have origins in pagan culture and belief. Be that as it may, in the West these occasions are observed and families take advantage of them by having family gatherings. It is the family gatherings that we are emphasizing here. It is often argued that even to do this is to engage in compromising one's Islam and pollute the faith with innovations [Bid'ah]. But we find this reasoning to be flawed for a number of reasons. [1] We accept to be paid extra  to work at these times. [2] We shop on 'black friday'[the day after thanksgiving], looking for deals. [3] Most of us are off work on Saturdays and Sundays, which are the sabbath periods for Jews and Christians respectively, and even the mosques, taking advantage of the day of rest and worship in the West, have major activities on both days.

It is for each person to make their own decisions based on their own conscious when it comes to issues of this kind. For a discussion on Thanksgiving, see Shaykh Luqman Ahmad's article [2[/url] . For an opposing view, as well as an interesting analysis of popular television programs, music and even Biblical texts, see the book Symbolism, Holidays, Myths and Signs by Imam Alauddin Shabazz [ 1993, New Mind Publications, Jersey City, New Jersey]