What is Islam? The attempt to answer that question has been the subject of an almost countless number of symposia, doctoral dissertations, college classes, and books. Yet, for all the hours of lectures that have been given; for all the ink and paper that has been consumed, the answer is still not easy to come by. What is Islam? Is it the five “pillars” of worship? Is it the Ka’ba in Mecca? The Prophet’s (peace be upon him) mosque in Medina? Is it suicide bombers in Israel or Iraq? Is it Osama bin Laden? Ask most Muslims, and they will tell you Islam is none of these things.
Yet, ask that same question to most Americans, and you will likely get a different answer. I recently received an email from someone who told me that she basically disliked Muslims after being married to one for five years. She suspects that he married her to get his Green Card, because, after getting married, he subjected her to horrible abuse. She has since separated from this man. Her story reminded me of another man, a Muslim, whose non-Muslim wife had a very good opinion of Islam…until they were cheated out of their money by a “devout” Muslim.
When I mention these situations to other Muslims, many of them understandably get upset. It is not fair, they tell me, that their opinion of Islam is shaped by the conduct of a few bad apples in the Muslim community. They are absolutely correct. The whole of Islam should never be judged by the sins of a few Muslims, and I have repeatedly made this plea in my writings. Yet, the problem is many, if not most, Americans have never personally interacted with a Muslim before, and sadly, the first interaction these Americans had with Islam and Muslims was on the fateful morning of September 11, 2001. Sad, but probably true nonetheless.
Since that time, Muslims – including this one – have toiled hard to show that Islam is not what happened on September 11. Muslims are not like the 19 hijackers who killed close to 3,000 innocent Americans in New York and Washington, D.C. Yet, American Muslims have to wake up to reality, and the reality is this: many, if not most, Americans shape their opinions about Islam based upon the Muslims with whom they interact. Islam is what the Muslims are. It may not be entirely fair, but that is the way it is.
Herein lies one of the most important challenges for American Muslims today: since we are what Islam is, we have to physically embody the ideals of Islam. We have to become the eloquently written books and pristine pamphlets that we so proudly display to non-Muslims seeking to learn more about the faith.
And those books and pamphlets set a very high standard. They say that I slam calls for the worship of the One God of Abraham, and submitting one’s will to His sets you free. So why, then, are so many cultural traditions – ones that contradict the principles of Islam – taken to be Islamic doctrine? The books and pamphlets say that men and women are equal in Islam. So why, then, are so many Muslim women subjected to so much mistreatment across the Muslim world?
The books and pamphlets say that Islam prohibits suicide and abhors violence against the innocent. So why, then, are there Muslims who strap bombs on themselves and kill innocent people in the name of Allah? The books and pamphlets say that all Muslims are brothers and sisters; they say the bonds of Islam transcend racial and ethnic background. So why, then, is there still so much racism in the Muslim community today?
The existence of these inconsistencies is a fact, and it has very significant consequences. American Muslim youth see these inconsistencies, and they frequently become disenchanted and lose faith in the faith. New converts to Islam – who probably embraced the faith because of what they read in the books and pamphlets – also see these consistencies and frequently become disenchanted. And when fellow Americans see these inconsistencies, it has the potential to erect barriers of misunderstanding and suspicion, precluding a harmonious co-existence as neighbors and countrymen.
It should not be so, and none other than God Himself said so: “Believers! Why do you say one thing and do another? Most loathsome is it in the sight of God that you say what you do not do” (61:2-3). As Muslims, we cannot hide behind the unfairness of being judged by the sins of our few; we must always live and breathe the ideals of Islam. We must strive to be how the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was described by his wife A’isha (God be pleased with her): a Qur’an walking upon the earth.
It is indeed a daunting challenge, but it is one we must take up. Not so that fellow Americans will have a good opinion of Islam, even though that would be of great benefit. No so that Muslim youth and those new to the faith do not become disenchanted with Islam, even though these are laudable goals. No. Muslims must do as their books and pamphlets say because it is what God wants. And if we claim to be His servants, then we cannot settle for anything less.