In the Name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful
I received an email in response to my article about the phenomenon of “designer religion.” It was at once frightening and enraging. The sister was gracious enough to let me reproduce her email for this follow up, and I promised not to use her name. Let me jump to the end of her note, which really took me aback:
Please lighten up on those who have had experiences with Islam that have not been as positive as the one you are privileged to have. It’s not always a matter of us not wanting to submit to the ways of God. It may even be God’s way of showing He didn’t make us all the same.
I told her at least three times – in my reply – that she was the last person of which I was thinking when I wrote the “designer religion” article. When you read her story, it becomes painfully clear why I did thus:
I was raised a Catholic in a small Midwestern town in a family that is committed to, and find contentment and solace in the faith. I never understood the teachings and always felt there were questions about the teachings and the history of the church that needed more specific answers that the nuns were giving in religion class. The feeling never left, but I continued to go through the motions and be the dutiful Catholic mother with Sunday mass, Baptism for the children, etc. Until I read the Quran.
A few months after 9/11 I joined some Islamic chat rooms to see why my country and my people were so hated by these homicidal maniacs. And of course, I found a whole variety of Muslims who expressed political views from peaceful to hateful and everything in between. But there were a few who could engage in deep conversations on Islam, a religion that I knew nearly nothing about. Within a year I purchased a Quran and began to read. A whole new world opened up. The Oneness made sense to me. The words of the Quran reached out to me in a way that, even now, I find difficult to describe. A few months later I said the shahada and began a new relationship with God.
What unbelievable courage this woman has. To accept Islam after September 11 – with the terrible press about and terrible things that have been done in the name of Islam – is almost a miracle. Yet, almost as soon as I felt happiness over her conversion, a sense of tremendous dread overcame me:
I don’t really remember how long it took for things to begin to appear less and less like the way God described in His book. It only matters that within a short time I found that being a “good Muslim” was going to be a constant struggle for me…
And what was the definition of a “good Muslim,” sister? Read on:
“Why haven’t you changed your name?”………”You pray?, Great!, Do you pray in Arabic?”……”Are you covering?”……..”What do you mean you can’t leave your husband? That makes you a fornicator!”(from the imam at the local mosque)……..”I know its not easy for you to hate Jews, but you have to hate what Allah hates”……..and more, all from people who were supposed to be my brothers and sisters.
God help us. Yet, there is more:
Even I was critical, especially during Salat. I wondered if I was holding my hands in the proper position, if I was gazing at the right spot on the floor, heaven forbid if I happened to look upward in a time of thoughtlessness during the prayer. Was I bowing too deep? Were my arms placed correctly during sujood?, was my behind low enough?, was hair showing? I paid such attention to the ritual of it all that I had little thought into the real reason a person prays. I questioned my love of music and art. I found that I was supposed to be buying meats from places a 100 miles away. I found that there were foods not mentioned in the Book that were also haram. I worried that I should not be attending any holiday or holy day meals with family. So much questioning and concern eroded the love I had once felt for Islam.
What was the end result?
So I left.
God help us. She is not the one of whom I was thinking when I wrote the “designer religion” article. She was driven from Islam by the Muslims themselves.
I was born and raised in the faith; Islam permeated my life and experiences from the very beginning. Someone who comes into the faith, however, abandons everything he or she ever knows to be true and enters into something completely new. The one who converts to Islam leaves everything behind to come to our fold. Very few of us truly understands how that feels, and, most unfortunately, even fewer of our community and religious leaders understand the same.
These Muslims made the sister so worried about the form of her Islam that the substance of her Islam suffered (although I bet her Islam today is even stronger than it was before. She told me that she took with her the One God and still reads the Qur’an). Indeed, the form of the ritual practice is very important: one does have to pray the daily prayer in correct manner. Yet, was Islam ever “now or never”? Wasn’t Islam an evolution?
When was the daily prayer prescribed upon the Muslims? Almost thirteen years after the Prophet (pbuh) was commissioned. How about the fast of Ramadan? After the Muslims emigrated to Medinah. And the Hajj? Also in Medinah. We must not forget that it was the streets of Medinah (not Makkah) that “flowed with wine” when the prohibition of alcohol was revealed in the Qur’an. Islam is a process, and – as the actor who played Bilal (r) in the film The Message said – “it can take years or just a few moments.” In fact, it took Abu Sufyan (r) almost the Prophet’s (pbuh) entire life to finally accept Islam.
Now, just to be absolutely clear, I am not saying that a convert should wait 13 years to pray five times a day, or abstain from alcohol, or start fasting during Ramadan. Absolutely not. What I am saying, however, is that we – those of us who allegedly “understand” Islam because we were raised in the faith – should have the utmost of patience and understanding for those of our brothers and sisters who come into this beautiful faith. And what is most important is that we always stress the beauty and joy of being in love with God: because that is, in my view, the essence of Islam.
For the first 12-13 years of the Prophet’s (pbuh) mission, the primary focus of the Qur’an was the Oneness of God. God was training these once pagans to be partisans of the One; that training takes time. Once they were in tune with the Oneness of God, they readily accepted and wholly engrossed themselves in the ritual practices – proper form and all. Similarly, the convert is entering into, as the sister herself said it, “a new relationship with God.” Learning about God anew takes time, yet, once the new believer gets to know the Precious Beloved that is our God, I believe she will fall over herself to pray, fast, and the like. Let us give them their time. Even though all we see is the outward from, let us never make the mistake of thinking that the form reflects the condition of the heart.
I am certain that the situation with this sister has repeated itself all over the American Muslim community, and it is a terrible shame. It is not easy to be a Muslim – especially nowadays – and we have to be very careful not to quickly overburden new Muslims with the minutiae of the faith. I myself – as a teenager – got so caught up with the minute details of Islam that I almost said, “Enough already with Islam!” several times. What about someone who has never been Muslim before?
Islam has never been “now or never.” Why are we starting now? What are we doing to our faith?