Giving Islam a Bad Name

malala yousufzai 2Today, on her 16th birthday, Malala Yousafzai addressed the United Nations about her experience of being shot by the Taliban for speaking out on the importance of education for girls. On the day she was shot, she said, “nothing changed in my life except this—weakness, fear and hopelessness died.”

I can’t even imagine the courage it took, and still takes, for girls to attend school in northwestern Pakistan. There have been more than 800 attacks on schools in the region since 2009. Schools are routinely bombed in the middle of the night. Existing schools have armed guards during the day. And yet many girls still attend; their desire to be educated is that strong.

But this post isn’t primarily about their courage or Malala’s message. I’m writing today because of the great sadness, and yes, anger, I feel about the dishonor the Taliban and other like-minded organizations bring on Islam.

The Pakistani Taliban says that the education of girls is a symbol of Western decadence and governmental authority. They also bomb schools to keep the military from being able to establish temporary bases in them. But of course their motivation isn’t really about politics, it’s about protecting the sanctity of Islam.

Excuse my language, but that’s bull***t. And I’m sick and tired of organizations like the Taliban using Islam as an excuse to acquire power and intimidate enemies.

I accepted Islam as my religion partly because I admired its emphasis on the acquisition of knowledge. To me, education is almost as sacred as worship. For what good to Allah is a Muslim who is ignorant, especially willfully so? And why would Allah want women to be ignorant when they are the very foundation of the family?

It’s bad enough that some Muslims kill in the name of Allah. But most non-Muslims realize that these are the actions of a few deluded fanatics. However, when they hear that whole Islamic organizations advocate the repression and mistreatment of women, they find it hard to give Muslims the benefit of the doubt.

I’m tired of non-Muslims looking at me like I’m crazy when I say that Islam is an egalitarian religion and that Mohammad admonished his followers to treat women with justice and respect. I despair of ever convincing them to give Islam a chance when the news is full of stories about honor killings, female genital mutilation and deadly attacks on schoolgirls.

The media are partly to blame for sensationalizing the negative, but not as much as fundamentalists are for perpetrating the myth that Islam is patriarchal and misogynist. I feel like a mother whose child has been wrongly accused of wrongdoing; my heart breaks at the damage that is done to Islam’s reputation in the world.

Sometimes I imagine the day when all these “pious” Muslims will be judged for how they distorted Islam’s message. We all have sins we dread being confronted with on Judgment Day, but I hope that making the lives of half of Allah’s children miserable won’t be one of mine.

Does New Year’s Have a Place in Islam?

Yesterday MuslimMatters published the article, “4 Reasons Why Muslims Should Not Celebrate New Years.” The author, Muhammad Wajid Akhter, does not claim to be an Islamic scholar and he does acknowledge that there is a difference of opinion about this even among scholars. However, he did have four reasons that I thought were worth considering, for those of us who are unsure about our obligations as Muslims in a non-Muslim world. (Obviously, if you live in a Muslim country, this won’t be as much of an issue.)

  • Reason Number One: It is technically inaccurate–and pagan.
  • Reason Number Two: What exactly is there to celebrate?
  • Reason Number Three: It usually involves un-Islamic practices.
  • Reason Number Four: It is against the spirit of Islam.

There are a lot of celebrations in the United States that are technically inaccurate. The Declaration of Independence wasn’t actually signed on the 4th of July, for instance. As for paganism, is a holiday pagan just because it doesn’t have its roots in Islam?

If those were the rules, then Muslims wouldn’t participate in any holidays except for the two Eids. There are those, of course, who think that we shouldn’t, but most Muslims at least recognize the existence of holidays that are civic rather then religious. After all, most of us live in civic, rather than religious, societies. (I prefer the word “civic” to “secular” because we are governed by a concern for the common good more than by a desire to be non-religious.)

As Muslims, we do have our own New Year to celebrate, but in non-Muslim societies life is arranged around other calendars, most notably the Gregorian calendar. We go to work and school and conduct our business according to that calendar. The Hijri calendar is invaluable to Muslims in the observance of our faith, but we cannot force non-Muslim societies to operate according to it.

New Year’s Eve and Day are traditionally set aside for celebration and for reflection. Not all celebrants go out to bars and drink. In my family, for instance, we spend New Year’s Day sharing a meal together, reminiscing about the year just past and sharing our hopes for the year to come. That could be done anytime, but New Year’s is the time when we are all reminded to do so. (Since my family is non-Muslim, I don’t expect them to observe the Islamic New Year.)

Holidays are there to make us stop and remember things we have decided, as a society, are important to remember. New Year’s reminds us that we made it through another year, which is no small thing in this day and age. It reminds us that we’re all in this together. And it reminds us that we have more life to look forward to, God willing. How does that go against the spirit of Islam?

Some Muslims are scared to acknowledge cultural traditions other than their own for fear that they will lose their Muslim identity. Well, I’ve got news for you: there’s a difference between culture and religion. Many things that Muslims observe as Islamic are actually cultural traditions that technically have no place in Islam as a religion. Being a Muslim is a state of one’s heart and soul, not a matter of language or food or local customs.

Many new Muslims are confused by the things born Muslims tell them they must do because they can’t see how they have anything to do with the observance of Islam. Because Islam developed in certain cultures, it’s hard to separate Allah’s requirements from people’s traditions. Too often, when a convert comes from a non-Muslim culture, he is made to feel inferior and in danger of going to Hell if he observes his own cultural traditions.

I’d like to make a case for new and born Muslims who find themselves in a non-Muslim culture to find ways to incorporate their faith into their daily lives. What’s wrong with celebrating the Gregorian New Year’s by going to the mosque and making special prayers for the world? Why can’t we get together with our families and friends and tell them that we value the life that Allah has given us?

There’s one more step that we could take to counterbalance the influence non-Muslim society has on Muslims: we can and should be putting more emphasis on our own New Year. Usually it comes and goes with no mention of it anywhere, sometimes barely even in the mosque.

There’s nothing wrong with what New Year’s stands for. It’s how we celebrate it that counts.

Can Muslims Celebrate Halloween?

October brings with it another problem for Muslims: Is it all right for us to celebrate Halloween?

On the blog GOATMILK, as part of its ongoing series of debates,  a guest blogger recently wrote an article about why Muslims should be allowed to practice Halloween. (See article here.) Basically her reasoning went like this:

Other cultural practices lack an Islamic origin or a pure history, but have permeated into the fabric of our lives, and have evolved to become part of mainstream Muslim culture, too, like engagement rings, white wedding dresses and even the Hajj. …

Halloween allows kids to participate in a larger community outside their homes and classrooms.  Think about how Muslim kids appear/feel when they are barred from partaking in Halloween activities. How would Muslims appear to the world if we shunned the Olympics? …

Halloween is a cultural tradition that should be as permissible and mainstream to American Muslims as sporting events or other cultural traditions here. …

I have a few problems with her premises. First of all, Halloween is not on the same par as the Olympics.

Although many Halloween customs have their origins in pagan rituals, the holiday itself was given a religious spin by the Christian Church. According to Wikipedia:

It was traditionally believed that the souls of the departed wandered the earth until All Saints’ Day, and All Hallows’ Eve provided one last chance for the dead to gain vengeance on their enemies before moving onto the next world. To avoid being recognized by a soul, Christians would wear masks and costumes to disguise themselves, following the lighted candles set by others to guide their travel for worship the next day.

Secondly, if we followed the author’s criteria, it would also be permissible to receive gifts from Santa Claus or participate in Easter egg hunts. Those practices have become secularized and commercialized, but they still have ties to religious doctrine. Giving gifts at Christmas is in imitation of the Three Wise Men who brought gifts to the baby Jesus; the egg is the symbol of new life, as in Jesus’ resurrection. To pretend that they are merely secular inventions is a way of kidding ourselves that there is no harm in observing them.

Thirdly, since when do we decide what practices are haram and halal by how much they alienate us from non-Muslims? By that reasoning, we shouldn’t wear Islamic clothing, or use Arabic phrases in our speech, or pray five times a day, or do any number of things that make us seem different from other Americans.

On the contrary, we should stand proud as Muslims and insist on our right to be considered American, too. What kind of country would this be if everyone had to be alike? And what are we teaching our children if we allow them to conform to the majority just to be accepted?

I’m not saying that I think we should avoid doing everything that is not distinctly Islamic. Even Muslims don’t agree about what exactly is halal and haram. But one thing we do agree on is that our religion is unique. People should be able to tell the difference between a Muslim and everyone else.

Feeling Lost as a Convert

Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world (although it is second in number of adherents). This is partly because of the growth of Muslim families, but it is also because of an increasingly large number of converts. However, what many Muslims don’t realize is that many of these new Muslims leave the faith after months or even years of being converts.

See this article, “Why Are New Muslims Leaving the Faith?” from Islam21c.

I’ve been a Muslim for three years now and I can relate to much of what is written in this article. I haven’t been tempted to leave Islam, but I’ve sometimes wondered if I have what it takes to be a Muslim. I know that all it takes to become a Muslim is the statement of faith (the Shahada). But being a Muslim (a “good” or practicing Muslim) is another thing altogether.

Here’s where I think things go wrong for many converts:

  1. Muslims are not completely honest beforehand about what is expected of the new convert.
  2. Muslims bombard the new convert with all these rules that he is suddenly supposed to live by.
  3. Many of the rules have no basis in Islam, but are cultural conventions.
  4. There are so many differing opinions about some issues, the new convert becomes confused.
  5. Born Muslims have no idea how hard it is for the convert to completely change his or her life.
  6. Most new converts are handicapped by the fact that they don’t know Arabic.
  7. Converts are often isolated from other Muslims and find it hard to break into new groups.
  8. Muslims expect too much too soon and get impatient with converts who take a long time to adjust.
  9. Muslims expect converts to just “pick up” how to be Muslims on their own.
  10. Converts are afraid to admit how much trouble they are having and don’t know where to go for help.

I was very fortunate that when I became a Muslim, I had a lot of born Muslims who befriended me and whom I saw every day. They always asked how I was doing and were ready to help in any way they could. They invited me into their homes and went with me to the masjid. It was a wonderful introduction to Islam and I will forever be grateful to Allah for bringing these people into my life.

But things change. Now most of these friends have moved away. I have no one to go to the masjid with or to ask for advice. The only consistent fellowship I have is on Facebook. I’ve begun to slip in my commitment to pray and to wear the hijab. Eids have become a lonely time for me. Ramadan seems pointless.

Much of this is my fault, I know. If I need help I should ask for it. I should do all I can to increase my iman and develop my deen. I need to pray more than ever and ask Allah to help me. I should keep in touch with all my Muslims friends and be honest with them about how I’m doing. (This is really hard!) I don’t have to do this alone.

But I think we all feel that we should be able to. That there’s something wrong with us if we can’t. However, speaking for myself, I feel so overwhelmed by all I don’t know that I just don’t know where to start. Should I learn Arabic? Memorize the Qur’an? (In English??) Force myself to go to the masjid (which, by the way, is doubly hard for a woman)? Watch YouTube videos about Islam and how to be a better Muslim? Sign up for forums and ask strangers for guidance? Bug my Muslim friends with complaints and questions?

What makes it even harder is that I live in a predominantly Christian nation. People just assume that everyone is Christian (unless told otherwise). I was raised as a Christian and most of my family and spiritual memories revolve around Christian traditions and rituals. Being a Christian comes as naturally to me as breathing. Being a Muslim does not.

It’s also hard when Muslims form groups and cliques according to their ethnicity or nationality. If you don’t belong to their group and speak their language, you’re the odd man (or woman) out.

You know what my greatest joy is? When someone says “Asalaam alaykum” to me when I’m out running errands. Those are the times when I feel like a part of the great big wonderful community of Muslims. Those are the times when I feel like I belong.

Another convert weighs in on this issue here.

Learning About My Religion

It’s very frustrating for me to be ignorant about my religion.

I was born into a Christian family and baptized as a baby. As a child I went to Sunday School almost every week and attended Vacation Bible School almost every summer. I was confirmed into the Lutheran Church when I was 15. And if I ever had any other questions about God or Christianity, I turned to my grandfather who was a Doctor of Divinity and Lutheran minister.

My religious education didn’t stop there. I married a ministerial student when I was 20 and for the next ten years I studied the Bible, helped my husband with papers and, after he graduated, became a full-fledged minister’s wife, which meant that I was very active in the church.

I was no theologian, but I had a good basic understanding of Christian doctrine. I knew the history of the Christian Church and the differences among the various denominations. I’d read the Bible several times and knew many passages by heart. I could hold my own in a discussion about Christianity.

But when it comes to knowledge about Islam, I’m at a disadvantage, since I didn’t become a Muslim until I was 57.

And to tell you the truth, Muslims don’t make it easy to learn about Islam. That’s because they have a schizophrenic attitude toward knowledge.

On the one hand, the Prophet Mohammad reportedly praised those who sought knowledge.

The superiority of the knowledgeable man over the worshiper in Islam is like the superiority of the full moon over the rest of the planets. And the scholars are the inheritors of the Prophets, but the Prophets did not leave behind wealth but they left behind knowledge. And whoever takes this knowledge takes a great fortune. (Abu Dawud, Ibn Majah, Tirmidhi)

But on the other hand, many Muslims (including—or even especially—scholars) discourage the practice of thinking for themselves. If they have a question about some facet of Islam, they are to seek out the opinions of the shayks (scholars) who have made it their lives’ work to study Islam. That’s not so different from what adherents of any religion do of course, with one important difference: Muslims are taught that the age of discovering what is true about Islam and how to live Islamically is in the past.

To understand what I mean, it’s important to know the meaning of the terms ijtihad and taqlidIjtihad is the making of a decision in Islamic law (sharia) by personal effort (jihad), independently of any school (madhhab) of jurisprudence (fiqh).  The opposite of ijtihad is taqlid,  which is copying or obeying without question.

As long as Mohammad was alive, questions about how to live one’s life as a Muslim were referred to him. Even today, Muslims use his teachings and example (the Sunnah) as guidelines. But not everything is covered in the Qur’an and the Sunnah, and it is here where ijtihad came in.

There were basically two ways that ijtihad could be utilized. One was through the schools of thought or jurisprudence that developed over the centuries after Mohammad’s death. The other was through personal reasoning which emphasized freedom of thought and the quest for truth.

Over time, a concern arose that the latter type of ijtihad could lead to errors in judgement and by the 10th Century (C.E.) a consensus developed that the time for independent reasoning was over. Only a very select group could issue decrees on various issues and then only based on scholarship that occurred before the closing of the door of ijtihad.

Today many Muslims seem caught between ijtihad and taqlid. As they seek to find ways to make Islam more relevant to their lives, they’re confused about how much they can figure out for themselves and how much they have to defer to a mujtahid (properly-qualified scholar).

Let me give you an example: Shortly after my conversion I was told that I should divorce my husband because he isn’t a Muslim. (Actually, some of my “advisors” said that I had to divorce him.) They based their admonition on the ruling that it is unlawful for a Muslim woman to marry an unbeliever. In my opinion, this is taqlid.

The reasoning behind the rule is that if a Muslim woman marries a non-Muslim, she is running the risk that her children will not be raised as Muslims. There is also the concern that she would not be treated according to Islamic principles; i.e., her husband would not be obligated to support her and the family, she would not receive a dowry from him before marriage, money she earned would not be her own, and so on.

But there are several things in my situation that make this rule irrelevant: 1) I am past the age of childbearing and have no minor children living at home with me; 2) I didn’t go out and marry a non-Muslim; I was already married to him; 3) I have my own financial resources; and most importantly, 4) my husband is completely supportive of my conversion to Islam.

It took me a long time to make peace with my decision to stay married. As a new convert, I was overly concerned with following all the rules. I thought I’d be a bad Muslim if I didn’t.

But that’s just the problem: there are so many rules in Islam that it’s impossible to know them all. And since even the scholars differ, there is only one other higher authority to go to: Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful, the All-Knowing.

The cornerstone of Islam is prayer and I believe that is no accident. Allah requires that we seek knowledge, but He also reminds us that He alone knows all the answers. Prayer is not supposed to be a rote ritual; it is supposed to be an active conversation with Allah. We are to ask Him for all that we need, and that includes all that we need to know.