Moving Closer to God

I’ve been reading What’s Right With Islam by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf lately. He has a very easy-to-read writing style without being simplistic.  He writes about our spiritual life as a journey of development as we open up to God more and more. I never thought of it in quite that way before. I just thought, Oh, I have to obey all these rules to show God that I’m obedient/submitted. But that’s making obedience the end, when the end is actually communion with God. A fine difference but a hugely important one.

Claude Monet, Bend in the Epte River Near Giverny, 1888

I read an analogy the other day about how some people look at a Monet painting and all they see are the dots while others see the whole picture. The writer said that’s like Muslims who get so hung up on the rules that they lose the sense of what they’re all for. They don’t see the whole picture.

Imam Rauf also writes about how some people will emphasize some of the names or attributes of God to the exclusion of the others, but that gives them a limited picture of God and prevents them from entering into complete communion with Him. He said that the one who has embraced all the 99 names of God will be the most blessed when he enters Paradise. The point is that when you know God so fully, you will be able to commune with Him that fully when you are in Heaven. (Imam Rauf also described Hell as lack of communion with God.)

It’s true that when we’re caught up in our own little world of human emotions and motivations we feel trapped. The feeling is almost like panic. I don’t want to be here, we cry. I don’t like the way this feels. Let me out of here! That must be what Hell feels like, only to the nth degree. But the more we practice the things that move us closer to God, the less panicky we feel. At least that’s the way that I experience it. My recent experience of not getting the jobs I interviewed for is a case in point: I was so overcome by hurt and feeling rejected, and so full of anger, I just wanted to lash out—I thought that would ease my pain. But it wouldn’t have; it would only have made things worse. When you do that, you’re moving away from God, not toward Him. You’re descending into Hell.

Why is it that I’m finding a peace in Islam that I stopped feeling in Christianity? I was worshiping the same God. But I didn’t know where to go from there. Islam gives you a blueprint for how to live; Christianity just gives you platitudes. Oh, sure, Christians have Jesus as a model to emulate, but so do Muslims. The Bible doesn’t address human nature the way the Qur’an does. Both talk about man’s shortcomings, but the Qur’an slams the point home. And yet it doesn’t leave it there; it’s not fire and brimstone. It tells us exactly what we must do to transcend the negative parts of our nature. It teaches us the absolute importance of submission and gives us practical examples of things we can/should do to enter into a close relationship with Allah. Again, the point isn’t our being submitted; the point is what is possible because we’re submitted.

Submission manifests itself in three ways: in our actions, our faith (beliefs), and our openness to God. Imam Rauf describes it as a progression. If we stay stuck in any one phase, we will never reach true communion with God. If all we emphasize, for instance, is following the rules, we’ll never experience God as more than a taskmaster. When we start doing what we do because of our faith, we draw closer to God. This is where many people stop. But there’s one more step: letting our selves fall away and all barriers between us and God dissolve. Then we have seen Paradise.

This last phase is a hard one to reach. It’s mainly mystics (or Sufis) who seek to go there. But we all can get glimpses of this degree of closeness to God. When we meditate on God’s nature, when we pray for others, when we lose ourselves in prayer, when we bend to God’s will, when we are overwhelmed by thoughts of God’s grace and mercy. These moments may not come very often, but, inshallah, they motivate us to seek more. The catch is that we cannot experience closeness to God just by willing it; we have to practice it.

My Prayer Problem

I’ve always valued prayer, but rarely practiced it as a Christian. Oh, I would pray “on the fly,” little snippets here and there. I talked a lot to God in my head, but I didn’t listen very often. For a while, I kept a prayer journal—I found it easier to write my prayers than to say them. But that was partly a cop-out. I just didn’t want to commit myself to regular, on-my-knees prayer.

It surprised me that one thing I found attractive about Islam was its emphasis on prayer. I think I wanted to be more devoted to prayer, but I didn’t have the structure I needed to keep me on the right path. Islam has given me that structure. Because Allah knew that humans have trouble committing themselves to prayer  He set up a schedule and a specific pattern for us to follow.

But old habits die hard, if you can call not praying very often a habit. I’ve been a Muslim for over a year now, and I’m still having trouble getting in all my prayers every day. I was better at first because I was afraid to miss any. I was afraid to fail as a Muslim. I didn’t see that I was, and always will be, a Muslim in the making. Allah knows my weaknesses, my failures and my sins better than I do. He also knows my intentions. I pray that He will be merciful to me and forgive me for the acts I omit as well as the acts I commit.

I love Muslim prayer. I love the words and the movements. I love that Allah saw fit to give us detailed instructions. I love feeling more aware of Him and of others when I pray. And I especially love the peace that comes over me when know I’m doing His will.

So why don’t I do it more often?

I don’t pray as often:

  • when I look at prayer as an obligation instead of an opportunity.
  • when I focus too much on how I pray rather than on what I pray.
  • when I forget how much I need to be forgiven.
  • when I forget how much it blesses others (when I make du’a for them).
  • because I’m human.

Prayer is an opportunity for us to rise above our human nature through submission to Allah. He reminds us in prayer that we need Him; He doesn’t need us. But even though He requires us to pray, it is a gift, not a burden. It is both His gift to us and our gift to others.

I have a tendency to think that devotion to Allah just comes upon us. I forget that it comes through discipline. The Pillar of prayer gives us the opportunity to become more disciplined by practicing it.

This public confession is my way of admitting my failure and also of asking for help, from Allah and from others, through the prayers they pray on my behalf. We cannot rectify a problem if we don’t admit that a problem exists.

What Do Muslims Really Think?

This video is based on the Gallup poll of Muslims around the world as to what they really think about a variety of issues, like extremism, women and democracy.

Inside Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think from Unity Productions Foundation on Vimeo.

Gallup also published a book, Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, in order to report its findings. It includes commentary by John L. Esposito, Ph.D. and Dalia Mogahed, which clearly analyzes the poll’s results.

From the introduction:

Islam is not to its adherents what it might appear to outside observers: simply a restrictive shell of rules and punishments. To many Muslims, it is a spiritual mental map that offers meaning, guidance, purpose and hope.

For more information, see the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies on Gallup.com, which includes PDFs of core learnings about the Muslim world. For more about the book, go here.

I think it’s important for Muslims to learn as much as we can about not only our religion, but also about fellow Muslims. It’s fine to give personal testimony, but we should also be able to show that we are in touch with what other Muslims think. Too many non-Muslims don’t see the difference between politics and religion or the similarity between themselves and Muslims. We should be able to show them the way.

Taking a New Name

There are two schools of thought about whether or not a new convert should take a new name.

Some think that a new name signifies a fresh start, which is what you get when you become a Muslim. It is not so much that you are denouncing your old life, but that you are embracing a new one. People who advocate taking a new name generally think that it’s an important part of the conversion process.

Others think that you should stick with the name you were born with, since that is part of your identity. When converts re-name themselves, they usually pick Arabic names and if they’re not Arabs themselves, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Those who do pick Arabic names often do so to mark themselves as Muslim, in much the same way that Muslim women wear hijabs. But continuing to use your birth name also tells people, once they learn that you’re Muslim, that Islam is for all people, not just for Arabs.

I’m torn on the issue. If I’d been required to pick a new name when I converted, it might have been too big a change for me at a time when everything else was changing. It was enough that I was becoming a Muslim. I didn’t think that I had to take a new name to “prove” that I had become one. Besides, my birth name means a lot to me, since it is part of my heritage.

On the other hand, a new name might have helped me to take on my new identity more quickly.

Some new Muslims continue to use their birth names, but also take an Islamic name which they either incorporate into their birth name or only use on certain occasions. I’ve had people tell me, “I’m ______[birth name], but my Muslim name is______.” That seems like a good compromise, except I can’t help but wonder what the point is. It could be that most people don’t want to go to the expense of changing their names legally, so they just use their Islamic names informally.  That’s probably what I would do, if I ever take a Muslim name.

I’ve considered it. I probably will if I can decide on the name that feels right to me. One possibility is to use an Arabic name that means the same as my birth name. My first name is Ellen, which means ‘light’ and that translates into ‘noor.’ I like the simplicity of that name, but it sounds almost too stark in combination with my last name, which is also one syllable (Keim).

Another possibility is a name that sounds like my birth name. Since there aren’t a lot of Arabic names that start with ‘E’, that’s been hard to find. The closest I’ve come is ‘Eiliyah,’ but I don’t even know how to pronounce it. Beside, its meaning would make me sound conceited if I picked it for myself: “The beautiful one to grow in peace and love with God.” I would like to think that describes me, but I know better!

I’ve also thought about using my middle name, because it’s in the Bible: Elizabeth. I’d like to find out how you would say that in Arabic. It means ‘God’s promise,’ but I don’t know how to translate that into Arabic.

Have any of my readers who are converts taken Muslim names? If yes, did they replace your birth names, did you incorporate them into your birth names, or do you just use them informally?

Also, do any of you have favorite names to suggest for me? I realize that most of you only know me through my posts, but I’d be interested in what you think would be a good name for me.

ADDED NOTE: I just learned that Muslims are only to change their first names when they have bad or wrong meanings. I’m very fortunate that my first name, Ellen, means “Light” and my middle name, Elizabeth, means “God’s promise.” I also learned that all Muslims, even women, are to keep their biological father’s last name. So there is feminism in Islam!

What’s the Big Deal About Islamic Clothing?

There are predominantly three images that come to mind when those who are afraid of Muslims think of Islam: the World Trade Center on fire and collapsing on 9/11, Muslim men protesting in the streets, and Muslim women covering their bodies with Islamic clothing.

Really? I can understand the first two, but what a woman wears? How can that be threatening? From what I’ve read and heard, there are several reasons that people feel threatened by Muslim women dressing hijab (which means any way of dressing that is in compliance with the Qur’anic command to cover all but one’s face and hands). They all have to do with the belief that Muslim women who cover are hiding something, mainly their identities, weapons/bombs and criminal behavior.

Daniel Pipes* writes in his post, “Ban the Burqa – and the Niqab Too“:

[B]urqas and niqabs should be banned in all public spaces because they present a security risk. Anyone might lurk under those shrouds – female or male, Muslim or non-Muslim, decent citizen, fugitive, or criminal – with who knows what evil purposes…The time has come everywhere to ban from public places these hideous, unhealthy, socially divisive, terrorist-enabling, and criminal-friendly garments.

People use all kinds of disguises; does that mean that we should ban Nixon masks and nuns’ habits? Make it a criminal offense to grow a beard or wear sunglasses?

People who raise these objections usually temper their protests by saying that a Muslim woman can wear whatever she wants in private, that is only in public spaces that they must comply with a ban. Well, I have news for you folks: Muslim women don’t cover at home (as long as they are surrounded by family); they cover in public specifically because it exposes them to strangers. The real issue is one of privacy. Don’t Muslim women (or all women, for that matter) have the right to cover as much of their bodies as it takes to make them feel comfortable?

I would hate to be forced to wear midriff tops and short shorts when I went out in public. I would feel exposed and uncomfortable, to say the least. Can you imagine how a woman who has dressed hijab all her life would feel if she were suddenly forced to wear Western clothing whenever she left her home? I would think that in some cases it would be a traumatic experience. If burqas and niqabs are banned, then more than likely these women will never leave their homes again. Wouldn’t that be a curtailing of their human rights?

Continue reading What’s the Big Deal About Islamic Clothing?

The Transforming Power of the Ummah

One of the things I love about Islam is its community (or “ummah“).  It was the ummah that brought me to Islam.

Three years ago, I didn’t know any Muslims. I had all kinds of preconceptions about them based on what I’d read or seen in the media. While I didn’t subscribe to the idea that they were all terrorists, or that they all hated Americans, I did see them as “others”— strange and foreign and closed off to those who were not like them.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The Muslims I met were primarily from Libya. Considering the history between Libya and the United States, I did not expect them to be friendly. But to my surprise, I found them to be outgoing and open. They always asked about my family and often shared details about their lives and their faith. I was surprised that they were so forthcoming—some would say trusting—in their conversations with me. I wondered how they could be so positive in a country that has declared war, either officially or unofficially, on so much of the Arab world.

They soon made it clear that it was their faith that shaped their personalities. Not that they would have described it that way. But the more I learned about Islam, the more I could see the connection between Islam’s emphasis on loving and caring for your fellow man and the way that they treated everyone they came into contact with. I was amused when they said that they behaved the way that they did because it was their duty. Because it was clear to me that their behavior came naturally out of the way they’d been raised.

It is absolutely wrong that Muslims would like to force Islam on the world, by the figurative sword if necessary. Muslims do invite people to Islam (through the practice of da’wah), but in a very gentle way. The Muslims I came to know answered my questions about Islam, but never said anything against Christianity. They never said, “Your way is wrong; ours is right.” They made it clear that they wanted to be friends even if I never embraced Islam.

The Muslims I met invited me into their community  even before I became a Muslim. The closer I got to them, the more I began to want what they had.  And what was it that they had that I didn’t have? Their faith.

At first I couldn’t see how I could possibly become a Muslim because the cultural differences were too great. But getting to know actual Muslims taught me that we are all the same underneath. There’s no reason why what motivates and inspires a born Muslim can’t also motivate and inspire a non-Muslim.

And so I became a Muslim. And if I thought I had been embraced before it was nothing to what I experienced after I converted. I became a born-again Christian when I was 21, I answered I don’t know how many altar calls (where you’re invited to pray at the altar while you’re in a church service, usually as a sign of a deeper commitment to Christ) and I have to say, I never experienced anything close to the welcome I received after my conversion to Islam.

Everyone was so excited! Jubilation is the only word I can use to describe it. I was invited to I don’t know how many dinners, called “sister” by men and women alike, given presents of prayer rugs, beads, outfits and hijabs, taken to the mosque and taught how to pray, given books that would increase my knowledge.

That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a tough transition. Those of you who have read my earlier posts know that I’ve struggled to fit into my new status.  But my sisters and brothers have stayed involved in my life and are truly concerned when I’m having trouble. All they want to do is make me feel welcome, because they know that the real key to my transformation is their enveloping love.

How We Dress: The Oppression of Women

It is commonly accepted that Muslim women are oppressed by their husbands and their culture. But many Muslims, women included, counter by claiming that Western women are “oppressed” by the demands their society places on them to be sexy.

A Muslim woman can be alluring, too, which is why the whole modesty thing as a reason for covering is somewhat pointless. Men will fantasize about women no matter what. In fact, you could argue that the more covered a woman is, the more a man fantasizes about her. But no matter how a woman is dressed, a man should never be allowed to use the excuse that a woman enticed him by the way she was dressed.

My standards are looser than most Muslims. I’m not offended by bare arms, necks or legs (as long as the dress or shorts don’t expose more than the leg!).I am uncomfortable with cleavage and bare midriffs, not to mention bikinis. But I don’t think that a woman who is “uncovered” is bad or even wrong. What I do object to is the subtle ways that women (and even girls) are told that they must be desirable to men.

Perhaps it is biologically wired into women to try to attract men, but that doesn’t mean that we should be doing it all the time, at any age, and regardless of our relationship status. What reason does a married woman have to doll herself up in front of other men? Hasn’t she already attracted her mate?

Some say that women dress as much for other women as they do for men. But why are they trying to prove that they’re sexier if they’re already in a relationship? Others say that men like their women to be perceived as attractive, even sexy, by other men because it’s an ego boost for them. But isn’t it a little crass for men to put their women on display as if they’re mere possessions?

Many non-Muslims think that the reason Muslim women are “made” to cover is because their men don’t trust them. They think they’ll attract the attention of other men which might lead to infidelity. They also don’t trust other men to keep their hands off their women. Because they know what men are like, they believe that a woman shouldn’t do anything to make a man think about her sexually.

While this may be true for some men (Muslim and non-Muslim), the Qur’an makes it clear that women are to be honored and cherished. The implication is that dressing modestly helps men to hold them in high esteem, not because they would blame women for being sexy if they didn’t, but because they appreciate it when a woman knows her own value.

I reacted strongly when I saw this picture of Gwyneth Paltrow on the cover of Elle magazine. Why did she have to pose in nothing but a sweater (and at least a bra) with her one shoulder bared provocatively? Wouldn’t she have looked just as attractive if she had been wearing slacks or leggings and had kept her sweater all the way on? It’s not that I think she looks sluttish (for this type of picture, it’s fairly tasteful), but I can’t help but wonder why she felt she had to pose this way? Or why she was pressured to?

I think I know what motivates some women to agree to pictures like this: It’s because women are seeking affirmation that they are desirable. If they see themselves in a photograph or painting looking sexy, it reassures them that they are. I would guess that most women would like at least one photo of themselves looking sexy and beautiful. That’s one reason for the popularity of Glamour Shots®. What woman doesn’t want to be recorded as looking beautiful at least once in her life?

But why do they want these pictures on public display? Wouldn’t it be enough to have them at home? I can see Paltrow hanging this picture in her bedroom for her husband to enjoy. But what motivates her, and so many other women, to present themselves this way to the whole world?

I’m not saying that women shouldn’t try to be attractive. I think there is something in a woman’s makeup that makes her want to be beautiful. (One reason why some women wear the niqab or full burqa is because they’re trying to erase that desire from their psyches. They believe that it is only appropriate to glorify God, not themselves.)

But when women start feeling that they will enhance their careers or be treated better if they dress the way that men want them to, they have crossed the line between self-esteem and self-pandering. “Selling” the way that they look in return for favors. What’s that called? Oh, yeah, prostitution.

Cross-posted on Femagination, my blog about women’s issues, including feminism.