Faith Versus Works: Which is More Important?

I just read Maha Muslimah’s post on “Muslim-ness” in which she discusses what it’s like for converts who are trying to catch up with born Muslims. There are so many things we need to learn and improve on that it sometimes seems futile. At least it does for me. I don’t waver in my faith in Allah as much as I do in my practice of Islam.

In Christianity, one of the debates is about what is more important: faith or works? Martin Luther insisted that it was faith, partly in response to the Catholic Church which put a lot of emphasis on works. Paul, in his Epistles, wrote a lot about how becoming a Christian meant that you would try not to sin out of love for God and gratitude for His mercy. Some Christians go so far as to say that you are “perfected” by faith in Christ and cannot sin once you’ve accepted the Holy Spirit into your heart.

One thing I like about Islam is that there is more emphasis on “doing” than “not doing.” The Qur’an doesn’t go on and on about how sinful humans are like Paul does in the New Testament of the Bible. It makes a clear distinction between believers and non-believers, i.e., those who submit versus those who do not submit. Muslims are taught that there is no such thing as original sin; we each make our own destiny as we go along in life. Each moment, each point where a choice has to be made between good deeds and bad ones, is a chance for us to submit to Allah’s will. It is the submission (or lack of it) that is the key, not the sin.

But how does a Muslim show that he or she is submitted? That’s a question that haunts me. Christians have a concept of submission, too, but it is submission shown by primarily by faith, not by works. Coming from a Christian background, I have a tendency to think that as long as I believe the “right” things, Allah will be pleased with me. It’s a struggle for me to realize that I also have to do the right things.

Profession of faith is just one of the Five Pillars of Islam. The others—prayer, charity, fasting and pilgrimage—are just as important. Or are they? Doesn’t submission have to start with faith? If there is no faith, what will it matter what we do or don’t do? Doesn’t the oft-repeated statement in the Qur’an that Allah knows our hearts mean that He is examining us to see if we have faith?

Of course, it also says in the Qur’an that Allah knows what we do. But doesn’t even that mean that we are being judged on whether or not we are submitted to Him in faith when we act?

When I obsess about all the ways that I “fail” as a Muslim, it’s not my faith in Allah that worries me. It’s the missed prayers, the selfish acts, the lost opportunities to fast and the fact that I will probably never perform Hajj that makes me feel judged and found wanting.

That’s why it’s a relief to me that Allah judges our intentions as well as our actions. In Christianity you’re told that even an evil thought is the same as an action. In Islam, the focus is more positive: Allah sees our good intentions in the same light as He does our actions. One thing that always confused me about Christianity is the emphasis on man’s sinfulness even after he has accepted Jesus as his savior. If faith in Christ is supposed to save him from damnation, then why do Christians obsess about their own sinfulness?

Muslims know that they fall short, but they take heart in also knowing that they can ask for forgiveness and start over. Christians can do that, too, but the question remains: why do they have to if their sins are already forgiven?

I’m at peace with my decision to convert to Islam. What unsettles me is the feeling that I’m not a “good enough” Muslim. Will I be condemned to Hell if I don’t pray on time, if I don’t give enough to charity, if I don’t help my fellow man as much as I could, if I rarely fast, if I have the money and the opportunity to go to Hajj and don’t go?

I know that none of us can be assured of salvation because Allah can do with us as He wills. But I would at least like to know if I’m on the right path. Does my faith in Allah and submission to His will mean that I’ve taken the right turn in the road? Or does my progress on that road determine whether or not I’ll end up in Paradise? Or is it both?

More Thoughts on Thanksgiving

Before I became a Muslim, I was invited to an iftar (the evening meal that breaks the fast during the month of Ramadan). I didn’t even know that non-Muslims could attend something like that. I have to say that the experience made me feel more comfortable about becoming a Muslim, because I’d seen what real Muslims acted like when they were doing something “Muslim.” It was easier to imagine myself as one of them.

It also made them seem less foreign and forbidding. Even if I hadn’t converted, I would have forever held that memory close to me and felt warmer toward Islam as a result.

Thanksgiving is not a comparable moment to an iftar, although there are some similarities. It is an opportunity for family and friends to come together. It does make you more grateful for all your blessings. But it is not a Christian holiday, or it would be celebrated all over the world on the same day, in the same way (except for regional differences).

I can understand why some Muslims would steer clear of celebrating Thanksgiving, but it is not like Christmas. Thanksgiving is not organized around the idea of Jesus being the son of God. And being invited to celebrate it isn’t a sneaky way to get us to look at Christianity more positively.  It isn’t geared toward trying to convert non-Christians to Christianity. It wasn’t designed that way and it was never meant for that purpose.

We need to stop worrying that non-Muslims are trying to convert us whenever we have contact with them. If I’d thought that my Muslim friends were trying to convert me by inviting me to the iftar, I might have hesitated about going. But I saw it for what it was: a friendly gesture. When we had the Thanksgiving luncheon where I work yesterday, it was also a friendly gesture. My coworkers and I wanted to make our foreign doctors feel more welcome. And we wanted them to know how grateful we are for the opportunity to get to know them. (We also thought that they would enjoy trying some traditional American food. And boy, did they! The turkey was picked clean. One doctor even asked for my recipe for cooking it.)

When you invite someone to break bread with you, what you’re really saying is: I see you as a person and I want to get to know you better. I also want you to get to know me better. Muslims should be familiar with that sentiment. Of all religions, Islam is known for its hospitality. We are called to welcome the traveler. And, as per Muhammad’s example, we are to accept the hospitality of others.

I couldn’t have had a better Thanksgiving than the one I had at work yesterday. It was amazing to feel the camaraderie  in the room as we ate together. I was and am extremely grateful for the opportunity to show hospitality to others and for them to extend their hands of friendship in return.


Muslims Should Celebrate Thanksgiving, Too!

“All the praises and thanks be to Allah, the Lord of the Alamin.” So say Muslims every time they repeat the Fatiheh. The common phrase “Alhamdulillah” means (roughly) “Praise be to God.” Thanksgiving is a major part of a Muslim’s life, or at least it should be. Because if we don’t thank Allah for all that He has given us, including our very lives, then we are missing out on one of the greatest experiences of life.

Thanksgiving is as important as asking for forgiveness, in my opinion. The Qur’an says, “Then, even after that, We pardoned you in order that ye might give thanks.” (2:52) Being forgiven is the greatest gift Allah gives. If we’re not grateful for that, we are sorry Muslims indeed.

Tomorrow the United States celebrates Thanksgiving. Some Muslims will not participate because they mistakenly assume that it is a Christian custom. There is nothing in the Bible that instructs Christians to set up a special day to show their gratitude to God. It is true that there has been some kind of day set aside for thanksgiving since before we even became a nation. But when Abraham Lincoln declared a national holiday for thanksgiving in 1863, he didn’t mean it to be only for Christians. He meant it to be for everyone who lives on American soil.

I’m writing this post at 5:30 in the morning because I had to get up to roast the turkey for a Thanksgiving luncheon we’re having at work today. All of the foreign doctors who study with us are invited. The turkey is halal since most of the doctors are Muslim. We’re concerned that some of them won’t attend because they think it’s a Christian holiday. But if we (Muslims) believe that we worship the same God as Jews and Christians, then we have every right, maybe even a responsibility, to celebrate Thanksgiving. After all, don’t we have things to thank God for, too?

“Therefore remember Me, I will remember you. Give  thanks to Me, and reject not Me. ” (2:152) This is one of my favorite verses in the Qur’an. It tells me that giving thanks to God is one way of reminding us that we are His. In a sense, giving thanks is a prayer and certainly should be a part of our regular prayers.

I’m not celebrating Thanksgiving with my family this year because they’re all going to other relatives’ homes to celebrate. So this is the only Thanksgiving I’m going to get to participate in. I’m excited that I will be giving thanks with other Muslims and I pray that Allah will bless our gathering and prepare our hearts to give thanks to Him. Allahu Akbar!

The Day My Life Started Over

I joined the stream of women rushing up the stairs. We were almost late for prayer. I didn’t have the slightest idea what I was doing, so I just blindly followed the women who had brought me. I took off my shoes outside the door to the prayer room and then wondered how I’d ever find them again. Then I wove through the mass of bodies till my friends found a spot large enough for the three of us. I was doubtful: it only looked like room enough for one. I kept wondering why the women didn’t spread out more. I didn’t realize at the time that Muslims believe that they are to stand shoulder to shoulder when they pray.

There was a huge wall of windows overlooking the main hall where the men and the imam were. The imam’s voice echoed through the loudspeaker. It was loud enough, or would have been if the women had quit talking. But many of them kept up a constant chatter except during prayer. The message was lost to me for the most part.

I didn’t know how to pray at that point. It was my first time in a mosque and the last day of Ramadan  and I was there to say my Shahada. I knew that Muslims prayed five times a day but there didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to their movements and I couldn’t understand the prayers since they were in Arabic. It wasn’t until after I became a Muslim (by my profession of faith in the One True God and in Mohammad as His messenger; i.e., the Shahada) that I was given any instruction in how to say my prayers. That wasn’t intentional; some converts learn how to pray before becoming Muslims. But I’d been in a hurry. Once I decided that I wanted to convert, I wanted to get it over with. I figured I had the rest of my life to learn what I needed to know.

The last day of Ramadan, or any Eid day, is not the optimal time to say your Shahada. I said mine hurriedly in the masjid office while everyone around us was intent on getting to prayer. I remembering thinking, “Is that it?” It wasn’t until the end of the service that the imam announced that I’d said my Shahada that day and that the women should welcome me. I was disappointed that I didn’t get to say Shahada in the service, and I’m still not sure that a woman is allowed to come into the main (the men’s) hall for that purpose.

But however it happened, I was now a Muslim. It seemed like every woman there hugged me and gave me her best wishes. Some were wiping tears from their eyes. I felt like a celebrity who has no idea how she got famous. It might be more accurate to say that I felt like it was my birthday. And in a way it was. I was told that my former sins had all been erased and I was starting life like a newborn baby. From now on I only had to worry about the new sins I would commit!

Over the next few weeks I was astounded at the enthusiasm with which I was greeted as a new Muslim. Everyone was excited for me and eager to welcome me into the family. The day after I converted I was given a beautiful prayer rug and some hijabs and prayer beads (which I still haven’t learned how to use!). Later on I would receive another prayer rug, hijabs, prayer beads and books on how to be a Muslim. I felt overwhelmed by the response. I had never experienced anything like it before, even when I became a Christian.

It was the best birthday I’ve ever had.

Sexual Rights, Human Rights

As part of the “One Day, One Struggle” 2010 campaign to promote sexual and bodily rights in Muslim societies, Lebanon-based groups Nasawiya, Helem and Meem developed this video campaign, focusing on bodily autonomy and sexual rights of individuals.

On November 9, 2010, the 2nd international “One Day One Struggle” Campaign called for public attention to issues like Right to Information, Sexuality Education, Sexual Health, Bodily Autonomy and Sexual Rights of Individuals, LGBTTQ Rights, Sexual Diversity and Islam, Sexuality and Shari’a as well as the struggle to stop sexual rights violations ranging from Polygamy to killings of women, gay people and transsexuals. The campaign took place in 12 countries across the Middle East, North Africa, South and Southeast Asia. Almost 50 participating human rights organizations, universities and municipalities will participated.

Launched by the Coalition for Sexual and Bodily Rights in Muslim Societies (CSBR), “One Day One Struggle” is a unique effort to underscore the joint struggle against the violation of sexual and bodily rights in Muslim societies. Nasawiya, Meem and Helem are part of CSBR.

Some Muslims take offense at campaigns like this because they feel that a person’s sexuality, while a private matter, should be regulated by Islamic rules and regulation and the morés of Muslim society. However, sexuality is often used as a tool for political oppression and human rights violations. This is especially true among militaristic, conservative Muslims who politicize Islam as justification for their attempts to control society, chiefly through their control of women.

I’m not arguing that Muslims should be free to do whatever they want with their bodies. But their obedience in these matters should be to Allah and not to civil or religious authorities.  Judgment and punishment is Allah’s to dispense. We have no business punishing individuals, especially all out of proportion to the act itself,  like execution for adultery.

A society that punishes its women for wanting to come and go as they please or to socialize with whom they please is a society that doesn’t trust Allah’s ability to guide those who believe in Him. Sure, people will make mistakes, but the only time that sexual actions should be punished by man is when they are perpetrated willfully against the innocent (such as rape or child abuse).

And I especially do not agree with judging women more strictly than men for the same actions. For example, women are told that they have to be modest so they won’t tempt men. Why isn’t as much emphasis put on men to control their thoughts and actions (as well as to be modest also)?

One reason I’m a feminist and a Muslim is because I believe that men and women are equal before God. They should share the same burden to be chaste and to fulfill the obligations that are put upon them by Allah. I don’t buy the idea that women are the source of all evil and therefore have to be controlled by men “for their own good.” Men and women are to help each other to be virtuous.

Education and example are the keys, not punishment and control.

Read more about the “One Day One Struggle” campaign here.

Do Unto Others

When I was a Christian, one of my favorite magazines was Christianity Today. In my opinion, it’s still one of the best Christian magazines out there. Although it is geared toward evangelical Christians (“evangel” means the Gospel, and evangelicals feel it is their mission to spread it), the tone is not conservative or fundamentalist. For example, it’s clear that its writers deplore abortion, but they would never advocate picketing abortion clinics. I would have to say that they are even “soft” on homosexuality: they consider it to be unbiblical, but they are much more concerned with helping homosexuals to feel loved by God and other Christians than they are with condemning them.

Christians who read Christianity Today are more interested in creating dialogue among people than in defining boundaries between them. They believe that bringing the Gospel to the world means acting like a Christian, not just sounding like one. A recent article by Joseph Cumming illustrates the kind of Christianity that I felt comfortable with when I was a Christian. In it, the author asks whether Christians should defend religious liberty for Muslims, particularly Muslim women’s right to wear the face veil.

Cumming bases his argument on Jesus’ admonition to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (sometimes known as the Golden Rule). If we don’t want others to restrict our right to practice our religion as we see fit, then we shouldn’t try to restrict theirs. I’ve heard many people, including Christians, argue that until Islamic states allow Christians freedom of religion, those of us in the West should not allow Muslims freedom of religion.  Cumming argues that this is totally unbiblical and I salute him for saying so. He writes that being a disciple of Christ means that you follow his example, even if it’s uncomfortable to do so.

Most people want to strike out when they feel that their views and practices are being threatened. Many Christians feel threatened by Islam. But when they let their fears dictate their viewpoints, they seem to be saying that they don’t have much confidence in their own faith. What difference does it make if the Muslim next door prays five times a day with his nose to the ground? Or if the Muslim woman wears a headscarf or face veil? Or even if a mosque is being built in your neighborhood? If you’re secure in your faith, these things shouldn’t bother you. And if you’re following the Golden Rule, you should defend everyone’s right to practice their religion.

The problem that some people have with Islam is that they think it advocates violence against non-Muslims. They see mosques as breeding grounds for terrorists and burqas as a way to hide bombs and identities. But they’re confusing politics with religion. Muslims who advocate the overthrow or eradication of Western governments are motivated by their fear that Western governments are trying to do the same to them, and in fact, that Western governments have been doing it for centuries. But it’s incidental that terrorists are Muslims. Take away Islam and they would still be targeting the U.S. and other Western countries as the enemy.

Would we want our countries to be invaded? Would we welcome other governments setting up and supporting corrupt regimes in our countries? Would we like it if other government tried to control, even seize our resources? And most of all, would be be upset if another country attempted to squelch our way of life?

Of course the answer is “no” to all of the above. But that’s all the more reason why true Christians should refuse to do the same things in other countries. And they should do it without expecting anything in return. (Luke 6:35) Even so, they might be surprised at the results.

[Note: As Muslims, we revere Jesus as a great prophet and follow his teachings as long as they do not contradict the concept of the Oneness of God.]

Also, here is a talk by Karen Armstrong, who is a historian of religion, about reviving the Golden Rule:

Christians and Muslims and Obedience

Christians are exhorted to love others because God loves them. Muslims are reminded that we are to be as merciful and compassionate as God is, but we are to love others because God wants us to. Christians emphasize gratitude; Muslims obedience.

This is one thing that attracted me to Islam. Gratitude to God wasn’t enough to motivate me to be a better person. I needed to know that His nature demanded it and that I wasn’t let off the hook by an intermediary who took all my sins away. I could never figure out how I could still be considered sinful if my sins had been eradicated. And if they had been eradicated, then why should I try to improve my behavior? I could just be who I am and God would forgive me and save a place for me in Heaven as long as I believed in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

Christianity is  a “feel good” religion. No matter what you do there is a way out. That doesn’t mean that some Christians don’t heap guilt on themselves or others. But those are Christians who don’t understand the basic tenets of their faith. In Christianity, you can be the worst person in the world and as long as you profess faith in Christ and accept that he died for your sins and conquered death for all time by his resurrection, you will go to Paradise. On the other hand, you can be the best person in the world and if you do not believe that Jesus is God, you are condemned to Hell.

This didn’t make sense to me. Christians think that Muslims see God as arbitrary because our salvation is up to the God’s discretion. But God judges us all by the same principle: whether or not we’re truly submitted to Him and obedient to His will. After all, God knows our hearts, He knows that a person who looks good on the outside can be evil and corrupt inside. And He also knows that a person who seems bad on the outside can actually love Him deeply. If God knows that as far as Muslims are concerned He also knows it as far as Christians (and all other believers) are concerned.

For this reason, I find Islam to be far more pragmatic about human nature as well as far more inclusive about and cognizant of God’s true nature. It is also more universal. There are some Muslims who think you are condemned to Hell if you don’t convert to Islam, but I believe that God’s standards are the same for all people: we are to be submissive to Him and obedient to His will (which means that we treat others with the same compassion and mercy that God shows to us). Anyone who does that is a Muslim. Abraham was a Muslim, Jesus was a Muslim. You might be a Muslim.

When I converted to Islam, it was a relief, really, to put away the Christian concept of original sin and to accept the Islamic belief that God created us just the way we are for His purposes. He knew that only creatures that were capable of sinning could also be obedient. How could our obedience mean anything to God if we were made to always be obedient? Our free will makes it all that more pleasing to God when we exercise it to do good.