Christmas for Converts

I’ve heard both sides of the debate and all kinds of opinions in between. Whether or not Muslims should participate in any way in Christmas celebrations is a hot issue, especially for converts. I’ve been a Muslim for over a year now, so I’m going through my second Christmas season. And to tell you the truth, I have mixed feelings about what I should do about it.

Last year I got gifts for people, but we didn’t decorate. I did send out holiday cards, but as far as I can remember they didn’t say anything about Christmas. I suppose I shouldn’t be sending cards, but I’ve ordered some to send this year with a purely secular message. I felt that I couldn’t just stop sending cards to all the people who are used to getting cards from me. I’ve considered including notes to tell people about my conversion, but I don’t know if I will. My close friends already know and my acquaintances don’t necessarily need to know.

I’m having dinner here for the family on Christmas Eve and I’m making stockings for everyone. I’m not buying presents beyond some little items to put in the stockings. Next year I may not even do this much.

But the bottom line is: my family still participates in Christmas and I don’t want them to feel like I’ve severed my ties with them just because I’ve become a Muslim.

Born Muslims usually don’t feel any pressure to celebrate Christmas because it has never been a part of their culture. But converts, especially those who come from a Christian background, usually find it very difficult to cut their ties to Christmas. They have fond memories of the Christmases they celebrated in the past, especially when they were children. They remember the excitement of Christmas Eve, the wonder of Christmas morning and the joy of Christmas get-togethers. Christmas, and the month or so leading up to it, is just as important to Christians (and even some non-Christians) as Ramadan is to Muslims.

Some converts deal with this dilemma by leaving behind their non-Muslims lives completely. They won’t even go to someone’s house for dinner unless the meal is halal and there is no alcohol being served. They most certainly would not buy Christmas gifts. But other converts feel that it is important to participate at least nominally with the customs their family still observes. I have a problem with Muslims who totally separate themselves from non-Muslim activities. How do we expect non-Muslims to get to know us if we refuse to do anything with them?

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Is Perfection Possible?

I have a problem with perfectionism. That does not mean that I think I can be perfect. It means that I’m so convinced I can’t, I don’t even try. Even when I do try to do or start something, as soon as it gets difficult I stop trying, because I think that the hard part means that I’m not doing it perfectly.

This wreaks havoc with all areas of my life:

  • I lose my motivation to lose weight because I know I won’t lose it quickly.
  • I can’t stop smoking because I know I’ll still crave it even after I quit.
  • I get discouraged when I go to the gym because I’m obviously so much less fit than others.
  • I’m convinced that I’m unattractive because I don’t have a perfect body/I’m not stunning/I’m getting old.
  • I get completely anxious about prayer because I don’t do it perfectly.
  • I stopped trying to learn Arabic because it was so hard.
  • My house is a wreck because I think everything has to be done at one time.
  • I feel guilty all the time because I’m not improving.
  • It doesn’t matter if I’m improving in one thing if I’m not improving in all things.

You don’t know how many times I’ve wished for a magic spell to make me perfect. I used to envy Samantha on “Bewitched.” She could achieve perfection with one twitch of her nose. I completely missed the message that humans aren’t perfect.

Part of my problem with perfectionism is that I get very anxious when I know someone is expecting something from me. I was married for years to someone who expected me to keep the house, the kids, and our schedules perfectly. And I was anxious all the time, to the point where I would cry when I knew my husband was coming home. I can’t tell you what a relief it was when we divorced and I only had to please myself and live up to my own standards.

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How I View Feminism and Islam

How am I able to reconcile my feminism with my religion? Some people might think that I’ve reshaped Islam to fit into a feminist framework. But I think it’s more accurate to say that the opposite is true. There are a lot of elements in my version of feminism that are compatible with Islam. They include:

  1. Being an advocate for women.
  2. Viewing a woman as just as important to God as a man is.
  3. Believing that men and women are equally accountable to God.
  4. Recognizing that there are some inherent differences between the sexes.
  5. Refusing to generalize about men and women based on gender roles.

The first one, being an advocate for women, is what I’m all about as a feminist. A feminist is worthless if she doesn’t support the choices and address  the concerns of all women. Feminism, especially Second-wave feminism, has been criticized for having too narrow a focus, specifically one that is white and middle-class (and, one could add, Western). This leads to all kinds of preconceived notions about what makes a woman liberated. Working women look down on stay-at-home moms. White women think that black women should put feminism before race. Westerners judge other cultures on how closely they conform to Western ideals.

I believe that feminists should consider the context in which each woman lives her life. That means, for instance, that we shouldn’t expect Muslim women to uncover just because as Westerners we can’t imagine choosing to cover. Nor should we begrudge a welfare or low-income mother her right to have the same support systems as middle- and upper-class mothers do (health care for their children, quality and affordable child care, access to education and job-training, food security). It even means that we should allow women to choose what kind of birth control they want to use or to support them if they don’t use any birth control at all. (This also means that we should respect each woman’s stance on abortion, as long as she doesn’t try to take away other women’s rights to their own opinion.)

The second one, viewing a woman as just as important to God as a man is, comes out of my experiences as a Christian. I was brainwashed into thinking that Eve caused evil to come into the world, that all women were punished for her transgression by having to endure the pain of childbirth, that women were either saints or seductresses (they couldn’t be a little of both), and that men were meant to be in leadership positions over women. (I was even told by my first husband, a minister, that I shouldn’t speak in our Sunday School class.)

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New Year Projects

Three days ago I wrote a post about the Islamic New Year. One thing I said was that it was like the custom of making New Year Resolutions, which non-Muslims often incorporate into their New Year celebrations. And since Muslims observe their New Year by reflecting on their relationship with Allah and their fellow man, I thought it would be appropriate to list the ways I hope to improve in the coming year (both Gregorian and Islamic). A couple of years ago, I made up my New Year Resolutions by arranging them by “projects.” I found it helpful to emphasize areas in which I wanted to improve more than individual resolutions.

So here are my projects for 1432 and 2011:

My Faith Project: This has to be at the top of my list because it influences the outcome of all my other projects. I want to grow as a Muslim and that means finding ways to show (and feel) my submission to Allah. Faithfulness in prayer and reading the Qur’an. Learning more about the Sunnah and the ahadith. Worshiping Allah by my every action and thought. Being grateful for all He has given me. Practicing da’wa and du’a. Loving and serving my fellow man. Fasting. Observing the festivals. Fighting the greater jihad.

My Family Project: I’m married.  I have four grown daughters, one grandson and another grandchild on the way. I also have wonderful in-laws: my husband’s family and my new and old sons-in-law and their families. I have one sibling, a sister, her husband and all my nieces, nephews and grand-niece and nephew. I have two cousins I’ve recently renewed contact with. I even have ex-in-laws (as well as exes) who will always be a part of my life. I pray that I will be a better wife, mother, grandmother, in-law, sister, aunt, great-aunt, cousin and ex-wife and ex-in-law. The hardest one for me to ask help for, because I don’t even want to, is my relationship with my ex, the father of my children. We don’t even speak to each other. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing! But I’m willing to see what Allah has in store for me in that area.

My Friend Project: I’ve never made friends easily and, until I became a Muslim, I could count on one hand the number of good friends I had. Now I have so many brothers and sisters in Islam who are also my friends. I’ve become very close to some of them which amazes and thrills me. The only problem is that most of them are from foreign countries and are on the brink of moving away, either to go home, or to work and live in another state. I’ll have to try extra hard to keep up contact with them. One thing I hope to do better is to pray for them. They have so many things going on in their lives: new jobs, new homes, new babies! May I be a faithful and giving friend.

My Fellow Man Project: I really need to improve in this area. I’m terrible about giving to strangers. Oh, I give money to charities, but I don’t give anything personally. There are so many things I could do, things I’ve thought of doing but just never followed through with. I know that Allah has given me talents and qualities that can be put to use helping my fellow man and that it is wrong of me to not use them in that way. One reason why I don’t do more for others is complacency: I’m more comfortable staying in my little circle of family and friends. Another reason is fear: that I won’t like what I’m doing, that I’m not up to the challenge, that I won’t follow through.

My Fitness Project: I joined a gym six months ago, and although I’ve improved my fitness level, I haven’t lost one pound (and I need to lose at least thirty!). I also need to quit smoking. And I need to be better about check-ups and screening tests (I am almost 60, after all!). I definitely need to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables and less sugar and fats. But most of all, I need to realize that becoming more fit is one way to follow Allah, not only because I am His creation, or because I want to live a good long life in which to serve Him, but also so that I have more energy and stamina for all the things He wants me to do.

My Focus Project: I struggle with depression and anxiety. I also have Attention Deficit Disorder, Inattentive. Add to that mix the medications I take and it’s a recipe for disaster. I have a lot of trouble focusing on what I need to do. I even have trouble focusing on what I want to do! It takes me forever to write a post because I get so distracted and also because I lose track of what I want to say. Sometimes I think the reason I write at all is to help me to remember what I think about things. Needless to say, this trouble with focusing bleeds over into other areas as well: I have trouble with prayer, with remembering birthdays and special occasions, and with following through ( that could be another “F” project!) on anything I start.

If you’ve read this far, you deserve kudos, because I’m sure this has been boring. I’m not the only one, by far, who wants to be a better believer, family member, friend, and human being. I certainly am not the only one who wants to lose weight, quit smoking and get fit. And let’s face it, one reason why people make up lists like these is because they have trouble with focus and follow-through. The truth is, I could add to this list ad infinitum. But I hope to up my chances of success by using the project model. Maybe you’ll find it helpful for you, too.

The Kingdom of God

Dar al-Islam mosque in Mexico

The strength of Christianity lies in its conception of the “Kingdom of God.” The Kingdom is seen as made up of all believers, headed by Jesus Christ. Although many Christians claim that their nations are Christian nations, they don’t believe that it’s necessary to live under a Christian-based political system to be in God’s Kingdom.

In contrast, Muslims have the concepts of Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb. Dar al-Islam, which literally means “Abode of Islam,” refers to any lands ruled by Muslims and governed by Islamic laws. Everything else is known as Dar al-Harb, or “Abode of War.”

The problem is that Muslim extremists take these concepts literally and believe it is a Muslim’s duty to fight until any geographic area or political entity that is Dar al-Harb is transformed into Dar al-Islam. This is the main reason that non-Muslims have trouble seeing Islam as a religion of peace.

This isn’t to say that Christians have not also fought to extend Christianity into non-Christian lands. They have. But the difference is, Christians are encouraged to live as if they are living in a kingdom that is under God’s control, no matter where they may be. Muslims tend to think that true justice and peace is only possible under Muslim rule.

We Muslims need to make a distinction between the political, physical world and the spiritual world. It’s self-defeating for us to think that God only has power to change people’s lives if they live in Muslim lands. That contradicts what the Qur’an says. God is All-Powerful and He is not limited by time or space—or politics.

I would like to propose that we (Muslims) concentrate more on the inner jihad (“holy war”) and on making ourselves “abodes of Islam.” I realize that this isn’t the traditional (or extremist) view of Dar al-Islam, but I think it is absolutely necessary for us to see ourselves as agents of change in the world around us.

I don’t believe that Muslims have to live under Muslim rule to have a positive impact. We have the potential within ourselves to transform society by allowing ourselves to be spiritually transformed by God. However, unlike Christians, who believe that spiritual transformation comes about as the result of faith in the divinity and lordship of Jesus Christ, Muslims achieve spiritual transformation by the continual process of inner jihad: submission, effort, repentance, forgiveness, renewal.

It’s a cop-out to say that “if only we lived under Islamic law, the world would become a better place.” It’s not the law that makes mankind kinder or more just; the law only has the power to force outward conformity. The world will become a better place when individuals become better, and that can only happen when we achieve Islam in our hearts.

The Islamic New Year: A Chance to Start Over?

In all probability, December 7th (in the Gregorian calender) will be the Islamic New Year, otherwise known as 1 Muharram 1432 A.H. Not being familiar with how Muslims celebrate the New Year, I had to look it up. Apparently it’s quite different in tone from the Gregorian New Year. Whereas non-Muslims make a lot of noise, dress up and go to parties and drink, Muslims see the New Year as an opportunity to reflect on where they are in life, what kind of Muslims they’ve been and how they might do better. I guess you could say it’s more like the non-Muslim practice of making New Year resolutions. But both approaches are based on the idea that the New Year is a chance to start over.

Of course, we don’t have to wait for a new year to start over. Because of Allah’s forgiveness, we can start over at any time, and in fact Muslims are encouraged to do so. Allah knows that life is difficult and that we face many challenges along the way. He is always there for us. One thing I love about the Fatiheh is the statement,  “It is You alone that we are to worship and You alone that we are to seek help from.” (That’s a very rough translation!)  Allah tells us through the Qur’an and our daily prayers that it is just as important for us to seek His help as it is to worship Him. That means a lot to me.

Sometimes it’s easier to worship Allah than it is to ask for His help. I think that’s partly because we don’t believe that He really will help us. Plus, it’s tiring to have to ask for help over and over.  I want to ask for something once and be done with it. But I know that I am changed for the better when I ask repeatedly and faithfully for help with ongoing issues. Being human, I fail again and again to live up to the standard that Allah has for me. But as long as I rely on Him, I can have victory over and over again as well.

It’s important to see that we can and do succeed as often as we fail. Or at least that’s the ideal. Because every time we look to Allah for help, we are successful. Every time we are repentant, we are successful. Every time we start over, we are successful. Yes, we’re going to fail again, but when we repent and re-dedicate ourselves to Allah, we are triumphing over Shaitan, insh’allah. He (Shaitan) hates it when we do that!

I must give Shaitan plenty of grief. He probably thinks he has me when I miss a prayer or fail to love my fellow man. But then aha! I foil him when I repent and ask Allah to keep me on the straight path. Shaitan loves it when we fall short. But what he doesn’t take into account is that Allah is Most Merciful and Oft-Forgiving. And the man or woman who is truly submitted to Allah can never belong to Shaitan.

I don’t mean that any of us can ever be certain that we will see Paradise. But as long as we keep starting over and asking for Allah’s forgiveness, as long as we submit to Him and His will, as long as we worship Him and ask for His help, and as long as we love and serve others, we can be assured that Allah is on our side. What more can we ask?