The Possibility of Perfection

One thing I like about Islam is its realistic attitude about human nature. Muslims are not asked to be perfect, we are merely expected to live our lives as best we can. Another thing I like about Islam is its emphasis on acquiring knowledge. Allah knows that we need to continually learn about our faith and how to practice it. But that is not to say that we can ever reach perfection.

In Christianity, the believer is expected to be perfect, with a difference: the only way to achieve perfection is to believe that Jesus is God and that because he died for man’s sins, a person can stand before God covered by Jesus’ perfection. I’m not surprised that Christianity is the most popular religion in the world. Who wouldn’t want to achieve instant perfection?

But I find that theology to be too facile. We shouldn’t feel that we’re given a free pass into heaven without any effort on our part except for believing in the divinity of Jesus. Granted, it’s no small thing to believe that Jesus is God. The problem is, we already have a God and He is One.

Muslims don’t believe that we are forgiven for our sins once and for all time  and never have to ask for forgiveness again. We believe that we are forgiven when we ask to be forgiven. What could be more straightforward than that?

God is One God. Only God can forgive our sins. God listens to our prayers and requests for forgiveness and He tells us in the Qur’an that He grants those requests when He sees in our hearts that we truly repent.

Qur’an 2:268 – “Satan threatens you with the prospect of poverty and bids you to be niggardly, whereas God promised you His forgiveness and bounty; and God is infinite, all-knowing.”

He is the Merciful and the Compassionate, the All-Knowing and Oft-Forgiving. All we can do is bow in submission before His majesty and pray that He gives us the strength to live our lives according to His Word.

Muslims have a direct line to God through prayer. We don’t have to go through the Holy Spirit or Jesus Christ to be forgiven or strengthened. And we don’t expect to be seen as perfect by Allah. Only God is perfect. What we are to do is be faithful and submit to His holy will.

No, Muslims cannot ever claim to be perfect, or to be seen as perfect by God. What we can look forward to is His justice and above all, His mercy. Merely professing faith in a man who others claim is God is not enough.

Qur’an 11:11 – “[And thus it is with most men] save those who are patient in adversity and do righteous deeds: it is they who forgiveness of sins awaits, and a great reward.”


The Right to Judge Others

Like many people, I knew nothing about Islam before 9/11. In fact, I was so ignorant I thought Muslims worshiped Mohammed like Christians worship Jesus. Every once in a while I thought it might be a good idea to learn more about Islam, but I always put it off  because it didn’t seem like it had much to do with my world. I didn’t even know any Muslims! What did they have to do with me?

I’ve noticed that people have one of two attitudes about Islam: they either demonize it or they’re curious about it. Since the events of 9/11, I don’t think there are any non-Muslims who don’t think about Islam in one of those two ways. Even though I was shocked and upset by 9/11, I didn’t automatically assume that all Muslims were terrorists. But at the same time I couldn’t help but wonder what it was about Islam that would lead any of its adherents to do such a thing in its name.

I’ve never felt comfortable making blanket statements about people or concepts. I always assume that there’s more below the surface of any prejudice. When I met my husband on the Internet, I didn’t know at first that he was German. When he finally told me where he was from, I was dismayed because I’d been raised to view Germany negatively for what it did during WWII. How was I going to be able to have conversations with him without bringing that up? And how was I supposed to react to him personally after finding out that he came from the country that perpetrated the horrors of the Holocaust?

After getting to know my future husband and his family, I found out that they were just as conflicted about Germany’s history as I was. They love their country, but they know it has a lot to live down as far as the world is concerned. When I went back to school at the age of 51 to earn my Bachelor’s degree, one of the first classes I took was on the Holocaust. It wasn’t an easy class to take, but I felt that I needed to so that I could understand where Germans were coming from. How did they deal with the things that were done in their name? How did they live their lives knowing that some people blamed and even hated them for what their countrymen did to the Jews?

I gradually came to realize that every country has its dark secrets. The U.S. was hardly blameless. What about our enslavement of blacks and annihilation of the Native Americans? Americans lynched African-Americans and put the Japanese in concentration camps. We’ve given every immigrant group that’s come to the U.S. a hard time. We, too, have been guilty of anti-Semitism (we limited their access to our country even after we knew what Hitler was doing to them).

And now, after 9/11, we treat Muslims as if they are all terrorists. We call Islam a religion of violence and Mohammed a war-monger. The kinds of things that are said and written about Muslims would never be tolerated if Jews or African-Americans were the subjects.

And the worst of it is, we make up our minds about Islam when we don’t know a thing about it or know a single Muslim.

How is this different from deciding that we know all about a person and his or her worth just from our first impression, or worse, from what others have told us? Shouldn’t we be held responsible for how informed we are, and whether or not we considered that person with an open mind?

We certainly don’t like it when others believe gossip about us, or decide they don’t like us after just meeting us. So why do we insist on treating others that way? Are Muslims fair game because they seem so foreign? Well, how can they seem otherwise when we refuse to get to know anything about them?

There were a lot of threads that led me to convert to Islam, but the two key ones were education and familiarity. I started to read about Islam and Muslims, I took courses in Islamic history and I got to know actual Muslims on a day-to-day basis. Even if I hadn’t converted, I would have learned that Muslims, like Germans or any other group that we vilify, are actually just like you and me. Yes, there are extremists, but extremists pop up in any religion, nationality, political party, ethnic group or cause.

It would be as  ludicrous to judge all Germans by Hitler, Catholics by the Inquisition or Americans by slavery as it would be to judge you by your Uncle Harry (or whomever). We are each made as individuals by Allah and He alone knows our hearts. If I could take the trouble to learn enough about Muslims so that I could respect and admire them, then surely you can take the time to learn something about others before you make up your mind about them.

You just might find out that you’re so busy getting to know them, you no longer feel the need to judge them.

Worrying About What Others Think

I’m going to a memorial service this morning for my old Girl Scout troop leader. She was also my mother’s best friend and her daughters and my sister and I are the same age and were close friends when we were growing up. I haven’t seen the older daughter, the one my age, for thirty years. I didn’t even know her married name until I saw it in the obituary.

I’m looking forward to seeing people from my past, but I’m nervous, too. Most of them have no idea that I’ve converted to Islam. And I will be announcing that fact loud and clear by wearing the hijab. (I’m also considering wearing an abaya.) I worry that I’ll put people off, that they’ll feel uncomfortable around me. But I’m praying that Allah will pave the way. After all, my being a Muslim is to His glory and really has nothing to do with me.

Besides, one reason I dress hijab is because I want people to see that anyone can become a Muslim. There’s nothing in my background, other than a belief in God and an interest in religion, that points to the likelihood of my converting to Islam. Both my grandfather and my first husband were ministers and I have been sporadically active in the Christian church for most of my adult life. As little as three years ago, the thought of becoming a Muslim was the furthest thing from my mind (or so I thought at the time).

I’m proof that Allah is the one who guides our hearts. Mine has always been with Him, from my earliest memories. I just didn’t know how to express it in a way that would be completely meaningful to me.

And yet I’m still afraid of what others think of me sometimes.

I went through this when my youngest daughter got married. From the moment she announced her engagement, I started worrying about wearing the hijab to her wedding. She and her fiancé were perfectly fine with it, but I wasn’t so sure that others would be. The groom’s family was also fine with it, even though they’re Catholic. But there were going to be others there who were sure to be taken back by the hijabi in their midst, especially once they realized that she was the mother of the bride.

My husband took it for granted that I would wear the hijab to all the wedding festivities. I wasn’t as sure as he was. I fussed for months about what I could wear that wouldn’t look too “Muslim.” As if the hijab wouldn’t be a dead giveaway! I finally settled on a long skirt and jacket for the rehearsal dinner and a lavender abaya for the wedding.

I knew that I was being silly, but I couldn’t help myself. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself at my daughter’s wedding. I didn’t want her to be sorry when she got her wedding pictures and there was her mother sticking out like a sore thumb.

I did feel kind of isolated because no one came up to me to congratulate me or compliment me on my lovely daughter. But there wasn’t a reception line, so that wasn’t all that strange. And I was asked to give a toast to my daughter and new son-in-law. I appear in many of the pictures and I don’t really look out of place. It seems that I worried for nothing.

I was actually relieved when one of my relatives came up and asked me about my conversion. I’d rather people acknowledge it in some way than talk about it behind my back. I did have another relative ask me after the wedding, “What do you think your grandfather would say?” but that was the mildest form of disapproval I received the entire weekend.

The fact is, I haven’t had any negative comments since I started to wear the hijab. Most people ignore it and those who do mention it are usually just curious. I don’t know whether this means that people in Ohio are more accepting than people in some other places or if they just don’t know what to say. I did have a man greet me at the bus stop the other day and when I responded, he said, “Oh, I thought you were one of those Arab ladies until you spoke!” But he was perfectly friendly. It seems that people are more puzzled about my ethnicity because I don’t look like what they imagine a Muslim looks like than they are about the fact that I’ve converted to Islam.

I know that wearing the hijab is a big decision for many Muslim women. But I can attest to the fact that we worry about it too much. The burden is really on others to decide how they’re going to react to it not on us to make them feel more comfortable about it.

This is who I am now. I’ve announced it to the world on Facebook (that makes it official, right?) and I announce it every day when I walk out of the house in a hijab. I don’t want to return to the way I used to be, unsure about my relationship to God and unhappy with every religion I encountered.

But I still have to remind myself sometimes that I’m proud to be a Muslim, that it was my free choice to convert and that I haven’t regretted it for a minute. Maybe I’ll get a chance to tell someone that today. But if not, my hijab will tell people for me.




Book Review: In the Country of Men

In the Country of MenIn the Country of Men by Hisham Matar

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have many Libyan friends I met here in the U.S. and it was interesting to read a novel which gave some insight into what their lives have been like since Gadhafi took control 42 years ago. I liked this book very much, but only gave it three stars because of the last part which felt rushed and somewhat unsatisfying. The main part of the novel brings us intimately into the life of a young boy growing up in Libya shortly after Gadhafi’s takeover. In the last part, which is almost an epilogue, we’re are rushed through the rest of his childhood when he was sent to live in Cairo under the care of a guardian and didn’t really live in Libya again for any length of time. Of course, the dilemma is that only those who have escaped from Libya have been free to write about it, so there is not much out there that is more current. Perhaps this author will attempt to follow-up this book with one that goes into more details about the last four decades.

Libyans are a wonderful people and it breaks my heart that they have had their lives impoverished and restricted by Gadhafi’s dictates. I only hope and pray that their present fight for liberation with be successful and that they will soon be able to speak and write freely about their rich heritage and history.

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How to Become a Muslim

When I first thought about becoming a Muslim, I held back partly because I thought the process would be complicated. I envisioned having to join a mosque, wear a headscarf (since I’m a woman), take a new name, learn how to prayer Islamically, read all of the Qur’an, even learn Arabic! It just seemed like too much trouble.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that all I had to do was testify that God is One and that Mohammed is his messenger. I didn’t even have to say it in Arabic.

The day I decided to become a Muslim, I showered (recommended) and then read the words from a book I’d gotten from the library.  There are various ways to say or translate the words of the Shahada (as the confession of faith is known), but the gist of it is: I testify (or bear witness) that Allah is the One and Only God and I testify that Mohammed is the last messenger. (Some prayers add that Mohammed is Allah’s slave and messenger.)

That’s it. You don’t even have to pray before or after you say the Shahada.

Right after I recited the confession of faith by myself, I met with one of my Muslim friends and told him what I’d done. He thought it was wonderful, but then told me that I needed to say it in front of a witness or witnesses. He led me in saying it in Arabic. Then one of my other friends suggested after I said the Shahada with her (I wasn’t taking any chances!) that it would be a good idea to say my Shahada at the mosque.

So I did. On the last day of Ramadan. It was crazy that day with all the crowds rushing to be in time for prayer, but I managed to say Shahada with one of the mosque’s leaders in the mosque office right before prayer started. Then I was hustled up to the women’s prayer room on the second floor overlooking the main hall of the mosque (where the men pray). I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t even know how to pray. I was squeezed between two other women, not just because there were so many people, but because Muslims believe that you should stand shoulder to shoulder when you pray, I found out later. I didn’t want to stick out by not praying, so I did my best to go up and down, up and down, when all the others did.

After the prayers and the message, the imam announced my name and that I had become a Muslim that day. He encouraged all the women to come up and welcome me to Islam. I must have had fifty women hug me and wish me the best. Some of them were wiping their eyes. All were joyful. And how did I feel? Overwhelmed. Not by emotion, but by all the new sights and sounds and noise and people. And yet as time goes by, I hold that day close to me in my memory. It was truly a turning point in my life.

My experience is not typical. It’s not usually so hectic. And often even the female convert is presented to the congregation in the main hall and repeats her Shahada in front of men and women. It depends on the mosque you go to. Some are strictly segregated, some are not. (Both of the mosques I’ve been to are. I would love someday to have the experience of going to one that isn’t.)

So that’s it: you’re a Muslim. You don’t have to change your name or join a mosque, or wear a hijab/headscarf (except when you go to the mosque), or even take classes (although it’s highly recommended after your conversion). There is no equivalent to baptism as in the Christian church. Islam is very accessible.