On Islam and Liberty

Mustafa Aykol is a Turkish journalist who wrote Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty, which I haven’t read yet, but have ordered from Amazon. I’ll be reviewing it later. For now, here is a video of Aykol speaking on the subject of “Faith versus tradition in Islam.” He says that there was a liberal trend among Muslim intellectuals in the 19th and early 20th century and attempts to explain the rise of Islamism and Islamic terrorism in the latter part of the 20th century.  His comments are thought-provoking. Let me know what you think.


What is a Revert?

It is impossible to understand the term “revert” without understanding the concept of fitra.

Fitra, or fitrah (Ar. فطرة), is an Arabic word meaning ‘disposition’, ‘nature’, ‘constitution’, or ‘instinct’. In a mystical context, it can connote intuition or insight.

According to Islamic theology, human beings are born with an innate inclination of tawhid (Oneness), which is encapsulated in the fitra along with compassion, intelligence, ihsan and all other attributes that embody what it is to be human. It is for this reason that some Muslims prefer to refer to those who embrace Islam as reverts rather than converts, as it is believed they are returning to a perceived pure state.

The Islamic concept of fitra stands in contrast to the Christian concept of “original sin.”  Actually, you could say that Adam and Eve existed in a state of fitra in the Garden of Eden before they were ejected for sinning. But Christians believe that humans are all born, not just with a propensity to sin, but with a core of sinfulness. Muslims, on the other hand, believe that although humans do sin, their natural state is pure. It is what happens to us after birth that causes us to stray from or abandon our fitra.

This is why Muslims sometimes call converts “reverts.” When a person becomes a Muslim, he is really returning to the relationship he had with God before he was even born. We are born “at one” with Allah. Not only that, but we are conscious of God’s “oneness” (tawhid). You can see this in a young child who is first learning about God. She may repeat what her parents and others tell her, but if you ask her what she thinks God is like, she will describe Him as one being. I know when I was a child, I was taught that Jesus was the Son of God, but that didn’t mean anything to me. When I prayed, I prayed to God alone. Muslims would argue that this is the natural inclination of every child before he or she has been indoctrinated with other beliefs about the concept of God.

Some scholars say that all of creation is Muslim because it naturally recognizes the Oneness of God. So, when a person “becomes” Muslim, he is not becoming something foreign to him, but is actually reclaiming his innate identity.  Becoming a Muslim means that he is submitting not just to God, but to his inborn understanding of God.

This is not exactly a belief unique to Muslims. St Augustine wrote at the start of his Confessions, “God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.” Some Christians have described this as having a “God-shaped hole, which only God can fill.” John Calvin believed that there is an awareness or sense of God (sensus divinitatis) implanted in all people by nature. He even argued that atheists must have an awareness of God in order to reject Him.

Maybe we all have more in common than we thought.

Summertime, and the Living is NOT Easy

My mom was a musical fan and I often heard the song “Summertime” playing on her stereo during my childhood. The first line goes, “Summertime, and the living is easy.” But I have to tell you: I don’t feel that way about summer. Especially the last two years since I’ve been a Muslim.

For one thing, dressing modestly is hot! And I don’t mean that in the “attractive” or “sexy” sense. I dread going out some days because I know I’m going to have sweat trickling down my back as soon as the sun hits me. (It doesn’t help of course that we don’t have air-conditioning in our car!) Sometimes I long for the days when I could throw on a sleeveless top and some shorts and just go. But I feel funny now if I venture outside without long sleeves and pants and a hijab.

I’ve had to learn a few tricks about dressing hijab. I try to stick to my light, cotton hijabs and to wear long-sleeve tops so I don’t have to layer. Long skirts and dresses can be a good solution, too. I’ve worn an abaya on a few occasions and actually like the feeling of being covered yet being able to move freely, but most of the abayas I have are of man-made fabrics so they’re not that cool.

Even though I complain sometimes about having to dress this way in the heat, I have to admit that I’ve found that I don’t really feel that much more hot than I used to pre-Islam. And I don’t have to use as much sun-block either! (All right, I don’t use any sunblock. I know I should, but I always forget.)

Another thing I find difficult is gardening. Not only because I get hot, but because I can’t bear to dress modestly when I’m working in the yard. The clothes just get in the way and the heat is definitely intensified. Short of going out to garden in the middle of the night, I haven’t yet worked out a way to stay cool and modest while doing so. And my yard looks like it!

Also, I won’t be going to the pool any time soon. I love to swim, but I just don’t have the nerve to wear a burkini or other modest swimwear at a public pool. One of the local mosques occasionally has a swimming event just for women, but it’s at an indoor pool and somehow that’s just not the same as swimming outside.

I hate the idea that I have to curtail some of my activities now that I’m a Muslim. I have no problem with not drinking alcohol or partying, because I never did much of that anyway. Nor am I a sports-nut: I don’t jog, or play softball or tennis. I do go to the gym (occasionally!), but it’s an all-women gym, so I don’t have to worry as much about how I’m dressed. (I’m rather lax about it, to tell you the truth.)

And now for the biggie: Ramadan. I don’t look forward to it like I wish I would, because I always worry so much about how I’m going to handle the heat. I’ll be so glad when Ramadan moves into the other seasons, but that won’t be anytime soon. So I better get used to it. I don’t want to stop doing anything just because it’s Ramadan and I’m passing out on the couch (in the air-conditioning). For one thing, I have a GRE test to take at the end of August and I can’t afford to stop studying just because it’s Ramadan.

I’m praying hard that I be able to handle all the things I wrote about in this post. I realize that’s probably the point of all these “hardships.” If we didn’t have trials in life, would we rely on Allah? Besides, my trials are nothing compared to my brothers and sisters who are fighting for freedom and still have to observe Ramadan. When I put things into perspective like that, I realize I don’t have it so bad. We do have air-conditioning at home and most places I visit do as well. I have the freedom to worship any way I please. And to voice my opinions.

Don’t get me wrong. Even though it can be hard to be a Muslim sometimes, I know in my heart that I wouldn’t have it any other way. The “sacrifices” I have to make are nothing compared to what Allah has done for me. He calls me to do my best, but is merciful and compassionate when I fail. And He never leaves me. With Allah, the living may not be easy, but it’s better than living without Him.


Share Your Ramadan Story

Ramadan serves many purposes, but one of the main things is that it is a wonderful opportunity to practice Da’wa. I may not even have become a Muslim if it hadn’t been for Ramadan. One of my Muslim friends knew that I was interested in Islam and sensed that I was close to making a decision. But what I needed first was to see Muslims in action.

I was more than a little nervous when I went to her house. I didn’t know what to expect; I didn’t know if I was dressed properly; I didn’t know if I would be asked to participate in any way. I knew absolutely nothing about Islamic prayer and I had never seen Muslims praying except for brief glimpses on television.

I didn’t even know if I was late or early because I had no concept of waiting until after sunset to break the fast. I did know that Muslims fasted during Ramadan, but to me that just sounded hard. I had no idea how meaningful it could be.

There were many women there that night, and no men, which surprised me a little although I was aware that Muslims often segregated the sexes. (And these were Libyan and Saudi Arabian Muslims, so it was partly cultural as well.) But what surprised me the most was how much I enjoyed the sisterly fellowship. I didn’t realize at the time that that would be one of the things that drew me to Islam: the fact that Muslim women have a deep connection to one another. I had rarely experienced such camaraderie among women, not even in the Christian churches I’d attended.

We started out with dates and milk to break the fast and then on came the meal. I’d never had Libyan food before and although I found that I liked it very much, I wasn’t used to how full it would make me. Of course, I hadn’t been fasting, so I didn’t have as much room in my stomach as everyone else did.

After the meal, some of the women announced that it was time for prayer. They put on their prayer outfits and got out the prayer rugs and one led the others in prayer. I felt like I was witnessing an intensely private moment and strangely enough, I was sorry that I couldn’t join them. Of course I had no idea what to do; it was obviously something that they were used to doing and I longed for that kind of consistency and practice in my own spiritual life.

Even though there was a lot of Arabic being spoken, the women were careful to include me in their conversations and to explain things to me that they thought I might like to know. I was too shy to ask questions myself, so I really appreciated that.

I learned a lot that night, but the most important thing was that I got to experience the joy and love and excitement of Ramadan. When I left, I had a lot to think about.

Less than three weeks later I said my Shahada, on the last day of Ramadan, 2009. Ramadan will always be a special time for me because it marks when I became a Muslim. But without the willingness of my friends to share it with me, I might not have become a Muslim when I did, or maybe even not at all.

This is just one of the stories that I expect I will have about Ramadan during my life. I’m just now experiencing my second full Ramadan as a Muslim. I pray that this year will be an opportunity for us all to grow closer to Allah and to each other.

What Ramadan stories do you have to share? Did something significant happen to you during Ramadan? Do you have special traditions that you follow? How do you handle the mechanics of it: the fasting, the lack of sleep, the late nights at the mosque? What do you have planned for Ramadan this year?

May Allah bless you all as you prepare for Ramadan and during it. And may He help us to extend the blessings and lessons of Ramadan to the rest of the year.

The 30-Day Challenge

This is a video of a brief talk given by Matt Cutts about how anyone can do anything for 30 days. I thought it was especially appropriate for Ramadan. Even though Ramadan is eagerly anticipated by Muslims, that doesn’t mean that it’s easy to get through. And it’s going to be especially hard this year with the heat and the long summer days. (I was able to add Arabic subtitles to the video; you’ll have to let me know how accurate they are.)