Cheap Grace

I came to Islam through the notion of  cheap grace. I first heard of the term in the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor and theologian who was executed by the Nazis. In his book, The Cost of Discipleship (1948), he explained cheap grace this way:

“Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like a cheapjack’s wares.  The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut-rate prices.  Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits.  Grace without price; grace without cost!  And the essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing.  Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite.  What would grace be, if it were not cheap? . . .  In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. . . Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner.  Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before.   { p. 42}

I became a Muslim because I rejected the idea of cheap grace. It didn’t make sense to me that God would be happy with believers who thought they could take all He has to offer (forgiveness, salvation) without giving anything in return. It’s true that Christians believe that God requires them to believe in Him and in His son, Jesus Christ; in other words, that they have faith. But at the same time they are taught that faith is a gift from God that cannot be earned no matter what we do.

Christians are taught that no matter what they do or fail to do, they are forgiven automatically, just because they believe that Jesus is God. You could even say that God forgives them before they sin, because Jesus took their punishment upon himself when he died on the cross. It doesn’t really matter what you do, because your efforts don’t sway God in the least. He sees man in all his sinfulness as if he was “filthy rags.” He couldn’t even bear to look at us if it weren’t for Jesus saving us from our sins.

So on the one hand, Christians are taught that they are despicable but on the other hand they are taught that God loves them anyway, as long as they believe that He sacrificed Himself for our sins through the person of Jesus Christ (who is actually God Himself).

That was very comforting to me when I was a Christian. Why wouldn’t it be? I didn’t have to do anything in particular. All I had to do was confess faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior and all my failings would be forgiven. It’s a very fine line from that to believing that you can sin in perpetuity and you will still be saved.

But eventually I began to wonder if it was truly possible to refrain from sin if there was no incentive to. After all, Hell was not an option. You could be the worst person in the world and still go to Heaven if you believed that Jesus was God and that He saved you from your sins.

Now whether or not God would actually allow a serial killer with no remorse into Heaven just because he professed faith in Jesus, I can’t say. Christians would argue that it is impossible to be a Christian and do terrible things. A friend of mine told me the other day:

 You believe we should be good human beings. To me it sounds as if you *strive* to put all your efforts in to being a good human being, while my belief is that when you are in control of the indwelling Holy Spirit you automatically act or live a life of a good human being, as led by the Spirit.

That outlook sounds nice in principle, but in practice it can turn out disastrously. I know too many Christians who are mean-spirited and judgmental to believe that God’s Spirit is working in them. And yet, by the Bible’s standards, they are forgiven for every horrible thing they say about Muslims, or gays, or women who have abortions, or people who  live off society because they’re “too lazy to work.”

But the Bible says in other places that faith without works is dead. That means that if you aren’t a good human being, it is as if you have no faith. The more I learned about Islam, the more I saw the parallels between those sort of Biblical teachings and the teachings of the Qur’an. Islam teaches that without good works, we might as well not have faith. God will not be pleased with us if we say we believe in Him and yet treat our fellow man badly.

Christians are expected to treat others as they would like to be treated. They are to love their neighbors as themselves. But there is no real penalty if they don’t. If they practice cheap grace, they’re shortchanging God, but He will not send them to Hell for it.

Being a Muslim is all about grace that, while freely given by God, still requires that we accept personal responsibility for our acts. Muslims talk about God’s mercy and compassion more than about His grace. That doesn’t mean that Muslims don’t believe in God’s grace; they just believe that His grace should cost them something.

It isn’t easy to be a Muslim. But I don’t think following God should be easy. It should be hard enough to drive us to our knees to ask for God’s strength and guidance as well as for His mercy and forgiveness.


Taking Care of Converts

The Islamic Center at New York University (ICNYU) has a program called Conver(t)sations, which is designed to facilitate communication between born Muslims and converts. The Imam of ICNYU is Khalid Latif and in this video he is moderating a panel of converts who have come together to share their stories.

Born Muslims love to hear conversion stories, but are not so interested in hearing how the convert is doing after he or she becomes a Muslim. Oh, they’re willing to give converts books and pamphlets, maybe even teach them how to pray and the basics of the faith, but my impression is that few born Muslims are aware of how hard it is to assimilate into the Muslim world if you were never part of that world before your conversion.

It is evident in this video that Imam Khalid Latif has a genuine burden for Muslim converts and their difficulties and I for one was glad and encouraged by his sensitivity and empathy. I strongly encourage born Muslims and converts alike to watch at least part of the video. (It’s two hours long, but can be watched in segments.) Imam Khalid Latif makes the excellent point that the Muslim community is too often divided by various factions and that it is imperative that we talk to and try to understand and accept one another if we are to show the world the kind of community Allah means for his followers to develop.

For a written version of the Imam’s message, “Taking Care of Converts,” check out this article which appeared in the Huffington Post on the 20th day of Ramadan.

About Khalid Latif:

In 2005 Imam Khalid Latif was appointed as the first Muslim chaplain at NYU where he began to initiate his vision for a pluralistic future for American Muslims rooted on campus and reaching out to the wider community. Imam Latif was also appointed as the first Muslim chaplain at Princeton University in 2006.

Spending a year commuting between these two excellent institutions he finally decided to commit full time to NYU’s Islamic Center when his position was officially institutionalized in the spring of 2007. Under his leadership the Islamic Center at NYU became the first ever fully established Muslim student center at an institution of higher learning in the U.S.

Imam Latif’s exceptional dedication and ability to cross interfaith and cultural lines on a daily basis brought him recognition throughout the city so much so that in 2007 Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York nominated Imam Latif to become the youngest ever chaplain of the New York Police Department (NYPD). [Source.]

Ten Years Later: How 9/11 Changed My Life

I don’t think there’s one person alive whose world hasn’t been changed by the events of September 11, 2001. Even those who don’t remember it live in a much different world than that which existed before 9/11.

My grandson does not remember 9/11. He was not quite two when the towers came down. He doesn’t know a world before the Patriot Act, Homeland Security and the TSA. But neither does he know an America that completely ignored Islam. When I was his age, I knew nothing about Islam. I didn’t know any Muslims, I didn’t see them on TV, I never saw them on the street, I didn’t learn about them in school. And yet almost exactly eight years after 9/11, I became one myself.

I was in Germany with my fiancé on 9/11. Like the rest of the world, I was in shock. No one, least of all Americans, thought that something like this would ever happen on American soil. Over the next few weeks, I was amazed at the outpouring of caring and even grief from all over the world. Germans held candlelight vigils in city squares. The German news reported on 9/11 exhaustively. Whenever someone learned that I was American, they held my hands and told me how terribly sorry they were for what had happened to us.

My fiancé and I returned to the States almost a month after 9/11 and married on 11/11. So this year is our tenth anniversary as well. Sometimes I’m surprised that he is so glad to be in America, because to me it has changed almost beyond recognition. It is much more paranoid, conservative and intolerant than it used to be. In the months after 9/11, no one dared to criticize the President or question any of his policies. Anyone who didn’t support the war in Iraq was viewed as a traitor. The whole country became narrow-minded in its pursuit of enemies, which it identified exclusively as Muslims.

It never occurred to me, in the days after 9/11, to blame Islam for the actions of a few politically reactionaries who happened to identify as Muslims. After all, I never blamed the actions of the Klu Klux Clan or Timothy McVeigh on Christianity. Rather than blaming all Muslims, I felt it was my duty as a human being to learn as much as possible about Islam before passing judgment on it and its followers.

What began as an intellectual interest took years to formulate into a decision to convert. Even though I had come to respect Islam, I resisted the idea of conversion for a long time. It wasn’t until I actually met some Muslims that the pieces fell into place.

My conversion may seem counter-intuitive in a country where Muslims are viewed with suspicion. But even though there is more intolerance toward Islam than there used to be, there is also more acceptance. Thousands of Americans have converted to Islam since 9/11. It’s hard not to draw a correlation between 9/11 and the outpouring of interest in Islam. Although the events of that day were horrible, I know that I owe my new-found peace with God to the fact that they happened.



Where is Your Focus? On Allah or Yourself?

Thanks be to Allah, I found a post yesterday on that was exactly what I needed. Today’s post is a summation of the main points in this article. You can find the entire article here.

Shaytan is very clever. He plays on our feelings of guilt to prevent us from returning to Allah.

Guilt becomes excessive and a tool against iman (faith) when it actually prevents Muslims from real tawbah (repentance), because they feel their sins are too heavy, or too oft-repeated, and there is little hope for them to get better. They dread going back to Allah (swt) because they are overwhelmed by shame. They may even ask Allah (swt) for forgiveness but deep down, they feel they are not worthy of it and they begin to doubt themselves in everything they do, and doubt Allah’s Love for them, and sometimes give up and indulge even more in sins because of their feeling of hopelessness.

This is a perfect description of what I’ve been going through this Ramadan. I seem to have forgotten what the Prophet said in one of the ahadith:

“When Allah completed the creation, He wrote in His Book which is with Him on His Throne, ‘My Mercy overpowers My Anger.’” (Bukhari)

The word ‘tawbah’ does not mean excessive guilt nor does it mean despising oneself. Tawbah is translated to mean ‘repentance’ but comes from the Arabic root which means “to return to.” This is the same root as the Beautiful Name of Allah al-Tawwaab. So the one making tawbah is simply returning to Allah (swt) while He is Oft-Returning to them in His infinite Mercy.

To think that mistakes are simply too big or too repeated for the forgiveness of Allah (swt) is a form of doubting Allah (swt)’s infinite Mercy. It is a materialistic approach, subconsciously limiting His Forgiveness to the human constructs of forgiveness we find in the world. The question is not “Will Allah forgive us?” The question is “Will we turn to Him?” The Forgiveness of al-Ghafur, al-Afuww, (the Forgiving, the Pardoner) is greater than anything we can imagine.

You could argue that Allah uses our feelings of regret and guilt to get us to return to Him, not to crush us in a cycle of self-recrimination and self-loathing. It is our hope in His Mercy that moves us from focusing on our guilt to using it to propel ourselves closer to Allah.

Every sinful mistake is an opportunity and a signal that it is time to grow in our relationship with Allah (swt); and as we turn to Him walking, He turns to us rushing. Tawbah as such is an act of redemption and elevation, not despair.

The article then goes on to remind the reader of verses in the Qur’an that speak to this issue, such as:

1. “Say, ‘O My servants who have transgressed against themselves [by sinning], do not despair of the mercy of Allah. Indeed, Allah forgives all sins. Indeed, it is He who is the Forgiving, the Merciful.’” (Qur’an 39:53)

2. “But whoever repents after his wrongdoing and reforms, indeed, Allah will turn to him in forgiveness. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.” (Qur’an 5:39)

3. “And when My servants ask you, [O Muhammad], concerning Me – indeed I am near. I respond to the invocation of the supplicant when he calls upon Me. […]” (Qur’an 2:186)

4. “O you who have believed, repent to Allah with sincere repentance. Perhaps your Lord will remove from you your misdeeds and admit you into gardens beneath which rivers flow [on] the Day when Allah will not disgrace the Prophet and those who believed with him. Their light will proceed before them and on their right; they will say, “Our Lord, perfect for us our light and forgive us. Indeed, You are over all things competent.” (Qur’an 66:8)

5. “And those who, when they commit an immorality or wrong themselves [by transgression], remember Allah and seek forgiveness for their sins – and who can forgive sins except Allah? […]” (Quran 3:135)

6.  “And it is He who accepts repentance from his servants and pardons misdeeds, and He knows what you do.” (Qur’an 42:25)

Subhan Allah, if Allah (swt) will forgive you, who are you not to forgive yourself? If He loves you and has mercy on you, who are you not to love yourself and be merciful with yourself? …  Allah (swt) is much Greater than His needing us to harm and torture ourselves. Actually, He doesn’t want those things from us at all. He wants us to elevate ourselves in our relationship with Him. Just as we don’t need to beat ourselves up for real tawbah, we also don’t need to harm ourselves in order to worship Him best this Ramadan. Let us push ourselves insha Allah, God willing, in a way that keeps us consistent in turning to Him and worshiping Him (swt).

Finally, we need to remember what The Prophet said: “Make matters easy and do not make them difficult, give glad tidings and do not make people averse.” (Bukhari and Muslim)


My First Week of Ramadan

I’m not going to lie: I’m having a rough Ramadan. My greatest weakness as a Muslim has been my prayers and it hasn’t stopped being a problem just because it’s Ramadan. I know that not all converts have this problem—some seem to take to Muslim behavior like a duck takes to water—but I can’t help but think that I would be much more faithful in prayer if I had been brought up as a practicing Muslim.

Strangely enough, I am most faithful with fajr prayer. There’s something about starting the day with prayer that makes me feel better. I’ve even gotten used to getting up early and I used to be a person who slept late every day I could. And of course, fajr is also the shortest prayer.

I even have a prayer reminder on my computer, but it doesn’t do me any good when I have the computer off, which is mainly in the evenings.

But it’s not forgetting my prayers that’s the problem: it’s this feeling of hopelessness I have about my ability to learn and practice all the different prayers, especially in Arabic. I have a hang-up about not being perfect, even though I know that no one is or can be. I’m always imagining that all other Muslims in the world are good at all this “stuff” and I’m the only one who’s a failure.

I feel like this Ramadan so far for me has been one big exercise in starting over. Each day I try to do better than the day before. But the fact that I have to keep starting over is discouraging to me.

If Allah were not a forgiving God, I’d be in big trouble!

This is a prayer that means a lot to me right now, because when I am left to my own devices, I make a mess of everything:

“O Allah! I do hope for Thy mercy, so do not leave me to myself for the twinkling of an eye.”