Does New Year’s Have a Place in Islam?

Yesterday MuslimMatters published the article, “4 Reasons Why Muslims Should Not Celebrate New Years.” The author, Muhammad Wajid Akhter, does not claim to be an Islamic scholar and he does acknowledge that there is a difference of opinion about this even among scholars. However, he did have four reasons that I thought were worth considering, for those of us who are unsure about our obligations as Muslims in a non-Muslim world. (Obviously, if you live in a Muslim country, this won’t be as much of an issue.)

  • Reason Number One: It is technically inaccurate–and pagan.
  • Reason Number Two: What exactly is there to celebrate?
  • Reason Number Three: It usually involves un-Islamic practices.
  • Reason Number Four: It is against the spirit of Islam.

There are a lot of celebrations in the United States that are technically inaccurate. The Declaration of Independence wasn’t actually signed on the 4th of July, for instance. As for paganism, is a holiday pagan just because it doesn’t have its roots in Islam?

If those were the rules, then Muslims wouldn’t participate in any holidays except for the two Eids. There are those, of course, who think that we shouldn’t, but most Muslims at least recognize the existence of holidays that are civic rather then religious. After all, most of us live in civic, rather than religious, societies. (I prefer the word “civic” to “secular” because we are governed by a concern for the common good more than by a desire to be non-religious.)

As Muslims, we do have our own New Year to celebrate, but in non-Muslim societies life is arranged around other calendars, most notably the Gregorian calendar. We go to work and school and conduct our business according to that calendar. The Hijri calendar is invaluable to Muslims in the observance of our faith, but we cannot force non-Muslim societies to operate according to it.

New Year’s Eve and Day are traditionally set aside for celebration and for reflection. Not all celebrants go out to bars and drink. In my family, for instance, we spend New Year’s Day sharing a meal together, reminiscing about the year just past and sharing our hopes for the year to come. That could be done anytime, but New Year’s is the time when we are all reminded to do so. (Since my family is non-Muslim, I don’t expect them to observe the Islamic New Year.)

Holidays are there to make us stop and remember things we have decided, as a society, are important to remember. New Year’s reminds us that we made it through another year, which is no small thing in this day and age. It reminds us that we’re all in this together. And it reminds us that we have more life to look forward to, God willing. How does that go against the spirit of Islam?

Some Muslims are scared to acknowledge cultural traditions other than their own for fear that they will lose their Muslim identity. Well, I’ve got news for you: there’s a difference between culture and religion. Many things that Muslims observe as Islamic are actually cultural traditions that technically have no place in Islam as a religion. Being a Muslim is a state of one’s heart and soul, not a matter of language or food or local customs.

Many new Muslims are confused by the things born Muslims tell them they must do because they can’t see how they have anything to do with the observance of Islam. Because Islam developed in certain cultures, it’s hard to separate Allah’s requirements from people’s traditions. Too often, when a convert comes from a non-Muslim culture, he is made to feel inferior and in danger of going to Hell if he observes his own cultural traditions.

I’d like to make a case for new and born Muslims who find themselves in a non-Muslim culture to find ways to incorporate their faith into their daily lives. What’s wrong with celebrating the Gregorian New Year’s by going to the mosque and making special prayers for the world? Why can’t we get together with our families and friends and tell them that we value the life that Allah has given us?

There’s one more step that we could take to counterbalance the influence non-Muslim society has on Muslims: we can and should be putting more emphasis on our own New Year. Usually it comes and goes with no mention of it anywhere, sometimes barely even in the mosque.

There’s nothing wrong with what New Year’s stands for. It’s how we celebrate it that counts.

The Individual and the Ummah

Muslims are constantly talking about the ummah, which means “community,” specifically the community of all believers. We’re proud of being a part of this community, but in actual practice we do little to foster a feeling of fellowship among its members.

Sure, we all pray “together” five times a day and fast at the same time during the month of Ramadan. And there are mosques where we can gather for prayer and other events. But unless you live in a Muslim community or country, it’s hard to feel like you have access to actual brothers and sisters with whom you can share joys as well as afflictions.

This is a big problem in the United States. Outside of communities where there are a lot of Muslims (for example, Dearborn, Michigan), there are too few masjids to serve the needs of Muslims who are scattered all over the country. In my own area, there are none close to where I live and the ones that are closest tend to be made up of close-knit groups who share the same ethnicity or nationality. As a white American convert, I don’t feel at home in any of them.

Another problem is that Muslims don’t have clergy the way that Christians do. If you belong to a church, there is always a central person you can call on for help or guidance. He or she will pray for you, visit you in the hospital, baptize your children and officiate at your death. And if you’re new, it will be the priest or minister who will either personally or through an assistant visit you and welcome you to the church.

I’ve been a Muslim for almost three years and I have never received a call or visit from anyone at the mosque where I said my Shahada. I don’t even know the name of the man who heard my confession of faith! I’ve never been called by anyone from any masjid where I’ve attended, partly because the masjids I’ve gone to don’t keep records about their members, let alone about people who have just visited.

Most churches encourage new visitors to stand up and be recognized so that people can come up to them after church and make them feel welcome to come back or to attend Sunday School classes. They also encourage them to become members of their particular congregation, and if they do, they are entered on the membership roles.

I’ve often wondered how masjids get enough money to operate on when they don’t have any way of identifying who their members are. The only appeals for money I’ve ever heard were made informally after prayers. In Christian churches, if you’re a member you will be contacted about giving money to the church on a regular basis. While there are times when this can be irritating, I still don’t see how a religious institution can function without it.

And yet somehow mosques do flourish, even without formal requests for money. This is partly because charity is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Every Muslim knows that he has an obligation to give of his own bounty toward the aid of others.

This is one of the things I love about Islam: the emphasis on personal responsibility. We don’t wait for someone to remind us that we’re supposed to do something (not even Allah); instead, we’re supposed to be constantly seeking ways to be faithful to the tenets of Islam. We are to educate ourselves about our obligations. Imams and fellow Muslims can give us guidance and inspiration but it’s ultimately up to us to do what’s right.

But all too often individual efforts to help are hit-and-miss.  Masjids are run by volunteers, but what if they don’t get the volunteers that they need? Without a formal clergy, strong leadership and an organized structure, many basic needs go unmet. This is one of the weaknesses of Islam.

The way I see it, the ummah is only as effective as its individual members.  There is no professional clergy whom Muslims pay to do their work for them. Each Muslim is held accountable for what he or she does (or doesn’t do) in life. It does no good to complain about what the community is not doing for us when we ourselves are not doing anything for the ummah.

 

 

 

 

The Prayer for Guidance

(Continued from “Seeking Guidance” on October 19, 2011.)

There is no sure-fire way to be 100% certain that we’re making the right decisions. However, there is a way to be confident that we’re heading in the right direction. And it’s not by seeking out signs and omens or consulting tarot cards or fortune-tellers. There is only one source of perfect advice and guidance and that is God.

Some people dislike that answer. Either they don’t believe in God, or they don’t think God speaks to us clearly enough for us to know what He really wants. Some Christians, and Muslims, too, will open their Holy Books (the Bible or the Qur’an) to a random page and let their finger or eye fall on one verse or passage. They then try to interpret what God is telling them through His Word.

In my opinion, that’s no better than superstition. It’s also lazy. Because there’s only one way to obtain God’s guidance and that’s through prayer. But not just any prayer. Muslims have a special prayer which is called “Salat-I-Istikhara” or the Prayer for Guidance. We were given this prayer by the Prophet Mohammad (swt) and the English translation goes like this:

Oh Allah! I seek Your guidance by virtue of Your knowledge, and I seek ability by virtue of Your power, and I ask You of Your great bounty. You have power; I have none. And You know; I know not. You are the Knower of hidden things.

Oh Allah! If in Your knowledge, (this matter*) is good for my religion, my livelihood and my affairs, immediate and in the future, then ordain it for me, make it easy for me, and bless it for me. And if in Your knowledge, (this matter*) is bad for my religion, my livelihood and my affairs, immediate and in the future, then turn it away from me, and turn me away from it. And ordain for me the good wherever it may be, and make me content with it.

Even if you don’t remember the exact words, you can learn a lot about how to be guided by God from studying this prayer. First, we learn that we can’t hope to know the future; only God knows that. And because He’s the only one who knows the future, He’s also the only one who can give us the best advice about how to head into our future.

Second, we learn that whatever we decide, it must be good for our religion, our livelihood and our affairs, both immediate and in the future. If we’re contemplating something that would violate that guideline, we know right there that we’re heading the wrong way.

Third, because God knows not only the future, but knows us, He alone is able to guide us properly.

However, this still leaves the problem of how God guides us. And here is where I marvel at the wisdom of the Prophet (swt). For he tells us to trust God and have faith in His ability to make those things that are good for us also easy for us, and the things that are bad for us more difficult. We are also to trust that God will influence us to the point where, if we’re really submitted to Him, we will find ourselves losing interest or confidence in those plans that are not God’s will for us.

This requires time and repeated prayer. We can’t expect instant answers. Sometimes we have to wait for a while to see if we remain enthusiastic and positive about our intentions. We also need to give God time to work in us and in our circumstances.

I hope I don’t sound like I’m an expert about seeking God’s guidance, because I’m not. But I thank Allah that He gave us this model.

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.”

 

Muslims Helping Muslims

You cannot attain to righteousness unless you spend (in charity) out of what you love.” (The Holy Quran 3:92)

Roger Davis became a Muslim in prison. Now he has a burden not only for prisoners, but for all people who need a helping hand. And the way he sees it, who better to lend that helping hand than Muslims? Isn’t that what we’re called to do? After all, charity is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. But it is also much more than paying Zakaat once a year. (See this page in Muslim.org for some helpful teaching about charity.)

After leaving prison, Brother Roger lived for six months in a masjid where he was able to immerse himself in Islam. And this was after he had become an amir, then a teacher of Islam and finally an imam of the prison. So he has a sound foundation in the faith. Yet he insists that he is only a regular person trying to follow Allah.

Brother Roger has had many health problems in his relatively short life (he is now 28). He was seriously ill with cancer and has had two heart attacks but reports that he has been healed. When he was ill he found it very difficult to find anyone to help him. Now he believes strongly that Muslims should become more involved in helping others in similar situations, and not just through the masjid.

Brother Roger is married and the father of a nine-month-old son. He and his wife have three older children as well. His wife became interested in Islam through him and the day she said her Shahada was also the day that they married, all within the space of thirty minutes!

Several months ago, Brother Roger came up with the idea of establishing a charity which he calls Muslims Helping Muslims. He describes it as “an Islamic-based charity founded upon principles of Islamic giving, dedicated to helping those in need, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.” (Check out the Facebook page here.) Some of the things the charity has done is provide reading matter to prisoners and others, Islamic clothing for new sisters and newly-released Muslims, and financial help to those who cannot pay bills or have their prescriptions filled.

If you want to know more about how to donate, either goods or money, go to the charity’s web site here.

 

What I Love About Islam

I love the meaning of Islam: submission and peace.

I love that Islam has no concept of original sin.

I love that Eve is not blamed for our fall into sinfulness.

I love that Islam is so smart about human nature.

I love that the Qur’an is one long letter from God to human beings.

I love Islam’s emphasis on moral behavior.

I love its emphasis on helping and serving others.

I love that women are cherished and honored.

I love that women are prized for their inner beauty and are not seen as sex objects.

I love that there is no gender discrimination between men and women.

I love Islam’s emphasis on the family.

I love that I have a direct line to God.

I love the prayers.

I love that we are called to make a special effort to remember God and come into His presence five times a day.

I love that Allah reveals His nature and His intentions so clearly.

I love the 99 names of Allah.

I love that Allah gave us His Messenger to guide and inspire us.

I love that Islam reveres all the prophets.

I love that Islam teaches that there is to be no distinction between people.

I love that Islam teaches peace and tolerance.

I love that Islam is all about justice and fairness.

I love Islam’s emphasis on acquiring knowledge.

I love Ramadan (and the way Allah and other Muslims help me to get through it!).

I love the Five Pillars.

I love knowing that Allah created me intentionally and knows me intimately.

I love being held accountable for my actions.

I love that Allah makes it so clear what He expects from me.

I love that there is such a thing as repentance and starting over.

I love that Allah takes into account my intentions.

I love my brothers and sisters in Islam (the ummah).

I love being known as a Muslim.

I love knowing that this life is a test and that through patience and perseverance, submission and faith, I can meet all trials with grace and humility.

Alhamdulillah!