Have You Forgotten?

Today on Facebook I found this comment:

Don’t you think it’s puzzling that we’re all born with amnesia wondering who we are, why we’re here and where we came from? Time to remember… wake-up! Move into the heart to remember! ♥

The woman who wrote this isn’t a Muslim, but her sentiment reminded me of what it felt like when I discovered Islam. Muslims believe that we’re all born Muslim—that is, connected to the One God, our Creator. But for a variety of reasons, we lose that sense of connection as we grow up in this dunya (the temporal world).

I like to think that babies still have that sense when they enter this world. They are so trusting, so eager to smile and to laugh. It’s not hard to teach a child to enjoy life and to feel loved. The tragedy is that so many of us forget what that felt like as we grow older.

We forget because we get distracted and damaged. People hurt and mislead us. We allow ourselves to get sidetracked by our desire for their acceptance. We seek fame and fortune instead of communion with our Creator. We forget what real love feels like.

And then there are the things we do to ourselves. We treat ourselves and others badly. And then we deny that we feel guilty. We try to justify our actions. We don’t see that we need reconciliation with our Creator.

But we never stop missing Him. We always have this vague sense of unease, as if we’ve lost our way and are afraid that we might be lost forever.

And yet He never moved. He is still there, our light and our guiding star. All we have to do is open our hearts to Him.

And when we do, we remember.

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.


Where is Your Focus? On Allah or Yourself?

Thanks be to Allah, I found a post yesterday on SuhaibWebb.com 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.”


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.”


Progress Report: Twenty Months as a Muslim

I’m still glad I’m a Muslim and I’m actually a lot more comfortable with it than I was for the first few months. I won’t lie to you; those days were hard. First of all, I felt so out of my element. So much of being a Muslim is cultural and I’m definitely not from that culture. I’m as WASPy as you can get, or at least I was until I became a Muslim. (WASP stands for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.) Now the only part that doesn’t fit is ‘Protestant.’ But I’m still white and Anglo-Saxon and have blue eyes and fair skin. In other words, I don’t look Middle Eastern which is where most non-Muslims think Muslims come from. (In actuality, only about 20% of Muslims are Arab.)

But the real difference between me and most born Muslims is that I’m not steeped in all the traditions and attitudes that come with being born into a Muslim culture. At first, everything felt strange to me. I’ve written in earlier posts about how I responded to all this “Muslim business.” Well, I’m still learning. I find out something new almost every day that I didn’t know about being a Muslim. Some of the things have been disturbing, others amusing, most of them enlightening.

But at first I was terribly hung up about all I didn’t know. I felt like I’d never learn how to be a “real” Muslim. And I was consumed with guilt about all the things I did know but didn’t follow.

For instance, I found it very difficult to say all my prayers every day. Each day that went by where I hadn’t prayed five times (or sometimes not at all) made me feel horrible. I was sure I was going to Hell and I was afraid to admit to anyone that I was having trouble with the prayers. Also, every time I found out something new that some Muslims think is mandatory, I would get discouraged by how difficult some of the things were.

I got so hung up about whether or not I was doing everything right, I lost my joy about being a Muslim. But even in my worst moments, I never regretted my decision to convert. I didn’t feel like Islam let me down but rather that I let Islam—and other Muslims—down.

After a few months I finally started to relax. It helped that I finally made it through the Qur’an. And I had many Muslim friends, both born and converted, to encourage me and teach me the most important things I needed to know. I began to understand that Allah knows our hearts, judges us by our intentions as well as our actions, and is always willing to forgive us and help us to start over. I will never be a perfect Muslim, partly because there is no such thing (Muhammad is the only one who came close) and partly because I’m human.

But most of all I learned about the importance of prayer. That’s the cornerstone of Islam. I still don’t always say all my prayers, but when I do, I am so blessed. I can’t believe how good it feels to be in God’s presence and have a conversation with Him. I’ve come to love the prayers themselves, even when I don’t understand every single word. I get off track a lot, but prayer always brings me back to Allah. And I praise Him for that. Alhamdulillah!

Being Neighborly

I don’t get along with my next-door neighbor. Let me rephrase that: I don’t like my next-door neighbor. Oh, he always acts friendly, but then he does passive-aggressive stuff like taking over part of our yard for his garden without asking and throwing a bush that he dug up in our compost bin. I don’t know how to take his actions or what to do about them. I don’t feel comfortable making an issue about them, but not saying anything at all makes me feel like I’m just setting myself up to be used and disrespected.

I’m well aware of what the Qur’an and the ahadith say about how we should treat others. In fact, it’s one of the things I love most about Islam. I think many non-Muslims would be surprised at the emphasis that Islam puts on loving our neighbors. Christians, for instance, tend to think that they have the monopoly on that. But in reality, there are far more verses and sayings about being kind and gentle to others in Islam than there are in the Christian Bible.

This is one of the dilemmas of being religious. We are taught to treat others the way we would like to be treated. But what are we supposed to do when we aren’t treated fairly? Are we just supposed to suck it up or grin and bear it? Are we supposed to act like push-overs?  Or should we say something in our defense?

The situation is even more complicated by the fact that I now identify myself as a Muslim by wearing the hijab. My neighbor has never asked me about it—we don’t have that kind of relationship—and it’s not that I think he does these things because I’m a Muslim. (He did most of the things before my conversion.) But since I choose to “announce” to the world that I am a Muslim, don’t I have a standard to uphold? Isn’t it a form of da’wa to be kind to our neighbors?

Years ago, before I was a Muslim, I left a sign in my neighbor’s garden telling him that I didn’t appreciate his taking over part of our yard. That year he was careful to stay off our property. But the next year when he asked if we were going to use that patch of land, what could we say? We don’t use it; we just don’t like him using it. So we said that we weren’t using it that year. He promptly put a fence around the entire area (ours and his) and has left it there ever since.

I wouldn’t mind planting some tomato plants this year, but now our part of the garden is behind his fence. It just doesn’t seem worth the hassle to tell him to move his fence so that it’s only around his property. Besides, I don’t like confrontation. And I know how uncomfortable things can get if you don’t get along with the person who lives next door to you. So I keep my mouth shut and seethe inside. And I complain to my husband, who shares my feelings anyway.

I know this seems like a small thing compared to world issues like conflicts in other countries or even the way Muslims are treated by some Americans. But life is made up of these small things. And how we treat our neighbor says a lot about how well we are submitted to Allah and His will.

For now, I guess I’ll continue to treat my neighbor respectfully and hope that he won’t do anything more aggressive. My ego keeps telling me that I should stick up for myself. But somehow I think that would only make things worse. But is it better to have this eating away at me?

I know I need to pray about this. But do you have any other suggestions?