Feeling Lost as a Convert

Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world (although it is second in number of adherents). This is partly because of the growth of Muslim families, but it is also because of an increasingly large number of converts. However, what many Muslims don’t realize is that many of these new Muslims leave the faith after months or even years of being converts.

See this article, “Why Are New Muslims Leaving the Faith?” from Islam21c.

I’ve been a Muslim for three years now and I can relate to much of what is written in this article. I haven’t been tempted to leave Islam, but I’ve sometimes wondered if I have what it takes to be a Muslim. I know that all it takes to become a Muslim is the statement of faith (the Shahada). But being a Muslim (a “good” or practicing Muslim) is another thing altogether.

Here’s where I think things go wrong for many converts:

  1. Muslims are not completely honest beforehand about what is expected of the new convert.
  2. Muslims bombard the new convert with all these rules that he is suddenly supposed to live by.
  3. Many of the rules have no basis in Islam, but are cultural conventions.
  4. There are so many differing opinions about some issues, the new convert becomes confused.
  5. Born Muslims have no idea how hard it is for the convert to completely change his or her life.
  6. Most new converts are handicapped by the fact that they don’t know Arabic.
  7. Converts are often isolated from other Muslims and find it hard to break into new groups.
  8. Muslims expect too much too soon and get impatient with converts who take a long time to adjust.
  9. Muslims expect converts to just “pick up” how to be Muslims on their own.
  10. Converts are afraid to admit how much trouble they are having and don’t know where to go for help.

I was very fortunate that when I became a Muslim, I had a lot of born Muslims who befriended me and whom I saw every day. They always asked how I was doing and were ready to help in any way they could. They invited me into their homes and went with me to the masjid. It was a wonderful introduction to Islam and I will forever be grateful to Allah for bringing these people into my life.

But things change. Now most of these friends have moved away. I have no one to go to the masjid with or to ask for advice. The only consistent fellowship I have is on Facebook. I’ve begun to slip in my commitment to pray and to wear the hijab. Eids have become a lonely time for me. Ramadan seems pointless.

Much of this is my fault, I know. If I need help I should ask for it. I should do all I can to increase my iman and develop my deen. I need to pray more than ever and ask Allah to help me. I should keep in touch with all my Muslims friends and be honest with them about how I’m doing. (This is really hard!) I don’t have to do this alone.

But I think we all feel that we should be able to. That there’s something wrong with us if we can’t. However, speaking for myself, I feel so overwhelmed by all I don’t know that I just don’t know where to start. Should I learn Arabic? Memorize the Qur’an? (In English??) Force myself to go to the masjid (which, by the way, is doubly hard for a woman)? Watch YouTube videos about Islam and how to be a better Muslim? Sign up for forums and ask strangers for guidance? Bug my Muslim friends with complaints and questions?

What makes it even harder is that I live in a predominantly Christian nation. People just assume that everyone is Christian (unless told otherwise). I was raised as a Christian and most of my family and spiritual memories revolve around Christian traditions and rituals. Being a Christian comes as naturally to me as breathing. Being a Muslim does not.

It’s also hard when Muslims form groups and cliques according to their ethnicity or nationality. If you don’t belong to their group and speak their language, you’re the odd man (or woman) out.

You know what my greatest joy is? When someone says “Asalaam alaykum” to me when I’m out running errands. Those are the times when I feel like a part of the great big wonderful community of Muslims. Those are the times when I feel like I belong.

Another convert weighs in on this issue here.

Learning About My Religion

It’s very frustrating for me to be ignorant about my religion.

I was born into a Christian family and baptized as a baby. As a child I went to Sunday School almost every week and attended Vacation Bible School almost every summer. I was confirmed into the Lutheran Church when I was 15. And if I ever had any other questions about God or Christianity, I turned to my grandfather who was a Doctor of Divinity and Lutheran minister.

My religious education didn’t stop there. I married a ministerial student when I was 20 and for the next ten years I studied the Bible, helped my husband with papers and, after he graduated, became a full-fledged minister’s wife, which meant that I was very active in the church.

I was no theologian, but I had a good basic understanding of Christian doctrine. I knew the history of the Christian Church and the differences among the various denominations. I’d read the Bible several times and knew many passages by heart. I could hold my own in a discussion about Christianity.

But when it comes to knowledge about Islam, I’m at a disadvantage, since I didn’t become a Muslim until I was 57.

And to tell you the truth, Muslims don’t make it easy to learn about Islam. That’s because they have a schizophrenic attitude toward knowledge.

On the one hand, the Prophet Mohammad reportedly praised those who sought knowledge.

The superiority of the knowledgeable man over the worshiper in Islam is like the superiority of the full moon over the rest of the planets. And the scholars are the inheritors of the Prophets, but the Prophets did not leave behind wealth but they left behind knowledge. And whoever takes this knowledge takes a great fortune. (Abu Dawud, Ibn Majah, Tirmidhi)

But on the other hand, many Muslims (including—or even especially—scholars) discourage the practice of thinking for themselves. If they have a question about some facet of Islam, they are to seek out the opinions of the shayks (scholars) who have made it their lives’ work to study Islam. That’s not so different from what adherents of any religion do of course, with one important difference: Muslims are taught that the age of discovering what is true about Islam and how to live Islamically is in the past.

To understand what I mean, it’s important to know the meaning of the terms ijtihad and taqlidIjtihad is the making of a decision in Islamic law (sharia) by personal effort (jihad), independently of any school (madhhab) of jurisprudence (fiqh).  The opposite of ijtihad is taqlid,  which is copying or obeying without question.

As long as Mohammad was alive, questions about how to live one’s life as a Muslim were referred to him. Even today, Muslims use his teachings and example (the Sunnah) as guidelines. But not everything is covered in the Qur’an and the Sunnah, and it is here where ijtihad came in.

There were basically two ways that ijtihad could be utilized. One was through the schools of thought or jurisprudence that developed over the centuries after Mohammad’s death. The other was through personal reasoning which emphasized freedom of thought and the quest for truth.

Over time, a concern arose that the latter type of ijtihad could lead to errors in judgement and by the 10th Century (C.E.) a consensus developed that the time for independent reasoning was over. Only a very select group could issue decrees on various issues and then only based on scholarship that occurred before the closing of the door of ijtihad.

Today many Muslims seem caught between ijtihad and taqlid. As they seek to find ways to make Islam more relevant to their lives, they’re confused about how much they can figure out for themselves and how much they have to defer to a mujtahid (properly-qualified scholar).

Let me give you an example: Shortly after my conversion I was told that I should divorce my husband because he isn’t a Muslim. (Actually, some of my “advisors” said that I had to divorce him.) They based their admonition on the ruling that it is unlawful for a Muslim woman to marry an unbeliever. In my opinion, this is taqlid.

The reasoning behind the rule is that if a Muslim woman marries a non-Muslim, she is running the risk that her children will not be raised as Muslims. There is also the concern that she would not be treated according to Islamic principles; i.e., her husband would not be obligated to support her and the family, she would not receive a dowry from him before marriage, money she earned would not be her own, and so on.

But there are several things in my situation that make this rule irrelevant: 1) I am past the age of childbearing and have no minor children living at home with me; 2) I didn’t go out and marry a non-Muslim; I was already married to him; 3) I have my own financial resources; and most importantly, 4) my husband is completely supportive of my conversion to Islam.

It took me a long time to make peace with my decision to stay married. As a new convert, I was overly concerned with following all the rules. I thought I’d be a bad Muslim if I didn’t.

But that’s just the problem: there are so many rules in Islam that it’s impossible to know them all. And since even the scholars differ, there is only one other higher authority to go to: Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful, the All-Knowing.

The cornerstone of Islam is prayer and I believe that is no accident. Allah requires that we seek knowledge, but He also reminds us that He alone knows all the answers. Prayer is not supposed to be a rote ritual; it is supposed to be an active conversation with Allah. We are to ask Him for all that we need, and that includes all that we need to know.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

Seeking Guidance

A newborn baby operates on instinct. She doesn’t decide when she cries or sleeps. He’s at the mercy of the adults in his life to make all his decisions for him. But as she grows older, she becomes increasingly independent. And part of that independence is learning to make your own decisions.

The good parent teaches his child to make decisions wisely and responsibly. This can seem like an overwhelming task because making decisions isn’t easy even for grown-ups. How do we teach our children to be wise and responsible when we so often fail at this ourselves?

Some people are very decisive while others are indecisive. I tend toward the latter. In my younger years I never wanted to make a decision because I was always afraid that I would make the wrong one. When I was asked what I wanted to do, I would say, “I don’t know; you decide.” That was my way of protecting myself from another person’s displeasure. I thought if I never made a decision, it would always be the other person’s fault if it went wrong. I also thought that no one would ever get mad at me if I never tried to push my own agenda.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. All I ended up doing was frustrating my friends and family. They felt that I was distancing myself from them, making myself inaccessible. Just because I wouldn’t say what I really wanted. They weren’t asking me to agree with them. They wanted me to reveal myself by showing what I cared about.

I was especially bad about this when it came to my boyfriends and later my husbands. Shortly before I married my first husband, I became a Christian. And rather than making me wiser and more responsible, I became less so. That was because I didn’t ask God to help me make decisions; I asked my husband to. And because I was trying to be a “good” Christian, I thought I had to defer to my husband’s leadership and to me that meant that I was to let him make all the decisions.

That’s the tricky thing about seeking guidance. If we seek it from the wrong people, we can make a mess of our lives. Bad advice makes for bad decisions. And even if the person we’re conferring with has good motives and a certain amount of wisdom, he still may not give us advice that fits us.

I discovered this when I took a course in creative writing a few years ago. I’ve always wanted to write and thought I was good at it. In class one day I told my teacher that another teacher had said that my writing was “almost lyrical.” My writing teacher’s response was, “Yes, but that doesn’t mean it was good writing.”

I was scarred by that comment, to the point where my confidence in myself as a writer was almost completely eroded. As a result, I stopped writing for a while except for in my journals. It has taken me a lot of time and effort to build back my self-esteem, and I’m still not where I want to be.

So how do we protect ourselves from people who are not really wise or empathetic enough to give us good advice? And how do we make decisions for ourselves that are the “right” ones? And, even more, how

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.