Giving Islam a Bad Name

malala yousufzai 2Today, on her 16th birthday, Malala Yousafzai addressed the United Nations about her experience of being shot by the Taliban for speaking out on the importance of education for girls. On the day she was shot, she said, “nothing changed in my life except this—weakness, fear and hopelessness died.”

I can’t even imagine the courage it took, and still takes, for girls to attend school in northwestern Pakistan. There have been more than 800 attacks on schools in the region since 2009. Schools are routinely bombed in the middle of the night. Existing schools have armed guards during the day. And yet many girls still attend; their desire to be educated is that strong.

But this post isn’t primarily about their courage or Malala’s message. I’m writing today because of the great sadness, and yes, anger, I feel about the dishonor the Taliban and other like-minded organizations bring on Islam.

The Pakistani Taliban says that the education of girls is a symbol of Western decadence and governmental authority. They also bomb schools to keep the military from being able to establish temporary bases in them. But of course their motivation isn’t really about politics, it’s about protecting the sanctity of Islam.

Excuse my language, but that’s bull***t. And I’m sick and tired of organizations like the Taliban using Islam as an excuse to acquire power and intimidate enemies.

I accepted Islam as my religion partly because I admired its emphasis on the acquisition of knowledge. To me, education is almost as sacred as worship. For what good to Allah is a Muslim who is ignorant, especially willfully so? And why would Allah want women to be ignorant when they are the very foundation of the family?

It’s bad enough that some Muslims kill in the name of Allah. But most non-Muslims realize that these are the actions of a few deluded fanatics. However, when they hear that whole Islamic organizations advocate the repression and mistreatment of women, they find it hard to give Muslims the benefit of the doubt.

I’m tired of non-Muslims looking at me like I’m crazy when I say that Islam is an egalitarian religion and that Mohammad admonished his followers to treat women with justice and respect. I despair of ever convincing them to give Islam a chance when the news is full of stories about honor killings, female genital mutilation and deadly attacks on schoolgirls.

The media are partly to blame for sensationalizing the negative, but not as much as fundamentalists are for perpetrating the myth that Islam is patriarchal and misogynist. I feel like a mother whose child has been wrongly accused of wrongdoing; my heart breaks at the damage that is done to Islam’s reputation in the world.

Sometimes I imagine the day when all these “pious” Muslims will be judged for how they distorted Islam’s message. We all have sins we dread being confronted with on Judgment Day, but I hope that making the lives of half of Allah’s children miserable won’t be one of mine.

Does Christianity Make Sense?

When I was a Christian I often heard people say that Christianity is a inclusive religion. I guess what they meant by that is that anyone can become a Christian. You don’t have to be born into Christianity or undergo a rigorous training program before you can call yourself Christian.

But that’s not entirely true.

Allah (which actually is just Arabic for “God”) is exactly how He is presented in the Qur’an and the ahadith (the teachings of Mohammad). He shares many characteristics with the Jewish and the Christian “Gods.”  (Islam is the only one of the three religions that claims that they all worship the same God.) He is just, merciful, compassionate, loving, forgiving and eternal, the source of all things and Lord of the universe. But to have a relationship with Him, you don’t have to believe a lot of other things, like:

  • God is made up of three parts, or persons, otherwise known as the Trinity, or the Triune God.
  • One of those parts is Jesus, who is not only God, but was also a human being for 33 years out of his eternal existence.
  • However,  Jesus is not just one of the persons of the Trinity. He is also the son of one of the other persons (the Father).
  • As a man, Jesus had to die as a sacrifice for the sins of all mankind.
  • He also had to be raised from the dead to show his victory over death.
  • Even though Jesus died for all mankind, the only way to reap the benefits of that sacrifice is to believe all of the above.

When a prospective Christian asks how all of this works, he or she is told to take a leap of faith. Or that this is a mystery we are not meant to understand.

I’m sorry, but that sounds like a cop-out to me. Of course God is more than we can understand. If we could grasp what He’s all about, he wouldn’t be God. But when having a relationship with Him means that we have to accept things that don’t make sense, it’s awfully hard to reconcile that with our reason and intellect. Does that mean that Christians have to be irrational in order to believe in the Christian version of God?

Don’t get me wrong: when I was a Christian, I thought I did understand the Trinity. But the truth is, many people who call themselves Christian don’t really understand how Jesus can have existed for all time, but not be all there is to God, how he could be tempted to sin as a man but live like a saint, how he “turns into” the third person of the Trinity (the Holy Spirit) in order to dwell in our hearts, and so on.

Most Christians simplify things in their own minds by saying that Jesus is God. Period. But that’s not really what the Bible clearly says. A lot of what Jesus supposedly said in the Bible about God and his relationship to Him is open to interpretation.

When I was a Christian, I repeated the creeds with everyone else. I told people that Jesus was my Lord and Savior. But when I tried to explain to non-Christians what that meant, I could hear myself saying words I wasn’t really sure I meant. (Or understood.) And that bothered me.

When I found out that Islam teaches that God is One, and only One, I could grasp that. Of course God has to be One. Otherwise, you never know if you’re worshiping the right God, or the right part of God. (If all three persons of the Triune God are equal, why are you never told to worship the Holy Spirit as well as the Son and the Father?)

Muslims don’t have to pretend to believe something that is unbelievable (unless you believe that the concept of God is unbelievable, in which case you’re an atheist, so this would all be a moot point).

Faith of any kind is not easy. We all have our doubts. There is no one religion that answers all our questions. But some religions raise more questions than they answer and for me Christianity is one of them.

Is It Shirk to Wish a Non-Muslim Merry Christmas?

I’m not a scholar, but I don’t think you always have to be to work out how to behave in the world.  Take for example the practice of wishing people “Merry Christmas.” I saw a post on Facebook the other day that said that when we say “Merry Christmas” we are essentially agreeing that Jesus was born on December 25th and because that’s not actual fact, we are committing shirk when we say it.

Does that mean that it wouldn’t be shirk if we knew exactly when Jesus was born and we wished people “Merry Christmas” then? Of course not. I think the real reason some Muslims think it’s not all right to acknowledge Christian holidays is because they’re afraid that 1) they’ll give non-Muslims the impression that they think the holidays are valid; or 2) that they’re acting like, or in danger of becoming, Christians just by wishing someone “Merry Christmas.”

Whenever I have trouble deciding how I feel about something, I look at it from a different angle. Usually that means putting myself in the opposite situation. What if I was a non-Muslim and a Muslim wished me “Merry Christmas”? Would I think, Oh, he must believe in Christmas! or would I be more likely to think that he is being friendly?

Or take it a step further: how do I react when a non-Muslim wishes me a Happy Eid? Do I think he is identifying with Islam or about to become a Muslim? Or do I see it as a friendly gesture, an acknowledgement of my religion and my right to express it?

The way I see it, the only time it’s shirk to wish someone a happy holiday is when they don’t know that you’re a Muslim. If you’re trying to pass as a non-Muslim or even a Christian, then that’s obviously shirk. But if it’s clear that you’re a Muslim, I don’t see any harm in it.

What if someone asks you if you believe in the Christmas Story? Then you would have the opportunity to tell him that while you don’t believe that Jesus is God, you do believe in the virgin birth and that Jesus was one of God’s greatest prophets. But I can’t see any upside to saying to someone, “I’d wish you Merry Christmas, but I think it’s all a lot of nonsense.”

That’s all Muslims need: to be seen as intolerant and dismissive of other religions. Our best witness is to show that we’re proud of being Muslims and to treat others the way God would have us treat them. And Allah is not a God of intolerance and discord.

Shirk is the act of assigning partners to Allah. Recognizing that others may be in error about monotheism is important, but it is our own acts of shirk that we need to be aware of. Belittling or ignoring non-Muslims will not bring them to the One God. It will only push them farther away.




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 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.”


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.