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.

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.

Why This Feminist Converted to Islam

I’m not sure why, but statistics about American Muslims are hard to come by. Estimates run from a little over 1 million to 7 million. Part of the reason for the discrepancy is the confusion over how to define Muslim. Are we counting only practicing Muslims? What about those who are born Muslim, but no longer observe Islamic rituals? And an even bigger mystery is the rate of conversion or number of converts in the U.S. Some sources put the number of converts at 17% of the American Muslim population. Others claim that approximately 20,000 Americans convert to Islam every year.

But whatever the number, most agree that there are more women converting to Islam than men. This puzzles non-Muslims who see Islam as a sexist religion that robs women of their autonomy. They tend to assume that the only reason a woman converts to Islam is because she is marrying a Muslim. While this is true in some cases, it doesn’t mean that the conversion is meaningless. And in my own experience, most of the women converts I’ve met converted on their own, for their own personal reasons.

Take for example a woman I know whom I’ll call Renee. She converted eight years ago when she was 24. She only recently became engaged to a Muslim. Her decision to convert had nothing to do with marriage to a Muslim. She is the only Muslim in her family. She wears the hijab and is active in mosque activities, particularly in the New Muslim Support Group. Most of the members of that group are women.

I’m another example. I converted two years ago at the age of 57. My husband is not a Muslim, nor is he interested in converting (although he completely supports my decision to do so). None of my children are Muslim. I had been a life-long Christian, even at one time the wife of a minister. And to top it off, I’m a feminist. Yet somehow Islam spoke to me and I found that I couldn’t ignore its call.

So why do women convert to Islam, if it’s such a sexist religion? I don’t know about all women, but here are my reasons, based on how I see Islam and what I’ve read in the Qur’an:

Islam actually accords women a higher status than most other religions, including Christianity. Women are not blamed for the introduction of evil into the world (the Fall). Men and women are held equally responsible before Allah and are seen as equal by Him. Islam also reveres the role of women in society, particularly as mothers. Muslim men are taught to treasure the women in their lives.

Islam has a healthier attitude toward sex than Christianity does. Women are not seen as temptresses or whores. Islam teaches that both men and women have a right to sexual pleasure.

I actually like Islam’s call for modesty. I didn’t realize until I started dressing hijab (Islamically) how uncomfortable I’d been exposing my cleavage, for instance. Somehow it just didn’t seem right. I don’t excuse men for having “unclean” thoughts about women, but I do believe that a woman has a responsibility to not do anything to undermine the respect society should accord her. Please don’t take this to mean that I think a woman who dresses provocatively is a slut or deserves to be raped. I don’t. But I personally feel more comfortable being private about what I expose to just anyone.

This brings me to the hijab itself, or headscarf. I don’t wear the hijab because I think a woman’s uncovered hair is enticing to men. I wear it because it helps me to be less preoccupied about my appearance. I confess, however, that I still like to look attractive. I match my hijabs to my outfits and arrange them in ways that I think are flattering. But still, just the act of wearing a hijab reminds me of my commitment to Allah. It’s a little bit like being a nun who wears the habit. It’s an outward sign of an inner conviction.

Finally, I don’t see Islam as sexist. Yes, some Muslim men are controlling, arrogant and abusive. But you know what? So are some non-Muslim men. How a man treats the women in his life has more to do with his cultural attitudes and traditions than with what he has learned from the Qur’an and the example of Mohammad (pbuh). I’m deeply disturbed when I hear non-Muslims saying that honor killings and female genital mutilation are part of Islam. They most emphatically are not.

Men who keep their women sequestered away in their homes are not following Islamic principles. Women are encouraged to be fully involved in life, and especially in the pursuit of knowledge, in order to contribute more to society, no matter what they do.

There is a pragmatic side to Islam that makes me feel more connected to the world. Christianity has its missionary work, but the average Christian is more concerned about his personal spirituality than with the needs of society. It comforts me to know that Allah has a special burden for the poor, the orphaned and the widowed. Women are especially vulnerable in any society, and it’s important to me that the Qur’an mandates Muslims to take care of those less fortunate than themselves.

If you have any questions about this post, feel free to ask them either in a comment or by contacting me at ellen [at] femagination [dot] com. I’d love to hear what you think!

My next post is going to be about the special needs of women converts.




Identity Crisis

I’ve been struggling lately with the question: Who am I exactly? I thought I had a pretty good handle on that before I converted to Islam. Now I’m not so sure.

Becoming a Muslim has turned me into something  “other.” Before my conversion I belonged to the majority group: I was a white Protestant American. Now some people seem confused about my ethnicity and question whether or not I’m still an American. I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked where I’m from. (By Muslims and non-Muslims alike.) It’s as if there’s this unspoken belief that if you’re a Muslim, you must be a foreigner. And if you’re a foreigner, you’re obviously not an American.

The odd thing is, I’ve always been a person who likes to fade into the background. Or so I thought. But there is also a part of me that wants to be special. I want to stand out from the crowd in some way. I couldn’t do that by being white or Christian. White Christians aren’t exactly rare in America. I couldn’t change my race, but I could change my religion.

That’s not why I converted, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that belonging to a minority appealed to me. I’ve always been appalled by prejudice and there’s no worse prejudice in this country right now than that against Muslims. Becoming a Muslim meant that I was casting my lot in with other Muslims. Being proud to be a Muslim (which I am) is my way of saying that I support Muslims and think the world of Islam. You could say it’s “putting my money where my mouth is.”

When I first converted, I wanted to tell everyone. And I made the mistake of doing just that. I remember telling my hairdresser, of all people, and having her react almost in horror. “What are you going to do about Jesus?” she demanded. “He’s the Son of God.” I didn’t bother to tell her that Muslims believe that Jesus was a great prophet; I could tell she wouldn’t react well to that. To her Jesus was God and to believe otherwise would be to damn yourself to Hell.

I started wearing the hijab a few months after my conversion because I wanted to “tell” people that I’m a Muslim without having to say a word. I thought that it would spark conversations about my faith. But I’ve found that besides asking me where I’m from, hardly anyone asks me about Islam or why I converted. Sometimes I feel like I’m the elephant in the room that no one will talk about. It’s as obvious as the nose on my face that I’m a Muslim, but most people are afraid to ask me about it.

The result is, I often feel alienated, especially when I’m the only hijabi in the group, which I usually am. I feel it the most in groups of white Christian Americans. But I also feel it when I’m with born Muslims. They have trouble believing that a born American, especially a white one, could have converted to Islam. So I’m an outsider in both groups.

It’s not that born Muslims don’t accept me; when it finally hits them that I’m a Muslim, they’re delighted. They love Islam so much and it makes them proud and happy when they discover that someone else does, too, especially when it’s someone who once knew nothing at all about Islam, or was even once prejudiced against it.

It doesn’t help that I rarely go to the masjid. Since women aren’t encouraged to go, and sometimes are even discouraged from going to the masjid, it’s easier to just pray at home. The Muslim friends I became the closest to when I first converted have all moved away. I know I need to make new friends who are Muslim. Because until I do, I’m going to continue to wonder where exactly I fit in.



Speak to Me in Words I Can Understand

While I can understand using Arabic terms and phrases if you speak Arabic, I don’t think Muslims who do this around American converts realize how alienating this can be. Not only do we not know what is being said, which makes us feel like outsiders, but we feel strange using the words ourselves, especially at first.

I’m always torn between wanting to express myself in my own language and feeling like I should use the Arabic in order to be a “real” Muslim. For example, I’m more comfortable saying “Praise God” instead of “Alhamdulillah.” I tend to say morning and afternoon prayer instead of Fajr and Dhuhr (mainly because I don’t know how to pronounce the Arabic). And I don’t dare to say my prayers out loud where an Arabic speaker could hear me, because I know my pronunciation is horrible.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve never had a Muslim brother or sister laugh at me or act like I’m inferior because I don’t know Arabic. But how am I going to learn my deen when I don’t understand the language?

I don’t have a problem with the Qur’an and our prayers being in Arabic. I know that the Qur’an was given to us in that language and because Allah’s holy Word is unchangeable, it has to stay that way. Having the Qur’an in its original form makes it more authentic. It’s also very meaningful to me that Muslims all over the world recite the same prayers I do all in the same language.

I know I miss fine shades of meaning sometimes when I don’t use the Arabic, but what difference does it make when I don’t know Arabic well enough to know the fuller meanings anyway? At this point all I can do is look up meanings in a dictionary or online or ask people what words mean. But if I do that while someone is speaking with me, it would slow down the conversation considerably!

I wish those who push Arabic would think of those who don’t speak it as if we were from a different country. I wouldn’t spout off in English to someone who doesn’t know it very well. I would try to communicate in words they understand and if I do have to use English words they don’t know, I would explain the meanings.

Why can’t Arabic speakers do the same for those of us who don’t speak Arabic?

[Note: Yahya Ederer (Abu Majeed) wrote a two-part article on “Balancing Arabization” that helps put this issue into perspective. He reminds us of what the Qur’an says about the use of Arabic and cautions against arrogance and chauvinism. Read Part II here.]



Cheap Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Taking Care of Converts

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

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

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

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

About Khalid Latif:

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

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

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