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 Shifting Sands of Doubt

I haven’t been around much lately because I was studying for the GRE (Graduate Record Exam®) I had to take for grad school. I took it on September 26th and now I’m trying to get back into my writing. I’m also trying to get back into my faith. Because the truth is, while I was focusing on the GRE, I lost my focus on everything else.

I have trouble switching from one activity to another, especially in the course of one day. If I try to make myself “turn off” one mindset and “turn on” another, I find that my brain just won’t co-operate. I feel befuddled (which means “very confused and unable to think clearly”) or dazed and disorientated. It’s like when you have something in the back of your mind that you keep thinking about even when you try not to. If I try to write, or study, or even pray when I’ve just been doing something else, I can’t seem to clear my mind and allow it to focus on something new.

I’ve been diagnosed with ADD (or Attention Deficit Disorder), which is another way of saying that my mind works differently than most peoples’. I’m terribly disorganized, I tend to hyperfocus on one thing at a time, but I also need constant stimulation or I get bored and tune out completely. I tend to jump from one enthusiasm to another and become totally obsessed with each one, but give me a week and I’m on to something else.

Lately I’ve been feeling out of touch with my faith. I keep missing prayer times, I haven’t been reading the Qur’an and I don’t wear my hijab as much as I used to. I’ve been worried that my enthusiasm for Islam has run its course, that it was only a temporary interest and now I’m over it. But when I think about God, and how I see my relationship with Him, I know that Islam is the only religion that makes sense to me.  My problem has more to do with my inability to stick with things rather than with my lack of interest.

I realize now that I can’t grow in my iman (faith) unless I feed it. The problem is, I’ve been getting most of what I know about Islam from the wrong sources. Islam emphasizes the importance of knowledge but it has to be the right kind of knowledge. When I pay more attention to Muslims who are trying to push their own agenda instead of to Mohammad as revealed in the ahadith, I’m bound to become confused and disillusioned.

I’ve decided that there is a hierarchy in learning. The most important things to learn are what Allah says about Himself and what Mohammad says about Allah. Next on the list are the things we need to do to be righteous in Allah’s eyes. But even there, our most important sources are the Qur’an and the Sunnah. Whenever I get confused about what Allah wants of me, I need to turn to these resources, not to the opinions of other Muslims.

However, the best kind of knowledge is that which is gained through experience. Book learning is not enough. I need to be in an active relationship with Allah if I ever want to overcome my tendency to lose interest. This is where prayer enters the picture, as well as our attitudes toward prayer. If I feel that prayer is something I have to do, I avoid it or do it grudgingly. But when I feel that prayer is something that I get to do, I pray willingly and with joy.

There’s a story in the Bible about the foolishness of building one’s house on shifting sand instead of on solid rock. Other people’s opinions are like shifting sand; Allah is the solid rock. Whenever I feel myself slipping in my faith, I should look at where I’m building my “house.” If it’s not on Allah and His word, then I shouldn’t be surprised if I don’t feel secure in my faith.


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.]



What the People of the Book Teach About God’s Nature

On one crucial point, Judaism, Islam and Christianity are in agreement. All insist that faith in God is the first requirement. But then that’s the prerequisite of any religion, isn’t it? The differences lie in the what each religion teaches about the nature of God.

Let’s take Christians. They teach that God is love. You hear that over and over again. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son …” Christians believe that by dying on the cross for our sins, God (through Jesus) showed how much He loved us. Why else would God go through all that if He didn’t?

One of the criticisms that Christians have about Islam is that Allah is not primarily a loving God. They seem to need proof that God loves us, and that that proof is provided by His sacrifice on the cross. Muslims believe that God is continually showing His love for us and that the only proof we need is 1) that He created us in the first place; 2) that He is always there for us; and 3) that He is a Merciful God. Besides, why should God have to prove anything? He is God.

It’s completely erroneous to say that Allah is not a loving God. First of all, Muslims believe that Jesus was one of the great prophets of God and that we are to heed his teachings. We accept what he taught about God’s nature. But Jesus never said that God was a Triune God. The Christian Church developed the concept of the Trinity by putting together certain things that Jesus did say with the opinions of New Testament writers and of theologians who lived centuries after Jesus.

Christians start off wrong in their dealings with Muslims when they assume that Allah is a completely different God than the one they worship. The One God is the same whether He is worshiped by Jews, Christians or Muslims. But men try to shape their understanding of God according to the tenets of the religion they follow. Jews emphasize God’s omnipotence, Christians emphasize His love and Muslims emphasize His totality.

That’s why Muslims believe that Allah has 99 names. His nature can’t simply be summed up in one sentence. He is omnipotent and loving, but He is much more than that. To be fair, Jews and Christians also believe that God’s nature is complex. And we all agree that that God is unknowable exactly because He is God.  But we can also rejoice in the fact that God hasn’t left us completely in the dark about His nature.

All the People of the Book (Jews, Christians and Muslims) believe that God reveals Himself in His Book(s). Each of these religions believes that their Book is the last word on God. (But only the Qur’an truly is the last word.) That doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t learn about God from reading the other Books. We can use the Qur’an to guide us as to what has been corrupted in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, but I think it’s important to familiarize ourselves with the pictures of God that we find there.

You can tell a lot about what a person believes about God’s nature by the rules that they follow. Jews follow the Ten Commandments which start out with God stating that He is a jealous God, and that therefore we are not to have any other Gods before Him. Christians like to sum up what Jesus taught in the phrase, “Thou art to love the Lord God with all thy heart, soul and mind, and thy neighbor as thyself.” Muslims take seriously God’s admonitions to worship and follow Him alone. All three emphasize different aspects of what God expects from us, but we can learn from them all about the God’s nature.

No one religion can say that it alone has a complete understanding of God. We need to remember that when we interact with each other.

See these charts that compare Judaism, Christianity and Islam.






Video: Interview About Sharia Law

In an interview with CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, Feldman said: “Sharia, according to Muslims, is God’s word on how you’re supposed to live your life. The question is what did God actually say when he told you how to live your life and on that, Muslims disagree. Islam and Sharia are not the same thing. Islam is the word for a general set of religious beliefs, primarily the oneness of God and the prophesy of the prophet Mohamed. Sharia is the systems of norms and ideals that govern the life of a believing Muslim.”

 When asked if Americans should be afraid of Sharia Law, Feldman replied, “No, there’s no reason for an American living under our constitutional system of government that protects us against established religion to fear the introduction of Sharia in our country. It literally cannot happen and won’t happen unless 60 to 70% of Americans suddenly become fundamentalist Muslims, and that’s not within the bounds of possibility.”

 (via Harvard Law School)

Learning Arabic: Rosetta Stone

One of the greatest challenges for the Western convert to Islam is learning Arabic. I only know my basic prayers (and I have no idea if I’m saying them right) and a few phrases. Plus I’m somewhat familiar with the alphabet. I was blessed with a wonderful teacher for awhile, but we didn’t meet consistently and I’m not the best student in the world. I keep thinking there ought to be an easier way to learn Arabic, but somehow I don’t think there are any shortcuts!

Still, I keep on looking for learning aids and one I’d heard about was Rosetta Stone. I haven’t tried it because it’s so expensive. But I found a detailed (and humorous) review on the blog “Hijabman” which helped me to decide whether or not to try it.  Here is an excerpt from the review:

Rosetta Stone uses the immersion method, which means that aside from the instruction booklet that comes with the CD, there is no English anywhere. Not even a glossary. People who are excited about this method inevitably argue that that’s how babies learn languages. Infants don’t have dictionaries! They don’t study grammar! They don’t need to know what “of” means! This is true, and would be relevant if only Rosetta Stone constituted a true immersion environment and the people who used it were infants. It would also be helpful if you, the learner, were content to study the language all day every day for seven years and end up with a second-grade vocabulary and second-grade reading skills. You know, like you did in your first language. Unfortunately most people have more ambitious goals, and less time to meet them.

Read the entire review here.

Maybe someday if I can get the program for free I’ll give it a try. In the meantime, I’ll keep looking.

Does anyone have any suggestions for learning Arabic besides moving to an Arabic country?