The High Status of Women in Islam

I’m a feminist but I love being a Muslim woman. Does that seem like a contradiction? It depends on what you think Islam and feminism each teach about the nature of men and women.

Many people think that feminists view men and women as interchangeable, as if there is absolutely no difference between them. But believing that a man can parent as well as a woman or a woman can manage a company as well as a man does not mean that they will do the same jobs in exactly the same way.

I believe that there are innate differences between men and women, but the differences aren’t set in stone. Generalizing (or stereotyping) can backfire on you, because there are always exceptions. But if you go by basic biology, it’s clear that women are built for bearing and nurturing children and men are built to protect and provide for the family unit.

That’s when life is at its most basic. But most societies have moved beyond the need to assign gender roles based on biology. There is a lot more flexibility in an advanced society. Women still bear the children but they don’t have to be the ones who nurture them. Nor do they have to rely on men to take care of them.

Some people think that Islam is backward because it seems to enforce the basic gender roles. But if you read the Qur’an, it’s clear that men and women are viewed as equally valuable as well as equally accountable. Each person, male or female, is equally important to God and each is expected to submit to and serve Him.

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Upon Consideration: An Apology

I was quite rightly taken to task* for my comments about non-Muslims in my last post. I should have made it very clear that I was talking about the intolerant non-Muslims who are making headlines these days.

I myself have been treated with nothing but kindness and respect since I became a Muslim. But I read and hear so many comments made by bigots that I admit I start to feel like they’re directed at me personally.

Any questions I’ve been asked have been from honest curiosity and a desire to learn more about my religion. It is only those who are close-minded, who don’t even try to learn anything about Islam and who don’t know any Muslims who tend to be prejudiced against Muslims and Islam.†

One reason why I made the comments I made was because I remember only too well what it’s like to be a non-Muslim who knows next to nothing about Islam. I was never hateful toward Muslims, but I was leery of them. I couldn’t understand how they could hate us so much that they would perpetrate 9/11. I thought they worshiped a different God than Jews or Christians do. I even, when I was younger, thought that they worshiped Mohammad.

I want people who are where I was to know the truth about Islam so badly that I sometimes overstate my case. I wasn’t referring to all non-Muslims when I wrote yesterday’s post, but I didn’t make that clear. And for that I apologize.

*Here is what my commenter wrote on my Facebook page:

Usually I really enjoy your posts, but this time I have to take issue with this statement in particular, “Non-Muslims don’t want to hear from Muslims who are obviously Muslim. They like token Muslims.” I think it’s inflammatory and unkind and I’d like to ask you to reconsider what you’re saying. Because I am a non-Muslim, which means I’m the type of person you’re speaking about here.

I assume your blog entry is prompted by recent events, so I can certainly see where your frustration comes from. However, I don’t like to be lumped in with radicals who make bad choices any more than I imagine you do.

†Attitudes Toward Muslims According to Personal Acquaintance with Muslims
Know a
Muslim
Don’t
know a
Muslim
Difference
Favor special ID for Muslims 24 50 -26
Would not want Muslim as a neighbor 10 31 -21
Favor special security checks at airports for Muslims 30 49 -19
Nervous if Muslim man were on same flight 20 38 -18
Muslims not loyal to the U.S. 30 45 -15
Muslims too extreme in religious beliefs 36 50 -14
Have some feelings of prejudice against Muslims 32 45 -13
Muslims sympathetic to al-Qaeda 29 38 -9
Muslims not respectful of other religions 35 44 -9
Nervous if Muslim woman on same flight 15 20 -5
Muslims not committed to religious beliefs 6 7 -1
Muslims not respectful of women 52 52 0

What Is a Moderate Muslim?

I keep hearing non-Muslims saying, “Where are the moderate Muslims? Why aren’t they speaking out against terrorism?”

But as Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf (head of the proposed Islamic center in Manhattan) said in a recent interview:

For many years people have asked, “Where are the moderate Muslims? Where are they? Where are they?” But we moderates couldn’t get any attention. Now that we’ve gotten attention, I’m accused of being immoderate!

The problem is, when Muslims do speak out, we are no longer considered moderate. Just by making ourselves visible, we are suspected of having an agenda. What is that agenda?

  1. We’re trying to take over the world.
  2. We want to establish Shariah law in place of existing legal systems.
  3. We’re trying to convert non-Muslims.
  4. We intend to use our mosques/Islamic centers to train terrorists.
  5. We want to tear down Christianity and Judaism.

If we ask for a place and time to pray at work, if we use the bathrooms to do wudu, if women wear hijab (let alone the niqab), if we have Arabic names, we’re considered radical. We couldn’t possibly be moderates if we practice our religion!

Non-Muslims  don’t want to hear from Muslims who are obviously Muslim. They like token Muslims. Quiet, unassuming Muslims who don’t rock the boat. We shouldn’t dress differently, say “Inshallah” or “Alhamulillah,” or want to build mosques. They like Muslims who say, “I’m an American first.” They don’t like it when we say, “We’re Muslim-Americans.” They tell us we should assimilate. What they really mean is that we should become indistinguishable from non-Muslim Americans.

What they really want is Muslims who don’t live Islam.

I can’t speak for Muslims who are Muslim in name only. Who are Muslims only because they were born into the faith. But I deliberately chose Islam and that means that I’ve accepted it as a way of life. I’m not a perfect Muslim by any means, but I do try to live Islam, in the way I dress, the way I act, the way I think and the way I treat others. If that disqualifies me from being a moderate Muslim, then so be it. It is enough for me to be considered a Muslim.

I once read this on a plaque: “If I were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict me.” That’s how I feel about being a Muslim: I pray that there will be enough evidence to convict me of being one.

Muslim First, American Second? Or Vice Versa?

Last Friday, The Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece by M. Zuhdi Jasser titled, “Questions For Imam Rauf From an American Muslim.”  For those of you who don’t know, Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf is the key man behind the Islamic center which is to be built two blocks from “Ground Zero,” also known as Park51.

I’m not going into the pros and cons about the proposed Islamic center here (I’ve already weighed in on the issue in my post, “My Views on the (Misnamed) ‘Ground Zero Mosque.’“) What I want to write about today is a comment that Jasser made in his article about how he is an American first and a Muslim second:

In relation to Ground Zero, I am an American first, a Muslim second, just as I would be at Concord, Gettysburg, Normandy Beach, Pearl Harbor or any other battlefield where my fellow countrymen lost their lives.*

That statement worries me, because putting one’s country first is exactly what leads to political unrest between countries. Nationalism is a subverted form of patriotism. The latter is exemplified by a love for and devotion to one’s country. The former is a belief that one’s nation is superior and must be upheld at all costs.

I love my country, but I recognize that all other people feel the same about theirs. Political unrest and wars result from the belief that one’s “group” has the right to impose its ways on another. The United States is unpopular around the world for the way it dabbles in other countries’ affairs, from taking sides in their wars to supporting regimes that will allow it access to those countries’ resources.

Muslims like Osama bin Laden who want to create a Muslim world order, Jews who insist that Israel is primarily for Jews and Americans who insist that the U.S. was founded by and for Christians are all falling prey to the same mindset: that their nation is their religion. They defer to men when they should be deferring to God.  Even more dangerous is the idea that some have that God is telling them to put their country first. Why would God do that?  God does not respect national boundaries; His concern is for all people and His will is that we all treat each other the way we ourselves want to be treated.

When I was a Christian I never had any trouble identifying as a Christian and an American because of the perception that Christian and American go together. Now, as  a Muslim, I sometimes feel like I can’t be both a Muslim and an American because Islam has been so heavily identified as a “foreign” religion. So one of the things I struggle with is how to fit my two identities together.

But I know that if I put my Muslim identity first, I will serve the world’s people better than if I put my national identity first. Men will lead me astray; their opinions blow every which way; God is the only constant, and the only one who has the best interests of all people at heart.

I’m proud to be an American, but I’m humbled to be a Muslim. And I think being of service matters more than patting yourself on the back.

*I’m not sure if Jasser is saying that he is only an American first when it comes to acts of war, or if his American identity always trumps his Muslim identity.

Mixed Feelings

Now that Eid is here, I find that I have mixed feelings about it. You see, I’m away from home right now, in a city where I don’t know any Muslims. It’s very hard to celebrate something when you don’t have anyone to celebrate with. I do feel blessed by all the “Eid Mubaraks” I’ve received from all my Muslim (and non-Muslim) friends, but it’s not quite the same.

I also have mixed feelings about my first full Ramadan. (I didn’t become a Muslim officially until the last day of Ramadan last year, but I fasted for the last five days.) I’m so blessed that I was able to attend three iftar dinners. The kindness and generosity of those who invited me and the fellowship I felt with those who were also there are true gifts from Allah.  

I’m so thankful for all my friends who encouraged me along the way as I struggled through my first Ramadan. And I do mean struggled. I fasted every day but not always perfectly. I wasn’t able to give up smoking. And I only managed to read half of the Qur’an.

It’s hard to admit less than perfection, but I can’t pretend that I observed Ramadan to the letter when I didn’t. I understand that I can make up fasts during this coming month. So Ramadan isn’t quite over for me. I can still give up smoking, insha’allah. And I’m continuing to read the Qur’an till I make it all the way through and then I’m going to start all over again!

This illustrates one of the dilemmas I face as a Muslim. We’re called to righteousness, but we’re human. And yet we can’t use that as an excuse for not always doing what is right. I tried to do my best, but how do I know that I did do my best? Couldn’t I have tried harder?

When I was a Christian, I took it for granted that I was accepted as I was as long as I believed that Jesus was my Savior. But as a Muslim, I’m held more accountable. And I like that. I think it’s good for me to have to work at being a better person. (Not that Christians don’t strive to be better, too, but there’s less of an incentive because they believe that there’s nothing they can do, short of disbelief in Jesus as God’s Son, that can jeopardize their salvation.)

Now, as a Muslim, because I am more aware of my need to improve, I think of and rely on Allah more than I would otherwise. When I do fail, I can’t fall back on the Christian formula that belief in Jesus equals forgiveness.  I have to recognize my sin and ask Allah to forgive me for falling short. His forgiveness relies on an action on my part. What a blessing it is to know that He is merciful and forgiving if we are truly repentant!

For all my imperfection, I was deeply blessed by my first Ramadan. I found that I could rely on Allah to give me strength when I thought I was too hungry or thirsty to last till sundown. There’s a certain freedom in being released from the constant search for gratification of our desires. I could spend that time thinking of other things to do with my life, like giving to others and making each day count for Allah.

I’m sure that I would have been even more blessed if I’d been more faithful. I ‘ve learned that I have to practice patience and perseverance when dealing with my very human nature. Fortunately, Allah honors our intentions, weak as they may be.

I guess the real message of Ramadan is that we should not stop doing the things we make an extra effort to do during this holy month. I found an article in emel magazine by Sarah Joseph on how to keep the spirit of Ramadan alive during the remaining months. Give it a read and let me know if you think her suggestions are helpful.

Done In By Da’wah

When people ask me what led to my conversion to Islam, I cite several factors, but the one that really did me in was good old-fashioned da’wah. Some people think of da’wah as missionary activity, but that’s not the way I experienced it. I only had one woman give me missionary tracts, and that was after I’d already converted. (I’m not sure why she did that; maybe she was afraid that my conversion wasn’t going to “take”?)

The only time anyone even broached the subject of my converting was when a man I’d known for a couple of months asked me, “So, do you think you’d ever become a Muslim?” And that was in response to my saying that I really liked what I’d learned about Islam. By then the seed had already been planted.

The fact was, I’d been familiar with Islam for a couple of years, from courses that I’d taken in college. I knew—and had been quite impressed by—the Five Pillars. I had learned about how Islam was founded and spread. I was even familiar with the various schools of Islamic Law (Shari’ah). But I didn’t know what Islam looked like in the flesh. I had never had a one-on-one conversation with a Muslim in my life.

That all changed after I started working for a test preparation company upon my graduation from college. Many of the students who came into the center every day were Muslims from Libya who were in the U.S. studying to take their medical licensing exams. Since they had to study with us 22 hours a week for their student visas, I saw a lot of them. At first I was shy around them. They had strange names, broken English and strong accents, and the women all wore headscarves. I couldn’t imagine what we’d ever have to talk about.

But it was they who started talking to me. They asked about my family, my work, where I lived and where I had traveled and they shared the same information about themselves. In fact, they talked incessantly! They were so friendly, I soon lost my shyness and began to open up to them. I started learning their names and their faces. I stopped noticing their accents and found myself understanding them easily.

They occasionally mentioned their faith, but mostly in terms of how they applied it to themselves. They never once said that all people should become Muslims or that those who don’t would go to hell. If they had I would have been turned off immediately. I’d heard too many Christians say similar things and I’d always felt uncomfortable when they did, even though I was one of them.

I couldn’t help but become curious. What made them so kind and friendly? Why were they always so cheerful? And how did their faith play into it, if at all?

I soon found out that their faith had a great deal to do with their behavior. They often mentioned that they would not be good Muslims if they didn’t accept others the way they wanted to be accepted. (And this was from Libyans residing in an often hostile America!) They credited God with everything that was good in their lives and looked at everything bad as tests God would give them the strength for. They talked about accountability and humility, and patience and perseverance.

When I asked questions about Islam, they were always obviously pleased, but never pushy. But still, when I was asked if I thought I’d ever become a Muslim, I answered with a resounding, “No!”

I explained that their culture was just too different. I couldn’t imagine praying five times a day, learning Arabic, wearing a hijab. After all, I was an American!

Slowly, I began to understand that these weren’t the real obstacles. Yes, I had trouble imagining myself doing them, but the real issue was that I thought doing them would change who I was as a person. When I finally realized that being a Muslim would only make me the person I was meant to be, I started to “try on” the idea of converting. And the more I thought about the kind of people the Muslims I knew were, the more certain I became that I wanted to be one of them.

Along the way, I’d read a lot about Islam and Mohammad, the role of women and the testimonies of converts. But it was real-life Muslims who led me through the gate. And for that I am eternally grateful.

Alhamdulillah!

What Is a Practicing Muslim?

I was preparing to answer a questionnaire for reverts when I was stopped cold by the following question:

“Would you classify yourself as a practicing Muslim yet, or still needing help with the basics?”

All I could think was: you mean if I still need help with the basics, I’m not a practicing Muslim? I think the question would have been better worded like this:

“Do you feel comfortable with the basics or do you still need help with them?”

Implying that a person is not a practicing Muslim until he or she grasps the basics seems antithetical to what being a Muslim is. I was told that the only thing it took to become a Muslim was to testify that Allah is the One True God and that Mohammad is His messenger. No one said anything about not being considered a practicing Muslim until I learned the basics.

And what are these basics anyway? The Five Pillars? That seems logical. But what level do we have to reach in order for others to believe that we know the basics? Is it enough to pray five times a day? What if we don’t always manage to? Does it mean that we have to have memorized surahs and duas beyond the Fatiheh and Tashahod? Do we have to have made it through one Ramadan, or only have fasted once in a while (let alone not at all yet)? Does a woman have to be wearing hijab?

It might seem like I’m over-reacting, but as a writer I’m very sensitive to the way we say things. It’s so easy to give the wrong impression if words aren’t chosen carefully. I’m sure the person who put together the questionnaire didn’t mean to imply that you’re not a “real” Muslim if you haven’t grasped all the fundamentals yet. But it would be easy for an insecure, struggling revert (yes, like me) to think, “What? I’m not a practicing Muslim yet?? Then what have I been doing all this time?”

The Qur’an tells us that what really matters is what the heart intends. (33:7) That doesn’t give us free license to do whatever we want while telling ourselves that we intended to do something else. But the point is that Allah can read our hearts and He knows whether we really intended to pray, but forgot or whether we meant to be faithful in our fasting, but were overcome by hunger or thirst. He also knows if we’re sincerely sorry for our mistakes.

One of the things I struggle with is my feelings of guilt when I don’t do something just as it’s supposed to be done. This sense of guilt is one thing that Christians criticize Islam for; they contend that Muslims are always under the Law and have no assurance of being forgiven.

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