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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

“Muslims in the West” Photo Journal

“Muslims in the West” is a blog which features photos and short bios of Muslims who, you guessed it, live in the West. These are just ordinary people like you and me who happen to love Allah and who are attempting to incorporate their faith into their everyday lives. Some of them are converts, others born Muslims, but the one thing they all have in common: they are proud to be Muslim.

The blog was inspired by the reaction to Muslims after 9/11. The originators were tired of stereotypes that say that Muslims are unpatriotic just because they embrace Islam as their religion. (Does anyone ever say that about Christians?) They wanted to show that you can be a Westerner and a Muslim. (This is important for non-Western Muslims to know as well.)

If you’re interested in posting a picture of yourself or of someone else (get their permission first!), go to “Submit Pictures” for instructions.  Make sure you include a few sentences or paragraphs about yourself and how your faith relates to your life.

Photos on this site include female martial arts experts, entrepreneurs, scholars, newlyweds, and so on.  What picture would you use to depict yourself and how would you represent yourself in words? It’s an interesting question for all of us.

I find this especially inspiring because I don’t have a lot of contact with other Muslims. It’s easy to feel isolated, especially if you don’t belong to an ethnic community. These brief glimpses into other Muslims’ lives help to foster the feeling that we’re all part of the world-wide ummah.

Alhamdulillah!

“Muslims in the West” also has a Facebook page that you might want to check out and “like.”

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.]

 

 

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.
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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.]

Share Your Ramadan Story

Ramadan serves many purposes, but one of the main things is that it is a wonderful opportunity to practice Da’wa. I may not even have become a Muslim if it hadn’t been for Ramadan. One of my Muslim friends knew that I was interested in Islam and sensed that I was close to making a decision. But what I needed first was to see Muslims in action.

I was more than a little nervous when I went to her house. I didn’t know what to expect; I didn’t know if I was dressed properly; I didn’t know if I would be asked to participate in any way. I knew absolutely nothing about Islamic prayer and I had never seen Muslims praying except for brief glimpses on television.

I didn’t even know if I was late or early because I had no concept of waiting until after sunset to break the fast. I did know that Muslims fasted during Ramadan, but to me that just sounded hard. I had no idea how meaningful it could be.

There were many women there that night, and no men, which surprised me a little although I was aware that Muslims often segregated the sexes. (And these were Libyan and Saudi Arabian Muslims, so it was partly cultural as well.) But what surprised me the most was how much I enjoyed the sisterly fellowship. I didn’t realize at the time that that would be one of the things that drew me to Islam: the fact that Muslim women have a deep connection to one another. I had rarely experienced such camaraderie among women, not even in the Christian churches I’d attended.

We started out with dates and milk to break the fast and then on came the meal. I’d never had Libyan food before and although I found that I liked it very much, I wasn’t used to how full it would make me. Of course, I hadn’t been fasting, so I didn’t have as much room in my stomach as everyone else did.

After the meal, some of the women announced that it was time for prayer. They put on their prayer outfits and got out the prayer rugs and one led the others in prayer. I felt like I was witnessing an intensely private moment and strangely enough, I was sorry that I couldn’t join them. Of course I had no idea what to do; it was obviously something that they were used to doing and I longed for that kind of consistency and practice in my own spiritual life.

Even though there was a lot of Arabic being spoken, the women were careful to include me in their conversations and to explain things to me that they thought I might like to know. I was too shy to ask questions myself, so I really appreciated that.

I learned a lot that night, but the most important thing was that I got to experience the joy and love and excitement of Ramadan. When I left, I had a lot to think about.

Less than three weeks later I said my Shahada, on the last day of Ramadan, 2009. Ramadan will always be a special time for me because it marks when I became a Muslim. But without the willingness of my friends to share it with me, I might not have become a Muslim when I did, or maybe even not at all.

This is just one of the stories that I expect I will have about Ramadan during my life. I’m just now experiencing my second full Ramadan as a Muslim. I pray that this year will be an opportunity for us all to grow closer to Allah and to each other.

What Ramadan stories do you have to share? Did something significant happen to you during Ramadan? Do you have special traditions that you follow? How do you handle the mechanics of it: the fasting, the lack of sleep, the late nights at the mosque? What do you have planned for Ramadan this year?

May Allah bless you all as you prepare for Ramadan and during it. And may He help us to extend the blessings and lessons of Ramadan to the rest of the year.

Friends

I’m about to lose three people who are important to me.  Well, not lose them exactly: I’ll know where they are, and it’s not like they’re dying. But I won’t be able to see them, to share meals with them, or just spend time with them. They’ve been a huge part of my life for the past three years and I’m not sure what I’m going to do without them.

That’s the thing about friends. Sometimes they come into and out of your life like butterflies. It’s rare to have a friend who stays put for a long time. Or maybe you’re the one who leaves. Either way, all you can do is be grateful that you had a season with them.

It’s easy to take friends for granted. Sometimes they influence our lives in ways we hardly notice. Other times they accompany huge changes in our lives. The friends I’m losing are of the latter variety. They are the friends who led me to Islam.

The best thing about these friends is that we had established our friendships before we became brothers and sisters in Islam. I never felt like they judged me as inferior or not worth bothering with just because I wasn’t a Muslim. That made my conversion all the sweeter. Now we are more than friends; we’re family. And those are the best kinds of friends to have.

Years ago I had a professor say that there are all kinds of friends, but most of them are actually more like acquaintances. He said, “If you have one really close friend in your life, count yourself lucky.”  So I am more than lucky; I am blessed.

I’m slow to make friends. My children have fussed over my lack of friends for years. They’ve worried because I hardly ever do anything with the friends I do have and they wish I had more of them. So when the Muslims I came to know at work began to invite me into their homes or to offer to do things with me, they were thrilled.

Initially, I was just grateful that they took me, a new Muslim, under their wings. But gradually I came to realize that they were much more to me than mentors.

I think you know you have a really good friend when you realize that you love them. Not romantically. But it’s love just the same. I have affection for friends and I have friends who I’ve stayed in touch with out of loyalty or even obligation. But when you realize that you actually miss a friend’s company, when you find yourself thinking about the way she laughs or the way her face lights up when she sees you, then you know you have something special.

A true friend is one you hold in your heart. I need to remind myself of that. Because no matter how many miles and hours separate you, the bond between you stays the same.

I’m counting on it.