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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