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.

 

 

 

 

The Invisible Woman

I have recently become the editor of an online Islamic magazine and one of the things I have asked for from the writers is a picture of themselves to accompany their articles, if they felt comfortable with that.

One of the sisters who writes for the magazine sent me a thoughtful email about this policy:

I was wondering if we should encourage this at all. A Muslim women should remain hidden as she’s precious. Since [the magazine] is not exclusively for sisters, it will also be read by brothers and I don’t want it be a source of fitna instead of education. I’m sure everyone on [your staff] as well as the readers are really nice people, but it’s the shaitan we cannot trust.

It took me several days to send a reply because I wanted to carefully consider my answer, which was in part:

I do understand your arguments and I’m not saying that they are without merit. I agree that women are precious and need to be protected to some extent, but I lay some responsibility at the feet of the brothers to withstand the temptations of Shaytan. I also think it is awfully difficult (although not impossible) for a woman to have a voice when she does not have a face. My personal opinion is that we hurt the cause of Islam more than we help it when we make women invisible, not to mention what it does to the individual woman who is being told that she cannot be seen.

What is your opinion about this issue? Should Muslim women practice modesty to the extent that they are not seen at all? And if so, then does that mean that they shouldn’t speak in public or appear in a video, even if they are teaching or advancing the cause of Islam? And how do women feel when they have no role models that they can see and identify with?

As a feminist, I reject the idea that women should be invisible when men are not required to be as well. I also can’t help but wonder if both sexes would profit from being invisible, at least publicly.  After all, it could be a form of self-aggrandizement to have your picture in a public venue. What do you think Mohammad would do if he was here today?

Let me know what you think!

 

Have You Forgotten?

Today on Facebook I found this comment:

Don’t you think it’s puzzling that we’re all born with amnesia wondering who we are, why we’re here and where we came from? Time to remember… wake-up! Move into the heart to remember! ♥

The woman who wrote this isn’t a Muslim, but her sentiment reminded me of what it felt like when I discovered Islam. Muslims believe that we’re all born Muslim—that is, connected to the One God, our Creator. But for a variety of reasons, we lose that sense of connection as we grow up in this dunya (the temporal world).

I like to think that babies still have that sense when they enter this world. They are so trusting, so eager to smile and to laugh. It’s not hard to teach a child to enjoy life and to feel loved. The tragedy is that so many of us forget what that felt like as we grow older.

We forget because we get distracted and damaged. People hurt and mislead us. We allow ourselves to get sidetracked by our desire for their acceptance. We seek fame and fortune instead of communion with our Creator. We forget what real love feels like.

And then there are the things we do to ourselves. We treat ourselves and others badly. And then we deny that we feel guilty. We try to justify our actions. We don’t see that we need reconciliation with our Creator.

But we never stop missing Him. We always have this vague sense of unease, as if we’ve lost our way and are afraid that we might be lost forever.

And yet He never moved. He is still there, our light and our guiding star. All we have to do is open our hearts to Him.

And when we do, we remember.

Does Christianity Make Sense?

When I was a Christian I often heard people say that Christianity is a inclusive religion. I guess what they meant by that is that anyone can become a Christian. You don’t have to be born into Christianity or undergo a rigorous training program before you can call yourself Christian.

But that’s not entirely true.

Allah (which actually is just Arabic for “God”) is exactly how He is presented in the Qur’an and the ahadith (the teachings of Mohammad). He shares many characteristics with the Jewish and the Christian “Gods.”  (Islam is the only one of the three religions that claims that they all worship the same God.) He is just, merciful, compassionate, loving, forgiving and eternal, the source of all things and Lord of the universe. But to have a relationship with Him, you don’t have to believe a lot of other things, like:

  • God is made up of three parts, or persons, otherwise known as the Trinity, or the Triune God.
  • One of those parts is Jesus, who is not only God, but was also a human being for 33 years out of his eternal existence.
  • However,  Jesus is not just one of the persons of the Trinity. He is also the son of one of the other persons (the Father).
  • As a man, Jesus had to die as a sacrifice for the sins of all mankind.
  • He also had to be raised from the dead to show his victory over death.
  • Even though Jesus died for all mankind, the only way to reap the benefits of that sacrifice is to believe all of the above.

When a prospective Christian asks how all of this works, he or she is told to take a leap of faith. Or that this is a mystery we are not meant to understand.

I’m sorry, but that sounds like a cop-out to me. Of course God is more than we can understand. If we could grasp what He’s all about, he wouldn’t be God. But when having a relationship with Him means that we have to accept things that don’t make sense, it’s awfully hard to reconcile that with our reason and intellect. Does that mean that Christians have to be irrational in order to believe in the Christian version of God?

Don’t get me wrong: when I was a Christian, I thought I did understand the Trinity. But the truth is, many people who call themselves Christian don’t really understand how Jesus can have existed for all time, but not be all there is to God, how he could be tempted to sin as a man but live like a saint, how he “turns into” the third person of the Trinity (the Holy Spirit) in order to dwell in our hearts, and so on.

Most Christians simplify things in their own minds by saying that Jesus is God. Period. But that’s not really what the Bible clearly says. A lot of what Jesus supposedly said in the Bible about God and his relationship to Him is open to interpretation.

When I was a Christian, I repeated the creeds with everyone else. I told people that Jesus was my Lord and Savior. But when I tried to explain to non-Christians what that meant, I could hear myself saying words I wasn’t really sure I meant. (Or understood.) And that bothered me.

When I found out that Islam teaches that God is One, and only One, I could grasp that. Of course God has to be One. Otherwise, you never know if you’re worshiping the right God, or the right part of God. (If all three persons of the Triune God are equal, why are you never told to worship the Holy Spirit as well as the Son and the Father?)

Muslims don’t have to pretend to believe something that is unbelievable (unless you believe that the concept of God is unbelievable, in which case you’re an atheist, so this would all be a moot point).

Faith of any kind is not easy. We all have our doubts. There is no one religion that answers all our questions. But some religions raise more questions than they answer and for me Christianity is one of them.

Just Because I’m a Muslim…

I just had someone on Facebook, a self-described pro-life Catholic, ask me how I can be a pro-abortion Democrat and a Muslim. Here is how I answered her:

Just because I identify as a Democrat doesn’t mean that I blindly vote the party line. I still think for myself and vote accordingly. Also, I am not pro-abortion, I’m pro-choice. There’s a difference. And where does it say that a Muslim can’t be a Democrat? And lastly, Muslims do not condone wanton use of abortion, but recognize that there are situations that might warrant one. Pro-lifers make no such distinction. See my blogs I, Muslimah (http://muslimah.femagination.com/) and Femagination (http://www.femagination.com/) if you really want to know why I believe as I do. Oh, and by the way, I’m also a feminist.

The whole thing got me to thinking about perceptions non-Muslims have of Muslims. So I decided to jot down a few things that are not necessarily true just because I’m a Muslim.

  • I don’t think that Muslim woman have to wear burkas or niqabs.
  • I don’t think it’s wrong to wear bright colors or make-up.
  • I don’t have an Arabic or Muslim name.
  • I am not conservative in all things.
  • I don’t think that non-Muslims are immoral.
  • I don’t follow the rulings (fatwas) of shayks and scholars blindly. (In other words, I think for myself.)
  • I don’t believe that Muslim women are consigned to second-class citizenship.
  • I don’t believe that men are better than women.
  • I don’t try to dictate to others what they should and should not do.
  • I don’t think it is haram to listen to or make music.
  • I don’t hate America or the West.
  • I don’t want to take over the world.
  • I don’t agree with any form of terrorism.
  • I don’t believe that all Muslims have to be exactly alike.
  • I don’t believe in coercion in religion.
  • I don’t think that Muslims have to shun non-Muslims.
  • I don’t have the Qur’an and the words of Mohammad memorized.
  • I don’t use—or even know—the Arabic terms for everything.
  • I don’t think that abortion should be made illegal.

What I do believe because I’m a Muslim is that:

  • Allah is God, complete in Himself.
  • Islam means both submission and peace.
  • The purpose of prayer is to bless us and bring us closer to Allah and to others.
  • Personal responsibility is a hallmark of Islam.
  • Men and women are equal.
  • There is no such thing as original sin.
  • We are born in a state of oneness with Allah.
  • Each of is called to seek knowledge and understanding.
  • The Qur’an is a sacred book, given to us for instruction and guidance and to warn us of the perils of disobedience.
  • Submission to Allah means that we recognize our debt to Him.
  • My purpose is life is to do Allah’s will.
  • Everything that happens to us is a test which we pass by patience and perseverance.
  • Allah is all-forgiving and all-merciful.
  • Forgiveness comes through true repentance.
  • All the prophets are Allah’s messengers.
  • Mohammad is the last of Allah’s prophets.
  • The greatest “holy war” is the one within myself.

The important thing to remember when we deal with each other is that no two people are alike, nor are we at the same point in our individual journeys. We need to refrain from judgment and try to see where others are coming from. When we stereotype it’s because we’re too lazy or self-absorbed to get to know people who are different than us as persons.

 

Is It Shirk to Wish a Non-Muslim Merry Christmas?

I’m not a scholar, but I don’t think you always have to be to work out how to behave in the world.  Take for example the practice of wishing people “Merry Christmas.” I saw a post on Facebook the other day that said that when we say “Merry Christmas” we are essentially agreeing that Jesus was born on December 25th and because that’s not actual fact, we are committing shirk when we say it.

Does that mean that it wouldn’t be shirk if we knew exactly when Jesus was born and we wished people “Merry Christmas” then? Of course not. I think the real reason some Muslims think it’s not all right to acknowledge Christian holidays is because they’re afraid that 1) they’ll give non-Muslims the impression that they think the holidays are valid; or 2) that they’re acting like, or in danger of becoming, Christians just by wishing someone “Merry Christmas.”

Whenever I have trouble deciding how I feel about something, I look at it from a different angle. Usually that means putting myself in the opposite situation. What if I was a non-Muslim and a Muslim wished me “Merry Christmas”? Would I think, Oh, he must believe in Christmas! or would I be more likely to think that he is being friendly?

Or take it a step further: how do I react when a non-Muslim wishes me a Happy Eid? Do I think he is identifying with Islam or about to become a Muslim? Or do I see it as a friendly gesture, an acknowledgement of my religion and my right to express it?

The way I see it, the only time it’s shirk to wish someone a happy holiday is when they don’t know that you’re a Muslim. If you’re trying to pass as a non-Muslim or even a Christian, then that’s obviously shirk. But if it’s clear that you’re a Muslim, I don’t see any harm in it.

What if someone asks you if you believe in the Christmas Story? Then you would have the opportunity to tell him that while you don’t believe that Jesus is God, you do believe in the virgin birth and that Jesus was one of God’s greatest prophets. But I can’t see any upside to saying to someone, “I’d wish you Merry Christmas, but I think it’s all a lot of nonsense.”

That’s all Muslims need: to be seen as intolerant and dismissive of other religions. Our best witness is to show that we’re proud of being Muslims and to treat others the way God would have us treat them. And Allah is not a God of intolerance and discord.

Shirk is the act of assigning partners to Allah. Recognizing that others may be in error about monotheism is important, but it is our own acts of shirk that we need to be aware of. Belittling or ignoring non-Muslims will not bring them to the One God. It will only push them farther away.

 

 

 

What Christmas Means to Me

The Christmas season is a bittersweet time for me as an American Muslim convert. I cherish my memories of Christmases past. I haven’t forgotten the excitement about Santa’s yearly visit: the letters I mailed to him (usually without stamps), the pictures my mom had taken of me on Santa’s knee, the selection and decoration of the tree, the visits to Secret Santa’s Gift Shop at Lazarus (the forerunner to Macy’s) to buy gifts for my parents and relatives, the cookies and milk we left out for Santa on Christmas Eve (as well as carrots for his reindeer), and the imagined sounds of reindeer hoofs on our roof and the sight of Santa’s ashy boot prints leading to and from our fireplace and the tree.

My parents went all out to celebrate Christmas (consider the boot prints).  The beginning of the season was marked by the trek to the nursery to pick out the tree. Then out came all the Christmas records and sheet music, the time-honored recipes for Christmas cookies, the boxes and boxes of decorations and the invitations to our holiday parties (yes, in the plural). My sister and I were enlisted to implement all my mother’s ideas, which we outwardly complained about, but secretly loved. We knew this was a magical time of the year, especially for children.

But there was also another side to Christmas, one that is far more difficult to give up than the all the excitment about Santa. It was made up of snow-muffled nights when lights twinkled like stars that had come to earth, of sitting quietly in a dark room by the Christmas tree, of Candlelight Services at the church on Christmas Eve, of hymns like  “O Holy Night” that started out quietly and built up to a thrilling crescendo. There was my mother’s childhood manger scene that always sat on our piano with one spare bulb illuminating the manger. There was the sense of tradition and of history and of peace and joy.

My grandfather was a Lutheran minister (which, besides Episcopalians, is the closest you can get to being a Catholic and still be a Protestant). I was baptized as a baby and raised in the Church. When I was in the second grade, my teacher told us the entire story of the Christian Jesus, from his birth to his death and resurrection. I remember being in tears by the end of the story. I couldn’t believe that God would do that for us.  I went through catechism classes, I was confirmed in the Church. My confirmation Bible verse was “Be thou faithful until death and I will give you a crown of life.” (Revelations 2:10)

When I was 21, I re-affirmed my relationship with Jesus Christ by becoming what is sometimes called a “born-again Christian.” I felt a deep connection to Jesus and what he had sacrificed to bring peace and salvation to the Earth. Soon after, I began having children of my own. My husband, and their father, was a minister and also a “born-again Christian.” In our decade-long marriage, we always emphasized the Jesus side of the Christmas story (as in “Jesus is the reason for the season”). We taught them about Santa Claus as well, but always made sure to remind the children that the reason we give gifts at Christmas is to celebrate Jesus’ birthday.

But like all children, it was Santa they focused on.  They understood that we were celebrating Jesus’ birthday, but I’m sure they didn’t understand his significance. It’s easy to get a child to parrot that Jesus is God’s son; but did they really know what that meant? And I’m sure they wondered, like I did when I was a child, why we gave gifts to each other instead of to Jesus. Was it because he was no longer alive?

After their father and I divorced, I continued to celebrate Christmas but it was their father who kept reminding them that Jesus was their Lord and Savior.

There’s no denying that the Christmas story is appealing. Little children can identify with the baby. And it’s made obvious to them from day one that it’s a very special time of the year. It’s not until they become older, when they’re told that there’s no Santa, that they begin to wonder if Jesus is also a made-up character. But by that time, who wants to break the spell?

That’s what becoming a Muslim has meant for me: breaking the spell that is Christmas. Actually, to be fair, that spell was broken long before I became a Muslim. I’m not a stupid person; I could see the contradictions and misconceptions surrounding Christmas. The emphasis on getting gifts instead of giving them. The commercialism. The lack of mention in the Bible about the Trinity. And why in the world do we build up a child’s faith in Santa, only to reveal him as a fake when they get older? What does that teach them about faith in general, but especially about faith in God?

I am so thankful to God that my faith in Him has “survived” Christmas. I no longer believe, or need to believe, that Jesus is God’s son. But I do believe that he existed and that he is one of the greater prophets, even to Muslims. I can accept that God has a special plan for him without feeling like I have to worship him. I value Christmas for what it teaches us about what the Prophet Jesus taught when he was on Earth: That God is Loving and Forgiving, our Creator and thus in a sense our Father, and that He promises us Eternal Life if we only believe in Him, submit to His will, ask for His forgiveness and do all that we can to bring about justice and peace to the world.

That should be the real message of Christmas.