Giving Islam a Bad Name

malala yousufzai 2Today, on her 16th birthday, Malala Yousafzai addressed the United Nations about her experience of being shot by the Taliban for speaking out on the importance of education for girls. On the day she was shot, she said, “nothing changed in my life except this—weakness, fear and hopelessness died.”

I can’t even imagine the courage it took, and still takes, for girls to attend school in northwestern Pakistan. There have been more than 800 attacks on schools in the region since 2009. Schools are routinely bombed in the middle of the night. Existing schools have armed guards during the day. And yet many girls still attend; their desire to be educated is that strong.

But this post isn’t primarily about their courage or Malala’s message. I’m writing today because of the great sadness, and yes, anger, I feel about the dishonor the Taliban and other like-minded organizations bring on Islam.

The Pakistani Taliban says that the education of girls is a symbol of Western decadence and governmental authority. They also bomb schools to keep the military from being able to establish temporary bases in them. But of course their motivation isn’t really about politics, it’s about protecting the sanctity of Islam.

Excuse my language, but that’s bull***t. And I’m sick and tired of organizations like the Taliban using Islam as an excuse to acquire power and intimidate enemies.

I accepted Islam as my religion partly because I admired its emphasis on the acquisition of knowledge. To me, education is almost as sacred as worship. For what good to Allah is a Muslim who is ignorant, especially willfully so? And why would Allah want women to be ignorant when they are the very foundation of the family?

It’s bad enough that some Muslims kill in the name of Allah. But most non-Muslims realize that these are the actions of a few deluded fanatics. However, when they hear that whole Islamic organizations advocate the repression and mistreatment of women, they find it hard to give Muslims the benefit of the doubt.

I’m tired of non-Muslims looking at me like I’m crazy when I say that Islam is an egalitarian religion and that Mohammad admonished his followers to treat women with justice and respect. I despair of ever convincing them to give Islam a chance when the news is full of stories about honor killings, female genital mutilation and deadly attacks on schoolgirls.

The media are partly to blame for sensationalizing the negative, but not as much as fundamentalists are for perpetrating the myth that Islam is patriarchal and misogynist. I feel like a mother whose child has been wrongly accused of wrongdoing; my heart breaks at the damage that is done to Islam’s reputation in the world.

Sometimes I imagine the day when all these “pious” Muslims will be judged for how they distorted Islam’s message. We all have sins we dread being confronted with on Judgment Day, but I hope that making the lives of half of Allah’s children miserable won’t be one of mine.

Cheap Grace

I came to Islam through the notion of  cheap grace. I first heard of the term in the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor and theologian who was executed by the Nazis. In his book, The Cost of Discipleship (1948), he explained cheap grace this way:

“Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like a cheapjack’s wares.  The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut-rate prices.  Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits.  Grace without price; grace without cost!  And the essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing.  Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite.  What would grace be, if it were not cheap? . . .  In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. . . Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner.  Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before.   { p. 42}

I became a Muslim because I rejected the idea of cheap grace. It didn’t make sense to me that God would be happy with believers who thought they could take all He has to offer (forgiveness, salvation) without giving anything in return. It’s true that Christians believe that God requires them to believe in Him and in His son, Jesus Christ; in other words, that they have faith. But at the same time they are taught that faith is a gift from God that cannot be earned no matter what we do.

Christians are taught that no matter what they do or fail to do, they are forgiven automatically, just because they believe that Jesus is God. You could even say that God forgives them before they sin, because Jesus took their punishment upon himself when he died on the cross. It doesn’t really matter what you do, because your efforts don’t sway God in the least. He sees man in all his sinfulness as if he was “filthy rags.” He couldn’t even bear to look at us if it weren’t for Jesus saving us from our sins.

So on the one hand, Christians are taught that they are despicable but on the other hand they are taught that God loves them anyway, as long as they believe that He sacrificed Himself for our sins through the person of Jesus Christ (who is actually God Himself).

That was very comforting to me when I was a Christian. Why wouldn’t it be? I didn’t have to do anything in particular. All I had to do was confess faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior and all my failings would be forgiven. It’s a very fine line from that to believing that you can sin in perpetuity and you will still be saved.

But eventually I began to wonder if it was truly possible to refrain from sin if there was no incentive to. After all, Hell was not an option. You could be the worst person in the world and still go to Heaven if you believed that Jesus was God and that He saved you from your sins.

Now whether or not God would actually allow a serial killer with no remorse into Heaven just because he professed faith in Jesus, I can’t say. Christians would argue that it is impossible to be a Christian and do terrible things. A friend of mine told me the other day:

 You believe we should be good human beings. To me it sounds as if you *strive* to put all your efforts in to being a good human being, while my belief is that when you are in control of the indwelling Holy Spirit you automatically act or live a life of a good human being, as led by the Spirit.

That outlook sounds nice in principle, but in practice it can turn out disastrously. I know too many Christians who are mean-spirited and judgmental to believe that God’s Spirit is working in them. And yet, by the Bible’s standards, they are forgiven for every horrible thing they say about Muslims, or gays, or women who have abortions, or people who  live off society because they’re “too lazy to work.”

But the Bible says in other places that faith without works is dead. That means that if you aren’t a good human being, it is as if you have no faith. The more I learned about Islam, the more I saw the parallels between those sort of Biblical teachings and the teachings of the Qur’an. Islam teaches that without good works, we might as well not have faith. God will not be pleased with us if we say we believe in Him and yet treat our fellow man badly.

Christians are expected to treat others as they would like to be treated. They are to love their neighbors as themselves. But there is no real penalty if they don’t. If they practice cheap grace, they’re shortchanging God, but He will not send them to Hell for it.

Being a Muslim is all about grace that, while freely given by God, still requires that we accept personal responsibility for our acts. Muslims talk about God’s mercy and compassion more than about His grace. That doesn’t mean that Muslims don’t believe in God’s grace; they just believe that His grace should cost them something.

It isn’t easy to be a Muslim. But I don’t think following God should be easy. It should be hard enough to drive us to our knees to ask for God’s strength and guidance as well as for His mercy and forgiveness.


The Right to Judge Others

Like many people, I knew nothing about Islam before 9/11. In fact, I was so ignorant I thought Muslims worshiped Mohammed like Christians worship Jesus. Every once in a while I thought it might be a good idea to learn more about Islam, but I always put it off  because it didn’t seem like it had much to do with my world. I didn’t even know any Muslims! What did they have to do with me?

I’ve noticed that people have one of two attitudes about Islam: they either demonize it or they’re curious about it. Since the events of 9/11, I don’t think there are any non-Muslims who don’t think about Islam in one of those two ways. Even though I was shocked and upset by 9/11, I didn’t automatically assume that all Muslims were terrorists. But at the same time I couldn’t help but wonder what it was about Islam that would lead any of its adherents to do such a thing in its name.

I’ve never felt comfortable making blanket statements about people or concepts. I always assume that there’s more below the surface of any prejudice. When I met my husband on the Internet, I didn’t know at first that he was German. When he finally told me where he was from, I was dismayed because I’d been raised to view Germany negatively for what it did during WWII. How was I going to be able to have conversations with him without bringing that up? And how was I supposed to react to him personally after finding out that he came from the country that perpetrated the horrors of the Holocaust?

After getting to know my future husband and his family, I found out that they were just as conflicted about Germany’s history as I was. They love their country, but they know it has a lot to live down as far as the world is concerned. When I went back to school at the age of 51 to earn my Bachelor’s degree, one of the first classes I took was on the Holocaust. It wasn’t an easy class to take, but I felt that I needed to so that I could understand where Germans were coming from. How did they deal with the things that were done in their name? How did they live their lives knowing that some people blamed and even hated them for what their countrymen did to the Jews?

I gradually came to realize that every country has its dark secrets. The U.S. was hardly blameless. What about our enslavement of blacks and annihilation of the Native Americans? Americans lynched African-Americans and put the Japanese in concentration camps. We’ve given every immigrant group that’s come to the U.S. a hard time. We, too, have been guilty of anti-Semitism (we limited their access to our country even after we knew what Hitler was doing to them).

And now, after 9/11, we treat Muslims as if they are all terrorists. We call Islam a religion of violence and Mohammed a war-monger. The kinds of things that are said and written about Muslims would never be tolerated if Jews or African-Americans were the subjects.

And the worst of it is, we make up our minds about Islam when we don’t know a thing about it or know a single Muslim.

How is this different from deciding that we know all about a person and his or her worth just from our first impression, or worse, from what others have told us? Shouldn’t we be held responsible for how informed we are, and whether or not we considered that person with an open mind?

We certainly don’t like it when others believe gossip about us, or decide they don’t like us after just meeting us. So why do we insist on treating others that way? Are Muslims fair game because they seem so foreign? Well, how can they seem otherwise when we refuse to get to know anything about them?

There were a lot of threads that led me to convert to Islam, but the two key ones were education and familiarity. I started to read about Islam and Muslims, I took courses in Islamic history and I got to know actual Muslims on a day-to-day basis. Even if I hadn’t converted, I would have learned that Muslims, like Germans or any other group that we vilify, are actually just like you and me. Yes, there are extremists, but extremists pop up in any religion, nationality, political party, ethnic group or cause.

It would be as  ludicrous to judge all Germans by Hitler, Catholics by the Inquisition or Americans by slavery as it would be to judge you by your Uncle Harry (or whomever). We are each made as individuals by Allah and He alone knows our hearts. If I could take the trouble to learn enough about Muslims so that I could respect and admire them, then surely you can take the time to learn something about others before you make up your mind about them.

You just might find out that you’re so busy getting to know them, you no longer feel the need to judge them.

The Tough Love of Allah

Amy Chua* caused a sensation with her January 8th article in The Wall Street Journal titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” What caused the stir? Her assertion that the Chinese way of raising children is better than the so-called Western way. Chua wrote:

Despite our squeamishness about cultural stereotypes, there are tons of studies out there showing marked and quantifiable differences between Chinese and Westerners when it comes to parenting. In one study of 50 Western American mothers and 48 Chinese immigrant mothers, almost 70% of the Western mothers said either that “stressing academic success is not good for children” or that “parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun.” By contrast, roughly 0% of the Chinese mothers felt the same way. Instead, the vast majority of the Chinese mothers said that they believe their children can be “the best” students, that “academic achievement reflects successful parenting,” and that if children did not excel at school then there was “a problem” and parents “were not doing their job.” Other studies indicate that compared to Western parents, Chinese parents spend approximately 10 times as long every day drilling academic activities with their children. By contrast, Western kids are more likely to participate in sports teams.

The sample she’s referring to is too small to be statistically significant, but her point is well taken. Western parents do tend to be more lenient and more concerned about damaging their children’s fragile egos. But what many (undoubtedly Western) parents objected to in Chua’s account of her child-raising techniques is how brutal they seem to be. But Chua defends her actions this way:

Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.

While I, too, think she goes overboard, I can see her point. She practices what used to be called “tough love” and it struck me that her way of dealing with her children is a lot like the way Allah deals with us. He does not coddle us, but requires us to strive to be the best we can be. In contrast, Christianity may seem more forgiving of our faults, but does it really do its adherents any favors?

It’s not that Christians don’t think that they have to be good people, but when you’re constantly told that you’re okay just as you are, what’s your incentive to improve? Muslims believe that Allah is more demanding than that.

Continue reading “The Tough Love of Allah”

Faith Versus Works: Which is More Important?

I just read Maha Muslimah’s post on “Muslim-ness” in which she discusses what it’s like for converts who are trying to catch up with born Muslims. There are so many things we need to learn and improve on that it sometimes seems futile. At least it does for me. I don’t waver in my faith in Allah as much as I do in my practice of Islam.

In Christianity, one of the debates is about what is more important: faith or works? Martin Luther insisted that it was faith, partly in response to the Catholic Church which put a lot of emphasis on works. Paul, in his Epistles, wrote a lot about how becoming a Christian meant that you would try not to sin out of love for God and gratitude for His mercy. Some Christians go so far as to say that you are “perfected” by faith in Christ and cannot sin once you’ve accepted the Holy Spirit into your heart.

One thing I like about Islam is that there is more emphasis on “doing” than “not doing.” The Qur’an doesn’t go on and on about how sinful humans are like Paul does in the New Testament of the Bible. It makes a clear distinction between believers and non-believers, i.e., those who submit versus those who do not submit. Muslims are taught that there is no such thing as original sin; we each make our own destiny as we go along in life. Each moment, each point where a choice has to be made between good deeds and bad ones, is a chance for us to submit to Allah’s will. It is the submission (or lack of it) that is the key, not the sin.

But how does a Muslim show that he or she is submitted? That’s a question that haunts me. Christians have a concept of submission, too, but it is submission shown by primarily by faith, not by works. Coming from a Christian background, I have a tendency to think that as long as I believe the “right” things, Allah will be pleased with me. It’s a struggle for me to realize that I also have to do the right things.

Profession of faith is just one of the Five Pillars of Islam. The others—prayer, charity, fasting and pilgrimage—are just as important. Or are they? Doesn’t submission have to start with faith? If there is no faith, what will it matter what we do or don’t do? Doesn’t the oft-repeated statement in the Qur’an that Allah knows our hearts mean that He is examining us to see if we have faith?

Of course, it also says in the Qur’an that Allah knows what we do. But doesn’t even that mean that we are being judged on whether or not we are submitted to Him in faith when we act?

When I obsess about all the ways that I “fail” as a Muslim, it’s not my faith in Allah that worries me. It’s the missed prayers, the selfish acts, the lost opportunities to fast and the fact that I will probably never perform Hajj that makes me feel judged and found wanting.

That’s why it’s a relief to me that Allah judges our intentions as well as our actions. In Christianity you’re told that even an evil thought is the same as an action. In Islam, the focus is more positive: Allah sees our good intentions in the same light as He does our actions. One thing that always confused me about Christianity is the emphasis on man’s sinfulness even after he has accepted Jesus as his savior. If faith in Christ is supposed to save him from damnation, then why do Christians obsess about their own sinfulness?

Muslims know that they fall short, but they take heart in also knowing that they can ask for forgiveness and start over. Christians can do that, too, but the question remains: why do they have to if their sins are already forgiven?

I’m at peace with my decision to convert to Islam. What unsettles me is the feeling that I’m not a “good enough” Muslim. Will I be condemned to Hell if I don’t pray on time, if I don’t give enough to charity, if I don’t help my fellow man as much as I could, if I rarely fast, if I have the money and the opportunity to go to Hajj and don’t go?

I know that none of us can be assured of salvation because Allah can do with us as He wills. But I would at least like to know if I’m on the right path. Does my faith in Allah and submission to His will mean that I’ve taken the right turn in the road? Or does my progress on that road determine whether or not I’ll end up in Paradise? Or is it both?

Do Unto Others

When I was a Christian, one of my favorite magazines was Christianity Today. In my opinion, it’s still one of the best Christian magazines out there. Although it is geared toward evangelical Christians (“evangel” means the Gospel, and evangelicals feel it is their mission to spread it), the tone is not conservative or fundamentalist. For example, it’s clear that its writers deplore abortion, but they would never advocate picketing abortion clinics. I would have to say that they are even “soft” on homosexuality: they consider it to be unbiblical, but they are much more concerned with helping homosexuals to feel loved by God and other Christians than they are with condemning them.

Christians who read Christianity Today are more interested in creating dialogue among people than in defining boundaries between them. They believe that bringing the Gospel to the world means acting like a Christian, not just sounding like one. A recent article by Joseph Cumming illustrates the kind of Christianity that I felt comfortable with when I was a Christian. In it, the author asks whether Christians should defend religious liberty for Muslims, particularly Muslim women’s right to wear the face veil.

Cumming bases his argument on Jesus’ admonition to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (sometimes known as the Golden Rule). If we don’t want others to restrict our right to practice our religion as we see fit, then we shouldn’t try to restrict theirs. I’ve heard many people, including Christians, argue that until Islamic states allow Christians freedom of religion, those of us in the West should not allow Muslims freedom of religion.  Cumming argues that this is totally unbiblical and I salute him for saying so. He writes that being a disciple of Christ means that you follow his example, even if it’s uncomfortable to do so.

Most people want to strike out when they feel that their views and practices are being threatened. Many Christians feel threatened by Islam. But when they let their fears dictate their viewpoints, they seem to be saying that they don’t have much confidence in their own faith. What difference does it make if the Muslim next door prays five times a day with his nose to the ground? Or if the Muslim woman wears a headscarf or face veil? Or even if a mosque is being built in your neighborhood? If you’re secure in your faith, these things shouldn’t bother you. And if you’re following the Golden Rule, you should defend everyone’s right to practice their religion.

The problem that some people have with Islam is that they think it advocates violence against non-Muslims. They see mosques as breeding grounds for terrorists and burqas as a way to hide bombs and identities. But they’re confusing politics with religion. Muslims who advocate the overthrow or eradication of Western governments are motivated by their fear that Western governments are trying to do the same to them, and in fact, that Western governments have been doing it for centuries. But it’s incidental that terrorists are Muslims. Take away Islam and they would still be targeting the U.S. and other Western countries as the enemy.

Would we want our countries to be invaded? Would we welcome other governments setting up and supporting corrupt regimes in our countries? Would we like it if other government tried to control, even seize our resources? And most of all, would be be upset if another country attempted to squelch our way of life?

Of course the answer is “no” to all of the above. But that’s all the more reason why true Christians should refuse to do the same things in other countries. And they should do it without expecting anything in return. (Luke 6:35) Even so, they might be surprised at the results.

[Note: As Muslims, we revere Jesus as a great prophet and follow his teachings as long as they do not contradict the concept of the Oneness of God.]

Also, here is a talk by Karen Armstrong, who is a historian of religion, about reviving the Golden Rule:

Moving Closer to God

I’ve been reading What’s Right With Islam by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf lately. He has a very easy-to-read writing style without being simplistic.  He writes about our spiritual life as a journey of development as we open up to God more and more. I never thought of it in quite that way before. I just thought, Oh, I have to obey all these rules to show God that I’m obedient/submitted. But that’s making obedience the end, when the end is actually communion with God. A fine difference but a hugely important one.

Claude Monet, Bend in the Epte River Near Giverny, 1888

I read an analogy the other day about how some people look at a Monet painting and all they see are the dots while others see the whole picture. The writer said that’s like Muslims who get so hung up on the rules that they lose the sense of what they’re all for. They don’t see the whole picture.

Imam Rauf also writes about how some people will emphasize some of the names or attributes of God to the exclusion of the others, but that gives them a limited picture of God and prevents them from entering into complete communion with Him. He said that the one who has embraced all the 99 names of God will be the most blessed when he enters Paradise. The point is that when you know God so fully, you will be able to commune with Him that fully when you are in Heaven. (Imam Rauf also described Hell as lack of communion with God.)

It’s true that when we’re caught up in our own little world of human emotions and motivations we feel trapped. The feeling is almost like panic. I don’t want to be here, we cry. I don’t like the way this feels. Let me out of here! That must be what Hell feels like, only to the nth degree. But the more we practice the things that move us closer to God, the less panicky we feel. At least that’s the way that I experience it. My recent experience of not getting the jobs I interviewed for is a case in point: I was so overcome by hurt and feeling rejected, and so full of anger, I just wanted to lash out—I thought that would ease my pain. But it wouldn’t have; it would only have made things worse. When you do that, you’re moving away from God, not toward Him. You’re descending into Hell.

Why is it that I’m finding a peace in Islam that I stopped feeling in Christianity? I was worshiping the same God. But I didn’t know where to go from there. Islam gives you a blueprint for how to live; Christianity just gives you platitudes. Oh, sure, Christians have Jesus as a model to emulate, but so do Muslims. The Bible doesn’t address human nature the way the Qur’an does. Both talk about man’s shortcomings, but the Qur’an slams the point home. And yet it doesn’t leave it there; it’s not fire and brimstone. It tells us exactly what we must do to transcend the negative parts of our nature. It teaches us the absolute importance of submission and gives us practical examples of things we can/should do to enter into a close relationship with Allah. Again, the point isn’t our being submitted; the point is what is possible because we’re submitted.

Submission manifests itself in three ways: in our actions, our faith (beliefs), and our openness to God. Imam Rauf describes it as a progression. If we stay stuck in any one phase, we will never reach true communion with God. If all we emphasize, for instance, is following the rules, we’ll never experience God as more than a taskmaster. When we start doing what we do because of our faith, we draw closer to God. This is where many people stop. But there’s one more step: letting our selves fall away and all barriers between us and God dissolve. Then we have seen Paradise.

This last phase is a hard one to reach. It’s mainly mystics (or Sufis) who seek to go there. But we all can get glimpses of this degree of closeness to God. When we meditate on God’s nature, when we pray for others, when we lose ourselves in prayer, when we bend to God’s will, when we are overwhelmed by thoughts of God’s grace and mercy. These moments may not come very often, but, inshallah, they motivate us to seek more. The catch is that we cannot experience closeness to God just by willing it; we have to practice it.