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.

The Shifting Sands of Doubt

I haven’t been around much lately because I was studying for the GRE (Graduate Record Exam®) I had to take for grad school. I took it on September 26th and now I’m trying to get back into my writing. I’m also trying to get back into my faith. Because the truth is, while I was focusing on the GRE, I lost my focus on everything else.

I have trouble switching from one activity to another, especially in the course of one day. If I try to make myself “turn off” one mindset and “turn on” another, I find that my brain just won’t co-operate. I feel befuddled (which means “very confused and unable to think clearly”) or dazed and disorientated. It’s like when you have something in the back of your mind that you keep thinking about even when you try not to. If I try to write, or study, or even pray when I’ve just been doing something else, I can’t seem to clear my mind and allow it to focus on something new.

I’ve been diagnosed with ADD (or Attention Deficit Disorder), which is another way of saying that my mind works differently than most peoples’. I’m terribly disorganized, I tend to hyperfocus on one thing at a time, but I also need constant stimulation or I get bored and tune out completely. I tend to jump from one enthusiasm to another and become totally obsessed with each one, but give me a week and I’m on to something else.

Lately I’ve been feeling out of touch with my faith. I keep missing prayer times, I haven’t been reading the Qur’an and I don’t wear my hijab as much as I used to. I’ve been worried that my enthusiasm for Islam has run its course, that it was only a temporary interest and now I’m over it. But when I think about God, and how I see my relationship with Him, I know that Islam is the only religion that makes sense to me.  My problem has more to do with my inability to stick with things rather than with my lack of interest.

I realize now that I can’t grow in my iman (faith) unless I feed it. The problem is, I’ve been getting most of what I know about Islam from the wrong sources. Islam emphasizes the importance of knowledge but it has to be the right kind of knowledge. When I pay more attention to Muslims who are trying to push their own agenda instead of to Mohammad as revealed in the ahadith, I’m bound to become confused and disillusioned.

I’ve decided that there is a hierarchy in learning. The most important things to learn are what Allah says about Himself and what Mohammad says about Allah. Next on the list are the things we need to do to be righteous in Allah’s eyes. But even there, our most important sources are the Qur’an and the Sunnah. Whenever I get confused about what Allah wants of me, I need to turn to these resources, not to the opinions of other Muslims.

However, the best kind of knowledge is that which is gained through experience. Book learning is not enough. I need to be in an active relationship with Allah if I ever want to overcome my tendency to lose interest. This is where prayer enters the picture, as well as our attitudes toward prayer. If I feel that prayer is something I have to do, I avoid it or do it grudgingly. But when I feel that prayer is something that I get to do, I pray willingly and with joy.

There’s a story in the Bible about the foolishness of building one’s house on shifting sand instead of on solid rock. Other people’s opinions are like shifting sand; Allah is the solid rock. Whenever I feel myself slipping in my faith, I should look at where I’m building my “house.” If it’s not on Allah and His word, then I shouldn’t be surprised if I don’t feel secure in my faith.


Response to “Bare Minimum Islam”

I got a lot of feedback from my last post, “Bare Minimum Islam.” I was nervous about putting it out there that I’m not as submitted as I’d like to be when it comes to obeying the Qur’an and the Sunnah. I was afraid that I’d get a lot of criticism for not being obedient. But all I got was support and thoughtful advice.

I did find some other advice that was helpful as well. It said that although we are not held accountable for ignorance, we must not practice willful ignorance. This is where a person purposefully avoids learning all he can about the Sunnah (or the Qur’an for that matter) and then when confronted with something that he is doing wrong, he shrugs and says, “I didn’t know any better.” The question is, what is he going to do now that he does know? Some people are so afraid of finding out that something they like doing is haram or something they don’t like doing is required, they in a sense put on spiritual blinders and refuse to learn anything.

“Sufficient as knowledge for a person is that he fears Allah, and sufficient as ignorance for a person is that he feels impressed with the knowledge he has.” – Masrooq (student of Ibn Masud)

This says to me that we should never be self-satisfied about our knowledge, but always be striving to learn more about our faith. But it also says that we shouldn’t let squabbles about what’s right and what’s wrong distract us from the most important thing: our relationship with Allah. If that is as it should be, then the rest will follow.

Growing Into Islam

When I converted to Islam, my Muslim-born friends said they envied me. I was better than them, they said, because I chose Islam instead of being born into it.

I don’t feel better. Instead I feel hopelessly behind as a Muslim and I wonder if I’ll ever “catch up.”

From what I’ve read, many converts throw themselves wholeheartedly into Islamic culture as soon as they become Muslims. I haven’t been able to do that. Saying “Ahamdulliah” and “Insha’allah” don’t come naturally to me.  I don’t say ‘Peace be upon him” every time I mention the Prophet’s name. My prayers haven’t progressed beyond the Fatiheh and the Tashahod; I haven’t learned any du’as or surahs.  Arabic is a mystery to me and I’m afraid it always will be. I haven’t even read the Qu’ran all the way through yet. And I certainly don’t know that many ahadith.

The only thing I’ve been able to modify is the way I dress. I do wear the hijab and modest clothing and I thank Allah for that. Because otherwise I’m not sure that I’d feel like a Muslim at all.

What complicates matters is that being a Christian was such a big part of my life before my conversion to Islam. I had the creeds, prayers, commandments, rituals, traditions and doctrines down pat. It was second nature for me. And comfortable as an old shoe.

Maybe too comfortable. I took everything for granted: my relationship with God, His forgiveness and mercy, His acceptance of me, and, last but not least, my salvation. Because my salvation was a “shoe-in” once I professed my belief that Jesus Christ was my Savior, I didn’t feel that I had to worry about what kind of person I was. As a Christian, I believed that I was being remade from within by the action of the Holy Spirit. It was a very passive kind of transformation. And so subtle I hardly even noticed it. I just trusted that it was happening and then didn’t think any more about it.

Islam makes me more accountable. It expects more from me.  God requires submission and obedience; I have to repeatedly submit and obey. He also forgives and is merciful,  but I have to ask for and accept His forgiveness and mercy. I can’t take anything for granted. And through the process of meeting God’s expectations (that is, trying to meet them), I mature as a Muslim and a person.

I know that being a convert is a test. My Muslim friends warned me that it would be hard. But I’m impatient. I want to be a mature Muslim yesterday. I forget that maturity only comes from experience, from grappling with my weaknesses and building upon my strengths. It’s not a process that can be rushed. Nor is it a process that ever ends.

I can’t walk before I crawl or run before I walk. Even growth as Muslim comes in stages. I’m still at the baby stage where I’m lying on my back, helpless and staring at my hands, wondering what they’re there for. I don’t have a sense yet of myself as a separate human being who is capable of self -mastery. I’m still trying to answer the question, “Who am I?” Maybe once I figure that out, I’ll find it easier to grow.


Image from You R A Creator

I am a baby Muslim, only eight months old. That means that I know very little about the Qur’an, the ahadith and the Sunnah, or which actions are haram and which halal. When I read articles about Islam on the Internet or in Muslim magazines, I don’t know what they’re about because of all the Arabic terms that are used. I know a smattering of Arabic, but not nearly enough to enable me to navigate around the Muslim world. I’m still startled whenever someone says “Asalaam alaikum” to me and I stutter when I reply “Wa alaikum asalaam.” This isn’t exactly coming easily for me.

Not that I expected it to be easy. But I had no idea how much I didn’t know until after I said my Shahada. Some of the things I’ve learned have surprised, even shocked, me. And I’ve been confused by all the different opinions of the various shayks and scholars. Some of what I’ve read in the Qur’an has concerned me but I don’t feel that I have anywhere I can go to get a better perspective. It seems like so much I read on the Internet only emphasizes what you must not do (or you will never see Paradise.)

I do have Muslim friends, Alhamdulillah. In fact, they were instrumental in my becoming a Muslim. That and some courses I took in college had the greatest influence on me. They answered all my questions, and still do when I get a chance to ask them. But some things I don’t even know to ask about. Like what do I do now that I’m a convert and my husband is not Muslim? I found out months after my conversion that our marriage was considered void and/or we should get a divorce.

That really threw me. I have the most supportive husband in the world. When I first approached him about my desire to become a Muslim, he said, “Go for it. I’m behind you all the way.” He’s not even threatened by my wearing the hijab (in fact, he likes it). We talk about Islam all the time and he even looks things up on the Internet for me, or brings me home books from the library that he thinks will be helpful to me. He’s the one who designed this website. He’s proud of the fact that I’ve become a Muslim, even defends me to people who don’t understand how I could have made this decision.

And I’m supposed to divorce this man?? What about the emphasis on marriage in Islam? If you have a good one, are you just supposed to throw it away because you said the Shahada and your husband hasn’t?

I admit that this was a turning point for me and not in a good way. I’ve been told that I shouldn’t judge Islam by Muslims. (And it was Muslims who told me that.) But when I found out that my Muslim friends were concerned about my marriage to a non-Muslim, I felt betrayed. When I asked what I should do, I was told that I should pray about it and Allah would tell me what to do. Well, I have prayed about it, and I’ve made my decision: this marriage stays. But I’m haunted by the knowledge that there are some Muslims who think what I’m doing is wrong.

One of the things I like about Islam is the emphasis on patience and perseverance. I’m not the most patient person in the world, but I am stubborn. I don’t give up easily. Now that I’ve found my true home, I’m not going anywhere.