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.





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.