Learning About My Religion

It’s very frustrating for me to be ignorant about my religion.

I was born into a Christian family and baptized as a baby. As a child I went to Sunday School almost every week and attended Vacation Bible School almost every summer. I was confirmed into the Lutheran Church when I was 15. And if I ever had any other questions about God or Christianity, I turned to my grandfather who was a Doctor of Divinity and Lutheran minister.

My religious education didn’t stop there. I married a ministerial student when I was 20 and for the next ten years I studied the Bible, helped my husband with papers and, after he graduated, became a full-fledged minister’s wife, which meant that I was very active in the church.

I was no theologian, but I had a good basic understanding of Christian doctrine. I knew the history of the Christian Church and the differences among the various denominations. I’d read the Bible several times and knew many passages by heart. I could hold my own in a discussion about Christianity.

But when it comes to knowledge about Islam, I’m at a disadvantage, since I didn’t become a Muslim until I was 57.

And to tell you the truth, Muslims don’t make it easy to learn about Islam. That’s because they have a schizophrenic attitude toward knowledge.

On the one hand, the Prophet Mohammad reportedly praised those who sought knowledge.

The superiority of the knowledgeable man over the worshiper in Islam is like the superiority of the full moon over the rest of the planets. And the scholars are the inheritors of the Prophets, but the Prophets did not leave behind wealth but they left behind knowledge. And whoever takes this knowledge takes a great fortune. (Abu Dawud, Ibn Majah, Tirmidhi)

But on the other hand, many Muslims (including—or even especially—scholars) discourage the practice of thinking for themselves. If they have a question about some facet of Islam, they are to seek out the opinions of the shayks (scholars) who have made it their lives’ work to study Islam. That’s not so different from what adherents of any religion do of course, with one important difference: Muslims are taught that the age of discovering what is true about Islam and how to live Islamically is in the past.

To understand what I mean, it’s important to know the meaning of the terms ijtihad and taqlidIjtihad is the making of a decision in Islamic law (sharia) by personal effort (jihad), independently of any school (madhhab) of jurisprudence (fiqh).  The opposite of ijtihad is taqlid,  which is copying or obeying without question.

As long as Mohammad was alive, questions about how to live one’s life as a Muslim were referred to him. Even today, Muslims use his teachings and example (the Sunnah) as guidelines. But not everything is covered in the Qur’an and the Sunnah, and it is here where ijtihad came in.

There were basically two ways that ijtihad could be utilized. One was through the schools of thought or jurisprudence that developed over the centuries after Mohammad’s death. The other was through personal reasoning which emphasized freedom of thought and the quest for truth.

Over time, a concern arose that the latter type of ijtihad could lead to errors in judgement and by the 10th Century (C.E.) a consensus developed that the time for independent reasoning was over. Only a very select group could issue decrees on various issues and then only based on scholarship that occurred before the closing of the door of ijtihad.

Today many Muslims seem caught between ijtihad and taqlid. As they seek to find ways to make Islam more relevant to their lives, they’re confused about how much they can figure out for themselves and how much they have to defer to a mujtahid (properly-qualified scholar).

Let me give you an example: Shortly after my conversion I was told that I should divorce my husband because he isn’t a Muslim. (Actually, some of my “advisors” said that I had to divorce him.) They based their admonition on the ruling that it is unlawful for a Muslim woman to marry an unbeliever. In my opinion, this is taqlid.

The reasoning behind the rule is that if a Muslim woman marries a non-Muslim, she is running the risk that her children will not be raised as Muslims. There is also the concern that she would not be treated according to Islamic principles; i.e., her husband would not be obligated to support her and the family, she would not receive a dowry from him before marriage, money she earned would not be her own, and so on.

But there are several things in my situation that make this rule irrelevant: 1) I am past the age of childbearing and have no minor children living at home with me; 2) I didn’t go out and marry a non-Muslim; I was already married to him; 3) I have my own financial resources; and most importantly, 4) my husband is completely supportive of my conversion to Islam.

It took me a long time to make peace with my decision to stay married. As a new convert, I was overly concerned with following all the rules. I thought I’d be a bad Muslim if I didn’t.

But that’s just the problem: there are so many rules in Islam that it’s impossible to know them all. And since even the scholars differ, there is only one other higher authority to go to: Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful, the All-Knowing.

The cornerstone of Islam is prayer and I believe that is no accident. Allah requires that we seek knowledge, but He also reminds us that He alone knows all the answers. Prayer is not supposed to be a rote ritual; it is supposed to be an active conversation with Allah. We are to ask Him for all that we need, and that includes all that we need to know.