The Possibility of Perfection

One thing I like about Islam is its realistic attitude about human nature. Muslims are not asked to be perfect, we are merely expected to live our lives as best we can. Another thing I like about Islam is its emphasis on acquiring knowledge. Allah knows that we need to continually learn about our faith and how to practice it. But that is not to say that we can ever reach perfection.

In Christianity, the believer is expected to be perfect, with a difference: the only way to achieve perfection is to believe that Jesus is God and that because he died for man’s sins, a person can stand before God covered by Jesus’ perfection. I’m not surprised that Christianity is the most popular religion in the world. Who wouldn’t want to achieve instant perfection?

But I find that theology to be too facile. We shouldn’t feel that we’re given a free pass into heaven without any effort on our part except for believing in the divinity of Jesus. Granted, it’s no small thing to believe that Jesus is God. The problem is, we already have a God and He is One.

Muslims don’t believe that we are forgiven for our sins once and for all time  and never have to ask for forgiveness again. We believe that we are forgiven when we ask to be forgiven. What could be more straightforward than that?

God is One God. Only God can forgive our sins. God listens to our prayers and requests for forgiveness and He tells us in the Qur’an that He grants those requests when He sees in our hearts that we truly repent.

Qur’an 2:268 – “Satan threatens you with the prospect of poverty and bids you to be niggardly, whereas God promised you His forgiveness and bounty; and God is infinite, all-knowing.”

He is the Merciful and the Compassionate, the All-Knowing and Oft-Forgiving. All we can do is bow in submission before His majesty and pray that He gives us the strength to live our lives according to His Word.

Muslims have a direct line to God through prayer. We don’t have to go through the Holy Spirit or Jesus Christ to be forgiven or strengthened. And we don’t expect to be seen as perfect by Allah. Only God is perfect. What we are to do is be faithful and submit to His holy will.

No, Muslims cannot ever claim to be perfect, or to be seen as perfect by God. What we can look forward to is His justice and above all, His mercy. Merely professing faith in a man who others claim is God is not enough.

Qur’an 11:11 – “[And thus it is with most men] save those who are patient in adversity and do righteous deeds: it is they who forgiveness of sins awaits, and a great reward.”


 

Does Clothing Make the Muslimah?

I was so excited—and nervous—when I went to get my driver’s license renewed because I was going to photographed in my hijab. That might seem like a little thing, but it’s actually not. It means that for the next four years I’m going to be identified as a Muslim whenever someone sees my driver’s license.

I was so proud when the license bureau agent asked if I wear the scarf for religious purposes and I was able to say yes. I love to be identified as a Muslim.

The problem is, I’m often not.

Even when I’m wearing the hijab and dressed in long tops or skirts and long sleeves, I think a lot of people miss the distinction merely because I don’t “look” Muslim. I have fair skin and blue eyes and a certain all-American look about me. It just doesn’t seem to occur to people that I might be a convert.

I’ve even had Muslims ask me where I’m from as if they can’t believe that someone who looks so obviously American could be a Muslim. When I reply that I’m from the U.S., they look either shocked or surprised. Because of that, I’m especially grateful for the Muslims who immediately greet me with “asalaamu alaykim.” They make me feel welcome, as if I’m a “real” Muslim.

I’ve heard from a lot of converts that born Muslims treat them as “second-class” Muslims. I’ve been very fortunate that my born-Muslim friends have always supported me and been as excited about my conversion as I am. But I understand the frustration that comes from being a convert.

One reason why I wear hijab is because it makes my new religion real for me. I want to make the statement that I am proud of being a Muslim. It’s definitely not something I’m ashamed of.

And yet I find myself waffling when I’m around people I know don’t approve of my conversion. When I’m going to see them, I look for excuses to not wear the hijab (I’m going to be with family, etc.). But because I don’t push it, my faith rarely becomes a topic of conversation.

I realize that everything I do as a Muslim makes a statement about Islam. But I’m torn sometimes between wanting to proudly proclaim that I’m a Muslim and not wanting to make other people feel uncomfortable around me.

I was thrilled recently when a friend brought me a jilbab back from Libya. I own five abayas, but I never wear them unless I’m going to the mosque or some other special occasion. I love having an excuse to wear them, but do I really need one? Why don’t I wear them all the time?

It has taken me a while to acquire a wardrobe that conforms to the standards of hijab. When I think about how I used to dress, I cringe. I’ve found that I like not displaying my cleavage and accentuating my body shape. (Of course, it might has something to do with the fact that I’m overweight!) I wouldn’t dream of wearing the things I used to wear. So I guess I have changed to some extent.

I have to remind myself that I’m a work in progress, that I’ll become more bold about my faith as time goes by. But I’m impatient: I want to be a full-fledged Muslim now.

And yet I also need to remember that it’s not what I wear that really matters. It’s easy, especially as a Muslimah, to think that my clothing is more important than cultivating a relationship with Allah through prayer. And yet, what I wear is a part of what makes me a Muslim. Submitting to Allah’s rules helps me to give myself more fully to Him. And so I understand the emphasis on what Muslimahs wear.

I’m actually thankful that Muslimahs have a dress code, so to speak. It does help me to feel Muslim. Now all I have to do is act more like one.

Bare Minimum Islam

When someone tells me that I should or shouldn’t do such and such because it says so in the Sunnah, I have one of three reactions:

  1. What, another rule?
  2. How was I supposed to know that?
  3. What does that have to do with being a good Muslim?

When I decided to become a Muslim, I was told that all I had to do was say the Shahada.  Then I was told that I had to believe in  and abide by the Five Pillars. Fine, I can handle that. But when I get told that I have to eat with my right hand only or remove all my body hair, I want to scream. Muslims who inform me of these rules are dead serious; there’s no doubt in their minds that you have to do these things or … What? Go to Hell? Seriously? That’s what Allah cares about?

I get that we’re supposed to obey Mohammad. I even understand the value of following his example. And I realize that it’s from the Sunnah that we get our instructions about exactly how to pray. But it seems to me that we have to use both common sense and discrimination when it comes to choosing which ahadith are to be followed.

An argument could be made that Muslims don’t have to follow any ahadith. After all, the Qur’an is supposed to be enough. Giving the Sunnah the same authority as the Qur’an seems to me to be a form of idolatry. Mohammad was just a man. He was not divine. We are to submit to Allah alone.

And then there’s the issue of whether or not a hadith is even genuine. The Qur’an has a perfect provenance: it came straight from Allah through the angel Gabriel. But we have no such assurances about the Sunnah. Human witnesses are not infallible. I appreciate that great care has been taken to establish the strength or weakness of a hadith. But we still can’t be 100% sure the way we can be about the Qur’an.

The advice I usually see is to consult an imam about these issues. Well, I’m sorry, but imams are human. Their opinions can be tainted by their own prejudices and cultural backgrounds. And, besides, how do you know if a certain imam is even qualified to issue fatwas? Who do you go to if you have doubts? Do you just pick someone off the Internet? And what if you don’t know Arabic?

I’m not opposed to learning ahadith and following the Sunnah. But I have to have something to hold onto when I’m feeling overwhelmed by all the rules and regulations that are thrown at me. I need to know what the bare minimum is for being a Muslim. And I believe I’ve found that in the very name of our deen: Islam.

Submission to Allah is the key. If I’m truly submitted, Allah will show me the way.

The Islamic New Year: A Chance to Start Over?

In all probability, December 7th (in the Gregorian calender) will be the Islamic New Year, otherwise known as 1 Muharram 1432 A.H. Not being familiar with how Muslims celebrate the New Year, I had to look it up. Apparently it’s quite different in tone from the Gregorian New Year. Whereas non-Muslims make a lot of noise, dress up and go to parties and drink, Muslims see the New Year as an opportunity to reflect on where they are in life, what kind of Muslims they’ve been and how they might do better. I guess you could say it’s more like the non-Muslim practice of making New Year resolutions. But both approaches are based on the idea that the New Year is a chance to start over.

Of course, we don’t have to wait for a new year to start over. Because of Allah’s forgiveness, we can start over at any time, and in fact Muslims are encouraged to do so. Allah knows that life is difficult and that we face many challenges along the way. He is always there for us. One thing I love about the Fatiheh is the statement,  “It is You alone that we are to worship and You alone that we are to seek help from.” (That’s a very rough translation!)  Allah tells us through the Qur’an and our daily prayers that it is just as important for us to seek His help as it is to worship Him. That means a lot to me.

Sometimes it’s easier to worship Allah than it is to ask for His help. I think that’s partly because we don’t believe that He really will help us. Plus, it’s tiring to have to ask for help over and over.  I want to ask for something once and be done with it. But I know that I am changed for the better when I ask repeatedly and faithfully for help with ongoing issues. Being human, I fail again and again to live up to the standard that Allah has for me. But as long as I rely on Him, I can have victory over and over again as well.

It’s important to see that we can and do succeed as often as we fail. Or at least that’s the ideal. Because every time we look to Allah for help, we are successful. Every time we are repentant, we are successful. Every time we start over, we are successful. Yes, we’re going to fail again, but when we repent and re-dedicate ourselves to Allah, we are triumphing over Shaitan, insh’allah. He (Shaitan) hates it when we do that!

I must give Shaitan plenty of grief. He probably thinks he has me when I miss a prayer or fail to love my fellow man. But then aha! I foil him when I repent and ask Allah to keep me on the straight path. Shaitan loves it when we fall short. But what he doesn’t take into account is that Allah is Most Merciful and Oft-Forgiving. And the man or woman who is truly submitted to Allah can never belong to Shaitan.

I don’t mean that any of us can ever be certain that we will see Paradise. But as long as we keep starting over and asking for Allah’s forgiveness, as long as we submit to Him and His will, as long as we worship Him and ask for His help, and as long as we love and serve others, we can be assured that Allah is on our side. What more can we ask?

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?

Christians and Muslims and Obedience

Christians are exhorted to love others because God loves them. Muslims are reminded that we are to be as merciful and compassionate as God is, but we are to love others because God wants us to. Christians emphasize gratitude; Muslims obedience.

This is one thing that attracted me to Islam. Gratitude to God wasn’t enough to motivate me to be a better person. I needed to know that His nature demanded it and that I wasn’t let off the hook by an intermediary who took all my sins away. I could never figure out how I could still be considered sinful if my sins had been eradicated. And if they had been eradicated, then why should I try to improve my behavior? I could just be who I am and God would forgive me and save a place for me in Heaven as long as I believed in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

Christianity is  a “feel good” religion. No matter what you do there is a way out. That doesn’t mean that some Christians don’t heap guilt on themselves or others. But those are Christians who don’t understand the basic tenets of their faith. In Christianity, you can be the worst person in the world and as long as you profess faith in Christ and accept that he died for your sins and conquered death for all time by his resurrection, you will go to Paradise. On the other hand, you can be the best person in the world and if you do not believe that Jesus is God, you are condemned to Hell.

This didn’t make sense to me. Christians think that Muslims see God as arbitrary because our salvation is up to the God’s discretion. But God judges us all by the same principle: whether or not we’re truly submitted to Him and obedient to His will. After all, God knows our hearts, He knows that a person who looks good on the outside can be evil and corrupt inside. And He also knows that a person who seems bad on the outside can actually love Him deeply. If God knows that as far as Muslims are concerned He also knows it as far as Christians (and all other believers) are concerned.

For this reason, I find Islam to be far more pragmatic about human nature as well as far more inclusive about and cognizant of God’s true nature. It is also more universal. There are some Muslims who think you are condemned to Hell if you don’t convert to Islam, but I believe that God’s standards are the same for all people: we are to be submissive to Him and obedient to His will (which means that we treat others with the same compassion and mercy that God shows to us). Anyone who does that is a Muslim. Abraham was a Muslim, Jesus was a Muslim. You might be a Muslim.

When I converted to Islam, it was a relief, really, to put away the Christian concept of original sin and to accept the Islamic belief that God created us just the way we are for His purposes. He knew that only creatures that were capable of sinning could also be obedient. How could our obedience mean anything to God if we were made to always be obedient? Our free will makes it all that more pleasing to God when we exercise it to do good.

Christians and Muslims and the Concept of Sin

Muslims and Christians differ strongly when it comes to the concept of “sin.” I’m no theologian, but here’s how I see the differences.

When I was a Christian , I was constantly told that there was nothing I could do to remove the stain of sin from my soul. That God is so offended by sin that we are like filthy rags to Him when He considers our sinfulness. That’s why it was necessary that He die for our sins, so that our sins would be forgiven forever. Because only God Himself (in the form of Jesus Christ) could offer up a sacrifice great enough to cover all our sins.

This is the concept of “redemption:” God redeems our souls and saves us from sin by His death on the cross.

Muslims, on the other hand, believe that, as humans, we redeem ourselves, through the daily sacrifice of our selves in submission to God. We know that we will never be perfect—and God makes it very clear in the Qur’an that He knows it, too!—but it is the effort that pleases God and causes Him to be on our side.

God does not need to offer up His son as a sacrifice for our sins, because He can be merciful to us and grant us forgiveness without going through all that. After all, He is God.

Christians believe that they are transformed into people that God can bear to behold by the power of Jesus Christ and the inner work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus provides the means by which their nature can be “washed clean.” And the Holy Spirit takes over their hearts and minds (as much as they are willing to allow Him to) in order to make them into new persons.

For Muslims, God’s spirit strengthens us to do what is right, but is not a separate entity. His spirit is a part of God in much the same way that our spirits are a part of us. We don’t talk about our spirits in the third person and neither does God. His spirit is something He possesses, not another personality.

This, of course, is where Muslims part company with Christians. God does not need to split Himself into parts to accomplish His ends. He can empower and forgive us just because He is who He is. But it is up to us to decide our fate. We cannot point to God’s death on the cross and claim absolution. We are absolved by our intentions and our actions and by the degree that we are submitted to Him.

Some Christians think that makes for a very uncertain existence, never knowing whether or not we are “saved.” But since God has the power to “save” (grant us entrance into Heaven), He is also capable of sorting out who is His and who isn’t. For Muslims, not knowing for sure is not disheartening, it is motivation to keep trying to be the best human beings we can be.