What Is a Practicing Muslim?

I was preparing to answer a questionnaire for reverts when I was stopped cold by the following question:

“Would you classify yourself as a practicing Muslim yet, or still needing help with the basics?”

All I could think was: you mean if I still need help with the basics, I’m not a practicing Muslim? I think the question would have been better worded like this:

“Do you feel comfortable with the basics or do you still need help with them?”

Implying that a person is not a practicing Muslim until he or she grasps the basics seems antithetical to what being a Muslim is. I was told that the only thing it took to become a Muslim was to testify that Allah is the One True God and that Mohammad is His messenger. No one said anything about not being considered a practicing Muslim until I learned the basics.

And what are these basics anyway? The Five Pillars? That seems logical. But what level do we have to reach in order for others to believe that we know the basics? Is it enough to pray five times a day? What if we don’t always manage to? Does it mean that we have to have memorized surahs and duas beyond the Fatiheh and Tashahod? Do we have to have made it through one Ramadan, or only have fasted once in a while (let alone not at all yet)? Does a woman have to be wearing hijab?

It might seem like I’m over-reacting, but as a writer I’m very sensitive to the way we say things. It’s so easy to give the wrong impression if words aren’t chosen carefully. I’m sure the person who put together the questionnaire didn’t mean to imply that you’re not a “real” Muslim if you haven’t grasped all the fundamentals yet. But it would be easy for an insecure, struggling revert (yes, like me) to think, “What? I’m not a practicing Muslim yet?? Then what have I been doing all this time?”

The Qur’an tells us that what really matters is what the heart intends. (33:7) That doesn’t give us free license to do whatever we want while telling ourselves that we intended to do something else. But the point is that Allah can read our hearts and He knows whether we really intended to pray, but forgot or whether we meant to be faithful in our fasting, but were overcome by hunger or thirst. He also knows if we’re sincerely sorry for our mistakes.

One of the things I struggle with is my feelings of guilt when I don’t do something just as it’s supposed to be done. This sense of guilt is one thing that Christians criticize Islam for; they contend that Muslims are always under the Law and have no assurance of being forgiven.

That’s so wrong! I don’t how many times we are told in the Qur’an that Allah is All-Forgiving. But he requires something from us—our repentance. We’re not given a free get-out-of-jail pass just because we believe in Him.

That’s one of the things that attracted me to Islam. I like the idea that we’re held accountable for our behavior and that we must continually go to Allah with a repentant and submitted heart.

But if Allah can forgive, why can’t Muslims? What makes us think that we have the right to judge others’ actions? Only Allah knows our hearts; we can’t tell from looking at someone what their intentions are or were. When we put each other into categories, we’re judging them. I understand why someone would use the phrase “practicing Muslim” (as opposed to non-practicing, or secular Muslim), but I think it’s contrary to Allah’s will for us to use it.

Even the Muslim who appears to be non-practicing on the outside may have a deep love for Allah within. What’s most important is how he or she treats others. Caring for and ministering to the unfortunate, refraining from gossip or back-biting, being humble and tolerant—these are the signs of a “practicing Muslim.” These are actions that cannot be faked.

I was told by a Muslim sister that even before I converted, I acted like a Muslim. I’m not entirely sure what she meant by that, but she obviously didn’t mean that I prayed five times a day or wore a hijab. I’m assuming that she based her observation on the way I treated people.

Submission to Allah and caring for others, those are the basics. The rest is just window-dressing. Only Allah knows if there’s a submitted heart behind the prayers or underneath the hijab.

8 Replies to “What Is a Practicing Muslim?”

  1. Wow, Ellen. This piece really touches a soft spot for me. I haven’t really been asked this question, but I always think about the basic question, “what makes you a “real/good/practicing” Muslim?”

    As reverts, I think we face many things that other “born-Muslims” do not. One of these things is trying to reconcile identities during our transition into Islam. Just because we accept the Shahada, doesn’t mean we are comfortable in overturning our entire lives overnight (if ever).

    We need to remember that the changes we make are to please Allah alone and nobody else. We must also never stop seeking knowledge and keep your communication with Allah strong, as He is the One who guides. Get “there” when you get “there” at the speed that allows you to enjoy every moment of your spiritual growth. Islam is a gift of light, do not let anyone (Muslim or not) darken it for you.

    Wow, I’m giving too much advice…much that I need to take myself. Make duaas for me sister, and I’ll keep you in mine as well during these last blessed nights of Ramadan.

    1. I was going over my comments and found this thoughtful one of yours from almost a year ago. Now it is almost time for another Ramadan already! May yours be blessed, especially as you make the transition to a new life.


  2. very well put. i’m afraid that labels like “muslim” and “christian” will never tell us what is in a person’s heart. as you say, our actions are all we can see. what a blessing allah knows our hearts as well.

    1. I agree that it is a blessing that Allah knows our hearts and judges us by our intentions. Sometimes my heart is not pure and my intentions not so good, but I believe that He knows that I’m trying to be His representative in the world.

      Nice to hear from you!

  3. Hi ellen I’m really interested in convertin to muslim from christian an reading ur story is really convincin me to do it . Keep strong

  4. Assalamu’alaikum wr. wb sister Ellen

    i am interested read your article in your blog. I honestly amazing with you and anything what wrote in your blog, you converted islam just for years ( 2009 ) but you able learn to islam and write anything about islam. I am surport you to be a practicing muslim. it would be beneficial / useful for you and the others. Anything that good and have beneficial value that i know it we can teach for the others more islam. i am muslimah from indonesia and i born was a muslim. My name Muslimah Triyati. i started learn islam since i was chilhood. i also have pillars of islam but to go hajj not yet able. I also want to be a good practicing muslim. In my area in indonesia a also attending religious service for muslim, also teaching privat kids about islam in our surrounding.

    Happy fasting ramadhan
    May allah wa Rasulihi muhammad bless you and give you easy and strong to be a practicing muslim.

  5. sorry i don’t speech correctly.but i want to know some people use to say that i’m muslim and a the same time that they are not practicing.can someone say i’m not a practicing muslim that’s mean he is not praying but claim to be a muslim,so my question is that is there not practicing muslim?thx

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