Monday, 2 February 2009

The Challenges of Faith

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The Muslim community welcomes converts, the mu'allaf.  But what happens after the conversation?  When, by whatever means of Guidance, a person decides to become a Muslim; he or she is directed to the Muslim Converts' Association, Darul Arqam Singapore.   They have a comprehensive programme for the entire conversion process.  It is by no means a perfect system.  But it works, after a fashion.

Ideally, the mu'allaf attends the Orientation session.  Now, in this current exercise of lexicography, it has been renamed the Knowing Islam Session.  The reason was that it is nigh impossible to be orientated to Islam in one session.  Hence the name change.  It was an exercise in futility.  'Orientation' by its very meaning alludes to an introduction, a touching of the surface.  It conveyed the message fairly accurately in a concise manner.

After the Orientation, the next step is the Beginner's Course in Islam, followed by the Pre-Conversion Advise, the actual conversion itself followed by the Evaluation.  Whilst the intentions are good, no religion as far as I know makes it so complicated to join it.  Even the Roman Catholic Initiation for Adults (an equally complicated faith in terms of legislation) is shorter.  This is not the way the Prophet (s.a.w.).  So where did we go wrong?  Unconsciously, they have moved from legislating the process of conversion to legislating faith and that is the province of Allah (s.w.t.).  In al-Fatiha, we say that Allah (s.w.t.) is Master of the Day of Judgement.  But that is not what is practiced.

The results are apparent.  Conversion by percentage of the population has dropped.  In terms of numbers, it has increased but having a similar number of conversions when the population of Singapore was 2.5 million to when the population is more than 4 million is a huge fall by percentage.  And that is a concern.  Where the BCI classes used to fill the auditorium and more than a hundred people were in attendance when it was fifteen weeks to less than twenty in some classes when it is now eleven weeks with four weeks of swalat tutorial.

There is no Befriending session anymore.  But in any case, I have become a skeptic of sorts.  There is a difference in the quality of the Befrienders.  Their intentions may be laudable.  But they have forgotten how to Befriend and have begun to preach. They have forgotten the difference between what the religion says and what they have learned by their culture.

Furthermore, the topics have never been changed to reflect the fact that the world is a different place and students have different concerns now.  The Befriending topics do not address issues like terrorism, the War on Terror, integration and the modernity of Islam.  The fall in attendance of the Befrienders and the Befriendees is as apparent as the decline of the programme.  There is no Befriending for the Wednesday's class by the way.

The main pitfall of the programme is ironically that it does not go far enough.  The Convert Follow-Up and the In-Laws Support Programmes, the Befrienders’ Scheme (sounds sinister) and the entire pre- and post conversion process is actually part of an extended process to rebuild a social network damaged by conversion.

Born-Muslims especially cannot fathom what is required to convert.  Imagine if your child or any one close to you were to tell you that they have decided to change their faith.  Imagine if you were to tell your parents, your family, your spouse that.  Changing your belief system can be viewed as the ultimate rejection of racial and cultural identity.

Furthermore, no religion has as terrible a reputation in modern times as Islam.  From the September 11th attack to suicide bombers to Taliban bombing women's schools to Wahhabi scholars praying for the destruction of the Christians and the Jews.  Whilst ‘Isa (a.s.) is remembered for turning the other cheek, Muhammad (s.a.w.) is remembered for jihad in the West.  Become a Buddhist and you are a pacifist.  Become a Hindu and you are in love with the exotic Orient.  Become a Muslim and you are a potential terrorist.

I come from staunch Portuguese Roman Catholic heritage.  We are descended from the hidalgo and the capitan and strangely enough a direct descendant of Sir Andrew Clarke on my mother's side.  My ancestors fought the Muslims in al-Andalus.  When I converted, it was as if the Reconquistador happened yesterday.  Being Catholics, at least I did not become a Protestant.  The fact that my family found out I was a Muslim from some interview in the papers was not the best way to break the news.

Changing faith was never an easy thing.  It was the hardest thing I ever did.  I came to that decision in Novena Church.  I was reading the 'Abdullah Yusuf 'Ali's translation of the Qur'an and I had the Catholic Bible with me.  It was as if somewhere inside me, I saw the dawn.  You see the twilight, the promise of something to come and then you see the sun.  You never actually see the sun rise.

I never really had a problem with the conversion process because I had already made up my mind.  I was going to be a Muslim.  I had read the Life of Muhammad, I had found my Shaykh and I had given my bai'ah even before I officially converted.  The Sufis are the closest spiritually to what I had as a Catholic, so I was not actually changing my faith.  I was evolving within it.  Because of my former association with a Catholic missionary organization, I already had a comprehensive knowledge of Christianity and the Bible.  The coming of Muhammad (s.a.w.) was the promised Paraclete.  If it were because of the Muslims, I would never have converted.  The Ummah, for the most part, is a terrible advertisement of the faith.

For all my so-called knowledge of Islam, even I came close to leaving it.  But I had the benefit of good friends of the faith and I had the benefit of a constant belief in the Oneness of God.  I know a very large number of converts who are either no longer practicing or have left the faith altogether.  Each and every one found Islam through one way or another.  Some because of some sign that told them that Islam was the True Faith or because they found love.

In coming to Islam, many of them had to give up something for the promise of something better.  Sometimes, these promises do not pan out.  Relationships fail, pressure from society and family, disappointment with the Ummah and bitterness and anger set in.  I know this personally.

I have always been acutely aware that I have a choice and I made it.  Every family function, every significant event is a reminder that I am making a conscious decision to take a particular path.  With that comes the knowledge of the price.  Of dunya for akhirah.  But dunya is before you and akhirah is a veil away.

We always seek the Comfort Allah (s.w.t.), in those moments before we sleep, when the heart is most honest because we always lie to ourselves.  Even more so than we lie to others.  The insidious lies, the whisperings of Shaythan that go straight to the heart.  And so every major disappointment that involves a Muslim or the Faith is a dose of poison in the heart.  And these grow over time.  They are forgotten by the conscious mind but the Heart remembers them acutely.

The failure of my marriage, the break-up of my engagement, the shenanigans at the mosque, the reality of Darul Arqam's politics, the death of my grandmother, the loss of career appointment.  These are the failures of Man but unconsciously, they are attributed to Allah (s.w.t.).  And then there is a trigger, a confluence of events that are individually not enough to cause the total collapse of control.

I have seen the Abyss.  And though the fires of Hell burn hotter than a thousand suns, it is fanned by the bitter cold winds of despair and loss and abandonment.  And I know in my heart that that is the true terror of Hell.  It is not the physical torture of burning alone.  It is the ultimate despair of being away from the Beloved, the Thirst beyond Thirst that ar-Rumi (q.s.) speaks of.  As the Creations of Allah (s.w.t.), each and every one of us has tasted at least once in our life the feeling of ultimate love, of being enveloped with a warmth beyond this world, a taste of the Promise of God.  We spend our whole lives searching for it consciously and unconsciously.  We will never find it here.  And that is why a good death is sweeter than the purest honey, rarer than the finest myrrh.

What can be done?  The first step is identifying the problem.  What can we do about it?  We should empty the cup.  The water is stale.  Follow the sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.).  Find a small group of people who share the same vision.  The vision of wanting not only to spread the religion but ensuring that those who come to the faith have their needs taken care of.  Man is by nature a gregarious creature.  Henry David Thoreau said aptly, "No man is an island."

Ultimately, the cup is never full and never empty for it is filled with Allah (s.w.t.).  All Creation is His Ocean.  We are filled with His Presence.  But many are like fishes in the sea.  They cannot see the Ocean.  Fill that cup with Him.  And Insha’Allah, you will find yourself dissolved.

The main purpose of this group is to repair and enhance a social network damaged by a change of faith.  It is not enough to have a good relationship with the Rocks of the Ummah, it is important to repair the relationships that came before conversion.  Islam is not cult.  We do not separate ourselves from society at large.  We are better only if Allah (s.w.t.) wills it, not because of anything intrinsic to ourselves.  A Muslim must never be arrogant in faith.  The arrogant do not share.

Relationships take time to build.  They take effort, they take understanding.  In the end, it should be converts themselves who take the lead to help converts.  Certain things can only be understood experientially.  And that is why when the born-Muslims talk about the challenges of faith to the converts it sounds fake and condescending at times.  The intention cannot be faulted.  It is merely an unsuitable medium.

Finally, talks and classes build knowledge but are of little help in integration and understanding.  These require spontaneous social activities.  Some of the most esoteric aspects of the Diyn, I learned at the coffee shops at Haig Road and Kembangan over a cup of tea.  Because Islam is not a dry faith.  It is a faith to be lived and understood.  We have to be imbibed.  That is why Allah (s.w.t.) sent the Prophet (s.a.w.) as well as the Book.  There could not be one without the other.  And so there is no Islam without the Muslims.  And Muslims cannot be inheritors of the Promise of al-Kawtsar if they are so sure that they are going to Heaven and everyone else is going to Hell.  Allah (s.w.t.) never said that and the Qur'an never had that.  Ultimately, in the entire Qur’an, it is this line that I remember so-clearly when I first opened it all those years ago sitting in the back pew in Novena Church at three in the morning:


This is the Book; in it is guidance sure, without doubt, to those who fear Allah. (Surah al-Baqarah:2)

And because of that, I know Islam is the Truth:


5 comments:

  1. A comprehensive reflection...which invites deeper reflections. :)

    When once I used to ask for succinctly strength,patience and wisdom from Him, I now find my list growing longer. :)

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  2. It is never easy, belief.
    Even for born Muslims, the urge to sway further from the path that has been lit with light from a thousand fires stems from an anaemic lack of faith, and too much emphasis on practice.
    We have to remember that Islam is a religion of simplicity - a beggar is no less loved than the rich if both love God an equal measure each.
    And it is the Love that prevents us from swaying, more than we should.

    Why sway? because at the root of the matter, the ruh and body know the Truth. It is the human heart that reacts differently.

    Glad you're back, but I was never afraid of you leaving; I would prefer to look forward to your roots swaying you back in the right direction.

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  3. Salam...

    I am a convert myself. I share the same sentiments with you about the Association i once found myself attached to when i was at my weakest, most vulnerable times. But though it had let me down, it was Allah swt's rope that i hung myself onto.

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  4. Wa salaam,

    Well, I'm glad you held on, Mr. Blue. I may not always respond but I appreciate and welcome comments from anyone.

    This is a learning journey for me as well.

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  5. His hand is the firmest one could ever hold on to.

    ReplyDelete

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