Monday, 16 August 2010

Alison Lake: Life as a 'Sister'

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

Alison Lake is a staff writer at The Washington Post and former editor of Islamic publications for a D.C.-area think tank.  This is her article from: Life as a SisterThis essay is the fourth in a series about religious conversion.  Click here to read Alison’s first essay about leaving Catholicism for IslamAlison’s second essay challenged Muslims and non-Muslims to better understand the faith she discoveredHer third essay addresses practical questions of conversion, including wearing the headscarfThe fourth essay on embracing new rituals is here.

“Dozens of times, I have met Muslims from different countries and experienced the joy of being called “sister” and welcomed with open arms.  Ideally, all Muslims are brothers and sisters, no matter our country of origin or language.  Although Islam began in Arabia, among Arabic-speakers, it is intended to be a universal religion for all people.

Community is very important to any faith practice, and is crucial in Islam, which is perhaps more regimented than other religions and requires daily discipline.  The more support and company you have while practicing, the easier it becomes to incorporate that practice into your routine.  Sharing your practice with others also increases the spiritual rewards, because you feel supported by the group and share a common belief and goal.

In Islamic tradition, when we pray, the impact of our prayer is greater the closer we stand to one another.  The image of Muslims around the world praying concentrically with Mecca at the center is powerful.

In mosques, the separation of men and women in prayer areas is not meant to be divisive, but helpful.  I understand that this practice is controversial, but in my experience, that separation has been liberating.  As a woman, it's less distracting to pray when surrounded by women, especially since we kneel on the ground to pray.  If men were behind me I would feel self-conscious.  Also, since we stand very close to one another to pray, standing among women makes more sense.  In order to sustain a whole faith community, however, communication and sharing among men and women is very important.

In Ramadhan, participating in a community is essential.  As a convert or native-born Muslim, fasting alone can be very isolating and difficult to maintain.  Immigrants from Muslim countries have noted that American life, with its around-the-clock jobs and constant presence of junk food, is not conducive to fasting and prayer.  In many Muslim-majority countries, Ramadhan changes the atmosphere like Christmas does here.  When everyone is fasting and praying, somehow these practices become more automatic and part of the culture.

The breaking of the fast, which comes at twilight, is best done with family and friends, and then a meal is shared.  The incentive of a communal meal at dawn as well as dusk helps to motivate me through a long day, especially when Ramadhan falls in the summer.  As a convert I have felt quite isolated at times when I could not share my prayers or meals with other Muslims.  Fortunately, I have since developed close friendships and become more aware of where to find other Muslims, not just during Ramadhan, but each day in this wonderfully diverse population of the Washington area.

I am not sure how the American Muslim community at large 'looks' right now. I am guessing it's patchy and depends on where you are in the country.  I do hope it's moving in a positive direction with stronger and more vocal leadership, increased diversity and involvement of youth, and education about jihadist violence.

I believe that American Muslims have much to accomplish in the way of developing a uniquely American community - nationally and locally.  Mosques are still not as prevalent as other religious institutions in the US, and with the existence of prejudice as well as mosques that cater to a particular ethnic group or language, we can try to move forward and build more of an ‘American Muslim’ identity.  This identity should be active and vocal, and focus on building bridges rather than further isolating Muslims.  While we should embrace people of all backgrounds, we can also acknowledge which traditions are ‘Old World’ and cultural rather than religious, and encourage openness and flexibility.

The American Muslim community is at the start of a new era as more mosques appear, more people convert, and more Muslim newcomers arrive from overseas.  We are at a pivotal moment to make a difference in all sectors of society and present a positive impression of Muslims in the West.”


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