Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Staying Converted

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ


In the Name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
Alif Lam Mim.  Do men think that they will be left alone on saying "We believe" and that they will not be tested?  We did Test those before them, and Allah will certainly Know those who are true from those who are false. (Surah al-‘Ankabut:1-3)

The Problem with Muslims

Normally, the dialogue regarding those who embrace Islam is focused on why they converted.  This is very much a feel-good exercise for the community at large.  When someone converts to Islam, the immediate response from the Muslim community is overwhelmingly welcoming.  And then, they are forgotten.  Much more is learnt on why people stay Muslim.

The shahadah is just two lines.  It is the declaration of the Unity of Divinity and the acknowledgement that Muhammad (s.a.w.) is the final Prophet and Messenger of God.  But it elicits an entire change of worldview and all its ramifications.  In Singapore and perhaps elsewhere, the majority of people seem to convert because of the Muslim spouse-to-be.  But whatever the reason, the conversion is not an event.  It is a process and it may be a long, lonely one wracked with doubt, challenges and alienation from the things that once brought comfort.

The main reason why converts leave Islam is a failure of the social network.  When someone converts to Islam, they face a distancing of their relationship with their parents, their family and their friends.  Added to that is pressure from the Muslim side to ‘conform’ to their idea of what Islam is.  People have lost their jobs, had custody issues with regards their children, and been subject to emotional blackmail and abuse.  To the non-Muslim family, this looks like a painful rejection of family and cultural values for the other.

There are many Muslim converts who leave Islam on a daily basis for various reasons.  For some, they declare their apostasy and they become a counselling case and later a statistic.  But there is a larger number that have simply stopped practicing or were never practicing.  Perhaps faith did not take root or perhaps they simply stopped believing.  It may be the lack of education and that is an affliction of the Muslims in general.  It may be nostalgia for their pre-Islamic lifestyle and friends and a desire to restore that relationship with the family.  But there are legitimate doubts regarding the religion itself, oft times due to the examples of Muslims around them.  It is easy to say that there is a difference between Islam and the Muslims but it is difficult to reconcile.  There is much to criticise about the Muslim community and institutions.

People come to Islam thinking that the crisis of faith will finally be resolved and they will finally have all the answers.  Truth be told, the Muslims themselves do not have that.  What they have been given is actually the correct questions.  The answers themselves come eventually through trial and tribulation.  When I asked my shaykh, Shaykh Ahmad ‘Arif once, on why it was so difficult to be a Muslim, he replied, “How else would you begin to understand the tremendous Gift you have Received from God?”

Muslims wittingly or unwittingly pressure those who have embraced Islam to leave all that was of their cultural and social identity and conform to the expectations of the ethnic majority be it Arab, Indian, Malay or others.  But Islam was never about that.  This only deepens the sense of alienation and loss.  And it becomes a barrier for those who might otherwise consider the Truth of Islam.  As a result, many converts suffer from an identity crisis in one sense or another.

Converts tend to have similar stories in their personal journey to Islam.  No matter the different backgrounds and events may differ, the personal struggles and questions about faith and God and existence are the same.  They are universal questions central to all of us.  In that, it is important that the people that brought them to Islam, that are the witnesses to their conversion and are there understand this and work together to help those who have come along and in the process, enhance their faith.

Many great thinkers have much good to say about the principles, beliefs and philosophy of Islam.  Many of them grudgingly or admiringly have much good to say about the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.).  The same cannot be said about Muslim communities in general and many Muslim institutions.  The image presented in the mosque of peaceful coexistence, brotherhood solidarity, and heightened spiritual states is a facade.  Muslim institutions and mosques are as political as any.  Many of these organisations are dens of hypocrisy and self-service.  And that is the reality.  The true face of the ummah is one of division, sectarianism, segregation and class conflict.

There are many challenges facing the Muslims but the convert is assailed with the requirements of ‘shari’ah’; not the shari’ah of Islam, but the shari’ah of the imagination of small-minded people.  Music is suddenly problematic.  Facial hair is a serious issue.  The type of clothes, whether it is permissible to greet the family during festive events, attendance of family functions, photographs, clothes, meeting people of the opposite gender, circumcision, myriad political events in other parts of the world are all suddenly thrust upon the convert.

The Prophet (s.a.w.) did not call people to Islam by talking about the Law.  He appealed to the soul.  It was spirituality that brought most people to Islam.  It was love of God, love of the Prophet (s.a.w.) and love of his ummah that allowed that faith to take root and flourish.  The average convert is inundated with information by Muslims and not facts.  That information is tainted with prejudice, ignorance and arrogance.  He is bombarded with labels: Sunni, Shi’a, Sufi, Salafi, Hanafi, Shafi’i, Asha’ari, Qadiani…  All that matters is Islam.  Nobody embraced Islam to take sides.

12 Tips for the Convert Muslim

The following is an article from Suhaib Webb’s site: 12 Tips for the Convert Muslim.  Much of it is from the perspective of an American convert but it is a helpful guide and the basic ideas are relevant no matter where you are.

1.         Practice Islam as much as you can

“He who loves my Sunnah has loved me, and he who loves me will be with me in Paradise.” - Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) (Sunan at-Tirmidzi)

As a new Muslim, you will have trouble keeping up with prayers every day, fasting during Ramadhan, and the many other practices in this religion.  The struggle that we face, with such a radical change in lifestyle, is difficult and will take some time.  Awkward moments are bound to happen, do not fret.  You are not expected to wake up at 4 every morning to pray tahajjud.  If you have problems with certain practices, then gradually work yourself into the mindset of worship.  A counselor once told me when I was young, “How do you eat an elephant?  Just One bite at a time.”  Think of it as one step at a time.  Pray to Allah (s.w.t.) and Ask for Him to Make it easy for you and the rest will come naturally.

Keeping up with your devotional practices is something that will strengthen your faith immensely.  Read the Qur’an whenever possible.  Find a collection of hadits, such as Riyadh us-Salihin, and read it often.  You will start to feel a connection to Allah (s.w.t.) and you will become used to Islam as a religion and way of life.

2.         Respect your parents

“Heaven lies under the feet of your mother.” - Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) (Musnad Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Sunan an-Nasa’i)

Keeping up a good relationship with your family is essential.  Try to avoid bringing up or taking part in controversial subjects regarding religion.  This is almost unavoidable, but your parents will eventually accept that Islam is not going to turn you into a terrorist if you stay calm during these tense moments.  Gradually, your parents will gain some respect and understanding of Islam and may start to become genuinely interested.  This is a great Sign and insha’Allah, Allah (s.w.t.) will Make a way for them to accept Islam.

What you do not want to do is act like you know everything, attempt to debate everything, or overly defend yourself in a way that might make you angry or upset.  This will just cause heartache and uneasiness.  Your priority now should be to work on yourself.

3.         Find a teacher

“For him who follows a path for seeking knowledge, Allah will Ease for him the path to Paradise.” - Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) (Swahih Muslim)

Finding a teacher to bounce ideas off of is a great way to learn your religion.  I found it is good to find someone with as much knowledge as possible who also has an understanding of the English language and American culture.  It is difficult to listen to someone with a thick accent or someone with a back-home mentality.  When I first accepted Islam, I would drive every day to visit my teacher and I would ask him what seemed like an endless stream of questions.  Sometimes he seemed overwhelmed!  This is a great way to clarify things you hear on Shaykh YouTube or Google or any part of the Qur’an you are reading at the time.

This will also help you have a real grounding in the Islamic tradition.  You will eventually have spent more time learning Islam than most people from Muslim families.  Maintain a sense of humility if you do gain a lot of knowledge, as there will always be someone who will be more knowledgeable than you.  Learn everything you can in small chunks, no one is asking you to be a scholar!

4.         Keep away from debates and arguments

“Verily anger spoils faith as aloe spoils honey.” - Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) (Sunan Abu Dawud, Sunan at-Tirmidzi)

Trying to constantly defend your religion is something that will cause you a lot of stress.  I remember when I first accepted Islam, it seemed like the whole world was after me.  This may happen to different people at different levels, but it was a very overwhelming experience for me.  The best thing to do is avoid these arguments at all costs.  If you are mature about your religion and display a desire to explain yourself without refuting others, then many doors will open for you.  You are bound to give someone a refreshing view of Islam, which is what so many people are hungry for after seeing Islam in such a negative light in the media.

Staying away from these discussions will put you at peace and give you breathing room.  A lot of converts are not really comfortable with bringing up their religion because of the backlash they receive.  Personally, I recognized that if I just mention it when necessary, I get a more positive reaction.  You’ll be surprised to hear “Oh that’s cool dude, what made you pick that religion?”  This is always an opportunity for da’wah.

5.         Gain a connection to the Arabic language


We have Sent it down as an Arabic Qur'an in order that ye may learn wisdom. (Surah Yusuf:2)

This is one of my favorite parts of becoming a Muslim.  To be honest, I’m a language-lover and I realize everyone is not the same in this regard.  Just because you failed high school Spanish though does not mean you will have trouble with Arabic.  There are many tricks to learning the language that I will not go into here, but there are ways to make this easier on yourself.  These methods can be found online or in books; with a little research you can pave your way to gaining an understanding of Arabic.

Start by learning the alphabet and connecting letters together.  You can learn this in an afternoon if you know someone that is a native Arabic speaker (but go at your own pace).  Sit on that for a while and eventually you will be able to follow along in the Qur’an if you listen to a recitation on your computer or mp3 player.  You will start to recognize words, after which you can get into simple grammar rules.  I recommend learning common nouns and prepositions first (words like ‘in’, ‘on’, ‘for’ and ‘with’).

Arabic can be really enjoyable, and you are bound to gain an Islamic vocabulary after listening to talks or lectures.  Eventually you will know meanings of words like ‘furqan’ and ‘sajdah’ and you will be able to use them in conversations with Muslims. Sabr, patience, is essential!

6.         Understand Islam’s organic nature

“Those who make things hard for themselves will be destroyed.”  (He said it three times.) - Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) (Swahih Muslim)

Coming to Islam will sometimes put you in a situation where you are overwhelmed with opinions that are hard to follow.  As an example, one might be told that you have to wash your feet every time you make wudhu unless you wipe over leather socks that have been worn from your previous wudhu.  For most Americans, the idea of wearing leather socks is something that we find extremely unusual.  If we do a little research, we find there are opinions of scholars that mention the permissibility of wiping over cotton socks (even ones with holes in them!).  To an American convert, these opinions can cause a huge sigh of relief.

7.         Maintain your identity


In the Name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
O ye who believe!  Put not yourselves forward before Allah and His Messenger: but fear Allah: for Allah is He Who Hears and Knows all things. (Surah al-Hujraat:1)

Being a Muslim is a huge part of your identity now.  That does not mean you cannot barbeque with your friends or watch football on Sundays.  If there are things in your culture that do not directly contradict with basic Islamic creed, then you are welcome to keep those things in your life.  You do not need to start wearing Arab or Indian clothing.  As long as your clothes cover what they are supposed to cover, you are in the clear.

Many converts are also exposed to really weird food that is overly spicy or funny tasting.  This might lead us to think that eating curry is sunnah or something righteous.  We can still have our own culture and tastes in food: pot roast and beans are still halal!

There are many other examples of things that you will be exposed to that are from foreign cultures and do not necessarily have anything to do with Islam.  Our goal as new Muslims is to worship Allah (s.w.t.), not to add a Pakistani or Arab identity to our persona.

It is good to have a teacher who understands the subtleties of different opinion in fiqh and can inform you of differences among the scholars on issues that are of concern.  Most people in masajid will have a very limited view of the juristic possibilities inside the Islamic tradition.  Islam is a vast tradition and we should not make it small.  These diverse opinions are there to help us, not cause strain on ourselves.

8.         Force yourself to go to the masjid

“The person who receives the greatest reward for the swalah is one who lives the farthest and has the farthest to walk.” - Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) (Swahih al-Bukhari, Swahih Muslim)

Going on Fridays is a given, but I would also recommend trying to fit a few prayers (at least) per week in the masjid.  This will open many doors for you and will insha’Allah grant many good deeds to your account.  You will meet people who are connected to Islam; networking opportunities are more readily available; and you are bound to make long-lasting friends.  This is one of the things that I really love about Islam, that you can almost always find people in the masjid.

Although this may be hard initially, try and go to the masjid.  The payoff will be huge, even if you just pray and leave right after.  You will eventually warm up to the community and you can feel more comfortable going to the masjid whenever you like.

9.         Find Muslim friends and avoid severing ties

“On the Day of Resurrection Allah Almighty will proclaim: ‘Where are those who have mutual love for My Glory’s sake?  Today I shall Shelter them in My Shade where there is no shade but Mine.’” - Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) (Swahih Muslim)

Saying ‘as-Salamu‘Alaykum’ to people you see on campus or at the grocery store is a real blessing in Islam.  It immediately lets people know you are Muslim and they usually will be happy to return the greeting and hopefully share a few words with you.  Doors of friendship will be opened and you will meet lots of people.  Try and spend some time with Muslims when you can. It is beneficial to remind yourself that you are not the only Muslim on the planet and you share your religion with almost 2 billion people around the globe.

Also, do not sever your friendships with your non-Muslim friends unless they are constantly partying or using the list of major sins as their weekend to-do list.  You can be a light to your Christian, agnostic, Jewish, or atheist friends.  You never know who Allah (s.w.t.) will Guide, and showing that you are living an ethical life can encourage these people to learn a little about Islam or change their mind to having a positive view of the religion.

10.       Avoid Loneliness

“Islam began as something strange and will revert to being strange as it began, so give glad tidings to the strangers.” - Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) (Swahih Muslim)

This is a major problem in the convert community.  We are lonely.  The best thing we can do to fight the feeling of loneliness is to spend as much time as possible with good company.  Having dinners with people a few nights a week is a sure way to maintain a good attitude.  The practice of becoming a nun or a monk is alien to Islam; we are social creatures and Islam recognises this.

Try not to lock yourself away in your apartment to avoid the world.  This will just cause a vicious cycle that will cause deep depression and can lead to searching for solace in the haram.

Make it an obligation on yourself to remain a sociable human being.  It takes a lot of work but the result is happiness and contentment in life.

11.       Stay away from extremism


Thus have We made of you an Ummah justly balanced That ye might be witnesses over the nations ... (Surah al-Baqarah:143)

Most converts do not enter Islam looking for an extremist point of view.  Unfortunately, we have seen some converts do end up overseas working for terrorist organizations.  This is something that can happen from a person feeling victimized or ostracized by their own culture and being overcome with anger.

I personally have not had a problem with anyone trying to ‘radicalize’ me.  It does happen enough though that it should be a concern.  It will be best for you to keep your head on your shoulders and not get caught up with extreme points of view.  Know that all of the scholars overseas and in America have absolutely refuted terrorism in their fatawa.  Extremism is on the very edges of the Islamic thought.  Do your best to stay on a middle way.

12.       Do not despair

“So know that victory is with patience, and relief is with distress and that with hardship comes ease.” - Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.)

Being a convert to Islam, you will face a lot of tribulations.  There is not anything that you cannot overcome though, and never despair in Allah (s.w.t.).

Allah (s.w.t.) Guided to you to Islam, you searched for the answer and you found it.  Be happy and constantly remind yourself of the blessings in your life.  There are a lot of good things that will happen to you and you are on the straight road to Jannah.  Rejoice in being Muslim.  Remember the ashab were all converts to Islam and they were human beings that came from Adam (a.s.) and Eve just like you!  Be strong and find comfort in your prayers and worship to Allah (s.w.t.).  The first six months were the hardest for me, and insha’Allah we will all continue to grow as a convert community in America.


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