“What are the Special Issues and Needs of Converts within the Muslim Community?”
by Sheila Musaji
On May 28th, 1989, an Open Forum Discussion was held at the Islamic Foundation of Villa Park, Illinois on the topic “What are the Special Issues and Needs of Converts within the Muslim Community?”
The event was attended by approximately 100 people. The initial strategy that was proposed for creating an effective support group was:
1) Collect a Jamaat.
2) Develop a method of communication.
3) Meet and identify the issues.
4) Study the issues presented at meeting, categorize them and place them in order of priority.
5) Develop a plan of action and establish committees with the responsibility of working towards implementing that plan of action at the level of individual masjeds and at community wide level.
6) Maintain communication.
From this perspective, we have been very successful so far. Over the last year, we have accumulated the core of a Jamaat. We have begun a newsletter which is becoming a more effective means of communication as more members of the jamaat become involved in contributing to its contents. And at this open forum meeting, we certainly identified issues.
Although many of the issues raised were sensitive, and some may have been painful to have to face, nevertheless the overall tone was positive and hopeful. Something was accomplished - as one sister put it, “This is the beginning of a miracle.”
We have begun to put together a group of people who see themselves as rooted in this society and having a stake in seeing to it that Islam becomes a vital movement within this society; A group of people who are committed to bringing out in the open the real issues that keep them from truly accepting each other as brothers and sisters and then doing something to change their own attitudes and responses; a jamaat who is not willing to accept as inevitable or “part of our culture” that Muslims do not reflect what Islam teaches; who believe that UNITY is possible.
During the Civil Rights movement, Americans of conscience rejected the concept of “Seperate But Equal.” They knew it was a phony term designed to cover its real purposes - to maintain artificial distinctions, and to put off until some future time coming to terms with the fact that change is necessary NOW. That Allah is not going to change the condition of a people until they change their own condition.
Some of the issues and needs that were raised:
1) Need for support groups at every masjid and coordination between all of them.
2) Need for a series of internal dialogues to discuss issues that are devisive.
3) Need for more social get-togethers at various locations.
4) Need to encourage acceptance of English as the language of instruction and operation in masjids in America, and Arabic as the first priority second language for all Muslims.
5) Need to establish a fatwa council and an advisory tribunal with representatives from various communities where we can bring difficult questions for clear Islamic answers, and bring family and community disputes for arbitration. A tribunal might not be able to enforce decisions, but at least the parties would be aware of the appropriate Islamic Solution.
6) Need for developing and defining mutually acceptable and understandable terminology. When we are overly sensitive to the use of the wrong word to express an idea, that sidetracks us from the real issues. If our backs go up as soon as a brother or sister uses the “wrong” word and we are busy thinking about correcting them, we are not really hearing what they have to say. We all need to be more tolerant on this issue - convert/revert/ one who has embraced Islam - is one example that caused some laughter at the meeting as people tried hard to please by using all the terms at once.
7) Need for ansars at all levels as converts need multi-dimensional connections to the community.
8) Need to define more clearly the term American Muslims to include - not only those who have converted, but also children who were born or raised here, and those immigrants who see themselves as here permanently and not temporarily.
9) Need for help of community leaders to give khutbas and speeches that touch on “real” issues facing Muslims in America today.
10) Need to recognize that a community’s responsibility for new Muslims does not end when they say the Shahada.
11) Need to re-assess the historical function of the masjid in various societies and come to some agreement as to what functions are justifiable Islamically for its use here in the U.S.
12) Need to clearly separate Islamic Culture from Cultural Islam and to stress the former as the latter is responsible for much of the division. Division results when we allow secondary ethnic or national patterns to overwhelm and undermine Islamic Culture. Islam does not know the divisions of nationalism, racism, sectarianism and discrimination - if Muslims do, then we must work to change and not to accept excuses for what is un-Islamic. Must allow Islam to transform the society, not the society to transform Islam.
13) Need to de-emphasize focus on schools of thought - too much emphasis is placed on schools of thought.
14) Need to encourage Muslim organizations (including student organizations) and groups in the U.S. to consider making having a green card or citizenship a requirement for any administrative positions.
Sister Yakuta Morton summed it up beautifully when she said that Islam is not something you inherit, it is not a club you join. It is a recognition or discovery or awareness of our true identity, our natural self. Islam exists as a reality, as the only valid life transaction possible - we are either aware or not aware - we either accept islam or we don’t.
Originally published in the print edition of The American Muslim, June 1989.