Asking Why

It was a particularly hot summer, and the harvest was about to begin.
Thus, it was a most inopportune time for a military expedition. Yet,
this did not deter the Prophet (pbuh). The tribe of Ghassan, a
Christian tribe to the North, repeatedly attacked the Muslims and
declared its open hostility to the Muslim state in Medina. Thus, the
Prophet (pbuh) was compelled to deal with this emerging threat. There
was only one problem: Ghassan was an ally of Byzantium, and any attack
on Ghassan necessarily meant an attack on Byzantium, which would
definitely come to the aid of their Arab co-religionists.

The Prophet (pbuh) knew this, but fight them he must, otherwise the
lives and livelihoods of the inhabitants of Medina would be constantly
threatened. Therefore, the Prophet (pbuh) ordered every Muslim capable
to carry a sword to converge on Medina to take part in the attack on
Tabuk. Many responded. Yet, there were some, chief among them the
hypocrites, who did not want to take part in such a difficult task,
and they came to the Prophet (pbuh) with all sorts of pathetic excuses
as to why they could not go and fight with him. The Prophet (pubh)
accepted them without question, because he knew that these waverers
would be of no benefit to the Muslim army anyway.

There were some Muslims, however, true believers and not hypocrites,
who failed to join the army and had no legitimate excuse. The most
famous were these three: Ka`b ibn Malik, Mararah ibn ar-Rabi` and
Hilal ibn Umayyah. When the Prophet (pbuh) returned from Tabuk, he
rebuked them and ordered that they be ostracized from the community.
No one was to say one word to them, not even “salam.” In fact,
whenever one of them would say “salam” to the Prophet (pbuh), he would
not answer out loud, but would mouth the words “alaikum salam.” This
continued for forty days.

Could you imagine being ostracized in such a manner? To be deprived of
even the Prophet’s (pbuh) “salam”? What a horrible feeling! Allah
(swt) described this feeling in this verse, which was revealed to
declare Allah’s (swt) forgiveness for them: “And [He turned in His
mercy, too,] towards the three who had fallen prey to corruption,
until in the end-after the earth, despite all its vastness, had become
[too] narrow for them and their souls had become [utterly]
constricted, they came to know with certainty that there is no refuge
from God other than [a return] unto Him; and thereupon He turned again
unto them in His mercy, so that they might repent: for, verily, God
alone is an acceptor of repentance, a dispenser of grace” (9:118).

The earth, despite its vastness, had become too narrow for them. That
feeling, I suspect, is the exact same feeling our youth have growing
up here in America. This is especially true for the youth who struggle
to stay committed to the laws and dictates of Islam. I was one of
those youth, and the earth indeed felt ever so narrow around me. I
felt totally alone, even though I was surrounded by hundreds of fellow
students in school. It was a horrible feeling and a very difficult
time in my life.

By the Mercy and Grace of Allah (swt), I have always been committed to
Islam. I have always tried not to disobey Allah (swt) wantonly and
openly. I have tried to obey His commands as best I could. Yet, for
all the inner peace this brought me, it also brought me outer anxiety
and difficulty. It was at its worst during my high school years. I was
constantly ridiculed for my faith and my adherence to its rules. I
remember being surrounded by a number of my track teammates, with
incredulous smiles on their faces, asking me how it was that I had not
dated and had sex. Another time, as I was having breakfast with my my
football teammates, there were two other Muslim kids who were not as
committed as I: they were eating the bacon that came with the
breakfast plate. One of my other teammates turned to me and said out
loud: “Hey Hesham, are these guys going to Hell for eating pork?” This
was followed by several laughs. I hated being singled out like that.

Although it was never really malicious, it was annoying nonetheless,
and this treatment served to isolate me from American society and my
own American-ness. As I graduated high school and entered college,
this feeling of isolation set me up for a crisis of enormous
proportions. I attended Marquette University, a Jesuit institution,
and during my first year, enormous doubts about Islam had creeped into
my soul. I began to question everything I thought I knew was true
about Islam. These doubts started when I studied world history, which
looked at religion from a perspective completely devoid of faithful
devotion. Furthermore, I was studying Christian theology, reading the
Bible and learning about the Trinity.

Added to my doubts were my intense feelings of isolation, which became
even worse during my first year of college, because my abstinence from
alcohol and pre-marital sex effectively excluded me from most social
activities with my friends. I remember many a Saturday night spent in
my dorm room alone and lonely. I began to blame Islam for my
loneliness. “If it wasn’t for Islam,” I would tell myself, “I would
fit in.” My doubts and isolation became so extreme, I flirted with the
idea of converting to Christianity.

Whenever I would try to get solace and comfort from the Muslim
community, I would frequently be let down. No one at the masjid had
either the time to answer my questions or understood what I was going
through. Furthermore, there were frequent fights and disputes at the
masjid over silly issues of fiqh, and this served to push me further
away. That first semester of my first year of college was the darkest
age of my spiritual life, and it is only by the Grace of Allah (swt)
that I am Muslim today.

I am almost certain that this same scenario is playing out each and
every day with many Muslim youth in America today. Growing up Muslim
in America is very difficult, and it only has become even more
difficult after September 11. There are many things American youth do,
such as dating and drinking, that are off limits to Muslim youth.
Thus, it makes them “different.” If they are committed to the deen,
like I was, they are frequently “left out.” No one, including me,
likes to feel “left out.”

These feelings will naturally lead the young one to ask “Why?” He or
she will ask, “Why can’t I go to that party?” “Why can’t I drink
alcohol?” “Why can’t I ask him or her on a date?” “Why can’t I go to
the prom?” And the answer given to them from their parents and elders
are frequently inadequate and cold-hearted: “Because…because I said

This is wrong. Allah (swt), the Holy Creator on High, never said
“Because I said so.” So, why should we? If you study the Qur’an in
depth, you realize that Allah (swt) goes to great lengths explaining
why He is One, and why He has made various things “haram.” For
example, Allah (swt) does not say, no pre-marital sex “because I said
so.” Rather, Allah (swt) says, “Do not come near fornication or
adultery: for it is a shameful (deed) and an evil, opening the road
(to other evils)” (17:32). Allah (swt) did not say, do not consume any
form of intoxicant “because I said so.” No. Allah (swt) said, “O you
who have attained to faith! Intoxicants, and games of chance, and
idolatrous practices, and the divining of the future are but a
loathsome evil of Satan’s doing: shun it then, so that you might
attain to a happy state.”

Why, O Loving Lord? He continues, “By means of intoxicants and games
of chance, Satan seeks only to sow enmity and hatred among you, and to
turn you away from the remembrance of God and from prayer. Will you
not, then, desist?” (5:90-91). Oh, I see. Of all the beings in the
universe, Allah (swt) is the one who should not be asked “why,” as the
Qur’an says: “He cannot be called to account for whatever He does,
whereas they will be called to account [for what they do]” (21:23).
Yet, Allah (swt) still provides an explanation for why he makes
certain things forbidden. That is why He is such a wonderful Lord and
Sustainer. Why, therefore, should we be threatened by the “whys” and
“wherefores” of our children and youth?

When our youth ask “why?”, we should seek out the motivation behind
such a question. Frequently, we will find out that he or she is
seeking to understand his or her faith better; he or she wants to
understand the reason behind a particular prohibition, especially when
it comes to issues alcohol, dating, and sex, things which are
pervasive among youth today. Did not the angels ask Allah (swt)
“why?”: “And lo! Thy Sustainer said unto the angels: ‘Behold, I am
about to establish upon earth one who shall inherit it.’ They said:
‘Wilt Thou place on it such as will spread corruption thereon and shed
blood—whereas it is we who extol They limitless glory, and praise
Thee, and hallow Thy name?’” (2:30). They were not being rebellious by
their questioning, but they wanted to understand God’s wisdom.

Moreover, perhaps what we think is “haram” may not actually be so, and
our youth’s “why” may help us realize this. Frequently, cultural
traditions and taboos have been cloaked in the garb of Islam, and
Muslims have made what was originally “halal” now “haram.” The fresh
perspective of our youth’s “whys” may help us rediscover the beauty of
our faith and learn something that we heretofore did not know. The
Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was never threatened or intimidated by the
“whys” of his companions and contemporaries. It must be the same with
us. Truth does not fear investigation.

Youth and adolescence is perhaps the most difficult time for any
person, let alone a devout Muslim adolescent growing up in America.
Whether we like it or not, our conduct embodies Islam to our youth,
and if we fall short of the ideals of our faith, our youth frequently
become disenchanted with Islam and are liable to leave the faith. They
know what the pamphlets and brochures about Islam say, but when they
see us behaving in a manner unbecoming of a Muslim—all the while
criticizing them for their rebellion against the faith—they will
immediately see through this hypocricy, and it will have a devastating
effect on their faith, especially given the enormous pressure they
face each and every day as an American Muslim in the post 9/11 era.

Our youth are our future. Let us welcome them and their questions with
open arms. Let us include them in the running of our affairs: they
have a valuable perspective having grown up as Americans. Let us
improve our own religious committment and live up to the ideals of our
faith. If we fail to do this, I fear our mosques—georgeous and
magnificent on the outside—may be completely empty of the next
generation of believers on the inside. And we will have no excuse
whatsoever before our Lord on the Day we will meet Him again.