It has been over a year since the world was turned upside down for Muslims and I had consciously resisted writing about the whole September thing until now. The reasons for my delay revolve partially around some writing projects that I had to complete during the last nine months, but there was also a tinge of uncertainty in my feelings that kept me from expressing my thoughts on what happened to us, the Muslim community. I didn’t want to just say or write something before I could sort things out in my mind. Trying to rise above the day-to-day grind that being a Muslim in America has become, I hereby offer some reflections that may prove useful in our conception about what’s going on and what we can do about it now and for the future.
If you’re wondering why I wrote that September’s events were something that happened to us, as a Muslim community, it is because the non-Muslim world has virtually declared war on all Muslims and on the Islamic faith simply on account of one unexpected attack carried out by a tiny group of extremists who had political grievances. The overreaction of the non-Muslim world to all of us and our faith is so disproportionate and draconian as to defy belief. The U.S. government didn’t declare war on Christianity because of Timothy McVeigh, even though he frequently quoted the Bible at his trial. The Jews didn’t declare war on the Christian world because of the Holocaust, nor did they publicly blame the religion of Christianity, even though the Nazis employed Christian propaganda against the Jews. So why, because of 19 hijackers, does America have the need to find a “terrorist” under every kufi and hijab? Look, I’ve been watching nearly every Muslim and Muslim country in the world falling all over themselves for the last fourteen years to be the first to say they love American secular values, and now, because of a small clandestine group, suddenly our religion itself is under fire everyday and no Muslim is safe anywhere in the world!
Before last September nobody gave half a peanut about Islam and suddenly after Al Qaeda’s dastardly strike, Islam, itself, which has nothing to do with choices made by individuals or groups, is talked about as “murderous”, “violent”, “wicked” and on and on. Even U.S. government officials are talking about Islam negatively and conversely praising Christianity. (So much for separation of church and state!) Many Americans are making some bizarre connection that “Islam” attacked America, just because people with Muslim names attacked her. They’re also saying, quite incredulously, that Muslims in America are “dangerous” and “should be expelled” or at the very least “monitored” and that Masjids should be “watched” just in case a crime might happen. Zealous media pundits are saying that Muslims in the West will eventually “undermine” the West’s pristine civilization and that Islam is “unsuited” for the modern world. If this kind of prejudice and misinformation were to be applied against Blacks, Jews, Asians or Catholics you would have riots in the streets. Instead we Muslims are doing hardly anything to protest all this discrimination and anti-Muslim rhetoric (in keeping with our meek and peaceful nature. Ironic, isn’t it?)
Perhaps the final straw that really propelled me to write came this morning when a “Muslim” high school student being featured on NPR answered a caller who suggested that Islam was not worthy of being taught. This young man (with a very Muslim name) said that “those people (meaning Muslims) sit in the desert all day long and that’s why they follow their religion so strongly.” He then went on to explain that “Islam is a harsh religion” and that the Iranians “took fifty hostages in 1979 because America was trying to improve Islam” and the backward Iranians didn’t like it. I really couldn’t believe my ears but the realization that had been building suddenly hit home: anti-Muslim propaganda has been so successful that some of our newest and most ill-informed critics will now be people with Muslim names but with little to no knowledge or practice. (Look at Fouad Ajami, Fareed Zakariya or Fatima Mernissi!) I felt I had to write now so Muslims everywhere could realize that as bad as things are right now for all of us, there are some things we can do to turn this travesty of logic into an opportunity for growth.
The first thing we need to do is take a good, hard look at what we believe and how we are expressing it. Everyone all over the world is saying Islam and politics, Islam and social justice, Islam and the economic system, Islam and family values, etc… The list goes on and on. Our Shaykhs tell us to support this or that cause, our activists tell us to donate for this or that crisis and our books tell us about the struggles of Muslims all over the globe. But lost in all of this is the very essence of what Islam is all about. Islam touches on all aspects of life but the core, the foundation of Islam, is a spiritual message. “O you who believe, save yourselves and your families.” The Qur’an says. Over and over we are exhorted to have faith in God and to lead a virtuous life. Islam, we can deduce, is primarily a message of salvation. How to lead a life of faith and get into heaven on account of it. There it is, pure and simple.
The very life-example of our blessed Prophet was nothing except a walking call for each of us to save our soul, and to teach others how to get to heaven as well. We have been very negligent, each and every one of us, for letting Christians claim this kind of orientation and focus exclusively. Why has most of our da’wah failed? Why are our Masjids bereft of converts? Because every time someone comes to the Masjid to learn about Islam, we lecture them on dress, on politics, on Jihad, on dietary laws, on learning complicated ibadah procedures and on and on. Where is the “healing for your hearts, the guidance and the light wherein you can walk” as the Qur’an describes its message? I personally accepted Islam after I realized it had a better and more trustworthy salvation plan than Christianity, but I tell you, I have never read any book on Islam that presents Islam the way it is supposed to be presented except for books by Abu Hamid Muhammad Al Ghazali, Harun Yahya, Wahiduddin Khan, Fariduddin Attar, Maulana Maududi, Abdul Qadir Jilani, Jeffrey Lang and Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood. Nearly every other book I’ve read has been a tirade of technical and dry information that would suck the juice out of a cactus if it were laid atop one.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the politics and struggles of Muslims overseas are fine to support, but we can’t keep presenting an image to the non-Muslim world (and to our own selves) that there is nothing more in Islam that endless struggles for justice in lands far away. This doesn’t solve the problems over there anyway and we lose the marrow of what our way of life seeks to instill in us. When our hearts are starved of nourishing faith and its satisfaction then our actions and ibadah become dry, stale rituals that even our own children try to avoid like the plague. Even though many Muslims are scared to death of things that build Eman, calling such practices innovations and such, there is something to be said for practicing those aspects of Islam that nearly every scholar from Abu Hanifa to Ibn Taymiyyah indulged in, things such as reading books on the philosophy of Islamic belief, engaging in group dhikr, taking excursions into the wilds of nature to contemplate Allah’s existence and, (this one is the most discouraged practice among Muslims today) actually discussing the meaning of Qur’anic verses in groups where everyone can participate. (As opposed to the static one-all-knowing-man-lectures-everyone format that we have followed for too long a while.)
Upon close examination we can easily deduce that Christianity has nothing on us as far as applicability, accessibility, satisfaction of the message and breadth of content is concerned. In fact, in many of those areas Islam comes out ahead, and I’m speaking as someone who used to be involved heavily in a church in my youth. But we’ve forgotten, for many, many centuries about this, the most important aspect of Islam. I personally have never witnessed a real Qur’an study group where everyone can talk and participate freely, nor have I heard many speeches that touched my heart nor have I seen much literature for us or for non-Muslims that gets the salvation message of Islam across. This is a travesty because Islam is 99% about saving your soul from hell. The other 1% is the politics, the Jihad and everything else.
Christianity is spreading so successfully because they are doing a better job with less trustworthy material than we, who have the tightest, most logically based faith on the planet. All we can boast about is that our religion is growing so fast because Muslims have a lot of babies. There is numerical growth but no qualitative growth because most of those so-called Muslim kids will be raised as Muslims in name only who will rarely be Masjid-going, proactive believers. Then when some extremists come along and give the right song and dance, some of those young people will be duped, not realizing what the main message of Islam is. The rest of us then become scape-goated and have to endlessly defend our religion to ill-informed non-Muslims from the actions of those who don’t care how they carry out their “cause.”
What I propose is that every individual must start a personal program designed to bring home the real beauty of Eman to their hearts. This can be accomplished with three relatively easy steps. The first is to get acquainted with the literature on the subject of spirituality and Islam. Muslims have discussed Eman and how to lead a life filled with faith and virtue all throughout the classical and modern periods of Islam and we can learn from their research. Three books to start that I recommend are: “The Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife” by Abu Hamid Muhammad Al Ghazali. “Even Angels Ask” by Jeffrey Lang. Finally, “Let Us Be Muslims” by Syed Abul A’la Maududi. A fourth selection is “The Conference of Birds” whose message, if properly digested, will change your life. “The Alchemy of Happiness” by Al Ghazali is a vital read as well.
Along with this reading program, it would be best to join with a few friends and start a “Book Club” where each of you will read the selected book in a specified time period and then you’ll meet one afternoon and discuss the meaning, your favorite passages, what you’ve learned, how you relate to it, etc… The second aspect of this reading program is to get correct, organized information on Islam and the life of the Prophet. I wrote three books to help Muslims and non-Muslims in this regard and they are: “What Islam is All About”, “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Islam”, and “Muhammad”. Qur’an reading must be done with translation always and the morning is the best time. For hadith I recommend: “110 Hadith Qudsi”, “An Islamic Treasury of Virtues” and “Mishkat ul Masabih”.
That’s all fine and good, you say, but after I’ve read these books, then what? Now it’s time to plunge yourself into the world that Allah has created so you can learn the lessons that life has to teach. No, I’m not suggesting working more hours or having more dinner parties. What I mean is to go out in nature to let your heart be flooded with the beauty of both sunshine and forest; to let the simple opening of a flower or caterpillar walking on a leaf stun and amaze you. In short, you must make regularly scheduled times where you seek out natural settings whether it be in a park, a forest, a field or wherever. You have to do this part of the process or the program won’t work. Haven’t you noticed it? So many Surahs begin with Allah mentioning some beautiful aspect of nature by way of signs for “people who reflect.”
Nature nurtures Eman. It’s that simple. So many of us live artificial lives surrounded by steel, stone and manicured streets that we are cut off from the greatest provider of lessons that Allah has provided for us. But don’t just walk out into a field or forest and say, “All right, I’ve seen it. Now it’s time to go.” No, you have to spend some real time there, several hours at least once a week immersed in a totally natural setting. Sunrise or sunset is the best, as the Qur’an mentions. Take a look, take notice of what goes on around you, even if it is a tiny creature, then the lessons of what you read of the Qur’an and other books will come alive. The very understanding of the real import of life and death will eventually awaken in your soul and provide a new lease on spiritual understanding.
Finally, learn to do good deeds consistently and purposefully. Start out small: smile more often. From there you can build up to offering to hold doors for people, picking up litter, helping children, cooling your anger and seeing what people need around you that would make their lives so much better. I have to tell you, the truest form of good deed, that point when you know you are on the right path to enlightenment, is when you become so concerned with the welfare of others that you don’t want to step on a bug, nor would you ever pass any living creature that is in distress without automatically wanting to help it. Even the suffering of a worm, drying out in the sun will move you to pity and action.
Why have I given this three step program when I could have talked about registering to vote, giving in charity, marching in the streets, etc? Because all of that is meaningless if our Eman is not growing, if our message is not reaching the hearts of non-Muslims who desperately need salvation and Muslims who need to finally discover the right path once and for all. Look, who will be there to march after you’re dead and buried seeing how many of our children will not be Muslim after us, equating Islam with nothing more than a set of hard rules and boring practices? From love all things spring, and those who learn to love Allah and the paradise He promised, truly any do’s and don’t's will become easy. The trouble is we all too often put the cart before the donkey. We stress rules and regulations without getting the allegiance of people first. That is, not coincidentally, why the so-called Islamic movements in every land fail at every turn. They don’t capture the hearts of the people for Allah first. You can establish the khilafat tomorrow but I guarantee you it won’t survive until the next day and it will be people with Muslim sounding names who will tear it down because they don’t know what it all means.
Taking hold of Islam the way it should be done is the beginning of our long road back to self-respect and advancement. When more Muslims tap into the essential core message of Islam: salvation and the methodology of how to lead a virtuous life that leads you to heaven, then we can reach out more effectively to those around us and the stereotyping will end. Just for arguments sake, Judaism is a really, really antiquated religion, if anyone’s religion is. The few things the non-Muslims beat us over the head with are a thousand times worse in Judaism. Women have virtually no rights in it, people are to be executed for all kinds of ludicrous reasons and the whole focus is racist in orientation, but Jews have successfully promoted the carefully packaged notion that their religion is gentle and kind and without blemish. We are the ones with the gentle religion yet we are the ones who are being called terrorists and violent! That is precisely because we haven’t gotten our real message across. We haven’t been ambassadors for Allah, inviting people to the Way or living the Way ourselves. Is it any wonder that non-Muslims are afraid of us when all they see are Muslims doing things against Islam? When more of us view Islam with our hearts and not our anger then we can attain to the legitimate positive image that our way of life deserves.
So, my brothers and sisters, the opportunity for the future lies in the reawakening of what our religion stands for and our growth within the framework of salvation. Before September we were content to view Islam as nothing more than a political, social, communal, or revolutionary movement. Now we have the chance to put our Eman first and to teach each other that the purpose of our lives is to believe in Allah and to do what is right in all spheres of our life- starting with our personal actions and integrity. This is how we can establish our presence in safety in the West and, insha’llah, make it into heaven.