Islam: the Real 12 Steps *

Islam: the Real 12 Steps

by Karima Omar

I spent years doing it all wrong. Da’wah - I mean specifically - the “Islam as a solution to drugs, crime, gangs, alcoholism, and all things unwholesome and messy” approach to propagating Islam—pyro-da’wah.

I spouted statistics; talked history’ talked about -well, frankly, about an approach to social ills more sentimental than practical, more judgmental than judicious. More concerned with being right than helping to right. And boring my listeners stiff.

Now—I’ve always tried to practice one particular precept in my da’wah work. I tried to “invite to the Way ... with wisdom and beautiful preaching ... ” (16: 125), starting by studying the faiths of the natives.

Eventually, I came to Los Angeles. And oh—how great was my ignorance. See, I thought it was like other cities. OK, other cities on steroids. But hey—how different could its problems be? Maybe more so, but—surely their misconceptions about Islam were comparable to the delusions of the rest of the country.

Surely I was covered: I had studied comparative religion most of my life, so that ought to cover most of the faiths in the land of fruits and nuts, save for a couple of cults that had sprung up in the time it had taken me to unpack my Islamic pamphlets.  Thus armed, I was prepared to do battle with the fame thing. The rampant materialism thing. The silicone and success and cocaine thing. I would get the casualties of life in the fast lane; Islam would be a sorely needed sanctuary for those burned out on Hollywood, on casting couches and crack houses.

My life at the time was relatively sheltered: though I fancied myself a da’iah, I associated with precious few non-Muslims. My Muslim friends and I spent a great deal of time talking to one another about Islam; we discussed how we should invite others to Islam but—we didn’t get out much.  So, it took several years for me to understand that LA, a sprawling metropolis of a hundred languages and cultures has an official religion: The Municipal Faith of Greater (and Lesser) Los Angeles.

Yup: Recovery. As in Twelve Step programs -AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), NA for narcotics, GA for gambling, CODA for pushovers, ACOA for those raised by alcoholics, OA for overeaters—a whole host of “anonymous” programs.

In these day of excruciating, gut-spilling openness, the “anonymous” part is sort of a misnomer. Rather than being a liability, it has evolved into a social and professional asset. Yesterday’s stigma becomes today’s status symbol; it is said that one cannot make it in Hollywood unless one attends meetings. I made this discovery when I found myself knee deep in non-Muslims. Future Muslims. Latent Muslims. A whole host of wonderful, sometime exasperating, curious souls whom I would have barely given the time of day to years before.

But, see, Allah ( ) had done a strange thing to me:  He plucked me out of my comfortable, cozy, spiritual ghetto and stuck me in retail. Best not to think about it; it’s not a pretty picture. As I said, He has quite a sense of humor.  It all started with a lazy afternoon and a long chat with a customer. “So, where do you go the meeting? she asked.

“Uh—meeting? Well, sometimes they have them at the Islamic Center and have some here, too.”  “Really? I’m looking for a women’s stag high bottom non-smoking meeting. Where’s that Islamic Center?”  “Uh—I don’t think we’re talking about the same kinds of meeting,” Allah (SWT) game me the presence of mind to reply.  She smiled knowingly. “Oh, I understand,” she said. “I respect your anonymity. I mean—that is how the Program got its name, though I think the only people who want to be anonymous are those who aren’t in one, everybody who’s anybody is in a program, it’s where all the hot directors are and—”

She began to catalogue the celebrities she had rubbed styrofoam coffee cups with at AA meetings until curiosity got the better of me.  “No—I’m really not an alcoholic.”
She raised a well-plucked eyebrow. “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.”  I shook my head still more vigorously “No—I mean I don’t drink. And I don’t go to meetings.”
“Oh, come on! I can tell. All that stuff you were saying about surrender to God. Where did you get that from if you’re not in AA? Or at least AL ANON.”  “Uh—Qur’an?” I shrugged, gesturing to a copy on the shelf. “And the sayings of Prophet Muhammad.”

Pause. Or—beat, as they say in The Business.  The poor girl fairly dislocated her cerebral cortex trying to figure out what in the world “Qur’an” could be an acronym for. She looked at me, blinked and decreed, “Oh, yeah. The basketball player. So he’s in Program, too?”  Yes, I’m serious: the girl was—well, an actress ...  “Uh—well, kind of. He got a bunch of wild drunkards sober. Or—God used him to do it. But I don’t think he was in AA. See, he lived about 1400 years ago.”  “Oh. That must have been at least a decade before Bill W came on the scene.”

This was not to be the last time I would be mistaken for a 12 Stepper.  In keeping with my Da’wah principles, I began studying the 12 Steps of AA—the Big Book, testimonials and accounts of techniques of recovery. After all, if the 12 Steps, which have such an impressive success record that U.S. courts prescribe them as official treatment programs, resemble the revealed Word of God, they must contain a crucial element which other programs can adopt, which people can apply to a host of circumstances.

Well: they do, and it was a lot simpler to find than I’d expected. OK—simpler than I’d hoped. When I began my research, I was interested in the essence—the core of this program which had such an impressive success record. What element, after all, had caused so much transformation- and eradicated such a variety of problems—from such ostensibly disparate issues as compulsive over-eating, alcoholism, drug addiction, gambling, shopping, illicit sex, credit card abuse, destructive relationships—even anger?!
I approached it with an air of self-importance; I was a great researcher delving into a new way of delivering the unwashed masses, a way which must be terribly complex, obscured beneath volumes and volumes of text and—I found it, all the way in the introduction. It was—Islam. Not Islam the din, the way of life, mind you. Not the particulars of warship and faith which I and most of my fellow Muslims had erroneously focused on—as if we could baffle our listeners in Islam by overloading them with details. Or impress them (and ourselves) with our high wire acrobatic feats of turbo charged piety and austerity. Rather- the literal definition. Surrender.


The more I read about the program started by a self-proclaimed “bunch of drunks” in the 1930’s, my shop began to attract an increasing number of “Program People” - and I gained fluency that dialect of Psycho Babble, Therapy Speak. Not that that was difficult, not in my San Fernando Valley province. People in recovery are as common as Yuppies, actor and itinerant directors in baseball caps.

I found myself looking forward to visits from these people; most were either bright—or aspiring to a sort of wisdom which seemed alien to the world of Hollywood. Almost without exception, they had a spiritual leaning. Many of them tried to avoid adultery and, of course, they didn’t drink. They respected my privacy when it came time for prayer; they asked questions about my Higher Power and, during Ramadan, were often able to refrain from slurping afternoon cappuccinos from one of the half dozen coffee shops located in a two block radius.

They were bright and fun and friendly. And best of all: many of them were intrigued with Islam. That was a shocker. After so many years of less-than scintillating da’wah, I couldn’t spot an interested soul when it appeared before me. And here they were—actively reading Qur’an, asking questions, bringing up points and parallels in which my rather literal mind, stiff from a dozen years of “zeal of the convert” rigidity, was still a bit too bidah-phobic to uncover.

12 Step literature contains more than a few direct parallels to Islam. The distinction between faith and belief, which Qur’an describes in 49: 14, is underscored in several ways. I first noticed it (on the recommendation of a lovely, 30-year sober soul) in a chapter in the Big Book entitled “We Agnostics”.
It refers to that simple, curious phenomenon in which action precedes belief—the proverbial “leap of faith” of souls who simply—gave up. Although they did not believe that they “believed” in God, they were sufficiently desperate for a cure from their addiction that they took the ultimate risk, handing the reins to the Unknown.

Many cite this as the moment of “awakening,” of a spiritual experience which nudged them into an unshakable conviction in a Higher Power. The chapter concludes which a sentence which neatly paraphrases that well-loved hadith Qudsi –

“When we drew near to Him, He disclosed Himself to us!”

I can’t help but smile at this, recalling my first fledgling months in Islam, and the protests of concerned friends and family. “How can you do all those prayers when you don’t even know what you’re saying?!”

I did know, alhamdulillah. that I had to do it; it was this God given conviction which forced me into the routinc of salat in spite of myself, beyond the strength of my own virtues. Although my intellect didn’t understand it, a small secret bit of instinct knew that this small offering of trust would help to lay a foundation upon which faith could, insha’Allah, eventually stand.

Perhaps it’s best that I didn’t know any of this -that AA meetings were simply support groups for closet Muslims—a decade ago, at the height of my pyro-da’wah phase. I would have no doubt been quite a traffic hazard, a hot rod in hijab, chasing down all vehicles bearing those triangle-within-a-circle decals or “Turn it Over” bumper stickers.
And so—in honor of all of these wonderful latent Muslims (and those professed Muslims who might like to get “Recovery Credit” the next time they’re stopped at Checkpoint Charlie, I propose the real 12 Steps:

1) Submission. Within Islam—radical surrender - lies the Five Pillars of Faith. If indeed we intend to turn our lives and wills over to Allah ( ), it stands to reason that we would naturally and willingly fall into a natural pattern of worship, of weaving faith in an effortless tweed into our lives—through a public declaration of faith, a regular pattern of prayer (contact with the Divine), charity (fulfilling our duty to our fellow humans) making amends (in AA-ese), fasting (care and house training of the physical body) and pilgrimage—taking this message out into the world, traveling for the sake of Allah ( ). “Enter into Islam wholeheartedly.” 2:208

2) After submission comes trust thrusting intention into action—often/usually before the intellect grants its seal of approval.

“Whatever Allah provides for you, no matter how small, is far better for you, if you are really believers ... “11:86 Here we are reminded that what is expected of us is unflinching trust (especially when we flinch!), even when the shaitan (satan) of our intellect would have us do otherwise.

“Those who spend (freely), whether in prosperity or adversity ... “3:134—“He who forsakes his home in the cause of Allah finds in the earth many a refuge ... ” 4:100-aka the famous “trusting in the Universe” in New Age-ese.—‘‘It may be that Allah will afterwards bring some new thing to pass. ” 65: 1
“Trust” is no mere passive state: applied properly, it is as dynamic and life-altering as can be.

3) Gratitude. In most of its references to gratitude, Qur’an reminds us of the importance of showing appreciation (3:123, 144, 6:63, 16:121). It is cyclical, like the rain of 25:48-50, which, parenthetically, contrasts the blessings of rain to revive the parched soil with a reference to the ingratitude of the average human.  So, a request, a need, a sheer whim—is brought from the limitless ether within the human mind—into form on the element of breath; Allah ( ) receives it and actualizes it into form.  Gratitude completes the cycle; thanks expressed once again nudges it into the physical realm, thus symbolizing the Divine manifesting in form through the fulfillment of the servant’s request.

I’ve been unwittingly in step with the times for years, according to numerous self-improvement systems. They suggest keeping a “gratitude diary”, a log of God’s blessings and minor miracles. “Your Lord has decreed: “The more you thank Me, the more I give you.” 14:7

Beyond shukr, gratitude, is rida, supreme pleasure in all states, unconditional, unquestioning, which Dhu Nun Misri call “The joy of the heart in the bitterness of the divine decree.” Hujwiri defined it as a result of love, a state in which the lover is content with anything done by the beloved. Gratitude is like an overflow valve; it empties out the proverbial cup so that it is smashed, but that’s another story altogether…

4) Love…What is there to say about that?!  Except that the 12 Step consensus is that the underlying problem behind every addict or alcoholic is a deficiency of love. A state which is cured, of course, by giving love -not getting. (see 2:165,3:31,5:54,19:96 ... )  And it’s not only an impersonal love; in spite of His transcendence, Allah ( ) snuggles up with His creation with perfect intimacy—” ... But I cast (the garment of) love over thee from Me ... ” 20:39

Qur’an describes sicknesses of the heart (244:50, 33:32, 60) amongst its 132 references to the heart. Qalb comes from qalaba, “to turn”—yet another reminder that self-improvement, psychology and the like are integral to Islam (and, curiously, condemned only by those who no doubt fear a diagnosis ...)
Hadhrat Ali ( ) said, “Your cure is in you but you do not recognize it. And your ailment is from you but you do not see it.” and “You allege that you are a small world, but in you the whole cosmos is contained.”

5) “Reframing” is the $395-a-weekend-seminar term for it; in Qur’an it is simply the art of finding the silver lining in the gloomiest storm cloud. Optimism is a choice; - “Say to My servants that they should (only say those things that are best ... ”

6) Fear NOT (10:62). I think the words “fear not” should be coined as a single word—a verb—or perhaps an adjective or noun, describing the state which Islam/surrender engenders.—“Verily on the friends of Allah, there is no fear, nor shall they grieve ... “6:48 In short, only those who “cover up”, (kufr) have cause for alarm. Those who are open and surrendered, have nothing to worry about. It’s no accident that we recite the Fatiha at least 17 times daily; after all, pain is caused only by resistance and constriction.

7) Community. Such an easy word to kick about, yet so stuffed with the psychological nutrients so lacking in most modern social diets. (3: 103, 8:63, 49: 10) Its foundation is the concept of loving without liking—unconditional love—“If ye take a dislike to them it may be that ye dislike a thing, and Allah brings about through it a great deal of good.” 4:19

8) Rhythm. qabid and basit; contraction and expansion, the peaks and valleys of the heart, the emotions - of sheer living—may not necessarily be caused by bipolar conditions. Even the Divine Himself contains these qualities; Union fashions a fine yet unshakable bridge over the chasm of this duality.  “With hardship there is ease” (contraction and expansion), we are reminded in Sura Insharah (94:5-6). Islam creates a steady rhythm in our daily life through worship, through harmony with nature, with the seasons, the elements. With this established, we can safely allow the God-centered heart to lay down the cadence for the inner life.

9)Personal responsibility. Islam’s concept of this trendy term (see 61:2-, 2:134, 139, 53:39) is light years removed from the “blame the victim” mentality so prevalent in certain latter day systems. After all—Qur’an doesn’t advise Muslims to tell the miskin that they are indigent because of their bad karma which hissed at our dogma in a past incarnation in Atlantis ... In fact, it would reply to one who tries to play such games that perhaps it is his/her karma to have encountered the poor, the orphan or widow, to have been exposed to his/her plight and to have the means with which to give charity ...

10) Dhikr. 57: 16 Remembrance—of the Divine; of our own Divine pedigree. Dhikr has powerful effects on the body, mind, heart and soul—of course. The chanting of Allah’s ( ) Attributes—even without faith—offers a tremendous cardiovascular workout. It stimulates the production of endorphins, imparting a “natural high”, strengthening lungs and vocal ranges.  But—when used with faith/love/sheer wandering about in Divine Corridors—oh, the heart stuff! When utilized as a means of polishing the heart, of cuddling up to the Creator, it transforms, transmutes, illuminates. It takes us into that sweet stillness between cells, between breaths. And—for those who worry about words, waxing psychosemantic over labels, Qur’an refers to meditation/contemplation in the following ayat—3:17,41; 9:112; 17:79; 19:11; 25:64; 26:218; 37:143; 39:9; 50:40; 73:2-4,6,20.

11) Freedom from ethnocentricity and prejudice.  Geographical superiority can be so exhausting; revealed faiths are never content to graze within the geographical boundaries set forth by humans. (2:142:143; 30:22) Yet of all faiths in today’s world, Islam is probably most misidentified with a certain minority language/ culture/ nationality ... Islam is like—like cultural tofu; it mixes with any spices and absorbs the flavor as its own—a dazzling, dizzying arrangement of flavors.

12) Inviting. Yeah, good ol’ da’wah. (12:108, 16: 125, et al) Islam doesn’t give up on people simply because of their history; it offers freedom from skeletons in our closets and toads in our imaginary gardens. And—it never gives us a day off from inviting people to its party (sigh).

Originally published in the TAM print edition Spring 1994