FRUSTRATIONS OF A MUSLIM CONVERT
The "miracle" of the increasing number of converts is not only that people are finding the light of Islam in an age of such darkness but that they are coming to the faith despite the actions of some of its believers.
I have been a Muslim for over two years now. Whilst I am deeply satisfied with Islam on an intellectual and theological level, much too often I have been far from happy in my experiences with fellow Muslims on a practical level. I have faced considerable difficulties in my attempts to develop as a Muslim. Although I have made the acquaintance of many Muslims through various mosques I have attended, this has been overwhelmingly only on a superficial level. I am close only to two Muslims in the city where I live. I met them coincidentally. One is a neighbor, the other a former colleague whom I now rarely see.
Lack of Induction
Although I have a good understanding of the basic theology of Islam and Islamic history, two years after my conversion I am to some extent still struggling with the practical daily basics. According to a hadith,"The search for knowledge is an obligation laid on every Muslim."(Ibn Majah, Baihaqi). A convert needs to search for more knowledge than a born Muslim who has had a lifetime of schooling in the faith. In my personal experience, it seems that established Muslims make at best only a token effort to assist new Muslims in fulfilling their religious obligations.
To my profound disappointment, as far as my Islamic education is concerned, I have been left to fend for myself. It would seem that no mosque I have visited has a systematic induction program for new converts. The mosques in my area are all dominated by south Asian immigrants, with a sprinkling of Africans on Fridays. They are not attuned to the needs of indigenous converts. In fairness, I seem to be the only white person (i.e. convert) at the mosques I attend, so they may not perceive a need. But nevertheless, I live in a major city with a significant Muslim population and many mosques. Surely there must be somewhere where a new Muslim adult can receive training in the practical daily basics. Surely the established Muslim community should know where to refer the convert even if they are not suitably geared up themselves at the local mosque.
The Catholic Church has a thorough practical and theological induction program that is actually compulsory for people who wish to join it. The Anglican Church actively advertises its Alpha Course to attract and teach new converts. We Muslims seem to have nothing organized.
When it comes to lack of both meaningful social welcome and organized teaching of Islam for new Muslims, American convert, teacher and writer, Yahiha Emerick, hits the nail on the head in his article Ten Things Every Muslim Must Do. At number six on his list, he says:
If you see any new Muslims at your Masjid (mosque), then partially "adopt" them into your family. The convert experience is basically one of isolation and loneliness. You'd be surprised to know that most converts are outright ignored by the people in the Masjid. Beyond a few pleasantries and handshakes, they are usually never made to feel welcome or accepted. They are often cut off from their non-Muslim friends and relatives so they are doubly vulnerable. A new convert should be invited into various people's home for dinner a minimum of six times a month. Get together with others and make sure you all put the new convert on your guest list for any sort of gathering.
Internet - the good, the bad and the dangerous!
Since my conversion to Islam I have had some horrible experiences with Muslims both on the Internet and face to face. I briefly mention these experiences here as a warning to other new Muslims. The Internet can be a wonderful place for learning about Islam. In fact, since my conversion, the Internet has been my primary source of materials with which to educate myself further about Islam. There are many excellent sites, but I would caution the new Muslim not to accept the information on all sites blindly, particularly if they have an arrogant, strident or unpleasant tone or stray from plain facts and concentrate on controversial opinion or on an overtly political agenda.
I would also urge new Muslims to avoid email forums or chat rooms about Islam absolutely. There are some nasty people lurking there - self-styled pseudo scholars preaching hellfire, doling out personal abuse and decrying sincere Muslims as non-believers. I was left utterly demoralized at one time and very, very angry on several occasions. I have now unsubscribed from all such forums. New Muslims should keep in mind the Hadith: "Verily, Allah is mild and is fond of mildness, and He gives to
the mild what He does not give to the harsh." (Muslim) If a website or e-group you come across is far removed from the above, then remove yourself from it!
There are also nice, well-meaning people who offer advice about matters of faith and practice without being in any way qualified to do so. If they get things wrong, they could unwittingly be leading the uninitiated astray and doing more harm than good. Be wary of accepting anything without a quotation from the Quran or authenticated hadith to back it up.
Having said that, if it is one of the nasty brigade who has come seemingly armed with references, firstly check the actual quotation in your Quran. Have they really only quoted what is there or have they embellished it with their own interpretation? It happens. And, if the quotation is genuine but sounds harsh to your ears, then use a commentary to become aware of the context in which the verse was revealed. Read widely. For every hard-line, unpleasant interpretation, there is usually a mild one from a serious writer or scholar.
Beware the Zealots!
Some real-life encounters can also be disconcerting. Whilst I have enjoyed an excellent rapport with some converts, the proverbial "zeal of the converted" can overflow in others. Some can turn into hard-line absolutists - a caricature of a Muslim. Also beware the political zealots. Recently while in London I had to endure a sermon at Jumma salat (Friday afternoon congregational prayers) held at a university in which the student acting as imam was very obviously pushing the agenda of a radical minority political grouping and spoke at length about whom it was our duty to kill!
Sadly far too many young Muslim men in England - the occasional convert and, particularly, the sons of Asian immigrants - get far too worked up about this or that political agenda and are in danger of overlooking the peaceful, spiritual core of Islam. As the writer Abdal-Hakim Murad puts it in his excellent essay British and Muslim, unsettled, discontented second generation Asian immigrant Muslims in Britain tend to locate their radicalism not primarily in a spiritual, but in social and political rejection of the oppressive order around them. Their unsettled and agitated mood is not always congenial to the recent convert, who may, despite the cultural distance, feel more comfortable with the first rather than the second generation of migrants, preferring their God-centered religion to what is often the troubled, identity-seeking Islam of the young.
Amen to that! These young radicals are prone to behave in the most obnoxious and nasty manner towards those other Muslims who do not agree with them. I would simply call the following words from the Quran and ahadith to their attention:
"Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious; for your Lord knows best who have strayed from His Path, and who are truly guided."
"Do you know what is better than charity and fasting and prayer? It is keeping peace and good relations between people, as quarrels and bad feelings destroy mankind."
(Muslims & Bukhari) Top
Must we proceed at the pace of the most prudish?
Whilst I have enjoyed many conversations about Islam in mixed male-female company (including with ladies who wear hijab), a small but vociferous minority of female born Muslims I have encountered have been very stand-offish and overly prudish. Despite the fact that the Quran teaches us that
"The believing men and women, are associates and helpers of each other." <Quran, Al-Taubah 9:71>
My own understanding is that what is improper is for one man and one woman to be alone together, but there should not be a problem about other mixing provided that proper Islamic behavior is maintained. I, a man, would never even have had the opportunity to discover Islam in the first instance were it not for friendships with several born Muslims (three of whom were women) prompting me to investigate the religion.
According to the prominent Sudanese Muslim scholar and leader, Dr. Hassan al-Turabi who is widely portrayed in the west as an Islamic fundamentalist, in his seminal 1973 work On the Position of Women in Islam and in Islamic Society'
"In the model society of Islam, Muslims used to assemble freely and frequently; they were mostly acquainted with each other, men and women; they conversed and interacted intensively. But all those activities, were undertaken in a spirit of innocence and in the context of a virtuous society...Islam tolerates that one may greet women or talk to them in decent and chaste language and with good intent. The Prophet used to do so."
"Muslim Name" and Attire?
Another gripe I have is the ignorance of many born Muslims about what they believe to be the necessity for a convert to adopt a so-called Muslim name. When I took my Shahada, I was asked not whether I wished to choose a "Muslim name" but what name I wished to adopt. Not knowing any better at the time, I did reluctantly choose a new name, and used it briefly in Muslim circles. However, I did not change any of my official documents. Only later did I discover that there is, in principle, no requirement whatsoever to change one's name. The original converts to Islam at the time of Prophet Mohammed usually kept the Arabic name they always had. The only exceptions were people who had a name with unpleasant or pagan connotations. So-called "Muslim names" are, in the main, simply Arabic ones or traditional names from countries that were early adopters of Islam. There is no requirement for a new Muslim to adopt one of these.
While I respect (though do not necessarily agree with) the choice of those Muslim converts who have adopted a new name, I expect all Muslims to respect the right of other converts such as myself to retain their original name. I generally now use my "real" name, not the "Muslim name" that was initially thrust upon me. Sadly I have come under pressure from some ignorant born Muslims on this matter.
To be frank, I feel that adopting a "Muslim name", makes it easier for one's existing circle of family and friends to dismiss one's conversion to Islam as an act of eccentricity which they can brush off. By changing one's name and starting to wear, say, Pakistani clothing, one confirms in their minds the foreignness or alien nature of what is supposed to be universal Islam. I believe that these actions, or dare I say distractions, make it harder for most people from non-Muslim countries to identify with Islam, the welcoming and inclusive universal religion open to all, and see how it could be relevant to their own lives.
The spiritually motivated western convert to Islam, whose Islam is centered on God not agitation, has a golden opportunity to depoliticize the widespread negative western perception of Islam and to diminish the impression that Islam is for strange, backward, sometimes frightening foreigners - Arabs and Asians - but not for westerners. In my view, this opportunity is thrown away or at the very least is hobbled by self-inflicted damage when a western convert unnecessarily adopts a foreign name and clothing, thus only reinforcing the preconceived notions and prejudices that non-Muslim fellow westerners tend to hold about Islam.
Relationship with non-Muslim parents
Again with regard to the issue of a "Muslim name" and similar matters, I think it is also important to bear in mind here the teaching of Islam with regard to one's duty to family, particularly one's parents even if they are themselves non-Muslims.
Your Lord had decreed that you worship none but Him, and that you are kind to parents whether one or both of them attain old age in your lifetime. Say not to them a word of contempt or repel them but address them in terms of honor and out of kindness lower to them the wing of humility and say: "My Lord, bestow on them your mercy, even as they cherished me in childhood".
Indeed there was an occasion when Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) commanded a believer to care for his non-Muslim parents rather than participate in Jihad (holy war).
Abdullah ibn Omar relates: "Once a person came to the Messenger of Allah and expressed his desire to participate in jihad in order to please Allah. The Holy Prophet asked him "Are your parents alive?" The man said "Yes. Both are alive". The Holy Prophet said 'Then go and serve them well".
(Bukhari and Muslim).
I felt that it was important that my parents who are both practicing Catholics should realize that I was not rejecting them, my upbringing or most of the things they held dear. It was simply that I had come to a new understanding of theology. Rejecting the name they had given me could really have been interpreted as being quite insulting to them, which in itself would be contrary to Islam. I am thinking here of the following ahadith:
"He, who wishes to enter paradise at the best gate, must please
his father and mother."
(Bukhari & Muslim)
In my case, I felt that abandoning for no good reason the very name given me by my loving parents would have been straining the ties of relationship, creating displeasure and certainly not indicative of showing kindness to or taking friendly care of my mother and father.
So-called "Islamic Causes"
When I, a westerner and a former practicing Christian, became a Muslim, I became just that - a Muslim, a believer in the religion of Islam, i.e. someone who believes in the oneness of God as opposed to the concept of Trinity and who accepts Mohammed (pbuh) as a prophet of God. I'm the same person with the same name, wearing the same western style of clothing (though now respecting the modest dress code of Islam) and eating the same style of food (though now making sure that my meat is halal). I have not rejected my country, its culture or tradition. I simply now hold different theological beliefs.
Based on my personal experience, my advice either to new Muslims or anyone considering the possibility of accepting Islam would be simply to judge a religion not by its adherents, many of whom may fall far short of the ideal in a variety of ways (and I include myself in that!), but rather by the theology and teachings of the religion itself. To be honest, I remain in Islam very much in spite of and not because of my experiences with Muslims. Only a handful have been of any help to me and quite a few hard-line politicos and joyless, uptight puritans have been a real hindrance. However, despite my great disappointment at both the lack of organized support available to new Muslims and the widespread politically focused rather than God-centered Islam so prevalent today, plus my intense dislike of the nasty behavior and attitudes of some of the Muslims I have encountered in person and online, I have most definitely found in the religion of Islam an intellectual and theological satisfaction that I never knew in Christianity. And at the end of the day, one's beliefs about God are what truly matters.
Allahu a`lam. God knows best.