“Why should I try to convert my non-Muslim friends when I often prefer them to the Muslims that I know? How will being Muslim change their lives for the better if they already display more of the Islamic virtues than most of the Muslims they are likely to meet?”
By British convert to Islam, Michael A. Malik.
There was a white face in the mosque. You don’t see very many, so I went over and asked if he was a Muslim, “I used to be, but not any more.” he said, “I thought Islam was wonderful, but I couldn’t stand the Muslims”. What could I say except “I know how you feel”;. Most converts do.
Of course one meets some special individuals in encounters with the ummah, but how is it possible that in the Muslim world they seem so few and far between? Does my being a cultural alien mean that I am inherently less capable of understanding Islam, or is it just that I don’t understand my fellow Muslims? Why is it that a trip to the mosque so often leaves me closer to despair than hope? Why do I so rarely feel enlightened and uplifted after conversation with my fellow Muslims, yet so often offended by their behaviour, frustrated by their mindless approach to truth, and enraged by the inadequacy of the Islam they expect me to accept? How often I have felt like giving it all up.
Fortunately I was a Muslim for four years before going to the Muslim world and meeting those who feel that Islam belongs to them by birthright, so I early on formed a relationship with God which served to armour me against the ummah. The first time I went into a mosque in a Muslim country, the first thing to happen was that someone tried to throw me out. Now they weren’t to know that I was a Muslim but they didn’t even ask. When I told them, in fact, the first thing they did ask was “Sunni or Shi’a?”, so if I’d picked the wrong one they would probably have thrown me out anyway. I thoroughly confused them when I said I didn’t care, however, and eventually they let me stop and pray.
First impressions last a long time, they say, but many years after having learned by experience the best way to get in, pray, and get out without harassment, it still seems that in a strange mosque a strange face is more likely to be greeted with hostility than welcome.
The man in the editor’s office was obviously a Muslim, so the brusque arrogance of his manner should not have come as a surprise. It did little, however, to incline me towards composing a careful answer, too much effort was required to remain courteous, and it seemed more like a challenge than a question. “And how many of your people have you converted?” he said, but I suspect the answer was more complex than he really wanted to hear.
“Converted to what?” is the first response. Islam presumably, yet here we have a huge assumption that we both agree on what that is. Why should I try to convert my non-Muslim friends when I often prefer them to the Muslims that I know? How will being Muslim change their lives for the better if they already display more of the Islamic virtues than most of the Muslims they are likely to meet? I share what I have found when they show Interest, but like me they often look at the Muslim world and wonder what we have in common. They find it hard to see living examples of the principles of which I speak.
I came to Islam through a search for Truth, but I found that in practice most Muslims give the truth a very low priority, and I can still be shocked by their facility for saying whatever they think suits the conversation best. Along with truth goes trustworthiness, surely an Islamic virtue, yet travelling through the Muslim world I met Muslims eager to sit down and discuss breaking an agreement not two minutes after sealing it with a pious recitation of Al Fatiha [first chapter of the Quran]. And closer to home how distasteful it is to belong to a community so notorious with regard to paying bills.
How about Mercy and Compassion – those words now repeatedly on my Muslim lips. In three years of travelling through the Muslim world, hardly a day passed without some stranger feeling he ought to instruct me in the principles of Islam. In all that time, in all these casual encounters, not only was mercy never given pride of place, but I actually don’t recall it ever having been given a place at all. It is not necessary for my friends to look to the Muslim heartlands, when at home the Muslim example can be confused with “My Beautiful Launderette”.
But they see the Muslim heartlands every evening an TV, with their dictators and demagogues thick on the ground, oppressive and unjust societies, poverty and ignorance. There is no point in telling friends that Islam is a complete way of life. That it is a way to achieve joy and fulfillment in this life, hope and trust when approaching the next, and the perfect basis for a tolerant and peaceful society for all humanity. What can I answer when someone says “Show me!” – “Point to a Muslim country you can use as an example.”
My Islam sees in the prophet endless examples of forgiveness and tolerance, yet my friends see the mindless enforcement of rigid laws and eccentric punishments. I sometimes explain, but could just as well tell tales of Shari’a court corruption and injustice. My Islam insists on individual freedom, there is no compulsion, no priests are needed, and except for piety all men are equal. I kneel before no man, though I will kneel in prayer beside any, and my wealth and privilege is permitted, though charity is to be preferred, and the prophet chose to die a pauper.
My friends can understand and be drawn to such principles, but unless they can see this utopia in a more tangible form than my theories they are surely destined to remain cynical about their possible fulfillment. As long as I can’t show them examples of Muslims living in a way they consider preferable to their own, I won’t worry too much about their conversion. They see my Islam as a pipe dream, and who knows, perhaps they are right. The task is of course even harder when the friends concerned are women, as the clichéd platitudes of Islamic freedom and equality mean nothing when such highly visible inequities and oppression are impossible to hide.
Since I came back to this country there has been much talk in the Muslim community about an “identity crisis”. But the business successes of their family networks show that Muslims have no problem in identifying themselves with other Muslims, they just have trouble in identifying themselves with anything recognisable as Islam. In fact it seems that most Muslims would rather have as little to do with Islam as possible from the moment they are old enough to avoid it.
“Brother, let me tell you the most important thing in Islam”, said the stranger who had cornered me in a Lahore coffee bar. Far from agog, I waited to hear what it might be, though experience had taught me that it was unlikely to include any of the five pillars, truth or tolerance, or the like. “The most important thing in Islam” he said “is that your wife covers her head”, a view of Islam which I had heard often from many Muslim men. In other words the most important thing in the practice of Islam is to get your wife to do it, or your children, or your grandfather, or anybody but yourself!
Back in Britain I listened to the Muslim wails. “We are losing our children! By the time they leave school they are strangers, lost to us and to Islam! What can we do?” My usual response was often faced with dismay – “I can say what I think you should do, but it’s unlikely that you will do it, because it involves changing yourselves. It involves changing the way you understand your Islam”. This is not suggesting wholesale innovation, as it might seem to imply, but quite the reverse. “It is necessary to revive that Muslim community which is buried under the debris of the manmade traditions of several generations, and which is crushed under the weight of those false laws and customs which are not remotely related to Islamic teachings, and which, in spite of all this, calls itself the ‘world of Islam’” (Qutb – Milestones). It’s time to get back to the real thing – and I don’t mean coca cola.
As I waited to begin my talk to the gathering of young Muslims I engaged in conversation with the group. A nice, quiet, attentive, well-mannered lot I thought. Then time to begin, but the mike wasn’t working, and they waited “Testing! Testing! 123…” for while. Rather than just read numbers, it seemed more appropriate to read some Qur’an – after all, I was going to be talking about prayer. To my amazement, the first words of Fatihah seemed to fall in the room like a grenade, turning the group into a rabble. Punches flew, people rolled on the floor, conversations were attempted back and forth across the room, and Fatihah was generally taken as Time Out. If these were the ones at a Muslim conference, what on earth would the Muslim youth who weren’t there have been like?
Now it’s not that I’m a one for excessive displays of reverence, I see my religion more in a practical kind of way, but this was , which the Prophet called the best of the chapters of the Qur’an, and which Al-Ghazali called the key to Paradise. These words are not recited in every rakat of prayer without good reason. The outward displays of reverence, such as venerating a Qur’an, placing it high up and wrapped away, cannot do justice to the awe and wonder this surah deserves. But if a Muslim does not have a reason for this reverence which satisfies his understanding, the outward displays become hollow and easy to discard.
At the exhibition, the school kids of all ages were milling around looking at the World of Islam. As they tried to find the answers for their question sheets it was clear that Muslim kids knew little more than all the rest. No wonder our young people are losing their Islam. They have received so little to start off with. From out of the crowd around the Qur’an, one boy said to the teacher “I can read that!”, and proceeded to do so – more fluently than I could have done myself. The teacher was obviously highly impressed, but then asked the obvious question, “What does it mean?”, and the boys satisfaction turned to wry embarrassment. “I don’t know”, he shrugged, and that was the end of that.
Now our young people are not stupid. Muslims have a better academic record than most groupings, as a glance at the honours board of your local school will show. The teacher’s response was a common sense question, one that anyone might have expected in the situation. The embarrassment came from the common sense questions that remained unspoken, “Then why did you learn it?”, “What use is it to you?”, “Is this a skill without a purpose?” The teacher implicitly understood that these are questions you do not ask, and neither it seems do Muslims. It is as though Muslims are afraid that Islam can’t stand up to common sense questions, yet Fatihah alone can satisfy whatever intellectual demands are put upon it and still remain inexhaustible. Are we passing on the key to the door of paradise, and forgetting to explain how you use it to open the lock.
If young Muslims are not shown the full richness of Islamic knowledge, we must not be surprised if they show more interest in fields where there seems further to explore. It will take some time before mosques are again centres of learning in all its aspects, places of research, experimentation and debate concerning our understanding of God and Creation. But when western educated young Muslim adults begin to search for their spiritual roots, God willing, they will uncover the means of reinvigorating the ummah, and leading them in the example of the Companions. If our Islam is not like theirs, filled with a sense of awe, wonder and excitement, can we really be doing justice to the service of Allah.
In such a situation, we will find new Muslims drawn towards the mosque. At the moment, amidst the ummah they are more likely to find Islam expressed as a cultural adjunct, where even the five pillars are avoided. But if the pillars are treated as unnecessary then what is needed to be Muslim, and if they are necessary how many Muslims are there in the ummah?
This goes to the heart of the conversation question, as we need to know what is essential for a person to be considered Muslim. Do Muslims in fact expect more from a convert than they do from those born in their cultures? How little does a westerner have to do before Muslims accept him as Muslim, and how far can he stray from their cultural norm before they consider him a disturbing intrusion and would rather that he stayed away? Is the reason there are not more converts because they would disturb the status quo?
But our effect on our surrounding society is a mirror to our behaviour and how well we represent Islam. We must live in a way that seems preferable and then at least partially satisfy the expectations of the inquisitive. Once upon a time, Islam spread like wildfire. In a few short years the Message spread to Morocco and to China. Millions welcomed the good news, and quickly shaped their lives around it.
Now Islam may be fast growing in the third world regions, but here in the West Muslims face a peculiar reaction to their invitations to join them in their faith, as almost nobody wants anything to do with it. If the message we are passing on no longer seems to have the same effect, is it not time to consider if we just have a communications problem, or whether we ourselves are abusing the message? Fortunately we still have the original – all we have to do is understand it!