Trials and Tests

Once again, it’s been a while since I’ve posted.  There are numerous reasons for my silence – the same reasons as always: too busy and too stressed from work and health problems (which inshAllah will get better soon).  But, on a related note, I wanted to cite a few verses of Quran which are constantly on my mind, especially during these trying times:

Do people think they will be left alone after saying, “We believe,” and not be tested?” (29:2)

“Be sure we shall test you with something of fear and hunger, some loss in goods or lives or the fruits of your toil, but give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere, who say, when afflicted with calamity, “To Allah we belong, and to Him is our return,” they are those on whom descend blessings from Allah, and mercy, and they are the ones that receive guidance.”  (2:155-157)

I memorized the first verse when I first converted, as I knew that I would be facing a long, difficult journey ahead of me.  I realized from the beginning that I would be tested – and indeed, I have been. 

Too often, people look at trials and hardship as the result of God being unfair – in fact, some even leave religion altogether because they don’t understand how a fair God could allow such things to happen to innocent people.  Yet, what they fail to realize is that life in this world is not the end all, ultimate destination.  Rather, this life is a test for our placement in the eternal world of the hereafter; it is a transitory, temporary phase of existence.   

The reality is that our current life sucks.  It’s incredibly difficult.  For hard-working, sincere, “good” people, it’s usually even more miserable, with hardship after hardship; it seems they never manage to get a break.  For the careless and self-absorbed, they seem to get off easy; life is fun and effortless.  But actually, life in this world is like the kind of test in which you answer one question correctly and you are automatically upgraded to a harder question, and if you get it wrong, you’re downgraded to an easier question.  In the end, you get the score you deserve.  The only difference between this test and real life is that in life, God is there helping you along the way, showing you the steps to take, and in fact, giving you all the answers.  But some of us are arrogant and want to do it on our own.  Still others would rather not be taking a test at all and instead just play around and not take it seriously.  Yet the inescapable reality is that we all are in this test, whether we like it or not. 

Life tests come in all shapes and sizes.  As in the aforementioned verse, we can be tested with our financial security (hunger).  Or with the lives of those around us (family, friends) – or with our own lives.  Or with a loss of our possessions, or despite all our hard work and best intentions, being blocked at seemingly every turn.  In tests like these, some people put their faith in God and rely on Him more as they realize that their sustenance does not come from our material world, but from God alone.  Yet others turn away from God during hardship, blaming God and feeling sorry for themselves for being given such an unfair life. 

Tests can also come in the form of blessings and ease.  Not only does God want to reveal (to ourselves) how we react to hardship, but He also wants us to see how we respond when things are going well.  Some people are grateful and thank God continuously for the blessings He’s granted, while others forget God and attribute their success to themselves alone. 

Why do we have tests at all really?  Especially since God already knows the state of our hearts?  Well, even though a teacher can generally get an idea of how a student will do even from the very beginning of the class, the student still needs to go through the coursework and various assessments so that they will know that they got the grade they received because of their own actions.  Not because the teacher liked them or didn’t like them; rather, their grade is based on actual proof and evidence of their performance.  Likewise, on the Day of Judgment, when our final ‘grades’ are revealed, we will be unable to argue that it was unfair – our actions will be unfolded and replayed before our own eyes as clear proof.  We earned our final grade, fair and square.  And in fact, God is more merciful and loving than any teacher could ever be – He gives us numerous chances to start over despite how often or how badly we mess up, and He even went to all the trouble to give us all the answers via prophets and holy books.  So if we still end up getting a bad grade in the end, despite all the invaluable assistance and support we’ve been given all along the way, it is truly fully and thoroughly deserved. 

So if you find yourself in the midst of trials and are feeling particularly down about it all, cheer up.  God tests the believers.  The harder the test, the further along you are and the better shape you’re in.  Just like an athlete who must undergo an arduous, strenuous training regimen, or the MD student who faces rigorous, extensive testing of their knowledge and expertise, so must the believer pass through difficulty to make it to the final destination.  Of course, the testing period is extremely difficult, but the athlete, the MD student, and the believer keep striving forward because they know very well the wonderful reward that lies at the end.

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Identity Crisis

My sincere apologies for my long silence – work, life, and everything else has kept me too busy to post anything. 

Nevertheless, one issue has been growing in my mind over the past few months and is beginning to take a toll on my mental well-being: my identity. 

Upon conversion, I was excited to be seen as a white American convert to Islam; I enjoyed being different and didn’t mind the curious stares.  However, as time has passed, the excitement is wearing off and I am now feeling almost desperate to be seen as ‘normal.’  It would be nice to ‘fly under the radar’ so to speak every once in a while, to fit in with SOMEONE at least.  Everywhere I go, I’m different.  Born Muslims stare at me with curiosity, and some approach me and talk to me about it, but the conversations rarely go beyond that; it seems that I’m viewed as some sort of exotic rarity that they want to pump enough information out of to be able to rush home and call their families to tell them about an American convert they met (sometimes they ask to take pictures with me so that they can show their families even)… while all the while failing to realize the seriousness of the impact my conversion has had on my life. 

Americans either stare coldly, smile kindly (or with sympathy rather), and a few (mostly women) compliment my scarf or my outfit.  And there are always some who treat me rudely, assume I don’t speak English, or believe I must be brainwashed or a complete idiot for accepting Islam.  Although the people around me from day to day are mostly polite, I find myself being held at arm’s length, despite my efforts to get to know them and move closer toward them.  

Of course, I can’t fail to mention the few true friends I have found online; kindred spirits who either share my experiences or simply are sincere and genuine enough to move beyond my appearance (most of them don’t even know what I look like anyway!).   

As a result, I find myself suspended between two worlds – the Muslim world, which seems to be something one must be born into, and the dominant culture in the American world, which seems to consciously or unconsciously reject all those who fall outside the white, Christian(ish) ideal.  I can’t really blame either one outright, however, as it’s basic psychology to be attracted and feel close to those who share similarities, and feel unsure or distrustful of those who are different.

And all the while, I have begun to struggle with my own concept of who I am as an individual as well.  I fit nowhere.  Due to my conservative Christian background, I find myself resonating more with Muslims from collective backgrounds, who value family and more traditional roles of the husband, wife, and children.  Yet my own family seems to have drifted more into individualism, living life for themselves, depending on only themselves, and thus not extending a helping hand when other family members need it most.  At the same time, I support the Islamic view of the roles of the husband, wife, and various family members (which is definitely not always the same as the cultural traditions most Muslims practice, and differs slightly from the traditional Christian ideals); I still value independence and minding my own business; I hate the nosiness and mindless (yet destructive) gossip that often accompanies collective cultures, and believe that people should be left to manage their own lives, make their own decisions, and find the right path for themselves without the intrusion or judgment from others. 

And I am so many other things as well.  I am a musician, an artist, an intellectual, an athlete, someone who is open-minded, compassionate, educated, moderate, skeptical (in that I ask questions and am unconvinced if something is not logical), hard-working, curious, and earnest.  I have a million different interests and enjoy learning about everything.  I have a great deal of knowledge about Christianity, and am knowledgeable about Islam as well.  Compared to my family, I’m a raging liberal.  Compared to most other highly educated Americans, I’m conservative – moderate. 

Yet…. none of that is evident when others only look at my scarf and the color of my skin – they simply make their judgment, and then brush me from their mind.  Of course, I remind myself that even if I didn’t wear the scarf, people would just look at my overall appearance and pass me off as X or Y and move on.  So, it’s not a question of a piece of cloth; I like wearing it and cherish its benefits greatly.  I just think it’s regrettable that it’s become an item highly marked with preconceptions and stereotypes.  Muslims and non-Muslim Americans alike see it and come to entirely different, and incorrect conclusions. 

And yet, what does it matter that others see me for who I truly am or not?  It doesn’t really… but I think it’s just the combination of being hugely misunderstood everywhere I turn AND struggling with my own concept of who I am.  I am many things, but am having great difficult to tie it all together in order to conceptualize myself as one, single individual.  I don’t expect others to fully understand me, but I suppose it’s not entirely fair to complain about it either since no one can get a clear picture of who I am until I first understand myself.

Lauren Booth: Tony Blair’s Sister-in-Law Converts to Islam

Lauren Booth: I’m now a Muslim. Why all the shock and horror?

News that Lauren Booth has converted to Islam provoked a storm of negative comments. Here she explains how it came about – and why it’s time to stop patronising Muslim women

It is five years since my first visit to Palestine. And when I arrived in the region, to work alongside charities in Gaza and the West Bank, I took with me the swagger of condescension that all white middle-class women (secretly or outwardly) hold towards poor Muslim women, women I presumed would be little more than black-robed blobs, silent in my peripheral vision. As a western woman with all my freedoms, I expected to deal professionally with men alone. After all, that’s what the Muslim world is all about, right?

This week’s screams of faux horror from fellow columnists on hearing of my conversion to Islam prove that this remains the stereotypical view regarding half a billion women currently practising Islam.

On my first trip to Ramallah, and many subsequent visits to Palestine, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, I did indeed deal with men in power. And, dear reader, one or two of them even had those scary beards we see on news bulletins from far-flung places we’ve bombed to smithereens. Surprisingly (for me) I also began to deal with a lot of women of all ages, in all manner of head coverings, who also held positions of power. Believe it or not, Muslim women can be educated, work the same deadly hours we do, and even boss their husbands about in front of his friends until he leaves the room in a huff to go and finish making the dinner.

Is this patronising enough for you? I do hope so, because my conversion to Islam has been an excuse for sarcastic commentators to heap such patronising points of view on to Muslim women everywhere. So much so, that on my way to a meeting on the subject of Islamophobia in the media this week, I seriously considered buying myself a hook and posing as Abu Hamza. After all, judging by the reaction of many women columnists, I am now to women’s rights what the hooked one is to knife and fork sales.

So let’s all just take a deep breath and I’ll give you a glimpse into the other world of Islam in the 21st century. Of course, we cannot discount the appalling way women are mistreated by men in many cities and cultures, both with and without an Islamic population. Women who are being abused by male relatives are being abused by men, not God. Much of the practices and laws in “Islamic” countries have deviated from (or are totally unrelated) to the origins of Islam. Instead practices are based on cultural or traditional (and yes, male-orientated) customs that have been injected into these societies. For example, in Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive by law. This rule is an invention of the Saudi monarchy, our government’s close ally in the arms and oil trade. The fight for women’s rights must sadly adjust to our own government’s needs.

My own path to Islam began with an awakening to the gap between what had been drip-fed to me about all Muslim life – and the reality.

I began to wonder about the calmness exuded by so many of the “sisters” and “brothers”. Not all; these are human beings we’re talking about. But many. And on my visit to Iran this September, the washing, kneeling, chanting recitations of the prayers at the mosques I visited reminded me of the west’s view of an entirely different religion; one that is known for eschewing violence and embracing peace and love through quiet meditation. A religion trendy with movie stars such as Richard Gere, and one that would have been much easier to admit to following in public – Buddhism. Indeed, the bending, kneeling and submission of Muslim prayers resound with words of peace and contentment. Each one begins, “Bismillahir rahmaneer Raheem” – “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate” – and ends with the phrase “Assalamu Alaykhum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh” – Peace be upon you all and God’s mercy and blessing.

Almost unnoticed to me, when praying for the last year or so, I had been saying “Dear Allah” instead of “Dear God”. They both mean the same thing, of course, but for the convert to Islam the very alien nature of the language of the holy prayers and the holy book can be a stumbling block. I had skipped that hurdle without noticing. Then came the pull: a sort of emotional ebb and flow that responds to the company of other Muslims with a heightened feeling of openness and warmth. Well, that’s how it was for me, anyway.

How hard and callous non-Muslim friends and colleagues began to seem. Why can’t we cry in public, hug one another more, say “I love you” to a new friend, without facing suspicion or ridicule? I would watch emotions being shared in households along with trays of honeyed sweets and wondered, if Allah’s law is simply based on fear why did the friends I loved and respected not turn their backs on their practices and start to drink, to have real “fun” as we in the west do? And we do, don’t we? Don’t we?

Finally, I felt what Muslims feel when they are in true prayer: a bolt of sweet harmony, a shudder of joy in which I was grateful for everything I have (my children) and secure in the certainty that I need nothing more (along with prayer) to be utterly content. I prayed in the Mesumeh shrine in Iran after ritually cleansing my forearms, face, head and feet with water. And nothing could be the same again. It was as simple as that.

The sheikh who finally converted me at a mosque in London a few weeks ago told me: “Don’t hurry, Lauren. Just take it easy. Allah is waiting for you. Ignore those who tell you: you must do this, wear that, have your hair like this. Follow your instincts, follow the Holy Qur’an- and let Allah guide you.”

And so I now live in a reality that is not unlike that of Jim Carey’s character in the Truman Show. I have glimpsed the great lie that is the facade of our modern lives; that materialism, consumerism, sex and drugs will give us lasting happiness. But I have also peeked behind the screens and seen an enchanting, enriched existence of love, peace and hope. In the meantime, I carry on with daily life, cooking dinners, making TV programmes about Palestine and yes, praying for around half an hour a day.

Now, my morning starts with dawn prayers at around 6am, I pray again at 1.30pm, then finally at 10.30pm. My steady progress with the Qur’an has been mocked in some quarters (for the record, I’m now around 200 pages in). I’ve been seeking advice from Ayatollahs, imams and sheikhs, and every one has said that each individual’s journey to Islam is their own. Some do commit the entire text to memory before conversion; for me reading the holy book will be done slowly and at my own pace.

In the past my attempts to give up alcohol have come to nothing; since my conversion I can’t even imagine drinking again. I have no doubt that this is for life: there is so much in Islam to learn and enjoy and admire; I’m overcome with the wonder of it. In the last few days I’ve heard from other women converts, and they have told me that this is just the start, that they are still loving it 10 or 20 years on.

On a final note I’d like to offer a quick translation between Muslim culture and media culture that may help take the sting of shock out of my change of life for some of you.

When Muslims on the BBC News are shown shouting “Allahu Akhbar!” at some clear, Middle Eastern sky, we westerners have been trained to hear: “We hate you all in your British sitting rooms, and are on our way to blow ourselves up in Lidl when you are buying your weekly groceries.”

In fact, what we Muslims are saying is “God is Great!”, and we’re taking comfort in our grief after non-Muslim nations have attacked our villages. Normally, this phrase proclaims our wish to live in peace with our neighbours, our God, our fellow humans, both Muslim and non-Muslim. Or, failing that, in the current climate, just to be left to live in peace would be nice.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/nov/03/lauren-booth-conversion-to-islam/print

Lauren Booth interviews:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W57jH3awu-M&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qIsYIst_5o4

After reading about her conversion and listening to her speak, all I can say is mashAllah.  It’s hard for me to listen to her speak without tears in my eyes, because I know exactly how she feels when she speaks of the peace, tranquility, simplicity, and wisdom of Islam.  After encountering Islam, one can never walk away unchanged and unaffected.

After Conversion: End of the Story?

After one has found the right path and has officially declared the shahadah and determination to follow the straight path, is that the end of the story?  Is life all rainbows and butterflies from there on out?  Often we are intrigued and thrilled by the stories of those who have converted to Islam, what did they believe beforehand?  What made them interested in Islam?  But we sometimes forget that after being guided, these individuals are now living in a very hostile world, with trials and hardships that often far outweigh the difficulties faced before they were Muslim.  It’s easy to tell the revert, “MashAllah, congratulations on your conversion, may God bless you,” and then walk away and go back to your Muslim family and community that surrounds you, protects you, and shields you from the inhumanity of the rest of the world (as it should).  Yet the revert is left still alone, isolated, and standing against a torrent of disapproval and hostility.

Thankfully, some have wondered what happened after I converted – what about my family, what about my friends, what has my life been like as a new Muslim?  Instead of filling up the comment section on several of my posts in response to all the inquiries, writing an actual post on it seems like a much more efficient solution!

Muslim Friends

I converted to Islam 2 years and 3 months ago.  I was so excited and bursting at the seams to have found such phenomenal truth and wisdom – to be guided and on the straight path to God, at last.  I wanted to meet every single Muslim in the area and was exuberant to share my story and make new friends.  Yet, over time I was faced with the reality that Muslims are human after all, and while Islam is perfect, Muslims are far from it.   Many of the Muslims around me (which weren’t many to start with) were more concerned and preoccupied with their culture rather than their religion, so my attempts at friendship failed miserably.  I finally gave up smiling at the Muslim women I passed outside or on campus, as usually they ignored me or glared at me (as an aside, yesterday when I was out running, I passed by a Muslim woman who looked up and smiled at me – I was so surprised I almost tripped over myself – and gave her a big smile in return.  That totally made my day!).  I went to a mosque in the area a few times, but was mostly stared at.  I felt awkward and uncomfortable to be alone despite sitting in a room full of chattering women (who also didn’t seem too interested in the lecture either…).   I was in a different mosque, and the woman next to me leaned over and asked if I was Lebanese.  I replied that I wasn’t, but I was a convert.  That didn’t seem to interest her, and she went back to chatting with the woman next to her.  Last year I met a few Muslim women who were also working for the community college I was teaching for, and while we exchanged information, neither of them seemed interested in communicating beyond that initial contact (despite my attempts to contact them).

Alternatively, I have met some Muslims online who are very sincere and genuine, and I am grateful for their friendship and support, despite never having seen each other in real life!  Nevertheless, as a result of two years of disappointment, I’ve since given up trying to befriend Muslims in real life.

Family

As I mentioned in my initial post regarding my conversion story, my family is conservative, Evangelical Christian, and are very anti-Islam (on both sides)!  There’s an atheist on my dad’s side and a Buddhist on my mom’s side, and both of them are seen as the black sheep, and much time and effort is spent praying for them and lecturing them when they are around.  I’ve told myself that I should take comfort in the fact that neither of them were disowned, but then again, neither of those paths are as heavily stigmatized and hated as Islam.  My family views Islam specifically as being from Satan himself (astaghfirAllah), and the most dangerous.

My dad’s father is a lay minister (he filled in as a ‘sub’ for churches without pastors and does guest speaking as well), and loves to listen to Billy Graham, John Hagee, Pat Robertson, and of course, Fox News.  My dad once put me on the chopping block when he told my grandpa that I had some Muslim friends, to which my grandpa responded by saying, “Well you’d better get rid of them fast.  They’re dangerous!”  I asked him why, and the entire room fell silent.  He sputtered and fumed and couldn’t understand why I was so senseless to not know why.  I decided to drop it – don’t want the entire room to explode against me, and definitely didn’t want to reveal myself.

My mom’s father was a Pentacostal preacher for most of his life, and both he and my grandmother firmly believe that if you aren’t Pentacostal, you’re going to hell (Baptists especially since they believe in the ‘blasphemous’ concept of “once saved always saved”!).  Most certainly they see Islam as a dark evil.

My parents religiously watch Fox News – my dad’s favorite show is Bill O’Reilly, of course.  They are also firm supporters of George Bush and believe he could do no evil (despite the glaring truth that tells us otherwise).  Once (when I was still a Christian), I brought up the possibility of 9/11 being perpetrated by Bush himself, due to the overwhelming evidence, and my dad was incredibly offended and angry (as if I had just uttered blasphemy), and said that Bush could never, ever do something like that – he was a ‘Christian’ after all!  Last time I checked, the only infallible person in Christianity was Jesus (as), so I’m not sure how Bush gained that status!

My parents are also very pro-Israel, anti-Iran, anti-Palestine, anti-Lebanon & Syria, very Republican, and now proud members of the Tea Party.  They believe that I am already brainwashed due to having gone to a “liberal, socialist” university for graduate school, and often dismiss anything I have to say about politics or society in general.  Despite having more education than they do (in my immediate family – my extended family has some doctors and PhDs), my education is dismissed as useless, liberal ideology and not anything worthwhile.

In fact, my family, both immediate and extended, treat me as an 6 year old child who has no common sense or clue about life in general.  Even my brothers treat me in this way, usually dismissing what I have to say or ridiculing me, ganging up against me, laughing at me and questioning my intelligence.  As such, I grew up to think that my brothers and father were very smart and I was not.  I believed that men in general were smarter than me, and I unconsciously deferred and ‘bowed down’ to any male around me.  The males in my family also treat my mom in the same way, never taking her seriously and ridiculing her and questioning her intelligence on everything.  My mom is quite expert at manipulation though (even with me, as I have just recently discovered, after all this time), and while it’s a destructive, unhealthy pattern, it works and she gets what she needs.   I’ve always thought that the first person I tell about my conversion would be my mom, but now I realize that that would foolish because she would only use that against me whenever it suited her.  My family has the mentality of ‘everyone for themselves’, and will sacrifice someone else for the purpose of saving their own skin.

My family is also very argumentative, negative, critical, and judgmental.  I’ve always hated conflict (although there for a few years during puberty I did take on my dad and challenge him about everything to the extent that he thought I should become a lawyer!).  My family will argue endlessly and NEVER let anything go, so I learned long ago that it just isn’t worth it.  I prefer relationships to be smooth and harmonious, not tumultuous and hostile, so I eventually got in the habit of just letting everything go.  Someone would do something to me or make a hurtful comment, and I would just let it go.  Again and again and again… to the point now where they just treat me like a stupid child since they know they can get away with it as I won’t stand up to them or challenge them.

Recently, all that has changed, however.  After converting, I gained new confidence in myself (perhaps this should be a different post entirely, but I began to accept myself as a female, and realized that having feminine characteristics isn’t an awful thing, but is a strength), and I began to gain knowledge about the truth of the world around me.  I was more certain of my opinions and now had a great deal of fact to back it up, and began to stand up for my opinions.  Still, they would all start attacking me, so I would eventually give up and change the subject.

In recent months however, I’ve been trying to force myself to see it through to the end, despite the discomfort that it causes.  In fact, without going into the details, my mom and I are no longer on speaking terms (her choice, not mine), and my dad got involved (thanks to misinformation and manipulation from my mom) so we’ve had some intense arguments.  Even one of my brothers and I got into a fight because of the lies my mom told him, but fortunately I was able to set the record straight and he and I are actually on better terms right now than we have been in years.  And none of this going on now has anything to do with my conversion!!

I’ve realized that the only hope I have of being able to tell my family about my conversion without being completely annihilated is to change my relationship with them by getting them to respect me and take me seriously.  If I can achieve that, THEN I can tell them of my conversion and only then will they be forced to take it seriously.  If I tell them now, they’ll ridicule me, accuse me of being brainwashed, and my dad might even drive all the way down to where I live now with a U-Haul and try to force me to move in with them so they can take care of their senile, mentally retarded daughter!  I can only imagine family events – all the focus would be on me and it would be rife with exhaustingly endless arguments and attacks.  No one would listen to anything I have to say or even care what reasons I have for believing the way I do.

No, the only solution is to first change my relationship with them, and secondly, keep trying to change their perception of Islam.  If I can somehow get them to see Islam as at least just another world religion that is hugely misrepresented in the media and has many similarities to Christianity, then I may be able to put myself on the same level as my atheist and Buddhist relatives.  If my family continues to see Islam as evil and as the force on the side of the anti-Christ that Jesus (as) and the Christians will fight against after Jesus returns, then there is no hope for any sort of honest dialogue, discussion, or acceptance.

Friends

Very few of my friends know of my conversion as well.  Some reasons for this are merely circumstantial; I converted during my last year of graduate school (a different school and city from where I did my undergrad), and began covering my hair when I started an internship in another city.  I did see my classmates occasionally for classes during that time, and the reactions were mixed.  A few thought I had cancer, one of them did express her sincere support for my choice, and the rest of them either ignored me completely or began to just greet me politely when they saw me but stopped inviting me to hang out with them.  I was surprised actually, since I was in a counseling pyschology program and the emphasis in every class was valuing diversity and accepting and supporting people from all walks of life… but apparently this is mere rhetoric and not applied in practice.

I don’t often see my friends from undergrad, as I moved to a different city for grad school and they are all spread out everywhere; many of them are married and are starting families.  I saw one of them once though, after converting.  She had been to Egypt on a trip and seemed very interested in the culture and religion, and since she is also from a different country, I thought she would be more accepting.  So, I decided to tell her about my conversion.  Well… she seemed unsure about it and was concerned about what my family would think, especially since she knew me as being a very religious Christian.  After she left that day, I never heard from her again.

Another friend from high school told me a while back that he had converted to Catholicism, and was describing the difficulty he had with his parents, who are astutely Pentacostal.  I thought perhaps he would understand, since he had gone through a similar experience, so I told him that I also had changed my beliefs, and am pretty sure my parents would be very opposed to it.  I refrained from any detail though, as I wanted to see his reaction.  He seemed unresponsive, so I didn’t push it further – and yet again, I never heard from him again.

The vast majority of my friends from childhood through graduate school are very conservative Christians, so I know that I would face a very hostile onslaught of condemnation if I decided to declare myself as a Muslim to them all.  So… I decided it’s not worth it and have let it go.  I don’t see many of them very often anyway, from having moved so much (I’ve moved at least 14 times, to various cities and different states) and have lost touch with people over the years.  In fact, I have just moved again to an entirely different state to take a new job, so telling prior friends just isn’t much of a necessity.

I did make one friend recently who is not Muslim nor American, and I have been grateful for her acceptance and for seeing beyond my scarf and liking me for who I really am.  But, I’ve just moved and she’s too far away for frequent visiting now.

I don’t know anyone at all in my new city, although I’ve felt encouraged that my colleagues at my new job seem to be very genuinely nice and friendly.  I’m not that picky really, I gave up on the impossible task of finding Muslim friends, and am just looking for decent friends in GENERAL.  But… in the meantime, as I have nothing to do on the weekends, I can continue to research Islam and read and learn about other aspects of life, and of course – post on my blog. 🙂

So, in sum… life has not been easy since converting, but I realize that I am passing through a very important time and am learning necessary skills to make my life better in the future, inshAllah.  Only God knows what the future will hold, and I’m optimistic that no matter what trials and hardships I face, God will protect me and care for me.  I will gladly endure any difficulty for the sake of God and for the precious gift of guidance to the right path.  Nothing in this world is worth that.  The Quran tells us that this life is just a test and trial, and our real life begins afterward.  When we keep everything in perspective, the intensity and turmoil subsides and obstacles begin to look more trivial and inconsequential.

The Coming of Ramadhan

I have been thinking about Ramadhan for the past two months, reflecting on it, remembering it as I eat or drink throughout the day, and recalling its importance and the lessons learned through it. Now, as the final weekend before its arrival is upon us, it is of utmost importance that we begin to prepare ourselves mentally for this holy and trying month, and ask God for the strength to rely solely on Him and to remove our dependence on worldly things.

Imam Zain al-Abideen (Ali bin Hussain bin Ali bin Abi Talib) provided us with a wonderful supplication (prayer) for the coming of Ramadhan. It is a bit lengthy, but it is well worth reading – and using in prayer yourself.

Supplication for the Coming of the Month of Ramadan

Praise belongs to God who guided us to His praise
and placed us among the people of praise,
that we might be among the thankful for His beneficence
and that He might recompense us for that
with the recompense of the good-doers!

And praise belongs to God who
showed favour to us through His religion,
singled us out for His creed,
and directed us onto the roads of His beneficence,
in order that through His kindness we might travel upon them
to His good pleasure,
a praise which He will accept from us
and through which He will be pleased with us!

And praise belongs to God who appointed among those roads His month,
the month of Ramadan,
the month of fasting,
the month of submission,
the month of purity,
the month of putting to test,
the month of standing in prayer,
in which the Qur’an was sent down as guidance to the people,
and as clear signs of the Guidance and the Separator!175

He clarified its excellence over other months
by the many sacred things and well-known excellencies
which He placed therein,
for He made unlawful in it what He declared lawful in others
to magnify it,
He prohibited foods and drinks in it
to honour it,
and He appointed for it a clear time which He
(majestic and mighty is He)
allows not to be set forward
and accepts not to be placed behind.

Then He made one of its nights surpass the nights
of a thousand months
and named it the Night of Decree;
in it the angels and the Spirit descend
by the leave of their Lord upon every command,
a peace constant in blessings
until the rising of the dawn
upon whomsoever He will of His servants
according to the decision He has made firm.

O God,
bless Muhammad and his Household,
inspire us
with knowledge of its excellence,
veneration of its inviolability,
and caution against what Thou hast forbidden within it,
and help us to fast in it
by our restraining our limbs
from acts of disobedience toward Thee
and our employing them
in that which pleases Thee,
so that we lend not our ears to idle talk
and hurry not with our eyes to diversion,

we stretch not our hands toward the forbidden
and stride not with our feet toward the prohibited,
our bellies hold only what Thou hast made lawful
and our tongues speak only what Thou
hast exemplified,
we undertake nothing but what brings close to
Thy reward
and pursue nothing but what protects from
Thy punishment!
Then rid all of that from the false show of the false showers
and the fame seeking of the fame seekers,
lest we associate therein anything with Thee
or seek therein any object of desire but Thee!

O God,
bless Muhammad and his Household,
in it make us attend
to the appointed moments of the five prayers within
the bounds Thou hast set,
the obligations Thou hast decreed,
the duties Thou hast assigned,
and the times Thou hast specified;

and in the prayers make us alight in the station of
the keepers of their stations,
the guardians of their pillars,
their performers in their times,
as Thy servant and Thy messenger set down in his Sunna
(Thy blessings be upon him and his Household)
in their bowings, their prostrations, and all their
excellent acts,
with the most complete and ample ritual purity
and the most evident and intense humility!

Give us success in this month to
tighten our bonds of kin with devotion and gifts,
attend to our neighbours with bestowal and giving,
rid our possessions from claims,
purify them through paying the alms,
go back to him who has gone far from us,
treat justly him who has wronged us,
make peace with him who shows enmity toward us
(except him who is regarded as an enemy
in Thee and for Thee,
for he is the enemy whom we will not befriend,
the party whom we will not hold dear),

and seek nearness to Thee through blameless works
which will purify us from sins
and preserve us from renewing faults,
so that none of Thy angels will bring for Thee
the kinds of obedience and sorts of
nearness-seeking
unless they be less than what we bring!177

O God,
I ask Thee by the right of this month
and by the right of him who worships Thee within it
from its beginning to the time of its passing,
whether angel Thou hast brought nigh to Thee,
prophet Thou hast sent,
or righteous servant Thou hast singled out,
that Thou bless Muhammad and his Household,
make us worthy of the generosity Thou hast promised
Thy friends,
make incumbent for us
what Thou hast made incumbent
for those who go to great lengths in obeying Thee,
and place us in the ranks of those
who deserve through Thy mercy the highest elevation!

O God,
bless Muhammad and his Household,
turn us aside from
deviation in professing Thy Unity,
falling short in magnifying Thee,
in Thy religion,
blindness toward Thy path,
heedlessness of Thy inviolability,
and being deceived by Thy enemy, the accursed Satan!

O God,
bless Muhammad and his Household,
and when in every night of this month’s nights
Thou hast necks
which Thy pardon will release
and Thy forgiveness disregard,
place our necks among those necks
and place us among the best folk and companions
of this our month!

O God,
bless Muhammad and his Household,
efface our sins
along with the effacing of its crescent moon,
and make us pass forth from the ill effects of our acts
with the passing of its days,
until it leaves us behind,
while within it Thou hast purified us of offenses
and rid us of evil deeds!

O God,
bless Muhammad and his Household,
and should we go off to one side in this month,
set us aright;
should we swerve,
point us straight;
and should Thy enemy Satan enwrap us,
rescue us from him!

O God,
fill this month with our worship of Thee,
adorn its times with our obedience toward Thee,
help us during its daytime with its fast,
and in its night with prayer and pleading toward Thee,
humility toward Thee,
and lowliness before Thee,
so that its daytime may not bear witness
against our heedlessness,
nor its night against our neglect!

O God,
make us like this in the other months and days
as long as Thou givest us life,
and place us among Thy righteous servants,
those who shall inherit Paradise,
therein dwelling forever,178
those who give what they give,
while their hearts quake,
that they are returning to their Lord,179
those who vie in good works,
outracing to them!180

O God,
bless Muhammad and his Household
in every time, in all moments, and in every state,
to the number that Thou hast blessed whomsoever
Thou hast blessed
and to multiples of all that, through multiples
which none can count but Thee!
Surely Thou art Accomplisher of what Thou desirest.

May God give us the strength to pass through this time of trial, test, and purification.  May God help us to focus on Him and to cut the chains of bondage of the world that we have allowed to grip us.  May God help us to exert extra effort to be cheerful, kind, patient, and charitable toward others during this time, may God use our hunger to remind us of those less fortunate than us, and to reach out to them, and may God help us to refrain from not only the haram, but also the makrooh, and to engage in more wajib and mustahab acts.

The supplication, along with an audio clip of it, can be found here: http://www.duas.org/sajjadiya/s44.htm

Other supplications of Imam Zain al-Abideen can be found here: http://www.duas.org/sajjadiya/sajjadiya.htm

The Importance of Good Manners in Debate

When discussing issues that are emotional and close to one’s heart, it is often difficult to accept what other people are saying without becoming overly emotional, upset, or angry.  Because of this, Americans often avoid discussing potentially heated issues such as politics and religion.  In fact, it is a well-known cardinal rule that those two subjects are entirely off-limits at parties and social events (particularly when people are drinking because physical fights inevitably ensue!).

Yet, who knows the nature of humankind best but our Creator Himself?  God knows very well how easily upset we can become when discussing beliefs, which is why He instructed on how to do exactly that:

“Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and goodly exhortation, and have disputations with them in the best manner; surely your Lord best knows those who go astray from His path, and He knows best those who follow the right way. (Quran chapter 16 verse 125). 

In other words, we are instructed to discuss our beliefs with wisdom and good encouragement (as opposed to sarcasm or criticism), doing so with the utmost of good manners.  It is not our job to convince them or change their minds, as God Himself only knows those who will listen to truth and follow it, or who will reject it and turn away.  Our task is only to speak the truth with good manners.  We should never engage in personal attacks (i.e. “I can’t believe how stupid you are to believe that!”), nor disparage their belief system (“What kind of idiotic, illogical belief is that?!”).  If we stoop to such behavior, the other person will automatically become defensive and immediately stop listening.  Good manners, encouragement, and wisdom are the keys to opening a person’s heart.  Yet, in the end, even if you do everything you can, the other person still may not respond the way you’d like them to.  Thus, we must remember that what is in the other person’s heart and mind is between that person and God alone.  

When I hear this verse, I am reminded of when I first heard the truth of Islam.  I still persisted in arguing against it and pushing my own stated beliefs, but deep inside… I was listening.  When I was alone throughout the day or laying awake at night, I was mentally replaying what I had heard, considering and reflecting on it.  Externally, no one would have guessed that the truth was having an impact on me, because I was stubborn and steadfastly defending my views.  Anyone interacting with me would have easily thought to themselves that there was no hope – I was too brainwashed, too senseless, too close-minded, too stubborn to let go of what I had been raised to believe was right.  Yet God knew what was actually happening inside my heart.  It is only He who guides us to the truth, and no one else. 

When we are faced with someone who seems so close-minded and refuses to listen, just remember that despite all their blustering and fury, inside they just may be listening.  And even if they aren’t listening now, they may remember what you’ve said much later down the road, and begin to reflect on it.  Only God knows the path an individual will take.  I heard a beautiful hadith of Prophet Muhammad (saws) the other day that made tears come to my eyes:

“The number of paths to God is equal to the number of human souls.” 

SubhanAllah (glory to God).  There is no one prescribed, set path that we all must robotically follow.  No, God has designed it so that we each find the truth in the timing that is best for us.  Perhaps one person finds the truth early on – and it is better for them.  Yet someone else may find the truth much later, and it is better for them – because they had many lessons to learn and experiences to pass through before they were ready.  My own path has been incredibly unique, and in retrospect I know that each step was crucial to taking me to where I am today.  Alhamdilulah (praise God).

Some Advice for American Mosques

So… today while I was running on the treadmill, since it was overlooking a large gymnasium, I was passing the time by watching a scrimmage basketball game.  My mind began wandering and I began thinking about how churches are so efficiently organized, as so many of them have organized basketball teams, softball teams, volleyball teams, and so on.  They provide an essential aspect of life for the community: social connectivity.

The mosques I’ve been to in the US seem to be very disorganized, with ethnic in-fighting causing overwhelming disunity.  I even visited the largest mosque in North America, and felt very disappointed by the disorganization, lack of decent sound equipment, and overall disrespect by those listening to the lecture.  I had a very hard time hearing the speaker because I was surrounded by chattering women, with kids running up and down the aisles.  When the lecture finished, everyone began pushing and shoving in order to get outside; it was a frightening experience!  This mosque probably had several hundred people in attendance, but I’ve been to churches equally as big, if not bigger, and never have I seen pushing and shoving!!

I’ve often wished that mosques would just take a look at how churches are organized and run in the US, and follow suit.  Why not, after all?  If they are doing something that works, why not model your organization after it?  Churches are extremely well-run and provide an important social function in the lives of many Americans.  Growing up in church, I can personally attest to the fact that a lot of people go to church and church events, not because they’re particularly religious, but because they enjoy connecting with others in a clean environment, having their physical, spiritual, social needs met, and giving back to the community as well by donating their time and specific skills when needed.

Unfortunately, in the US, people are so isolated and distant from each other that their social outlets are confined to only certain situations: bars/clubs/parties, work (which has limitations), or church.  People who don’t go to church, but don’t want to participate in the club scene (such as Muslims), are highly ostracized and separated from the society at large as they have no way to integrate and connect with other people.

This is why I think it is imperative for mosques to step up and provide a social support system similar to what the church provides for so many Americans.

First, what mosques should do is address the physical needs of Muslims: have two fully functioning fitness facilities for both the women and the men – and don’t skimp on the equipment for the women (particularly the cardio equipment)!  Giving the men a place to exercise that is free from the distraction of half naked women would be a refreshing alternative from the regular gyms.  Providing women with a secure place to work out and being able to wear whatever they like will help women to branch out physically and not be inhibited due to the requirements of modesty.  I exercise in a fitness facility 5x a week, and I can tell you that wearing pants, long sleeves, and covering my hair while running at a brisk speed for lengthy period of time is HOT AND HARD.  If mosques provided such services for their members, it would fulfill a huge need.

Once a mosque has a fitness facility, they could even branch out by addressing both the physical and social needs of its members by beginning intramural teams that could play against other church or community teams (often cities have an intramural league in which various organizations like churches, businesses, a group of friends, and so on form a team and sign up to play).  The mosque could even have a women’s volleyball team (I would totally play on that) and work on interfaith outreach by inviting other churches to start women’s only volleyball teams, and have the other teams come to the mosque for games so that the Muslim women’s modesty could be ensured.  The opposing teams could sign a waiver or something stating that they would respect the modesty of the women by having only females in attendance, no cameras, no taking pictures, etc.

In this way, people in the community could have a chance to see real Muslim women (and men) up close and personal, and see that they’re real people after all.  It would be a great way of spreading a positive image of Islam by breaking down the barriers of isolation many Muslims tend to put up.

Further, churches often have classes and various groups for people to be involved in that address their spiritual (and social) and mental needs.  The last church I attended had a divorce care class, a widow/widower class, a young married class (discussing the many common issues newly married couples face), an unemployed class (they talked about networking, interviewing, shared job tips, and helped one another commiserate), men’s classes, women’s classes, a parenting class (parents of small kids, parents of teens, etc.), a single’s class, a senior citizen class, and so on.  Each class was run sort of like group counseling (so there was a lot of discussion and participation of group members) and teaching integrated with the Biblical perspective all combined.  A mosque could have English classes (as do some churches), as well as Arabic classes (a HUGE need for reverts), basic Islam classes, interfaith classes in which they learn about various other faith traditions, and so on.

The sheikh or imam of the mosque doesn’t have to singlehandedly run all the classes, but he could oversee everything and have the class leaders appointed on a volunteer basis (and then of course, meet regularly with the leaders and ensure appropriate material is being used and so on).  In churches, getting volunteers has never seemed to be a problem in my experience, as people are eager to give their particular skills in service to God.

As many churches do, the mosque could also provide individual counseling services for individuals facing difficulty in their lives and want a trusted, Islamic perspective on the matter.  Finding qualified individuals to volunteer a little bit of their time would not be difficult – or the mosque could pay a few people to come in part time to offer their services (and maybe charge a minimal fee, like $5 or 10$ or something).  The mosque could also have a publicly available list of Muslim professionals in the area in a variety of fields so that members could get the Islamic-based services they need.

Other basic things: child care (to circumvent kids running rampantly during lectures and reduce the women chatting and hanging out instead of listening), and hey, how about a BULLETIN so that the members know what the lecture or activity is even about, and what time things are happening, who the speaker is, what is going on during the week in terms of activities and classes, last week’s attendance, how much people gave last week, and this year to date, and how much the mosque still needs and so on…

The proposal I had worked out in my mind as I was running was far more detailed than this, but I’m sure you get the idea.  Plus, it’s just my own fantasy after all, since I’m not in charge of a mosque (nor am I near one), I don’t have a large amount of money to donate to such a cause, and it may be too big a task for many of the ethnic Muslims to leave their sadly un-Islamic cultural practices at the door and come together to start to effect true change by first serving the local ummah, which will secondly have inevitable positive effects on the community at large.  People will see the Muslims being more active, more visible, a positive force, and people may be curious and come participate in some of the activities offered, just as many people do with church activities.

Well hey, here’s an idea: perhaps all of us reverts should get together and make our own mosque!  Unfortunately, many of us are so spread out that it would be hard… but not impossible.  InshAllah such a dream could be realized someday, and Allahu alim – God knows best.