Living Islam in America

By Yahiya Emerick

 

    Allah has said in His most glorious book, the Holy Qur'an:

    "Wa inna Allaha rabbee wa rabbukum. Fa' booduhu hadha siratun mustaqeem."

    "Indeed Allah is my Lord and your Lord so serve Him. That is the straight way." (19:36)

    And indeed that is the straight way for anyone who will listen.

Human beings are funny creatures. We celebrate when times are good and we cry when things get tough. And in both of those situations, strangely enough, we forget about what life means, we ignore its lessons and we never realize that we will have to leave it shortly.

Can you imagine how foolish a tender flower in spring would be if it thought it would live forever. The fall comes upon it even when it is in its full strength, only to be followed by the cold grip of winter's relentless death march.

We are now beginning to see the plants shriveling in the cool fall air, even as only a month ago everything in nature was green, healthy and vibrant. In a few weeks you're going to see the trees losing their leaves like gray hairs falling off of one of us!

We see the four seasons pass year after year and the effect it has on the world around us, but we don't take the lesson that we ourselves are passing from stage to stage just a surely.

If you have ever held a little baby in your arms, know that one day, that baby will be an adult who will be sprinkling dust on your freshly dug grave. If you have ever heard a sweet melody carried over the air by the voices of faint people in the distance, know that one day those voices will be replaced by others and that they will be silenced for you.

And even though, in the inevitable turning of the great cycle of life, there will come others after us, they will not be us and we cannot live on through them. We are here, in this world, alone with the illusion of company.

We are silent, with the illusion of noise and we are poor with the illusion of plenty.

As Allah states, "Everything that is with you must vanish." and, "You will come to us naked and alone."

Life is short. Yes, indeed it is. Life is a reality and an illusion all at once. Only people who lift their eyes from the ground and take a look around ever recognize it.

When you're poor, all you think about is getting rich. When you're rich, all you think about is securing your wealth from loss and finding happiness. You may even begin to realize that a person doesn't need a lot of money to be happy, although the poor will never believe you. And many were the wealthy who gave away everything they had to go on the search for truth and many were the poor who gave up the road to riches for a far more valuable treasure.

The Blessed Prophet Muhammad said it clearly, "True wealth doesn't come from having a lot of things. True wealth comes from a contented mind, a worry-free mind."

Many people lose their minds and go crazy trying to find out what they should do and how they should live, never realizing the answer is so simple. Imagine the odd behavior of a man from Ireland who spent his whole life in India working for the British East India company just so he could save enough money to retire in his beloved Ireland.

Or another man who spent his whole life roaming the world to find the truth in the most difficult-to-get-to places, only to find that his answer was in his own home?

Why should we leave what is right with us when there are no answers out there anywhere? All the answers to all the questions are within easy reach. Some people make the "quest for truth" their drug so they can forget their inability to solve the one question they cannot answer: "Who am I?"

You hear about the people who travel to the Himalayas to find the truth or to the Andes mountains or to the desert. Some people look for the truth on the beaches of the Bahamas but all they get is sun-burned!

My brothers and sisters, Islam gives us the answer. But we look everywhere else but within it.

The only way to open our eyes to this fact is to realize that: Knowledge of Death is the key to either success or failure.

People who are afraid to face the question of their own death look for anything they can to make them forget the whole issue.

We see all around us people who go to bars and get drunk, people who take drugs, people who lose themselves in one made-up cultural trend or another. You know- the people who wear certain kinds of clothes, listen to a certain kind of music, talk a certain way or whatever. Then they say, "This is who I am. I'm being me. I'm expressing what's inside of me."

No, what they're doing is following slavishly another uniform, another conformity so they can feel a part of something. So they won't feel alone. "If I dress and act like this particular crowd, I'm accepted by them. Therefore, I'm not alone." their inner voices say.

What are we afraid of? We try to so fill our daily lives with activity and noise that we never have to confront that one all consuming question that has fueled the greatest fear known to man. The fear of the ultimate failure. Our inability to conquer death. But so few know it is also the cap on the path of success as well, if only it is understood properly.

The Muslim is not exempted from this dilemma. We are, after all, human beings like anyone else. Just because we have Muslim names doesn't mean that we're specially protected from any fears. If we aren't careful, we can be afraid of death too. What is the root of this fear we all can have?

Muslim psychologists in previous centuries developed the key scale to measure this. They said, "The further a person is away from Allah, the more he will be troubled, filled with stress and plagued by worry."

In other words, the further you are away from Allah, the more mental illness you will experience.

Allah has said, "There are some people who serve Allah as if they were perched on the edge. When times are good they accept it calmly. But when some trouble happens they cover their faces in pain. They lose both this world and the next and it's such a clear loss!" (22:11)

My brothers and sisters, Allah points out to us something we should all be afraid of. And that is living with a lack of focus. Not knowing who you are, what you want and what you're here for.

A person who goes through life not knowing these things is never certain about anything. They really are living only on the edge.

Not a day goes by without each and every one of us learning something new. And I believe that one of the greatest lessons in life is that without direction, there's no point in going forward.

Can you imagine going on a trip with your family to visit some relatives in a distant city, but no one knows how to get to their house?

Would you just get in the car and drive down any old road and hope you get to where you want to go? What if you had a road map but you kept it in the glove box and never even consulted it?

If anyone acted that way, not only would they drive in circles, but they would exhaust themselves in their foolish attempt. What would you say about such a person or family? You would say they're nuts!

You would say they're bound to end up somewhere they don't want to be!

So why do we live our lives that way!

Everyday we get up with no idea about what we're getting up for for! What? I have to go to work or school? Why? So I can make money to eat and feed my family. Why? Because I have a responsibility to those around me. Why? Because if I don't take care of them they will die. Why? Because people need things to live? Why? Because we're not able to survive if we don't take care of each other.

Hey, I got news for you. You can go to work and school as much as you want but it won't keep them from dying one day anyway. So all your working and schooling only will put off the inevitable for a few years.

So after realizing all that, don't we see that there is more to our lives than just gathering supplies? If I woke up one day and was an old man and realized that all I did with my life was grab as much as I could from this world, then I would feel as if I had wasted my whole life.

None of us would want to feel that way. So what keeps us from treading the path that Allah, the Creator of the Universe, has laid out for us? What prevents us from trying to become better and more spiritual in our lives? What keeps us living like there is no tomorrow and acting any old way that we see fit?

Could it be that deep down inside we are a little afraid of what living right may mean?

Could it be that if we opened up our eyes and raised them up from the toil of our daily lives that we would see up ahead the last door that we have to go through, coming closer and closer?

Are we afraid of what's on the other side? Isn't is so much easier, our fear tells us, to act like a bunch a squirrels, only looking at the nuts on the ground that we want to hoard?

Yes, we say to ourselves, Live for today and let tomorrow take care of itself. But we are living all of our today's and tomorrow is never taken care of.

We are like the man whom Allah says walks around, only looking at the ground right in front of him, never raising his head to look upon the beautiful horizon.

Islam teaches us that to be aware of Allah, to live a life directed towards faith and goodness and that to be a sincere, trying believer is the best focus to have. Anything else is a waste of time.

Islam teaches that death is not the final door. It is merely a portal to another realm of existence. We were born into this world and given the opportunity to become the best that we can be. With our mind, heart, ability to understand and courage we can become stronger and more valuable than anything else in the universe.

But with our earthly passions locked within our being, we could also descend to the level of the worst thing in the universe. To guide us in our quest, Allah has sent His messengers to the world at different times and places. Some people listened, others did not.

In the end, Allah sent one final message that He would never let be lost. That message, known as the Reading, or the Qur'an, is an ocean of knowledge for anyone who would unlock its depths and cascading shores.

You see, a Muslim is not a depressed person. We're not supposed to say, "Well, I accept that I'm going to die so let me sit around and sit without a smile on my face."

On the contrary, Islam is about realizing the greatest joy you will ever know. Imagine being freed from all the worries about why you're alive. Imagine knowing for certain who you are and why you are and what you must do in this life.

Imagine being directed to goodness and learning to avoid immoral and self-damaging conduct. Imagine knowing that there are people in this world that, yes, you can trust. That is Islam.

As one famous Muslim poet once wrote, "I am joyful in the world because the world is joyful in Him." (Rumi)

Or my favorite Islamic poem goes like this, "What Allah said to the rose, and caused it to laugh in full blown beauty, he said to my heart and made it a hundred times more beautiful." (Rumi)

Living a good, Allah-centered life is the most joyful thing you can ever find. Being freed from fear is the basis of true happiness and the greatest fear Islam releases you from is the fear of leaving this life and what it means. In exchange, all we are asked to be is believers in Allah and morally-oriented people.

Why is it wrong to be just a lousy person who abuses everyone around them and lives in a greedy, self-centered way?

Once a famous Muslim teacher was walking in a public garden when he noticed a man sleeping under a tree. When he came closer, he immediately recognized that that man was a well-known trouble-maker who used to beat his wife and get into fights with everyone.

The teacher thought for a moment and said, "It's good that he can't cause any pain to anyone while he's asleep."

Then the thought occurred to the teacher, "If a person is better sleeping, than awake. Wouldn't it be better if he was dead and not alive?"

Now most of us are not really that bad, but are we far enough from that example? Indeed, what a pointless life we can make for ourselves. Sometimes I laugh when I hear about big movie stars or celebrities who give money in charity.

They give a million here a million there and it's always reported with such great fanfare and noise. But how many of us realize that for every million they give, they waste ten times that much on high living and expensive lifestyles! Can you imagine! If they were really filled with the spirit of helping their fellow man, they would keep one million and give the rest away!

But they would never do that. If you have a hundred dollars in your pocket and you gave away ten cents in charity, and walked all around holding that dime up and made everyone see what you were giving, would that be an example of a noble spirit? It would be a foolish sham. And we are fooled everyday and we don't realize it!

My brothers and sisters, anyone who wants to know why they're here can know. Anyone who wants to live a life worth living can achieve their goal.

We think that it's hard to live as Muslims, as believers in Allah, in this time and place but it's really not. What is going on today that hasn't gone on in the past?

You say we don't have a truly Islamic state anywhere in the world right now? So, the Blessed Prophet lived for over a decade in the heart of the idol-worshipping stronghold and managed to not only teach Islam to his family and neighbors, but the foundation of Islam was laid in the hearts of his followers in an unbreakable way.

You say there are so many bad influences all around us? What do we have today that they didn't have in former times. Alcohol, drugs, nakedness, bad behavior and stupidness are as old as humanity itself!

You say that it's hard being a Muslim in America or in the modern world. Well, what is your definition of being a Muslim and why should "modern" matter at all?

Think about it? Is your definition of Islam involving following some ethnic culture, maybe the one you grew up with? Well, I tell you what, if I moved my extended family to China, it would be hard to keep my relatives and children from becoming just like the Chinese in language, food preferences, dress and values.

Being a Muslim is not about dressing like they do in Egypt, Bangladesh or Nigeria. Being a Muslim is not about liking Samosas and Kabobs. Being a Muslim is not about marrying someone who is the same color and ethnic group as you. If you try to preserve these things, you will fail every time. And if you think those things are part of Islam, then you may very well think that if your kid likes pizza, baseball and baggy jeans that you have failed to give them Islam.

None of those things have anything to do with being a Muslim or not. Islam is not in the cultural expression! Islam is in the heart, behavior and values. It is a lifestyle that can be lived by anyone, anywhere and for as long as they're alive.

A Muslim living here in America should follow Islamic guidelines in dress, so baggy jeans and a loose shirt are actually wonderful- as opposed to tight jeans and tiny shirts! The boys should then add a kufi, turban or some other kind of hat, preferable without a brim so it won't interfere with Salah. The sisters add a hijab and there you go!

As far as food, we teach ourselves and our children how to avoid haram things and then we all relax.

As far as lifestyle, we teach each other the beliefs and practices of Islam and we follow them. How hard is it to pray five times a day? Laziness is what gets in the way most of the time for most of us. Nobody tells you not to pray. Nobody tells you not to be a Muslim.

What about temptations? Sure, there are many temptations around. How do we avoid them? For starters, why don't we avoid the places where the temptations are? Avoid that known drug hang-out; stay off that street where the bad people are; don't go into that neighborhood. And if the temptations on TV or radio, then limit your exposure to the television and radio!

What about learning? Every book, video, cassette tape or whatever that we can imagine are available. If you live in New York here, all you need to do is go to Atlantic Ave and 4th Ave in Brooklyn and all the materials you could ever want are there. Find what interests you. Find what will help you.

What about our interaction with this society? Allah tells us, "And keep your hearts content with those who call on their lord and never move your faces from them." Stick with other Muslims whenever possible! That doesn't mean that you have to be friends with every Muslim, but try to find some you would like to be friends with and stick with them. If you have non-Muslim friends, then you must set the tone of the relationship, not them. You're purpose with them must be to present a good example of Islam so that maybe, one day, they might be your Muslim friend too!

And no, don't think in your head that being with Muslims mostly means to stick with people of your same ethnic group. If anything, most of us have been doing that for too long! That was our first mistake. Get out in the Ummah a little and meet Muslims of different backgrounds and colors. Build a multi-ethnic network of real committed Muslims. Avoid the hypocrites, and you know who they are, and stick with the good people, and I'm sure we all know at least some. In this way you are around people who will benefit you not only in similar interests, but also in Eman.

Don't place unrealistic or self-centered goals on your children. Don't tell them what they're going to be when they grow up. You know how so many parents tell their kids that, "You are going to be a doctor." But the parents don't have the intention of wanting to make their children a helper of humanity, they're only thinking about the money. "I want my child to be rich and being a doctor seems to be the correct route for that."

So we pass on to our children the attitude that: "I need to be rich and that is the focus of my life." We are pulling the rug out from under them Islamically with our worldly-oriented expectations.

Let your child be who they want to be. Teach them that Islam is the most valuable thing to gain in this life and that whatever career they choose, they will be the best at it as well as the best Muslim.

And as far as living Islam in the modern world being difficult...why should that anything to do with Islam and what is modern anyway? Three hundred years ago they said they were living in modern times and three hundred years from now they will say they're living in modern times.

Is Islam against progress? No. Is Islam against computers, space-ships, telephones or planes? No.

So what is this imaginary problem with Islam and modern times? Sure, there are Muslims in the world who are so backward that even running water is amazing to them, but there are still places in America were people live like that, especially in Appalachia and northern Louisiana. What does that have to do with anything?

And sure, there are some Muslims with such odd ideas that we just shake our heads in wonder, such as those who have a hatred of women and want to make their lives miserable. But we're not them and they are not us and Islam doesn't teach their kind of garbage ideologies anyway. Their cultures were backward before Islam and they remained backward because they never understood Islam even to this day!

But don't get depressed just because of a few misguided Muslims in the world. In the heart of this, the most technologically advanced society in the world, almost everyone reads their horoscopes or calls those 1-900 psychic lines for their "future". Superstition here is alive and well and women are attacked here in a different way. They are made into objects for the unrestrained consumption of men so much so that there is no concept of respect for womanhood here anymore.

And don't think that the Muslim world is the only place where people have backward ideas because there are millions of Christians and Jews, mostly here in the West, who believe that the world is only six thousand years old!

So what's the problem? The problem is that we like to blame everyone else without ever realizing that the fault almost always lies with ourselves. The enemies of Islam didn't destroy the Islamic state. Muslims themselves destroyed it. The society doesn't corrupt our children. The corruption begins in the home with our own hands. The influences of society just build on what we ourselves allowed to develop in our children with our own poor behavior and morals.

My brothers and sisters, it's not hard to live as a Muslim in this or any other country. You can do anything you want, the only question is, are you willing to do it? You wanted to have a Masjid, so you got together and built one, despite any setbacks. You wanted some form of a Sunday school program, so you made one. But is the Masjid just a brick building with a name? Is the school really a baby-sitting service in disguise?

If we're serious about Islam, we need more than buildings and programs. We need change within ourselves. In Surah 49 Allah mentions that there is a clear difference between just being a Muslim, and being a true believer. Have we done anything about that? And if you don't feel you've made progress, do you get filled with despair? Do you take a setback or a failure as your final answer and give up, or do you realize that for a Muslim, there are no failures? Yes, for a Muslim there is no such thing as failure. There is only results. If you are not getting the results you want in your pursuit of Islam, then, modify your approach until you are experiencing the true inner peace that Islam promises to you.

Allah wants you to be guided to the truth and has given you the tools of success. If you have an English translation of the Qur'an that is hard to read, get one that is easy. If you think there are no good Muslims around you, get involved in youth programs, Masajid, da'wah activities or whatever and I guarantee you that you'll find some nice people. And even more importantly, are you nice yourself, or are you a cold fish just like the rest of them to your fellow Muslims? Sometimes the fault lies within us as much as it does within others.

If you wonder how leisure time and cultural enjoyment fit into Islam, look for expressions of those things and participate. As far as reading and literature, how many of you know that the Muslim world has been producing for over 1400 years the best poetry, stories, essays, travel stories, joke books and spiritual writings you can ever imagine. These days those books are being translated into English all the time. Some authors I would recommend you to look for are Al Ghazali, Rumi, Iqbal, Shah, Shirazi, Al Jahiz, Ibn Battutta, Fareedudeen Attar and Al Sharawi.

We can live as healthy, committed Muslims in every age and place in the world. The key to success comes down to us. A famous Muslim was once asked how we can become a great and successful community again, and he replied, "The same program which made Muslims in earlier times successful is the only one that can make us successful today."

May Allah help us to open our eyes to what is right in front of us and may He give us the strength to help ourselves. Allahumma Ameen.

 

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