Some Advice for Muslims in the West
By Yahiya Emerick
I remember when I first entered into Islam back in 1988 that the main topic for discussion among Muslims was the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. It was in all the fledgling magazines, there were lots of speeches here and there and I recall Muslims being filled with a sense of righteous indignation towards this one, important issue. At the time, there was little discussion about such things as “losing the youth”, “making Masjids more gender friendly,” anti-Muslim propaganda, and such.
Wow, what a difference a decade and a half make! Think about what we talk about now in print, on the internet, in forums and at dinner parties! The issues have sort of rearranged themselves. While the Palestinian/Israeli conflict is still there, it is more on the fringes. Now we add Iraq (we sort of forgot about Afghanistan), Al Qaeda and its cronies, intolerance among some groups, and the U.S. bullying of dozens of countries. Issues on the domestic front here in the West have also taken a new prominence. The situation of youth, women and the newly rising Islamophobia phenomenon take center stage.
Ten years ago seeing books by lesbian “Muslim” turncoats, or adulterous women who take their Masjid to court or “Muslim” men who call for Islam to accept homosexuality and dating would have been unheard of. Just five years ago we, as a community, were content in our anonymity, ignored by our neighbors and feeling that truth and justice were on our side. After 2001, suddenly we were under a microscope and pointed out and harassed everywhere: at the airport, in the grocery store, at school and during town hall meetings where plans for new Masjids were suddenly being objected to by alarmed and frightened neighbors, who just five years before wouldn’t have even cared.
I once thought to myself that I would love to live until 100 years old, just to see how the world changed over the course of a century (the historian streak in me!), but in just a decade, the change has been quite dizzying and events seem to be running on a very fast train to mayhem. I’m sure I’m not the only Muslim who has been thinking this way. I’ve held many discussions with others who are downright bewildered that the “War on Terrorism” is affecting them when they’re just housewives or mechanics or teenagers in school.
I know our community is undergoing a lot of strain and pressure. For some it is unbearable and they have actually felt compelled to move to Canada or overseas. Others have sought to go incognito and have abandoned hijab, kufi or thobe, thinking they could go on as before in their blessed anonymity. It’s worked for some, not for others, but I’m sure all of them feel a bit of shame inside at their weakness. I wonder what the ones think who have actually changed their names and the names of their children to non-Muslim ones to hide that much deeper.
Another phenomenon has also surfaced: that of the unwitting apostate. We’ve all known for years that a large chunk of those whom we have assumed were Muslims have actually been Muslims in name only, even less. It runs across all ethnic groups and even affects convert families as well. Think about the average Pakistani or Arab or Turkish man who immigrated in his twenties to the West to find a good job, with little to no knowledge of Islam from his youth. He gets off the plane or boat and is instantly bombarded with scantily-clad (and seductive) females on billboards, magazines, on TV, in the street, at college and at his job. Really now, do any of these young men have a chance? They usually come from societies were there are still some kinds of boundaries between the genders, but in the West, oh my gosh, all the walls disappeared long ago! Many immigrant Muslim men have dated women here, who, because of their cultural upbringing, are more willing to give themselves up than women anywhere else in the world. Some men wind up marrying their girlfriends and thus you see all the light-skinned kids with light hair, or Muslim kids speaking Spanish words, at many of our dinner parties and functions.
Yes, some women do convert first, and then find husbands; I’m not trying to insult anyone here. I just wonder what the ratio is because, really now, Muslim men should be on their best behavior and court a woman in the old-fashioned American way, which is closer to an ideal Islamic way. Because so many don't practice Islamic ethics for daily living, they wind up going through women like non-Muslim men do, and it's really a nightmare for da'wah. I've been acquainted with a number of women who said they might have considered Islam once, but because of all the love 'em and leave 'em "Muslim" men they've had relationships with, they are blaming Islam and steering clear of faith commitments (even as they continue to date "Muslim" men).
Let's face it, most immigrant men (who came from lax religious families 'back home') never try to “adopt” a Muslim identity after they discover the carnal delights of the West. (Some do come into Islam after they have a family and they decide they don’t want their kids to be as lost as they were!) Believe you me, there is a whole population of millions of men (and women) in the West whose roots go back to a Muslim country or Muslim convert, but for whom Islam is not a part of their lives at all. When our pollsters say we have 6 or 8 or 12 million Muslims in the United States, they’re counting an awful lot of people who have no Muslim identity at all!
This is our dirty little secret. We publicly lament that our Masjid-goers are basically older men in their 30s to 60s and that the younger people are absent. But we don't spend enough time thinking about the reasons and formulating strategies to turn the situation around. As an aside, some Christian Evangelical organizations have taken quotes from many Muslim leaders and authors about our worry for the shrinking size of our community here, and tried to postulate that Islam was shrinking in the West because Muslims were somehow joining Christianity. The implication is that Muslims, on their own, are abandoning Islam for "freedom" or whatever. Well, that's a pretty laughable proposition given that Christians have been abandoning Christianity and Jews have been abandoning Judaism for the same reasons we are losing lukewarm Muslims: people are running after the delights of this world and becoming blinded to faith- of any sort!
Getting back to the issue at hand- A lot of time these days is being spent on the women’s rights movement in the Masjid, where their legitimate grievances are finally getting some fresh air. From my first days as a Muslim I knew the second-class treatment women were getting was wrong and against the spirit of Islam. I just hoped that as “the next generation” matured, those problems would sort themselves out. Instead, what happened was that the masses of our community members sent their precious children to non-Muslim public schools where they would be indoctrinated for approximately 40 hours a week in non-Muslim values, both cultural and religious.
Can I be any more harsh here? Would any Indo-Pak parent ever send their child to a Hindu private school? “Of course not,” they would say, “Are you nuts? Their values are completely foreign to ours and they hate us besides!” Well, did you honestly think that your local “public” school wouldn’t teach values that were against yours? They are “public” schools and the majority of the “public” in the West is Christian of one flavor or another, and the values taught in the school would reflect a mixture of American Christianity and decadent pop culture. What in high holy heaven have you done? You sent your precious little child into a world that would convert them into their way of thinking. Your baby couldn’t resist. He or she was surrounded by non-Muslim kids, even the authority figures, the teachers, were non-Muslims.
Your child’s peers were weaving a world of dating, dancing, Christmas, Halloween, sports star worship, movie star worship, suggestive music, drugs and alcohol, dance parties and a devil-may-care-attitude around your child’s impressionable little mind. All the holidays became your child’s holidays, so much so that they even began to pressure you to let them go out trick-or-treating (dressed as a demon or monster), or let them go on an Easter Egg hunt. Even if you resisted the holidays and tried to stress Islamic themes and holidays, in their hearts they longed for the world that was constructed around them and imprinted on their psyche during their most productive and alert hours: the time spent in “public” school.
Have you taken a good look at our “youth” lately? Have you? Our ignorant parents, who knew little Islam in their home countries, couldn’t bring themselves to sacrifice a bit harder to keep their American born children on the path to Jannah. My gosh! Even the Salafis and Wahhabis in America can’t seem to keep their children as committed Muslims. The truth, the sad underbelly of the beast comes out in the hidden dark corners, away from the public eye. So many Muslim parents are ashamed of what their children have become that they either choose to ignore the problem or take such drastic steps as carting their children off “back home” thinking that that will “fix” them.
We who work in Islamic Schools know the truth. In any given school, only a minority of the children are from good, Allah-centered Islamic homes. Fully a third are from homes that are half-Islamic, half-cultural, while a remaining third are so thoroughly “Americanized” (whatever that means) that they become a great burden on the school in its efforts to foment and maintain an Islamic culture. You see it right away: when strange parents come to the school office and begin asking questions about whether smoking or dating is allowed in the school. When parents conveniently “forget” to bring their children’s records from their previous school when they register them for the new school year at your school. (Later, when you finally obtain the records, you find that the kid was in special ed, or suspended for fighting multiple times or even worse).
My gosh, Muslim schools have had to deal with so many problem kids from families who ask, “Please save my child.” It was the families who lost them to begin with, how can a school “save” them. In reality, most parents of problem kids are just looking for a quick (and cheap) solution. Alhumdulillah, Islamic schools can, to some extent, bring some reform in kids, but the good Islamic kids who come from conscientious families always feel under pressure and even put upon with the introduction of such mal-adjusted kids thrust into their midst.
Those who go to Muslim schools are in a minority. Most Muslims choose not to send their kids to Islamic schools under the odd impression that their children will suffer academically, and thus not make it to medical school. Besides the fact that that is a false notion, the Faustian bargain comes in: sacrifice your child to hellfire so he can be a rich doctor in this life. Why not let them be a good Muslim and be a rich doctor so they can have the best of both worlds!
This digression is just an explanation of the seriousness of the problem. The children of most “Muslim” families get little to no Islamic training and thus add to the ranks of the false notion that our community is growing. The immigrant young man who drowns in a sea of pleasure, with next to no chance of rediscovering real Islam, the children of converts and immigrants who get sucked into the quagmire of a non-Muslim lifestyle and frame of mind and thus disappear from our community, the disillusioned women who see more freedom and respect among non-Muslims than in the Masjid- all of these add to the ranks of the unwitting apostates who spill out of the cup of Islam like a torrent everyday.
I use the term unwitting because for many of them, they never had that deep of a commitment to Islam from the get go. They were never taught Islam the way it should be taught; they had no chance to build an identity as a Muslim; they were thrust among non-Muslims and took their world-view as their own, so much so, that, even though a nostalgia for Islam might exist in some of them, they don’t identify it as a viable or practical lifestyle for them in their personal life.
You have to read between the lines. Azra Nomani, Irshad Manji, Progressive Muslim Union, Omar Safi, Asma Gul Hasan, Stephen Shwartz, Amina Wadud: what are they all representing? What is all of this really about? You see, Islam, at its core, is a really noble religion. The Qur’an is quite a majestic book, and even though we have a lot of difficult translations, the message is quite inspiring and direct. The hadiths contain so many wonderful nuggets of wisdom that anyone would feel inclined to them. Then, when you look at all the great poetry and art that has come out of Islamic civilization, combined with the great story of the Prophet and the Sahaba, you get a very appealing way of life and ideology.
So all the people, whose personal lifestyles are not exactly traditionally Islamic, who are out there leading mixed gender prayers with female imams, crying for acceptance of gay rights in Islam or calling for an end to discrimination in the Masjid, are really people who want to follow Islam deep down in their hearts, but they’ve been so messed up by bad parents, immersion in public schools, straddling many worlds at once and left with little guidance or community support as they meandered through a variety of nafs-related escapades, that they strike out at traditional Islamic values, not realizing that those are not the problem. The problem is that the Muslim world, as a whole, has largely forgotten how to be an inclusive, God-oriented entity.
Muslims have lost touch, generally, with the noble qualities of Islam, qualities such as compassion, understanding, tolerance and progressiveness (from within an Islamic framework, of course). We have become like the Bani Isra’il: steeped in legalism, harshness and intolerance. In the same way that Prophet Jesus was sent to breath new life into them, we must learn to reinvigorate ourselves.
Look, if I had learned Islam through one of those “angry” Muslims, I doubt I would have become a Muslim. Instead, it was just me and the Qur’an, and then after that, it was me and Sahih Bukhari. We had a great time together and I wrestled with issues, thought about the meaning of what I read and came away with the impression that Islam is really the best way of life a human being can experience. But then I met the Muslims.
There were the good, the bad and the ugly. Most, however, were just fine. The Arabs and Indo-Paks I met were generally nice people, much more well mannered than the typical non-Muslim. But around the edges are a lot of ignorant Muslims whose habits and understandings were so off the Qur’anic standard that you were left asking, “What the heck are these people in Islam for?”
It took me a while to learn some valuable lessons, but I am a better person for it. I learned that you cannot, ever, judge a religion or culture by the standard of the worst among its members. Second, I learned that people are people, no matter what religion they are, and there are a lot of human foibles and shortcomings that you just cannot escape. There are mean nosey old church ladies, just as there are mean nosey old Masjid ladies (no offense to the elderly!) There are big, overbearing Buddhist men, just as there are big, overbearing, Muslim men. There are lying, hypocritical Jewish women, just as there are lying, hypocritical Muslim women. The list goes on. You have to realize that a religion must be judged on the merit of its teachings, not on what some people do or how poor an example some are. And you can’t overlook the good gems among the people of any religion. Doesn’t the Qur’an tell us there are Jews and Christians who will return, gladly, money entrusted to them?
If we are involved in the life of the Muslim community, we can’t take every bad experience and make it the standard for how we view Muslims. What about the good things? It’s hard to do, but you have to realize not every Muslim you meet will be friendship material for you. Personalities are different, and the best you can do is hang around like-minded people who understand you and whom you understand. Then, when you go to a Masjid, the antics of the ignorant won’t bother you, just as the antics of the racist in the grocery store also will not bother you.
The “progressive” Muslims are crying out for help and understanding, and all we offer is condemnation. This is where we fail. Look at the Sirah and the Sahaba. All the time the Prophet (p) was reaching out to people, even to hypocrites! Some of the more aggressive Sahaba wanted to deal sternly with Abdullah ibn Ubayy, but the Prophet stayed their hand. People came to the Prophet (p) with odd habits, odd ideas, whatever, and he was generally very patient and wise in his actions. A Jew went to him and demanded to be repaid a loan, and the Prophet rebuked Umar for getting mad at the Jew. The list goes on and on.
I’ve thought about it for years now. My God how I’ve thought about the problem! With a family of my own now, I’ve always tried to conceptualize what kind of chance there would be for my grandchildren after I am gone, to be good Muslims in a vibrant movement. Did I convert so that my grandchildren could be sucked back into the pleasure-driven chaos of modern society? Do I want to spend my whole life trying to get in the line to Jannah, only to have the distinct possibility arise that my children and grandchildren and so on will be in the line to Hell! What a waste of a life then!
Even Jeffrey Lang, the well-known author, has wrestled with this in a number of books (which I recommend reading). His latest is even provocatively entitled, “Losing My Religion,” in which he laments the Islamic future of his own children. Most of the book, it seems, is taken up with a discussion about those people who are distressed by some of the more odd or strange seeming hadiths. (You know, the ones where we read that trees will talk and say kill the Jew behind me, or that say women are the majority of hellfire, or that say Suleiman slept with 300 wives in one night, etc...)
Just as an aside, I have a great formula for dealing with the hadith literature that is much simpler than learning to become a scholar of hadith. Whenever you read the hadiths, keep this point in mind: You can mentally separate the hadiths into three categories:
1. The inspirational and guiding lights.
2. The mundane affairs of the world, including reports of everyday life in the seerah.
3. The odd or strange ones that sound out of character with the Qur'an's message.
So the rule is: Live by the first, learn from the second and take the third with a grain of salt!
Now returning again to the subject at hand. We know we have a problem. The youth are being unwittingly kept out of Islam by parents who let non-Muslims teach them their culture and values. Muslim immigrants, by and large, come to America seeking money and have little Islamic knowledge, thus many assimilate, though a few rediscover Islam later in life. Masjids are generally places where women are discriminated against by cultural traditions from backward lands.
Now what do you do when people from those three categories want to enter into a meaningful Islamic lifestyle? They find roadblocks at every turn and thus go on the offensive, often more aggressively than they need to, thinking that they must revolutionize and transform Islam so they will have a welcome place in it and their values. This is what’s been going on. Do you see it now? The Masjids keep the women out, and Western-oriented women have been raised not to take such discrimination lying down. The Muslim community is trying to preserve Arab/Indo-Pak customs that are not really Islamic, and the Western raised youth are rebelling. The immigrants who are rediscovering Islam want a professional, caring and mature congregation of fellow believers, but all they’re finding is the bickering and in-fighting of their long ago homelands.
What to do? What to do? What to do? I’ve tried to conceptualize things from many angles. What is needed? A new organization? More money? Activists? More books? More Islamic Schools? New Masjid rules? What? What will improve things? How do we meet the needs of our dedicated Muslim Masjid-goers, our American-raised youth, our disaffected women, our Muslims-in-name-onlys who want desperately to get back into Islam with respect and dignity because they know it is the best game in town for the satisfaction of the soul?
Here are some thoughts. You don’t have to agree with them, and I certainly am not a person who would impose myself on others. If they get you thinking- heck, if they get you mad enough to come up with your own proposal- then I’ll feel I’ve done my part. I did not become a Muslim so that my child would be a kafir after me. Drill that in your head for your own child. Drill it in over and over and then read on. Below I’ve identified a number of areas where we need to get our act together.
- We don’t have learning materials that are relevant to this environment. We need a good, solid American English edition of the Qur’an that our young people, converts, and da’wah contacts will adopt as a standardized text. This Wild West of translations that we have is so unnerving that none of the translations get read. You can’t have a Qur’anic study circle when one person has Yusuf Ali, another has Malik and yet a third has Pickthal. As much as the KJV and the RSV of the Bible provide a unified book among large blocks of Christians, we need an appropriate edition of the Qur’an in English. I'm involved in this kind of project right now and could use a helping hand.
(By the way, if you think the solution is to teach everyone Arabic to read the Qur’an in the original language, keep dreaming. American Christians don't even try to learn Latin, Aramaic, or Greek. The most we can hope for is what many Jewish congregations do: offer rudimentary language classes to their rank and file to give them at least a slight connection to the original language. I have worked in Muslim schools for years and in that time I haven't met more than two students who ever learned Arabic competently.)
- The same above goes true for the hadith books. There needs to be one, single hadith book with one thousand or so hadith that are the most relevant to Muslim life today. Forget all this sahih sitta stuff. Your average Muslim is lost in the wilderness with so many editions, repetitions, text-heavy books and such. Perhaps one day I will have the ability to do this, but there are so many brothers and sisters who can do this kind of work. Won't anyone take up the challenge?
- The national organizations that exist need to transform themselves and their way of thinking. I would suggest for them to avoid reinventing the wheel and duplicating the work that is done better by others. ICNA should concentrate more on da’wah. ISNA should concentrate more on Masjid unifying. MAS should concentrate more on youth programs. Leave civil rights things to CAIR. Leave relief work to the established relief organizations. Then, after each group finds its niche, then they can all come together as integral parts of a wheel into some sort of super-national body.
- Muslims need to redefine who they are. We mostly define ourselves in terms of opposition. We are opposed to (fill-in-the-blank) foreign policy. We are opposed to (fill-in-the-blank) Muslim sect. We are opposed to (fill-in-the-blank) activity. With all this opposition, is it any wonder that most people, many Muslims included, have no idea what Islam is for? We need to reconnect with the core message of salvation that is at the heart of our faith: Accept God into your heart (eman), surrender to His will (Islam), and lead a life of goodness and morality (ihsan), though if you stumble and sin, you can ask for His forgiveness (tawba), and if you keep God ever in mind (taqwa), then He will grant you heaven after your physical body perishes (fawzul kabir, or ultimate success). This is the exact line of thinking that our religion calls for. All this talk of jihad, hudood punishments, legal fiqhi theories, and what not does us no good, either among ourselves or our neighbors. When did we forget what our purpose in life was?
- This one may sound strange, and it may get some people upset, but if I don’t write it down it’s going to continue to eat me up inside. Our Masjids must be transformed into places of welcome for all Muslims, even the backslidden or weak ones, and also for non-Muslims. The Masjid is not some mini-Islamic state where we have to enforce “strict codes”. It is the first and last place of teaching, knowledge and da’wah. Not everyone who goes in will be a perfect Muslim, and our driving away of the weak in faith and the uncertain among us is doing more harm than good.
When a woman who wants to strengthen her Eman, or even learn about Islam for the first time, walks in the Masjid with no hijab on, what is the typical response? She will most likely be rebuked, frowned upon or made to feel unwelcome. It reminds me of Surah 'Abasa, in which Allah rebukes the Prophet for giving all his attention to the hotshot noble, while ignoring the weak and oppressed blind man who wanted to learn something more about his religion.
I say to you: “Let women come to the Masjid. Make them feel welcome, even if they don’t wear hijab. Say nothing about it, nor frown, nor be judgmental. Don’t you realize, with gentle teaching, kind words and patience, they may grow in Eman and adopt the hijab out of conviction, thus strengthening our community ten-fold? Doesn’t the Qur’an counsel us saying that if we are harsh with the weak in faith and the new believers that they would run away from us. Instead, the Qur’an advises us to overlook their faults, pray for their forgiveness and teach with wisdom.
Don't you realize that religion and culture are not preserved and passed on by the men? It is the women who safeguard and teach our values to our next generation. If you keep the women of our Ummah out of the Masjid, you keep Islam from remaining in your family tree. If you only allow women in the Masjid who are already perfect, then the vast majority of the women with Muslim names will never learn Islam and they won't be able to pass it on to their children. Instead, they'll pass on whatever mix of culture and taghut that they live by. Make accommodation in your Masjids for the non-hijabis who happen to be the majority of the females of our community here in the United States. Make them welcome. Don't treat them as babies in need of constant lecturing, either. Let them grow in eman under the broad care of a caring Ummah so they can wrestle with faith in their hearts and come to Allah from sincere devotion at their own pace.
There, I’ve said it. Now I feel better. (We should still insist on the hijab for the performance of the actual Salat ritual, as it is a fard according to the hadith.) Every day when the girls leave our Islamic school, and the vast majority pop that hijab off their heads, and every day when mothers come to our Islamic school, hastily draping a dupatta over their head, I always imagine, what place is there for them in our Ummah, our Movement? Surely it would benefit both them and us if we took that chip of righteousness off our shoulders and took a da'wah-centric view of our time here.
Even beyond this, tear down the walls separating men and women in the Masjid. My God, if the Prophet didn’t have them, who are we to erect them? It’s so funny when you hear the people defend the partitions, saying that the men and women should be hidden so that “fitnah” doesn’t occur. What! Are they suggesting that the Masjid-goers are suddenly going to pair off and duck into dark corners! If that were such a dangerous problem in a holy place with fully dressed Muslims, then what of all those Muslim men who work closely, very closely, with scantily-clad secretaries and other women in their places of employment! Better we should force the men to stay home and remain jobless to protect their chastity! Really, to be serious, our Masjids are going to have to be run on the Prophetic model if they are going to survive, not on the Pakistani or Arab model.
- Community life: Muslims need to learn to live around each other. I've heard so many excuses from mostly brothers about why they think it's a bad idea for Muslims to live together in Muslim majority neighborhoods. Well, besides the fact that the Sahaba would spin in their graves at such a position, how else will your family, your children, ever feel they have a community. The Jews live together in majority Jewish neighborhoods, and our leaders spare no effort telling us how smart and successful they think Jews are. They tell us to emulate their example here. Well, it seems they are only talking about the concentration of wealth and power. Jews have a vibrant community life. We don't. Look, Jews are quite fortunate that their identity is based on race/ethnic factors. A Jew can be an atheist, Orthodox or consider himself nothing at all, but he will still be proud of his heritage. Anyone in his family tree can rediscover their "Jewishness" and pick up a Taurah and believe in it. For we Muslims (and Christians) the situation is completely different: identity is based on knowledge that is passed from one mouth to another. If there is any break in the chain of transmission- Boom! Your family tree will take on another religious color. You know that most Muslims, immigrant, second and third generation and converts are living isolated from other Muslims and that nearly all of them are either one step away from kufr or already there. If your neighbors were mostly Muslims, however, and you heard the adhan being called five times a day, and most of the workers in the post office were Muslims, and some of your children's teachers in the local public school were Muslims, then, even if you were not such a good teacher for your children, you would be able to feel reasonably confidant that Islam would survive in your family after you.
I once read a story in which a scholar, Hassan al Basri, predicted that there would come a time in which a believer would look at his fellow Muslims, and find them so lax and backslidden, that he would say to them, "You have no Islam." I've thought about the objections that many Muslims have put forward to Muslims living together in the West and I've hit upon the real reason so many are against it: so many Muslims are engaged in haram activities that they wouldn't want the peer pressure to reform themselves being put upon them. Really now, if you live more than ten minutes drive from a Masjid, which world are you choosing to make your children a part of?
I’m trying to do my part in this process of effecting meaningful Islamically-inspired progress. I write books and articles. I teach in an Islamic school. I give speeches and khutbas. I know not everyone can contribute in the same way. So how ‘bout it? Are you up to doing your share to keep your children and grandchildren on the path to heaven?
I will spend my life dedicated to these propositions. Will you?