Archive for June 25, 2016

Muslim Matters: Muslim Conversations

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So I believe that culturally we are uniquely positioned to speak to certain aspects of our society. Now, I’m not saying there is an American “us” and an American “them”, but what I am saying is that there’s a certain part of the community that we can directly speak to. And it would be great to see more and more of that happening. Something similar to what the NOI did. They were so relevant that certain people found connections with the NOI immediately. So I would like to see something like that on a much larger scale.
JB: In your opinion, what should be the role of the born Muslim with regards to their interactions with converts?
ISW: Well on both sides I think that there needs to be more religious tolerance, and everyone needs to just give us a break and understand that we have to make certain calls for our convert community. Our attitudes are more relaxed than most post-colonial communities, our nuances and activism might be a little different than what that community is used to. There needs to be a level of mutual understanding and a sense of self-governance to a certain degree. Allow us to handle and tackle issues that we as converts are better equipped to handle.
JB: Do you ever see the convert/non-convert dichotomy every going away? Do you see converts ever being able to fully assimilate into the community without having that convert designation?
ISW: Yeah I think so, I mean people like Imam Zaid Shakir have done that really well. Dr. Umar Farooq Abdullah, Dr. Ingrid Mattson.
JB: So what is that one elusive variable that allows someone to transcend all of that?
ISW: Time. I think we have to realize something, which is that our communities are kind of like what we see in the film “Poverty Inc.” in that they tend to profit from the poor even though they are there to benefit the poor. Not all of charities and organizations of course, more so ones like the IMF (International Monetary Fund). But I do think that the community tends to benefit from the presence of converts. Converts are a constant reminder that Islam is still guiding people. And all that’s great to a certain degree, and I mean it’s great experience but you don’t have to own it. If that person has converted then they have converted. You know, I really like when Imam Marc Manley says, “Conversion is a moment, and then Islam is the process.” You hear people talking saying things like, “Oh, meet this convert he has been Muslim for eight years now.” Why don’t we ever refer to ‘Umar raḍyAllāhu ‘anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) as a convert, or even all of the companions? However, I don’t think it’s a negative from the non-convert community. I honestly just think that it reminds them of the greatness of Islam and they’re happy to see it. They’re genuinely overjoyed to see Islam permeating the bowels of disbelief and bringing people up to the light of guidance.
Therefore, I would encourage communities to have conversations. Imam Khalid Latif did this brilliantly in Manhattan. What he did was he had a panel of just converts speaking to this massive hall of non-converts, and I think what would be even better than that would be to turn this into mosque policy. I think converts should speak to people in institutions and then craft some sort of understanding about language and programming. That’s when you create a real opportunity for cohesion. Unfortunately though, we are not talking to each other. We tend to think the worst of each other.
JB: Despite the fact the fact that male and female converts both share similar experiences upon conversion, there are undoubtedly certain issues that are specific to the sisters, such as finding a trustworthy wali (male guardian or representative), dressing modestly, and divorcing their non-Muslim husbands. How would you advise our sisters and the religious leadership to address some of these issues?
ISW: I think with initial converts we need to discover the rulings in Islam that allow new Muslims certain concessions when they are valid, even if it goes against a specific text. [I advise] don’t divorce your non-Muslim husbands, at least not right away. I say that because those special and sacred non-negotiable texts didn’t just come to the companions overnight. Like ḥijāb (the veil), it came 13 or 16 years later. I mean, I understand the verse “today I have completed your religion and completed my favor upon you” (5:3). I get it. But I also look at the prophetic statement “And whatever I have commanded of you, do the most that you can.” It’s very difficult to expect a person to apply all the rulings of Islam in a short period of time. It’s irresponsible and it’s irrational.
And what I’ve seen is people go in that way and then go out much quicker. I think that’s why I said we have a need for independent institutions.
For example, I got a guy that comes to my ḥalaqah (study circle) right now high as a kite on weed. And I know he’s high because I used to get high too. Nonetheless, he comes to the ḥalaqah. So hopefully he will slowly begin to open up, have conversations, and then find the spiritual motivation to struggle and overcome that vice. But if I just start going in on him about why he smokes, I may lose him. He may never come back to the ḥalaqah again. Ibn al-Qayyim talks about this when he poses the question, “Is it allowed for a person who has an infinite number of sins to just work on a few?” In other words, get those right and then move on to the next. And he says absolutely yes, because it’s illogical to burden someone with all of that at once. So one of the challenges that we have, like you and I as sharī’ah students, and this is going to hurt you and I a little bit when I say this, but we have introduced a language of law to people when there are many other languages of Islam. First thing people are worried about is “Can I do this, can I do that?”, which is important no doubt. But there are other languages of Islam, like the language of love. And of course love is then tied into the rulings of law. There are so many different languages to our religion not just the language of law.
So I think the issue with these sisters specifically and with converts in general is that we need to find the concessions that work for them when it is allowed. There will be times where we need to make fatāwah (personalized legal verdicts) for those people. We need to get across the fact that we understand what they are going through, that they are facing certain issues and that they have their own unique set of challenges. So when we speak to them, we make sure that we get across the fact that we are not telling them what they are doing is right, and that we are not encouraging them to continue, but rather tell them just like Chris Rock said in one of his standup routines, “I understand,” and we’re here to try and help you.
Whenever Allah talks about a convert, He uses words like the word iḥyā’ (revitalization), the word inshirāḥ (spreading out, opening), it’s always a word about growth and resurrection, life and blossoming. So our job is to facilitate the process of blossoming. Allah is the one who plants the seeds, He’s the one who causes people to blossom. So we should take to heart what the famous scholar Imām ash-Shāṭibi says in his work al-Muwāfaqāt. He says that the mufti (the legal jurist capable of issuing legal rulings) must treat people like a doctor. If you over medicate you poison their liver, but if you under medicate they die of an infection. So the goal for the muftī is to carry them on the middle path in order to stabilize that person.
I had a stripper convert. She was in my office and she’s crying and she told me she met a Muslim guy at her work, what a story. We have to realize that her struggle, and people like her, is not like a “tomorrow I’m fixed” type of struggle, there’s a ton of issues at play; psychological issues, abuse issues, their hatred of men. So the first thing I told her was to not tell anyone in the community what she does for a living, obviously because it’s no one’s business and secondly they may not like what they hear. I also asked her how she fell into that career because I wanted to learn. So she said, “My father is non-ambulatory, my brother is a drug addict, so there was no one in my home to earn money. I don’t even have a GED.” She told me that she doesn’t have the skill set to read and write properly, and this is in America! A white girl! She’s told me that that line of work was the only thing she could do. She said she hated it because she was a Muslim doing this.
So the average person in our community cannot imagine what facing that type of challenge must be like. So my job at that moment is to find someone who can find her a job so she can begin to earn a ḥalāl (lawful) living, the answer is not to find her a husband. The answer is to find her a source of income. So that’s what I meant by institutional and financial support. So I think with women in general, conversion needs to be explained. I think the statement, “There is no deity worthy of worship except Allah” needs to be explained very well, because it involves a form of divesting and investing. “There is no deity worthy of worship” is a person saying, I’m divesting from other than Allah, and the last portion, “except Allah” is a person saying, I’m investing completely in Allah. Both of those entail applying the rules and regulations of Islam, learning, and growing.
What I loved about the people from where I converted was this idea of constant change. You constantly uncover things about yourself that you need to address and fix. It wasn’t like one day you wake up and you are ‘Umar raḍyAllāhu ‘anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him). So I think with these sisters, finding qualified scholarship, and trying our hardest to keep them offline. Oh my God, so much damage is being done to people with all these online fatwas. In Azhar and I’m sure here in Madinah, you are actually taught how to read a fatwa, how to criticize it. Is the language correct, is the logic right? Is it written in a way that is suitable and fits the person inquiring? And that’s one of many challenges. But I think it would be great to see a tafsīr (an explanation of the Qur’an) for converts, or a book of fiqh (Islamic legal rulings) for converts. The Maliki school of thought in its books actually discusses all kinds of scenarios in the various chapters of fiqh, and they’ll put a disclaimer at the end, “except for new Muslims.” Even fornication, drinking, wearing a cross, and I even think Imām Dasūqī says even if that person is walking to church. If they’re a new Muslim you have to give that person a break. And that’s not to say that the break is the goal, the break is a means to reach capacity.
So I think with a lot of these people we need to give them the idea that they are on a spiritual trajectory, they made a covenant with Allah, and it means that over time you will be changing. Our job is to facilitate that process; to help them grow, help them learn acquisition of actions and knowledge that will aid them in their growth as a Muslim and then deal with the rulings more in a step by step fashion. I mean if you are asking a woman to leave her husband, just think of the systemic outcome of that. It could be financial, it could cause her to give up her kids, she could very well end up homeless, it may subject her to scorn from her family. It could really lead to bigger problems. And that’s why scholars say to not give a fatwā that leads to basically a bigger can of worms, to another thousand rulings. I mean, what if she lives in a place where Islamophobia is hot and the husband takes her to court and accuses her of being a terrorist and they take her kids? I mean all kinds of stuff. So I suggest we get to know each other first, build relationships, build a community, be nuanced, and then begin to kind of dissect these little issues.
I actually thought about my first week as a Muslim, there was probably like 7,000 new rulings. I’m serious, just the number of things I ran into. Like my mom has a dog, they eat pork at the table, they drink. I tried to go back and literally count them all. I was going to write a book about the things I faced in those first seven days. It was like 7000 new rulings, it was an infinite number. So I called this African-American brother I knew, Abdul Salaam, who taught me at that time. I told him, I have a girlfriend, I have this and that, I mean I was completely overwhelmed. He was like, “Brother…tawḥeed, ṭahārah, and ṣalāh (knowing Allah, purification, and prayer). For the first 8 months I just want you to learn how to pray.” I had one of those little books, with transliteration, and I just used to read that. Then he said he wanted me to read this book by Bilal Philips. After that, he wanted me to join this thing called a ḥalaqah. It was like a one year program. But now with the internet, and the sheer amount of information out there it complicates things. People say to me, “Oh, it must have been difficult back then”, but no it was easy because you were able to dose what you learn.
But I think it would be good to see some materials, study materials, written from the perspective of a convert, written in a way that speaks to some of the issue. I had a sister who converted and she was like 16 at the time. Her mother was an evangelical Christian, really hardcore. And this girl, may Allah bless her, said that she had to hide fasting from her mom. So she went out and bought these protein shakes and would keep them under her bed. She would have a protein shake for suḥūr (pre-dawn meal, eaten prior to the commencement of fasting) and one for ifṭār (post-fast meal, eaten after the sun has set). That’s all she was having, and this was when the days were long. At ifṭār time, she said she would have to go to the restroom and pray in the restroom, drink her protein shake in the restroom. And when I mentioned that to some people they started attacking me, like how can you say someone can pray in the restroom? First, go back and read what the Maliki school has said about this issue, it’s very clear. Secondly, that’s a specific challenge that no one can understand. She even started to lose a lot of weight and her hair started falling out because she wasn’t eating properly. So there has to be that understanding, it has to be as if you are wearing their clothes as my teacher would say. The muftī has to wear their clothes, they have to really know the depth of the issue, because the ultimate goal is to bring people to the obedience of Allah and to help them get to that point.