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Us and Them

 

By Staff Writer

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I hear the terms “Islamic World” and “Western World” thrown around a lot. I know I am guilty of using them myself. This dichotomy is dangerous. It is a demonstration of how the prejudices and misunderstandings between Muslims and non-Muslims are coded into language itself. It suggests that there are no Muslims in the West, at least no real Muslims. It suggests that Western ideology is incompatible with Islamic teaching. It is an equation of us and them. When I began my journey into Islam, I saw these and other lines being drawn. The world was carved up into smaller and smaller sections, then the ummah was sliced and diced. Identity was concrete, unshifting, and singular. Which side would I choose?

I regret to admit that other Muslims became the biggest obstacle for me after I accepted Islam. Immediately after I took shahada, people began asking me when I would change my name. Some even made suggestions. “Frank” was their name. For many of my brothers and sisters, I had crossed an invisible boundary between two halves of myself that could not coexist. However, the line that separated my life before and after Islam was so close and so thin. They failed to realize that just minutes before I entered the masjid for the first time, I was on the other side of that line. I was “them.” I understood that this was how many brothers and sisters in my community viewed non-Muslims. They did not see the potential waiting to be awakened by something as small as a smile or a kind word. They saw only the differences, and they were closing their ranks.

Later, I decided I wanted to grow a beard. I also started wearing a taqiyah. It was a personal decision that was important to my identity, and it had a profound effect on my relationships with both Muslims and non-Muslims. People were comfortable with my spiritual choices, but now I had begun to look like “those Muslims.” The reaction of non-Muslims hurt though did not surprise me. I was not prepared for the reaction from other Muslims, however. One brother told me to shave and take off my prayer cap. I was giving “them the wrong idea.” By “them” I assume he meant the general non-Muslim public. In the moment, I was too shocked to ask. He was ashamed of his identity. He separated Muslims based on their appearance and not their character. My physical appearance was wrong to him because it did not conform to his neat and careful boundaries. This was a brother in Islam. If he could not understand my need to express my identity, then who could?

This behavior is only a symptom of a larger issue. Quite simply, the average Muslim community is not equipped to deal with the needs of converts and reverts. The strategies used to approach converts and reverts are out of touch with the realities we face. As a result, I found myself holding onto the religion as much out of spite as belief. I was measured against one of two unrealistic standards. Some assumed that I knew nothing and could learn nothing, so I should be made to conform to their personal interpretations of Islam. For them, my faith was something to be scrutinized constantly and publicly. My shortcomings would serve as examples to other Muslims about the dangers of growing up without Islam. Others set their expectations higher—much higher. I was setup to fail, and I have come to understand that my situation is quite normal for converts and reverts. By many accounts, mine is quite tame.

I was given a lot of pamphlets, usually poorly translated from Urdu or Arabic. I was given a lot of books. Most of this information was absolutely meaningless to me at that stage in my spiritual development. Did I really need to know the difference between land and sea crabs when it came to the permissibility of consumption a week after embracing Islam? I did not even know how or when to pray. I ended up teaching myself. I actually responded to the literature I was given. I am a voracious reader and studied literature and writing in college. Many converts do not share these interests or training, and I wonder how they navigated this information from which they were supposed to learn Islam. Any conversation I had with other Muslims quickly devolved into what I was doing right and what I was doing wrong. I saw my spiritual journey reduced to a list of what I could and could not do. Belief was nowhere to be found. God was nowhere to be found.

Communities often quarantine converts. There is a tendency to push converts toward other converts, and in my case, toward other white Muslims. I recognize the need for converts to support one another and for events and services that cater to our unique situation. However, integration into the larger community was more important and beneficial for my development as a Muslim. I was not interested in satisfying someone else’s myopic definition of who and what I was based on the novelty of my skin color and place of birth. Islam calls for diversity and harmony. I kept wondering, “At what point do I become a Muslim—just a Muslim?” The answer, unfortunately, is never. I will always need to explain and defend my decision. Every time I enter a new community, I am starting over because segregation rather than integration is the default approach.

Born Muslims face similar problems, especially if they are struggling with their beliefs and practices. I remember attending an event about how to give dawah. At one point, as we began delegating responsibilities, a brother suggested that sisters who did not cover their hair should be prohibited from participating in the event. He did not want guests at the event to “get the wrong idea.” There it was again. Another line in the sand. The first person to give dawah to me was one such sister—not a sheikh; not a brother wearing a thobe or beard. Today, I might not seek her out for spiritual advice, but there was a time when she did know more than me—she knew of the Oneness of God and the message delivered to Muhammad. She knew that the Qur’an was a book whose wisdom would benefit me. Most importantly, she chose to share this knowledge with me; she reached out to me. After I became a Muslim, it was other Muslims like her that reached out to me. They struggled with their belief. They missed prayers. They fought to reconcile their cultural identity with their religious obligations. They did not always live up to the expectations their family set for them. They taught me one of the most important lessons I have learned about my religion: Islam is not a destination; Islam is a journey. It is a path that was never meant to be divided. It is meant for all people, and it is meant to be shared. The ummah is only as strong as the weakest Muslim.

I am not judging the faith of the people who helped me in those first days. They stopped the chaos of their own life for me, a complete stranger, because of a shared faith. I believe their intentions came from a good place and that they sincerely believed they were helping me. Perhaps having grown up with Islam, they took for granted the things I was only just discovering. What was simple and obvious to them was new and profound for me. I was in a process of reevaluating the fundamental aspects of my life, from the food I ate to the clothes I wore; the way I socialized to my relationship with family and friends. My identity as a Muslim began with my belief in God and the message His prophets have brought, but it does not end there. It does not come at the expense of or in spite of my American identity. The lines we draw around ourselves are prisons not fortifications, and the world is a better place without them.