Why Religion?


Readers may scold me for saying so, but religion is for people, not God. Religion is an important means by which people live a coherent life according to common standards. It works in community, not isolation. It works even better when the greater community– schools, stores, offices, even government– encourage conduct approved by the dominant religion. America was supposed to be a secular country, but its population always has been overwhelmingly Christian, and its culture reflects Christian values, especially concerning holidays. Other religions are free to develop and flourish, of course, but they do so in minority. They do so successfully to the degree that they are able to form and maintain community which integrates into American culture.

Do you doubt that religion cannot be sustained in isolation? How does society label a person who claims to bring a new religion, a person who engages in new behaviors built upon an ideology to which no one else subscribes? It happened to our own prophet Mohammed, SAW. Some people called him crazy.

I suppose a case could be made for all religion being the work of mental derangement, yet what is mental derangement if not a singular baffling and obscure departure from the accepted standards of community behavior? Let us leave this argument alone, as it peers over a slippery slope that offers nothing but discomfort, confusion, and ultimate isolation. Let us return to something more manageable– our own religion and culture.

People, not Allah, need religion, and people are capable of changing it. In Islam, we call that change bidah— innovation— and it is not allowed, according to scholars who have spent years with the original texts. Nevertheless, religion changes. It evolves, and that is not an undesirable tendency. Religion must adapt, just like any other discipline, to new and useful developments in secular society. In Islam, we call that ijtihad, and we are all free to exercise the right of it, within limits. Granted, our independent ijtihad may not coincide with the “legal” decisions that have been, and are being made, by scholarly persons who have devoted their lives to learning the sources of Islam. However, those persons do not live in our skins, do not move within our families, our jobs, our neighborhoods. Legal decisions based on ijtihad do not take into account the diversity and the difficulties of living Islamically in modern Western society. The goal of intent must include integration and reconciliation with non-Muslims in our personal spheres.

Therefore, when new Muslims are unsure about a behavior, such as visiting Christian family members on their holidays, or keeping a dog in the house, or listening to music, they are wise to consider their motivation with respect to the spirit of Islamic intent. In other words, use common sense before starting threads on FB entitled, “Are We Allowed to …….?”.

Are we Muslims allowed? Are you, as a new Muslim, allowed? Do you have common sense? Do you how much the practice of your religion depends upon the ease with which you integrate it into your participation in the necessary yet secular cultural institutions?

Over the years, I have read and contributed to many discussions about how we might “fit in” as Muslims, especially as covert Muslims. I am usually scolded, because I do not support rigid adherence to strict behavioral tendencies seen in Islamic practice. Those behaviors bring conflict with family members and employers. Without the support of our families and employers we bring nothing but unpleasantness– or worse– upon ourselves. To what extent are these conflicts unavoidable as we strive to adhere to what we think is required in Islam?

Each of us must answer, and find a way to minimize conflicts while maximizing our involvement in community– both the community of our fellow Muslims and that of the wider Western culture.






Hijab– the Perenial Argument

No person can approach Islam without considering that glaring badge of belonging– the head-covering of women. My comments in this post refer to the physical expression of hijab– the headscarf. I won’t post evidence for it or against, nor will I cite sources supporting my position. Each person is free to research and accept what he/she wishes to accept with regard to the meaning and/or necessity of  hijab.

There are two reasons hijab is such a constant and controversial subject. The first is that it carries multiple meanings that many women fail to understand. The second, and perhaps more obvious, is that hijab makes a visual, obvious and unspoken statement about a woman’s religion.

Rather than take a position for or against, I take a position at the intersection of the figure-eight, at the center, between the militant hijabis and the most liberal of liberals.

All are correct. All women are free to use hijab for whatever benefit it can bring them. If you think hijab is a spiritual practice that brings you closer to Allah, and if you wear it, or wish to wear it, then do so confidently. If you think it a requirement from Allah, then do your best to observe it. You will find support for your position, if you need  support.

If you think hijab is not required, or that it does nothing to support your faith, or if you dislike it, reject it, or think it is irrelevant to your faith, then leave it– with impunity. You will find support for your position, if you need support.

If you wish to wear it only at the mosque or when you wish to advertise your Islam, know that you can do so. Head covering is not an all or nothing affair, unless you wish to make it so.

I would ask all of you to keep in mind that hijab holds multiple meanings for Muslim women. Each woman is free to use hijab– or not use it– in support of whatever meaning resonates with her. We must realize that an uncovered Muslimah is no less a Muslimah than a covered one, nor is a covered woman is more pious, more observant, or more educated than an uncovered woman. If she is more pious or educated, her status should not be inferred based on what’s on or off her head.

If we want equality  and respect for women, we must recognize within our own ranks that hijab is a versatile practice, with levels of meaning. We must understand and support our sister Muslimahs, whether they practice  head hijab or not. We must not forget that hijab originates  as a concept, and embraces many aspects of feminine–and masculine– strength as well as modesty.  With regard to practice, hijab can permeate all aspects of person’s existence, not only the head.

When head hijab can be worn, not worn, accepted, ignored, and seen without judgement, Muslims will have achieved a milestone in their ability to function effectively in Western society.



Variation in Islam

I just read an article about “moderate Islam,” as opposed to “fundamentalist Islam.” Such degrees of severity were not known before the catastrophe of 9/11. So-called “moderate Islam” seems somehow more acceptable and less violent than its “fundamentalist” counterpart.  Neither concept makes sense to me, but let’s continue, using the idea that Islam can be practiced in different ways.

Is there such a thing as “Islam Light”? That would be the type I’d like, as would many of us who must live in a non-Muslim-majority country.  Actually, there are no such  degrees in Islam to describe the perceived severity or discipline with which one practices.

There are different ways of practice, to be sure, which could be described as “sects”, though I dislike that word as much as I dislike “moderate” and “fundamentalist.”. We know of the most numerous groups: Sunni, Salafi, Shia’a, Sufi. There is also a group of Muslims calling themselves, “Progressives,” and “Qur’an only.” I needn’t add to the list. You get the idea. Islam can be practiced with some variation.

Those of us lucky enough to have found a local Islamic community would do well to accept the standard practice of that community.

For instance, in my community, men and women communicate freely together. This ease of being, with regard to men and women, does not feel natural to me, given my formative years spent in Saudi Arabia. However, I accept that in my current community, men and women talk freely together, even joke with each other, with no implication of impropriety.

I’ve prayed in other communities where women would turn and give salaams to each other after each prayer. This greeting was ritualized, like the similar peace greeting given amongst parishioners during Christian mass. Someone told me, “That’s haram. It’s bidah– innovation.” Maybe so, but the responsibility is on that community, not a visitor or a newcomer trying to find his/her place.

In some Saudi communities, the women (and men, too, presumably) would stand with their legs slightly apart, so that the outer feet of each woman would touch the outer feet of her neighbors. This position emphasized unity, I was told. Again, it never felt right to me, but the old adage, “when in Rome…”  prevails even when in Muslim community.

When you are lucky enough to join a local community, you may encounter practices and attitudes that run contrary to what you’ve learned. Question them, for sure, but remain flexible, accepting, and open to the benefits of that community. The nourishment found in face-to-face community is valuable, readily overwhelming to the points of practical contention you may encounter. May Allah support your efforts, strengthen your faith, and give you a local, face-to-face community where you can develop your Muslim identity with ease.



What Attracted You?

New Muslims come to Islam first by  a reading, a person, or an idea that resonates with them. After conversion, however, after they encounter some of the challenges of practicing Islam in America, they tend to forget about what attracted them in the first place.

I want to remind Muslims not only to remember what attracted them to Islam, but to actively seek out that influence. It’s still available, and still potent, able to keep a convert connected when he/she feels alienated and enervated. I was first attracted by the prohibition of alcohol, but what really drew me in was the beauty of the recited Qur’an.

While preparing to go to Saudi Arabia for a job at King Faisal Specialist Hospital, I started reading about Islam. I learned that Islam prohibited alcohol. I wanted to remain safe from the excesses of alcohol’s ability to ruin relationships and, ultimately, lives. Then, when I first heard the Qur’an’s beautiful Arabic language, I started to pay attention to it, and to examples of happy, successful Muslims living in Saudi Arabia. Twelve years later, after having integrated myself fully in a satisfying Islamic lifestyle, I repatriated.

Once back in America, I was no longer surrounded by those attractive qualities that drew me in originally. I had to seek them out, but the difficulty in doing so put a great distance between me and the Islamic lifestyle that seemed effortless in Riyadh. Remaining Muslim was not easy, and I often  failed. During my working years, I nearly left Islam altogether due to the difficulty in practicing it, coupled with the paucity of supportive Muslim relationships. I always knew, however, that I would return.

Alhumdulillah, I did return. After retirement, I resumed my study of Arabic, and started attending the mosque regularly, in search of those wonderful Islamic qualities that first attracted me.

Many American converts, especially those in middle age, working and taking care of families, find themselves far away from an Islamic lifestyle. There’s not much to be done, they think. Maybe they are correct. Maybe you are one such person. If so, I urge you never to forget what drew you to Islam. Look for opportunities to engage with that quality, to bring it into your life, even superficially, with the intention of nurturing it, and keeping the ember glowing.

There are ways. We’ll consider them in future posts.



Testimony to Community

Alhumdulillah, I live near a wonderful, nurturing mosque. I’m taking my own advice. I’ve making efforts to participate more fully in my neighborhood mosque’s activities.

Every month, there is a potluck, “for converts.” The idea is that converts will come, tell their stories, and feel welcomed. I went last week for the first time. Two other converts in attendance told their stories, as did I. Afterwards, a lady commented that all these stories revolved around contact with Muslims, being touched by special persons who were able to show the best of Islam.

We converts were not convinced by theology, classes, lectures, books, and on-line activities alone, though we explored all of them. We did not convert on the strength of these numerous and commendable resources, but by contact with people.

Talking with Muslims, seeing their lives, their examples, their way of life, and  making friends with them all brought us into Islam. We wanted to be like them. Sure, we studied, watched lectures, read books, did the on-line activities, but when the decision came upon us, it was marked by our involvement with other Muslims.


Types of Community

I nearly lost interest in this blog because no one seemed to be reading, but now we have two followers, alhumdulillah! Talk about community…two followers plus one author makes three, and that’s one more than is necessary to make community. We now have community on this blog, and I invite anyone who reads and follows to submit responses or even full-length posts on subjects of interest to those of us who face isolation and lack of Muslim community in our face-to-face lives.

Writing one’s story can be a powerful exercise to help establish an on-line community that may lead to other types of community as well.

This morning I woke up to a new snowfall, and I wonder whether it is deep enough to bring out the plows. I also wonder whether I’ll be able drive to my local mosque– fifteen minutes driving in good weather– to attend an event this evening.

Lack of community can occur because of factors other than, well, lack of community. Today, I face lack of community due to bad weather. Some of us face lack of community due to illness, poor or no transportation, caregiving responsibilities, employment commitments, and…

These conditions are often temporary, al-humdullilah, and while they persist, the on-line type of community will be better than nothing. Phone contact can also serve well.

While I lived in Riyadh, I did not have a driver, and was unable to travel even to the grocery store unless my husband could take me or my girlfriend could send her driver. We did have the phone, however. Every morning, after our husbands had gone to work and our kids to school, I and several of my friends would take turns phoning each other for lengthy conversations over cups of coffee in our own private home bubbles. Those conversations uplifted all of us and strengthened our faith, as well.

If you do not have community, or are unable to get to it, please find a talkative fellow convert and get busy on the good, old-fashioned telephone! The benefit of the telephone connection is that it is not limited to local contacts. You can seek out conversation with any willing person in the country. In fact, if you wish, you may provide me with your phone number in a private message, and I will be happy to exchange it with other interested people (of the same sex, of course.)

Community, or the lack of it, often makes the difference between strengthening or weakening of faith.




The Great Divide

Immigrant Muslims and American convert Muslims seem to feel alienated from one another. Why should Muslims living in the same country not embrace one another as family members?

During my residence is Saudi Arabia, I experienced none of the friction and separation that convert Muslims talk about here in the States. I lived, worked, prayed and socialized with Muslims from all over the world, and none of us felt separated from one another, religiously speaking. In fact, we sought each other’s company, compared cultural notes, ate each other’s food, wore each other’s styles of clothing. There was no such thing as an “Arab mosque” or a “Pakistani mosque.” All mosques were Saudi, in that they were owned and operated by the Saudi government. Muslims prayed wherever they found themselves, at work, shopping, visiting…there was a mosque or two in walking distance within each neighborhood.

That doesn’t mean we got homogenized. That doesn’t mean that individual Muslims could not be identified as Saudis, Egyptians, Asians, Africans, Pakistanis, or Western converts, by their accents if not their style of clothing. We recognized each other as brothers and sisters in faith first, and then by nationality. We saw no difference, except as regards the outward behavior that all Muslims were expected to exhibit while living in the Kingdom.

Saudi Arabia has been criticized ad infinitum for its very strict control of public behavior. Control of public behavior infiltrated private behavior, so everyone who lived there was compelled to adopt certain aspects of Saudi culture, in the home and out of the home. Without defending the excesses of Saudi regimentation, I will say unequivocally that much of Saudi culture enabled the practice of Islam to a much greater extent than I’ve seen in any other country.

This public and private encouragement to practice Islam provided an atmosphere in which all Muslims could come together and support one another.

We do not have such favorable cultural conditions here in the United States, and this fact, I believe, carries significant responsibility for the fractionated nature of Muslim communities in America.

There it is again– the concept of community as an important factor in the degree to which an individual feels welcome and able to practice Islam. As I hear the stories of individual American Muslim converts, I am struck by the degree to which these Muslims  do not feel part of a community, and because of their sense of exclusion, they think about leaving Islam.  Why maintain a religion in isolation?

Immigrant Muslims seem to be at fault for making converts feel unwelcome. Let us forget about who is at fault, and concentrate on making ourselves welcome. Immigrant Muslims have much wisdom to give us. They’ve lived Islam all their lives, and Arab Muslims have Arabic to teach us. If they seem distant, give them a break. Maybe they, too, feel culturally isolated. Maybe they, too, feel they cannot fully participate in American culture, while they see you as a person who is culturally advantaged.

In fact, all Muslims in America must refrain from participating fully in American culture. We do not drink alcohol or glorify drug-induced states of altered consciousness, nor do we eat pork products. We control the mixing of men and women. We dress much more conservatively than most Americans. We make time in our day for prayer. Immigrant Muslims are just like convert Muslims in this regard, so please keep that in mind next time you visit a mosque.

If someone suggests that you might be more comfortable at another mosque on the other side of the city, say, “Thank you for suggesting that, but this one is closer to my home, and I like it. I look forward to coming here often.”

Start conversations, even if you are an introvert and don’t like doing so. Immigrant Muslims are quite talkative amongst themselves, but you must make them comfortable to open up to you, too. Sure, they should probably bear more responsibility for welcoming you, but if they don’t, then you must take the reins. You will not be sorry. Making community is more important than your–or their–reluctance to reach across the isle.