Are Western Muslims Culturally Tone Deaf?

Mosques arson, bombings and graffiti, citizen-packing of city council meetings to deny mosque building permits; “flying while Muslim” detentions; hate crimes and hate talk from pro-Evangelical Christian talk show hosts and guests; national, state and local political candidates who use an Islam-bashing rhetoric to bait Evangelical votes; use of Christian pulpits to spread fear of, and misinformation about, Islam and Muslims; pro-Zionist display of Israeli flags in some Christian houses of worship; and… and…

ARE WE REALLY a threat to non-Muslims? If so, how? And how should we conduct ourselves in pursuing our legally protected right to establish our ummah as a full participant in North American societies?

How Are We Seen?

To some of our neighbors, we represent the historical “other”—from the times of the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, and of course more recently with September 11. Neither we, nor they, are personally responsible for these past activities—but our joint attitudes could forestall any joint more-of-the-same events in the future.

To some of our fellow citizens, we are an obstacle to the Christian mandate: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (Bible, Matthew 28:19). While we believe in Prophet Jesus ∑, we do reject the Church’s version of his story; we are not good candidates for conversion to Christian ideology. In fact, we are put off by the typically emotional, hard-sell approach—offering us free “redemption” from God’s punishment for the sin of Adam and thus of our own natural sinfulness. Instead, we respond to the offer of Guidance—in an uncorrupted form (the Quran)—from the Lord of the Worlds and with it Allah’s forgiving favor when we obey in submission to Him.

Why would God cause you to suffer [for your past sins] if you are grateful and attain to belief—seeing that God is always responsive to gratitude, all-knowing? (Sûrat Al-Nisâ’ 4:147)

Furthermore, we know that we Muslims are not burdened, as are Christians, with a need even to “buttonhole” or to “twist arms” so as to make converts and thus to “save” mankind; it is Allah u alone who can guide to Himself:

It is not for thee [O Prophet] to make people follow the right path, since it is God [alone] who guides whom He wills. (Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:272)

God bestows from on high the best of all teachings in the shape of a divine writ fully consistent within itself, repeating each statement [of the truth] in manifold forms…Such is God’s guidance: He guides therewith him that wills [to be guided]—whereas he whom God lets go astray can never find any guide. (Sûrat Al-Zumar, 39:23)

[And even though] that [unity of faith] to which you call them appears oppressive to those who are wont to ascribe to other beings or forces a share in His divinity, God draws unto Himself everyone who is willing, and guides unto Himself everyone who turns unto Him. (Sûrat Al-Shûrâ, 42:13)

…just as for those who are [willing to be] guided, He increases their [ability to follow His] guidance and causes them to grow in God-consciousness. (Sûrat Mu^ammad, 47:17)

The teaching of Islam is, in fact, a serious impediment—and contradiction—to the advancement of the convoluted Pauline doctrine of salvation through belief in the “substitutionary” and “atoning” death of Christ, which all “Christian” world missionaries highlight in preaching Paul’s “gospel of Jesus Christ.”

… they did not slay him, and neither did they crucify him, but is only seemed to them [as if it had been] so; and, verily, those who hold conflicting views thereon are indeed confused, having no [real] knowledge thereof, and following mere conjecture. For, of a certainty, they did not slay him…. (Sûrat Al-Nisâ’ 4:157)

The simplicity of Islam is a potent, if subtle, menace to waning Church dominance in the world.

To a few in our society, all growing minorities have at one time or another been a threat to the former majority’s dominance: Jews, Catholics, and those originating from other than pure European white stock (Africans, Asians, Latinos). Apparently, it is now our turn to be the object of suspicion and easy entrapment. Al-^amdulillâh that we have organizations taking up the defense of our interests.

How can we encourage the work of defending our Ummah? Clearly we need to financially support professionally run organizations, Muslim or not, who know our needs and vulnerabilities. Also, we need to participate in the decision-making processes of North American society: Voting in elections, attending meetings, and speaking up—at work or in school, neighborhood and town hall settings; standing up for moral causes and showing up for peaceful justice movements.

Our Public Persona

Another thing, we are not a monolithic Ummah; we have a diversity of ethnic and racial origins, of native languages, and even of various orientations to Islam. We have different expressions within our loose communal unity in North America. Take for example the various forms of appearance that our public presence takes in society at large. Yes, modesty in dress—as well as in behavior—is a bedrock foundation of our persona.

Indeed for every religion there is a defining trait. The trait of Islam is modesty. (Al-Albani, Al-Silsila as-ßa^i^a no. 940)

We are committed to minimizing our physical form and exposure—for both men and women, young men and young women. But must we have a cookie-cutter, cloned image in order to meet our purpose-oriented dress code? Consider that in Western societies, clothes fashion is big business; variety is valued. The ‘cut’ of clothing, its fabric texture and colorful solids, patterns or design motifs, as well as color combinations, dark and light, are all part of Western cultural expressions of one’s individuality, cultured tastes and participation in the artistic enjoyment of life. Thus, hijab is not—or need not be—a one-model-for-all affair for us. There are a variety of styles that meet dress code criteria; an Indonesian or a Malaysian head cover differs from that of an Arab or a Persian or a Pakistani/Indian one, for example. As the people of the “Middle Way,” we must keep in balance our understanding of the purpose of our clothing choices:

O Children of Adam! Indeed, We have bestowed upon you from on high [the knowledge of making] garments to cover your nakedness, and as a thing of beauty; but the garment of God-consciousness is the best of all. Herein lies a message from God, so that man might take it to heart. (Sûrat Al-A¢râf 7:26)

Further, regarding how we appear in the public space among non-Muslims, take “flying while Muslim.” Should one perform his |alâh in the middle of a busy passenger waiting area to the wary eyes of already jumpy Muslim-watchers? This is not a question of whether or not one has the courage to do his Prayers on time, whatever this requires; it is a question of culturally relevant solutions to the conflicting attitudes in the surrounding, dominant society. Many airports have a “Prayer Room.” These are meant to be used by travelers of all faiths, including Muslims. Check out your airports: a Prayer Room is likely to be supplied with a Quran and a prayer rug. (No need to BYO: “bring your own.”)

The Muslim flyer with waiting time should ask for the location of the Prayer Room, in advance, if possible. In case your airport is not up-to-speed in this regard, one can ask an appropriate authority (airline check-in personnel—or security staff) to suggest a suitable semi-private location where on-lookers will not be unduly roused. Once the Muslim flyer has made known his need, it is up to authorities to ensure the security and comfort of all in the area. We Muslims can be accommodated, too; we just need to ask appropriately and to help others in meeting our requirements.

Neighborhood Relations

How is our mosque presence and group behavior viewed in our neighborhoods? One recurring theme in North America is that not all masjids have had the financial luxury of building from the ground up. When an older building is purchased and recycled into masjid use, there may be tight parking. If late-comers park cars haphazardly on the street, maybe in a no-parking zone or blocking the driveways of adjoining houses, bad feelings are likely to arise with neighbors. If official complaints do not lead to shoring up this unacceptable behavior, then the mosque leadership should consider assigning someone to manage parking during the whole time of the jumu¢ah service, and even, sad to say, to monitor our kids or off-the-masjid-premise Muslims.

I once witnessed a situation in which after-jumu¢ah conversations were repeatedly—and defiantly—taking place in front of a neighboring house—on the grounds that the sidewalk was public property and that the Muslim group had every right to occupy that space as they saw fit. They were not intending to “give in” to neighbor “bullies” who wanted them to relocate away from their homes. In an already tense situation, such behavior can be seen as nothing short of provocative. What may possibly satisfy the ego of one vindictive masjid attendee often has far-reaching reverberations for the whole Muslim Community. We must remember to “support” our Muslim siblings in the Faith by intervening—tactfully, of course—when they are in the wrong, so as to avoid such opposition vis-a-vis our particular local community from ever taking place in the first place.

Help your brother whether he is one oppressed or one oppressing. They said, “O Allah’s Messenger, we know what it means to help him if he is one oppressed, but how can we help him if he is one oppressing?” The Prophet said, “You keep him from oppressing.” (Bukhari)

Some neighborhood masâjid have been proactively creative in holding “Open Houses” in which visitors are given a tour of the building, a presentation of Islamic teaching and practice, some sit-down-and-talk snacks, and some take-home literature. Need it be said that the literature must be attractive, free of English-language mistakes or misprints, and professionally produced by authors who understand North American cultures? It is preferable that the pamphlet or booklet direct the reader to further, professionally-done, readily-available materials online or in a local bookstore. Note that the big franchise bookstores may have several shelves of books on Islam, only a few titles of which present accurate portrayals of what Muslims have believed and accomplished. It might be advisable to draw up a list of recommended books available from the local bookstore or from the public library. If an English translation of the Quran is to be offered to visitors (or to inquirers in general), the edition must be visually engaging in cover design, nicely laid out inside, with print large enough for comfortable reading, and by no means on cheap newsprint in faded ink. Cheap materials give “cheap” impressions. On the contrary, our message is rich and generous—and needs to be so portrayed.

As to open house presentations on Islam, focus on Islam and Muslims (not on Christian beliefs or Middle East politics): the big picture, the Prophet’s biography, his recorded sayings, our heritage and Islamic civilization (enough to round out our historical footprint). Be prepared to answer basic questions on how we differ from others. (Bring in a qualified speaker for a second time, if need be.  But for now stick to who we are, what we stand for, and what we have accomplished.

Yet let me hasten to add that the most important element is a straightforward representation of what we believe in when it comes to God, His angels, His Books, His Messengers, and His Judgment in the Hereafter. This more than anything else.

If a meal is offered, consider seating each visitor with a Muslim host partner so that personal relationships can be sparked. Offer follow-up events if there is enough interest; or simply be prepared to invite a neighborhood representative for a later, small-scale home visit, if warranted.

We Can Do Better

We can take our place in non-Muslim societies, but it is up to us, proactively, to take the necessary measures. We need to greet and know our neighbors, and they need to meet and get to know us. There is no need to give up our Islamic characteristics so as to “fit in” as a minority among non-Muslims; but we do need to feel comfortable in our own skins when we explain ourselves, with the result that our neighbors and co-workers will welcome our presence in joint ventures.

Let not our defense become an offense.

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