You cannot practice sincerely, preach passionately, or sacrifice willingly for a religion of which you are not certain.
Dawah, which literally means ‘call,’ or ‘invitation,’ is a cornerstone of Islam. Ideally speaking, dawah to Islam is primarily how and why the Muslim Ummah approaches and interacts with the non-Muslims, individually as well as collectively.
This is so because the very nature of the Islamic teachings is universalistic, comprehensive and all-encompassing: Islam addresses all human beings, about the most fundamental questions of their lives, and in the most absolute manner.
God is One, He is the Creator and the Sustainer, He must be the One Who is worshipped—for humans will worship something—and He must be worshipped alone. All His Messengers brought the same message, and so Islam calls not just for Oneness of God, but indeed for Oneness of His Message also. Islam does not ignore other religions, instead, the problem of multiple religions and their conflicting claims is immediately solved: All the true God-sent religions were, originally, islam.
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This statement is at the same time the most inclusive as well as the most exclusive. While only God knows whom He will admit into His Paradise and who will be consigned to His ultimate punishment, we Muslims believe beyond a shadow of doubt that all human beings, once properly informed, are obligated to submit to God in islam. It is narrated on the authority of Abu Hurairah that the Messenger of Allah observed:
By Him in Whose hand is the life of Muhammad, he who amongst the community of Jews or Christians hears about me, but does not affirm his belief in what I have been sent with and dies in this state (of disbelief), he shall be one of the denizens of Hell-Fire. (Muslim)
Those who have received this message, by Divine ordinance, are morally and religiously bound to communicate it to others, and to do so in a beautiful way:
Invite (all) to the Way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious: for your Lord knows best those who have strayed from His Path and those who receive guidance. [Surat Al-Nahl, 16:125]
The Good Old Ways
Until very recently, the Muslim community in the United States felt that: ‘Dawah needs to be done.’ Regardless of how effective and organized our efforts at dawah had been, every Islamic center, most of the masajid and chapters of the Muslim Student Association (MSAs) in the country had something like a ‘dawah coordinator.’
What generally passed for dawah efforts were open houses, occasional visits to churches and even prisons, with standard simple pamphlets about the true meaning of islam, how islam/ Islam is great, how it is the truth, and how great non-Muslim notables have said great things about Islam. Muslim conventions had lectures about dawah, its methods and necessity. In practice, however, Muslims’ efforts were barely effective in taking Islam to the heart of society’s issues.
This is not to disparage the multifarious efforts which the first-generation immigrant Muslims exerted to establish the practice of their faith in their communities. But rather I want to recognize a deficiency that existed for, at least, two reasons:
(1) As mostly newcomers, the greatest challenge before Muslims was to establish the basic institutions needed to survive and to continue as Muslims, like masajid, and later full-time schools.
(2) They felt they were lacking in the intimate knowledge of the local culture necessary to do effective dawah. As the Quran tells us, an intimate knowledge of, and even identification with, the people is an indispensable prerequisite for effective dawah.
It seems, therefore, that the inward focus of the first-generation Muslim immigrants was somewhat justifiable. But what about our new generations?
The young generation of Muslims today is facing serious challenges. After a series of major tragedies—I mean ‘9-11’ and more recent terrorist efforts, but more importantly its disproportionate and unrestrained recoil—the American Muslim panorama has been changing at a break-neck pace. Let us consider the nature of this change, where is it taking us, and what can we do about it.
Of Cocoons and Amoebas …
One major effect of these calamities that still show no sign of abating was to throw the Muslim community into an overwhelmingly apologetic mood. The activists scrambled to initiate hitherto almost non-existent civil participation of Muslims in an extremely unfavorable society; the conservatives sealed their lips and shut their doors to the community outside, while the so-far marginalized progressives found the opportunity to take over the pulpit and became unchallenged spokespersons for Muslims in America.
With respect to dawah, our Muslim community has seen the development of two major tendencies that are increasing in polarization, and I would like to discuss them in this article.
One is the tendency to isolate, close up and avoid serious engagement with the larger society. Let us call this the Isolationist Approach—or the cocoon approach.
The other is to engage with the non-Muslim society but on their terms—losing our own identity. Let us call this the Assimilationist Approach—or the amoeba approach. The challenge of dawah is to engage with the larger society on our terms, on terms of dawah. Let us call this the Balanced Islamic Approach. It should be kept in mind that these tendencies are merely categories used to make a point, not to indict actual people as falling under one label or another. We may all find one or both of these tendencies in our own attitudes to varying degrees, and if so, we should seek to pinpoint and correct them.
Naturally, the immigrant-dominated Muslim communities have shown a tendency to be cocoons, while the new generation has favored or is favored by the assimilationist approach. There are, of course, exceptions in both cases.
The cocoon approach is meant to safeguard religion and most often cultural values, but in fact, it is disadvantaged for various reasons. Because of its very nature, it either creates ghettos of Muslims instead of respected, involved and influential citizens who can be real upholders of Islam, or it self-annihilates as the next generation appears and forgets the concerns—even the worthy ones— of the last generation and falls into the trap of mindless assimilation.
The amoebae or assimilationist approach, I think, is a very important one to address because it is those who are capable of assimilating that can really decide not to. Because overwhelming cultural and intellectual forces in American society favor assimilation—witness the popular concept of America as a melting pot! — the future Muslim generations are by default in this category, unless the Muslims community can put up a fight against it.
There are dangerous signs of defeatist assimilationism among our young generation. Let us take an example. The American Muslim culture began with student organizations on college campuses—which played a significant role in establishing Islamic institutions in America. Now that culture is fast changing.
Many feel that in cases where these organizations are not properly guided—which is more and more often the case—they are fast becoming social clubs for homegrown young Muslims where it is easier for ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ to hang out. And Friday study circles are being speedily replaced by Friday movie nights. ‘Islam Awareness Weeks’ are becoming ‘Islam Apology Weeks’—in which Muslims are called upon to explain Islam—not as a complete unified whole according to its own revealed set of concepts and mindset, but rather as not measuring up to the standards and expectations of outsider beliefs and litmus tests.
Of course, here I am making some generalizations—which are bad, if taken without caution, and beneficial, if used to recognize trends. There is no denying that the MSAs have been a tremendous and indispensable Muslim institution in the United States and continue to play a great role in universities across the country. In fact, so far, the most effective dawah in the United States has been made at the college student level.
I contend, as a sympathetic observer hoping to be proven wrong about my apprehensions, that the current pulse of defeatist self-doubt and confusion is seriously debilitating the Islamic cause at all levels, including the MSAs.
Of Floods and Faith …
Let us put our current situation into the Islamic perspective of trial (fitna) and test (ibtila’).
Here is a simple undeniable fact: You cannot passionately preach, sincerely practice, and willingly sacrifice for a religion of which you are not certain. Certitude beyond a speck of doubt in the absolute truth, universality and timelessness of Islam is necessary for any effective and meaningful Islamic collective action by Muslims.
The most important and tragic casualty of this apologetic movement has been faith. And I mean faith in its most bare-bone form: Certitude in Allah, His message, His Prophet’s teachings, His promises, and in what we believe and do as Muslims. It is these foundations that are being challenged today.
True, calamities befall the community of believers as a matter of Allah’s sunnah (common principle governing life) to separate the ‘wheat’ from the ‘chaff,’ the true believers from the happen-to-be ones. As far as I can see, this set of calamities has been disastrous in that a surprisingly large number of Muslims seem to be falling rather than standing tall.
These calamities are to be seen, and are meant to be a statement of alarm—a wake-up call—rather than a reason for resignation or despair. We must always keep one fact in mind: Floods are disastrous for those who cannot hold their ground during it, and a blessing for those who can.
It is necessary when calamities befall us that we be patient, that we critically and honestly evaluate ourselves, and that we find out where the flood has left us.
This article has been a statement of problem, rather than a recipe for solution. Here are some of the questions that arise as a result:
- Should dawah to non-Muslims still be our priority?
- Are there tensions between being a Muslim and being an American? If so, how to resolve them?
- How do we attain absolute certitude in Allah and His din?
- How to avoid both the pitfalls of being cocoons or amoebas? How, rather, to find this balanced path and how to stay on it?
The answers seem easy on the surface, but in practice, they require much more. In other articles, I will attempt, insha’Allah to address these issues, hoping to stir open and honest dialog within ourselves. It is only through this serious soul-searching that we will get the real answers.