IT WAS THE summer of 2002. I sat, wearing a t-shirt and jeans in a living room full of Muslim women. There were soldiers outside the building, and soldiers in the apartments above us, but the atmosphere in the room was calm. A middle-aged woman sitting across from me leaned back in her chair. She folded her hands in her lap and observed me thoughtfully, smiling.
I politely smiled back at her and the other women, who remained pleasant and gracious in spite of what was happening just over our heads. After a long time, she decided to say what was on her mind. She said simply: “You are so nice, you should be Muslim like us.”
An unexpected sense of honor swept over me—which felt strange and somewhat disorienting. The suggestion that I adopt a religion would have been deeply insulting just weeks earlier. But, in that moment, in an embattled city under strict military curfew—the notion that I “should” be a Muslim had become an undeniable compliment.
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When I had decided to travel more than 5,000 miles away from home to the Middle East, I wasn’t thinking about the fact that I would be meeting Muslims there. I hadn’t made the connection that they believed in the Quran, which I had coincidentally been reading over the course of the previous year (by Allah’s will).
I began reading it with the intention to prove that religions were fabrications, no more impressive than political philosophies, but the Quran had gradually grown on me. My readings of other scriptures such as the Bible had all but ceased. It hadn’t yet dawned on me that I was gravitating away from my original premise. I hardly noticed that I had supported the Quran against false allegations from my friends on several occasions. I cited its verses in its defense; effortlessly flipping through its pages, intuitively knowing in which part of the worn paperback I would find my rebuttal.
My decision to go to the Mid-East had no connection with the Quran or any interest in Islam. It was a fact-finding mission of sorts with humanitarian undertones. My interest and drive to go there was based on political curiosities that had become my personal imperative after witnessing the tragedy of the September 11 attacks. I wanted to know why my home was being attacked.
But the leads I found there led to answers to entirely different questions—bigger, deeper questions—about life, about God.
This was in part, because of the manners and behavior of the Muslims I had observed. I lived amongst Muslims for several weeks, staying with families in their homes and sometimes at headquarters of humanitarian relief organizations. For me, the experience was so intense, being face to face with tanks, encountering soldiers holding M-16’s; and trying to sleep while arms fire and canon blasts pierced the night, wore me down.
Unlike me, the people I met couldn’t hop on a plane and leave. Yet, most of them displayed a kind of calm and peace – it was beyond my comprehension. I heard them over and over again praising God, saying alhamdulillah. Even when huge holes had just been blasted in their homes, even while they stood in front of the ruins of their lives. Even while they showed me pictures of children who had been shot by snipers or talked about homes and lands lost—alhamdulillah.
At first, I was baffled. I wondered how they could be thankful to “their god” when their lives seemed so dismal, so hopeless. While they were surrounded by adversity and uncertainty, kindness, mildness and a certain kind of happiness emanated from them nevertheless.
I was someone who had despised religions. I had always thought of religion as a crutch, but I noticed that they were not just falling back on religion for solace. It was as if they were actually grateful for their difficulties…it defied every preconceived notion of religion I had.
Occasionally, they talked to me about Islam. I discovered that their tranquility was actually rooted in their belief. They had an understanding of events in the world that left no room for complaining. They told me about God—that they believed He was Merciful and that everything had a reason. They told me that some of what they were suffering was explained in the Quran. I found that intriguing.
It was the way they seemed so sure-footed and forgiving, I hardly met anyone, in fact, only very few, who seemed to feel turmoil or despair. On top of that, their hospitality and kindness to me was unparalleled. They preferred me to their own selves although they had so little. They would wait until myself and the other international “guests” ate before they ate what we left behind. Their generosity and care were amazing.
I relate this story to you, in order to demonstrate the effects of our behavior on others. Their behavior helped light a flame of insatiable desire to know more. Not everyone I met in the Middle East was a practicing Muslim, but the ones whom I did meet impacted me with their otherworldly manners. Once I got beyond their “strangeness” of dress and culture, I found so much about them to be familiar. To the point that the notion of being like a Muslim, had grown appealing to my subconscious.
The good character of the Muslims I met, paired with the knowledge of the Quran I had already gained, was a combination that propelled me to dive deeply into studying Islam with intensity. Through my research I became convinced and by Allah’s guidance and Mercy, I accepted Islam. Alhamdulillah.
Living in the USA, where Islam and Muslims are often thought of as foreign, strange—and these days, dangerous—I think a lot about the image of Islam. I often ponder over ways in which Muslims, here and across the world can transcend the false image and stereotypes obstructing the facts.
The Muslims I met made a positive impression on my perception of Islam. They presented me with an intriguing image of Islam, but they were not putting on a performance for me. They weren’t trying to show me Islam. I walked right into their homes, into the midst of their lives. I saw them at their darkest moments. I was there at times of fear, loss and frustration. No one is perfect, but at some level, they had faith that, by Allah’s Mercy, had been translated into practice.
When we see clearly today that the image of Islam rampant around the world is a negative one, we have to begin to ask ourselves, “Why?” We read in the Quran that previous believing nations were despised for worshipping Allah alone, not for nefarious dealings, or violence.
Consider that Allah has promised victory to those who believe and do good deeds:
Allah has promised those who have believed among you and done righteous deeds that He will surely grant them succession upon the earth just as He granted it to those before them and that He will surely establish for them their religion which He has preferred for them and that He will surely substitute for them, after their fear, security; they worship Me, not associating anything with Me. But whoever disbelieves after that – then those are the defiantly disobedient. [Sûrat Al-Nûr, 24:55]
Knowing this and that Allah has power and knowledge of all things; if we are finding ourselves in a miserable situation, it can only be due to our own shortcomings regarding faith and the deeds that corroborate such faith.
He has informed us clearly:
Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves. And when Allah intends for a people ill, there is no repelling it. And there is not for them besides Him any patron. [Sûrat Al-Raʿd, 13:11]
This verse demands that we check ourselves; that we search deeply within our hearts. It indicates that the root of the problems is the current condition of our faith and deeds, namely the lack thereof.
Islam is not for show; we should not expect to change our situation or alter the negative perception of Islam merely by “showing” the world the goodness of Islam. Rather, by each of us sincerely turning to Allah and relying on Him alone, with desire to live by His guidance, our condition and our image will change, by Allah’s will.
If we are seeking knowledge and putting it into practice, we can invite others to it as well, even though we are not perfect. Success comes only from Allah. When we turn to Him, in humility—in recognition of our incapability without His assistance, with trust in Him—He will certainly help us as He has explained:
And when My servants ask you, concerning Me – indeed I am near. I respond to the invocation of the supplicant when he calls upon Me. So let them respond to Me and believe in Me that they may be [rightly] guided. [Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:186]
May Allah enable all of us to turn to Him, increase in actions performed seeking His pleasure, and may you and I witness a great change in the condition of our Ummah in our lifetimes. Âmîn.