HER STOCKINGLESS FEET seemed to disturb them, flashing sparkly nail polish. Their eyes glanced up to her slender, gold chain-enwrapped ankles, and rose up to her brightly made-up face. Her adornments attracted far more attention than her new presence in their group.
In no time feelings of discomfort, of not belonging, welled up inside her. So she walked quietly away, seeking to disappear into the sanctity of the masjid and a sunnah salah, leaving the women to the attentions of their spiritual instruction. How long she placated in her prostrations, escaping the hard glances of her new sisters in faith into the embracing refuge of Allah. She felt unwelcome and exceedingly nervous. Like her namesake, she wished to vanish into nothingness, estranged from her old life and friends and alienated among her new community.
And new was certainly the word. She was new to Islam, new to the masjid, new to salah. She had spent nearly her last $50 on a new black abaya. Try as best she could, she was nonetheless alone. Alone was, in fact, her new inner and outer state. Half employed and half forsaken, that was the point of her coming to the House of Allah in the first place, to get some closeness, some nearness, to God and His people—like she had read about in the books that led to her shahada, like the promises she had heard from so many Muslim preachers. She was alone most of the time, and she worked part time.
No sooner than Maryam tired from her lengthy sujud and made tasleem, she was alone no longer. Up from her salah in search of a translation of the Quran’s meaning or a comforting English-language tract—seeking, ironically now, to be left alone—she was confronted by a “sister,” one older than her and made of infinitely sterner stuff. She wore a long hijab, indeed, and a look of disapproval. Then she pronounced her “divine” verdicts.
“Your wudhu is not accepted by Allah with that nail polish on, and those anklets are haram for a woman to wear outside of her home.” Maryam was mortified. Nowhere to hide. No chance of the floor opening up to swallow her whole. “I just,” she stumbled over her tongue in search of proper words.
Her mind went blank as her brain and tongue seemed to speak the wrong languages. She tried meekly to thwart these declarations from Heaven, something timid and compliant about being new to Islam and still struggling to learn, a need for mentoring, to understand.
“No!” thundered the self-appointed morality policewoman. “You have to go and remove it before any of your prayers are valid. You don’t have any excuse for all that make up either!”
Condemned in the name of God, Maryam’s face went suddenly ashen. Something hot was now streaming down her face. Her tears tumbled despite her.
Other sisters noticed the commotion and began to look on. Humiliation stamped itself on Maryam’s face. Even so had her former fellows rebuked her for donning hijab. There was no hope now, just that little bit of light between her and open air, and she dashed through it, out of the musalla, through the threshold and into the parking lot. Once in her car, she sped away into oblivion.
Her tears fueled her getaway. She cried the entire way, sobbing at every stop light. She felt ashamed and embarrassed, and enormously confused. Could she go back? “If I do, maybe they’ll attack me more.”
Why had they received her with such harsh censure and condemnation? Wasn’t rudeness a violation of faith? Disrespect mingled in Maryam’s mind with the Muslim attitude. And she realized she could never go back, and she never did.
Getting In-Touch with Your Inner-Maryam
We all know such Maryams. Some are more resilient than others. A few even feisty. You yourself may have seen a Maryam-like incident. Or you may have been a Maryam once upon a shahada.
What you and I know now is that such defenders of the faith among us—the harsh ones who feel self-righteous enough to ambush and pronounce upon sisters new upon this straight path—are the ones that need—let’s not say rebuke—but training.
We desperately need training in our communities to remind us and teach us how to cultivate the spirit of gentle welcome, of acceptance, of mentor-ship, and a kind word to those who come to us with sincere hearts cupped within their two unfolded hands, but little or no exposure or understanding of the wisdom that enlivens and strengthens our faith.
There is no place or need (nor virtue, I shall add) in advising with bluntness and harshness. “Nothing but good comes from gentleness,” the Prophet taught us.
And when it comes to our engagement with our fellows in faith, our neighbors, our colleagues, our fellows in humanity and in life upon this fair earth, we have far too many and frequent example of how the implied opposite of this is just as true. What but ill and evil come from roughness, as we live in these times of “War on” everything we don’t like, know, or understand—a spirit that comes only from lack of compassion. What, then, can anyone do for us if Allah has removed mercy and loving-kindness, humanity, in other words, from our hearts?
Is there ever, in such situations as Maryam’s a real need to have gone and advised with such sudden bluntness? Allah says:
Yet say a gentle word to him, so that he may become mindful [of God] or reverent of Him. [Surat Ta Ha, 20:44]
That, of course, is Allah’s instruction to Moses and Aaron regarding their speech to Pharaoh, the tyrant of the ages. How, then, shall our speech to one another be? In fact, it is the nature of people to abandon society precisely because they fear the harm of people.
They fear they’ll be judged by others or looked down upon simply because they haven’t attained some expected status or condition. Indeed, there is a categorical statement in the Quran that all of us would do well to remember regarding the harsh treatment of others. Allah tells the Prophet, the gentlest and politest man of the ages, that had he been harsh with the Companions after the battle of Uhud in which he was disobeyed and lives and crucial battle were lost on account of this disobedience that they would have disbursed from around him.
Examining a Prophetic Example
Think about this. If ever one had apparent cause and a station from which to reprimand and punish it was the Prophet in this instance. Yet look at the lesson of Allah in this, enshrined for all time in the Quran.
And so, (O Muhammad), it was by the sheer mercy of God that you were lenient with them (after their disobedience at Uhud). For had you been harsh and hard-hearted, then they would have disbanded from around you. So pardon them. And seek forgiveness for them. And take counsel with them concerning the (community’s) affairs. [Surat Al ‘Imran,3:156]
Not only does Allah declare the Prophet’s lenity a divine mercy, he tells us the consequences of harshness and hard-heartedness—the unraveling of the ties that bind our hearts together. Rejection and disunity are the guaranteed result of such behaviors. How many a good institution or group have we seen pulled apart by such deeds of severity and callousness? How many a family and friendship has broken apart and scattered, scuttled on the rock-like heart of a harsh parent or companion?
In addition to calling the Prophet to treat the robust Companions with gentleness, Allah asks him to make still more excuse for them, and to commit his own spiritual time to seeking clemency and absolution for them from Allah for their disobedience.
Yet—most instructive of all—Allah admonishes the Prophet to further seek the Companions’ counsel and involvement in the affairs and decisions of the community, when intuitively one would think in their noncompliance and insistence he had grounds to do things in the future according to his own judgment completely.
What instruction for a family, a fellowship, a community! Be lenient with those in your charge, your children, your friends, your coworkers, your organizational siblings, your brothers and sisters in faith. Subjugate your every impulse to harshness with them. Be forbearing, sympathetic, and tolerant. And, most of all, include them in your processes of decision making. Consult them about what you are doing and why, and take their advice.
And thereafter when you take a decision, if you become resolved on a matter rely upon God alone. Indeed, Allah loves those who rely only on Him. [Surat Al ‘Imran, 3:156]
Mixing Manners and Mercy
And as for when you are on the advice side, do not rush into advising someone so quickly. Know what you are talking about, and where fiqh is involved, understand the rulings. Know what the scholars say about the matter in question, and advise purely for the sake of Allah and not to defame or belittle another.
One must remember that we too may be subject to bouts of weak faith. We too were once learning Islam—and still are, if truth be told. Good manners and kindness beautify every good deed. In the case of Maryam, the harshness that came to her from the others caused her to abandon all relations with the Islamic community.
That indeed is a dangerous mood to initiate in another. For it is well understood how isolation often brings about wandering thoughts, which then turn into questions that transform into doubts. One must stay with the main body of the Muslims and not seek isolation, so long as there are no present tribulations endangering one’s ability to practice the obligations of Islam.
The Prophet said:
The believer who mixes with people and patiently bears their annoyance will have a greater reward than the believer who does not mix with people and patiently bear their annoyance. (Tirmidhi and Ibn Majah)
Commenting on this hadith in the Sunan Ibn Majah (2/493), Al-Sindi states:
This hadith entails that the one who is patient and mixes with people is better than the one who isolates himself.
Al-San’ani said in Subul Al-Salam (4/416):
This indicates that mixing with people whereby one enjoins what is good and forbids what is evil and deals with them in a good manner is better than keeping away from them and not putting up with mixing with them.
We are failing in our communities when we shun our own brothers and sisters with poor manners. Success in dawah will only come with knowledge. Let us learn and change our ways in dealing with others. Let us set a true example of what Islam is really about, and treat others with mercy.
We must strive to be kind and gentle with the believers, and not harsh. Remember, not everyone is at the same level of faith, and we should never jump to conclusions and judgments, simply because brother so-and- so does not grow his beard or because sister so-and-so doesn’t wear proper hijab. Are we without faults? Maybe more than we realize.
We don’t usually know the situations people are facing in everyday life. They could have a huge list of valid reasons as to why they cannot adhere fully to Islam. Who among us does? We should be patient and wise before advising anyone, as the true success of dawah comes, like all victories, with patience.