The Other Day, I met a dear friend whom I had taught Arabic in college, a white Midwestern American who had recently embraced Islam. He was inspired to it by the Islamic history and Arabic courses he had attended in college. Brought up a Protestant in a healthy, supportive family in a small town, he had no traumatic experiences before or after his conversion. It was nothing but a clean, searching heart and a clear mind that convinced him of the truth of Islam.
Almost surprisingly, his family was supportive and understanding. I was impressed by his reasonable, moderate and balanced attitude after his conversion. Soon, he left for Egypt to study Arabic. He had been writing to me about his experience in Egypt, which, in many ways is the heart of the Muslim world. It was, he said, a maturing, sobering, enriching and, well, disturbing experience. He confided in me his invaluable experiences, which I find worth sharing:
In Egypt I met not just numerous Muslims, but numerous kinds of Muslims, groups that disagreed with and often belittled each other, others who sometimes claimed exclusive monopoly over the true path, the saved group, groups that instilled their members with a sense of superiority over other Muslims, and added to the divisions in an already divided, weakened and bleeding society. No doubt, I learned a lot from each of these groups. Particularly I learned from those who had a clear and straight approach to the Quran and the Sunnah.
Starting off with no background, his good nature was averse to suspicious tendencies such as excessive allegiance to a saint or an icon, dead or alive, rather than to the pure and beautiful principle of Tawhid, and to the teachings of Allah’s Messenger. The creeping practices of exotic forms of worship while leaving aside the clear instructions of Allah, and visitations to tombs, leaving aside the houses of Allah, were beyond his understanding. They almost gave him a stomachache.
But that was the least of his problems. More confusing and hurtful for him was the attitude of those groups who did recognize the common errors of ignorance, exaggeration and negligence in people, but failed to deal with them in a beautiful, Islamic way.
I found myself attracted naturally to those who showed close connection with the Quran and the Sunnah, and sought to seek the knowledge of these sources rather than rigidly committing themselves to specific schools of thought, with increasing cultural accretions as icing on the cake. Nevertheless, I found increasingly that no group was perfect. Those who emphasized knowledge of the sources sometimes lacked the ethics, the courtesy, the humility, in short the ‘adab’ and ‘akhlâq’ that must accompany that knowledge.
At the American University of Cairo, most of my friends were in the engineering department. My own humanities background has led me to appreciate some of the complexity of human life. This complexity is humbling. It leads you to God, because nothing else seems real. But some of my friends wanted to understand the world as an engineering problem: it was black and white. Sometimes I felt they understood machines, but they did not understand humans. They understood humans as machines.
I know I have a lot to learn. Perhaps I should sympathize with them more. But I must admit, nothing has been more disturbing to me than these divisions in the Muslim Ummah, and the resulting confusion.
I consoled my friend, and shared with him my own tumultuous journey through the wilderness of opinions and divisions. Three things are the key to a way out, I have discovered:
- Love of Allah, for it is the source of peace and certitude
- Knowledge of Islam and of humans
- Dialog with other Muslims
I reminded him of the promise of Allah:
And those who strive in Us, We certainly shall guide them to Us. [Sûrat Al-ʿAnkbût, 29:69]
Divisions often arise from short-sightedness and swollen egos. We Muslims have inherited numerous divisions, most of which we can overcome through dialog and serious learning. Learning not only the source texts but also learning about real humans and real societies, their history and development, their problems and concerns– this all opens to us oceans of wisdom.
After we treat the ailment of discord and divisions through knowledge, wisdom and humility –more often than not– we can reduce these divisions to diversity through the magic formula of dialog; a dialog which nonetheless is based on our shared belief in Allah and His din. And that can happen only if we humble ourselves before the complexities of Allah’s creation, appreciate diversity, and admit that we have a lot to learn from each other, because no one has all the solutions, and everyone’s efforts are needed.