I STOOD IN front of a store employee and gave her a massive smile. I asked about her day, I tried to make small talk. She looked at me disapprovingly, a scowl on her face, barely engaging in my conversation. Immediately I assumed she was judging my appearance as a Muslim. I thought she didn’t like me because of my religion. I was sure stereotypes were sorting through her brain while she looked at me with disdain.
As I spent a few seconds trying to figure out how to respond to what I perceived was her judgment, her voice broke a little and she said: “I recently found out my husband had an affair. I’m going through a divorce. Please pray for me.”
I was shocked. Here I was, so self-absorbed that I was positive her reaction to me was completely based on her judgments of me, but in reality, she was a woman facing manipulation and betrayal and she was at one of the most difficult crossroads in life. Her mood, her responses to me, had nothing to do with me. On the contrary, they had everything to do with how much pain she was in. And I, in my own world of insecurity because of the constant stereotypes I feel I have to fight against, thought it was all about me.
This is not the first time I’ve had an experience that has given me such an important life lesson about the way I – and frequently many of you — view the way people treat us based on stereotypes we expect others to project onto us in their interactions.
Another time, I was making wuḍû in a public restroom and a woman kept staring at me. Some people are discreet about looking, but this woman was gawking. Finally, when I was finished and she was still looking over at me, I went to her smiling and shared, “I was washing up for prayer.”
And she responded in broken English with: “I know. I am an exchange student from China. I am Muslim!”
In my head, I had totally appropriated her thoughts with stereotypes of my own about Muslims; I assumed she was wondering why it looked like I was taking a shower in the sink; maybe she was wondering if I have access to running water at home because I’m supposedly ‘oppressed.’ But I’m the one who made assumptions. She was simply my sister and she was waiting for me to finish so she could greet me!
Sometimes, we think someone is judging us, hating us, feeling sorry for us – but we’re the ones placing judgment by assuming an onlooker is having those thoughts!
Islam actually is very clear in guiding us towards believing the best and making excuses for others. Yes, Islamophobia is real. Muslims are dealing with constant political, legal and personal discrimination. We shouldn’t deny this and we should be asking for our rights, lobbying and mobilizing as a community.
However, in personal interactions, it’s not always about us. Some people are just having a bad day. Some people are staring because they are Muslim and they feel connected to their fellow believer making wuḍû but may not be sure how to express it in fear that they may themselves be judged.
But even in something as simple as making an excuse for another human being, whether they’re Muslim or not, can be an act of worship. It can be a means of perfecting character.
The Quran commands:
O you who have believed, avoid much [negative] assumption. Indeed, some assumption is sin. And do not spy or backbite each other. Would one of you like to eat the flesh of his brother when dead? You would detest it. And be conscious of Allah; indeed, Allah is accepting of repentance and Merciful. [Sûrat Al-Ḥujurât, 49:12]
Suspicion is a vast and general term. But there’s no reason for us to immediately suspect someone isn’t returning our greeting with just as much enthusiasm or isn’t smiling with just as wide a grin because they don’t like us as individuals or as Muslims. Perhaps they’re simply having a very difficult day. Putting ourselves in a position of suspecting otherwise can cause distress for ourselves internally, as well as confusion and hurt on the part of the other.
Actively giving others the benefit of the doubt is a means of developing good character. The Prophet ﷺ taught us:
The best of you is the best among you in conduct. (Bukhari)
And he ﷺ gives us specific guidelines in developing character traits that are praiseworthy. Amongst such character traits are kindness. He [s] taught:
Kindness is a mark of faith, and whoever is not kind has no faith. (Muslim)
Additionally, he ﷺ said:
God did not send me to be harsh, or cause harm, but He sent me to teach and make things easy. (Muslim)
Sometimes Muslims can be amongst the absolutely harshest of people, especially when it comes to fearing that any part of our faith is potentially being questioned. Even when it comes to correcting other Muslims, our community frequently pushes away people in our zealous and often incredibly harsh efforts to ‘correct’ one another, instead of teaching with kindness and ease.
In another experience I once had, when I was in college, an unknown campus member came into one of our Muslim Students’ Association meetings unannounced.
She was livid, her body language expressing anger, annoyance and mistrust. I was the President of the MSA at the time, and I approached her to welcome her at the end of our session. Most students had already left, but a friend was with me as I introduced myself. The woman started speaking aggressively immediately, and as she pointed to the scarves on me and my friend’s heads, she shouted: “…and with that piece of CRAP on your heads!”
My friend, a passionate and strong woman, immediately took a step up, her hands out, demanding: “What are you calling crap?!”
I stopped her, asked her to step aside and take a breather, and I ignored the woman’s comments. I calmly acknowledged her different perspective and gently invited her to speak with me about her concerns. Because the only information she knew about Muslims was from the media, I welcomed her to continue to attend our meetings so she could get to know real Muslims for herself.
She left still visibly hostile, but she had calmed down a little. I didn’t see or hear from her until the next week, when she entered our meeting. It was as if she was a completely different person. She was calm, she smiled, she even participated.
By the end, she came up to me and she said: “I want to apologize to you for my behavior. It was rude of me to come in before, the way I did, and to call what you wear crap.” I was moved by her change of heart, and she continued: “If you had responded the way your friend did when I said something offensive, I don’t think I would be here. But you showed me that even when I was being disrespectful towards your religion, you could still be respectful towards me. And that taught me a lot about Muslims.”
Imagine if my friend and I had both reacted in the moment, our emotions flaring, our voices raised! What would her impression of Muslims have been, in addition to the stereotypes she already had?
The Quran specifies how we should interact with those who outwardly offend us. Allah states:
(Among) the servants of the Most Merciful are those who walk gently on the earth and when addressed by the ignorant ones, their only response is, “Peace be with you.” [Sûrat Al-Furqân, 25:63]
This ease, this gentleness, are marks of people of faith. And that kindness earns us the mercy of Allah. As the Prophet ﷺ taught:
Whoever is kind, Allah will be kind to him; therefore be kind to man on the earth. He Who is in heaven will show mercy on you. (Abû Dâwûd).
He ﷺ also encouraged:
Be kind, for whenever kindness becomes part of something, it beautifies it. Whenever it is taken from something, it leaves it tarnished. (Bukhari)
Make things simple and do not complicate them. Calm people and do not drive them away. (Bukhari)
When a person reacts in a certain way to us, let us not immediately make the assumption that it’s due to their perceived thoughts on our religion unless that obviously is the reason. Maybe they’re going through a rough patch in their life. Maybe they’re very shy and have difficulty expressing themselves. Let’s allow people excuses. Let’s be gentle in our interactions. And even when we do feel offended (unless it’s within a legal or business situation and we can pursue it with the management, etc.), let’s remember that sometimes the best response is a kind, calm, and composed response.
As the Prophet ﷺ taught us:
Shall I not tell you whom the (Hell) Fire is forbidden to touch? It is forbidden to touch a man who is always accessible, having a polite and tender nature. (Tirmidhi)
Let us strive to be of those whom the hellfire is forbidden to touch because of our characters.