أعوذ بالله من الشيطان الرجيم
بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
All Praise is for Allah Almighty, all Rahma proceeds from Him and salutations upon the Most Noble of all Masters, the Leader of all Prophets, the Beloved of the Beloved, the Light of Creation and Distributor of all Blessings (sallAllahu alaihi wasallam). Salutations upon the most Honoured and Purified Prophetic Household, the bestower of Purity and Spiritual Maqaam and Revered Companions (radi Allahu anhumma).
As an individual, I write as if I am conversing with the one to whom I am addressing. This style of expression, naturally, presents the challenge of adequately conveying ones sentiment in a manner that is universally understood and appreciated. The above named topic has many facets which contribute to a holistic understanding; each facet presenting its own unique challenges that one must contend with as a Muslim, and more so as a convert.
However, upon reflection, I feel Epictetus in his philosophical writings truly captures the foundation of this piece;
“If you have assumed a character above your strength, you have both acted in this matter in an unbecoming way, and you have neglected that which you have fulfilled” – Epictetus
Naturally, such platforms of expression have the capacity to become long and consequently arduous, both of which I wish to avoid. Therefore, in the spirit of keeping such articles succinct and to the point, the key points of my discourse are;
- What is ‘Identity’ and its benchmark?
- The Islamic Identity Crisis in the West
- The Deconstruction of Islamic Identity in Converts
What is ‘Identity’ and its benchmark?
Throughout the colourful history of man we have had many great thinkers alike who have produced, from their profound thinking, experience and reflection, an array of definitions to encompass what ‘Identity’ truly is. Such attempts are generally absent of Divine Revelation (Wahy) or any Divine input whatsoever, however, I feel this is extraordinarily fallacious and problematic as the Intellect (Aql) of man is very much a chameleon; changing its colours subject to the environment with an objective of self-preservation. It is not surprising then that we find many diverse groups within society whom feel confused as to who they truly are, oft changing their external (Zaahir) identity in an attempt to represent their inner state (Baatin) and emotional discourse. Or, people individually undergoing transformative alterations throughout their life in order to adapt and thus survive in their environment; whether it be the brother/sister who change their taste in fashion and music to maintain a relationship, or a new addition to the school class who takes up smoking to appease the socially acceptable groups in the playground – the prevalent similarity presented is an innate sense of insecurity, dissatisfaction and uncertainty with who we are.
It is not surprising then that a new convert to Islam, after being thrust into not only an abstract Theological perspective of life but also an enormous community made up of diverse cultures and ideologies, would seek to find his niche sense of belonging in the local groups in order to survive the drastic changes such a decision naturally causes within an individual. As a result we have an uprising of ‘Pakistani/Arab Islam’ within the group of converts who, sometimes incorrectly, have been lead to believe that their identity as a British citizen is contradictory to their identity as a Muslim and so they must criticise each facet of their life changing any aspects which do not conform with the Eastern cultures they strive to personify. Whilst this seems benign, it brings about destruction in many facets of their life, whether it be their interaction amongst immediate family, dress sense, music and theatrical choices, food preferences and even language. I feel extremely uneasy in finding that most converts either go through a ‘phase’ of cultural metamorphosis or entirely embody an alien culture in an attempt to assimilate into the masses around them; more so as this was a process I underwent when first entering Islam. Amongst friends I am oft referred to as a ‘Paki Wannabe’, always in the context of sincere humour, but there is a toxic underpinning to this joke that is spreading amongst new converts whom cannot differentiate a foreign culture from a way of life (Din). The consequences may be grave.
We are created by Allah Almighty in tribes with the objective of knowing and understanding each other, as elucidated;
يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنَّا خَلَقْنَاكُم مِّن ذَكَرٍ وَأُنثَىٰ وَجَعَلْنَاكُمْ شُعُوبًا وَقَبَائِلَ لِتَعَارَفُوا
‘O mankind! We have indeed created you from one man and one woman, and have made you into various nations and tribes so that you may know one another’ [49:13]
Allah Almighty has given us, throughout the Noble Qur’an, many references toward the true benchmark of Islamic Identity. One such example;
هُوَ سَمَّاكُمُ الْمُسْلِمِينَ مِن قَبْلُ وَفِي هَـٰذَا لِيَكُونَ الرَّسُولُ شَهِيدًا عَلَيْكُمْ وَتَكُونُوا شُهَدَاءَ عَلَى النَّاسِ
‘ Allah has named you Muslims – in the previous Books and in this Qur’an, so that the Noble Messenger be your guardian and witness, and you be witness against other people’ [22:78]
Although the above would appear to be abundantly clear, many attempt to define just ‘what’ being Muslim incurs and its consequential reality in applying that ‘idea’ throughout the many aspects of our individualised life. Once again, Allah Almighty has assisted in our striving for His Proximity and Closeness in elaborating upon the way in which we can seek His Love and Mercy;
قُلْ إِن كُنتُمْ تُحِبُّونَ اللَّـهَ فَاتَّبِعُونِي يُحْبِبْكُمُ اللَّـهُ وَيَغْفِرْ لَكُمْ ذُنُوبَكُمْ ۗ وَاللَّـهُ غَفُورٌ رَّحِيمٌ
‘Proclaim, (O dear Prophet Mohammed – sallAllahu alaihi wasallam), “O mankind! If you love Allah, follow me – Allah will love you and forgive you your sins”; and Allah is Oft Forgiving, Most Merciful.’ [3:31]
Therefore we know, as a fundamental to our Faith (Eeman), that the nature of ‘Identity’ is truly and only our Beloved Master (sallAllahu alaihi wasallam) and to strive for that identity is contingent upon our embodiment of the Noble Sunnah. Furthermore, it is with this embodiment that we would find strength, a sense of identity and a universal companionship amongst all Muslims – barriers will only break down between social and cultural ideologies if we reflect upon the way in which we, individually, diverge from the way of the Beloved (sallAllahu alaihi wasallam) and rectify that incongruent difference. With this concept now elaborated upon and at the forefront of our minds, we can proceed quickly through what remains in the hope to bring about a sense of clarity in those who struggle with their identity and diverging from that which the Beloved (sallAllahu alaihi wasallam) did not bring.
The Islamic Identity Crisis in the West
Muslims in the West face an array of diverse challenges in their day-to-day life when interacting with people of a secular and often irreligious mindset; whether it be explaining our choice to fast during Ramadaan, prostrating throughout the day toward the Qibla or why we wash our feet in the disabled toilets at a motorway services. We are constantly under supervision, constantly being questioned and constantly being criticised for what is viewed by others as being a medieval way of life.
I find this constant critique to be problematic, primarily, for two groups;
- Newly converted Muslims whom are not affiliated with the Islamic polemical thought that underpins our explanations to such questions and criticism from those whom are not from amongst the Ummah
- Born Muslims whom are entrenched within the culture of their heritage, detached from Islamic Knowledge and a strong Islamic upbringing, and consequently unable to intellectualize the responses to such questions.
To the humble Muslim, satisfied with the fundamentals of their Din, their mind is appeased in knowing that the true understanding is with Allah Almighty and His Beloved (sallAllahu alaihi wasallam) – such appeasement brings about a state of mental security and unwavering adherence to the religion. This mindset is present amongst our elder generations whom are entrenched in the remembrance of Allah Almighty and His Beloved (sallAllahu alaihi wasallam), however, the upcoming youth are brought up in an environment demanding them to question and challenge every facet of their known reality; thus, when such rhetoric and accusations are levelled against the Muslim Community (Ummah) we find no peace except that we alter ourselves to suit the ‘forward thinking’ and ‘scientific’ West.
What are the consequences? We have a generation of chino-wearing, eye-brow shaving ‘gotee gangsters’ who thrive on their ability to recite the Shahadah whilst rolling a spliff, reciting with Tajwid their 2-Pacian rhetoric of ‘Only God can Judge me’. But within the community of Converts, there is the difficulty of bringing the former entrenched non-Muslim life into balance with Islamic morality and ethics; whether that is in regards to dress, gender interactions, socializing amongst friends, prioritising life and much more. This challenge, coupled with the pressure to adopt a foreign identity in the hope of fitting in amongst your new-found brothers & sisters, serves only to bring about a state of early disillusionment if not properly managed and dealt with by a responsible individual whom appreciates the reality of this religion. How often I meet converts whom have adorned the Shalwaar Kameez (myself, I am guilty) with the misunderstanding that such attire is the definition of modesty and dress sense within Islam, not realising that any clothing which adequately covers the Awraah (region of the body from the naval to the knees in men) without clinging is sufficient to fulfil their religious obligations; I cannot help but think as to why they have made that choice? Have they been misinformed? Do they feel such transformation is necessary to attain spiritual elevation? All in all, it represents a fundamental problem that the grey demarcation between culture and religion is becoming ever more grey.
Whilst the Western Secular lifestyle is extremely appealing for the pseduo-intellectual Muslim who feels they have outdone their parents by virtue of a BA or BSc affixed to their name, Allah Almighty has instructed us to consider their state of affairs and to reflect upon it;
فَسِيرُوا فِي الْأَرْضِ فَانظُرُوا كَيْفَ كَانَ عَاقِبَةُ الْمُكَذِّبِينَ
‘Therefore travel in the land and see what sort of fate befell the deniers!’ [16:36]
In light of the above, I cannot help but wonder if the way forward for converts would be for their reflection upon the West and to ponder upon its reality. Whilst, superficially, it appears to be a peaceful open-minded and accepting society, with views stemmed in scientific progress and great thinking minds collaborating to better greater society – there is an unavoidable negative correlation between the scientific, technological, intellectual, ethical and moral ‘advancement’ and the rapid decline of public order, public ethics and public conduct at large. If then the formulae employed by the West is the way forward, why then do so many people (including children and teenagers) suffer Depression? Live in poverty? Struggle to make ends meet whilst the ‘elite’ wine and dine in luxury?
Ultimately, the key here is to educate converts to enable their acceptance of their new-found Islamic identity whilst not detaching from the roots of their heritage – Islam should not negate ones citizenship and heritage, instead, we should strive to replace that which does not conform and allow that which does to be further amplified by our new-found religious identity and belonging. This would, without doubt, not only act as a great relief for those struggling to adapt but also be a source of Da’wah (to invite) toward non-Muslims whom have preconceived ideas as to what Islam is and who Muslims are.
Without doubt the solution to the problem of ‘Muslims in the West’ is not resolved by isolating converts from their family support through their metamorphosis, nor is it by transforming their external into a cultural adornment alien to their comfort zone. It must be remembered, if a convert chooses to make such changes it is absolutely fine and acceptable; my points herein pertains to those brothers and sisters who feel there is no real option except to conform and thus abandon their identity. It must be remembered, whilst the West has many views which are directly contrary to Islamic theology, there is a great richness in the West not found elsewhere in the Muslim world which we can, as an Ummah, learn and take benefit from.
The Deconstruction of Islamic Identity in Converts
To conclude, I can finally touch upon the last part to this discourse named above. Converts struggling to ascertain ‘what is’ an Islamic identity may well end up in a situation wherein they deconstruct the ‘idea’ in their life whilst pursuing what they feel is religious; this is well established above.
This final portion pertains to those Converts who have, subsequently to their acceptance, become disillusioned to the reality of this religion and have thus commenced the process of separation and distancing. I have had the displeasure of meeting many converts whom, after entering the Din in a state of great passion, enthusiasm and excitement, have been exposed to the reality of Muslim mentality and had all that is great with becoming Muslim sucked from them. Whether it be the ‘religious bullies’ whom judge every facet of the life of a convert and thus unfairly criticise such individuals, placing a burden on their shoulder which they cannot possibly hope to carry and maintain, or those whom have not addressed their intrinsic racism toward ‘white people’ (or others whom accept Islam) and behave in a ostracaising manner within the religious environments such as the Masaajids – in either example, and many others not mentioned herein, it creates for the convert a further sense of isolation. People oft forget that converting, whilst simple, has many potential severe consequences such as that individual being removed from their home by family, being separated from their friendship circles, being unable to control the rapid rate at which their life is changing and many other facets to consider – this brings about a huge strain in their life.
Whilst many converts, Alhamduilah (All Praise is to God), are able to cope with these challenges presented before them and draw from such expriences a great inner spiritual strength and certitude (Yaqeen), others crack and crumble under the pressure and thus detach from their new-found Islamic identity. I have met brothers whom, initially, are praying all of their prayers (Salaah) and superogatory actions, but then months later are outwardly on the verge of almost leaving Islam – whilst maintaining their Muslim name, they will have completely detached from worship (Ibaadah) and Islamic conduct (adab) essentially becoming an empty shell, devoid of spirituality and sucked back into the dark void that they strived so hard to once leave.
لَا يُكَلِّفُ اللَّـهُ نَفْسًا إِلَّا وُسْعَهَا
‘Allah does not burden anyone, except with something within its capacity’ [2:286]
Whilst I have merely scratched the surface on this topic, for sure its resolution would appear to be simple. A convert should be supported and Muslims should behave toward him/her as they do to a newborn child; nurturing their growth, facilitating their learning, assisting their gradual transformation and embodiment of the Sunnah, assisting them in maintaining their British and religious identity simultaneously, strengthening their familial bonds, providing a support network incase they face hardship and granting them a safe environment within which they can further their exploration of Islam without feeling pressurised to embody another cultural way of life.
Education, Balance and Tolerance are the key in facilitating the successful development of any new converts. I have spoken throughout this article from the perspective of my own past experience, I sincerely pray that we can bring about a change within our communities to prevent the problems mentioned above from becoming manifest. Religion should be something that attracts, not deters.
I pray this article is of use, for certain, I am a lowly helpless servant and a student of the students of Knowledge. I pray that Allah Almighty accepts this mere work and forgives any errors I have produced herein – all Good comes from Him and any bad is as a result of my flawed human state.
Student of the Students of Knowledge