The Power of Normalcy – Conversion to Islam

The following statement really caught my attention from a Japanese convert, “Mustafa”, in which he stated:

“When I converted, and as a Japanese citizen, Islam was a bit intimidating to me. I bought the Qur’an but I thought about giving up. But one day I went to the mosque, and I saw people with suits and ties, I felt reassured.”

There are numerous examples in the Prophetic period of the enormous role that culture had to play in making Islam “normalized”, a component often overlooked in conversion today where often conversion is rooted in protest, not against idolatry, but against authority.

Can We Deliver The Goods?

In a 2009 article, Becoming Sinless: Converting to Islam in the Christian Solomon Islands, Debra McDougall investigates the nature of conversion to Islam in the Solomon Islands. Aside from merely being an interesting article to read, McDougall brings to light via citing Scott Flower, a query we here in America should stop and ask ourselves: are we, on an institutional level, a service-based community? Should we be?

In one of the few scholarly works on the topic (namely, Islam being inextricably linked with political violence and terrorism), Scott Flower (2008) argues that such speculations (on the part of the Melanesian government) are unfounded. He suggests that indigenous converts are drawn to the goods and services that Islamic organizations provide and are attracted to Islam because it resonates with indigenous cultural practices1 (parentheses and emphasis mine).

When I reflect back on my own conversion and admittance into the Muslim community, I would concur that I was indeed drawn to perceived goods and services in the Muslim community. For myself, this amounted mainly to socializing and fraternity. However, I clearly see that our community is having ever greater demands placed on it to provide all manner of services (for convert and non-convert alike) such as family counseling, mental health counseling to financial planning. But what I’m most curious about is McDougall’s last statement: Islam’s resonance “with indigenous cultural practices”. I wonder, is this the case? While attending a khutbah today, I heard a sermon whose theme centered around the notion of silah al-rahm, or the maintaining of kinship, taken from the hadith:

ليس الواصل بالمكافئ ولكن الواصل الذي إذا قَطَعت رحمُه وصلها

“The person who perfectly maintains the ties of kinship is not the one who does it because he gets recompensed by his relatives (for being kind and good to them), but the one who truly maintains the bonds of kinship is the one who persists in doing so even though the latter has severed the ties of kinship with him.” (Sahih al-Bukhari, hadith 322)

The khatib delivered an excellent khutbah but when it came to referencing maintaining family ties, his only reference was to Muslims who need to work on maintaining ties with families overseas. The idea or notion of converts, who often have much more delicate and complicated familial relations, failed to come to mind. This is indicative of how our community thinks of converts: reverent yet remote. I say this not in condemnation of any personal khatib or speaker but to raise awareness of persistent and enduring issues in our community that sadly, continue to fall short of notions that draw people to Islam. What is illuminating here is that the services that one segment needs (i.e., converts), will often resonate and find need in its counterpart (i.e., non-converts). And while our community will never be a utopia, we can, God willing, take steps to make it better and come closer to delivering the goods.

1. McDougall, Debra. “American Anthropologist Volume 111 Index.” American Anthropologist 111.4 (2009): 480-91. Web. 27 June 2014.

Keepin’ It One Hunned – Thoughts on Conversion to Sunni Islam Part 3

Part three of a candid and honest conversation with a brother whose path to Islam came through the Nation of Islam and why many of us feel we’re encouraged to not have empathy for our own people: black, white, American, etc.

[Direct download]

Why Islam Is Not A Culture

During my talk in Rancho Cucamonga last week, one of the main points that I spoke on was that Islam is, ultimately, not a culture. I thought I’d take a comment to speaker further on my statement and explain it in a bit more detail.

One of the problems of seeing Islam as a culture is that, if it is a culture, then it must lose its ability to inform, for all of its arguments become circular. This is one of the reasons I feel many Muslims object to the notion of Islam not being a culture is because they want Islam to inform their lives. In many ways this conundrum is really a matter of semantics. After all, it is Islam, its book — the Qur’an — and the life of the Prophet Muhammud (صلى الله عليه وسلم) that gives meaning and direction to the lives of Muslims, and rightly so. However, I feel the only way to retain the perfection of Islam, and its ability to reform and guide the human being, is if it is ultimately elevated beyond the construct of human endeavors, time, and history. In defense of this approach, one of the central tenets to the Islamic faith is that the Qur’an is not manufactured by man and that Muhammad did not speak of his own accord.

Let us examine this semantic conundrum further. One of the main challenges facing Muslims in the modern age is the inability to no longer see the distinctive line between where revelation ends, on the one hand, and where their cultures begin. From this troubled point of view, Muslims can often end up condemning other Muslims, not for having infringed upon divine Scripture or prophetic tradition, but rather simply for being different from them. Let me be clear here: this is not a challenge solely for immigrant (I prefer legacy Muslims) Muslims, who fail to see the dividing line between Islam and their own cultural interpretations on it. It is also a major challenge, for the sake of this article, for American Muslims (particularly converts) who also express difficulty in discerning where Revelation ends and culture begins. In fact, American Muslim converts can be the greatest enforcers of this (false) regime. In the end, however, the intentions driving this mindset, no matter how well-intended, often lead to divisiveness inside the broader (global) Muslim community.

It is precisely this above-mentioned mindset that drives most of the criticism against those in the American-Muslim community who seek to establish a bona fide American-Muslim culture. And yet, at its heart, the discussion around the creation of a authentic and valid American-Muslim culture is in essence, an attempt to do precisely what the Muslim Ummah has done throughout history: negotiate their customs and norms with the revelation of Islam.

In summary, by insisting upon Islam’s supra-worldly status and origin, we can then set about to the enterprise of “commanding to the good and forbidding the evil”, as the bulk of both categories are wholly unknowable without relying upon pre-existing, man-made cultures. And perhaps most important of all, we’ll be reminded of where our best efforts end and God begins. The detriment of not doing so explains to great lengths why the Muslim world has lost its ability to change and adapt to modernity: not because Islam is incapable of doing so but precisely because these Muslims no longer see a distinction between their cultures and divine Revelation. Therefore, once this distinction is removed, there is no other recourse for these cultures to change (if they are inseparable manifestations of Revelation then logic dictates there can be no change! – for Revelation does not change!) for only a man-made culture can indeed be advised and informed by that which is from Beyond.

وَفِي ذَٰلِكَ فَلْيَتَنَافَسِ الْمُتَنَافِسُونَ

“Let people with aspiration aspire to that!” Qur’an, 83: 26.