What made you become a Muslim?

Solitary Journey

Julia Donaldson’s book Monkey Puzzle was my eldest daughter’s no.1 bedtime tale with its story of a monkey who’s lost his mum and the caring butterfly who tries to help him find her. Despite Monkey’s descriptions, Butterfly keeps leading them to the wrong animals until, exasperated, Monkey blurts out,

‘Butterfly, butterfly, can’t you see?

None of these creatures looks like me!’

You never told me she looked like you!’ 

‘Of course I didn’t! I thought you knew!’

I didn’t know. I couldn’t! You see…

none of my babies looks like me.’

 

There are times when I feel like Monkey. The faith I connect with seems a different animal viewed through the eyes of others. I wonder if I still count as a Muslim when I disagree with so much it’s purported to represent.

I’m one of those white, western, female converts that people assume must be brainwashed or bonkers. It’s a largely accurate assessment as lots of them are – self-righteously parroting bulls**t, an inane smile on their face and an incongruous scarf on their head – but in that sense they’re not so different from many ‘born’ Muslims; more on that in a minute.

But first I’ll answer that burning question…

 

What made you become a Muslim?

I was the last person you’d expect to convert – white, Irish, Sunday-schooled, convent-educated. By 15 I’d concluded religion was for wimps, started by some long ago Jeremy Beadle type who’d pulled a prank that turned out far better than he ever could’ve imagined.

Sick of people telling me what to believe when surely belief, by its very nature, was something you had to find for yourself, I turned to Guns’n’Roses and Thelma and Louise instead.

I was oblivious to Muslims until I moved into a shared house with one at 26. The word wasn’t even in my vocabulary – moslem, muzzlim; was I saying it right? Luckily he was confident and easy-going and didn’t mind answering my questions but I wanted to know more. Before long I’d gone through every book on Islam in the public library.

I learned it was a clarification of the messages in Judaism and Christianity, the final draft of a vision corrupted and forgotten over time. Christians, Jews and Muslims all theoretically sing from the same hymnsheet, just disagree over which edition to use.

I learned the Qur’an isn’t an instruction manual to be taken literally, but a historical artifact and a tool to encourage thought and introspection. Ignoring its subtlety and layered meanings and cherry-picking quotes out of context is like skimming through a Jilly Cooper novel for the naughty bits – you’re not interested in the bigger picture, just the cheap thrills.

I admired the Islamic perspective on life: the absence of a clergy, the encouragement to pursue knowledge and the emphasis on social responsibility and individual accountability. I was impressed Islam recognized women’s rights centuries before the suffrage movement and was relieved to allow myself acceptance of a feeling that never really left me throughout my atheist years – that a higher power, call it a Life Force, Creativity or God, exists in the world.

I wasn’t looking for a club to join, but the essence of Islam resonated in me – it was more commonsense than religion. I converted after a year of research and my real education began. Understanding Islam was one thing, but understanding Muslims? Whole different ballgame.

 

The road to radicalization is paved with good intentions

As a ‘revert’, the mildly patronizing term used to describe converts, I was a magnet for unsolicited advice from self-declared authorities desirous of extra piety-points. Many seemed to think that, however sweetly well intentioned, I’d ‘gone in blind’ and took it upon themselves to educate me.

Some peppered their speech with so many ‘alhamdullilah’s’ and ‘masha’allah’s they reminded me of robots with phrases coded into their CPU, and the cloying condescension when they called me ‘Sister’ made me feel anything but. Others wanted to shoot the breeze and trash-talk Jews, as if by choosing Islam I’d automatically aligned myself with the PLO.

Then there were those who’d eye me suspiciously from a distance, reluctant to engage – for them I was from the wrong race, hemisphere or gender.

 

“I hope you don’t mind me asking but…”

Happily, I was also the catalyst for shy queries from curious non-Muslims who asked questions they ordinarily stifled for fear of causing offense. I became the go-to person for Everything-You-Wanted-To-Know-About-Muslims-But-Were-Too-PC-To-Ask.

The same things cropped up again and again:

“Aren’t muslim women dreadfully oppressed, forced to cover, denied rights?”

“What about honour killings and men having four wives?”

”You’re not allowed pork or alcohol right? Why would someone give up their freedoms like that?”

Some of the issues I knew about, others gave me that sinking feeling you get when you’ve missed something obvious. Had I been naive?

 

“Keep them in the dark”

The short answer is ‘No.’ It turns out I’m luckier than most. Confusion about the line between culture and religion and ignorance of what the Qur’an actually says means Muslims born into their religion are limited by what they’re taught. They’ve never needed to research it so they grow up with only a glimpse through the keyhole – never seeing the big picture. Viewed as the Muslim equivalent of Sunday School, madrassas teach children to recite the Qur’an and the obligatory prayers. They rarely tackle interpretation.

In the same way Christian clergy kept the Bible in Latin to better control their ‘flock’, fifteenth century religious scholars stopped the spread of printing in the Muslim world fearing copies of the Qur’an would lead to Muslims reading and interpreting it for themselves. They needn’t have worried.

It’s supposed to work like this: Muslims look to the Qur’an, the sunnah (the prophet’s sayings and behavior) and the hadith (reported sayings and behavior transmitted through a chain of authenticated sources), in that order, for their understanding of Islam. But in homes all over the world Qur’ans are kept shrouded in fabric on high shelves and the tops of wardrobes. Muslims recite the words with little or no understanding of their meaning, while the other texts whose contents were determined on the whims of various powerful men through the ages, have assumed the mantle of Absolute Truth.

 

“Don’t try and understand it – just make sure you say it right”

Muslim prayers and the Qur’an are written in Classical Arabic, a language now limited to historical literary texts. Quite different from the Arabic commonly spoken today, it takes years to master and is so complex even Arabs themselves cannot agree on its various interpretations. Yet over and over again I was told I’d never gain an accurate understanding of the Qur’an from translations, that I should concentrate instead on refining my pronunciation.

I was effectively discouraged from trying to fully understand my faith.

Accurate recitation is valued more than understanding content. Quoting the entire Qur’an by heart wins you the revered title hafiz – irrespective of whether you know what you’re on about.

And so we’ve ended up with the veil, the medieval brutality of Sharia Law and the despotic goal of an Islamic state masquerading as Islam. Muslims today still turn more readily to sheiks and imams for advice than try to find the answer in themselves and this isn’t limited to the illiterate.

 

A fresh perspective

Everyone thinks religion is about toeing the line but the biggest thing I’ve learned from my conversion is, conversely, how to think for myself. People use and mold religion for guidance on the minutiae of everyday life (I knew someone who stopped plucking her eyebrows because she’d been told it was haram (forbidden)).

But religion isn’t the be-all and end-all of morality. It’s not about shutting things down and cutting yourself off – it’s the starting point that encourages people to explore, expand and develop their own understanding, and that’s why morality in religion can’t be fixed and finite. There IS no Ultimate Rulebook, no One-Size-Fits-All template for life. Run a mile from anyone who tells you otherwise.

 

15 Comments

  1. Excellent point re: being born into a Muslim family you don’t have to research on your own, you learn what you are taught. Being born into a Roman Catholic family, I was pretty much raised that way also, but I didn’t understand anything. In my early twenties I went to the parish priest for assistance with learning and he told me to come to mass, that would be all I needed. Well after twenty years of already going to mass, I don’t believe that was the correct answer. I wanted other ways to learn.

    Reply
    • Hi Catherine, it’s a very insular way of being isn’t it? Rendering all religions social regulators instead of consciousness expanders. Glad to hear you weren’t content with settling for less :-)

      Reply
  2. Hi Aisha,
    I’ve been reading your blog for a while now. I’m actually surprised you wrote this post only now :) Or did I miss something? Anyway, I’m really impressed how few words you needed to bring it to the point. I can imagine it to be not at all easy for this kind of topic. And it was a great read as usual, of cause. Thank you :)

    Reply
    • Thanks for such a great comment. Nothing beats the buzz of an appreciative reader who comes out of obscurity to leave a compliment. I suppose you could say it’s been ‘cooking’ for some time – the title has been in my drafts folder for almost a year.

      Reply
  3. Couldn’t agree more! I’m actually a born Muslim but decided to examine and read about Islam from scratch because there isn’t a one size fits all model like you say. Being Muslim means different things to different people. I think that with the changing of times, people’s understanding of the Quran will continue to evolve.

    Reply
    • I hope so, but it’s hit and miss with the different sects widely distributing their ‘brand’ for free through mosques, madrassas and bookshops. How many people even consider that the Qur’an they’re reading may have been subjected to distortions and omissions to better convey a biased view? Revised editions of Pickthall and Ali (traditionally the more rationalist interpretations) have been altered to make them appear more conservative and conventional, rendering them fundamentally changed. Not everyone will pursue the study of hermeneutics to gain a better understanding of Islam.

      Reply
  4. What a thoughtful, thought-provoking piece, Aisha. Even Karl Marx’s citing religion as an ‘opium of the people’ is continuously taken out of context. That same passage goes on to say ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation.’ In the end, it comes down to faith.

    Reply
    • This is true. Our modern age is characterized by a hypnotic dependence which calls for a new kind of prophet. Not like the prophets of old who reminded people they were going to die, but someone who will remind them that they are not dead yet.

      Reply
  5. Hi Aisha,

    I like your posts and I do agree the traditional (cultural) approach to Quran/Islam is rife with issues. However, the following text is brand new info for me. Could you please quote your reference:

    fifteenth century religious scholars stopped the spread of printing in the Muslim world fearing copies of the Qur’an would lead to Muslims reading and interpreting it for themselves. They needn’t have worried.’

    Since Quran began as an oral tradition with a strong encouragement to remember by heart it would make little sense to ban its printing. Anyhow, I would love to investigate this issue further

    Thanks

    Reply
    • Please refer to Ziauddin Sardar’s ‘Paper, Printing & Compact Discs: The making and unmaking of Islamic Culture’ Media, Culture & Society, 1993 pp.43-59.

      While Islam is not meant to have a clergy, the ulama are de facto priests, reserving the right to interpret and act as intermediaries between the Word of God and the believer. In some cases, their interpretations are placed on a par with the Qur’an itself (eg. the Hanafi school of thought). To maintain their authority, they’ve lowered the bar of accessibility for others, reducing the concept of ilm (all knowledge) to mean only religious knowledge and suggesting those with religious knowledge were superior to those without. They limited ijma (consensus of all) to mean consensus of a handful of religious scholars, and brought down the shutters on ijtihad (new interpretation). Stopping widespread printing was one of the methods they used to do this.

      Reply
      • Thanks for the link. I really liked it

        Re your blog entry, I re-read it and am not sure if I completely agree with the following:

        ‘I learned the Qur’an isn’t an instruction manual to be taken literally’

        While Quran does contain allegories and lessons and focus more on the larger issues. It does talk about specific issues. While those Ayas could also be taken in non-literal way, ignoring the obvious literal meaning seems like a biased approach. e.g. the regulations regarding inheritance, how to proceed with divorce, alcohol prohibition, what food is consumable, the acts of fasting/hajj etc. As Jefferey Lang says, the laws make up about 3% of the Quran. I do not think we can explain them away as ‘non-literalistic’

        Reply
  6. This gave me much food for thought, Aisha! I am not quite sure how one copes with the language part of Islam (Arabic words etc) and I still have a problem with the “religion/culture” aspects. But that of course applies to all organized religion. And are you saying that the Qur’an remains an enigma to you? Why shouldn’t you read translations? (sorry for all these questions, just trying to figure it out as a complete outsider!)

    Reply
    • I suppose it’s enigmatic inasmuch as there are so many nuances and links to discover that aren’t immediately clear – like looking at a diamond and seeing it differently depending on which facets the light is reflecting from. Remember the scene in Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade where Indy has to ‘take a leap of faith’, he jumps into the void and lands on a narrow bridge that was there all along but couldn’t be seen? Like that – undiscovered bridges between sentences and ideas that you can ponder ad infinitum.
      As for translations, there’s a school of thought that holds the Word of God was delivered in Arabic and all translation requires a certain amount of interpretation (selecting which word best conveys the meaning of the one your’re translating, or using a substitute if a comparative term doesn’t exist) so a translation can never correctly communicate the true Word of God. Should be called the ‘you won’t succeed so don’t bother trying’ school of thought…

      Reply
      • I also come from a non-arabic background and your statement
        ‘..Classical Arabic, a language now limited to historical literary texts. Quite different from the Arabic commonly spoken today’
        was very encouraging to me. It means just like me, an arab of today (who speaks a watered down version of classic arabic) has to pick up the dictionary and genuinely make an effort to understand Quran.

        Shakespeare’ in korean could be awesome but never truly rendering the beauty/nuanced expression depicted in its original. Why should Quran, considered a high quality form of classic arabic, be any less? The classic arabic is even more deep and any translation of it into english will be nothing but ‘crutches’ towards understanding the text. It is however, a start and the minimum we as muslims can do. Don’t get discouraged by ‘you won’t succeed so don’t bother trying’ school of thought.

        On the flip side, Picktal a century ago without google and fast travel was able to understand the message of Quran with no linguistic background in arabic. Same for Muhammad Asad (a ukrainian jew in early 20th century). These people are a testament to what can be achieved only if we dedicate time/energy to it.

        Besides, its the only way to truly stop relying on ‘traditional sources’

        Reply
  7. I came upon your blog from a tweet of this post. I love it! Your writing has such clarity, humor, and respectful critique. Funny – I am not Muslim but sometimes I cover, because of the country I live in. Just yesterday I was approached by a very brusque, veiled woman and drilled about my religious affiliation, without so much as a greeting. It left me feeling confused, startled, offended – and I felt that in the end, I didn’t give her the answer she wanted to hear, the box she wanted to check.

    Reply

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