Saturday, March 05, 2011

Reverts and their Muslim Communities

One of my articles, recently published by You can visit the article to vote and leave comments if you wish.

Isolation is scary, and it’s not easy to face troubles alone. Sometimes converting or reverting to Islam is one of the easiest steps, belying a difficult journey ahead. But the converts who stay on their own and avoid the 
community are the most likely to lose their way. 

In Surat al-Fatihah, we read about a Siraat al-Mustaqeem, a Straight Path, and we ask Allah to guide us towards it. Let’s think about the way this path is described for a moment. Though there are other words for “path” in the Arabic language, the word Siraat, refers to a path which is straight, long, dangerous, wide, and unique. If a path is wide, that means many people can take it at once, and unique in this context means that there is no other path available to the destination. In other words, it is the Path to Salvation, and there’s not an alternative route. But because it’s a wide path, we don’t need to go alone. In fact, when we pray this du’a every day in our salah, we ask Allah to guide us to the Straight Path. We don’t ask individually, or say “Guide me,” but we make du’a collectively—we declare that we worship Allah, and we seek His help, and then we ask Him to guide us, at least seventeen times a day in salaah.

Imagine being lost in the woods, and you come across a path like this—straight, long, wide, etc. And imagine that the path is crowded with people, some even carrying flashlights. It’s easy to join in and follow along. But if you hang back, or walk on your own, you might get lost going down a detour—not the right way, and off the Straight Path. Similarly, in Islam we have a group walking together, and scholars to guide the way. But when a convert leaves the group, even intending to keep going the same way, it becomes more difficult to stay on the Straight Path.

Islam is not a religion to be practiced in isolation—it demands community. Remember that when the Messenger of Allah (saws) moved to Madinah he spent the initial months establishing brotherhood and a masjid. For today’s new Muslims, integrating with the community is similarly important. And the community revolves around the masjid. The Muslim community can be a means of support for a convert or revert who has become isolated from family members, a means of education and instruction in practicing Islam, and a means of constant companionship.

But as our individual identities are often tied to the communities that raised us, entering a new community as an adult can be a daunting experience, notwithstanding the community’s ability to welcome new members. And it’s as important for a masjid to offer programs for local new Muslims as it is for the converts and reverts to involve themselves as much as possible.

Iman will go up and down throughout a person’s life but what might keep someone from leaving Islam altogether is support from other Muslims, and guidance that they wouldn’t have access to on their own. A healthy community should aim to provide its new Muslims with ample social as well as educational opportunities. Informal events offer people a chance to connect with each other and cultivate relationships, while classes and seminars offer knowledge guidance in new terrain.

And just as it’s important for the community to provide the opportunities, it’s as important for the new Muslims to get involved. The Internet can’t substitute for real social interaction, for brothers and sisters who can demonstrate how Muslims really live, day-to-day. And search engines are terrible scholars. Our imams and teachers know (or should know) how to explain things without overloading the listener. As important, they can offer advice tailored to an individual. A website full of fatwas doesn’t know the details of a person’s particular situation. So while the Internet can be a great resource, it’s still critical for new Muslims to involve themselves in their communities, and also for local Muslims to reach out so nobody becomes isolated, and consequently left behind.

Sometimes, the first experience a convert has with a community is a visit to a mosque. The critical first impression might be negative if the convert isn’t able to connect with anyone. This especially happens with sisters who aren’t even able to find women at the mosque, or if they do, the women can’t speak English. Sometimes new Muslims have too many expectations of their community, but there are some steps the community can take to help make things easier for them. For instance some problems could be reduced or eliminated if the community is able to well-publicize its events. An easy-to-see event board and an active website can be important ways for a convert to learn about events. And though it does require effort from some volunteers, properly publicizing events through websites and posters at a mosque are crucial to letting new Muslims learn about activities. Since they are not usually regular in praying at the mosque, announcements after the salaah might not reach them. In particular, because women are in general infrequent at mosques, they might not know about activities even if they are asked.

Also, a simple point of contact might be all that’s needed to break the barrier keeping a new Muslim from participating in events. Dedicated volunteers should be encouraged to specifically welcome new Muslims by directing them to beneficial programs and other Muslims in the area who can befriend them.
Some ideas for a masjid to reach out to new Muslims:

· Community Potlucks
· Book Clubs
· Play Dates for kids
· Iftaars in Ramadan
· Weekly halaqas geared towards new Muslims
· Classes on Essentials of Islam and Beginner Arabic
· Q & A Sessions with an Imam
· Dedicated volunteers for outreach to new Muslims

But what can a convert do? First, take Islam seriously and cherish it, and secondly start looking for ways to meet other Muslims (especially converts who know what you’re going through) and to learn more about Islam on an ongoing basis. It might require making time in your schedule, or driving across town. I offered a class one time that several sisters had trouble attending because they didn’t have cars. But some other sisters offered to provide rides and the end result was that they kept coming and they formed a close circle as well, supporting and encouraging each other. Look for activities at the local mosque and try to contact active volunteers for their advice about local events and activities. Look on websites for local organizations, mosques, and even on event posters—it shouldn’t be hard to find a contact.

Make use of whatever resources are available, and make a commitment. Islam is a journey that doesn’t need to be made alone. Join the community on the Straight Path.

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