Embracing the strangeness of Islam (The Bond)

Originally published in the February 2014 issue of the Islamic Society of Kingston’s newsletter, The Bond.

One of the things I enjoy about my work is the opportunity I have to interact with the children in our community, especially during our evening classes.

I recently asked our older students, mostly between grades 4 and 7, to write about three things related to Islam or Muslims (including beliefs and practices) that they are most shy or embarrassed to mention to their non-Muslim friends and classmates.

The most common ones were belief in one Allah, dietary restrictions and hijab. Coming to the masjid, studying Qur’an and guidelines on gender interaction also made the list.

One of the reasons why our children are reluctant to talk about these and other Islamic teachings is because they are seen as being different and strange in our society today. Some of our children may already be so deeply influenced by the prevailing winds of secularism and the encouragement to follow one’s desires – and at their tender ages, it really doesn’t take much to influence them – that they may already be seeing Islamic teachings as being strange.

This phenomenon of Muslims becoming alien to Islam is not limited to children. Even as adults, we sometimes come across teachings, sayings of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and perhaps even verses of the Holy Qur’an (the actual words of Allah) that appear strange to us. This could be due to our lack of understanding, the extent to which we have become used to non-Islamic norms, or simply due to the lack of strength and conviction in our iman (faith).

In the past, the teachings presented by the Prophets of Allah (peace be upon them all) were received with suspicious and unfamiliarity by many. After all, they went against society’s norms at the time and people were generally more comfortable holding on to the status quo, likely because they were used to it, it seemed easier and it allowed them to do what they pleased.

Referring to the idol worshipers of Arabia who were opposed to the message of Islam, Allah says:

They follow not except assumption and what [their] souls desire, and there has already come to them from their Lord guidance.” [Qur’an – 53:23]

When Prophet Shu’aib (peace be upon him) preached the message of Allah to the people of Madyan:

They said, ‘O Shu‘aib, does your Salah (prayer) command you that we should forsake what our fathers used to worship or that we should not deal with our wealth as we please? You pretend to be the only man of wisdom and guidance.’” [Qur’an – 11:87]

And:

They said, ‘O Shu‘aib, we do not understand much of what you say, and, in fact, we see you are weak among us.’” [Qur’an – 11:87]

Even the final Messenger of Allah, Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) faced a similar attitude from the disbelievers of Makkah:

But they wonder that a warner has come to them from among themselves; so the disbelievers said, ‘This is something strange. Is it when we die and become dust (that we will be brought to life again?) That is a return, far (from understanding).” [Qur’an – 50:2-3]

The worship of idols, female infanticide and the consumption of alcohol were deeply established customs of Arabian society in the period of ignorance before the advent of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). Eradicating them was strange. Yet, the believers were able to shun these then-popular practices due to the strength of their faith and the understanding that “Allah and His Messenger (peace be upon him) know best,” as they would often say.

Even in the few instances where the believers were reluctant to embrace an order of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) based on seemingly sound reasons, they immediately relented when they realized the importance of following the command of Allah and the instructions of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). Allah says:

It is not open for a believing man or a believing woman, once Allah and His messenger have decided a thing, that they should have a choice about their matter; and whoever disobeys Allah and His messenger, he indeed gets off the track, falling into an open error.” [Qur’an – 33:36]

True believers know that Allah and His Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) are the ultimate source of Truth and Wisdom. For them, the words of Allah and His Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) are supreme, even if we, as human beings, aren’t always able to understand the wisdom behind them. After all, human wisdom and understanding are of no match to Allah’s Wisdom and Knowledge.

When it comes to applying the guidance of Allah and His Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him), there can be legitimate differences of opinion and interpretation. In that case, the true believer always turns to those with knowledge and taqwa (God-consciousness and piety), who have inherited knowledge of Qur’an and Prophetic traditions, and whose demeanour most closely resembles that of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and the description of the believers and the pious in the Qur’an.

Islam, its teachings and its followers may be seen as strange today, but this should not come as a surprise. After all, the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) has said:

Islam began as something strange and will revert to being strange as it began, so give glad tidings to the strangers.” [Recorded by Muslim]

Yes, Islamic teachings are seen as strange and the Muslims who act upon them are considered to be strangers. However, we must not be afraid of being associated with strangeness, as there will definitely be goodness in being associated with the strangeness of Islam, insha’Allah!

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