On Becoming a Muslim

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by Bilal Cleland, July 1997
[a collection of notes on the experience of conversion to Islam in Australia, and how to deal with the issues that arise]

1. Common Experiences.

  • Feelings of isolation.
  • Doubts about the decision to become a Muslim.
  • Shock at some of the behaviours and beliefs of the Muslim community here in Australia.
  • Fault finding with the Muslim community.

The experience can head in two ways:

  • total rejection of the Muslim community and eventual rejection of Islam,
  • or coming to terms with the real situation.

2. Dissatisfaction based on frustration.

Those who have accepted Islam recognise the nature of Islam - the advanced nature of the thinking in the way of life which came with the Quran:

  • the notion of human rights,
  • the acceptance of women as equal partners to men,
  • the emphasis upon the establishment of social justice,
  • balancing the demands of religion with the demands of real life,
  • and establishing the sovereignty of God as a path to human liberation.

What we find in the Muslim community is often superstition and ignorance of Islam. Shamanism, eye images hung on the wall to protect against evil, pseudo-Islamic magic to work wonders, racism directed against other Muslims and against specific groups of non-Muslims. We find mediaeval oppression of women, forced marriages, and brutality towards children. Sometimes the people whose attitudes towards their children or towards other Muslims are very intolerant and oppressive are those who display the greatest religiosity, emphasising prayers and mosque attendance. Constantly in my mind was the phrase I had brought from my Anglican childhood - the concept of the Psalm-singing hypocrite, so common in rural Christian communities in Australia.

We find what appears to be a religious attitude based more upon hatred of other groups or cultures than upon love of Creation. Nationalism has a stranglehold on most groups, with an often unstated certainty that people from that linguistic or national group are the real Muslims. Others are brothers and sisters but "we" are the real ones. And even within the national groups there are many quite hostile subdivisions which each see themselves as bearers of the 'real' Islam. Those of us from Christian backgrounds know full well the atmosphere of confusion and hatred that such claims can create. Christians, not so long ago, used to burn rival Christians alive to punish them for their wickedness.

We find supposed religious leaders who know a little about the Quran and Hadith but nothing at all about other areas of knowledge. We had learnt in our reading on Islam and the Quran that Islam was a whole way of life, that knowledge was all linked, that the separation of religion and scientific and other knowledge were not part of the Islamic way of thinking. We found the opposite.

At least I should say, that is how it seemed for a period of time!

3. What have I got into?

At first, like most people who have accepted Islam, I found the Muslim community fascinating. I still strongly identified with my old way of life and was just paddling around the Muslim community. I found sitting on the floor in the mosque listening to tirades in a foreign tongue quite an exotic experience. People all seemed very friendly although there was little actual communication beyond the simple courtesies.

As I had in any organisation or group I have belonged to, I tried to play my part as an active member. I found myself soon looking after English language correspondence for an Islamic Society. The imam was an outstanding Muslim who was under attack from his government. I soon found out that there were deep rifts amongst Muslims, between nationalists who in reality seemed to worship their national leaders and those who, although loyal members of their original country, placed God first.

Coming from a Marxist political background, I found the political situation was easy to understand. I could accept that there were unsound elements infiltrating the heart of the umma.

What I found harder to come to terms with was the unprincipled behaviour of those who identified with Islam. Now I understand that these were early days for the Muslim community and things were settling down. At that time I found things stunning and shattering.

Deception was justified in terms of the necessity to use tricks in war. Lies were justified in the same way. Promises were made and slipped out of in order to gain advantage. Terms like munafiq and kafir were tossed around as an easy mode of attack. People who believed that they had been chosen by God to command others vied for leadership. Some were accepted by apparently good Muslims who seemed to have the independence and judgement of sheep.

One incident stuck in my mind for many years. There was a dispute with the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils leadership and the Muslims of Victoria. A leader for whom I did have respect, denounced them as traitors, as munafiqeen. I went overseas for about four months. When I came back those same leaders were described by that same person I had respected as mumineen and generally great Muslims, because they had acceded to what he wanted. I stopped even going to the mosque as I was convinced that Islam had died. The lies and ignorance, the duplicity and opportunistic behaviour that would have put the Australian Labour Party to shame was being carried out in the name of God.

I almost left Islam at that time. For several years I could not bear to go to the mosque. By that stage I had been totally convinced that all other mosques were worthless as their imams were hypocrites. Only that mosque could claim to be Muslim and I had seen with my own eyes that it was run by liars and frauds. One year I remember I did not even know that it was Eid day. One of my ex-students brought me an Eid gift, reminding me of the degree to which I had become separated from the Muslim community. At no stage did I think that the Quran was a fraud or that Muhammad (salallahu alaihi wasalam) was a liar. I just felt that there were no followers anymore, so I may as well forget it and just do what I could alone.

I wondered just what I had got into by accepting that the Quran was a revelation from God and that Muhammad was a prophet and the last of the prophets.

4. You just have to make the best of it.

Time appears to be necessary for new Muslims to adjust and adapt to the realisation that the real world of Islam is somewhat different to what it first appeared.

It took me about 6 years to become angry and to turn my back on the Muslim community. During that time I had found out a great deal about the immigration experience of the Muslims I had been mixing with. They had been through terrible times. They had been subjected to racism, to religious bigotry of the most stupid kind from schools, from government departments and from neighbours and workmates. They could see their children failing in school, they did not have the time to learn English, and were forced to live out their lives in tiny language communities shut off from most of the benefits of living in this society.

Such knowledge prevented me from really disliking my Muslim brothers and sisters. I respected them and liked them while at the same time they drove me mad and I did not want to be with them. A stressful time.

In time I just learnt to accept that while Islam itself was the way for me, that did not mean I had to become an Arab or a Turk or start to believe in drinking the water in which a great leader had washed his hands or believe that epilepsy was due to wicked djinns. To accept the Quran, the Oneness of God, the leadership of Muhammad (salallahu alaihi wasalam) did not mean I had to think that honour killings of naughty daughters was doing God's work, or that whistling would summon up the Devil.

To be able to live with the Muslim community I had to learn to appreciate that there has been no Islamic government for a hundred years, that Islamic knowledge has been declining for centuries, that the predominance of rote learning in schools in Muslim majority countries and high levels of illiteracy amongst Muslims were part of the legacy of European colonialism, not past Islamic culture.

I found that there were thousands of highly aware Muslims more worried than I was about what was going on in the Muslim world. I became conscious of what Maududi and Said Qutb were on about. I recognised that Badawi, Qaradawi, Hasan Al Turabi and many others were addressing the very problems that nearly turned me off Islam.

Instead of becoming upset and feeling "What am I doing here" when I heard mad superstitious and ignorant ideas being passed off as Islam, I learnt to gently raise an alternative point of view. The more I liked and knew the person involved, I must admit, the less gentle I was and am in countering what seems to me arrant nonsense.

5. Getting an insight into the Muslim community.

  • Expect clashes of egos and ambitious individuals trying to prove that they are indeed the new caliph, at least in that society, region, State Council or whatever. We have here in our tiny Victorian Muslim community some extremely able individuals who have a lot to offer the umma. In their countries of origin, where they are fluent in the language and understand the system, they would be national figures. Destiny has brought them here. The need to work often prevents them from learning English. Stupid government policies deny them admission to their real professions as their qualifications are not recognised or insurmountable hurdles are placed in their way. As they are unable to enter the mainstream Australian community life because of these barriers, they exert their full range of skills and sometimes spread the wings of their considerable egos in a tiny ethnically based Islamic society. They appear overbearing and insufferable. Until they come to terms with their new environment they can be insufferable. If they are intelligent enough to cope with the new cultural environment, they go on eventually to bigger and better things, but while they are getting their feet they can be awful. Of course it is to our advantage to have such people amongst us as they can be great advocates for the Muslim community. We must learn patience, one of the characteristics of the faithful believers.

  • We must expect cultural diversity amongst us. Although we talk a lot about Islamic culture, throughout history there have been great differences between peoples in different parts of the world. Malay Muslims were never exactly the same as Indian Muslims or Chinese Muslims. Turkish Muslims were never exactly like Muslims from Mali or from Surinam. Slightly different practices in our communities must be tolerated. What one ethnic group thinks is the right thing to do is not necessarily what another one thinks is correct. The only absolute standard we accept is from Quran and Sunna. Islam is bigger than our tiny cultural prejudices or our restricted life experience.

    Australia is in a very significant position in this regard. Except on the Hajj itself we do not find together in one place so many Muslims from different parts of the world, all with their little peculiarities. Turkish, Arab, Malay, Bosnian, sub-continent (India, Pakistan and Bangla Desh) and African Muslims predominate but altogether we have Muslims from 68 different ethnic and linguistic groups. That we get along at all, with no single 'church', is one of the miracles of Islam.

    This diversity within the Muslim community is not a bad thing. That we are from different nations and tribes and we are getting to know each other in a spirit of belonging to the Islamic family, is a learning experience which we all need. It is also a test of our belonging to that family.

  • Of course there is a type of racism amongst some Muslims but that is to be expected. Diversity is a frightening thing to the ignorant and to those who thought that their way of thinking was the only one in existence.

    Intolerance is seen mainly amongst people without Islam. The rise of neo-Nazism in Europe, as the number of people from the Two-Thirds World seeking refuge from war and poverty increases in the rich countries, is a reflection of that old pagan attitude that only my tribe or village is really human. Others threaten our food supply so they must be gotten rid of. That is the motivation we see in the Serbian Chetniks who are trying to force all Catholics and Muslims out of the lands they conquer in Bosnia. These Serbian racists see diversity as a threat to their identity.

    Muslims, after a century of imperial rule and the decline of Islamic education, can be expected to fall into this sort of pattern. The people who burn churches in Eqypt in the name of Islam, or who cut off the heads of innocent tourists in Kashmir, are our Muslim variety of these neo-Nazis. That these activities are a denial of basic Islamic teachings is witnessed by the fact that every church in Cairo was built under Islamic rule, and that the Muslims of Kashmir went on strike against these so-called Muslim terrorists in Kashmir, denouncing them as Indian security agents. We cannot fight for what we call Islam using the methods of terrorism, of injustice. The terrible frustration of Muslims under the rule of dictators and forces of occupation can be understood, but the only way to victory is through Islam, not through following the path dictated by our anger.

  • A sense of justice is strong amongst believers. Despite these side problems, associated as they are quite often with low levels of education and cultural traditions brought from the country of origin, traditions rooted in paganism rather than Islam, there remains the overwhelming awareness amongst those who understand Islam of the need to defend the weak, to establish justice and to resist injustice and intolerance.

    Amongst all aware Muslims there is a deep understanding that justice is the reason for religion. It is why the prophets were sent by God.

    Allah says in the Holy Quran:

    O you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor: for Allah can best protect both. Follow not the desires (of your hearts), lest you swerve, and if you (distort) justice or decline to do justice, truly Allah is well acquainted with all that you do. (surah 4 Nisaa, ayah 135)

    O you who believe! Stand out firmly for Allah as witnesses to fair dealing and let not the hatred of others for you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just: that is next to piety: and fear Allah for Allah is well-acquainted with all that you do. (surah 5 Maida, ayah 9)

    Do not be people without a will of your own saying: If others treat you well, you will also treat well, and if they do wrong, we will also do wrong; but accustom yourselves to do good if people do good and not to do wrong if people do evil. (hadith in Tirmidhi reported by Abdur Rahman I. Doi in "Non-Muslims Under Shariah", p.44)

    Maududi explains the mission of the prophets in these terms:

    They aimed at the demolition of man's supremacy over man. Their real mission was to deliver man from this injustice, this slavery to false gods, this tyranny of man over man, this exploitation of the weaker by the stronger. Their object was to thrust back to their proper limits those who had overstepped them and to raise to the proper level those who had been forced down from it. They endeavoured to evolve a social organisation based on human equality in which man should be neither the slave nor the master of his fellow-beings and in which all men should become the slaves of God. (p18)

    This is Islam, the message for all time until the end of the world. This is the Islam of Muhammad (salallahu alaihi wasalam). It is the Islam of wonderful Muslims I have met, such as the Afghan Mujahideen representation here in Australia, Abdul Aziz Majidi (rahmatullah alaihi), of Shifa Turkmen, the first Imam I knew at the Turkish Islamic Society of Victoria (who was falsely charged with capital offenses on his return to Turkey). It is the Islam of Hasan Al Turabi, Maher Hatout, Jamal Badawi, and Maulana Maududi.

    Maher Hatout, a speaker from Southern California at the 1995 AFIC sponsored Symposium on Human Rights In Islam said that if we want to follow the Islam of rituals, then that is easy. We can talk about the details forever. It is a comfortable sort of belief to have. On the other hand, if we want to follow the broader path, which involves the establishment of regular prayer (meaning the basic rituals) as well as establishing justice, then this is a commitment which requires our time, our money and can involve our lives.

    Jamal Badawi, that same weekend at the AFIC dinner, reminded us that nowhere in the Quran does Allah promise victory to the Muslims. It is promised only to the mumineen. May Allah number us amongst the Mumineen.

6. We are all going through some stage of Culture Shock.

Culture shock comes from not knowing when to do what and how in a new situation.

We lose the familiar cues which guide us in our responses. The cues are now strange, even unrecognised, and you are not sure how to cope.

The part of our culture with which we are familiar is the learnt part, the things we can talk about easily. Those parts of our culture which we absorb from our parents and our surroundings in our everyday life, things which we just take for granted and are not aware of, form the larger part of that culture.

Culture has been compared to an iceberg. The bit poking out of the water, the obvious part, is easy to understand. The mass under the water, which makes up 90% of our ways, is almost unconscious. It is the same for any new culture with which we come into contact. Some of it can be easily observed but the mass is not observable. The things assumed to be self-evident by those brought up in the culture are the source of the most difficulty. Participants in the culture cannot articulate these masses of cultural assumptions. They just know that their way of thinking is right. The more monocultural of us find cultural diversity extremely difficult to come to terms with. Some people can never cope with cultural difference and retreat into isolation, into just dealing with their own ethnic or cultural group and avoiding all contact with other people. Some of our Muslim community members never have dealings with other people, Muslim or non-Muslim, who are not part of their particular linguistic or ethnic group. Some have to leave the place or the people who are new and return to where they feel part of things.

Culture shock can be very painful and stressful. It can be over in a few months or it might never be resolved.

Cross-cultural communication experts have identified stages in the process of culture shock. To understand them can help an individual get through the stages to eventual cultural independence.

  • Stage 1, the stage of initial contact, is usually marked by very positive feelings abut the new culture into which you have moved. Everything is interesting. This is a new stage of life. Some call this the stage of euphoria, others call it the honeymoon stage. At this stage the original identification with the home culture is still strong and this new one is seen as stimulating. Exploration is a real adventure. The new is idealised.

  • Stage 2 is the stage of disintegration or depression. The old rules don't work anymore. The sands beneath you appear to have shifted. As you become increasingly aware of your difference you start to lose your feelings of self-esteem. Your ties with the old culture are weakening but you are not really swimming strongly in the new one. You feel lonely, sometimes apathetic and isolated. Depression can make you avoid contact with other people, both those from the home culture and those from the new culture.

  • Stage 3, the stage of reintegration, is one of hostility and rejection of the new culture but the beginning of adjustment to it. You feel frustrated with the new culture and see your old culture or home culture as the best one. Your attitudes to the new culture become rebellious and you sound very self-opinionated in your statements to your peers. You become pre-occupied with criticisms of the new culture through your feelings of disappointment and frustration.

    This is a dangerous stage for new Muslims. Their disappointment with the Muslim community, with the behaviour and the dreadfully backward attitudes they encounter, can turn them right off. Some disappear never to be seen again!

  • Stage 4, the stage of acceptance of the cultural difference, if it is reached, signals the road to resolution. You can see the difference and similarities between the old culture and the new. Both can be accepted without angst. You become more relaxed, less uptight about the things you couldn't tolerate at one time. You don't accept everything, but at least you can exercise patience and tolerance. You don't expect everyone to conform to what you think they should be like. You feel confident enough to decide things for yourself. You need not constantly seek re-assurance from others as to whether what you are about is "correct".

    New experiences which would have once angered or upset you, are weathered with little effort.

  • The final stage, that of independence, is the stage in which you can reflect upon the two sets of values. You develop a new set of values of your own which neither mirror the old cultural values or all of the new. Some aspects you ignore, others you adopt and adapt. You feel able to function normally without stress. Your sense of humour returns. You know you will not become an Arab or a Turk. You can distinguish what is Islamic from what is hillbilly tradition. You can understand and respect traditions based upon Islamic culture handed down over the centuries. You do not accept other practices but then you do not constantly get on your soap box to denounce them. If things are un-Islamic, you gently argue against them, but ranting will change nothing.

    You can at last enjoy the diversity, the psychological differences, the cultural differences, and understand how stimulating it is to get to know one another, not despise one another, because of differences amongst us.

7. Everybody is undergoing the experience.

We must remember that the community which we are entering, the Australian Muslim community, is composed of mainly first generation migrants, from countries which have been subjected to war, to dictatorship and/or to poverty and oppression, who are also undergoing culture shock. Many of them are feeling isolated and alone. many of them are also rejecting the new culture of Australia and feeling that they have made a mistake in coming to this non-Muslim country. Some of them, like some of us, will get stuck in the stage of depression or in the stage of reintegration in which they are focused upon criticisms of Australian culture.

Meanwhile, we have to learn to live with what we’ve got.

  • We cannot think of ourselves as New Muslims forever. The Sahaba (the Companions of Muhammad) were all New Muslims. We are entitled to take our place in the Muslim community as fully fledged members of it. We will find arrogant people who will try to create a distinction between New Muslims and born Muslims. That alone shows how stupid they are; we are all born Muslims. I remember in the Noble Park area one of our New Muslim brothers was told he could not call azan; that honour should belong to a born Muslim. The Chairman of the Society who told him that had alcohol on the table to celebrate Eid a few weeks later.

  • We must not get stuck into the hostile stage of culture shock, condemning everything about the Muslim community. That is self defeating and is itself un-Islamic. If we think of ourselves as high we are in fact followers of Iblis not of Islam. The sin of Iblis was that he believed himself made of better material than human beings so he disobeyed Allah and refused to prostrate before them. For thinking himself high he was cast out of Paradise. If we complain but remain apart and uninvolved we show we have not yet found the path. Unless we feel solidarity with the Muslim umma, we are not part of it.

  • We must remain on-guard against unscrupulous groups. Although the members are naive and honest, some of these groups are organised by people who are not. There is one British pseudo-Sufi group whose shaykh quotes Nietsche more than the Quran. It seeks out New Muslims, as they know we are usually finding our way. As we are insecure in our knowledge, we are a good target. There are Turkish, Indian and Arab groups which are quite different in approach but all of which claim to be following the 'real Islam'. For those who get involved, the process of culture shock can be positively iman shattering. I know of one of these groups which has turned several New Muslims right off. They have left the umma, inshallah temporarily. Be careful of getting committed to any groups until you know what you are about. All of these groups display intense religiosity but experience reveals how shallow they are. If you are not aware of these things, you could believe that Islam itself is shallow and some sort of confidence trick. Go slowly and carefully.

Most important, don’t give up! The struggle is worth it.

That we all get on so well is one of the miracles of Islam. All of us are in different stages of shock, coping with each other at different stages of our understanding of Islam, with different assumptions about right behaviour and what Islam means. We have totally different experiences of life, from the rape camps of Bosnia, the massacres of Cyprus, to the quiet living rooms of Kuala Lumpur, Melbourne and Istanbul. Yet despite these differences we do feel that we belong together. That deep sense of belonging to one community seems to grow with the years.

People coming into the umma bring with them their skills and their cultures. We have to learn to celebrate the growing diversity of our community while at the same time building and deepening our Islamic consciousness. We will always be diverse, we will always have differences, but we will not be divided by ethnicity or by suspicion forever. We must realise that new Muslims are only new for awhile. The need for support while undergoing culture shock is clear, but accepting Islam should not become a chronic illness requiring special support forever.

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