Story #1: The Questioner
I'm inline skating down the road in Vancouver when a young man flags me down. "Hey! Hey!" he calls. "Are you an Islam person?"
I hit the breaks, skate over to the side of the road and reply, "Yes, I am a Muslim. Do you know anything about Islam?"
"No" he says.
"Then how did you know I was a Muslim?" I ask him.
"From that thing on your head."
I reach up to adjust my headscarf.
"And I have some questions," he says. "Do you support ISIS?"
Inside, I withered. Just as I did when anyone, over the last few months, has looked at me, a visible Muslim, with questions in their eyes, or distrust, or even hate. And I wondered, as I always did, why I had to share my beloved Islam, which I had chosen to practice thirteen years ago, with the likes of ISIS.
The young man went on to ask a series of questions including: Why did you choose Islam? What do you hope to find when you meet God? Can I hug you (rhetorical)? What do you think of pornography? And, Isn't sex natural? I accepted these questions, one-by-one, each as a responsibility, and answered them in ways I hoped might be digestible for a 20-something Canadian male university student.
And if the shocking actions of some people who call themselves Muslims are causing non-Muslims to question Islam, what about Muslims? Muslim leaders the world over have called ISIS totally un-Islamic and have aimed to rename the group by names that don't include the word Islam, yet the group itself continues to commit horrific crimes in the name of Islam and the Western media persists in linking Islam to terrorism and giving more airtime to terrorists than to the rest of us Muslims. The vast majority of the world's peace-loving, practical Muslims are being attacked from within and without: from the terrorists themselves and from non-Muslims led by the Western media.
It seems we are indeed in a bleak period of history. There is a saying of the Prophet, "There will come a time when holding firmly onto religion will be like holding onto hot coals (Al-Tirmidhi)." Facing pressures both internal and external to Islam, it feels that time has come.
A natural reaction to this situation, for Muslims living in non-Muslim communities, is to hide. To let go of the hot coals. Muslim women who don't wear hijab and most Muslim men have the ability to blend into non-Muslim communities. In doing so, they disassociate with the terrorists and sidestep the accusing looks and probing questions altogether. And while this might be tempting, it will not help our dire situation as a global Muslim community (ummah).
In the Quran there is a line that offers hope: "And, behold, with every hardship comes ease (Quran, 94:5)." Ease comes with (not after) hardship, thus taking two opposites and bringing them together in the same moment. Paradox in the now. So while our hardship lies raw and visible, what about our ease? And, if we were to find it, what would we do with it?
I can let neither terrorists nor Western media speak for me. I speak for myself, embedded as I am within the international community of Muslims, who share ideas, aches and inspirations, as well as the powerful acts of worship that are simultaneously social and deeply, personally spiritual.
So, with prayers in my heart for the countless victims of extremism and oppression on all sides, and writing from a North American context, I will offer a few thoughts in a series of blogs on what it's like being a Muslim now. I am not an Islamic scholar; I am a Muslim by lived experience. My goal is to contribute to the movement that grows the positive by striving to live Islam to the fullest, a movement that draws strength from the ease that is always here now, glimmering deep within our shared global crisis, in the hopes that we can use it to transcend.
Story #2: The Answerer
The very next day after meeting The Questioner, I met The Answerer. I was filling up my car at a gas station when a young man pulled in next to me wearing a red-checkered kuffiyah and a topi hat that Muslim men often wear. He began to fill up too. When he noticed me there pumping gas, he turned to me and said, "Salaam aleikum!" Then he proceeded to gush enthusiastically about Islam until our tanks were full.
To bring the conversation to an end, I said, "Well, it is refreshing to see a Muslim man going out of his way to look like a Muslim."
As he jumped into his car, he replied, "Yeah! I want people to approach me with questions -- bring 'em on! I have answers!!" With a grin, a wave and one last salaam aleikum, he was off.
As a Muslim who chooses to visually identify as a Muslim, I have made my bed, as they say. And, like the guy in the kuffiyah, who is using the negative press on Islam to engage people about Islam, I am not only prepared to lie in that bed, but I am going to dance upon it. This celebration involves consciously drawing lightness out of darkness, a concept involving the merging of faith and knowledge that is mentioned at least three times in the Quran (2:257, 14:1, 33:43).
We Are All (pale imitations of) Asma
Maybe negative press is, ultimately, good press. While David Cameron's words, "They claim to do this in the name of Islam. That is nonsense! Islam is a religion of peace..." might make us dance around the kitchen holding the radio in our hands, Cameron is simply a loud voice articulating to the world what we already know. Our strength comes before this, is deeper than this. This dark moment in history is our chance to say, I surrender! I serve! It offers a chance many Muslims have been waiting for their whole lives.
We have all heard the stories of our history, the brave men and women, often the poorest and most disenfranchised in the community, who served Islam when the most powerful people in the community were using all they had to destroy it. When persecution forced the Prophet emigrate from Mecca to Medina, all members of his family and community had a role to play. I am thinking particularly of the Prophet's best friend's daughter: a young woman called Asma. She was assigned an important role -- taking provisions to the Prophet and her father when they embarked upon their emigration in secret -- as just one of many women in Islamic history to take responsibility in critical moments. But, further, she seized upon an opportunity to creatively express her support by ripping her girdle in two in order to tie supplies to the Prophet's camel for the journey across the desert. She is known to this day as 'she of the two girdles' and is offered as an example of someone who supported the Prophet in a difficult moment.
I often hear Muslims yearning for a chance to express their passion for Islam, creatively and courageously. Now is the time. Because it is difficult to be a Muslim now, now is the time to be a Muslim. To smile and help and say intelligent things. How we can each of us contribute our unique and creative gifts for the goodness of all? This is not a time to go silent, take a back seat or, worse, hide amongst non-Muslims. In moments of hardship, throughout Islamic history, Muslims have risen up and participated in bringing about goodness.
For those of us geographically distant from ISIS's direct and violent threat, perhaps the ease interwoven into hardship lies in the chance to ride off the energy of the whole world currently debating, analyzing and questioning our faith in order to renew and refresh it for the compassionate development of ourselves, our ummah and our world. With ease interwoven throughout Islam's primary sources, in verses like this, how could we be anything but hopeful?
"Consider the bright morning hours,
and the night when it grows still and dark.
Your Sustainer has not forsaken you, nor does He scorn
for, indeed, the life to come will be better for you than this earlier part.
And, indeed, in time will your Sustainer grant you what you desire and you shall be well-pleased.
Has He not found you an orphan and given you shelter?
And found you lost on your way, and guided you?
And found you in want, and given you sufficiency?
Therefore, the orphan you shall never wrong,
and him/her that seeks your help, you shall never chide,
and of your Sustainer's blessings shall you ever speak."
Quran 93, 1-11