The Herstory of Malcolm X’s Legacy

Often, when we talk about the history of Islam in America, we focus on the great men and their big ideas.This month in looking at the BlackLivesMatter Movement through the life and legacy of Malcolm X, I have often thought about the thought of the many women who were were also part of the our nation’s freedom struggle. Many Muslim Americans know about Malcolm X, but few know about the women in his life. Few of us consider the role that many of our sisters who were pioneers of establishing Islam in America, such as Clara Muhammad the wife of Elijah Muhammad. Just as we remember Malcolm, we should know about Ella Collins, Betty Shabazz, and his daughters Attallah Shabazz, Qubilah Shabazz, Ilyasah Shabazz, Gamilah Lumumba Shabazz, Malikah Shabazz and Malaak Shabazz. All of these women have carried the burden of maintaining his legacy. And if we are the honor the man, we should acknowledge the women who contributed to his life and help maintain his memory.

While few of us recognize Ella Collins (1914-1996) as a seminal figure in American Muslim history, the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center honors her civil rights legacy with the Ella Collin’s Institute (ECI). The half sister of Malcolm X, she was responsible for recruiting Malcolm X into the Nation of Islam, although Spike Lee’s film biopic of Malcolm X erased her. Throughout his life she was influential, having helped raised the young Malcolm Little after his father was murdered and mothered suffered a nervous breakdown. She was an activist who had worked for the first Rev. Adam Clayton Powell. According to her obituary, Ella Collins advised her half brother to embrace orthodox Islam and she funded his pilgrimage to Mecca. After his assassination, Ella Collins maintained the Organization for Afro American Unity after his assassination. While her role in supporting Malcolm X is noteworthy,   Ella Collins’ life history as a business woman who set up schools and worked in civil rights is noteworthy in and of itself. By looking at her life, it becomes clear that women played a central role in the civil rights movement and in instituion bulding in the Black American Muslim community.

Betty Shabazz (1934-1997) was invited to Nation of Islam meetings. After attending several meeting wehre Malcolm X preached, she joined in 1956. Following two years of courtship, they married in 1958. Betty Shabazz was pregnant with twins, when Malcolm X was assissinated. Raising her six daughters alone, Ruby Dee and Juanita Poitierr (wife of Sidney Poitier) raised funds to provide her a home and the royalties to the Autobiography of Malcolm X supported the family. Shabazz returned to school and eventually earned a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts in 1975. She became a college administrator and public speaker, often defending her husband’s legacy and discussing topics such as civil rights and racial tolerance. Her life also ended tragically, when she succumbed to her burn injuries from a fire her grandson ignited.

Although she was wife of one of the most influential thought leaders in the civil rights movement, Betty Shabazz’s life history also provides a nuanced narrative of Black American life. She was a middle class, college educated Black woman who faced racism. She negotiated gendered norms in her marriage to develop a partnership with her husband. In addition, by putting Malcolm X’s life in context, we can take a critical look at ourselves in the sunni Muslim community, which failed to support Malcolm’s burial or his widow. Yet now, we find a sense of rootedness in his legacy. And when we talk about his legacy, how much do we honor the women who were closest to him.

It would do a great disservice to speak about Malcolm X’s legacy without talking about his heirs. We should know their names and their struggles because they have largely born greatest burden in the loss of malcolm x. We should know more about Attallah Shabazz, Qubilah Shabazz, Ilyasah Shabazz, Gamilah Lumumba Shabazz, Malikah Shabazz and Malaak Shabazz. Attallah became involved in the arts and public speaking, Gamilah hip hop, Qubilah became embroiled a supposed plot to kill Louis Farakhan, Ilyasah Shabazz became a public speaker and author of Growing Up X and a children’s book titled Malcolm Little: the Little Boy Who Grew up to Become Malcolm X . Malcolm X’s daughters, whose life histories are storied and triumphant reflect the turbulent years following their father’s assassination. Their day to day struggles is a topic worthy of study and reflection on Black American Muslim life in and of themselves.

Even separating their accomplishes from Malcolm X, these eight women point to extraordinary lives of Black American Muslim women. Centering women’s lives can give us a more nuanced sense of historical processes. Ella Collins shows us how social supports also played a role in supporting inspirational figures. Betty Shabazz provides a more nuanced picture of Black women in the 50s and 60s and how they navigated racism and gendered norms. Before the 1992 movie, while Malcolm X was being vilified and the sunni Muslim community largely distanced themselves from his legacy, it was largely Betty Shabazz and her daughters who maintained the Legacy of Malcolm X. We can’t truly honor Malcolm X’s legacy without giving thanks to the women who have shaped it.

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Open Letter to the Organizers of the African-American Islamic Summit

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

 

Surah al-Ahzab 33:35

Surah al-Ahzab 33:35

“Verily for all men and women who have surrendered themselves to God, and all believing men and believing women, and all truly devout men and truly devout women, and all men and women who are true to their word, all men and women who are patient in adversity, and all men and women who humble themselves [before Allah], and all men and women who give in charity, and all self-denying men and self-denying women, and all men and women who are mindful of their chastity, and all men and women who remember Allah unceasingly: for [all of] them has Allah readied forgiveness of sins and a mighty reward.” (33:35)

To: Al Qawm Institute, the Organizers of the African-American Islamic Summit, Lamppost Productions, the speakers at this forum and all the participants.

Al-Salaamu Alaikum,

This brief statement follows earlier efforts to engage the administration at Al Qawm Institute and Lamppost Productions about the disappointment we feel that the upcoming African-American Islamic Summit completely neglects the representation of diversity in our community.

The tendency to overlook certain parts of the diverse population of Muslims is endemic. It could be too many immigrants or next-generation immigrants overlooking African Americans; it could be older Muslims overlooking Muslim youth; or it could be male leaders and representatives overlooking female leaders and representatives–the problem is the same and sends a disheartening message to some members of the collective body of Muslims, namely, that you do not matter; you are not worthy of representation here, your voice does not count, your experiences are not a significant reflection of the whole.

Thus, we urge the organizers, Al Qawm Institute, the Lamppost Productions administration, the presenters and the attendees alike to remember that in serving Allah, we should endeavor to show our mutual love and respect for women as well as men who have struggled to live a life of dignity, especially as African Americans, through trials untold.

While we applaud your efforts to recognize the important contributions and experiences of being African-American and Muslim, we feel the needs of our community would have been better served if this forum was set up in such a way as to demonstrate the recognition that men did not struggle alone, women have struggled with them and women continue to support the vitality and spirit of Islam as African-Americans.

While we wish you well, we regret that this valuable contribution of women has been overlooked in the efforts to hold the African-American Islamic Summit.

This letter has been drafted in the spirit of sincere advice (nasiha) as counseled by our beloved prophet, peace and blessings be upon him. As such, we are committed to continued dialogue and forward movement on this issue. We remain open and available to the organizers of this program and others in the community who are interested in constructing more inclusive and representative platforms where matters of communal concern might be addressed and advanced.

Jazak Allah Kheir,

The Undersigned
Sister Aisha Al-Adawiya

Sister Donna Auston

Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer

Sister Kameelah Mu’Min Rashad

Dr. Aminah McCloud

Dr. Amina Wadud

Sister Margari Azizah Hill

Sister Waheedah Muhammad

Dr. Jamillah Karim

Sister Mubarakah Ibrahim

Sister Majida Abdul-Karim

 

Update

 

Lamppost representatives stated that they felt the open letter unfairly attacked their organizations and highlighted its track record inviting female speakers such as Zaynab Ansari . After exchange with organizers and supports, Sister Kameelah Mu’Min Rashad attended the summit.  During the event, event organizer Imam Amin address Sister Kameelah, apologized for the act of exclusion and asked her to read her letter. Some audience members expressed support for the letter and, as reported by one of the sisters who helped organize, some women expressed their disapproval of the letter, arguing that it stemmed from feminism, which, “has no place in Islam.” The discussions at time were emotional, but I think that it stirred a healthy discussion about leadership, authority, and gender within Black Muslim communities. In conclusion, I wanted to stress that our communities thrive with mutual consultation that takes into account the voices and perspectives of all groups, including the marginalized and disenfranchised. For us to proposer, we will need each other, as Allah (s.w.t.) tells us in the Qur’an:

The believing men and believing women are allies of one another. They enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and establish prayer and give zakah and obey Allah and His Messenger. Those – Allah will have mercy upon them. Indeed, Allah is Exalted in Might and Wise. (9:71)

May Allah increase us in patience and forgiveness. Ameen.

 

Failing to Protect Our Young

swing-Sisters

On January 14, 2013, the Philadelphia Muslim community was shaken to its core when police sounded an Amber alert for a missing five year old girl. A non-Muslim woman donned niqab and pretended to be the girl’s mother in order to take her out of school. During her captivity, the child was sexually assaulted and later abandoned in a dark playground, wearing only an oversized tee-shirt in near freezing temperatures. While this was a stranger abduction, most cases of abuse are by family members or acquaintances. Our children are not immune to the ills of society. Muslims have to wake up and recognise that our children are vulnerable to outsiders, community members, and even members of our own families. According to the Together Against Grooming (TAG) website, hundreds of Muslim leaders across the UK read a sermon addressing sexual exploitation on June 28, 2013. Some, however, criticised the campaign as reactionary or apologetic. We as a community need to be proactive in order to protect children and the vulnerable from sexual exploitation and abuse.

Nabila Sharma’s Brutal: The Heartbreaking True Story of a Little Girl’s Stolen Innocence exposes the sad reality of sexual abuse and child abuse in our midst. Every one of us is outraged when we hear cases of child abuse. Yet, as a community, we have done little to address this widespread problem. The Khutba Against Grooming organised by TAG was an unprecedented campaign that addressed the issue of sexual exploitation. In the United States, I have not seen a talk organised by a Muslim organisation that addresses child abuse: how to recognise it, prevent it, or recover from it. We make victims more vulnerable by offering few faith-based social services that would help them. Rather, we live in a world of naïve ideals, assuming that either these things don’t happen to us or expecting other social agencies will solve our problems. So, in effect, we can become complicit.

Perhaps it is the idea of seventy excuses for one’s brother or sister, the fear of backbiting, or inability to produce enough witnesses that leads to covering up crimes against children. Lama Al-Ghamdi died in October 2012 after suffering a crushed skull,

broken ribs and arm. Her father Fayhan al-Ghamdi, a celebrity imam, admitted beating her. Reports that the father would be released after paying $50,000 blood money shocked the international community. A social worker at the hospital where Lama was admitted claimed the little girl was raped. When Muslims read news stories like this about a girl who died from her father’s brutal hand we often cringe knowing that Western media picked up this story because of its sensationalism. However, physical abuse is not uncommon in Muslim families. Muslims in the West are often embarrassed by news reports about honour killings. We often cry out explaining that honour killings have no basis in Islam. Yet, what is our response to serious cases of physical abuse?

Our schools and organisations that work with the youth are poorly equipped to deal with cases of domestic abuse. Mahreen*, a South Asian school teacher, explained “There was a lack of urgency in the response and a lack of seriousness of physical abuse. We are often discouraged from reporting on our own people.” Mahreen told a disturbing account:

A clear case of an incident that needed to be reported involved a student with a black eye and a dislocated shoulder. When it was just us Muslims behind doors, it was just like it was no big deal, she had ‘just got wacked’. I talked to the superintendent about the incident and she told me not to tell anyone. However, I talked to school nurse, who was a non-Muslim and a mandated reporter. To keep my job, I had to go to an outside agency because if I reported it, my job might have been in jeopardy. However, as a certified teacher, I could lose my license to teach without reporting it.

Mahreen pointed out that there need to be training and policies put in place to protect children. Rather than sweeping things under the rug to protect prominent families, we have to become more ethical in how we deal with these cases.

When I first became Muslim, someone explained to me that sexual harassment and molestation rarely occur because of the separation of the sexes. Muslim women are told if they dress appropriately they will not draw unwanted attention, but in many Muslim-majority cities modestly dressed women are harassed and even physically assaulted on the streets. And behind closed doors all over the world, Muslim women, girls, and boys are subject to sexual assaults at the hands of family members, close family friends, teachers, and religious leaders. Girls are told that they are a fitnah. However, sexual abuse is about power and not about physical attraction.

Rape victims are often punished, either by carrying the stigma or shame or by the very legal system that is supposed to protect them. In the Maldives, a 15 year old girl who was repeatedly raped by her stepfather has been sentenced to 100 lashes for premarital sex. Often, victims of sexual abuse are yoked with notions of honor and shame. Khadijah*, who was raised by a Sudanese mother and American father explained, “The shame of sexual abuse cuts across a lot of Islamic cultures.” Khadijah told her own harrowing story:

I was very small – three years old. My abuser was a teenage girl who babysat me. I felt shamed from the beginning. I just remember using the bathroom and bleeding on the toilet. I remember the look on my mother’s face and she looked so angry. I was too young to know it wasn’t directed at me.

Ultimately, there was a trial and the offender was sentenced. Khadijah explained how the effort to repress the memory led to even greater shame. Over time, the memories came back, despite her parents’ attempts to keep it silent in order for her to forget. She was even punished for telling her sister. Khadijah recounted, “No one told me that this happened to me and I did nothing wrong.” For victims of sexual abuse, the shame can lead to low self-esteem and self-destructive behavior.

It is important that people know that sexual abuse can happen to anyone. Hafsah,* a Palestinian American living in the Michigan area with a sprawling family residing on three continents explained, “No family and no community is invulnerable to human tendencies, such as violence or sexual perversion.” Hafsah pointed out that the main problem is our silence as a community. “If the person who has this tendency knows that there is no silence, then this can’t continue. Speaking out will deny them that power.” Hafsah told her own experience as a survivor and the stories that she pieced together from her aunt and cousins. “In my culture, we are ready to cast out the woman who had a child out of wedlock, but we let the molester carry on because it would be so shameful.”

Both Khadijah and Hafsah offer hope for victims to rise from the horrors of abuse. Both pointed out that victims speaking out can empower others to break free from the yoke of shame. Hafsah said, “We are in control of our narrative and we can make a choice in how something is significant. I am still angry and this is a way to fight back and not letting them win.” As a community, we have to fight the urge to sweep things under the rug and give voices to the voiceless. By not hiding, we can help those who have been damaged by those they have trusted, whether the abuse was sexual, physical, or psychological. Zerqa Abid, who works on Project Sakinah, has addressed a lot of issues surrounding domestic abuse. We must support the work of shelters and organisations such as Abid’s because it is our duty as Muslims to protect the weak and vulnerable.

*Names and some details have been changed to protect identities

Margari Aziza Hill is a writer, editor, and adjunct professor

You can read the full article at SISTERS magazine, along with many other fabulous and thoughtful contributions from Muslim women across the globe.

The ‘Yin’ of Mosque Leadership: Bringing in the Feminine Side

The Islamic Monthly published the preliminary findings of my research on women and mosque leadership:

How do women fair in American mosques? How do fellow worshipers treat them? Are mosques accommodating the multiple needs of the female community?

These questions have been on the minds of many in the American Muslim community for a long time. Many women have complained that they are not treated well in their houses of worship. Some concerned Muslim women have even taken to “shock and awe” tactics to change mosque culture by entering mosques, wearing hidden cameras to document their experiences, post these videos online and expose various types of discrimination.

Nearly a decade after the Islamic Social Services Association and Woman in Islam, Inc. released its pamphlet, “Women Friendly Mosques and Community Centers, ” which rated the friendliness of mosques, not much has changed for Muslim women.

To better understand how the American-Muslim community has faired in its treatment of women since this report was published, I decided to survey over 100 Muslim men and women and speak with female Muslim leaders, many of whom asked to remain anonymous. A number respondents argued that women have made only marginal gains in American mosques.   Female educators, scholars, activists, and community organizers are vital to the development of the American Muslim community. Yet, many mosques and community centersare not utilizing the intellectual and professional resources that Muslim American women have to offer.

Mosque attendance is optional for women, but so many women choosing to not attend raises some important issues.  I spoke with a female community leader who wished to remain anonymous about women-led organizations and traditional Muslim institutions. She highlighted what is at stake explaining, “When you lose women, you lose kids, and you lose the husbands as well. This is the crisis that we are in for the growth of Islam in America.” In addition, Ameena Jandali, a founding member, Content Director, and trainer of Islamic Network Group (ING) in the Bay Area, California, points out that not only women, but  “A lot of young people feel alienated by the mosque.”

Who could blame women for feeling alienated with the shabby carpet that is rolled out for them? Women’s accommodations are often cramped and poorly maintained. They enter through dirty back alleys, climb fire escape entrances, and navigate basement mazes to get to women’s sections. And many places do not prioritize women’s spiritual development or foster a healthy community life for women. “Women Friendly Mosques and Community Centers” estimated that one out of five mosques do not have programs for women at all and just over a quarter have only occasional activities. An anonymous interviewee raised the issue, “How am I going to be engaged in the mosque if there is nothing for me to do there?”

Mosques that do not accommodate women often do not encourage them to take leadership positions either. Since I began my research last year, I discovered that many are dissatisfied with the lack leadership and decision-making opportunities offered to women.   Several spoke about the dismissal of female voices on governing boards. One respondent put it succinctly, “Even if women are in leadership positions, male opinions tend to be dominant.” Another stated, “There is a general level of discomfort with women who are too vocal, too active, too opinionated.” While discouraging women from taking general leadership roles, many mosques encourage women to teach children at Islamic schools, sit on women’s committees, and volunteer for cooking and clean-up.  One respondent wrote:

There needs to be an overhaul on how we view women in Islam. I am sick of hearing how Islam gave women their rights and how we as Muslims value women but in reality we don’t. Once we see the need for women to be more than the assistant to people in leadership positions or the people behind the scene, we will have women want to do more in our communities.

Many felt that Muslim women’s contributions were not appreciated.  Lack of leadership opportunities, hostility towards female voices, and lack of appreciation is turning away many women who could make positive contributions on an organizational level.

Yet, some women have the passion, drive, and assertiveness overcome institutional barriers to contribute to their communities. Aliya Khabir, has played an active role at United Muslim Masjid (UMM) in South Philadelphia, which is under the helm of Imam Shadeed Muhammad. The imam has pushed for women’s programming and female education initiatives. While no women serve on the board at UMM, Aliya has carved out a sphere of influence in a non-official capacity. Aliya commented, “In their head, they are justifying it with ‘men are the protectors and maintainers.’ Nowhere does it [the Qur’an] say that men are better at decision-making and execution. Women possess these skills that are needed and necessary to properly operate a masjid and meet the needs of all attendees, me included.” She remarked that other professional women ask her why she invests so much time in a community that has not afforded women official roles. Aliya explained,  “It is because of my passion. It’s not about titles.” UMM is not alone, a significant portion of American mosques do not allow women to serve on their governing board.

The ADAMS center in Virginia, on the other hand, welcomes women in decision-making roles. Yasmin Shafiq, a board member of ADAMS, explains, “It was clear that the leadership at ADAMS values diversity in its membership and makes efforts to include the voices of young people, women, and otherwise underrepresented populations in the community.” Others have also looked to ADAMS as a model for encouraging female leadership and the community boasts an erudite female resident scholar, Dr. Zainab Alwani.

As a vibrant Islamic Center, ADAMS Center’s progressive approach indicates what Muslim communities could stand to gain from the expertise of Muslim women.

Women have led many successful Islamic organizations and initiatives outside the mosque. Yasmin acknowledged, “Unfortunately, I don’t think such traditional institutions usually have a well thought-out plan for utilizing highly educated women.” All of my conversations with female Muslim leaders emphasized women taking an active role in creating spaces for themselves, whether in the mosque or outside of it. Many people urged women to take initiative in their communities. Certainly, the success of communities that have welcomed women who are willing to step up to the plate makes a compelling case for mosques becoming a strong base for women’s empowerment. But we are not there yet, and more work needs to be done, by both men and women.

You can read the full article  and other thought provoking pieces at Islamic Monthly. Please post your thoughts in the comments section below.

Nana Asma’u: A Spark Who Continues to Illuminate

Nana Asma'u-1

Living as a Muslim minority in the West, I have often felt frustrated by religious intolerance, but also from a community  that does not fully honor the rights that are accorded to women in Islam or provide many outlets for women to become scholars. This was the case in late 18th century West Africa, in what is now modern day Northern Nigeria, when  Uthman Dan Fodio criticized oppressive customs and encouraged female education. Nana Asma’u bint Uthman Dan Fodio was a product of her father’s commitment to quality Islamic education for women. She became a legend in her own right and through her writings and education movement, ‘Yan Taru, she has inspired countless women for generations.

 

As a Nigerian with dual American and British citizenship, researcher Rukayat Modupe Yakub is aware of the legacy of Nana Asma’u. Rukayat points outs, “For so many Muslims Nana Asma’u is still unknown, but for those who are familiar with her she was an educator, writer and poet who was passionate about education, For this reason you find schools in places like Nigeria named after her.” In addition to her poetry and education movement, Nana Asm’au is also considered an Islamic leader who was known for her ability to mediate political disagreements. She was fluent in Arabic, Hausa, and the Tamasheq language of the Tuareg. Like her father  and brothers Muhammad Bello and Abdullahi, Nana Asma’u was a prolific writer who left a tremendous literary legacy. She wrote to keep her father’s memory alive in the minds of the people and in support of her brother Muhammad Bello’s  Caliphate. At 27, she was given the task of organizing her father’s corpus of works, all while overseeing a household of several hundred people and ensuring that they were provided for.

 

Jean Boyd gained access to her works in 1975 and later wrote The Caliph’s Sister, which provides a detailed biography of Nana Asma’u’s life and legacy. Jean Boyd collaborated with Beverly Mack to compile her poetry and religious treatises in Collected Works of Nana Asma’u, Daughter of Usman dan Fodio (1793-1864). The book compiles her impressive body of poems and treatises in Arabic, the Fula language, and Hausa. Beverly Mack and Jean Boyd also co-wrote a book which analyzes the social and political function of many of her poems titled One Woman’s Jihad: Nana Asma’u, Scholar and Scribe. 

 

Rukayat says that Nana Asma’u continues to serve as an important inspiration because “She was involved in social work and had political clout, she was a mother and wife, sister of the head of state, daughter of a legendary a political and spiritual leader, she could have had any life she wanted but she choose to be of service.” Around 1830, Nana Asma’u trained a group of women to travel around the Sokoto Caliphate to educate women. Each woman in this cadre held the title jaji  (leader of the caravan) to designate their role as female leaders.

 

One hundred and eighty years later, Dylia bin Hamadi Camara is one such Jaji who explains, “We have the name of all the jajis before me so mine comes after a long line of the unbroken chain of scholarship and service to women, children and the Ummah at large.” Jaji Dylia explains that the methodology of learning that Nana Asma’u develop still educates men, women, and children. In the United States, the ‘Yan Taru Education Foundation and Charitable trust has chapters in Pennsylvania, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, and California with 33 women in intensive training and intensive seminars and classes which are open to the public.* Teachers like Jaji Dylia travel internationally and use email, teleconferencing, and text messaging to educate their students on classical Islam. Preparing for a trip to Guinea, Dylia stated her next goal is to translate Nana Asma’u’s teachings into French because the Francophone world has largely been unaware of this rich legacy. My hope is that we begin to learn more and more about the named and unnamed women who have been responsible for educating our ummah. They have passed on a rich legacy, one that reminds me that even when faced with the greatest challenges, we  as women can be brilliant and provide guiding lights for others.  

You can read find other stories of inspirational Muslim women, along with this one,  in   the February edition SISTERS magazine 
*Jaji Dylia updated us and told us that Yan Taru trust has chapters in Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Oakland , Florida and Massachusetts. She also has some students in Toronto who are not Yan Taru. She is currently in Benin, where she also has students.
To date, Dylia translated Tanbeeh l Ghafileen  and prays that Allah grants her the himma to translate even more in the future, insha’Allah.

 

Advice to Converts to Islam and those new to discovering their faith

bridge

“We’ll cross some bridges when we get to them…”

القرآن
۞ قَالَتِ الْأَعْرَابُ آمَنَّا ۖ قُلْ لَمْ تُؤْمِنُوا وَلَٰكِنْ قُولُوا أَسْلَمْنَا وَلَمَّا يَدْخُلِ الْإِيمَانُ فِي قُلُوبِكُمْ ۖ وَإِنْ تُطِيعُوا اللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ لَا يَلِتْكُمْ مِنْ أَعْمَالِكُمْ شَيْئًا ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ غَفُورٌ رَحِيمٌ
Al-Quran 49:14

THE BEDOUIN say, “We have attained to faith.” Say [unto them, O Muhammad]: “You have not [yet] attained to faith; you should [rather] say, ‘We have [outwardly] surrendered’ – for [true] faith has not yet entered your hearts.1 But if you [truly] pay heed unto God and His Apostle, He will not let the least of your deeds2 go to waste: for, behold, God is much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace.”
–Translation by Muhammad Asad

So, you are full of zeal and excitement. Everybody wants you to pray for them because your slate has just been wiped clean. This is your rebirth, your new start.  It is not just a new chapter, but a new book, and in fact a new series. Now the community has a vested interest in your success. You have just crossed a bridge to find that you are not only in a new land, but a new world and possibly an alternate universe.   This faith has so many layers and oceans so deep that you feel you can implode from all the pressure.   There are the prayers, the rules, the regulations, the language, the culture,  the disciplines to master,  the 1400 years of scholarship to study. Everyone is telling you this or that and you’re trying to figure it all out. You feel like you’re in a vacuum. It is all mind blowing.

My advice is to take your time, because you have a long road ahead.  I’ve seen some converts full of anxiety because of all the things they needed to learn. You’ll cross some bridges when you get to them. And some of us were once full of zeal,  so super excited to discover this tradition, and  so excited to proclaim that we believe. But the verse quoted above is to point out that like the Bedouin, we should rather accept that developing faith is a difficult journey. Rather, we should say that we submit to God’s will. By obeying God and the guidance given to His Messenger (s.a.w.), faith can enter our hearts. In some ways, this is bringing us back to a certain humility about our relationship with our Lord. In this stage of newness and zeal, we can be easily mislead into some destructive things. Remember, many people are misguided and will capitalize on your naiveté in their own misadventures. I’ve learned a lot from my mistakes and the mistakes that others have made. I’m still learning.

So here is a brief list of some pitfalls to avoid. The  list is in no particular order.

  1. If you are in college, stay in college. Do not drop out of school, travel to some dusty village to learn the basics of your faith. You can learn a lot of stuff by reputable online classes and institutions or by attending a class at your local Muslim community center. Complete school. Do not listen to somebody who is slanging oils on the street corner or a privileged kid who has had his college bankrolled by affluent parents tell you to drop out because of student loans. Those same people will not be able to support you when you are unemployed.
  2. If you have a job, do not quit. Unless  you are a stripper or bartender, but even then, you probably need to make a gradual transition to halal gains. But if you work in corporate America, do not let some zealot make you feel guilty because you work for “the man.”
  3. Your parents have known you for nearly two decades  or more by one name. Do not force them to call you by your new Muslim name, especially one they cannot pronounce. It will weird them out.
  4. Don’t start debating your family members and chastising them about their “mushrik,” “kafir” faith. It is better to live by example and if they have questions answer them to the best of your ability. But maintain respect for your family ties.
  5. Don’t dress like you’re going to a costume party. Even if you choose to wear hijab (which has nothing to do with Middle Eastern culture), you may want to start out with western-style modest clothes. But if you  wear shalwar kameezes or long all black chador as a woman  or pajama outfits or what appears to be man gowns as a guy, your parents will think you’ve joined some commune or have gone all Lawrence of Arabia on them.
  6. Don’t act like you’ve joined a cult. Maintain ties with your non-Muslim friends and family. It may also be a good idea to keep saying praises and thanks to God in English. If you get all weird and stop talking to people, your family may want to send a specialist deprogram you.
  7. Don’t take it all on. Pace your learning so that your practice matches your knowledge.  This is not a race. Don’t know or feel like you have to memorize the Quran and become a muhaddith tomorrow. Look for creative ways to contribute to your community that doesn’t overburden you, but gives you a sense of place.
  8. Avoid hypercritical analysis of everything around you. Just because you found God, doesn’t mean that the whole world has gone to pot. The Prophet (s.a.w.) said that people’s faith ebbs and flows. Just because you’re on a spiritual high now and willing to give up all your material possessions and become a dervish, doesn’t mean that in 15 years all you’ll be thinking about is how you’ll finance your kids’ braces.
  9. Don’t adopt delusions of grandeur. Chances are, you are not the Mahdi or savior for all Muslims. There were a lot of people who came before you and many  who will come after you that wanted to challenge the established order. It is not your job to start the Caliphate. In fact, you may find yourself frustrated by dealing the board of your local masjid and your own break away group will probably run our of funds before you can kick start your movement. But,  you can do your part to help make the world a better place, by being a good person with a moral compass.
  10. Avoid rushing into marital decisions. Nothing will freak out your parents more than a stranger marriage. But above all, it can be very damaging to you as a new Muslim. Some people will rush to marry a new shahadah because you don’t know anything.  Take your time to develop yourself both as a Muslim and as a human being. You should be prepared to take on all the religious and real world responsibilities of being a Muslim partner. Also, you should make sure that your potential partner knows his/her responsibilities and is willing to be a supportive partner.  You want this decision to be one of the best decisions you’ll ever make and it will determine the course and direction that your Islam will take. Even if you became Muslim through the process of marriage, you need to take ownership of your faith and your religious development.

Well, that is my list of ten. I am sure there are many others. Feel free to offer your advice in the comments.