Leaving the Theology of Bullies Behind

I used to wonder how people, especially converts, could after finding Islam later leave the faith altogether. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently and of my friends who no longer identify as Muslim. Everyone’s life experience is unique but I can’t help wondering if some of my friends left simply because they couldn’t find a safe place within the religion for themselves. I wrote about this earlier in forgiving ourselves for not being perfect. The more I reflect on it, I’m almost certain that many people leave because we’ve encountered a theology of bullies that does not empower us to deal effectively with the pressing issues in our lives.

I was young, insecure, and confused about a lot of things when I converted to Islam. I was certain that I believed in God. I liked the easy and comprehensive answers and a well-defined life path that Islam provided. I was attracted to the repeated calls in the Quran to think, reflect, and ponder over its verses and the signs in universe. In my new convert zeal, I was overwhelmed with a desire to not only ground but also to prove myself in my new faith through learning and practice. It was then that I encountered the theology of bullies and I fell in love…with it and my own ego.

Looking back, I see how naive I was despite my quest for sincerity, which was I think and hope quite sincere. And afraid. Fear is used in theology of bullies to force each person into submission. But this fear thing is a tricky business. If God is worshipped out of love, fear, and hope then surely some fear is a good thing? But in the theology of bullies there’s another type of fear, a fear of displeasing people and of public censure. This secondary fear causes a lot of emotional distress. Some people believe that’s a good thing and to others perhaps a sign of hypocrisy. It’s a tricky thing because we want so very much to be sincere.

This is how the theology of bullies works:

Take any issue, promote your own understanding as correct and closest to the divine decree, and then mock, ridicule or revile those who differ. Setup the equation so that the good Muslim or more precisely, a Muslim, is the one who agrees with you. Thereby putting the faith of those who disagree with you into doubt.

This is how the theology of bullies gets you. If you don’t agree with them on everything hook, line, and sinker then you’re sunk or they’ll set out to sink you and your faith by playing on your insecurities.

xcwn blogs powerfully over at A Sober Second Look about the damaging effects of the psychological, emotional, and theological manipulation many of us have experienced. I see myself in much of her writing. I consider myself in the process of recovering from the theology of bullies, still holding onto my faith in God and in Islam but discovering anew what that means for me as a practical reality.

I’ve learned enough to pass pretty effectively. I know the arguments, the evidences, and proofs inside and out. I can wear the clothes and say the right words and this affords me a certain level of privilege but I know the truth. I don’t believe in much of the way Islam has been presented and taught to me. And I now know that disagreeing with the opinions of others doesn’t mean I’m disagreeing with God. It just means I disagree with you.

What I Learned in Nursing School

Shall I be sentimental or should I keep it real? Or is this one of those dreaded multiple-multiple select all that apply questions?

I began nursing school in awe of the nursing knowledge of my professors and the students ahead of us. As I leave, I’m still in awe of the nursing knowledge and alpha, beta, and charlie personality characteristics of my nursing instructors, and am humbled by how much we still have to learn even as we begin the celebratory circuit of pinning and graduation ceremonies and parties to celebrate our accomplishments. I’m mindful of my current and former classmates who will not be with us as we walk across the stage next week knowing that I could easily have been in that same boat.

Dr. Barkley taught us to remember that each person is a “pyschosocial, cultural, and spiritual being” and that we have to keep this in mind when working with and advocating for our patients. She kept us in check with frequent reminders to observe “professional courtesy on the floor” even while walking through the hallways at school and by asking us, “what’s your reference?” to make sure we really had read before class and weren’t just making stuff up.

From Dr. Miller, I learned humor is good and keeps class moving along but unless you know the material you won’t get very far. From some instructors I learned how I’d like to be and from others I learned habits I’d like to avoid.

From Dr. Persaud, I learned the most valuable lessons. That some things are unacceptable, that the way we choose to conduct ourselves can make or break us, and that we have to look inward at our own flaws and actions when situations go awry.

I’m humbled by the care, compassion, and integrity I saw from nurses as they struggled to meet the needs of their patients and balance those with a myriad of other concerns. I learned about team work and noticed I gravitated toward and away from certain types of people in my personal relationships.

I learned from my patients about facing death or chronic and debilitating illness with grace and dignity. I learned not to presume that I can accurately judge another’s pain. I learned about the quiet spaces inside myself where I go to help deal with pain and suffering I’ve witnessed. And I learned the importance of prayer, making time to have fun, and having a good support system to help me to get through those darker moments.

I’m learning how powerful words and ideas are. I’m working and trying hard to improve the quality of my speech and to restrain myself when words will not better a situation. I’m learning not to laugh at others because I haven’t been tested with what they have been and I can’t put myself in their shoes. And that type of hard-hearted laughter is a sign of arrogance. I want to be humble, I want my heart to be soft even as it makes me vulnerable, and I want to live with sincerity and integrity.

I’m beginning to think more like a nurse and I’m beginning to live more like a decent human being. That’s what I learned in nursing school. My sincerest thanks to all of my teachers, those that I named and those that I didn’t name, I’ve learned a lot.

Hamza Yusuf, Jonathan Brown, Yahya Rhodus | Value of Liberal Arts Education | ADAMS Center

As the Friday evening rush hour set in around the DC beltway, I and hundreds of other Muslims battled through traffic, which more than doubled my travel time to get to the ADAMS Center mosque in Virginia. I arrived before the event and helped a parent carry in some boxes of Girl Scout cookies before making my way toward the gymnasium/multipurpose event room.

Before I even took off my shoes, I met an old acquaintance who said that the room was full and that we might as well make our way upstairs to the overflow space in the musalla. For a moment I considered trying to squeeze my way in but instead reluctantly decided to go upstairs knowing that the experience would be inferior. And it was, although, I give the organizers props for trying.

A television monitor, a bit on the small side, had been setup with close circuit feed to the program downstairs in the gym. The camera appeared as if it were placed on the furthest possible wall at the highest possible angle so we couldn’t really make out any of the main speakers. Some extra speakers had been brought in to amplify the sound so at least we were able to hear if not see.

Dr. Jonathan Brown, a hadith scholar at Georgetown University, opened by highlighting some of the pitfalls he sees in many western universities, which he described as having “sterile” and “amoral” environments. In such settings, moral thinking based in religion is often seen as an impediment to progress and enlightenment. According to Brown, most academics are afraid to weigh in on the political and moral issues of the day fearing a backlash or being accused of trying to “force” their personal convictions on others.

For a Muslim student raised in environment of black-and-white morality and where a spirit of inquisitiveness is not encouraged, a college environment, which does not nurture their faith can lead them to question everything they believe or had been taught to believe. According to Dr. Brown, this is one reason many colleges began as religious institutions that had a strong moral framework.

Dr. Brown hopes that the Muslim community can pool its resources to create more institutions like Zaytuna College that can build up and pass on wisdom for future generations of American Muslims. Through these institutions, the Muslim community can show the rest of society the values contained within the Islamic tradition.

Yahya Rhodus began his talk by translating some lines of poetry: “Make knowledge an excuse and don’t make other things an excuse for knowledge. And know for certain that knowledge and worship are the means of felicity and salvation. And that is what will remain for you in the next world so purify and cling to that.”

Today, many young Muslims feel at a loss spiritually and are not sure how to respond effectively to the changing circumstances we find ourselves in. Rhodus emphasized that having a holistic knowledge of the religion is key to navigating our situation as American Muslims. Knowledge can help the believer understand the context of generalized Prophetic principles, which remain constant, in light of the underlying changing circumstances of today.

Hamza Yusuf praised the ADAMS Center as a model American Muslim community but cautioned the audience not to become complacent by mentioning a narration from Abdullah Ibn Umar: When a believer is praised, he works harder, because he knows it [the praise] is always more than he deserves but when a hypocrite is praised he become lazy because he is pleased that people think good things about him.

Yusuf then reminded the audience that the religion of Islam is based on knowledge. The revelation of Quran began with the word Iqra, which means to read or recite and that this knowledge is a gift given from Allah. Knowledge can raise a people and communities in ranks but only if we remain humble.

In some narrations of the famous hadith “Seeking knowledge is obligatory on every Muslim,” Yusuf explained that some scholars added the words “wal muslima” so that everyone would know that learning is obligatory for both men and women.

Continue reading “Hamza Yusuf, Jonathan Brown, Yahya Rhodus | Value of Liberal Arts Education | ADAMS Center”

Conver(t)sations | My Journey to Islam | AUDIO

Many thanks to Ayesha & Asma Ahmad and the George Mason University MSA for inviting several Muslim converts including me to speak about our experiences for their Conver(t)sations event in early March.

L-R: Asma Ahmad, Ify Okoye, Lauren Arnold, Tina Shahmohamadi, Danielle Gottes

Audio Highlights

My Journey to Islam: The Mormons helped me become Muslim

Converts need support because without a real understanding of their relationship with God they can easily fall out of Islam even if they have the external Muslim “name” and “look.”

Avoid using the word “kafir” or its plural “kuffar” in the pejorative sense to refer to all non-Muslims. It’s hurtful for us to hear our families, friends, and loved ones denigrated in that manner by other Muslims. I prefer to use people of other faiths or “poofis” as I once heard Imam Johari Abdul Malik say.

Side Note: I cringe like most people when I hear my recorded voice, part of that is a natural shyness and part of that is from being criticized for not sounding “black” enough when I was younger. I can definitely empathize with Jordan Shumate, a high school student rebuked by his teacher for not reading a poem by Langston Hughes in a “blacker” manner.

The topic of race and racism amongst Muslims deserves a talk by itself. Four years ago, during the previous presidential election, I tried to work out some issues relating to being seen as both authentically black and Muslim here and here.

Yesterday, I Wept at the Courthouse

Yesterday, I wept at the courthouse. Not because I had to miss class to contest a speeding ticket nor because my officer decided to show up nor because I feared my auto insurance rates would go up. Even though, I had secretly hoped the officer wouldn’t show up, I’m glad he did, otherwise I would not have wept nor learned a lesson.

I would not have wept because my case would have been dismissed early on and I’d have left the courtroom before any of the trials took place. So I stayed and during the first trial, I wept as did many in the courtroom that morning for the loss of man I didn’t know.

Seated around the prosecutor’s table was the dead man’s wife and son. He has other children too and young grandchildren, the youngest, the one he never met, born last December, carries his name. His wife wrote a letter to the judge detailing how the loss of her husband of forty years, her high school sweetheart, and business partner had affected her. She said she felt as if she were missing half of herself.

Her son began to read from the letter until overcome with emotion he handed the letter to the prosecutor to finish reading for him. Also seated around the prosecutor’s table were the court’s translator and the two Latino men who had worked with the woman’s husband and were with him that fatal day.

At the other end of the courtroom was the defendant, a man perhaps in his late forties or early fifties, a retired military veteran and firefighter. His hair was closely cropped and his face red with the emotion of a man trying to hold back tears. While it was easy to feel empathy for those sitting around the prosecutor’s table, I didn’t know what to feel for this other man. But even for him, I can only feel empathy for a man forced to carry his burden.

One rainy day, three men stopped their van on the side of the road to adjust their windshield wipers. Two were outside and one stayed inside the van. Without warning, their van was struck by another vehicle at speed. The power of the impact forced the now deceased man’s head through to the outside of the van. His companions also sustained serious injuries. They have had multiple surgeries since the accident and may suffer some permanently disability. Neither, both manual laborers has worked since the accident. One of them has a wife and two small daughters and worries how he will be able to support them.

The sorrowful man behind the defense table offered the excuse of being distracted as he looked into his driver’s side mirror. Continue reading “Yesterday, I Wept at the Courthouse”

Arsalan Iftikhar | On the Need for Islamic Pacifism | ADAMS Center

Arsalan Iftikhar on Islamic Pacifism at ADAMS Center

This past Sunday, I attended an interfaith event at the ADAMS Center in Virginia with Arsalan Iftikhar, a writer and international human rights lawyer. Iftikhar was promoting his new book Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era, which he wrote to further his belief in Islam as a socio-political ethos, which embraces non-violence.

In addition to countering the politically motivated demonization of Muslims by Islamophobes, Iftikhar hopes to inspire young Muslim boys and girls with the “audacity of hope” to become contributing members of American society. In doing so, he hopes to help Americans, both Muslims and those of other faiths, recognize that it’s possible to be a good practicing Muslim that embodies the golden rule of “loving thy God and loving thy neighbor” and to also embrace nonviolence. ADAMS Center’s imam, Mohamed Magid, who also serves as the President of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) reminded the audience of the need for Americans of every faith tradition to take a stand not only against war but against all types of violence.

Iftikhar notes that much of the current anti-Muslim discourse including the Park 51 and All American Muslim television show controversies and the anti-shariah law movement are a way for right-wing conservatives to “get out the vote.”

In a poll conducted by Newsweek, a staggering 29% of Americans said they believe President Barack Hussein Obama is Muslim. This may be one reason that the president has yet to set foot in a single American mosque knowing such a visit would provide ammunition for his detractors. While politicians and public figures will be censured for overt racism, they can still get away with expressing anti-Muslim sentiment. For Iftikhar, the claim that Obama is a Muslim is just another way for some people to say “he’s black and not like us.”

Arsalan Iftikhar believes American Muslims should embrace the principle of being “our brother’s keeper” recognizing that only by protecting the civil rights of every American, even those with whom we differ, can we also protect the civil rights of all Americans. More than 72% of Americans claim to have never met or interacted with a Muslim so Muslims will have to work even harder to humanize ourselves to our neighbors.

The work of humanizing Muslims to the American public while daunting is far from hopeless as Iftikhar noted the progress made over the last decade by advocates of gay marriage. According to Iftikhar, “no matter how much of a conservative Republican you may be, chances are that you have a gay cousin somewhere” and this helps to humanize  people and issues and “lessens the level of toxicity” in discourse.

Each Muslim has a role to play in breaking down stereotypes. Iftikhar says he loves when he gets the opportunity to speak on television or radio about mundane issues like sports or popular culture and not solely about religion or terrorism. When appearing on television, he makes a point of wearing a pink tie or shirt because he knows most people don’t expect to see Muslim man who is “clean-shaven and wearing something colorful.” So that even those who disagree with him can say “I don’t agree with him but I love the terrorist’s tie!” and that in its own way is a small victory.

I bought a copy of the book and am looking forward to reading it soon, insha’Allah.

Q&A | The LGBT Community from an Islamic Perspective | Part II

VIDEO The LGBT Community from an Islamic Perspective | Part I 

The question and answer session provided some interesting and unexpected comments from the panelists particularly from Imam Ahmad Azzaari. He began by reminding the audience to avoid suspicion and to “not dig into the hearts of people” in response to a question about the permissibility of shaking hands with LGBT individuals. When someone asked if an LGBT person could convert to Islam, Azzaari affirmed that Islam is a universal faith and is open to everyone.

Photo courtesy of the PGMA Youth Group

Missing Voices

Any discussion about homosexuality that does not include the voices or perspectives of those in the LGBT community is incomplete. The metropolitan D.C. area is home to Al-Fatiha, which draws gay Muslims together through its annual retreats and to Imam Daayiee Abdullah, one of the most prominent gay Muslims in the United States. So one would not have to look very far to include the voice of at least one gay Muslim, if greater inclusion and diversity in the discussion was valued by the organizers.

As it turned out, Daayiee Abdullah was in the audience, and could have provided additional perspective. However, it seems the mosque is only willing to go so far in reaching out and jumpstarting discussion.  It would be nice to move beyond straight Muslims talking about and advising gay Muslims to actually hearing from LGBT Muslims, an act which would require listening and leadership. I wonder what it would be like to have a discussion about converts to Islam and to not actually include any converts or their experiences in the discussion? It’d probably be like most of the women in Islam talks given by men.

Early marriage was advocated by several panelists but there was no mention of mixed marriages between heterosexual and LGBT partners. Despite the earlier biological definitions, also missing from the discussion was an understanding of the sexuality of true hermaphrodites, those with ambiguous genitalia or chromosomal abnormalities and the transgender community.

See You on the Way to the Internment Camp

A man once asked the ascetic and scholar Al-Hasan al-Basri if everything was in the Quran and Al-Basri replied in the affirmative. So the man asked, if how to bake bread was in the Quran? Al-Basri recited the verse, “…So ask the people of knowledge if you do not know.

In this presidential election year and with Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley pushing for the legalization of gay marriage in the state, Imam Azzaari shocked many in the audience with his political views and advice. He said that when considering the lesser of two evils, he would rather vote for an Islamophobic anti-Muslim conservative candidate than for a more liberal one who supported human rights for all including those for Muslims and for lesbians and gays.

His reasoning was two-fold, first, that he believed God punished the people in the time of Prophet Lot that actively participated in homosexual acts and also those who supported it. And secondly and somewhat surprisingly, that he felt he could more effectively communicate with conservative candidates even if they espouse strong anti-Muslim sentiment.

According to Azzaari, Muslims have a duty not to lend a hand to any politician that supports sin. But this statement is so general that it has very little meaning. Even the conservative politicians, he claims he can dialogue with have supported and continue to support immoral economic, political, and social policies. It’s unclear whether Azzaari believes Muslims should completely disengage from the political process or participate despite the potential for gray areas.

Later in the Q&A, Azzaari seemed to contradict his earlier statement by suggesting that Muslims could and should work together with diverse groups on issues of mutual concern. So we can work together to find solutions to poverty and hunger but cannot work together to support civil rights, which enable all of us to live here and practice our faith traditions without having the beliefs of others imposed upon us? It strikes me as remarkably inconsistent to use civil protections to practice one’s faith while using religious arguments to counter and deny the extension of those civil rights to others.

Dr. Tariq Ramadan advises Muslims to avoid having an immature and slavish mentality when it comes to questioning scholars. One may have a degree in shariah but that doesn’t necessarily make them qualified to discuss every issue. As an American, our history with Japanese internment camps during WWII is far too recent for me to take the social and political demonization of Muslims so lightly.

Male Rape & Inhospitality?

Continue reading “Q&A | The LGBT Community from an Islamic Perspective | Part II”