I posted the following essay originally at Daily Kos, and reposted it at Street Prophets. (Note: My essay has generated a large number of comments at both sites: 55 at Daily Kos and 15 at Street Prophets, to date. Check them out.)
Salaam ‘alaikum (peace be unto you).
PLHeart wrote a recent diary at Daily Kos entitled, “Why I Won’t Become a Muslim.” The diary, unfortunately, is filled with a number of errors and misperceptions about Islam and Muslims; however, I’m not writing today to call PLHeart out. More than enough people have already done that, and it appears that PLHeart him or herself accepts that his or her diary could have been better written.
My problem, as a Muslim, is that I see writings like PLHeart’s all too often. There is a tremendous amount of ignorance about Islam and Muslims held by a huge number of people. Much of the problem, IMO, is caused by a lack of intellectual curiosity and critical thinking. People don’t necessarily want to learn, nor do they want to think deeply about what they’re told. (I’m a college lecturer; I know.) They often take the information they’re given at face value, and frequently react negatively when people tell them otherwise. (This problem affects more than just what people think they know about Islam; for example, this is a common problem with regard to science, especially the debate between evolution and creationism in its various guises.)
The point of this diary, then, is to try to provide some information and correct a few misperceptions about Islam. In particular, I’d like to talk about two of PLHeart’s topics: “tribes” of Islam and conversion (or, as we call it, reversion) to Islam.
In Islam there are no “tribes.” PLHeart’s so-called Sunni, Shi’a and “Wahaddi” (sic) tribes are not, in fact, tribes at all. Of course there are divisions among Muslims, primarily the Sunni and Shi’a, but they are not nearly as major as non-Muslims might think. Should a non-Muslim revert to Islam, there is no determination of whether this man will become Sunni and this woman will become Shi’a. Probably 99% of all Western reverts to Islam become Sunni. This is due to the fact that most masjids in Western countries are Sunni. A Sunni Muslim is one who follows the Sunnah, the tradition of Muhammad (pbuh). The Sunnah, which is made up of the instructions in the Qur’an plus the sayings (ahadith) and actions of the Prophet, is important to Sunnis in that we believe Muhammad (pbuh) was the best living example of how the Qur’an should be applied to our daily lives, bar none.
The Shi’a arose out of the dispute as to who should lead the Muslim community after the death of Muhammad (pbuh). The Sunnis believed that the leader should be elected; the Shi’a believed that people from Muhammad’s (pbuh) family, the Ahl al-Bayt, had the best knowledge about Islam and the Qur’an, and about how Islam should be practiced. Over time, the differences between the Sunni and Shi’a have deepened and there are mixed feelings among the Sunni about the Shi’a (for example, whether to even consider the Shi’a as Muslim), but on a practical basis this is not an issue for the vast majority of Muslims worldwide.
The Wahhabis or, as they prefer, Salafis, are a branch of the Sunnis. I wouldn’t quite call them a school of thought as they themselves reject the idea of being categorized into any of the four Sunni madhhab (school of jurisprudence). The Salafis were started by Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab, who was reacting to religious conditions within Arabia during the 1700s. The modern belief among non-Muslims toward the Salafis is that they are puritanical, which is true to a degree as they are trying to rid Islam of any innovations in its practice (which itself is commanded in the Qur’an; e.g., 30:30). However, IMO, the Salafist threat to the West is overblown (as are most Western attitudes toward Islam and Muslims).
PLHeart’s diary, of course, was prompted in part by the recent so-called gunpoint conversions of the two Fox journalists. I’ve been amused at some of the writings from the right who argue that Muslims will consider anyone who has said the shahadah (the statement of belief) to be a Muslim regardless of whether the reversion is coerced or not. Of course, this is completely false. There are a number of conditions attached to the recitation to the shahadah in order for a reversion to be valid, one of which is sincerity: to become a Muslim, one must be sincere in his or her beliefs. One would have to be deluded to believe that any coerced “reversion” would be valid in any way. Likewise, as the Qur’an states:
“Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks. And Allah heareth and knoweth all things.” (2:256)
As Muslims, we know that any compulsion to believe in any religion will not make a conversion valid. A forced conversion will only create resentment in that person’s heart, which could in turn lead to resentment against Allah (swt). The gunpoint “conversion” by the Palestinians is unIslamic; few, if any, Muslims worldwide would consider the Fox journalists to be Muslims today.
While we’re clearing up misconceptions about conversion, let’s look at one other: that Islam is a missionary religion. We are and we aren’t. Yes, we do a type of missionary work, called da’wah, but that is mostly reactive in nature. As many people on PLHeart’s diary commented, people are far more likely to have a Christian come up to them, proselytizing, than a Muslim. (Ironically, just as I was writing this, I had three women from the corner church come up to my door to invite my wife and me to this Sunday’s service.) From my experience, most Christians who proselytize follow a proactive missionary strategy: they approach you directly, talk to you, and ask you to start a conversion process (such as what the ladies did). Muslims tend to follow a passive strategy (if you can call it that): if you approach us with a question, we will try to answer you; if you want to read the Qur’an, we will try to provide you with one. We don’t normally go out onto the streets to approach people. We don’t have missionaries riding around on bicycles. We don’t publish missionary tracts and leave them behind in laundromats. We don’t pass out inflammatory cartoon booklets. If you want to become a Muslim, that’s great. If you don’t, well, that’s fine too. (“Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion.” 109:6) The only Muslim “missionaries” I have ever come across were, in fact, not interested in talking to non-Muslims. Instead, they wanted to meet other Muslims who may be backsliding, so that they could become more active in their faith. For me, I believe the accusation that Islam is a missionary religion is often a case of ignorance and psychological projection.