“You will never understand a man until you walk a mile in his shoes.”
For the past 10 years, I have helped facilitate dialogue with many different people, answering questions about Islam and addressing misconceptions about my faith. It has always been my belief that understanding comes with dialogue, so I would like to take this opportunity to share some reflections about the dialogues I have had over the years.
One of my earliest lessons as a WhyIslam volunteer was that there are three main types of visitors. The first type hates Islam and Muslims, no matter what we may say. They have a right to their opinion, and as the Qur’an says: You are only responsible for conveying the message. (13:40) So I learned to keep emotionally aloof, replying only with enough objective facts to address their issue or refute their accusations. This has the benefit of keeping the conversation from degenerating into unproductive arguments. While these visitors rarely turn over to reconciliation, it does happen occasionally, so it behooves us to keep a level head, to speak to the talking points, and to restrain from comments that will only lead to escalation.
The second type is supportive of Islam and Muslims and usually come requesting clarification and advice. For these visitors, I learned that they are hungry for details; therefore, it is okay to go more in depth, with tangential comments or background stories. These extra details add substance to the conversation and often lead to other lines of inquiry that these visitors find very valuable to them.
The third type is the truly undecided, and it is this type that provided the most memorable and soul-shifting conversations. To me, these visitors represent the essence of what we are trying to achieve: to touch the minds and hearts of those who do not know us and bring them from a position of not knowing about Islam and Muslims to a position of knowing Islam and Muslims. Even if they do not agree with us at the end of the conversation, what is important is that there was dialogue and the opportunity for improved understanding.
The last thing I learned is that sometimes people disengage and stop responding. You may have noticed a few times in your own conversations with a friend or colleague that he or she would end it abruptly. While this is not satisfying, it is unfortunately the nature of modern electronic communications. Nobody is obligated to reply, and for this reason every reply is precious. Likewise, remember that “in real life,” nobody is obligated to return your greeting or your salutation of peace; therefore, everyone who does respond to you — whether neighbor or classmate or coworker — is likewise precious.
Many times we get blind-sided by our negative emotions: fear, disappointment, anger, resentment, etc. We become intolerant of the shortcomings we see in others, but we don’t look closely at ourselves. You will find that some of the best people you know are people of other faiths, and by “best people” I mean people who are ethical, caring, and altruistic; people who are civil and well-mannered.
The Prophet’s (pbuh) trademark in dealing with ignorance was mercy. At no point should Muslims have our noses in the air. We should focus on keeping a soft heart towards everyone, because this is what our Prophet taught. While it is true that many of today’s Muslims are full of hate and rage, I would argue that MANY MORE, in fact the majority, are not this way.
They are quietly and humbly trying to live a God-conscious life and keep their families fed, educated, and raised. That is why we always remind people that we must look to what Islam teaches at its source (Qur’an and Hadith) in order to judge, not what the followers of Islam do.
Humans make mistakes, often even critical and chronic ones, but the final arbiter is Allah, not people. It is for this reason we see the wisdom of constant reminders and returning to the Book of Allah for spiritual renewal and rejuvenation. The rituals and worship of Islam are cyclical, in that every day, week, month, and year there is a reminder to bring those who have become negligent or heedless of Allah can refresh their relationship with the Creator and become aware and grateful to Allah. On the daily basis, we have the ritual prayers and supplications. On the weekly basis, we have the Friday sermon and the recommended fasting. On the monthly basis, we have another set of recommended fasting and recommended night prayers. And on the yearly basis, we have the month of Ramadan and the month of Hajj. This is how individual Muslims can polish their personality and reconnect with their Creator. As the Qur’an says: So remind, perhaps it will benefit the reminded. (87:9)