On the First Day of Ramadan, My True Love Gave to Me

“Virtue does not consist in whether you face towards the East or the West; virtue means believing in God, the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the prophets; the virtuous are those who, despite their love for it, give away their wealth to their relatives and to orphans and to the poor, and to travelers and those who ask for charity. The virtuous are those who set slaves free, and who attend to their prayers and pay the alms, and who keep their pledges when they make them, and show patience in hardship and adversity, and in times of distress. Such are the true believers; and such are the God-fearing.”

 -The Qur’an 2:177

I’ve been struggling with this verse all day. It’s one of my favorite verses of the Qur’an, but it left me pondering an existential-crisis-inducing question.

How can you possibly be virtuous today?

In our post-industrial age of perpetual technological bombardment, is virtue even possible?

How do you find virtue in your actions in the endless cacophony of pop culture and superficiality?

Does virtue even matter? Or, as post-modern philosophers would argue, is the idea of virtue a nonsensical, moral boundary that can be dispensed with in our era after the supposed death of God?

Here, I disagree with the post-modernists, but that’s where my distress comes in.

"Dis dress comes in?"

“Dis dress comes in?”

Bad pun, sorry.

I consider one of the most important moments of my life to be the moment I stopped thinking personally and started thinking politically.

Politically meaning with regards to social relationships and social structures.

When I was around 15 or 16, I walked by a television that had been left on in an empty room. Immediately as I passed, on came one of those missionary evangelical Christian commercials.

“For the price of a cup of coffee, you can feed this child for a week.”

Despite the self-serving, imperialistic, evangelizing message of the commercial, it has influenced me more than perhaps any other single moment.

The images of the sick, impoverished children haunted me.

I suddenly realized that these were real people.

Real people.

Not on some intellectual level, but on a true, deep, visceral level.

It made me ask the most important question that someone could possibly ask.

Why?

Why is it that children around the world are starving and are in need of a mere 65 cents in order to get food?

Why is it that my clothes are made (mostly) by poor women across the world, but never in my own country?

Why is it that so many innocent people are dying needlessly in wars across the globe?

But, more importantly,

Why is it that I’m not?

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Today, nine years later, on the first day of Ramadan, I’m stuck asking those same questions.

The amount of money I give to charity is a pittance compared to my income. The shirt I’m wearing as I write this was made in India. Perhaps it was made in a city that I visited last year as a rich, white, awful tourist. And, as everyone knows from the news, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Honduras, The Central African Republic, Egypt, Myanmar, Thailand, Somalia, Mexico, Libya, Pakistan, Nigeria, Yemen, and South Sudan aren’t doing so hot right now.

That’s why being virtuous is important to me. How can you look at the world with callous indifference?

The United States is funneling money and weapons into Syria and Iraq.

Obama is pursuing an absurd foreign policy of supporting the militants when they cross into Syrian territory and killing the militants when they cross into Iraqi territory.

This only makes sense if you consider the fact that the U.S. clearly wants the Syrian conflict to continue.

And why would the U.S. government ever want that?

It’s a very meticulous historical strategy of divide and conquer.

Like an empire?

Bingo.

And how can you be virtuous when you live in the center of an empire at its peak?

George W. Bush’s State of the Union in 2002. I’ve had a difficult time watching that clip for years.

Something about it makes me want to cry.

I’m not sure whether it’s the fact that Bush said that in an apparently sincere way or if it’s the insidious policies he pursued that contrasted that statement. How do you say Muslims are people and then subsequently drop bombs on Muslim children?

Maybe it’s just the way he said “Allah“, as though we worship some alien god.

Maybe it’s all of those things simmering together in a minute of intense emotion.

Honestly, it’s not easy to be a Muslim and an American.

Not because I feel discriminated against. Not because I’ve ever felt the racist backlash against Muslims. Not because I’ve ever felt the micro-aggressions and evil glances for my attire.

But for me, the difficulty is reconciling my beliefs with how I live my life.

For me, the difficulty is in being virtuous.

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boo hoo

How can you possibly be virtuous today?

As an American, the ability to live a virtuous life sometimes feels as though it has been stolen from me.

The taxes I pay go to funding militant groups and corrupt governments across the globe.

The gasoline I buy props up oppressive dictatorships and monarchies in the Middle East.

And any money I put into the economy by purchasing any item directly fuels this entire system of imperialism and capitalism.

It’s easy to feel helpless.

But for the next 29 days I will try my best to think deeply politically.

As a human being, thinking politically means opposing the structures and hierarchies that lead to mayhem, war, and genocide.

It means acting upon that base compassion for others and being mindful of your words and deeds.

It means recognizing the world as it is, but striving to continuously make it better.

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This Ramadan is my fourth. It gets easier every year. From dawn to sunset, over a billion Muslims go without food or water.

Why?

In order to fulfill the divine injunction on all able Muslims to fast.

In order to remember the poor and the hungry.

In order to empathize with those who are suffering.

In order to increase self-reflection, humility, patience, kindness, and strength.

In order to find an outlet to be virtuous. Or at least to learn virtue.

In order to be like the Prophet Muhammad – may God’s peace and blessings be upon him.

In Surat al-Imran, the 3rd chapter of the Qur’an, it says:

“Say, ‘If you love God, follow me and God will love you and forgive you for your sins. God is most forgiving and most merciful.'” (3:31)

The goal is to be the best person you can be. If not, then why bother living?

On the first day of Ramadan, my true love gave to me some guidance when I felt lost.

InshaAllah, that will only continue.

I’ve been a Muslim for 3 years today.

Ashhadu anla ilaha illa Allah wa ashhadu anna Muhammad arrasulullah.

On June 9, 2011, I stood in a serene grove on the side of a house of two dear friends in Bloomington, Indiana and repeated the Arabic phrase, “I bear witness that there is no god but God, and I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of God.” The slender Arabic words had escaped me effortlessly and with them I had made the “formal” conversion to Islam.

It was a moment that I had pictured a thousand times before I actually went through with it.

And I knew that my words were a revolution. They were a revolution against the society in which I had been raised, but they were, more importantly, a revolution against my Self.

I’ve attempted to steer clear of talking about my religious views too much on this blog, mostly because I have been trying to avoid the charge of spreading religious propaganda and I’ve also tried to be especially considerate of my idiosyncratic worldview clouding some of my more serious political pieces. By writing about this, I’m not attempting to be a polemicist, but rather simply sharing some of my potential biases and premises.

Many people have asked me what drew me to Islam. Was it the Qur’an? Were you friends with Muslims? Was it X,Y, and Z?Image

I have never given a complete answer and, honestly, I don’t think a complete answer could ever be given.

I never planned on becoming a Muslim. In the months and years prior, I had merely casually researched Islam as a point of interest. So much of the world seemed to be influenced by the so-called “Clash of Civilizations”, and if Islam was the counterweight to Western Christianity, then I felt it was imperative that I know something about it.

Like many people in the United States, my understanding of the religious tenets extended little beyond the five pillars. When Iraq was collapsing into civil war between ethnic factions and the Sunnis and the Shi’ites, I was as clueless as everyone else about the differences between the groups.

As I entered my adolescence, I became determined to make sense of the senseless state of the world.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the contentious relationship between the U.S. and Iran after 1979 all piqued my brazen curiosity. In my first semester in college, I took a course called “Oil, Islam, and Geopolitics” that sparked a fire inside of me.

I remember distinctly feeling the gravitational pull of the Middle East and Central Asia.

taqwacore

In the waning months of my sophomore year at Indiana University, I spent an inordinate amount of time neglecting my studies in order to check out sometimes 15 books at a time from the university library and devour them in my room. Books like “The Shia Revival” by Vali Nasr, “Muhammad” by Karen Armstrong, and “Daughters of Another Path: Experiences of American Women Choosing Islam” by Carol Anway.

At the same time, I found my old copy of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”, which had lost its cover years earlier. I also managed to check out some different translations of the Qur’an from the library, but found them all to be rather impenetrable. Getting beyond Sura Al-Baqara, the lengthy second chapter, seemed like an impossible feat (although I eventually made it through unscathed).

It was around this time that I also began watching a series of documentaries on Islam that I had found across the internet. YouTube still hosts quite a few when you search “Muhammad” or “Islam”. At this point, I still had no interest in becoming a Muslim, I simply wanted to learn as much as I could about the religion.

Perhaps the most influential books on me at this point were the works of Michael Muhammad Knight. I discovered him through a documentary on Muslim Punk music and have since read all nine of his books. However, it was after reading “The Taqwacores” (MMK’s first published novel and the one from which he probably wants to disassociate the most) that I began to feel like a Muslim.

As far as I was concerned, I was still an atheist, although I was hastily softening my stances on the question of the existence of God.

One day at work, I was reading a book by Jeffrey Lang about his experience with Islam and a man came up to me and politely asked me what I was reading. I showed him my book and he immediately invited me to the mosque in Bloomington. Three months later, here I was, in his front yard with him and his wife, saying aloud what I whispered to myself so many times.

“La ilaha illa Allah”

There is no god, but God.

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Just like that I became another head in the fastest growing religion.

Another check in the box.

I often wonder to what extent my comfort in transitioning into Islam was a result of my privilege. An act of white, heterosexual, male, American privilege. Unquestionably, every last one of my actions dances in a tremendous, terrible, inescapable vortex of privilege. And although I’m cognizant of that fact, it doesn’t make the self-analysis any easier.

I’ve been blessed to pray in mosques from Seattle to Saint Petersburg and from New York to New Delhi. I’ve been blessed to make Umrah (lesser pilgrimage) to Mecca and travel up to Medina with one of my best friends. I’ve spent Muharram sleeping on the floor of the Shi’a Islamic Center in Kochi and I’ve prayed fajr with a group of Wahhabis in Goa.

I’ve met with the highest-ranking Shi’i cleric in North America and I’ve shaken hands with the Imam of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. I’ve prayed with the Salafis and the Sufis, the Sunni and the Shi’a, and throughout all of it, I’ve known that without my privilege, I probably would’ve experienced none of it.

Where does that leave me?

The materialist perspective might contend that religious conversion is sparked by traumatic events, the need to explain things, or an identity crisis. The religious perspective might rely on views on the ancient triad of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. The social perspective might say that I’m a privileged white, heterosexual male and I can do whatever I want in our racist, patriarchal, trans/queerphobic society.

I could never tell you what pushed my conversion directly. I have vague ideas and feelings about the matter, myself.

It never was much of a clear thought in my head, because it was something I knew almost instinctively.

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It’s as though the drive towards Islam was not unlike the drive towards eating after fasting or sleeping after staying up for days.

Picking up the Qur’an for me today is just like picking up my guitar. I never know what I’m going to get out of it and I’m always amazed by what I walk away with.

Recently, I’ve seen multiple statistics that say that 75% of converts end up leaving Islam or that many young people in the West are leaving Islam. And I’ve also personally seen a number of friends and acquaintances leave the religion for various reasons (sometimes as a result of no community and sometimes as a result of too much community).

And it always surprises me.

Despite the hardships and the struggles, I have never thought about leaving Islam for a moment in the past three years. I’m not a perfect Muslim by any means; I’m ignorant of plenty of important things, and I’m stubborn and I’m lazy. Yet it’s never even crossed my mind to be anything but who I am and who I am is a Muslim.

I don’t blame them, of course. How could I? I can’t possibly know all the experiences and ideas that have led them there.

Hell, I can’t even know all the experiences and ideas that have led me here.

And I’m sure my privilege plays a larger role than I could ever possibly see.

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“So why did you become a Muslim, anyway?”

My friend asks me this as we’re driving around my hometown. Lorde’s album is playing and the lights from gas stations and convenience stores illuminate Indianapolis Boulevard a kaleidoscope of reds, yellows, and greens. I pause for a moment, going through all the usual responses in my head.

The Qur’an just spoke to me in a way nothing else ever has.

I just found a lot of accurate truth-claims in the central message of the religion.

I just felt at home in the mosque and knew it was the place for me.

While all of these are true, none of them tell the whole truth.

Why did I become a Muslim?

I could never begin to answer that question, much to the frustration of Muslims as well as the old friends and family who probe me. Of course, the only acceptable responses are ones that fit into the social paradigm of religious conversions.

The question feels bigger than I am.

You’re supposed to talk about a light-bulb spiritual experience or a radical self-discovery. Otherwise, you’re inauthentic.

But that’s never what I’ve wanted to say, because it doesn’t match what I feel. What I want to say is that it’s impossible for me to express in words why I became a Muslim and it’s impossible for me to express why I continue to be a practicing Muslim (“practicing”, by the way, does not imply “perfect”).

La ilaha illa Allah means more to me than these cliché religious experiences.

After three years, I no longer feel like a Muslim convert, I just feel like a Muslim. So instead of these responses, I say exactly what I’ve always wanted to say. For the first time, I give the answer I’ve always wanted to give, regardless of the socially-acceptable script.

“I just think Islam is super cool.”