Bismillah al-Rahman al-Raheem
“There is no compulsion in religion. The right direction is henceforth distinct from error. And he who rejecteth false deities and believeth in Allah hath grasped a firm handhold which will never break. Allah is Hearer, Knower.” (Qur’an 2:256)
We all know this verse. Much of the time it is (rightly) used to prove to non-Muslims that it is un-Islamic to force someone to accept Islam, which is indeed a very important point to be made in today’s culture of Islamophobia. As the verse clearly states, the right way is distinct from the wrong way, and the choice is up to us.
But lately I have been thinking of it from another perspective: there should be no compulsion within the religion.
The Muslim community is by no means homogeneous, and the rich variety of cultures and people who make it up is one of the beauties of Islam. Lately, however, I feel like there is a lot of pressure to all manifest our Islam exactly the same way. This could be pressure on converts to assimilate into a particular cultural group, pressure to follow the “right” madhhab (school of thought), or this could be general pressure to follow some very strict doctrine coming out of Saudi Arabia, for the sole reason that it comes from Saudi Arabia and therefore must be closest to the truth.
I understand that some of these societal pressures often stem from the time of colonialism and have deep sociopolitical roots, but I think on a more personal level they are worth being brought to awareness.
Just like we cannot force others to become Muslim if their hearts do not believe, we should not try to force Muslims into practising a certain way, just because it is the way that we believe is right.
Firstly, everyone is on their own spiritual journey. To expect someone to go from non-practising to beard-and-thobe-hafiz-masjid-five-times-a-day over night is unrealistic. Transitioning into Islam as an entire way of life takes time; the Qur’an itself was revealed over a period of over 20 years. So the Prophet (saws) and the people around him learned all of Islam over a period of 20 years.
When something, be it practising hijab or praying five times a day, is forced or rushed, it often just leads to overwhelm and leaving that thing again after a little while. This is one reason that some of the most beloved of good deeds to Allah swt are those that, though small, are done consistently rather than a huge, grand gesture that it is impossible to keep up.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that praying and hijab aren’t important; they are important and obligatory. I am saying, however, that we never know where someone else is coming from or what they struggle with.
Secondly, we should be so focused on our own issues that we don’t have time to pick on others. I am guilty of this as much as anyone else—forgetting my own development in the zeal to question others—but it is a rut that we need to get ourselves out of, me first and foremost.
Not to mention, there are four different schools of thought, whose opinions are equally valid. So I may follow Maliki rulings, but what you are doing as a Hanafi is not my place to comment on. We have to begin to accept that all four of the madhhabs are valid, and the one we follow really comes to a matter of our own personal preference.
At the end of the day, I know I tend to have a much more “grey area” approach to Islam than many. I firmly believe in the mercy of Islam, in differences of scholarly opinion, and in encouraging people to find their way on their spiritual journey instead of giving them the halal/haraam handbook. Islam is supposed to be the middle way, the easy and natural religion (that’s not to say it won’t be difficult at times in this world, that is just the nature of humanity, but it should not be overwhelming and dread-inspiring).
I wonder about this tendency of mine sometimes, though; is it just because I am lazy? Maybe I don’t have enough imaan to make everything black and white, yes or no? Maybe I really should spend more of my time writing about the “right” way to do things? Maybe I should be denying myself more things, dressing differently, interacting with my family differently, maybe I’m just not strict enough…
My self-questioning brings up the verse,
“And there may spring from you a nation who invite to goodness, and enjoin right conduct and forbid indecency. Such are they who are successful.” (Qur’an 3:104)
I feel like I do tow a very fine line between the injunction to enjoin good and forbid evil, and the verse that states that there can be no compulsion in the matter of religion. I often feel like I am farther to one side than the other, because I truly do not like to sound “preachy” in enjoining good, and I have a deep fear of giving sincere “forbidding evil” kind of advice and having the person only end up offended and angry, doing exactly the opposite of what I have advised. Needless to say I prefer a gentle approach…
I was listening to a lecture (I know, I seem to do that a lot), that put my heart a bit more at ease about this subject.
The two speakers were actually discussing the situation of Halloween in America, as they are both American scholars. The conversation eventually turned to a matter of personal piety versus forcing others to practice a certain way, and I think it perfectly summed up what I am getting at with this slightly stream-of-consciousness post:
One said that there is a big difference between being personally pious and God conscious (having taqwa), and outwardly telling everyone else that they need to follow a certain doctrine, i.e. yours, or they are wrong.
He noted that the first one is actually very praiseworthy; if you, on a personal level, stay away from the grey area, fast extra fasts, pray extra prayers, cover what is meant to be covered and more, etc., that is all highly rewardable. You are purifying your own heart and soul, and you are doing your best to please your Creator.
The problem arises when you expect others to do exactly the same, in the same way as you. Trying to force others onto your level is actually something disliked, especially if it comes from a harsh or judgemental place.
The speaker gave a metaphor for this. He said that he personally does not believe in having a TV in his house. He thinks it is a waste of time, and that his children could be doing more productive things, etc. And that is good, he is going the extra mile to make sure his household is productive both spiritually and in this world. But, his belief about TV, where there is no clear ruling saying halal or haraam, does not make it permissible, or even encouraged for him to come into my house and rail at me about my evil TV while my husband and I are watching a documentary about whales after a long day of working in our family owned restaurant (the first part is a real occurrence, the second part more of an in shaa Allah).
Also, he didn’t specifically refer to my life in his metaphor, I added that. What he said was something about not going and smashing all his neighbors’ TVs with a baseball bat…
The Prophet (saws) himself made it a point to speak to people according to their own level of intelligence and faith, and he encouraged his companions to be gentle with people and not make matters more difficult for them than they needed to be.
When I think about my journey in Islam, every single milestone I have passed was gained by either my own personal conviction on a matter, or by gentle encouragement of good traits, and never by forceful discouragement of bad ones.
To take one last example: I started wearing jilbab recently because I knew in my heart and soul that it was the right step for me to take. That was Allah’s swt guidance and my conviction. When I first began wearing hijab, however, I had a good friend and mentor who would subtly praise outfits that were closer to “proper” hijab, i.e. loose fitting, arms covered all the way, but she never said anything about outfits that weren’t so properly hijabified.
Sneaky, sneaky. And what do you know, over time I started wearing more maxi skirts and phased out jeans, I started wearing looser tops that covered my arms, and just look at me now!
Whenever sisters in the masjid, however, have told me I’m not “dressed,” or “why don’t you cover yourself?” or “well, I couldn’t just leave you to pray like that,” all I have felt is strong resistance to change whatever they are judging me about (while I now understand they may not have necessarily meant these things to be as harsh as they sound, they were very hurtful at the time).
As they say, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.
In shaa Allah I hope we as a community can begin to grow into tolerance and encouragement, celebrating someone’s positives instead of broadcasting their negatives, and in general begin to judge each other less and learn to understand each other more. In a time when Muslims are being attacked on all fronts, the last thing we need is to break up our communities because of legitimate differences of opinion and practice within our beautiful, merciful, and diverse religion.