By: Shannon Abulnasr
Ramadan is quickly approaching, which brings with it excitement and anticipation for Muslims around the world.
New Muslims that are awaiting their first experience of Ramadan are filled with joy and hope.
Those who have already experienced their first Ramadan, and partaking in their subsequent Ramadans, frequently feel anxiety, loneliness, and general depression based on their first Ramadan experiences.
What changes between the first experience and the following ones?
New Muslims expect the perfect Ramadan experiences for their first Ramadan, and while many have wonderful experiences, there are others that experience negative events brought on by the behavior of our community members.
The brotherhood and sisterhood witnessed by new Muslims has an everlasting effect on their integration, growth and development in the Muslim society as strong practicing Muslims. New Muslims experience Ramadan with positive and negative results depending on this brotherhood/sisterhood that exists, or doesn’t exist in their local community.
Let’s explore the various aspects of our community social framework to see how it affects new Muslims, and offer solutions to mend these deficiencies to make Ramadan a memorable time for all.
Isolation Inflicted by the Community - Intentionally and Unintentionally
In non-Muslim societies, we find more reverts to Islam, which means they turn to their local Muslim communities for support, guidance, and for new friendships. They expect them to become their new family and friends, since most are rejected by their own families and friends as a result from accepting Islam.
Their first “major” hopes and attempts to integrate into the Muslim community tends to be during Ramadan. They have strong desires to meet other Muslims while building their knowledge, seeking support, and feel like they ‘belong’.
When attending masjids for prayers, communal iftars during Ramadan, as well as other times of the year, they struggle to ‘fit in’. Common feelings are shared that cultural social circles exist, and face trouble entering into any particular circles. Typically, it is not intentional, but various ethnicities tend to stick to their circles (Indian/Pakistani circles, Somali circles, Arab circles, Asian circles, and so forth). Normally due to cultural similarities and differences, and native languages, it causes a divide…while unintentional, it sometimes is intentional.
Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him) stressed on unity and brotherhood as we can see in his Farewell Sermon:
“All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action. Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood.”
So, where do the new Muslims fit in? In the eyes of a new Muslim, this segregation is often misinterpreted as discrimination or racism. In some cases it is exactly that (racism and discrimination), but not always. Regardless, a new Muslim tends to see it as such. They find themselves isolated, having trouble finding acceptance.
Depending on the ‘openness’ of their local community, they are either welcomed with open arms, or shunned and looked down upon for various unknown reasons. Many have expressed various levels of isolation and rejection.
In the mild instances, many have had people refusing to greet them with Islamic greetings, and in worse scenarios have been told point blank, face to face, they are not welcome.
Aisha, a Caucasian South African new Muslim, told me that the first time she went to a masjid, the women there told her “your kind is not welcome here” and went even further to ask her to leave while giving her a harsh cold stare. Aisha decided to move away from this community to find a better one.
John, a Caucasian American new Muslim, went to a masjid that was primarily of African descent, and was told “you don’t belong here”. After feeling racism for the first time in his life, he left and never returned. John searched for another masjid near his home, and made a conscious effort to mix his social circle. He now has friends from various nationalities and ethnicities.
I myself, a Caucasian American revert Muslim sister, had a member of the community accusing me of being a spy planted in the community by the government and was telling others to avoid me. I fell apart. However, when this happened to me, I wasn’t “new” to Islam anymore and already built up my faith, and was able to follow through. It was hard, but I remained active in my efforts to be involved. I later established a strong internet community for reverts to help them learn, adapt, and implement Islam all around the world. I didn’t let it tear me down, and used it as inspiration to help others that were going through similar struggles.
These treatments are devastating to a new Muslims. It is seen as a slap in the face, and many never try to integrate again, avoiding the masjid; and thus, causing depression, lack of faith, and sometimes giving up hope in general. New Muslims have to remain strong, have faith, and continue to strive at being the best Muslim they can be regardless of how others treat them. Islam is perfect, the Muslims, just as all humans, are not.
Strengthening Brotherhood & Sisterhood in Our Communities
How can we overcome making our new brothers and sisters in faith feel part of the Muslim community?
It is easier than we think. All it takes is looking past cultural and ethnic barriers, and opening ourselves up to meeting new people that are from other cultures.
So, when you see a new face, whether a new Muslim, or someone that just relocated, we should make a conscious effort to approach them, be friendly, and get to know them better. A simple greeting and introduction is all it takes to make a new-comer feel welcomed. If we see them, and avoid them for whatever reasons, it makes a negative impact, showing division based on prejudice, and/or racism.
Language plays a big role as well. When a group of people are in a gathering, it is polite to speak in the language that all people understand. If a new Muslim that only speaks English is in a circle of people that all speak English, and they end up speaking in Arabic, or Urdu, they feel left out.
Let’s make a collective effort to strengthen our bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood. Tell new-comers that you are happy to meet them, and look forward to seeing them again. Better yet, invite them for tea or an Islamic event the community is having. New-comers are unaware of community events. This is how we build a strong Islamic community. When a community has these warm connections, word will spread, and communities will grow.
New Muslims Share Some Responsibility in Isolating Themselves
Muslim communities are not always at fault for the struggles many new Muslims have integrating into the Muslim society. Often times, new Muslims have extremely high expectations on the Muslim community in general.
They just accepted Islam, and are on a “high” and expecting perfection amongst all Muslims. It is a fact, that not all Muslims are “good” Muslims, which is often forgotten by a new Muslim. Not all people claiming to adhere to any particular religious affiliation fit the description of a “practicing”, or a good example of an adherent to that belief. All societies have kind, supportive, knowledgeable, well mannered people, as well as rude, judgmental, unsupportive, ignorant and ill-mannered people.
Anytime we expect people to be perfect, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment.
Don’t Be Part of the Problem, Be Part of the Solution!
New Muslims must acknowledge their own weaknesses they have when entering a new society and environment.
We must consider the fact that it is human nature to be shy around others whom you don’t know. If a person goes to a masjid for example with hopes of meeting new people, and they do their prayers, don’t try to talk to others, and sit in a corner or in the back waiting for someone to approach them first, they may find themselves leaving feeling isolated and rejected.
Just as new Muslims feel shy to approach others, people in general are the same. It takes courage, and willingness to “try”. We must all be open and welcoming to those whom we know and don’t know if we expect to grow our own personal social circles.
Don’t wait to be “spoon fed” information about your new community. Take initiative and ask officials of the masjid about events, lectures, study circles, or classes they may offer. Otherwise, you may never come to know about their existence. Attend these events, lectures, and classes, and you will find yourself quickly meeting new people, learning your faith, and feeling accepted in the community.
If you discover that your community doesn’t offer things for its community such as halaqas, or classes, talk to the masjid officials and suggest them to start it. If you find they lack interest in doing so, you can always start your own. Organize a community “dish party”, or a study group, etc.
Ask the Imam if he would be willing to start a halaqa or a class for new Muslims, or for the community in general. Usually they will be very receptive to the idea and help you plan and promote it. If you find yourself alone in the attempt, post advertisements for it on the bulletin boards, or pass out simply flyers for it before or after prayer times. The options are endless. It just takes a little creativity, and willingness to step out of your comfort zone.
Don’t remain in the shadows… Be the one to brighten your community, turn on the light!
The best way to improve any matter is to lead by example and take initiative!