Salam Dear Reader,
Thank you for your question and for contacting Ask About Islam
May Allah reward you for wanting to educate yourself about Islam. You are right that there are so many conflicting voices nowadays, telling Muslims to do this or to do that. It is sometimes difficult to know which voice to listen to and, indeed, which voice is authentic.
Muslims and Islam are constantly in the news, presented as violent and extreme by television and newspapers. Ordinary Muslims are left to carry the burden of what others have done and how others are behaving. So where is the “real” Islam to be found?
When I first embraced Islam, I went to a mosque near where I lived in London. The brothers welcomed me and I visited the mosque again and again. Soon, however, someone in the mosque told me that unless I grew a beard, my prayers would not be accepted by Allah.
My knowledge of Islam was limited at that time, but something in my heart told me that this could not be true. It just didn’t feel right. I chose not to go to that mosque again.
Instead, I went to another mosque. There I was told very clearly that if I listened to music I could never attain Paradise. This, too, seemed a very harsh teaching and did not fit well with the Islam I had declared my belief in not long before.
It is interesting to me now, looking back on both of those events. I know more about Islam and am much more certain of my faith. I used to enjoy music a lot and spent a great deal of time going to concerts and to opera.
Whilst I would not declare them to be wrong at all, somehow those pursuits have receded and don’t really interest me anymore. Perhaps it is because in my life I have come to realize that happiness comes from Allah alone and from serving Him. It is not necessary to chase after happiness in music or other things.
Similarly, one Ramadan I decided to grow a beard, in response to the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Whilst many commented on how distinguished the resulting beard looked, it did not ever feel right for me, and so I shaved it off.
I had come to my own conclusion about beards. The point I am making is that both mosques had some truth in what they were telling me, but the way they said it was extreme and off-putting.
In beginning to answer your question, then, many of the conflicting voices within Islam are conflicting because of the human way in which they are put across. Some speakers seem very harsh, whilst others seem very relaxed.
The message of Islam, though, does not depend on human interpreters for it to be right or wrong. Conflicting voices make Islam seem to have conflicting messages, but it does not. Islam is perfect and it has the answer to everything we want to know.
In Islam there are no priests or popes or intermediaries between Allah and human beings. There is no secret knowledge known only to a few, which must be dispensed to the people by a professional religious class.
No, Islam is really very simple. It is the natural religion of mankind and it has existed since the beginning of time. When individuals begin to put too much of themselves into the message of Islam, we need to step back and distinguish between what is authentic and what is simply man-made.
In his final sermon to the Muslim faithful gathered on the plain of `Arafat outside Makkah, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) told them that he left behind him two things: the glorious Quran and his example. He said that by following these, Muslims would not go astray.
So, the authentic sources from which we have to find the real Islam are the glorious Quran and the life and example of our Prophet.
There is no pope in Islam to decide what is right and what is wrong. Instead, individual Muslims have to take responsibility for their own lives and have to judge teaching and behavior by these two guidelines: The Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet.
It is important to remember that all Muslims will one day stand before Allah on that same plain of `Arafat to give an account of how they lived their lives, so taking these two guidelines very seriously is most important.
You might justifiably say, though, that individual Muslim men and women are not always best equipped to make judgments such as these, since they do not have expert knowledge in all fields of Islam. In such cases, we listen to the opinion of Muslim scholars who are well-versed in interpreting the Quran and very knowledgeable about Prophetic Hadith.
Which scholars do we choose, though? Well, we must look first of all at who they are and how qualified they are to speak. Is it the opinion of a man in the street, for example, or a sheikh of Al-Azhar? Again, we look in such a case at where the greatest numbers of scholars agree and also at what they base their decision on. Is their decision based on an authentic source?
Over the centuries, Muslim scholars have turned the use of authentic Prophetic Hadith into a science. They have worked out where the hadith came from and have established the veracity of the individuals who have passed it on, shunning any hadith about which they are not absolutely certain. In this way we can be utterly certain that the hadith was genuinely spoken and can accurately reflect what the Prophet (peace be upon him) said.
So, as you can see, looking for an authentic teaching about Islam involves some serious work. It would certainly be much easier if we could push a computer button and come up with the answer we are looking for, beyond any shadow of a doubt.
However, despite everything that has been said so far, there is something more, which touches completely on where the real Islam is to be found.
If you go along to the mosque at dawn, you might first of all pass brothers and sisters on the way, making their way to pray. Once in the mosque, you will find good Muslims reciting the Quran and offering their prayers to Allah.
When the prayer begins, you will see the Muslim community praying in rows together, begging Almighty Allah for its needs. This is the real Islam.
You will find the real Islam in a little old man sitting by the side of the road, his forehead marked with frequent prayer, and he will greet you with As-salamu `alaykum. This is the real Islam.
You will find the real Islam in a young boy selling bananas from a fruit cart. He may not have much of his own, but when asked how he is, he will reply “Al-hamdulillah.”
We can make Islam very complicated, can’t we? We can even have different mosques in the same town feuding with each other over silly things. The differences, though, come from men. Islam is very simple. It is both beautiful and sweet.
As Muslims we are encouraged to improve ourselves by reading. We are told to do good deeds to win Allah’s pleasure. We will never find the real Islam unless we are faithful to the five daily prayers and recitation of the Quran.
In sha’ Allah, by our living out our Muslim faith, the real Islam will become second nature to us all. Finally, my advice is to listen to all preachers and take the best of each as long as their opinions are based on the Quran and the Sunnah.
I hope that this brief answer at least begins to help you.
Salam and Please keep in touch.