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Adjusting to the Reality of the Muslim World

Adjusting to the Reality of the Muslim World
Learning to understand and adjust to the culture of the Muslim world can take many years and will be influenced by many factors.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard relatively new Muslims gasp: “But Muslims don’t do that!”

It seems incredulous to them that people who were born into Muslim families, or even other new Muslims sometimes, can do things that God forbids or don’t do everything that He commands.

They accepted Islam because they believe in God and Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and they believe in the teachings of the religion and its commandments to do good and live a good life.

They have seen the contrast between Islam’s teachings and the world they have been living in, and long to have those principles in their life.

They may have read the biography of the Prophet and heard tales of the early Muslims and the way they cared for each other. They may have experienced kindness from born Muslims or seen a different family life that appeals to them.

And once they decide to accept Islam, a strange halo effect sometimes takes place; in their minds they generalize these pieces of evidence to the whole Muslim world and they anticipate only good from all Muslims.

Right Expectations

The most remarkable case I heard of was a sister, who scrimped and saved to buy a ticket for herself and her children to immigrate to Egypt, and she arrived at the airport in Cairo with no money and few clothes. Her expectation was that she and her family would be taken in and looked after by the local people, in the same way the Ansar looked after the Muhajirin!

There were also many other Muslims who came to Egypt from the West, with the expectation that Cairo would be like Madinah at the time of the Prophet (peace be upon him). They seriously expected to come to a land that would welcome them with open arms and take care of them.

A land where the people would always be honest, hardworking, striving to live according to faith, praying every prayer in the mosque and where they could worship openly and freely. Although they found some of what they were looking for, most of them experienced a massive culture shock at the disparity between their expectations and the reality.

In the West, I have also come across similar problems when new Muslims start to interact with the Muslim world. They come to the mosque expecting to find a community that will welcome and support them, often finding a disparate community that is wary about making new friendships outside their cultural group or inviting strangers into their homes.

The halo effect can also be dangerous in terms of relationships, as it lowers the critical faculties.

I’ve seen so many convert sisters get into relationships and marry the type of Muslim men they would never have entertained in their own culture. They believe that because these men say that they are Muslims and seem to say the right things initially, they will be treated in the same wonderful way that the Prophet treated his wives.

The sisters want to believe the best about these men, because they are their Muslim brothers, and they often get hoodwinked into some terrible situations, more often than is comfortably acknowledged, that includes domestic violence, secret and unfair polygynous marriages, sham marriages of convenience, etc.

New Muslims will often make mistakes and misinterpret the signs; because they want to believe the best of Muslims. They will see some outward signs of piety and make assumptions about character. Their expectations and interpretations are also colored by their own cultural perspective.

A new Muslim is not only like a young child in terms of faith; they are often also new to the many different cultures that they may be coming across once they convert.

What Influences Adjustment?

Learning to understand and adjust to the culture of the Muslim world can take many years and will be influenced by many factors, some of which are:

Converts Understanding of Islam and the Effect it May Have on Their Life

The openness of a convert to go through a process of change can make a big difference to their journey.

For example, I came to Islam around the same time as a friend of mine. She said that Islam wasn’t going to change her and I said that I didn’t know how it would change me. We both ended up in very different places in terms of our practice of Islam.

A Convert’s Attitude and Willingness to Adopt New Cultural Practices and Norms

Some people find it easier to adapt to new cultures and enjoy the experience; others are more conservative and reticent to make changes.

Access to a Local Muslim Community and its Attitude

Some communities can be more welcoming to converts than others.

I’ve generally found that if the community is smaller and includes a variety of different ethnic groups, they tend to be more open to accepting new Muslims as equals, as everyone is looking for support and friendship.

However, as communities get larger, with more people from each of the different ethnic groups in a locality, they tend to be more factional and less welcoming of outsiders. These larger communities tend to view new Muslims as people in need of being looked after and taught; which can feel patronizing to those on the receiving end.

The Support of Other Converts

The effect of this can vary depending on the attitude of the local converts to integration and their own personal experiences of it, and also the size of the convert community and its openness to people with different understandings of Islam.

Marriage to Someone from a Different Ethnic Group

The attitude of a convert’s in-laws is usually the major factor that influences how quickly a convert integrates into the local Muslim community. An accepting family can help to ease the transition process immensely.

Differing End Results

The end result is usually one of four scenarios:

Assimilation: where the convert eventually become fully assimilated into the Muslim community, in terms of their language, dress and lifestyle.

Integration: where they adopt the norms of the dominant Muslim culture, but also retain their own culture, fitting into both with equal ease.

Separation: where the new Muslim rejects the dominant Muslim culture and spends all their time only with other new Muslims.

Marginalization: where they reject both the dominant Muslim cultures and that of the converts and spend most of their time alone.

Tips for Easing Adjustment

So what is the best way for new Muslims to find the place they feel comfortable within their Muslim community?

I heard one speaker saying that they should just open their eyes and not be so naive! That wasn’t helpful advice and just made those who had already suffered problems feel as if they had been stupid and it was all their fault.

Some of my suggestions of things that may help to reduce the challenges you might face are:

  • Develop your relationship with God and His religion, so you rely on Him and not on people, as that will help you through the tests that will come.
  • Learn as much as you can about Muslim culture alongside your learning of Islam, so you can work out the difference between the two.
  • Remember that there is good and bad in everyone. Muslims are human beings, some of whom are striving to please their Creator and others who are more nominal Muslims.
  • Ask open questions and listen more than you speak, especially in the early days.
  • Try to step out of your own cultural assumptions and see things through others’ eyes.
  • Seek support from wise local people or the local or national convert community; others are likely to have had similar experiences to yours that you can learn from.
  • If something happens that makes you feel even slightly uncomfortable, ask yourself:
  1. Does this seem Islamically acceptable?
  2. Would I accept this from someone in my own culture?
  3. If the answer is “No”, ask someone else who is more knowledgeable and really listen to their answers.
  • Give yourself time and be prepared to keep learning.

This article is from Reading Islam’s archive and was originally published at an earlier date.


About Amal Stapley

Amal Stapley After accepting Islam in 1992, Amal graduated from the International Islamic University of Malaysia with a degree in Psychology and Islamic studies. She then went on to work with several Islamic organizations in the USA, Egypt and more recently in her home country, the UK.

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