Down to Earth – With a Bump

It doesn’t happen quickly, it takes time.

For a long time you can’t imagine it happening at all.

Then one morning, you wake up and it’s living within you. A spiky, pebble in the midst of joyous certainty; disappointment.

Disappointment in the Ummah, you are now a part of.

For ‘born Muslims’ the acknowledgement that those who try to follow the teachings of the Prophet of Mercy, (May Allah The Most Merciful bless him) always fall short, comes with the territory. If you are from Pakistan or Bangladesh or Egypt or Palestine, or any other majority Muslim nation, you will have most likely experienced all manners of corruption from the political level down.

Family members, being human beings after all, will have done as we all do; raised their voices, gossiped (probably), missed Fajr and failed in a thousand, small, yet visible ways, to fully embody the teachings we are directed to follow in the Quran. Teachings that if taken to heart, absorbed into the very core of our understanding and then translated into our daily lives, would make this testing reality, dunya, so much easier to bear.

‘Born Muslims’ inevitably try and warn those of us who take testimony of faith as adults, in a variety of ways about the disappointment to come:

“Not all Muslims are good, be careful”; “We don’t keep our promises, pray for us.”

And always my favorite: “Facial veil is no guarantee of piety!”

New Muslims can’t and don’t listen. It is as if our eyes only seek out the good in our brothers and sisters. We are blinded by love, filled with joyous hope.

Finding Islam Through the Kindness of People

This apparent ‘naiveté’ seems to jar many brothers and sisters. It is almost as if they can’t wait to burst the bubble of our new found admiration for this community. This family-in-faith, remain stunned, as I announce in lectures that: “I came to Islam through the incredible character and kindness of the people.”

Yet, it’s true.

In 2005, I first set foot in the Holy Land, Palestine. There, in homes, of which the wealthiest I was invited to would be considered the poorest in the West, I learnt about love. And patience. And generosity. And how to host guests. And how to bring up children, and, and, and… And how to be a good human being.

Time and again, I would make excuses to go back to Falastin, treading the fertile grounds of Jenin, Nablus, Bethlehem. All because my heart yearned to spend time with the most remarkable people I had ever met.

After one such visit to the Gaza Strip, I experienced the terrible humiliation visited upon Palestinians, even in old age, at the Israeli ‘Crossing’ known as Erez. Half a mile of concentration camp style watchtowers, barbed wire, concrete and turnstiles cruel for livestock – terrible for human beings.

An elderly Gazan grandmother, traveling to America for a spinal operation, was turned back time and again at the crossing, without explanation, until she missed her flight and her operation. It took the rest of us; UN workers, Fatah government ministers, business men, five hours to pass through the hellish process.

I had booked a Palestinian taxi driver, Jamal, to collect me at around 11:00 am. It was now past 5:00 pm, dark, winter. My mobile battery had long ago died.

Suddenly a car sped towards me in the empty parking lot. It was my taxi.

“I booked you for 1:00 pm” I said aghast.

“Yes” replied Jamal “I waited from then”.

“For five hours?” His response made me weep all the way to Jerusalem, Al Quds.

“A Muslim man would never leave a woman on her own in danger.”

Subhan Allah!

These inspiring moments have not been limited to a land under occupation, nor to those whom hardship and poverty has cleansed of arrogance.

From Palestine to the UK

Back in London, my path continued to cross gentle women, whose manners were unlike any I had encountered before, with a sweetness from another, purer, age and time. Women who despite working in highly regarded professions, as lecturers, doctors and teachers, greeted me, an unbelieving stranger, with greater love than many I had known all my life.

Then I took my shahadah and I waited for the change (that all my born Muslim friends warned me) was certain to happen.

One morning, in February this year I woke up to find that it had arrived. Suddenly, not everyone around me was shiny, amazing. Everywhere I looked Muslims were bragging, lying, gossiping, drinking alcohol, stealing, flirting and every other sin, major and minor.

What happened guys?

On reflection, two realizations occur within the revert that finally bring this grim moment to fruition. The first is that we, ourselves, start to fail more and more. In our ibadah, in our speech, in our deeds. From those glorious first days and months when we are immersed in learning Islam, where constant dhikr creates something like an invisible force-shield, around the believer who practices. It keeps us in check, protects us from harm.

Oh how we fill our waking hours with the Quran, reading books on Hadith and downloading inspirational lectures by people of knowledge, like Shaykh Hamza Yusuf. A person who accepts Islam wholly and completely, cannot be late for prayer. It is unthinkable. Clutching a sheet of paper or a donated book, the newbies nervously, cautiously, hearts swelling with love, work the way through Salat. They will painstakingly mouth each alien vowel, respecting every sacred syllable. How direct is the unwavering gaze downwards – which is an imitation of the blessed Prophet’s own concentrated eye line during prayer. How the grateful, saved heart cries towards Allah, The Merciful, who has cleared away all our previous sins.

“Ihdina assirat al mustaqeem”.

Do we seek shortcuts in our wudhu? No!

Do we watch TV shows which may show kissing or drinking alcohol? No!

Do we hang out with chatty (gossipy) friends – No!

This is the moment born Muslims may see us as ‘extreme’ in our practice.

This is the moment too when our khushoo’, sincerity in seeking Allah’s face, is at its highest peak. Love is everywhere, peace is possible, faith is all.

As I say, then we begin to falter. You know how it goes. First you drag your feet a little, to the prayer mat. A week later, barely noticed, all your prayers are last minute and rushed. Soon after that Fajr is done ‘before going to work’ not pre dawn. And here we all are together at last in our weakened, stumbling, frail, version of faith.

A second powerful blow is delivered as experience means we must realign our expectations of our community. What I mean is this.

You are Already a Kinder Person

Compared to the world outside the Ummah; great sections of our community are and always will be, inshaAllah, amazing. Whole villages are known in far flung places to be beacons of hope to the traveler and seeker of knowledge. Whilst in every city in every nation on every continent, humble servants of The One, quietly support friends, neighbors and strangers as best they can, even if it means personal hardship.

{They (the true believers) give food, out of love for Allah, to the poor, the orphan and the slave, saying: We feed you only for Allah’s pleasure – we desire from you neither reward nor thanks.} (76:8-9)

Coming from the cold, hard, materialistic, half drunken, non Muslim world, I can tell you that thanks to the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (peace upon him) you are already a kinder person than you otherwise would be. How quickly sisters jump to one another’s aid where children are concerned for example. I never had the kind of support I now have, outside the Ummah. How quickly we rally together to help a family if a member falls ill and times are hard. Did I see this so routinely outside? Not at all.

In February the differential, the gap between how good we all manage to be and what we should be, was simply made clear. The natural goodness of those around me has become something I now take for granted.

Yusuf Islam is famously credited as saying: “Thank God I learned about Islam before I met Muslims”.

I can understand that.

The question we must answer as disappointment in everyone else pecks at the grains of our faith. Have we already become one of ‘those’ Muslims – more likely to put others off this complete way of life, than be an example of its high principles?

About Lauren Booth
Lauren Booth is a TV and radio presenter dedicated to creating narrative spaces for Muslims in the arts and online. She presents talks and lectures on the media, faith and politics at institutions around the world. Buy tickets HERE to watch Lauren perform her solo play ‘Accidentally Muslim’ at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe every day August 2019