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A Foreigner at Home: Living as a Western Muslim in the Muslim World

The first time I visited a Muslim country was in 2004 when I went as a foreign exchange student to Cairo, Egypt.

In the few short months of my stay, I fell in love with the people and the culture of this amazing country. Following my university studies, I moved to Egypt and lived there permanently for over seven years, studying traditional Islamic sciences and even getting an MA in Islamic Studies.

When it came time to prepare for a PhD I moved to Lucknow, India, spending the first of what would be more than 5 years on-and-off with the Muslims of Northern India.

Even though my studies have taken me elsewhere in the world in the last few years, I always find a way to make it back to the Muslim world, studying when and where I can and absorbing as much as possible.

Although I tend to paint a rosy picture of the Muslim world, there are also plenty experiences I wish I could have avoided. Here are some of my most favorite (and most despised) things about living as a Western Muslim in a majority-Muslim country.

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The Advantages…

Let’s start with the good parts. Traveling is a dynamic experience that fundamentally changes you as a person, no matter where you go. There are great people to meet, delicious food to eat, and beautiful sites to see in a majority-Muslim country that comes with added benefits.

You can easily find pious and moral people, the food is (almost always) halal, and the sites (in particular the architecture) are some of the best in the world. However, as a lifelong nerd there are two things that always stick out: the history and the knowledge.

Living Next to History

When you live in a majority-Muslim society you are not experiencing history from texts, you are living it. You are drawn into the historical events and developments that constitute the core of your heritage.

In Egypt, for example, there are the final resting places of family members and Companions of the Prophet Muhammad, a citadel built by Saladin himself, and institutions such as Al Azhar just a short bus ride away that have been the cornerstones of Islamic knowledge and created countless scholars across fields.

Interested in the work of Imam Shafi’i? He is buried next to his teacher, Imam Layth ibn Sa’d, in the south side of Cairo. Hadith? Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani lived just a quick walk away.

Centers of Knowledge

Muslim countries are also valuable centers of knowledge. In the US, I always had to search for a good teacher or spend a large amount of money to get a new book. In India, you can just hop on a train and in a few hours find yourself at the heart of Islamic learning at Deoband or Nadwa in Lucknow.

Bookstores and libraries, with centuries of knowledge are within easy reach, and developing your own collection is affordable. Also, when you live in a Muslim-majority society, Islam is always at the front and center of public discourse.

Issues of Islamic law (my own study interests) are front line discussions that wider society actually cares about and debates; and scholars of all types are accessible and sometimes major public figures in their own right.

… And the Disadvantages

But let’s also be honest. Muslim-majority countries, for a variety of reasons, are not always the most luxurious places to live. Many Muslims still live in poverty and are subject to corruption, mismanagement, and general disorganization.

In some countries, even completing basic daily tasks like using public transportation or finding a good restaurant can be a chore.

Playing the “Muslim Quiz”

As a white convert, I am always seen as someone who entered Islam yesterday. I am treated as the “almost” Muslim.

This is always the case with me when I get into a conversation with a stranger. As soon as I mention that I converted to Islam, I am given a quiz to see if I am “truly” a Muslim.

“How many rakah’s are there in ‘Asr?”

“Recite some Quran for me.”

“If you have two homes, how much zakat should you pay?”

At the same time, I become what I can only term as the “pet Muslim,” getting far more attention not afforded to others.

This can be embarrassing, especially when you see that others who are far more deserving are ignored. Teachers will go the extra mile to give me a place at the front of the group, even though I am definitely not the best or most deserving student.

Dealing with Imperfections

Muslims are also humans, meaning that they are subject to the same negative influences that we all face and have to overcome. We all can be rude, corrupt, and sometimes downright terrible human beings.

I can’t count how many times I have dealt with a person who rips me off as they hold prayer beads, recite Quran, and quote Hadiths about being honest in business dealings. If you are not careful in these situations and see the bigger picture, such encounters can seriously scar your image of Islam as a whole.

Ultimately, living in the Muslim world is a fantastic opportunity. After all of these years, I can comfortably say that some parts (Egypt and India) are a second home to me.

Like everything in life it is a balancing act, taking the good with the bad. However, as I put aside the struggles and learned to see majority-Muslim societies as diverse and complex places, the knowledge, experience, and perspective that I gained living in the Muslim world has shaped me for the better.

Thanks to the people and places that I have had the good fortune to deal with I am a more thankful and God-conscious Muslim.

(From Discovering Islam archive)

About Brian Wright
Brian Wright is an Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies at Zayed University, Abu Dhabi. He holds a PhD from the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University. His dissertation was on Islamic criminal law in Egypt, India, and Ottoman Turkey during the 19th century. He has studied fiqh with a number of traditional scholars in Egypt and India.