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Being Muslim and ______: Bridging Between Cultures

“If you had been Muslim for just a few more years, you would be late too!”

Said my Urdu professor as we waited for the rest of our language group to arrive at his home. A group of about five graduate students had been meeting with him almost daily for the previous two months, and I being the only convert in the group.

Like clockwork, I would always find myself knocking on my professor’s door first with the rest of the group – all born Muslims – arriving between 10 to a whole 30 minutes after they were scheduled to arrive.

Although it is stereotypical to see people from Muslim societies as consistently late to events, it reflects the awkward position that we as converts occupy within our own communities. When we enter Islam there are many things about us that change. We give up alcohol, start attending the mosque more, and work to better ourselves according to the Quran and Sunnah.

For every item about ourselves that we change, however, there are numerous other parts of our lives that remain the same. These can be beneficial additions to both our own practices as Muslims and others around us. For example, being from a culture that values being on time and enforcing that as a Muslim puts you always in the first line in the mosque and ensures that you are performing your prayers on time.

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With the Good… Comes the Bad

In other situations, however, we can also bring some of the less attractive aspects of our home culture into our religious practices.

As an American, as I came to know more about Islam my faith began to clash with my own spirit of independence. We Americans enjoy our freedoms and independence and are not interested in paying heed to others who might know better.

For example, I left the mosque community in which I initially converted because I felt that the imam couldn’t speak to my needs as a growing Muslim. Instead of listening to that imam’s experience, knowledge, and wisdom, I chose to rebel against what I thought was his overbearing authority and fight back.

I turned to teaching myself about Islam, ignoring the advice of others who tried to show me a better way. And I was convinced that I could figure this religion out on my own. I was wrong, and it took me years to learn that I would never grow without the assistance of others.

Turning a Difficult Reality into a Point of Strength

As I became more comfortable and rekindled the relationships that I had lost, I learned that as converts we act as bridges between multiple cultures. We were all born into families that held (and usually continue to hold) different moral, ethical, and religious standpoints than those expressed by Islam.

Within Islam, however, we discover that these standpoints that our “born” culture considers normal are taboo. For example, as an American dating is considered a widespread cultural norm and – unfortunately – so are pre-marital relationships. It is normal to see students as young as their early-teens entering complex relationships that many in the Muslim world don’t see until their late twenties or even thirties.

As converts we are wedged somewhere in the middle; balancing between what we see as the reality that our society and culture promotes and the moral problem that our religion challenges us to resolve.

Read: Dear Converts, Don’t Give Up Your Culture

Instead of seeing the middle position of a convert as a burden and trying to balance between the extremes of one culture and another, however, I have personally learned to take advantage of this role and open communication between different groups of Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

We have all seen how cultural divisions can split mosques and whole communities apart. Using the experience of a convert, bring your services to the table as a mediator.

Be the person that can see both sides of the equation when others can’t always do the same. Use that same experience outside of the mosque in your neighborhood or in your broader community. Show non-Muslims that we come in all shapes, sizes, and colors.

Most people are afraid of Muslims because they haven’t ever met one, or don’t realize that they have, and if you can show your family, friends, and others that Islam is an integral part of your life that doesn’t contradict with your own culture, you can teach others to grow in tolerance and acceptance.

Becoming an Example of the Middle Path of Islam

During my twenties I had the unique opportunity to explore and study within two of the Muslim world’s centers of culture: Egypt and India. Both are incredible centers of knowledge; Egypt with its halls of al-Azhar and India with its schools of Deoband, Nadwa, Aligarh, and so many others that I have had the honor and privilege to visit.

Within both Indian and Egyptian cultures there are many beautiful aspects. Egyptians are some of the most welcoming and friendly people in the world. Within less than thirty seconds of introducing myself to someone, we are breaking out in laughter and slapping each other on the shoulder as if we are old friends.

Indians, on the other hand, have much tougher external shells than their Egyptian brothers and sisters. However, break through that shell and you will never find a more compassionate and caring people who are willing to sacrifice their own well-being to make you feel happy and welcome.

Both cultures also have their negative qualities. As a convert who can move freely between these two cultures and my home culture in America, I try to act as an example to others as to what the true values of Islam are.

Cultures differ, and cuisines are spicier in some places and blander in others, but the middle path (wasatiyya) of Islam remains the same. In your own life, use your multiple cultural hats to show off those commonalities while still acknowledging and embracing the differences.

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.