This advice is first and foremost for myself, before anyone else.
Islam is beautiful, and it is us Muslims that sometimes give it an ugly face.
It happens too often that a non-Muslim curious about Islam, or a less practicing Muslim, is pushed away by the behavior of the Muslim community. This Islam is interesting, but these people are something else! On paper, this religion is stellar—in the real world, some bring so much drama to it that it’s a wonder people are entering Islam. Many converts tell us, with a wry smile, that they are grateful to Allah they got to know Islam before they got to know Muslims.
We hear stories about incredibly contradictory people—a man frequently in the first row at the masjid for every salah is abusive to his wife at home. A brother dropping fat checks every year at the masjid fundraiser actually makes his money from a chain of liquor stores. Some Muslims avoid MSA because they feel people there are judgmental, which can be true to some extent. One imam reports a young man came to him asking for advice—he had gotten a girl pregnant. The imam asked him, why didn’t he use birth control? The young man said he refused to, because he knew it was makrooh (disliked) in the religion. SubhanAllah, how do we think like this?
Another phenomenon we see is the opposite. Muslims who are far away from the deen it seems, but who display good character. People who refuse to cheat and steal, who are honest in their words, but have never seen the inside of a masjid. These people are among those who are disgusted by the actions of the aforementioned religious people. A familiar scene at many a desi dinner party is a bunch of uncles shaking their heads at the latest proof of corruption among “those mullahs.” While this disillusionment with religious authorities in the Muslim world is also a problem, there is merit in the criticism.
In truth, both of these types of Muslims embody an aspect of Islam. The Prophet ﷺ giving us advice on marriage proposals, said:
“If someone comes to you whose religion and character pleases you, then marry him.” [Tirmidhi]
“Religion” here means those things that come to mind when we think of religious deeds—from praying and fasting to volunteering at the local masjid or MSA to wearing a beard or hijab. But the Prophet ﷺ recognized such people didn’t necessarily have good character, but that character was something to look for on its own. Islam develops both good character and good “religion” in Allah’s servants.
But from the behavior of many, may Allah forgive us, you’d think Islam was just the outward appearance. This confused mindset isn’t new, but was a problem for the Ahl al-Kitab (People of the Book) in the time of the Prophet ﷺ. They were too concerned with ritual and the letter of the Law, while failing to implement the spirit of the Law.
At the start of his Prophethood, Muhammad ﷺ was a continuation of the Prophets that came before to the Bani Isra’eel. The qiblah the Muslims faced in salah was the qiblah of Bani Isra’eel, Jerusalem. The Prophet ﷺ was from the Arabs, who loved the House Ibrahim عليه السلام built. In Makkah, the Prophet ﷺ was able to face both the Ka’aba and Jerusalem by standing in the south side of the Haram, and facing north. But after the Hijrah, this was no longer possible, and the Prophet ﷺ faced Jerusalem alone, with his back to the Ka’aba, something which saddened him.
And then came Independence Day. Not the Will Smith movie.
The followers of Muhammad ﷺ were declared a new and independent Ummah of their own. The favor and responsibility of Prophethood and Da’wah was given hereby to the sons of Isma’eel, the Arabs, and their qiblah at Makkah made the qiblah commanded by Allah for all Muslims. And there was uproar in Madinah. Some of the Bani Isra’eel teased the Muslims, saying, “You’ve been facing the wrong qiblah for all this time! All your prayers were wasted!”
But Allah does not allow the good of the Believers to be wasted. He reassured the Muslims, saying:
“Righteousness is not that you turn your faces toward the east or the west, but [true] righteousness is [in] one who believes in Allah , the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the prophets and gives wealth, in spite of love for it, to relatives, orphans, the needy, the traveler, those who ask [for help], and for freeing slaves; [and who] establishes prayer and gives zakah; [those who] fulfill their promise when they promise; and [those who] are patient in poverty and hardship and during battle. Those are the ones who have been true, and it is those who are the righteous.” (Surah al-Baqara, Ayah 177)
It didn’t matter which Qiblah the Muslims faced, because either way, they did it to obey Allah. Sincerity gives value to religious actions.
The scholars of tafseer call this ayah, Ayat al-Birr, the Ayah of Piety. Allah gives us His definition of what good Muslims ought to be, correcting those that get hung up on the small technical details when defining a good Muslim. It’s interesting that here, helping the poor and the needy is mentioned before salah or zakah. The rights of people are here mentioned before even the rights of Allah.
Islam can be defined, in a way, as giving everyone and everything their due rights. Allah established rights between everything, and gave us guidance on what these rights are. The religious rituals of this religion are important, because it is Allah’s right to be worshipped. But the rights of people are important, too. Our parents have rights on us. Our wives and husbands have rights on us. Our brothers and sisters in Islam have rights on us, as do our brothers and sisters in humanity. The poor and the needy of society have rights we fail to give them all too much. Fulfilling these rights is good character in a person.
A Muslim out of balance is someone who neglects some rights someone has over him, even though he’s doing well to fulfill other rights. We have to get over the superficial understanding of good and bad to improve ourselves. It doesn’t matter if a person has the face and religious devotion of Musa, if his actions and character are that of Fir’awn.