Smiles were passed over sips of tea and light conversation was offered over the crunching of crackers. I was at an event aimed at clarifying misconceptions about Islam. Twenty people were gathered in a circle and glances flickered in my direction. I pushed some stray hairs back into my hijab and took a breath.
'Hi everyone. I'm Salma.'
I swallowed. I had walked into the room feeling comfortable. I had done this before, but I never quite knew what to expect.
Looking around the room now, a twinge of hesitation tickled at my throat. Most of the people around me were white. All of them were older than I was. A young woman with long blond hair smiled at me. An older woman stared daggers into my soul as she pursed her lips over her cup.
All of them had their questions poised.
The conversation opened up and slowly the layers of awkwardness began to shed. I began to feel the passion inside me push aside nervousness. After many years of interfaith events and curious questions, I've developed a basic checklist I go through when introducing Islam to anyone. A list of points that reveal the true nature of the faith.
The checklist goes something like this:
Who is Allah?
This is the most essential point. Everything we do as Muslims is an expression of love and devotion to Allah. Allah is the Arabic word for God. We believe He is many things - He is the powerful, the loving, the just. But the trait we know Him the most from is the way He introduces Himself before nearly every surah, or chapter, in the Quran - that is as the most merciful and as the most compassionate.
Allah's love for us is strong. It's hard for us to understand just how strong but the closest thing we can compare it to, is that of a mother's love. In fact, the word for merciful that Allah uses to describe Himself is rahman. And that word stems from the word rahm, which means womb. An all-encompassing love for one's own creation.
The Concept of Fitrah
- We believe that every person is born with the fitrah. This means that you and me and everyone in the world is born pure, with an innate goodness and disposition to love and be close to God.
- This idea is something that really distinguishes Islam from other religions. For example, Christianity stipulates that every person is born with a corrupted nature and therefore needs Jesus to save them. Muslims believe a person is born completely good with a natural inclination towards compassion and humanity and the path Islam presents is a way to maintain and strengthen these instincts.
This is probably the most common question I've got. To give this question justice, I've dedicated a full post to answer this question. In it, I talk about the ideas of empowerment, modesty and love behind the hijab.
Who is the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)?
A less common question but one still central to the faith. In fact, the declaration of faith that anyone who wants to become Muslim says is 'I believe there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is His messenger.' It seems fitting that the core belief of believing in Allah is incorporated into this declaration but why the inclusion of a poor orphan from Arabia?
The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was a man known for his all encompassing honesty and trustworthiness, born in c. 570 in Mecca, Arabia. He has no divine status but is believed to be the last prophet from a line of messengers sent to guide the people of their time. This man underwent torture and alienation to bring the ethics and beliefs of Islam to a society rife with inequality, and was the recipient of the revelation that was the Quran.
The first part of the declaration of faith outlines the core belief (there is no God but Allah) and the second part points to the action (Muhammad is His messenger). We believe the Prophet led a true Islamic lifestyle, in action and character, and so Muslims strive to emulate his ways. We believe it is not enough to just say we love God. To express this love, we act in a manner that pleases God - and the prophet showed us how.
I observed the faces of the people around me as I explained each of these points. I saw the raising of eyebrows, slight nods and the cocking of heads. After this introduction, there was a liveliness in the group and long suppressed questions started to emerge. Controversial questions are inevitable in a world where the lines between culture, politics and religion are blurred, and I accepted them gladly.
It is not always comfortable, or fun, or easy to engage in such dialogue. Some say it should not be necessary for Muslims to always have to explain themselves. But every time I do, I emerge refreshed. Sometimes with questions for my own faith, sometimes with a renewed appreciation for my beliefs. And every time, with the deepest sense of purpose.