I coordinate an “Islam 101” class at my masjid. Most of our students are Muslims who recently converted. Although we teach them aqeedah and basic aspects of Qurʾān and sunnah, we also guide them, whether intentionally or not, in viewing the world through Muslim eyes. Since I'm less a teacher and more an organizer and friendly guide, I especially contribute to this practical aspect of life as a Muslim. It can be a precarious job, as I learned recently.
One of our students is a young man in his early twenties who embraced Islam last August. Since then, he hasn't had a great deal of religious education except for the Islam 101 class. He still hasn't told his family he's Muslim, and he is still taking baby steps toward integrating Islam into his daily life. Although some converts throw themselves wholeheartedly into practicing the deen immediately after converting, some of us take a slower path, making our lives more Islamic a little bit at a time. This was true in my case. It took me a couple years before I started wearing hijab full-time, and it's only been recently that I've felt comfortable excusing myself from meetings or other activities to go pray. This student is in that same phase, and he relies at least in part on those of us in “teaching” positions – whether formal or not – for cues as to how Muslims behave. A couple weeks ago it came home to me how careful we must be in these interactions.
Irshad Manji had recently come to Houston to speak and I mentioned it to this student. I don't even remember the context. He had never heard of her and asked who she was. I explained with some disdain that she was a member of a group that identifies itself as “progressive Muslims” and went on a little bit about how proponents of “progressive” Islam stray from or reject outright the tenets of Islam.
A week later he mentioned to me that he had seen Manji interviewed on a local cable talk show. He spoke with such a scowl, such an expression of utter distaste, that I was taken aback. He's a pretty mellow guy; it was unsettling to see him so contemptuous.
And I thought to myself, what have I done? Here was an impressionable new Muslim still making his way through the fundamentals of his faith and I had taught him to scorn. Should I have withheld my criticism of Manji? Obviously not, but perhaps I should have withheld my tone of disgust. Am I there to teach hatred and derision?
Many Muslims engage in furious criticism of people with whom they disagree or whom they see as the foes of Islam – progressive Muslims, Jews, the far right, the media – and if you stop to think about it maybe our contempt is wrong. I once heard an imām from the pulpit call Jews “the filthiest people on earth.” Is such loathing productive? Or does it cut us off from solutions and activism?
I need to remember that every word I say is as much a lesson for a new Muslim as the Islam 101 curriculum, and I should choose my words with great caution. Converts carry great potential to be the vanguard of Islam in America. If we teach them to hate and scorn those with whom we disagree we will never thrive, either as Muslims or as Americans.