Treat Everyone like a Believer
In the Name of Allah, the Most Kind, the Kindest
بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
I recently spoke to an Islamic scholar who shared a refreshing perspective with me. One that put me at ease and gave me hope. I was sharing with him that I was an unconventional Muslim (for lack of a better word) in that I struggle to accept certain tenets of the faith. Doctrines about the damnation of non-believers are hard to assimilate. I find it rather presumptuous for anyone to assert what God thinks about someone else. I also spent a decade studying the sectarian divisions between Muslims in South Asia and came away from that experience disillusioned with competing sects who claim to represent the Saved Group while casting everyone else into the Fire. Ego often prevents us from accepting the truth, particularly when it comes from our rivals. But these divisions run deeper than sects. It even extends to how women dress, and I was also afraid of being judged for not wearing hijab.
For instance, I have a Saudi friend who likes to wear a white headcover with her abaya instead of black. For this simple preference, certain family members no longer speak to her. Many women in Saudi Arabia cannot pick the color of their cloth without experiencing public backlash. In most Muslim countries, the color of your cloth is not an issue. But if your hair is loose many Muslims will question your faith. Once a dignified Shaykha gave a discourse on Islamic mysticism only to be harassed online for her headdress. She had impeccable style but preferred to wear a looser hijab like most South Asian Muslim women. She appreciated the opinion of Islamic scholars like Amina Wadud, Fatima Mernissi, Asma Barlas, and others who advocate rereading the Sacred Text from a woman’s perspective. She let me know early on that people will question you for not wearing the hijab, especially if you are a public figure.
I sincerely admire my friends and sisters who wear hijab. It takes incredible courage to do so in a foreign land, where it makes you stand out and feel distinct in a way that is not always comfortable. I also sincerely admire my friends and sisters who do not wear hijab because it takes incredible courage to go against convention, and risk being confronted or judged solely based on your appearance.
When I asked my late Pir about wearing hijab, it was a post-911 America, and he said: “It’s a good thing. Some people will see it as a good thing. But others in that country in the current political climate will not, which will draw unwanted and possibly harmful attention to yourself. And the Sacred Law gives precedence to avoiding harm.”
I assumed he would encourage me to wear it and told my mother that I was going to before I got his answer. Boy, was he right! My sweet mother, who is sanguine by nature, was overwrought. In hindsight, I think it was triggering for her because it meant my departure from Christianity. I was moving away from something she deeply cherished, and it was unfamiliar—even potentially dangerous. (US media was obsessed with terrorism and the War on Terror back then.) My father took me on a walk to console me and compared the hijab to his National Rifle Association (NRA) hat, which he dearly loved. You see, mom disliked him wearing it in public because she saw it as a political symbol. Today she listens to me recite the Quran and appreciates Islamic videos like the one featured in this newsletter. We, in turn, watch Christian movies with her like Gifted Hands, The Inn of the 6th Happiness, Chariots of Fire, etc.
Shaykh Ismail gave me the following perspective on how to heal the divide, who is a believer, and the importance of having a good opinion of others (kindly note that I’m paraphrasing from memory):
The true scholar calls to Allah, not himself, and not to one side. There is good in everyone and some not-so-good things. No one has it all right, and no one is free from error, including me. Our religion is simple. Our belief is simple. It is only three letters Laam (ل), Alif (ا), and Ha (ه). Did you ever consider how the first part of the testimony of faith is made up of just three letters that are easy for anyone to say? The second part is testifying that Muhammad is His Messenger ﷺ and that is slightly harder to pronounce in Arabic. So Muhammad ﷺ is our way. Real scholars unite people. Everyone since the time of the Prophet ﷺ is part of his community. Everyone is a believer. Treat everyone like a believer because no one knows what is in another person’s heart. We cannot judge someone else. We do not know their state with Allah, they may look and act like non-believers and die believers, and we might pride ourselves on being believers and die in a state of disbelief, Allah forbid! So we cannot judge. I work with and respect everyone, Muslims and non-Muslims, and accept them as they are, where they are.
أشهد أن لا إله إلاَّ الله
وأشهد أن محمد رسول الله
Imagine treating everyone like a believer. Imagine seeing the best in someone who was found wanting by society (persona non grata) and elevating that person through your high opinion of them. Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan said: “In our relationships, we need to uphold that aspect of the person which is the real person and the soul beyond their own self-doubt.” What would our world and communities look like if we were all given cues of belonging and treated like someone beloved to God Most High?
The Prophet ﷺ said, “Seek an answer from your heart, even if people give you answer after answer.” Scholars have given me answer after answer, but none of them touched my heart like this one, which is why Sufis say, “What comes from the heart enters the heart.”
May we actualize our God-given potential, greet each other with peace, and uphold the actual person, the believer within, in the best and most beautiful way!
With love ,
PS. The Day of ‘Ashura, which falls on the 10th of Muharram, is soon approaching. It is highly meritorious to fast on this day. It is also the date of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn (رضي الله عنه), the martyr of Karbala and grandson of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ.
PPS. Shared with my mother’s blessings and approval.
I love the fact that you’ve written “imagine treating everyone like a believer,” because to be very honest, we are all believers. There could be disbelievers because we forget as humans. We’ve forgotten. We lose our memory of what we witnessed from the place we’ve come from, so it’s just that forgetfulness. That’s why in Surah al-‘Asr (103), Allah سُبْحَانَهُ وَتَعَالَى said: Man is in loss, we come here and get lost in this world, so everyone is a believer.
Fun Fact: I sometimes consult with a few of our subscribers before releasing the newsletter. Sakina shared her beautiful reflections with me on Monday, and I loved what she had to offer and the wisdom she imparted. She also spoke to me about the importance of dialogue and looking for the esprit de corps that unites us as children of God.