“Why do your women have to cover but your men don’t?”
“How do you know which direction to pray?”
“Why can’t Muslim women marry Non-Muslim men?”
“What exactly is an Islamic dress?”
“Why don’t you believe in the Trinity?”
These were amongst the barrage of questions that my friends and I had received while we presented to several classes at a Catholic high school in Washington D.C. The school was offering a “World Religions” module, and they had invited Al-Huda School to send over some students to present about Islam and their experiences as American Muslims. Two friends and I, all alumni of Al-Huda, were selected to speak and so, on a chilly Thursday morning, we went to the Catholic high school and spent the day speaking to over 100 students in five consecutive classes.
I found the trip to be very memorable as it was filled with several insights and enjoyable experiences. It gave a chance to me to reflect more on our need for strong communities as the ideal Da’wah platform, realize the need for Da’wah mastery, and an appreciation of the blessings that we occasionally take for granted. What follows is a chronological order of events categorized in terms of thoughts and musings observed throughout the day:
Community: The Ideal Da’wah Platform
“This ain’t no high school. It’s a community center,” the janitor laughingly told us.
A sinking feeling of dread quickly washed over us as we realized that the surrounding athletic fields and swimming pools were indeed not part of a high school, but were actually instead filled with adults and elderly people. I made a mental note to myself: ‘Next time the bus driver grunts in response to a question (especially if it involves confirming a destination!), make sure to ask him to elaborate’.
We were supposed to have arrived at the high school at 8:00am. It was now 7:51am, with no passing bus in sight.
Frustrated, we stood there in the blistering cold wishing for a bus to quickly appear. The bus station timetables showed that there was no bus due to arrive any time soon, but we continued to silently pray that a miracle in the form of an over-packed white-and-blue public transportation vehicle operated by a cantankerous driver would whisk us away to our destination. In hindsight, this wait turned out to be a blessing as I got some time to take a closer look at the surrounding area.
I was in the company of a good friend who coincidentally happened to avidly enjoy history, so as we waited for our bus to arrive, he pointed to nearby famous landmarks and explained their historical significance. From a distance, I saw the Catholic University of America and the Basilica of the National Shrine (the largest Roman Catholic Church in the United States) nearby. I saw the surrounding streets and noticed that they had Catholic street names such as “Pope John Paul II Drive”. I saw advertisements on billboards and signs espousing Catholic values.
In short, I saw the markings of a community that had been settled in by like-minded individuals that had built institutions on the foundations of their religion and had made their mark over the course of history.
How beautiful it would be, I mused, to see a Muslim community such as this growing together and building Muslim Masaajid, clinics and hospitals, schools and universities, law and engineering firms, houses and apartments, groceries and supermarkets, and more. How beautiful it would be to see Muslim families, with their children and strollers in tow, ambling down the streets and greeting each other with the Salaam and a cheerful smile. Here was living proof in front of me that others had successfully done it to a certain extent, and that we as Muslims should do the same, and even better, if we wish to be unified, establish a Muslim-driven economy, and exhibit a a a living and breathing Islamic community. The Catholics have founded several reputable charitable, commercial, and educational services, all of which had, and still continue to, make an impact upon the American landscape. I was determined that we could do the same and even more.
“Hey, there goes a bus!” my friend exclaimed as he pointed to a bus at a nearby station. We quickly scrambled over and found out that this was a private chartered bus headed in only one destination…the Catholic high school, Alhamdulillah! We got on the bus with a sigh of relief and looked out at the quiet Catholic neighborhood as we rolled by and ascended up to the high school, perched high upon a hill.
The Need for Da’wah Mastery
After we arrived (just a little after class started due to the morning mishap), we introduced ourselves and then began answering questions about Islam and our experiences. We had prepared to answer questions about Allah, our view on Jesus and the other Prophets, as well as on other matters of theology, but it turned out that just like our own Muslims, most of the students were more interested in the Fiqhi (jurisprudential) aspect of our religion. They began asking about our prayer: how we knew it was time to pray, which direction we faced, and other technical nuances. We answered these questions as fully as possible, but felt rather uneasy because all of these questions were just the tip of the iceberg when it came to Islam; there were deeper and more underlying issues that we wanted to address with the students.
As the bell rang and the students filed out to proceed to their next class, my friends and I hurriedly conferred over our strategy for the upcoming classes. We noticed that there were certain frequently asked questions amongst the students, so we quickly drafted proper answers to these questions. When the next class came in, we were ready.
“What do you think about the Nation of Islam?”, a question came from the audience.
“We do not consider them to be within the fold of mainstream Islam because many of their beliefs contradict the first pillar of our faith, the Shahadah,” my friend explained. Then, instead of going over all the of the intricate differences between Islam and the Nation of Islam, he went on to explain more about the Shahadah and our fundamental beliefs about Allah and His Messenger. Mission Successful.
We worked out a routine as the day went by. We recited portions of the Qur’an to them along with the English meaning, demonstrated the Salah, and helped them to write their names in Arabic. We spoke to them about serious matters such as our position on extremists and life after 9/11, and also shared some lighthearted moments when we discussed misconceptions about Muslims (“Go back to where you came from? My family’s from DC!”). We delved into the similarities between Christianity and Islam, and also stated the distinguishing qualities of our religion. All in all, we packed the one-period sessions with as much as we could about Islam and its many elements, and the students responded in kind with more inquiring and interesting questions.
All of this made me realize that we must make it a top priority to learn how to properly give Da’wah. This is not only true for the men, but for the Muslim women as well; there were several questions we received about the Hijab and had it not been for a Muslim sister who works as a teacher there to stop by and answer some of the questions, I doubt the students would have been as impressed and accepting had it been a few [clearly non-Hijabi] dudes trying to explain the wisdom of the Muslim Hijab. We need to make sure that we are well-versed in the fundamentals of our religion, know how to answer challenging and probing questions about Islam, and learn how to steer conversations to concentrate more on Tawheed, the Oneness of Allah (glorified and exalted be He).
The Beauty of Islam
A curious coincidence occurred which none of us had foreseen. One of the students asked if anybody amongst us had memorized some of the Qur’an, and I replied that Alhamdulillah, my friend (pointing to my former classmate standing to my right) and I had memorized the entire Qur’an while attending the Hifzh School at Al-Huda. I turned to the third alumni to my left, and motioned for him to answer as well since I wasn’t sure how much he knew.
He turned back to the class, smiled, and also answered, “I am a Hafidh as well”.
I was stunned. The friend was an African-American brother, and since it is so rare to find African-American Huffadh in our communities, I was very amazed to hear this and was even more wonderstruck as he related his experiences at a Canadian boarding school and how he learned the Arabic letters, learned how to put them into words, and then memorized the entire Qur’an all within the span of less than a year (the average is usually three to four years). The students listening were almost all African-American (interestingly, a far cry from the Irish/Italian original attendees of the school), and they too found it fascinating to see him reciting in fluent Arabic. Guidance truly only comes from Allah, and He guides and helps only those whom He wills.
I found it equally amazing to see this divine coincidence that SubhanAllah, Allah (glorified and exalted be He) would will for three Huffadh to come address these classes of high school students (and yes, we definitely had to reassure them that this was not typical and that no, it is not an obligation upon every Muslim to memorize the entire Qur’an). It was a great juxtaposition for me, to see a class filled with Non-Muslim students on one side, and to see Muslim Huffadh on the other. There were so many hues and gradations between these two groups that it was a reminder that all of these groups, including outliers and those in-between, be it non-Muslims, non-practicing Muslims, or even practicing Muslims, have potential to become even better, and that our Da’wah must be designed to help as many as possible to grow closer to Allah. All of this is in addition as advancing ourselves as well.
It was also a reminder to be thankful of the many blessings that we have, not least of which was the blessing of Al-Islam. Throughout the day, we saw Christian students reciting their prayers before beginning the class, touching the Bible before entering and leaving the class, and kneeling in the chapel between classes. We heard a school teacher and deacon discuss the Catholic ‘traditions’ – customs derived outside of the Bible and developed by those allegedly possessed by the Holy Spirit, the different required acts of worship for the different hierarchical types of priests, and how certain men of religious ranking were required to take acts of celibacy. It was all very interesting,especially those actions which bore some semblance to our own practices, but needless to say, it made us even more appreciative of our pure, flawless, and complete religion.
As the bell rang for one of the last classes, we smiled at the students who were slowly trudging out of the class and prayed that Allah would allow our presentation to make a difference in their lives. One of the student stopped by and demurely asked:
“How do you convert to Islam?”
We happily told him and watched him as he mulled it over and then thanked us and slowly walked out of the classroom.
May Allah (glorified and exalted be He) guide him, all of the students, and all of our fellow beings in humanity. May Allah help us build strong Islamic communities, help us learn how to give Da’wah properly, and allow us to die upon nothing except Islam. Ameen…