Part I | Part II
Through discussion and community work, I have come to realize that I am not alone in these realizations. So many Muslims, especially females, have long felt underrepresented at these mainstream Islamic gatherings. If one attends these events solely for an ‘iman-boost’ (faith-boost) or to add to already healthy spiritual states, that’s great – but what about those sisters struggling to gain footing in the job market and sitting quietly in the audience while listening to the speaker’s biased views on females in the workplace? What about the silencing of brothers in the audience suffering from depression or low self-esteem by constantly being compared to the manliness of the Sahabah (companions of the Prophet ﷺ, peace be upon him) they are encouraged to emulate? Some might question whether or not it is the responsibility of these events to delve deeper and strive to form connections with the audience through recognizing their struggles – many of which are dependent on race, gender, and context. However, considering that Islamic events serve (somewhat) to the fill the gap between the mosque and the home, and for many Muslims are their only means to direct Islamic learning, I would answer that question with a resounding yes.
I now know that I was certainly not the only one who often left these gatherings feeling worse than before I entered. For me, I left feeling as though I was never Muslim enough, feminine enough, good enough – I simply was not enough. Reading the work of shame-expert Brené Brown has led me to the sad conclusion that the spiritual bypass so many of us experience as a result of attending these events may be in part due to the fact that our Islamic teachings are often delivered in a package of shame. This has less to do with the teachings themselves – which are glorious and uplifting – and more to do with the scare-tactics employed by those doing the teaching.
Perhaps we feel miserable and inadequate at these events because we are shamed for the burdens we carry.
Shame on you for having done drugs and alcohol.
Shame on you for having a boyfriend or toying with the idea.
Shame on you for having a poor relationship with your parents.
Shame on you for occasionally missing your prayers.
Shame on you for ever considering removing your hijab (headscarf).
Shame on you for being sexually assaulted.
These things may not be said overtly, but they are certainly implied. Even when we are reminded to find solace in God’s forgiveness and mercy, this usually is preceded by dollops of shame, shame, and more shame. How do you recognize this shame? Sit with your feelings, and question whether or not what you have heard has actually had a deep impact on your life – or has left you feeling terrible about yourself. Remember, the true teachings of Islam liberate the human mind and soul. If you have found yourself experiencing the opposite, which is undoubtedly some form of oppression, it is high time to question whether it is actually Islam you are learning – or the subjective views of another individual or group. If what you have learned had any true impact on you, know that your behaviour would have changed. You would have become the better person you wished to be. You would have gone from being inspired to becoming a source of inspiration.
For many – I would argue most of us in fact – this just is not happening.
Instead, like a drug fiend looking for a high, we attend event after event searching for that iman-rush. Once the high of the hit has faded, we go back to our terrible habits and troubling states of mind – subconsciously seeking the next event or gathering to fill our spiritual voids.
I am not blaming the events, the event organizers or the speakers. Nor am I blaming you and me. I just think it is high time for all of us to start asking questions like: Do I truly have the intention to change after attending X event or seminar? From whom and from where am I learning my Islam? What perspective or worldview is informing this speaker’s understanding of Islam – and is it truly Islamic? Am I using this Islamic event to genuinely grow, or just to make myself feel better without any practical intention of changing? Is the knowledge I am learning spiritually fulfilling, or is it time that I seek something greater?
These are all very personal questions and the answers will be even more subjective. However, if we are looking to overcome the spiritual impasse we have found ourselves in, it is critical that we begin to take a closer look at ourselves and our surroundings. To answer the above questions will take intentional self-awareness, honesty, courage, increased emotional intelligence, and a striving towards critical thinking. It will also require striving to learn Islam on one’s own; to engage in a healthy amount of self-study to equip oneself with the truth, rather than solely relying on external resources to fulfill one’s personal responsibility for seeking knowledge.
With some soul-searching and healthy questioning, you may find that in actuality, Islamic events have been taking the place of what you truly really need: a personal teacher, a therapist, a friend, a loving family member, a community, acceptance, an Islamic identity – the list goes on.
I believe that one’s Islamic self-concept should extend outside of Islamically conducive environments such as events, lectures, halaqahs, retreats or the mosque, into other realms of one’s life. Only then can we truly examine the practical impact that our learning is having on our lives. Anyone can be a great Muslim when surrounded by other great Muslims at various events and gatherings, but the truth is in who you are when you are with your family, at work, at school and, especially, when you are alone.
As well as calling my brothers and sisters in faith to self-examine, I also call for a reform in our delivery of and approach to Islamic events.
- Know your audience – for example, if you have found a spike in the number of deaths due to drugs in your community, organise less conferences on marital relations and more on drug abuse.
- Focus less on surface issues such as how to segregate the genders, and more on the spiritual condition of your community members.
- Intentionally choose speakers who understand your community’s needs and are equipped with not only sound Islamic knowledge, but an inherent – and practical – wisdom and spirituality.
- Quality > Quantity. Seek to draw spirituality, and not just high attendance numbers.
- Invite speakers from diverse backgrounds, different ethnicities, careers and both genders. Focus too on capitalizing on the talents of intellectuals who already exist in your community as opposed to consistently bringing in speakers from outside.
- Have an understanding of the community in which you are presenting, and seek to relate personally to the audience.
- Gain self-awareness and recognize when your personal bias is leaking into your Islamic teachings. Learn to separate and critically examine the two.
- Encourage questioning and healthy debate in your circles.
- Refrain from shaming and, instead, be compassionate.
- Identify spiritual and religious weaknesses without putting people down – you never know who is listening and what they may be going through.
For the individual:
- Be aware of what you are learning and from whom.
- Always question in order to learn, not to debate.
- Be intentional in engaging with any Islamic event. Ask yourself, “What do I hope to gain from this?”
- Engage in constant and personal self-learning from reliable Islamic resources and individuals.
- Recognize that the solutions to your issues may not be found at an Islamic event and that instead, you may need to consider other resources.
- Pay attention to how you feel at any given Islamic event. If there is a mismatch between how you truly feel and how you should feel, explore that. Your body, mind and spirit are telling you something.
- Attempt to practically apply any lessons that you learn, and explore where any difficulties in doing so may come from.
I pray that this piece encourages us all to increase in self-awareness, personal spirituality, and intentional engagement in the community through Islamic events and gatherings. The solutions above are mere suggestions; only you can identify the blockages that have led to a personal or communal spiritual bypass, and only you can strive to remove them.
And Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted it He) knows best.