It’s happened to many of us. We come across a friend or relative—someone we would consider fairly religious—engaging in behavior that seems shocking or out of character. You meet them on the street one day and see them dressed in a way you never would have imagined, when they were once proud to be physically identifiable as a Muslim. They share pictures with you showing them in places they never should have been, or open signs of relationships that are far beyond the bounds of what is acceptable in our faith. Once regular at the mosque, they seem to have broken away from the community entirely and want no part in it. In your latest conversations, their opinions seemed so off point from their usual perspective, so distant from what Islam teaches, that it leaves you troubled and worried.
“What’s happened?” you may wonder. “They were so different just a short while ago.” “They were so religious,” you may think, or, “They come from such a good upbringing.” “They know a lot about Islam, and have such good friends and teachers… How could they have gone down this road?”
In our dealings with other people, the ‘shocking’ or ‘out of character’ behavior we notice may actually be the final step in a journey that had been going on for some time. For some, they may be signs of a connection with the Divine that has been neglected, a spirituality that has been starved, or a mind that has been overwhelmed with doubts and questions that has not found the illumination it so gravely needed. At one time in the past, such a person may have been deeply motivated, inspired and felt strong in their faith and moved to practice it; but without proper nourishment, such feelings diminished, while others—those harmful and negative—dug strong roots.
This struggle—of remaining on the path of religious practice, and being constant and steady on it—is one that is often overlooked, and that has its own unique challenges and obstacles.
When someone is new to Islam, or newly practicing, we often recognize that they are spiritually and psychologically vulnerable. At the start of this new journey, we acknowledge that they need support, inspiration and encouragement. However, once they have taken the initial few steps towards practicing Islam, we often begin to neglect these needs. There is an assumption that once someone is ‘on’ the path, that he or she has no need for support and spiritual nourishment as they once did before.
We see the same with those who are already practicing—those who come from religious families, who grew up praying at the mosque, spent some time studying and practicing Islam seriously, or who should, by other means, ostensibly ‘know better’. On an individual as well as a community level, their spiritual and intellectual vulnerability is often ignored.
One of the most beautiful and oft-repeated prayers of the Prophet ﷺ (peace and blessings of God be upon him) was,
يَا مُقلّب القٌلوب ثبِّتْ قُلُوبَنا عَلَى دِينِك
O Turner of hearts, make our hearts firm on Your faith.
Even after the initial acceptance and opening of one’s heart to Islam, one’s heart remains very vulnerable and susceptible to influence, suggestion and doubts, and to being moved and swayed in so many different directions. Hence the Prophet ﷺ would often pray for our hearts to remain firm, constant and steadfast on the religion of Islam.
In our recitation of Surat al-Fatiha, which we are asked to say repeatedly throughout the day in our prayers, we see a similar emphasis on steadfastness. We beseech Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He), every time we recite this blessed chapter from the Qur’an, to guide us to the straight path (Qur’an 1:6-7). Though we are already Muslim, this is a supplication to remain on the right path, and for Allah’s continual and constant guidance.
In a prophetic tradition narrated in Imam Nawawi’s Forty Hadith, the Prophet ﷺ advised one of his companions, “Say ‘I believe in Allah’ and then remain steadfast.” Many scholars have described this tradition as succinct, yet comprehensive, and have further stated that it is the second part that is truly the hardest part: remaining upright, steadfast and constant in one’s faith and good deeds (having istiqama) continuously throughout one’s life.
From these and many other texts and teachings of our faith, we see that the heart and mind of a believer is in constant need of illumination and inspiration, love and support, and edification and nourishment to remain on the path of goodness. We must acknowledge this need in our own selves as well as in those around us.
Suggestions for a Practical Application
□ Supplicate constantly that Allah (swt) make you firm and constant on faith and make the same prayer for others. Do not think that because you pray regularly or have committed yourself to Islam in other ways that you do not need “soul food”, that will keep your heart and mind in a state of spiritual health and away from weaknesses and temptations. An oft-repeated prayer of the Prophet ﷺ was to seek thabaat (steadiness) of heart, and to seek refuge in Allah from being tested in faith.
□ Maintain a daily diet of time in which you feel a connection with Allah (swt), even if for a short time. This can include any act that is faith increasing, such as worship, remembrance, or seeking knowledge. A beautiful book of supplications that has been translated into English is The Accepted Whispers, translated by Khalid Baig.
□ Be humble and lower yourself. If you see someone you consider religious slip into a sin, this is a heavy moment for introspection and self-accounting. Realize that others who have studied more, worshipped more intensely, or were more active than you have fallen into missteps and mistakes—and these things (knowledge and action) do not necessarily guarantee anything for you or your rank, nor make you immune from wrongdoing.
When You See Others Slip…
□ Realize that their action may have deep roots, and may be the manifestation of things that have taken time to develop in their mind and heart.
□ Deal with the person from a general position of love and concern, and not a position of judgment. Be a doctor, seeking to help them overcome their illness and become well again, and not a judge seeking to punish.
□ Avoid passive-aggressive da`wah (outreach). Address the person directly, in the right manner, setting, tone, etc., instead of ambiguous posts or public comments that can be misconstrued or cause resentment and hard feelings. If you are not the right person to speak to them about the issue, then find the person who is, and then keep quiet.
□ Compassion should be extended towards the person who is struggling, but should not be confused with condoning actions that are impermissible. Such matters need to be handled sensitively and with wisdom, but we should not turn the other way simply because we fear a person’s anger towards us.
□ Step far away from any gossip or discussion of such a person or their behavior, even if coated with ‘concern’. The more attention and focus is given to the behavior, the more damage it will cause. Real, concerted efforts to help a person change are not done in large groups with a gossipy tone.
□ Realize that it may take a long time to give up the sin (just as it took time to get there). Don’t be hasty and don’t expect change overnight. Be hopeful and patient, and pray for them sincerely.
In Our Communities…
□ As an activist and organizer, help cultivate a supportive, encouraging, and spiritually nourishing environment in your MSA and community for people at different levels, including those who have already taken steps towards religious practice. We should be working towards creating an environment in which people can grow and blossom into their full potential as people of faith, no matter where they are on this path.
□ Do not neglect the regular attendees. If your Mosque Open House is warm and welcoming, and your MSA Welcome Dinner is cheerful and comfortable, so too should it be for those who attend regularly. It should not be assumed that since such people have already shown a level of commitment to Islam, that they no longer need support, or to be inspired or encouraged. It is all too often this group of people whose needs are neglected and who then fall into mistakes.
□ Include heart-softening and soul-inspiring elements in your community’s activities. Temper your political and intellectual focus with focus on the heart and spiritual purification.
□ Take knowledge to the next level. Instead of repeating the same basic-level information year after year, find ways of providing a more substantial and well-rounded education for those desiring it, or facilitating a progression in knowledge and understanding.
□ Deal with intellectual issues: Shaytan often plies off a small doubt that is fed by misinformation or lack of understanding.
□ Remember that if one’s faith is not increasing, it is decreasing. Major events and conferences are good, but do not forget the importance of having something consistently and regularly, to help keep everyone steadily growing and developing in their connection with Allah (swt).
May Allah bless us with steadfastness and constancy on faith, and make us people who keep moving forward in this path towards Him. Ameen.