“It sounds to me like all we need to do is just… be normal?”
“That’s exactly it! It’s all about being normal.”
This was the exchange between a shaykh (religious scholar) and an attendee at a course in London last year. He and a fellow teacher had just spoken about how our community needs to become better at listening to, understanding and accepting others, and just how far a little compassion can go – a hug from a stranger was instrumental in the shaykh’s own journey to Islam. My fellow attendee had listened to these eloquent speeches and summed them up in two simple words: ‘Be normal.’
In fact, I have heard this lesson given several times, each in its own way. Imam Suhaib Webb covered it a couple of years ago in a lecture entitled ‘Be Human’. One of my own teachers in London gave a class on nasiha (advice) last year, telling us how it was part of the sunnah (tradition) of the Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) to know and understand people and their situations. This is why there are so many ahadith (prophetic narrations) on how to be ‘the best’ – “The best of you is slow to get angry and quick to cool down,”1 “The best of you are those who are best to their families,”2 “The best of you are those who feed others”3 … The list goes on. The Prophet ﷺ knew to whom he was speaking in each instance and what they needed to hear, and he gave advice accordingly. He once forbade a young man from kissing his wife while fasting, but gave permission to an old man to do the same, as he was less likely to become carried away4 – he understood that different circumstances call for different measures.
These seem like really obvious points: that Islam, like the world, is not black and white; that apart from a few key, unanimously agreed-upon tenets of faith and practice, there are shades of grey in most areas; that the best way to relate to people and help them is to know them, listen to them, understand and care for them. Yet the same lessons keep being repeated for a reason – that people continue to act like the brother Imam Suhaib describes in his lecture, telling a newly-converted sister, about whom he knew absolutely nothing, that “her dress is cursed by Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He).”
But why are some Muslims like this? Shaykh Hamza Yusuf once observed that many young extremist Muslims are trained in the sciences, in which questions have clearly definable right or wrong answers, rather than the arts or humanities, where ambiguities, differing points of view and multiple interpretations are deeply explored. In my experience, it is not just about academic studies, but cultural experience too. Despite living in the UK, some Muslims I know have grown up cocooned within their own micro-culture; they socialised only with others of the same ethnic and cultural background both inside and outside school, and were exposed only to the Islamic practices and teachings common in their parents’ homelands. They are some of the loveliest and most sincere people I know masha’Allah (as Allah has willed), but they are often shocked and uncertain about the way my family (mixed-race, with one convert parent) does things. Even though we are all living within the boundaries of Islam and what is halal (permissible), they find it difficult to accept practices outside of their own madhhab (school of jurisprudence), culture, or family’s way of doing things.
Hearing lectures, attending classes and studying the seerah (biography) of the Prophet ﷺ are all great ways to understand the necessity of ‘being human’ from an Islamic perspective – but these qualities of being open-minded, accepting and understanding should also be developed naturally, as part of our personalities and characters:
- Study arts and humanities: If you want to study History, Literature or Sociology, go for it. These subjects teach us to see the same events, behaviours or writings from various perspectives, exploring the multiple ways they can be interpreted and the impact they have on different people. Parents: please don’t push your children into Medicine or Engineering if it is not their forte; we need more Muslims in the arts!
- Make friends with a variety of people: Don’t stick to those from your own background – don’t even just stick to Muslims. The more we get to know different people, the more we realise just how beautifully diverse yet equally valuable Allah (swt) has made the world, accepting differences without shock or distrust: “And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colours.” (Qur’an, 30:22)
- If you can’t do 1 or 2, read fiction: Some people are natural scientists, which is just as well, or we would not have any doctors or engineers! Equally, we are not all fortunate enough to live in culturally diverse areas where we can make friends of various backgrounds – but one thing we can all do is go to the local library and pick up a novel. As a child, I read books for hours on end, getting lost in countless fictional worlds. I saw inside the hearts of characters unlike anyone I knew in real life, learning to put myself in their shoes and view situations and experiences through different eyes. I travelled in my mind to far-away countries in which I have still never set foot, and grew to know and love these fictional people and places. I understood, accepted and appreciated them in all their diversity, cultivating a much broader worldview than my upbringing in suburban London alone could have given me.
Relating to others on a human level is crucial: in that class on advice, my teacher told us of a scholar who once refused to give him and a group of students nasiha even when they asked him to. He protested that because he did not know them and their situation or needs, he could not be sure to give advice that would cause more good than harm. I pray that we are all able to ‘be normal’, understand and accept one another, and live up to Allah’s (swt) vision for mankind: “O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another,” (some translations add “not that you may despise one another”) (Qur’an, 49:13).