“Culture shock” is how I always describe the sudden onslaught of cultural varieties, religious peculiarities and political ambiguities that I encountered when I first came to North America at the age of 18. It was a rush of overwhelming information that threw my curious mind into a whirlwind of conflicting ideologies. Derailed and confused, I spent the first few years of my life here bumbling around trying to regain my footing, trying to figure out an answer to a deceptively simple question. Who am I?
I moved to North America after finishing high school to get an education, but at the time I hadn’t the slightest clue that I would get a lot more than just a degree. I moved from a zone of religious, cultural and intellectual comfort that I had created for myself, to a whole new world of uncharted territories. I was like a ship tossed around by the mountainous waves of an oceanic melting pot. My frame of reference had fallen from around me and I lost my bearings. In an effort to make peace with all this newly acquired knowledge I set out on a pursuit to identify my identity. I wanted a “label” because if I was labeled as something then I would know how to be, how to look, speak and think.
The first thing I identified with was my Arab ethnicity. Speaking Arabic is all I needed to call someone my friend. But it was not long before I got frustrated with this label. I had an image of what an “Arab” is and I felt betrayed when I saw the inconsistency of ethical behavior and lackluster morality that were just as variable as the background and the story of my Arabic speaking friends. I soon shed that label and adopted the next. I was working on my Bachelors in Biology, and in the company of like-minded individuals, so “scientist” seemed like it would be a natural fit. When I got fed up with the lack of spirituality engrained within that label I became a “romantic” then an “island”, and then I jumped around between a few more “other” labels in a fruitless effort to answer the aforementioned question.
During these years of self-discovery there was a constant nagging, albeit muffled, voice in my head. A voice that said,
“O you who have believed, fear Allah as He should be feared and do not die except as Muslims [in submission to Him].” (Qur’an, 3:102)
Muslim! Now that’s a label I forgot I once had. I started turning down the white noise around me and focused more on that voice. I found myself doing something I hadn’t done for a long while. I found myself praying at a mosque on a day other than Friday. I stood shoulder to shoulder with people from all walks of life, with different cultural baggage and backgrounds, who welcomed me with peace and called me their brother. I found peace of mind in the mosque and I gained a softened heart in verses I had read many times before, but never understood. I found… my anchor. I found the place that regardless of wherever it may be and however I may be, it will always be my home by simply opening its doors and saying, “Salaam.” No “other” label is necessary for the only label that matters is Muslim.
The mosque plays a critical role in our lives as Muslims. It is the place where bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood are strengthened, where faith is solidified and maintained and where believing hearts and minds flourish. It is also the place where lost souls seek guidance, where battered souls seek shelter and where learned minds seek wisdom. The mosque is the lighthouse that guides those lost souls in a dark sea of sin. It is the place where all other labels are shed and the only one that matters is Muslim. So it is essential for those who take care of the mosques to have its doors open and to fill it with compassion. For if someone walks through its doors they have beaten their demons and have overcome, if ever so briefly, the thoughts that stand between them and repentance.
It also behooves those who seek guidance at a mosque to realize that it is not a magical place where, upon entrance through its doors, your sins will be removed, your heart will be filled with faith, and you will become transformed. Your experience is as good as the effort you put into it. Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) says in Surat At-Tawbah, verse 18:
“The mosques of Allah are only to be maintained by those who believe in Allah and the Last Day and establish prayer and give zakah and do not fear except Allah , for it is expected that those will be of the [rightly] guided.” (Qur’an, 9:18)
The operative word in that verse is “maintained,” and it is maintained by those who strive to be better Muslims. So look beyond the artificial cultural, socioeconomic or other differences, and persevere in your pursuit. Keep the company of those who frequent and maintain their relationship with the mosque, and your journey will become much easier.
Everyone who walks through the doors of a mosque, no matter what path they took to get there, is seeking one thing: Closeness to Allah (swt). Let us keep our mosque doors, hearts and minds open; you never know whose soul might be saved.