The following is an excerpt from the book No One Taught Me the Human Side of Islam, the story of “The Muslim Hippie” living with bipolar disorder, who shared her story with Umm Zakiyyah:
The day I sat on that panel in 1996 and shared how I converted to Islam was the beginning of the end for me. But I didn’t know it at the time. Today, if anyone were to ask me about the trend of masjids and Islamic organizations putting new Muslims on public panels to share their shahaadah stories, I would advise against it. In my view, it causes more harm than good.
While the Islamic community benefits greatly from having converts share personal stories of how they came to Islam, there is very little benefit to the speakers themselves when they are new Muslims. There is no substance to these events, and there is no support. In fact, there really is nothing about them that addresses the individual needs of a person who has just made a tremendous life change and needs meaningful Muslim companionship and very specific spiritual guidance.
Though it is undoubtedly unintentional on the Islamic community’s part, the role of the new Muslim at these “share your shahaadah story” events is more akin to that of a promotional model for a company or brand than anything inherently spiritual or beneficial to the new Muslim herself. The Islamic community wants to “market” Islam to a wider non-Muslim audience, so the new convert effectively becomes the celebrity face of the “Muslim brand.”
I’m not suggesting that this marketing of Islam is a bad thing or that having a convert fulfill this role is wrong. This positive portrayal of Islam certainly has its place, especially given the anti-Islam climate of today. I’m only saying that this role is better fulfilled by someone who has been Muslim for many years than by someone who is just learning about their Lord and purpose in life. When a person is new to Islam and is asked to fulfill the very public role of being a Muslim representative at Islamic events, there are at least three major risks that cannot be overstated: He or she ceases to exist for any other purpose; he or she develops a false sense of self as a Muslim; and he or she is cultivating spiritually destructive diseases like riyaa (showing off) and kibr (pride)—without having either the knowledge of their existence or harms, or the means to combat them. Herein lies the formula for disaster. This is what I personally experienced, and I continue to suffer from the experience today.
Muslims who have had the opportunity to study Islam for many years would be well aware of the warnings in the Qur’an and prophetic narrations against assigning piety to oneself, desiring excessive praise, and exposing oneself to the harms of being publicly admired and idolized. But I was not. More seriously, I hadn’t even learned about my spiritual heart in any significant way. Therefore, I had no idea there should be any cause for concern or that there existed any du’aa,or Qur’an that I should be reciting to protect myself.
After all, it was knowledgeable, experienced Muslims asking me to sit on these panels, so I had absolutely no way of knowing that even the slightest caution should be observed in participating. Moreover, I had no idea that my participation in these public events, as well as accepting the various public roles thereafter, meant that the Muslims wouldn’t believe I was a struggling human being like everyone else.
As a young American who had grown up admiring my grandfather’s fiery sermons in church and positive role models like Oprah Winfrey on television, I viewed positive attention, public admiration, and the “rock star culture” as something praiseworthy, particularly when you were doing good things in the spotlight. Just as I had no idea about the warnings against riyaa and kibr or what excessive praise does to a person’s heart, I had no idea what this very public role could do to the minds and hearts of the Muslims in the community. I had no idea all the things they would assume about me and what they would expect of me thereafter.
At the time, I was simply basking in all the attention. I was like a celebrity doing a multicity tour, and I loved it. Over the years, I was invited to speak on so many panels to share my shahaadah story or to talk about Islam that I lost count. Unfortunately, my role as an effective “Muslim rock star” built up my reputation as the “saintly Sakinah” who would ultimately fall from grace once my mental illness surfaced in ways I couldn’t hide or control.
My first public speaking engagement on a Muslim panel was only a few months after I’d accepted Islam. During that time, I should have been fostering genuine Muslim companionship with women in the community. I should have been learning details about the spiritual purification of the heart and soul. I should have been learning the fundamentals of Tawheed(Oneness of Allah). I should have been studying the Qur’an, not only how to read it but also how to understand it and live it. These basic lessons would have helped me get to know myself and my Lord during this delicate time. But these crucial opportunities were disrupted because I was too busy fulfilling the community role as “the model Muslim.”
I don’t mean to say that I knew nothing about the foundations of my faith or that I wasn’t studying Islam when I wasn’t on these panels. I’m a studious person by nature, so I attended classes whenever and wherever I could. I even taught myself Qur’an by listening to tapes and CDs. I had already taught myself how to pray. So when I speak of the disruption in my spiritual learning process while I was a new Muslim, I am speaking of a disruption that was less quantitative than qualitative. And when such a serious disruption happens at the beginning of the spiritual learning process, it is extremely hard to recover from. I’m still struggling to recover from it today.
READ MORE: No One Taught Me the Human Side of Islam
Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of twenty books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, and His Other Wife. Join UZ University to learn how you too can find your writing voice and share inspirational stories with the world: UZuniversity.com
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