I will never forget hearing those words. They were uttered by an Imam during a Friday khutbah (sermon). Of course, like other statements, it defies a single interpretation. Below is my understanding of what the Imam meant.
It is important to know that the Imam is a revert (the argument has been made that we are all born Muslims and internal and external factors such as our upbringing, the household and society we are immersed and raised in and the choices we make determine if we remain on the path of Islam or if we deviate. Based on this premise, the term ‘revert’ is used instead of ‘convert’ for those who decide to return to the path of Islam). You can imagine the Imam when he wasn’t a Muslim going to the mosque and seeking for knowledge about Islam from other Muslims. What I imagine is that he experienced what many other reverts and Muslims who are new to the area and mosque do: arrogance. That’s correct, although Islam makes it unambiguously clear that if you have a trace of arrogance in your heart you will not be admitted into jennah (paradise) however this disease seems to be widespread in our communities. So, what is arrogance? In Islam Muslims believe that God created Adam (RA) out of clay and he commanded the angels and the Jinn (a sentient being that has also been endowed with free will and therefore will also be judged on the Day of Reckoning) to prostrate. The angels and the Jinn obeyed God’s command save for Iblis who was recalcitrant and stiff-necked. Iblis, who is a Jinn and NOT an angel (in Islam there is no such thing as ‘fallen angels’ for they can never disobey God’s commands) stated that, ‘you made me out of smokeless fire and Adam out of clay. I am BETTER than him’. Iblis incurred the wrath of God and was subsequently banished from jennah.
As Muslims we must learn from this example of how disdainful arrogance is and we should do our utmost to guard ourselves from it. We must engage in introspection and be brutally honest with ourselves and identify any arrogance that we may be harbouring and do our utmost to expunge it. How do we combat arrogance? In Islam, we are encouraged and indeed rewarded to greet one another with the term salam (peace be upon you). It is a duty to respond to this salutation with wa salam (and may peace be upon you). The first person to make the offering of peace is the humbler one and his dwelling place in the hereafter will be closer to the throne of Allah (the ultimate honour in Islam is to be in proximity to Allah SWT and devout Muslims all yearn and strive for this).
Being the first person to say salam takes humility and courage because although it is obligatory to reciprocate the Islamic greeting, regrettably many Muslims don’t. You therefore take the risk of essentially being a ignored which, let’s be honest, is not the most pleasant of feelings and can even be quite embarrassing and humiliating depending on your own coping mechanisms and context. And this is what we do, we Muslims in my experience do not make newcomers to Islam feel welcome and valued. I can relate an anecdote from personal experience. I remember when I was praying in a mosque in New Zealand. I had just arrived from the UK and I didn’t know anyone. There were many people in the mosque who were from the same cultural background and with hindsight I realized that they must have prayed together for years and thus they, consciously or not, created an in-group. Because I was a newcomer and because I was not from the same background as the in-group I was an outsider. Upon completing my prayer, the Muslim man to my right asked me if I spoke Arabic and I can’t deny that I was grateful for the attention. I thought (naively) that this was an overture and that the Muslim man wanted to welcome me to the community. So, I responded with a smile and affirmed that I can converse in the Arabic language. Almost immediately after the affirmation the Muslim man admonished me and criticised my posture stating that how I pray is flawed. I was caught unaware and responded by saying that I have an ankle injury which prevents me from adopting the proper posture. The Muslim man retorted but identifying yet another perceived error in how I pray and then concluded the conversation. I thought this was astonishing. Here was an opportunity to welcome a newcomer to Islam and yet this individual instead decided to criticise me the moment we first met. I wasn’t expecting that he would be like this (although I should have known better and I should have had a riposte available). This is but one of many, many examples of how unwelcoming Muslims can be which is the complete anti-thesis of Islam which encourages its adherents to embrace newcomers and to treat them with courtesy, respect and dignity.
Attitudes such as these will continue to prevail in Muslim communities unless we do something about it. I have attended Friday sermons that have addressed this issue, but I don’t think enough is being done about it. From a very early age Muslim children must be taught the sunnah (the blessed prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) example) and how he treated other people, newcomers to Islam, his neighbours, guests and even people in the marketplace (it is narrated that there wasn’t a single person that the person would make eye contact with in the bazaar that he wouldn’t smile to. A small and simple kindness such as this would make such a tremendous impact).
Why is all of this so important? Many Muslim youth may sadly live in hostile households which are devoid of love and they may not feel valued. They may subsequently turn to society for inclusion and validation yet since Islamophobia is rising inexorably, and they may only receive exclusion and derision. They therefore attend their local mosques and hope to be embraced by their Muslim brothers. If we do not have the awareness that many of our Muslim youth are in pain and that they need to feel that they belong to a community than this is a disastrous failure on our part. These Muslim youth may wander aimlessly to seek comfort in nightclubs, brothels and casinos and may try to escape the real world by consuming alcohol and drugs and by rolling the dice.
I say this as much to myself as I do to others: be kind to one another people, smile and greet one another. As I enumerated above, a small kindness can have such a tremendous impact.