I got in my car, plugged the address in my GPS and embarked on a one and a half hour trek. I wasn’t paying attention to the drive, because I was organizing my thoughts on what I was going to say and preparing myself for potential questions. A pastor from a small town in Maine had invited me to come speak to a group of youth about Islam. I live in the heart of Maine, in a city where Muslims make up 0.54% of the population, less than two hundred people. Jews make up 2.5%, and the rest of the population is some type of Christian.
A few minutes later, I was driving on a small highway getting farther away from the major city and deeper into rural America. The houses became fewer as the smell of cow manure grew stronger. As the miles slipped past, the thought crossed my mind – what did I sign up for? I am going into a little town (population 4340, of which 97.55% is white) that has probably never seen the likes of me before. I imagined an angry mob of people blaming me for family members and friends dying in wars fought to prevent the “terrorists” from ruining the freedom of Americans. Automatically, defense mode switched on. Another forty-five minutes went by, and I had arrived.
As I walked through the side door of the church, and went up the stairs into the room where the meeting was being held, I repeated the du`a’ of Musa:
O my Lord! Open for me my chest, and ease my task for me, and make loose the knot from my tongue that they understand my speech.
The pastor greeted me and the kids started trickling in. All of a sudden, the lady that helped organize the interfaith event looked at the both of us and said, “Oh no, I forgot. Let’s go outside.” All three of us stepped outside the room and she explained that at every meeting they throw a random question out there and ask the kids to answer with whatever comes to mind. She hadn’t prepared a question this time and asked us to help her come up with one. I said, “How about, when you hear the word Muslim, what do you think?” They loved it and we went back in. The kids were instructed to go around introducing themselves and answer the question, “When you hear the word Muslim, what do you think?”
I braced myself as I sat in front of the firing squad. The first kid began, “My name is Zach and when I hear the word Muslim I think…desert!” The other answers followed:
…and so on. The words I was waiting for – terrorist, war, jihad – did not come up. I introduced myself and started to talk about the five pillars of Islam, explaining one concept after another. Their eyes widened as they hung on my every word.
They asked questions about faith, God, Heaven and Hell. They asked – inquisitively not judgmentally – about why Muslim women dress the way they do. A whole two hours of discussion followed, revolving around faith and what it means to me. As a parting thought, I told them “When you hear something on the news and it doesn’t make sense, chances are…it doesn’t make sense.” I urged them to continue this thirst for knowledge and to seek the truth. As I left the room, one of the girls came up to me asking permission to communicate with me via email. She is heading to college to study religion with a focus on Hinduism, but after listening to me she may want to shift her focus to Islam.
On my drive back, I thought subhanAllah (praise be to God), we blame people for getting caught up in the media hype and the “media’s war on Islam” and yet – sometimes we ourselves get so sucked into it that we get stuck in defense mode. We assume that no one is interested in listening to us speak about our faith. We get caught up in what goes on in the media, thinking that Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are the official voice of America. We corner ourselves constantly looking for justifications for the action of a few and forget that a simple conversation with others can go so far.
The next day, I had to give a lecture about Islam and Muslims on the campus of a neighboring University. I started my talk with, “Today I am here to talk to you about what Islam is – not what it is not.”
Be proud of who you are and don’t let others hijack your religion from you.
If you have an interesting da`wah episode to share, please email feedback[at]suhaibwebb[dot]com.