“It’s a desert.”
That’s how I always referred to the weather back home when explaining to my American friends about the climate I grew up in. I thought that summed it up, and gave an accurate description of how sunny and intolerably hot it was most days of the year. One day while hanging out with friends from class, the discussion about climates started up again and I said my famous line of “Well, living in a desert climate….” A few moments later, a girl from the group looked at me and asked “So, did you live in a tent?” I was taken aback by how serious she was when she asked the question and I said “Well yeah! And you know what?! I had a hard time getting a parking permit for my camel when I moved here!”
I was so offended by her ignorance. I mean, come on. Seriously?! We were in our second year of pharmacy school. She was a professional student with a supposedly higher level of knowledge! I remember thinking to myself “You are going to be a healthcare professional talking to all kinds of people, so how and why did you just ask such a ridiculous question?” I was infuriated. For years I told that story repeatedly as a prime example of how stupid Americans with their self purported cultural advancements, don’t even know the basics of how an Arab lives.
A few years later I married a Muslim-American woman. And you can imagine the clashes that ensued. The first October of our marriage had come to a close and November started, along with talks about Thanksgiving preparations.
“I am not having this haram nonsense in my house!” I yelled, veins popping from my neck.
“But it is a right of passage for every American girl! When you’re married and have a home you make the Thanksgiving dinner with all the fixings, using the family recipe…” she yelled back.
“We fight enough as it is to maintain our Islam living here and I will not bring Christian tradition into my house!” was my rebuttal.
Now freeze frame for a second… What do you think was the first thought that crossed her mind? Stupid Arab with his self purported cultural superiority doesn’t even know the basics of our (American) lives?
Allah says in the Qur’an, Surat ar-Rum:
“And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colors. Indeed in that are signs for those of knowledge.” (30:22)
Why do you think Allah makes this statement in the Qur’an? Obviously Allah did not create us عَبَثًا (in play or without any purpose) and everything He created serves a purpose. So if we reflect on ourselves, as humans, we would see that we are all pretty much the same. We all have the same anatomy and physiology, have the same genetic make up and we all have the same basic needs of food, shelter, security and love. Yet with all these similarities we are vastly different in shapes, sizes, colors and in philosophies, beliefs and outlooks on life. And even though we all come from the same male and female we have different languages, cultures, societies and ways of life. Such differences are ayat (signs) to marvel at and to appreciate the Creator for.
There is a reason why Allah says in Surat al-Hujurat:
“O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes” (49:13)
What is that reason?
“…so that you may know one another.”
What purpose does acquiring knowledge of “one another” serve? It could have saved me from the argument I had with my wife, and a few more in between. But on a much bigger scale, I think it behooves us as Muslims to accept the fact that people choose to live their lives in a variety of ways and we should break out of our own bubbles and learn about those cultures, especially the ones which we choose to live in. Our guiding principle as we venture into such uncharted territories though, should be what Allah says in completing the above ayah:
“Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.”
People differ and cultures vary but as we acquire knowledge of one another, as we become better equipped to deal with our differences constructively and build on each others advancements and achievements, we must always keep in mind that strong Iman and Taqwa (awareness of Allah) are our saving grace and they know no boundaries. Many a time we’ve seen some people cling on to the way of life they had in their home country and try to impose it on their new surroundings. Other times we’ve seen those who reject their previous way of life completely and accept the new culture with the good and the bad. The end result to either scenario is detrimental and more often than not the product is confused children, who do not know who or what to identify with. Allah gives us the solution in Surat Luqman:
“And whoever submits his face to Allah while he is a doer of good – then he has grasped the most trustworthy handhold. And to Allah will be the outcome of [all] matters.” (31:22)
Tafsir al-Jalalyn explains the above ayah:
“And whoever surrenders his purpose to God, that is [whoever] takes to obeying Him and is virtuous, a believer in [His] Oneness, has certainly grasped the firmest handle, the stronger end, which is not in danger of being severed, and to God belongs the sequel of all matters – their [ultimate] return.”
So if we move to another place with only our culture in a box, looking to either assimilate or isolate ourselves, we will end up lost. But if we come into a culture as Muslims firmly holding on to our Iman (belief) and are prepared to accept the good and leave the bad of others, then we will truly be realizing the meaning of “knowing one another” for the sake of Allah.