By Douglas Kelly
As a relatively recent revert to Islam, I still consider myself in the infancy of my deen (religion), and therefore look at the world with a very idealistic eye. An eye which, like an infant, may not know much, but knows hot from cold, wet from dry, loud from quiet and clean from dirty. Unlike many who have been Muslim their entire lives, I still have a childlike fascination with this new way of life. That is why, like a naïve child, I still find it strange whenever I see Muslims differ with each other over some of the most basic things. When I first took shahadah (testimony of faith) and read every book I could find on Islam, I actually thought that every Muslim in the world was on the exact same page. Alas, we are all only human.
As of this writing, I can only recite 15 surahs (chapters) of the Qur’an in Arabic and have only read the English Translation of the Meaning of the Holy Qur’an in its entirety two of the five times I have fasted for Ramadan. Although I’ve read hundreds of ahadith (reported sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, peace be upon him) and dozens of scholarly texts and articles on both Islam and Islamic Finance, I admittedly still have a lot to learn. I recently transferred to Hunter College in New York to major in Arabic and Islamic Studies.
With the original intention of visiting and applying to a University in the south, I spent approximately 2 months there at the beginning of 2011. My first time in there, I thoroughly enjoyed the incredible hospitality, the warm weather (even in January, when there were blizzards in NY), the great food (in enormous portions) and the dramatically cheaper prices of nearly everything (except college tuition).
My Muslim host took me to a mini-mall where all the stores had Islamic themes. I was pleasantly surprised to see stores with names like “Bismillah (In the name of God)” and “Halal Wok” in a city I had assumed, in my ignorance, was largely Islamophobic. Attending two different masajid (mosques), I saw a wonderful diversity of Muslims and learned that the oil industry had brought generations of Middle-Eastern families to this area. While grocery shopping in various parts of town, I saw at least as many Muslims as I would see in New York on a typical day. There’s no telling how many more there were who may have been Muslim but just weren’t wearing obvious Muslim attire.
Unfortunately, like most big cities, the drug culture was pervasive and the laws unashamedly permissive. In almost every convenience store, there was not only drug paraphernalia for sale, but nearly every “smokable herb” besides marijuana was sold openly, in bright colored packaging that could be mistaken for candy wrappers. Evidently, there was little or no regulation of drugs like salvia, which was sold over the counter by the pound. I even met an otherwise pious Muslim who insisted that marijuana was completely halal (permissible, or at least not haram, impermissible), since it was a naturally occurring plant with medicinal qualities and was legally prescribed in other states.
“Everyone smokes weed here,” I was told. My argument that Muslims must follow the laws of the land in which they live mostly fell on deaf ears.
The Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) said: “Allah has sent down the disease and the cure, and for every disease there is a cure. So take medicine but do not use anything unlawful as medicine.” (Abu Dawud).
I had the distinct honor of meeting the Muslim owner of a large high-tech all-digital music studio, with a large room outfitted for television and video production. The equipment was so new and the lighting and décor so professional that the absence of network logos was the only way to tell it wasn’t the home of some major talk show or cable news operation.
After just briefly mentioning the book I’m writing, the owner was kind enough to offer me a screen test, where I read a portion of my manuscript on camera. The owner was so impressed with my presentation that I was offered an opportunity to join a fledgling Islamic internet channel they were producing, in the capacity of news anchor. There was only one “catch,” which was actually just a very reasonable request on the part of the owner. If I was to appear on camera, I would be asked to shave my beard and cut my locks, which, while neatly kept, are almost the full length of my back. The owner reasoned that for one thing, I would look at least 10 years younger without my graying beard. Additionally, the absence of the locks would eliminate any question of the professionalism of anchoring the news.
I actually considered the owner’s generous (though initially unpaid) offer, had I not decided to return to school in NYC. Any publicity is good publicity for an unknown first-time author. My only question was, “Why would any man, on the air on a Muslim-themed internet channel, be asked to shave his beard?” While I never questioned the owner’s own absence of a beard (and resulting youthful look for his age), I always thought it was sunnah (a tradition of the Prophet ﷺ)for a Muslim man to wear a beard. If I never had one to begin with, that would be one thing, but this was the first time I had ever heard a Muslim recommend I completely eliminate my beard for the sake of television.
The owner’s age, wisdom and obvious success made him a mentor-like figure with whom I was privileged to be able to speak for as long as I did. One of his words of advice was the importance of conforming to the “norms” of the dominant culture, as if to say, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” His attitude seemed to reflect the realities of the times: In this conservative state, in an already severely depressed job market, the African-American Muslim man with down-the-back locks and a full beard, no matter how professional, is setting himself up for failure by his own appearance. While he was absolutely right, my intention all along was to work for a Muslim organization where at least my beard would be the “norm” and I wouldn’t have to worry about conforming to any corporate culture.
I also met an Imam who made a compelling case for student loans. I told him my personal horror story of being forced to borrow thousands to pay for undergrad when I was told I “made too much” at my $5-an-hour job to receive government grants. This was at a time when student loans were privatized and their interest rates were “market driven.” I told him how I had dropped out of school, was unable to get a job lucrative enough to pay off my loans, and was unable to get forbearance because I did have a job.
The well-known, well-liked Imam leaned back in his seat and politely reminded me of my Economics 101 lessons on the time value of money. Extolling the virtues of student loans in terms of their relatively low cost, the Imam cited inflation as a mitigating factor in the otherwise negative effects of interest.
He said, “If your interest rate is 5%, and inflation is 5%, are you really paying back the same amount as a zero-interest loan where the payment is based on how much money you make? Do you really want your lender all in your business long after you’ve finished school? If you’re very successful, do you really want them to own you like that? I don’t.”
The combination of my respect for his wisdom and the logic of his argument kept me silent at that moment, nodding my head in tacit, if grudging, agreement. Although my doubts were based on scholarly texts on the prohibition of interest, as well as my own reading of Qur’an and hadith, it is entirely possible that the Imam may have had a point. It wasn’t until hours later—too late to be relevant to the conversation—that I thought of the “perfect” comeback: one which was not about “right” or “wrong” but about intention.
“I can totally understand you not wanting a lender you don’t know to share in your success. But what if, instead of the government or some bank, it was your community who loaned you the money you needed? What if, as part of the contract, the amount you paid back to them was based on the salary of the job you got with your degree? What if your loan was forgiven (or at least postponed) for as long as you were unable to find a job?
“I know there’s no such thing as an Islamic student loan. But I always thought it was the idea of shared profit and loss that was the intention behind the sunnah on lending. Since all Islamic lending would be interest-free, the payback amount (if any) would be based on the success or failure of the borrower in his or her endeavors. This way, they’re not ruined if they fail, and the Islamic community lender is not denied their fair share if the borrower succeeds.”
At least that’s what I would have said.
The Imam’s argument makes perfect sense if your lender is a nameless, faceless stranger at some bank or government agency that cares nothing about your future beyond what it can do to you if you can’t pay. But what if it’s your brother or sister who lends you the money to pay for school or start a business? Wouldn’t you want them to share in your success, perhaps even doubling or tripling their investment in you? Wouldn’t you want them to forgive you if you failed and couldn’t repay them?
The community of Believers has to have money to lend if it is to be the source from which Muslims borrow interest-free. It must own and control resources if it is to create jobs for Muslims. It must encourage Muslims to create, support and patronize Muslim-owned businesses. And it must educate its children in Islamic schools that teach not just Qur’an and sunnah, but all the systems of knowledge a society needs for self-sufficiency. When Believers have to go outside the community for their needs, it becomes that much easier for them to “think outside the Book,” or lean to their own understanding of Qur’an and sunnah. An understanding that conveniently deviates from that of the scholars when it suits them—or necessity forces them.
My brief stay exposed me to a number of controversial views on what is halal and what is haram, whether a man should shave his beard or not and under what conditions usury is “ok.” The disparity of these opinions have only made me more steadfast in my mission to “unite the Ummah (Muslim community)” with Allah’s help. While most of the believers I spoke with are far more knowledgeable than I am and have been living the deen far longer than I have, I couldn’t help but notice that their interpretation of Qur’an and sunnah had a lot to do with their circumstances. Circumstances that are symptomatic of the time and place in which they live: 21st century South.
If “everyone” is smoking medical marijuana, if no one is hiring men with beards or women with headscarves, and if students can only pay their skyrocketing tuition with student loans at “low” rates of interest, then it’s no wonder they question the soundness of sunnah that stifles their stability. If they’re taking illegal drugs to alleviate horrible pain and discomfort, or advising someone to shave their beard so they can get a job, or paying interest on student loans in order to pay for their education, then may Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala (glorified is He) accept the best of their intentions. I also understand that Allah (swt) is merciful, does not want to make our religion difficult for us, and gives us an excuse under certain extreme conditions.
“[...] But whoever is forced [by necessity], neither desiring [it] nor transgressing [its limit], then indeed, your Lord is Forgiving and Merciful.” (Qur’an 6:145)
But if everyone practicing Islam in America could fund their education without interest, could find a job that embraced a man’s beard and a woman’s hijab, could get all their medicine from Muslim doctors and halal pharmacies, and could turn to their community for all their basic needs, then it might not matter what state they lived in. They might not need to revise the relative reading of their religion to reflect the realities of where they reside.
What will it take for Muslims in America to not only enjoin one another to belief, good deeds, truth and patience, but also enjoin one another to real community life? “Real” meaning that our community is not only who we go to for congregational prayer, Eid celebrations, weddings and burial preparations, but our community also becomes our school, our bank, our restaurant, our grocery store, our clothing store, our doctor, our lawyer, our employer, our insurer, our advisor, our social network, our customer base, our marketplace, and anything else we need in this world’s life but almost always go outside the community to get.
What will it take for all of us to come together willingly—before the day when Allah (swt) gathers us all together whether we are willing or unwilling? The more time goes by, the more we are at a loss.
I seek refuge with Allah (swt) from anything that would suggest that my humble opinions in any way discredit or undermine the teachings of even the most neophyte Imams. I accept that Allah (swt) has made anyone with an atom’s weight more knowledge, eman (faith) or taqwa (God consciousness) than I have to excel over me. My intention is not to be “right,” nor to backbite or name names, but to report from the modest viewpoint of a relatively new shahadah the confusing things I heard from influential Muslims I encountered during my trip that differed from what I understood to be widely accepted, sound hadith, if not from the Qur’an itself. If anything I said is right, it is from Allah (swt). If anything I said is wrong, it is from myself.