Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim. In the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful.
It is difficult to talk about love and Islam today, as images of Islamic extremists in Iraq flood the media and the country descends further into what is already a bloody civil war. It is difficult to talk about love and Islam today, as Boko Haram continues to make headlines as they kidnap and murder more and more young Nigerian schoolchildren in the name of Islam. It is difficult to talk about love and Islam today, as a young Christian mother in Sudan is forced to give birth in solitary confinement while awaiting international intervention before she is set for execution for apostasy. It is difficult to talk about love and Islam today, as the world watches muted and bleary-eyed while already over 160,000 have been slaughtered in Syria, with the number growing by the day.
It is difficult to talk about love and Islam, today.
Let me be clear, I am not interested in pointing out all the beautiful verses of the Qur’an to combat the negativity that we see in the media. I am not interested in apologizing for terrorists, or in highlighting the plight of ‘moderates’. I am interested in talking about love – the love that brought me to Islam, the love that has kept me in Islam for 11 years.
Ramadan has arrived, with the sighting of the full moon during the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. As a Muslim, someone who surrenders to God in peace, I am reminded of what brought me to the religion, and what has kept me, despite my struggles, in it. It is during this time of spiritual, physical, mental, emotional, and material purification that I am reminded to reflect on why I continue to believe, and what my belief means to me.
The reason is love, and not just any love, but a compassionate, tender love.
In one of her less well known books, Moroccan scholar Dr. Fatema Mernissi discusses and translates the 14th century Sufi book, “The Garden of Lovers: The 50 Names of Love”, by Imam Ibn Qayim al-Jawziyya. Out of the 50 names, my favorite is al-Hanin, or “compassion”, the “deer of tenderness”. Dr. Mernissi explains, “Al-Hanin is a strong, bewitching inclination of the soul toward the person loved…This word is also synonymous with compassion (rahma) and misericord. In effect, it describes one of the effects of love.”
So, compassion is an effect of love.
It was a focus on compassionate love and peace that initially drew me into Islam, and it is this focus and the traditions which honor it, that have stayed with me throughout the 11 years that I have had the honor of calling myself, and often defending myself, as a Muslim.
So, why did I covert, or as my undergraduate professor Dr. Aminah McCloud aptly put it: why did I “transition my tradition” to Islam? I am constantly asked about how and why I became Muslim. To be honest, the reactions can get tiring when I drop the “M-bomb”. Usually I hear things like, “That’s weird! Why?” or “Do you have an Islamic boyfriend?” Another common response, “What did your parents say?”
As an American born and raised in Colorado, far away from any kind of true religious diversity, Islam was totally foreign to me until September 11, 2001. Regrettably, it was this tragic event that opened the eyes of many Americans of my generation and after to the word ‘Islam’ and the varieties of people who practice its traditions. But, I was raised in a household that taught respect and tolerance for those whose opinions differ from mine. It was this compassionate tolerance and love for the other that allowed me to discover my truth, Islam.
It was September 11th that prompted me, and millions of other Americans, to begin to investigate Islam. Unfortunately, I think a large portion of America is tremendously uninformed (if not tremendously misinformed), by the right-wing, vitriol-spewing pundits who have way too much airtime like Pamelar Geller and my least favorite Islamophobe of the moment, Usama Dakdok, who has claimed that “Muslims will kill your children”.
So what brought me to Islam, and why am I talking about “love and Islam”?
While an undergraduate student in Islamic World Studies at DePaul University in Chicago, I had the pleasure of meeting a beautiful, intelligent and intensely spiritual Moroccan woman whose family was Sufi. At that moment in my life, I was interested in Islam from only from an academic perspective; I had absolutely no interest, or the slightest idea, that I might become Muslim myself.