I used to literally think that Islam was an Island somewhere in the Middle East (which surprisingly is still a common misconception amongst a large portion of the population today, thinking Islam is a country). I knew of the Muslim religion, but I looked at Muslims like Buddhist, with strange rituals. I used to think they worshipped idols. But that night when I went out with my friends, Islam had become a hot topic.
Some of my friends started to bash Islam, saying that it was a stupid religion. I was surprised that some of my friends happened to be Muslim and they began to defend their religion. Being curious about the whole topic and its impending impact on the near future, I began to investigate. And what I found surprised me. I found out that the Muslims worshipped God. Furthermore I found out that the Muslims believed in Jesus as being a Muslim (one who submits to God), who was a Prophet and Messenger of God, that God saved him from the Crucifixion, and that he was no part divine or any part of God, and that God alone should be worshipped.
Those pieces of information struck a chord with me, for I remembered believing in God as One Absolute being when I was younger, and likewise, I remember rejecting Christianity based upon its worship of Jesus.
Thus I began an inquest into Islam and Christianity. I became interested in the subject of religion and began reading constantly. I would consult my grandmother on issues regarding Christianity, and would consult my friend on Islam. I would bring the arguments back and forth to one another to see whose arguments would stand up.
Eventually after reading through the Quran and the Bible, observing God’s Miracles in nature and undergoing a thorough soul searching experience. I said to myself about Islam, “it sounds so true, but can it be real?” And right in that instance, I remembered my previous prayer when I said, “God, if your real, and you exist, please help me!” I was covered in goose bumps. I realized that this was the answer, but I still wasn’t sure if I wanted to become Muslim. I didn’t know how well I would fit in with the Muslims from an ethnic standpoint.
I continued reading and was really looking for something to give me a conformation about my decision. Then one day while reading the Bible, I came across verse 26:39 in the Gospel of Matthew. The verse reads:
Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
For me, this verse confirmed three things that I had learnt from an Islamic view of Jesus. That he was Muslim, as he prayed as a Muslim by falling to his face in prayer. That he didn’t want to die, because he prayed for the cup of death to be removed from him. And that he was not God, because he himself prayed to God for help.
This was the conformation that I needed that really solidified my decision to embrace Islam. And I couldn’t accept the Message, without accepting the Messenger. So on December 28th, 2001 by the Mercy of Allah, I took the declaration of faith (To say I bear witness none has the right to be worshipped except Allah, and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah), and embraced Islam. And since that time, by Allah’s Grace, I have achieved things, and been places, and have done things that I never would have imagined possible.
After tasting faith, I know the fruits it bears, and I pray that Allah allows me to do more good, and allows me to live the remainder of my life on His path. All praises are for Allah, and peace and blessing be upon His messenger, Muhammad(PBUH&HP). Ameen.
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Two Muslim boys in Switzerland have declined, on religious grounds, to handshake with their female teachers. The school district says Swiss custom should override religion and is now threatening to fine the parents of the boys $5,000 if the boys continue to refuse to comply.
Some years ago, I worked with a male Muslim intern who refused to shake my hand for religious reasons. The experience challenged me to think more deeply about tolerance and diversity, and I think the lessons I learned are worth sharing.
In the summer of 2010, as Director of the Islam and Civil Society Project at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, NJ, I hired my first Muslim intern, a young man named Muhammad. I was eager to move beyond studying Islam from a distance and to develop the project into an opportunity for Muslim and non-Muslim Americans to collaborate together as partners on issues of shared concern.
I was impressed by Muhammad’s resume, which included a rigorous education at an excellent college that left him just as prepared to attend graduate school in Islamic studies or medical school (he has since done both). We had never met in person, as the internship had been arranged via e-mail. But on paper, he sure seemed like a rising star.
The first thing that happened when he arrived in Princeton to start his internship was that he refused to shake my hand. The shock was my initial response. I tried to hide how stunned I was, but it was difficult. He was absolutely gracious in declining. I felt angry when he refused to shake my hand just because I am female, but it was hard to be angry at someone who was so kind. It wasn’t even clear to me what or who the object of my confused anger was. He explained that it was due to his religious beliefs that he does not shake women’s hands. Was I, who had hired this intern to help with religious freedom work, going to reject his freedom to follow his religious beliefs?
I suppressed how baffled and worried I felt. I moved right along as if nothing had happened. I welcomed him to the Witherspoon Institute and began introducing him to the work we would be doing that summer. But inside, my head and heart were spinning.
I have zero patience—I mean zero—for misogyny. I’ve had boys in Yemen throw stones at me and another woman. I’ve been treated like a dangerous toxic substance by a Catholic priest who seemed to wish desperately that women just didn’t exist. “Misogyny” is a word I don’t use lightly, but there are times when it is the appropriate descriptor of some men’s attitudes. I could not help but wonder: was misogyny what I was experiencing? What I would be in all summer long?
Yet, because I recognized that I did not understand why this young man refused to shake my hand, I did not jump to conclusions. Instead, I took a “wait-and-see” approach. He was an American. A kid from the Jersey shore. His refusal was religious, not cultural. I realized that I knew almost nothing about this young man. Who was I to judge him? Moreover, I badly needed an assistant at work and had prepared a mighty long to-do list for him. I knew we needed to work together in a spirit of collaboration to get through the busy summer ahead. An antagonistic relationship seemed like it would only get in the way. I swallowed my fears and acted as nothing had happened.
But something had happened: my assumptions about my own tolerance had been jolted with a radical challenge. Was I tolerant enough and sufficiently appreciative of diversity—particularly of religious diversity—to live and let live, even if it made me feel slighted?
That summer with Muhammed, along with subsequent collaboration at the Witherspoon Institute with Orthodox Jewish men who did not shake women’s hands, taught me many lessons.
Lesson one: I was reminded concretely of something I knew abstractly: namely, that Muslims are diverse. This young man was from a particular interpretive school of Shia Islam with which I was not very familiar. In over twenty years of academic studies and professional work related to Islam, I had never met a Muslim who, for religious reasons, would not shake a woman’s hand. Well, here was one. And then I met Orthodox Jewish men who would not shake my hand. And here too I was reminded: Jews are diverse. Moreover, for religious reasons, some Muslim women and some Orthodox Jewish women do not shake men’s hands. Issues of modesty, chastity, and ritual purity can involve both men and women; this is not just an issue of male attitudes toward women.
Lesson two: the reasons some religious men do not have social physical contact with women outside of their direct families should not always be reduced to misogyny. Where there is actual misogyny, it is something to be taken seriously. But painting all males with a broad brush is neither fair nor accurate. Men should be given the opportunity to speak for themselves, to explain their own thoughts, intentions, and consciences.
Lesson three: refusal to have physical contact with women is not necessarily equivalent to a refusal to recognize that women have professional abilities. This intern had absolutely no problem having a woman as his boss that summer. He was eager to assist me, and he always listened attentively to directions I gave him. He consistently did an excellent job carrying out the tasks I assigned to him.
Lesson four: refusal to have physical contact with women is not necessarily equivalent to a refusal to recognize that women have intellectual abilities. That summer, starting from that very first day, this intern and I had fantastic discussions about some of the greatest minds in Muslim intellectual history. He asked me lots of questions about my dissertation and treated me as a person from whom he thought he might learn something. He gave me brilliant reading recommendations in modern Islamic theology, all of them profound and challenging sources. He never treated me as if he thought I was stupid. Never.
Muhammad was a fantastic intern. We were lucky to have him work with us that summer at the Witherspoon Institute. He was a delightful colleague for all of us at the Institute and, significantly, he treated all the women with respect.
While I do not know the particular reasons for the refusal of the two Syrian boys in Switzerland to shake women’s hands, I can’t help but think of my intern Muhammad. After his internship, he went on to do a Master’s Degree at Harvard in Islamic theology, and now he is in medical school preparing to serve others in society as a doctor. As an American, I feel my country is lucky to have such a talented man, who values public service, as a citizen. If these two boys are even half as talented and kind as Muhammad, the loss will be Switzerland’s if this family cannot stay there.
I can’t say that I genuinely understand why Muhammad won’t shake women’s hands, but having to live without fully understanding is something that I think comes with the territory of genuine diversity. Muhammad allows me the freedom to shake the hands of men who choose to partake of this cultural practice, and I allow him the freedom not to.
The principle of religious freedom demands that we allow space in our society for the difference. Genuine tolerance allows for the difference. Of course, this is something quite different from trying to pass off the imposition of the cultural norms of those who are in power as “tolerance” simply by labeling it so. I hope that the Swiss government is able to tell the difference between the two—not only for the sake of those boys and their families but for the sake of their own society.
Jennifer S. Bryson, PhD, is Director of Operations and Development at the Center for Islam and Religious Freedom in Washington, DC.
My story is quite brief but my journey has been such an eye-opener, and I thank Allah for the mercy that he had on me, bringing me to this beautiful religion which is now my way of life.
I have always been interested in learning about different cultures and religions, especially, because of living in Australia. We have such a diverse society; I have always believed it to be important to understand all the different and beautiful cultures and religions. This way you can understand why people are the way they are.
I have always believed in God, coming from a Macedonian Orthodox family in which religion was more based on the cultural side of things. We went to church for Easter or Christmas as a family or for christening or wedding ceremonies, but we never regularly visited God's house for any other reason.
I come from a very good family with great values and morals, but when it came to religion it was just something that was from the old days and not really enforced or practiced. For me, though, I knew something was not right with Christianity. Things just did not make sense to me.
I was never very religious and, in my younger years, went through questioning my beliefs, even the existence of our Creator.
But deep down, I knew there was a stronger force in action thirsty for knowledge, I quickly learned with my love for reading that the Almighty was there; reinforcing what is truly the undeniable existence of Allah.
I learned about Islam from some of my Muslim friends, but it was from my own research that I found Islam and its true beauty. All the teachings from the Quran then made sense, since there was a guideline for everything in life.
I stopped reading for a while, since the Western lifestyle, then, was still very appealing to me at that age.
But one day, I came across a video called the miracles of the Quran...
What really grabbed my attention was how over 1400 years ago Quran revealed the 3 trimesters of a woman's pregnancy when scientists in the 21st century have just uncovered this fact!
This then made me say the two testimonies (Shahadatain) and I started going to private Islamic classes and lectures.
But still, I kept my conversion to Islam a secret from my non-Muslim friends and family. To my non-Muslim friends I said, I believed in Islam, but I did not say that I made the change.
It was only 3 years ago that I realized, I could not deny or hide my true beliefs anymore. I told my non-Muslim friends and family that I am a Muslim. Alhamdulillah, it was the best thing I have ever done.
Some of my old friends left me, but I am not sad. I realized that it was all part of Allah's plan. Allah made me acquainted with new amazing people who were striving just like me to please our Almighty. My family did not take it as bad as I thought they would. They had their moments and did not truly understand the reason for the change. But I did not have such a hard experience like others who have made this beautiful journey.
In December 2011, I did the most life-changing act, which was putting on Hijab. It was the best decision of my life. I have never been mentally happier in my life. Now I feel I am complete. In 2012, I was invited by Allah to do the holy pilgrimage (Hajj).
Every day, I ask Allah why he had chosen me?! I am not the best of His servants. I cannot thank Him sufficiently, for the mercy He had on me, for giving me the opportunity to open up my eyes and heart to Islam, worshiping and getting closer to my only Creator.