Imam Khalid Latif is blogging his reflections during the month of Ramadan, featured daily on HuffPost Religion. For a complete record of his previous posts, click over to the Islamic Center at New York University or visit his author page, and to follow along with the rest of his reflections, sign up for an author email alert above.
I've seen so many new faces this Ramadan at our Islamic Center at NYU. In this first week I've met a lot of new people and reconnected with some that I haven't seen in a really long time. You could probably call them "Ramadan Muslims". I used to be one myself -- actually, I probably couldn't even be called that.
Growing up, I didn't really have a sense of ownership over my religion and to make matters worse it seems like I always was doing things that were wrong. There weren't many that made me think I could be anything better. I felt quite low at times after interacting with some who made me feel I didn't have a place to belong in the community and the worst part about it? I believed it. I believed every look of perceived condescension, I believed every murmur and whisper, I believed every glare and judgmental comment and never thought twice about it. It was easier not to. People who "looked" Muslim thought I was bad and I thought they must have known what they were talking about since they looked the part so well.
In retrospect, there were definitely people who treated me poorly. But I myself also played a role in how I felt by already presuming that I wouldn't fit in and that people wouldn't accept me. It can be quite daunting to walk into a room where you either are different from everyone, or you believe you are different, you know no one, and you are also embarrassed that most of the people there have probably been there for years while you are still trying to figure out the basics. Where most people were in the wrong wasn't because they were being jerks and making me feel like I shouldn't have come. The only mistake that most made was not making a concerted effort to realize that there were people like me who were nervous being there and understanding that they could alleviate a lot of that fear just by smiling at me and saying welcome.
Come, come, whoever you are.
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving -- it doesn't matter,
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vow a hundred times,
Come, come again, come. ~ rumi
Gatherings that aim to encompass an element of the Divine to them are not meant to be exclusive, as the very essence of the Divine is that of total unity, it is that of Oneness. When we contrast those gatherings to our own, we find that ours are defined not necessarily based off of who we let in, but who we keep out. I used to work at Princeton University, undoubtedly quite prestigious in its reputation. If Princeton, like most other colleges, started to let anyone into its gates, it wouldn't have the reputation it does. You need to have a certain GPA, a certain SAT score and set of extracurricular activities. If Princeton just started letting everyone in, then it wouldn't be Princeton any longer. Most of our gatherings tend to function off the same principle. But if you contrast this to gatherings that have an element of the Divine to them, you can find the best of people in God's house and the most wretched, and it doesn't take away for His divine majesty.
The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said, "Allah is kind and loves kindness and gives for gentleness what he does not give for harshness nor for anything else."
No one asks why did God let someone who is poor, someone who is of a certain race or gender, someone who made a mistake or erred, or someone who knows very little about their faith into this place? It's usually us as people who, claiming to act in His name, raise those questions. When we do so, we are painting a very poor picture of what Islam is actually about and even worse, how God actually is.
Jarir ibn 'Abdullah, a companion of the Prophet, said, "I heard the Messenger of Allah say, 'He who is deprived of kindness and gentleness is, in fact, deprived of all good.'"
Not everyone knows everything about their faith, nor are they meant to. But everyone is entitled to being encouraged to do their very best. It's simple things that keep us together. A kind word or smile can do a lot for someone who is just trying to figure out for themselves where they fit in and belong. I used to be a Ramadan Muslim and it was the kindness of a couple of people that made me believe I could be more than that. Be the reason that someone feels like they can stick around, not the reason that they feel like they should never come back.