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City of God I 20 October 2006

Posted by ABD in ABD, Culture, History, Philosophy, Spirituality.

He normally wears his jeans low, but before the prayer he hikes them up, tightens his belt, rolls up the bottoms, and slaps on a kufi. When he’s with Muslims, dude or man changes to brother, akhi or shaykh. “Yo!” or “What up, dawg?” changes to salam.

She doesn’t cover her hair, but carries a scarf with her in case it’s time for prayer. She puts it on instinctively, but feels weird when she catches her reflection in the mirror. She spends less time with the Muslim guys she knows than her other guy friends. And she’s not sure how she feels about that.

Now some of you might think that these are silly examples. But I think that they underscore real issues. Let’s begin with the standpoint of an outsider. With time, those of us who are active members of the Muslim community forget how silly a beard can look, or a hijab or a jilbab. Pushing your women to the back of the prayer space or to one side of the dinner hall isn’t normal. Separate tables or separate lines to get to the same food aren’t normal. Piling shoes at the entrance to prayer isn’t normal. Taking mysterious water bottles into the washroom isn’t normal. Flooding the washroom with footwashing rituals isn’t normal. From the standpoint of an outsider, this stuff is all a little weird. It’s funny. It’s strange.

But what can we do? Of course, we should try to educate people about Islam so that these things are understood. But we shouldn’t expect complete understanding. Why not?

We know from the teachings of our Prophet, on him be peace, that we should not always expect Muslim behavior to appear normal.

Islam started strange, and it shall return as it started, so give glad tidings to the strangers. (narrated by Abu Hurayrah, recorded in Muslim)

Now the translation leads to a misunderstanding: the Arabic word translated as strange here is ghareeb, not ‘ajeeb. Ghareeb doesn’t mean strange in the sense of weird or funny, but rather in the sense that the stranger is strange—i.e., as a stranger is estranged from the community in which he finds himself. But even if the primary meaning of ghareeb is foreign, we know that the idea of weird is not entirely misleading. A stranger looks a little funny, acts a little funny. “You’re not from around these parts,” we say to him.

This hadith has traditionally been understood to refer to the fact that Islam began with a few people in a hostile environment, and that those people were often alienated from or marginalized by their society. With the ascendance of Islamic civilization, of course, Islam not only became normal but rather the standard for many Muslim and non-Muslim cultures. I’m reminded here of a striking painting I saw of a European royalty figure dressed up as a sultan to have his official portrait made. So there was a time when Europeans, or at least some of them, took Ottomans and Arabs to be their standard (in much the same way that a Muslim man would today wear a Western business suit, taking the Europeans as his standard).

I’m also reminded of the passage from a St. Exupery’s The Little Prince, where the narrator is a European pilot who has crashed in the middle of the desert but finds a young boy there. It turns out that this boy is actually from another planet. The pilot thinks that the planet is probably an asteroid he has read about:

I have serious reason to believe that the planet from which the little prince came is the asteroid known as B-612. This asteroid has only once been seen through the telescope. That was by a Turkish astronomer, in 1909. On making his discovery, the astronomer had presented it to the International Astronomical Congress, in a great demonstration. But he was in Turkish costume, and so nobody would believe what he said. Grown-ups are like that… Fortunately, however, for the reputation of Asteroid B-612, a Turkish dictator made a law that his subjects, under pain of death, should change to European costume. So in 1920 the astronomer gave his demonstration all over again, dressed with impressive style and elegance. And this time everybody accepted his report.

So history tells us that civilizations alternate between ascendance and decadence. “Islam started strange, and it shall return as it started, so give glad tidings to the strangers.” The Prophet is reminding us that there will be a time, perhaps our time now, when Islam and Muslims will again be strange.

But believers are strangers. They look a little different and act a little different. They don’t fit in.

Continued in subsequent posts: II,III and IV.



1. Anonymous - 20 October 2006

Salaam alaykum warahmatullah,

Barak allaahu feekum for the post akhi. The time referred to in the hadith has come because if you see people practicing the Sunnah of the Prophet (sallalaahu alayhi wasalam) in it’s pure form long beards and pants above the ankles they seem like strangers

2. talib - 21 October 2006

jazakAllahu Khair.

i have thought a lot about this. let me just say that i do look different from most everyone else in my current social environment. i don’t think that makes me a believer, though.

i have found that with sunnahs of physical appearance, they are hard to initiate at first, but then, once you do it, it’s a lot easier than you thought. with physical appearance, it is not hard to understand that looking different from a certain type of people is the first step and perhaps the most practical and effective step in not being of a certain type of people. and looking like a certain people is the same in being of a certain people. and one’s people is very important.

personally, i now feel good, like an actual pleasure, in not looking like everyone else. of course, who’s to say that this pleasure is not common to all nonconformist personalities with penchant for being different for its own sake? or ‘intellectuals’ who enjoy the cheap high afforded by eccentricity?

physical appearance is only the beginning, though. the only thing stranger than a muslim man with a beard, kufi, and thowb is a muslim man with a beard, kufi, and thowb that speaks his mind. back in the day, you were deemed heretic, the other, a stranger for saying that idols are inanimate, lifeless objects and there is only one god. today, such claims won’t cause much alarm. say that a man, a muslim man to be more precise, has the right to marry up to four wives and prepare to be excommunicated.

back in the day, certain individuals would not become muslim as they felt doing so would disgrace the religion of their family, tribe, and ancestors. nowadays, you hear about muslims losing faith when reading a single verse about inheritance.

3. Sadiq - 21 October 2006

Salaam alaykum warahmatullah,

According to the Prophet (sallalaahu alayhi wasalam) physical appearance is important. Let’s not forget that there is a narration in which the Prophet (SAW) would’nt even look at a man without a beard and he (may God’s peace and blessings be upon him) said that Allaah won’t look at the one who wears his pants below his ankles on the Day of Judgement. The above ahadith indicate that physical appearance is important for the believer as it was important to the Prophet (SAW) and no one who truly fears Allaah can deny this.


4. Sadiq - 21 October 2006

I just thought I should mention here that when I say beard I don’t mean those trimmed beards that many brothers have these days. I mean the beard as it was meant by the Prophet (SAW) which is long as the Prophet (SAW) said “let the beard grow and trim the mustache.” And Allaah knows best.

5. The Turk - 23 October 2006

I have heard this ankles thing a lot but what is the basis of this? Is from the Al-quran or Hadis? B/c the galabiah or top (arabic male dress) usually reaches the ankles. And I see this quoted often by Pakistani muslims a lot but almost never by Arab/other muslims.

6. Danya - 14 November 2006

Good post!

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