MY FIRST YEARS of Islam were transformational. I suddenly had clear direction. Life was no longer about doing what I wanted to do and behaving however I felt like behaving. I had gained the will to live for what is greater than myself. I had been imbued with a strong desire to be a better person. My goals became clear. More importantly, the means of achieving my new goals were well-defined.
When I think back, I see my pre-Islam self as short-tempered and impatient. In fact, I can’t think of any instances where I had exhibited patience, but plenty where I lost it. In my first years of Islam, no one could easily recognize me as a Muslim, but I was in fact a Muslim. My whole life had begun to shift and be tailored into an existence geared purely for seeking the pleasure of the Most Merciful who had guided me.
At one point early on, I worked in a retail print shop in midtown Manhattan. We provided printing services to big companies and individuals working in the demanding environment of NYC, where stress soared and deadlines were always imminent. I often dealt with hotheaded, over-worked Manhattanites with attitudes. I often felt like a receptacle into which their frustrations were unleashed. Only with Allah’s help, and because of His guidance through the Quran and Sunnah about forgiving others, making excuses for people, returning evil with what is better, and about the unlimited, divine compensation for patience, I managed to handle it all with an uncharacteristic even-keel.
I will never forget one proud day; a woman with tied back, sleek brown hair, wearing a smart black coat, witnessed an encounter between a particularly insolent customer and myself. After it was over and the rude customer had left, she approached me wide-eyed. She looked at me intensely and expressed how impressed she was with the fact that I had not lost my cool in the least. She asked me “how do you stay so patient?” I confidently answered with a huge smile, “I’m a Muslim.” That was indeed the only answer I could provide, and I was beyond honored to be able to give it.
We are all samples of Islam. Alḥamdulillâh, a fascinated woman had an encounter with Islam when she witnessed the special patience sanctioned and provided by Allah even though I did not overtly appear Muslim at the time. Any one of us may be given similar opportunities. Your non-Muslim co-workers or neighbors may one day find out that you are a Muslim. When they do, it is inevitable that they will use your example as a sample that informs their understanding of Islam and Muslims.
Think of it like a poll.
In any given poll, only a small fraction of a population (a sample) is used to represent the whole. Samples as small as 1,000 people are considered scientifically sufficient to represent the entire 300 million+ American population, for example. Similarly, our Muslim societies and each of us, as Muslim individuals, provide samples that represent what Islam is and who Muslims are to the remaining 5.4 Billion people on Earth. As much as we might insist that the few do not represent the whole, we have to acknowledge that this is often the way people learn and understand things when they have limited knowledge of it, such as Islam. We have a responsibility when it comes to signifying our faith to others. What we say, how we act, even how we drive, may all serve as samples to those around us.
My journey to Islam took a significant turn due to the amazing example of some Muslims I met overseas. The impression they made on me served as a catalyst, intensifying my appetite for the study of Islam. My eventual acceptance of Islam as truth, however, was due to research-based conviction. In the years following my conversion, I learned without any Muslims in my life. Naturally, being deeply involved with the Quran and other texts of Islam, I developed idealistic expectations of the Muslim community that I would eventually become a part of.
I had learned that “cleanliness is half of faith” and so was shocked to find some bathroom facilities in Mosques and Halal restaurants to be unhygienic. Not a good example, but a sample, yes. I was embarrassed when my mother accompanied me (a new Muslim, eager to share with her my newfound faith) to buy halal meat for the first time. The shop was visibly dirty and smelly. Not a good example, but a sample, yes.
Prophetic guidance encourages us to be neat and presentable when we gather together. Knowing we are instructed to stay away from the Mosques if we have eaten potent foods like onions and garlic, [i] the pungent body odor that so often overpowers even the best Jumʿah khuṭbas is perplexing. I recall stereotypes I learned during my childhood: It was a going joke that the “Habeebs” running a local convenience store never took showers because of their religion. I believed it, but I never knew what that religion was until I learned, as a Muslim, of the meaning of the Arabic word “habeeb.” Again, not a good example, but yes, a sample.
A friend of mine, who is manifestly a Muslim, covered from head to toe, told me that when she went to get a pedicure, the aesthetician asked if she was Muslim. When she confirmed her premonition, the woman declared that she was pleasantly surprised and said, “But you don’t smell bad!” How could it be that Islam promotes cleanliness, yet Muslims are thought to be unclean and malodorous? Here, Alḥamdulillâh, a good sample reversing a bad example.
Through my studies, I had learned that two people should not whisper in the presence of a third person. [ii] I was disappointed when I finally joined the Muslim community only to regularly sit isolated, while my Muslim brethren spoke amongst themselves in foreign languages. I sat silently in their presence, trying to maintain a pleasant demeanor in spite of feeling rejected and shunned. Again, not a good example, but yes, a sample. Alḥamdulillâh, I was able to see beyond this – but not everyone is.
Inevitably the list of ways some Muslims don’t adhere to the teachings of Islam can go on and on. Unfortunately many non-Muslims never even consider Islam for themselves, because they are so turned off by their negative experience with Muslims or by the stereotypes we allow to be perpetuated by our own actions. A close friend of mine who accepted Islam more than a decade ago, had brought her husband, still not Muslim, to a gathering. She hoped he might feel comfortable and closer to Islam by getting to know some more Muslims. In that gathering, he was secluded with men he had never met. They proceeded to speak in foreign tongues, making him feel unbearably uncomfortable and out of place. Not a good example, but a sample. He ended up waiting outside and when his wife came out, he angrily declared that he would never attend a similar gathering again. After that day his animosity towards his wife’s choice only grew. This troubled their relationship and ultimately led even my friend to distance herself from Islam so as to save her family.
We can’t deny that our actions and inaction affect others. We influence the way others perceive Islam. Are we good samples of Islam for those who see us?—Good examples?
On the other hand, many converts to Islam have had some positive encounter with Muslims that led them to learn more. One woman explained that during Ramadan, her Muslim co-workers were fasting all day, and she hadn’t thought about the fact that she was eating in front of them throughout their fast. When it was time for ifṭâr, they offered her food before they ate. This small act of kindness overwhelmed her. Indeed, a good example! Amazed at their generosity and the way they put her ahead of themselves, she wanted to know more about what they believed. Her research led her to embrace Islam wholeheartedly.
We do not have control over the entirety of our communities or over the impression that other countries or individuals make. We only have power over our own selves and our families by Allah’s permission. If you and I simply take some time to think about the impression we make in our neighborhoods and even in our own families, perhaps we will be blessed with the incentive to change ourselves into better samples, the best examples. This can enhance not only our standing before our Lord, but also before His creation.
The Prophet ﷺ said:
Whoever guides [another] to a good deed will get a reward similar to the one who performs it. (Muslim)
He ﷺ also said:
By Allah, if Allah were to guide one man through you it would be better for you than [your owning] the best type of camels. (Bukhâri, Muslim)
There are far more people in the world who know little to nothing about Islam than there are Muslims. Let’s seek the pleasure of our Lord and His bounty by getting serious—serious about following His guidance inwardly and outwardly. Let us remember that within our homes and upon stepping out into public, we are samples—inshâ’Allah good examples—for the way of Life chosen for humanity by the Owner and Sustainer of Humanity. The One to Whom all will be gathered. The One who will inform us about what we used to do. Let’s take a closer look at how we are affecting those around us: our families, co-workers, in our neighborhoods and everywhere we go.
Let us be better samples, the best examples, of the teaching of Prophet Muhammad, of Islam. Let us become the kind of Muslims we are meant to be.
[i] Whosoever eats garlic or onions, let him leave us or leave our Masjid gathering (Bukhâri and Muslim)
[ii] If you were three, then do not whisper between the two of you ignoring the third till the number increases. This is because whispering will sadden him. (Bukhâri and Muslim)