by Daniel Diaz
Sleep-deprived, coffee in hand, and sweating my way to my morning class, a guy jumps in front of me in a narrow hall and asks, “Excuse me! Would you like to study the Bible?”
What do I say to the poor guy? Sometimes I’m tempted to reply with a snarky comment like, “No, but would you like to study the Qur’an?” just to trip them out. However, I then realize that would be counterproductive to bettering the image of Islam.
All around us, religious organizations compete for our souls. Earlier last week, while waiting for the bus, my sister Giselle and I were approached by a kind Korean lady. “Something to read?” she asked as she pulled out a Jehovah's Witness pamphlet. The bus was arriving, so I decided to just take it and entertain it on the bus, only to throw it away a few seconds in. Giselle, the more assertive of the two of us, dryly said no.
Ah, the perks of living in a vibrant religious economy. The U.S.’s free market of religion allows for these types of interactions, where people of all religious traditions vie vigorously for membership.
This all has led me to reconsider our own da'wah methods and their underlying implications. The word da'wah itself comes from the tri-consonant root [d-ʕ-w], meaning “invitation”, but what are we inviting them to? This, to me, is a question worth pursuing.
Pamphlet-giving is the staple of proselytizing in most religions I’ve come across, but just as it didn’t work for me on the way to class, I don’t expect for our pamphlets to work much for other peers rushing about on campus. Aside from the practical explanation to this, there is also the fact that religious conversion is not just an intellectual pursuit—it is also an emotional and social one. Statistically speaking, it is very rare for people to just hear about Islamic tenets or to be reproached about all of their faults and proclaim “You’re right, that makes sense! I’ll quit my ways and take a shahadah, please!”
Don’t get me wrong: there is an undeniable beauty in the simplicity of Islamic principles and the sense of a direct connection to the Sacred without a middleman. This is particularly appealing to Latinos from Catholic backgrounds, like myself, who so often feel disconnected not only from the principles and rituals of their faith, but, perhaps more importantly, from their community as well.
Sociologist of religion Rodney Stark has done quite a bit of research on why people change their religious affiliation. He states that people who convert often times come from lukewarm religious households or no religion at all, and thus no religious community.
Considering the vast religious market in the United States, the selling point that draws people into a particular religion is often the religious community itself. Stark’s research suggests that the community’s welcoming attitude allows for the prospective converts to consider the possibility of another worldview. For us as Muslims, this means shining as such an exemplary community of kindness and compassion that people can’t help but think, “Wow, this practice, this submission to God is what drives you to do this? I want to be of your people.”
But becoming a more welcoming community requires sincere affection and care for the other person’s well-being. We must be willing to question our intentions in inviting others to this community of kindness—into this ummah. There are as many ways to get ajr as there are stars in the sky.
So, why go into da‘wah? We must ask ourselves: am I trying to convince others into seeing the world the way I do? Do I proselytize in order to have better conviction about my faith, and if so, what does that say about my faith? Do I genuinely care about this person, even in contexts outside of da'wah? What are this person’s community’s needs, and can I align my solidarity with their plights?
According to many sociologists of religion, conversions involve a realignment of identity and goals with the other group. In becoming a Muslim, I felt it was almost inherent to be pro-Palestine and to be familiarized with other issues and causes in Muslim-majority societies.
However, I’ve often wondered to what extent my fellow Muslims reciprocated in their concern for the Ayotzinapa students, Latino deportation rates and abuse of labor, or the U.S. government’s denial of refugee status to the thousands of kids escaping violence in Central America. Considering that approximately 12% of all converts into Islam in the U.S. post-9/11 are Latinos, isn’t it time to express solidarity with them? Even if that wasn’t the case, shouldn’t we care for our non-Muslim neighbors simply for our shared humanity?
Da‘wah is more than dishing out pamphlets and convincing rhetoric; it is quite literally about making new friends, about carrying them through the process of conversion, about caring for them and having patience with them before and after their conversion, and about familiarizing ourselves with the issues of their communities.
During my freshman year of college (in my more naive days), I saw my friend smoking a cigarette and self-righteously tossed the cliché, “Smoking kills, man.” She went on to tell me about her former drinking and drug problems; she dealt with the anxiety of her unstable living situation by smoking a cigarette every now and then, instead of recurring to drugs.
It was very humbling, to say the least. I learned to never judge someone, for there may be a struggle underneath where you see a fault. At the end of the day, we don’t know what people have sacrificed to get where they are—especially converts. Just learn to be there for them.
Da’wah does not start at the booth, nor does it end at the booth. It starts with our everyday kindness to everyone around us. Instead of merely asking, “How can I provide the most convincing argument to change their mind?” or, “How can I get them to act the way I act?”, we should ask, “How can I inspire them? How can I be of service to them?”
At the end of the day, Islam is meant not just to inspire our intellect, but to guide our hearts to Him as well. Ultimately, faith is beyond proof, beyond reason. La ilaha illa Allah, Muhammad rasul Allah is an electric truth that I feel in my bones. It is a direct, ephemeral experience of the Divine that nobody can take away. And a community inspired by that truth—that is, a community of empathy that puts that ideology into action—should be what we invite people to.
- da'wah: educating & inviting people to Islam
- shahadah: proclamation of faith
- ummah: global community of Muslims
- ajr: reward for good deeds
- La ilaha illa Allah, Muhammad rasul Allah: There is no one worthy of worship but God, and Muhammad is God's messenger