Ramadan question #2 — how can I know what God wants me to do?

The interpretations of Islam that I was taught had pretty straightforward answers to that question.

At the most basic, the answer was that God has provided detailed and authoritative guidance to all human beings (including me) in the Qur’an and the sunna.

Possible answers to the question of how to access that guidance and apply it to my life varied: Do you need to follow a scholar or scholars? If so, which one(s)? What about madhhabs? As a convert, how would you go about choosing which madhhab to follow?… and so on.

But whatever the answer, it was the sunna that in the end was central. Even the Qur’an was read and interpreted through the sunna. And out of the sunna came a template—a pattern that we were supposed to live our lives by.

What exactly following the life-example of the Prophet meant in reality depended on the interpretation and the community. There were those men who tried to follow it down to the last seventh century Arabian detail—peppering their everyday speech with Arabic words, carrying miswaks in their pockets, wearing short thobes or even turbans. (Mind you, their poly-cotton blend thobes had been made in China, but let’s not get overly technical here….) Then, there were other men who argued that this is taking things too far (especially in North America), but they had their own pet aspects of the Prophet’s example that they saw as non-negotiable, whether it was praying tarawih or wives being forever held hostage to the appearance of her husband’s guests (who would drop by without calling and who would of course have to be fed and served and might even elect to stay the night, regardless of whatever other plans she might have made).


In other words, the idea that we were to follow the sunna was yet another control mechanism. And it worked very well for the most part, because we internalized the idea that if something is sunna, we should do our best to follow it. No need to ask pesky questions about context or results or anything like that. I remember doing things like trying to remember to put on clothes and shoes beginning with the right hand/side/foot first, and to say the appropriate dua… and when taking off clothes or shoes, to start with the left hand/side/foot… because that’s the sunna.

We greeted one another with salaam, never “hi” or “hello.” We said “inshallah” and “al-hamdulillah” and “maa sh’Allah” when appropriate, rather than “God willing” or “thank God,” even when speaking to other converts whose first language was English. We took Muslim names, and gave Muslim names to our kids too. “Muslim names” meaning Arabic names, preferably from the Qur’an or of the Companions. Because these things were sunna too.

We were busy with such minutiae—so busy that we didn’t often ask about the bigger picture. As in: what’s it all for?

This sort of thing is the purpose of the sunna? Fussing about right and left feet, and duas, and Arabic words??

When the question of what’s it all for would come up, then we’d be told that there is baraka in following the sunna. That we wouldn’t necessarily understand what the benefit was, but that there was indeed benefit, which would include that it would foster love for the Prophet in our hearts and hopefully earn us ajr for good deeds. And, that following the sunna helps people to lead a more disciplined and god-conscious life.

And we’d stop there.

We wouldn’t admit, even to ourselves, that the process of following the sunna for us was rather too much like putting on Muslim drag.

Not that we were faking, or putting on a show for others primarily. Oh, we believed in what we were doing. We believed in it sincerely. We truly wanted practicing the sunna to transform us from “western” converts into “real Muslim women.” To transmute us. To turn us from lead into gold. To enable us to become “Ideal Muslimahs.” So that we could please God.

So that we could maybe, perhaps… accept ourselves.

After all, we lived in communities, and read Muslim literature in which “western woman” was a synonym for “worldly, selfish, immodest, probably sexually immoral woman.” It was difficult for us to imagine being Muslim in a way that didn’t involve undergoing a very major makeover of all aspects of our lives. And, it would have been difficult for most of those Muslims who surrounded us to imagine such a thing either, because in their minds, a ‘western woman” and a “Muslim woman” were polar opposites.

But we did not admit that this is what was going on, even to ourselves. I remember reading a convert’s story in which she mentioned the whole “right foot first” thing and said that learning of this and practicing it made her feel like she was getting in touch with her fitra. She was rediscovering her true nature, coming home to herself. And I was envious, because I wished I felt that way too. But I was determined to somehow manage to feel that way. Because I knew that I was “supposed to” feel the way she said she felt.

Now and again, I did happen across converts who felt that this kind of sunna-following was causing them to lose touch with themselves. I remember reading Jeffery Lang’s books… and being shocked that anyone would commit such thoughts to writing. After all, wasn’t the Prophet’s message universal—meaning, that it is for all times and places and peoples? So, that meant that his sunna must be universal too. So therefore, adopting an Arabic name and trying to follow the sunna as much as possible COULDN’T possibly be alienating or psychologically harmful to any true believer. Anyone who claimed that it had this effect on them must have a weakness in their iman.

Fast-forward some years… to me having to learn to live outside the hyper-conservative Muslim bubble that I had inhabited for so long. To me realizing that in part, following the sunna had been a badge of belonging, a way to draw lines between our community and outsiders. To me realizing that weak iman or not, I felt really disconnected from my heritage, my birth family and my history.

But the kicker for me was realizing how very little my relationship to what I understood is the sunna had any relation at all to the Prophet’s life—especially, to his early life in Mecca.

When he received his first revelation, he was terrified, and questioned for his sanity. When he received the call to preach, he was extremely apprehensive about how his message would be received. And what he had feared happened. The rich and the powerful, even within his own family, ridiculed him and called him names.

People asked him fake-serious questions and demanded miracles from him in public: Can you make a ladder extending from here to heaven? What, you can’t? Why can’t you make an actual book drop from heaven, so that we can see it? Oh, you can’t do that either?? What do you mean, we will be raised to life after death—that’s ridiculous, how can rotten bones come back to life again? The world is going to end soon?! Yeah, yeah, dude, bring it on, if it’s really true… oh, and now you say that you can’t do that either??

The Qur’an repeats the scornful words of the pagans, and provides the Prophet words to answer them. But their mockery just kept on coming. The Qur’an makes it evident that this whole experience was very difficult, painful, even traumatic for him. After all, he lived in a society in which a man’s reputation was everything. What sort of a life could anyone look forward to when most people were laughing at him and dismissing him as a guy who either had a screw loose or was just looking for attention? Who would want to do business with such a man, or have their children marry into his family, or even invite him to dinner?

Under circumstances like that, wouldn’t anyone simply give up? Say that it’s all just too much, that there’s no future in it, that there’s no point? Especially after years and years of that sort of treatment. But the Qur’an presents the Prophet’s preaching as something that he is internally compelled to do, regardless of how it was received or what sort of negative feedback he got. It was his calling. He couldn’t not do it….

When he was preaching, he was being real.


He wasn’t trying to fit into someone else’s template of how his life should be, how he should dress and move and speak and even emote. He was being truly himself. No matter what the cost.

Which is… pretty much opposite to my experience of practicing the sunna.

I’d say something is pretty mixed-up here.

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  1. #1 by asiahkelley on August 4, 2013 - 9:53 pm

    Brilliant. Your end about the Prophet really shook me. Have you seen Lesley Hazelton’s talk at TED about doubt? I love thinking about the prophet when he was just a man. He’s never more relateable and loveable than when he is just like us. And yet so many Muslims want to make an idol of him and his sunna like a costume we should wear. Love that. Muslims in drag. Yes, I have definitely felt that way. When I first wore hijab, I really only wanted to wear one to look like a “real Muslim” and ended u hating it and feeling like a poodle. I still have those days when I think, I’m not myself, I’m a poodle. Following the sunna is being true to yourself and what you know as the truth…beautiful message. Thank you.

  2. #2 by Jenny Jones on August 5, 2013 - 2:29 am

    OH, yes! Sing it, Sister! Once again, you’ve nailed it–and I thank you.

    • #3 by xcwn on August 5, 2013 - 6:04 pm

      Jenny—I’ve been rereading your book. Post coming….

  3. #4 by rosalindawijks on May 15, 2014 - 8:14 am

    An interesting article. While reading it, I can only be happy that I never went overboard with the whole sunna-thing and never internalized self-hate…….any interpretation of a faith that fosters self-hate, is harmful and wrong. Plain and simple.

    • #5 by xcwn on May 22, 2014 - 12:03 am

      Yup, a faith that fosters self-hate is destructive. But we were in effect taught to hate ourselves. And since we were also taught to fear pride and to distrust the very idea of self-esteem (too modern!), we didn’t realize what was happening until it was too late.

  4. #6 by rosalindawijks on May 22, 2014 - 9:01 am

    And an interpretation of a faith that teaches people to lie is maybe even worse. We know that God is al-Haqq, the personification of Truth and that He teaches us the truth and that lying is wrong – so why on earth is it that these people who claim to be pious do the exact opposite?

    • #7 by xcwn on May 23, 2014 - 2:27 am

      A good question. And an important theological one…

  5. #8 by rosalindawijks on May 23, 2014 - 5:32 am

    Well, thank you. 🙂 I have been thinking a lot about what exactly is truth and what is lying lately.

    For instance, I have never worn hijab and never wanted to. Not only has no-one ever been able to convince me of the obligation of it (and I really read a lot about it, including the Quranic verses etc.), it’s well……….just not me. It just doesn’t feel “right” for me. It’s not a part of my culture or how I have been brought up.

    In my home culture, which is Afro-Caribbean, women do cover their hair with colourfull scarfs out of cultural reasons, or when they don’t have time to comb their hair (that tradition comes from West-Africa, where it is done by Muslims, Christians and pagans alike).

    But that has nothing to do with religion, and certainly not with modesty or chastity or respectability. Some women wear an agnisa (that’s how it’s called) with ample clothing, some wear it with sleeveless dresses or miniskirts.

    I always cover my head while praying and reciting the Quran and sometimes when doing du3a’s or dhikr, but that’s it. I have nothing against wearing head coverings for ritual and/or cultural reasons, but detest the whole “hijab makes women respectable” thing.

    Because of all these reasons, for me wearing hijab in my day-to-day life would be lying……

  6. #9 by rosalindawijks on May 23, 2014 - 6:58 am

    By the way, the fact that the existence of a system requires lying, means that there is something seriously and fundamentically wrong with it. Which reminds me of the wonderfull book and mini series “Queen” by Alex Haley, about the life and times of his paternal grandmother.

    Queen is born out of a love affair (one of the few true ones) between a Southern massa and his slave, who he has known and loved all his life.

    At a certain point he takes her in and raises her, together with his legal children.

    Even though he visits her mother every night and everybody knows about their relationship, he loves Queen, everybody knows she’s his daughter (including she herself) and she lives with him, she is obliged to say “massa”.

    And even though Easter (Queens mother) is the love of his life and he loves their daugher dearly, he is not “supposed” to love them, because they’re black and slaves – even though they are his “real” family (Queen was born before he married his legal wife)

    At least, if he would have been Muslim, the concubinage would have been legal, or he would have been able to take Easter as is second wife, and either way the child would have been legal. (And yes, I’m being somewhat sarcastic and cynical here)

    But anyhow, any system that teaches people to lie about their feelins, identity, experiences and that requires that people are “supposed” to think or feel something totally different then they truly think or feel, is flawed, since it’s not based on truth or reality, but on distorting truth and reality.

    Just my 2 cents after some thought about it. 🙂

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