Preaching to the Unconverted


I am very reluctant to accept invitations (and there are many of them) to seminars and colloquia on apostasy. While their organisers have their own reasons for these meetings, I would like to see a wider seminar on the large number of converts to Islam.

In the run up to general elections, there will be stories in various newspapers about members or political parties renouncing their loyalties. Whether the news is true or false, it is part of a psychological war  intended  to  weaken  a  party’s  election  machinery  and  to discourage those intending to vote for them. And so it is with the issue of apostasy: if all we talk about is people leaving the religion, we dishearten those few sincere Muslim missionaries and break the spirits of non-Muslims who wish to know more about our religion.

Is there anything more unfortunate than a religion that not only fails to attract others to it, but has its own adherents abandoning it too? Those who make a fuss of the large number of Muslim apostates play an important role, whether directly or indirectly, in weakening the Ummah from within and preventing others from approaching this Divine religion.

We have read about the great Muslim leader `Umar bin al-Khattab, who once advised Muslim soldiers, headed by Saad bin Abi Waqqas, who were preparing for the Qadisiyyah war against the Persians. His advice was filled with pearls of wisdom, among which was this:

That which has brought victory to the Muslims is no more than the sins of their enemies. But for this fact, we would not have had the strength to face our enemies. Our strength is not as theirs, and our preparations (equipment) are not as theirs. If we were their equal in sin, then certainly we should have the advantage in strength. But if we are unable to triumph with the advantage of the God-fearing, then we shall certainly not be able to defeat them through might. (Dr `Ali al-Salabi, Umar bin al-Khattab, Cairo: Dar al-Tauzi’ Wa al-Nasyr al-Islamiyyah, p. 420.)

`Umar’s speech remains fascinating and full of meaning. It is a lesson for us, the Ummah, who are now so defeatist. I wish, however, to look at the reverse: if `Umar said “our strength is not as theirs, and our preparations (equipment) are not as theirs,” the reality in our country is the opposite. The number of Muslims is increasing, the Government’s budget and other allocations for Islamic programmes are abundant. Even income from zakat (obligatory charity) grows every year—although the poor still suffer—and Islamic departments and officers are numerous.

We have departments, organisations, foundations, courts, legislation and many other provisions dedicated to the interests of Islam. So why does it seem as if we are a defeated Ummah? If we can’t be victorious through our sincere devotion to Allah, can we at least succeed through physical ability?

A person travelling on foot will eventually reach his destination if he keeps walking in the right direction. But a person in a fancy luxury car will go nowhere if he remains stationary, picking over how fine his car is without actually driving it anywhere. That is our condition today. We should be asking how far we have really moved this wonderful car of ours.

What should have happened is this: in accordance with the beauty of Islam, the longer non-Muslims live in a Muslim community the more comfortable they will feel and the more they will esteem Muslims, if they don’t embrace Islam altogether. But the reality is that, with each passing day, the seeds of bigotry and prejudice blossom between them and us. I have no intention here of discussing the non-Muslim community and their agenda. But it is possible that it is we who have failed to present the true face of Islam which upholds values and honour. In time, Islam itself could become very unattractive to all of them.

We  have  failed  to  present  positive  values  to  them  from  the perspectives of economics and the affairs of the world. If we wish so much that the non-Muslims respect Islam through our successes in economic development and way of life, it seems that such wishes are simply too woolly. There is no shortcut to economic success. All that is left to us is to show how well the teachings of Islam shape the noble ethics of the Ummah. Indeed, there are still many people in this world who value grace more than wealth.

Sadly, our system of dakwah (missionary work) for the non-Muslims is wholly non-existent. A new Muslim convert complained that when he first decided to embrace Islam, he contacted the relevant authorities and was told by an official: “If you want to convert, you have to do it during office hours and wait until I come into the office.” I’d like to suggest that the official post a notice on his door saying “time to embrace Islam: 8am to 5pm”. Our dakwah spirit is shaky and yet we are baffled by why others are uninterested in Islam. Other people work hard for their religion regardless of time or sacrifice; and so we should not be surprised if they prevail in this competition.

Many non-Muslims have the wrong idea about Islam’s attitude towards them. They think that Islam promotes hatred and hostility to non-Muslims for no reason; but Allah says in  Surah Al-Mumtahanah, verses 8-9:

“Allah forbids you not, with regard to those who fight you not for (your) Faith nor drive you out of your homes, from dealing kindly and justly with them: for Allah loves those who are just. Allah only forbids you, with regard to those who fight you for (your) Faith, and drive you out of your homes, and support (others) in driving you out, from turning to them (for friendship and protection). It is such as turn to them (in these circumstances), that do wrong.”

But what is there to be surprised about if they misunderstand Islam? They see many Muslims receiving welfare aid from them, such as those after the Tsunami, the chronically ill and the like.

Some Muslims regularly visit their places of worship to receive free medical aid, while on our part we don’t give them much of anything. Furthermore, the positions of local  mazhab (schools of fiqh) are so narrow that we even ban giving them meat from an animal slaughtered for feasts of korban  (sacrifice) or akikah  (thanksgiving), even if they are our next-door neighbours. It gets to the point that, when we invite the public to partake in the feast, we deliberately do not invite non-Muslims for fear that their presence will nullify our korban or akikah .

Neither the Quran nor the hadith say any such thing. Even the Permanent Committee for Islamic Research and Fatwa of Saudi Arabia, when asked about this, said:

Yes, we are allowed to give sacrificial meat to a non-Muslim who does not wage war against Islam, or to a non-Muslim prisoner of war. We are allowed to offer the meat of sacrifice to alleviate his poverty, or due to family ties or as a neighbour, or so as to win his heart. (11/424.)

But because of our blind adherence to a specific mazhab, many of us are narrow-minded when it comes to this issue. The funny thing is, we hold back a few pieces of  korban  meat but at the same time we’re pawning our licences, permits, projects and land to the non-Muslims. And we are also narrow-minded on the matter of greeting salam to non-Muslims.

Many get worried when certain religious groups give aid to Muslims in times of crisis. They fear that Muslims will be influenced by them.

But the question is why don’t we give aid to the non-Muslims? We have a Baitulmal (general fund for Muslims), “surplus” zakat and other resources that can be used to attract Muslims and non-Muslims alike to get to know the religion better. What’s troubling is that there are some Muslims who believe that no reward awaits them for being charitable to non-Muslims. This is absolutely untrue.

In the time of the Prophet  pbuh, Muslims at first also hesitated in giving aid to non-Muslims. They felt that high reward would be gained only if charity was given to those of the same faith. To address their concerns, Allah revealed in  Surah Al-Baqarah,  verse 272:

“It is not required of you (O Messenger), to set them on the right path, but Allah sets on the right path whom He pleases. Whatever of good you give benefits your own souls, and you shall only do so seeking the “Face” of God. Whatever good you give, shall be rendered back to you, and you shall not be dealt with unjustly.”

This verse means that charity to anyone, Muslim or non-Muslim, a good person or not, will still be rewarded as long as the intention of the giver is to seek Allah’s blessing (see Ibn Kathir,  Tafsir al-Quran al-‘Azim,  Saudi Arabia: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 2/476.)

Even in the distribution of zakat, some scholars say that the allocation dedicated for new converts may also be given to non-Muslims who bear no hostility towards Islam. Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi is among those who hold this view (see his Fiqh al-Zakah,  Beirut: Muassasah al-Risalah, 2/707). Whether poor or not, non-Muslims may be given a part of  zakat if this helps bring their hearts closer to Islam.

But our definition on the term new convert (mualaf) is so narrow that  zakat fails to function as part of the agenda of  dakwah. And so it is unsurprising that zakat funds are in surplus every year while, at the same time, the problems of our Ummah keep increasing.

In the past, some considered it ill if the funeral procession of a non-Muslim should pass in front of them. However, it is said in a hadith:

“There passed a bier before the Holy Prophet pbuh and he stood up (to pay his respects). He was told that it was the funeral of a Jew. The Prophet  pbuh responded: ‘Was he not human or did he not have a soul?’” (Reported by al-Bukhari and Muslim.)

Such fine values should be made clear to the non-Muslims so that they may look up to our Prophet  pbuh. We should not try to bind religion to the values of extremism.

Our mosques should do the same as those in the time of the Prophet pbuh. Non-Muslims were permitted to enter mosques and listen to lectures and religious talks or, if they were in need, to receive financial aid. Mosques should be open to non-Muslims that they might come to know Islam, to see the devotion of Muslims and to get more information about the religion. This was exactly what happened in the time of the Prophet pbuh.

Representatives, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, from many lands came to meet the Prophet  pbuh in his mosque. But for us today, if a non-Muslim enters a mosque or comes to witness the devotion of  Muslims,  a  narrow-minded  kind  of  thinking  will  activate immediately.

There is much more to be discussed. I suggest that we include in our religious studies syllabus (in mosques and schools) the subject of jurisprudence or Islamic ethics as applied in our interactions with non-Muslims. I say this in the hope that the Light of our beautiful religion will shine before them.

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, Islam in Malaysia: Perceptions & Facts. (sample chapter)

The author are former Mufti of Perlis, Malaysia, lecturer in University Science of Malaysia and currently at Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, Oxford attending “Visiting Research Scholar” funded by British Council.

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9 responses to “Preaching to the Unconverted

  1. Good article. I’ve been watching some u-tube reports about the outrage in Malaysia over Christian groups attempting to proselytize Muslims. In a free society, though, people should be allowed to believe what they want, and people should be allowed to try to persuade others. Muslims should be allowed to try to convert any Christian who is willing to listen to them, and Christians should be allowed to try to convert any Muslim who is willing to listen to them.

    As a Christian, I do not believe that force or intimidation should be used to keep someone from committing apostasy. I am commanded by God to love even apostates.

  2. In New Testament Christianity, we are actually supposed to behave harsher towards sinning Christians than unbelievers and apostates. We are allowed to be friends with unbelievers, but we cannot eat with so-called Christians who live immoral lifestyles (I Corinthians 5:9-13).

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