“Tails” for Converts: “Going Hard”

Part of a series on common pitfalls of converts. See Part 1 Here:
One Right Way Syndrome

Our newfound passion for Islam can lead us to make sweeping changes and adopt strict practices, including ones not commonly practiced by most “born-Muslims.”  In the beginning this “going hard*” can feel SO GOOD. 

In our great love and enthusiasm for Islam, we want to do everything at once, implement every rule, try every practice, and dive head first into being what I call (a la Nestle) The Very Best Muslim. 

The problem is that “going hard” can result in burnout, disillusionment and alienation.

Burnout: Sudden, drastic life changes and strict rules are difficult to maintain over the long term.  They often lead to physical, mental, and spiritual exhaustion which sets us back even further than we started.  

Disillusionment:  Practicing very strictly can give a person an initial “spiritual high” but this feeling wears off.  When this happens we can feel that there is no hope for us to ever “feel it” again because we have “done it all.”  

Some of us also trick ourselves into believing that True Religion and True Islam are found ONLY in those strict practices, and if we can’t sustain those strict practices then we can’t be a true or good Muslim anymore. If we can’t do everything exactly right, we feel we have failed and might as well stop trying.  

Other people “bargain with God” and believe that God will reward us for our strict behaviors with money, relationships, or other forms of worldly success.  When this doesn’t happen, we become disillusioned.  

Alienation:  Strict practices can drive wedges between us and our non-Muslim families as well as other Muslims.  Very strict people are often difficult for both Muslims and non-Muslims to relate to because we aren’t trying to be “normal people” anymore, we are trying to be “super-people.”  This further erodes our ability to make friends, fit in, and find support.

We may give up doing things that we once enjoyed (often unnecessarily) such as sports, art, music, television, holidays, or other activities. This causes us to become bored, unfulfilled, lacking identity, and lonely.

In extreme cases, some converts have experienced loss of employment, housing, and long-term relationship damage due to strict practices. 

What are some “benefits” we might get from “going hard?”

Feeling Confident and Stable Converting to Islam can be “social suicide” according to Sh. Suhaib Webb, and he suggests that “going hard” can compensate for our lost stability and security. Instead of relying on our old families, communities, cultures, hobbies, and other sources of identity, we use our newfound outer labels and as our source of stability.

Muslim Street Cred “Going hard” can also be a way to “prove ourselves” as Muslims.  Strict practices, especially if the are things other people can see like wearing “Muslim” clothing can help us feel accepted as “real” Muslims.  Some practices may make us feel part of an “in crowd” in certain groups or sects. 

Feeling Knowledgeable and (Yes-) Self-righteous  So many people in the world of a new convert are telling them that they’re wrong: Their non-Muslim friends and family on one side, and often the Muslim community on the other.  Adopting (and often promoting as well) strictness makes us look and feel confident and that we know what we are doing.  Self-righteousness is often a defense mechanism against being criticized and corrected and a way to rescue our self-esteem.  

Instant gratification The real inner work of being Muslim-implementing our daily salah, spiritual development, giving up haram things, getting therapy for our issues, tackling negative habits- is a long, hard road. Taking on strict external practices can make us feel accomplished, and give us a sense of instant gratification. This is one reason why it is not uncommon to find a woman interested in wearing niqab who is barely praying or not praying at all.

A Clean Break We can also adopt strict practices because we want to “make a clean break” from our pre-Islam identity, particularly if it involved a lot of sin or dysfunction.  Strictness becomes part of our “new identity” or even serves as an outward rejection of our “old” lives. 

Tips for finding a healthy balance

Diversify your people There is an art to finding a social group that can both support you in a healthy way but also encourage you to be a better you. Diversify your Muslim friends, teachers, and acquaintances.  If you are active on social media or online groups, diversify the accounts you interact with.  Stay away from groups and teachers that make you feel like you are “behind.”

Be honest with yourself  You can’t have spiritual development or a relationship with God if you aren’t honest with yourself about your real intentions.  Be willing to look DEEP.  Don’t buy into the lies that you’re just “angry for the sake of Allah” or “enjoining the good and forbidding the evil.”  Very few people in the whole world, even among the best and most knowledgeable people, have completely pure intentions.

Keep an eye on your mental health and wellness  Many of the reasons for wanting to “go hard” in religious matters are based in common mental health concerns, addiction, or unhealthy coping habits.  A healthy connection to God and religion are helpful parts of dealing with personal issues, but there are also unhealthy ways of using religion to “bypass” dealing with our personal problems.  

Avoid public attention  Fame is a trial that few survive.  Read that againRead it a third time. Memorize it.  People love to give attention to converts, especially online, and especially when converts take on emotional or controversial topics. Argumentation, public attention, and placing yourself in the role of “guide” or “instructor” are all soul-killing and dangerous for you and the people who listen to you when you don’t have the spiritual development and support you need to manage those roles.  

As you learn more, you may find yourself wanting to try practices that require more intensity or commitment.  Here are some tips for trying out new things.  

  • Check your intentions and ask yourself why.  Be honest with yourself.  If it is a “visible” practice that other people will see you doing, ask yourself if a practice that other people cannot see you doing wouldn’t also serve the purpose.  
  • Look deeply and ask yourself if you may be adopting this practice to compensate for a lack of a more foundational practice such as salah, reading Qur’an, or learning.  
  • Discuss your ideas with Muslims of different backgrounds and ask them if they would consider doing that practice and why or why not.  
  • Go gradually.  Give yourself time to experiment without commitment. .  
  • Do not attach your self-worth as a Muslim or a human being to your new practice. 
  • It’s okay to dial back the intensity.  If you can’t keep doing it, there is no shame in stopping.  
  • Establish your personal values about nonnegotiable practices: For most people this is the five times daily salah.
  • Keep an eye on your social group.  Will you feel judged and lowered in status if you decide you can no longer do it?

Religious rules and practices exist in Islam not as empty performances but as ways to connect to Allah and strengthen ourselves through that relationship.  It can take years or even decades of learning and experience to reach higher levels of spiritual achievement.  This is why foundational practices and learning are the most important places for any Muslim to invest their time and effort. 

The Prophet (S) said “This religion is deep so delve into it gently.”  [Ahmad] He (S) also said “The most beloved actions to Allah are those which are regular/consistent, even if they are small.” [Ibn Majah]

In the beginning years of your faith, focus on deepening your learning and reflection while staying consistent in the most important required deeds such as salah and regular duaa, dhikr, and reflection.  Staying away from recognized haram such as alcohol, drugs, and inappropriate sexual behaviors and images should also be a priority. Work on cultivating relationships with different types of Muslim friends and mentors while developing an integrated personality.  Continue enjoying halal activities you have always enjoyed whether it is in athletics, the arts, your job, nature, etc., and find ways to continue to enjoy quality time with your non-Muslim family whenever possible. 

As the years pass and you grow in knowledge, experience, and wisdom inshallah you will gradually acquire the tools to decide what practices are right for you and what you need to maintain a strong and healthy relationship with Allah and practice of Islam.

* (Note: I am borrowing this term from Sh. Suhaib Webb.)

“Tails” for Converts: One Right Way Syndrome

This is part one of a series originally written in 2016 on common pitfalls for converts to Islam. I will also be adapting this series for TikTok inshallah.

By Ustadha Jennifer Umm Amr

Upon discovering and eagerly accepting Islam, many of us mistakenly believe that within the One True Religion there must be One Correct Answer to every question. In the early years of our Islam, we often become very passionate about our pursuit and even promotion of what we believe to be the “One Right Way” in Islam.

However, limiting ourselves to “One Right Way” deprives us from tasting the diversity of Islam and prevents us from fully developing a strong, authentic faith and a deep relationship with Allah.

Islam is a religion with a rich, multifaceted tradition of scholarship, spirituality, and teaching. Within this tradition, the fundamental beliefs and practices are all agreed upon by mainstream scholars, what is often called “ahl as-sunnah wa l-jama`ah”- “the people of the sunnah and the majority.”

However, within this tradition there are also many variations on non-central points of belief and practice. These differences have traditionally been accepted and respected by the Muslim Ummah. These differences explain things like minor variations in methods of prayer, clothing styles, calculating timings for prayers or fasting, understandings of the nature of God, or approaches to contemporary issues.

In addition, there are many “languages” people can use to express ideas about Islam. Different “languages” can “speak” to different types of people and touch hearts in unique ways. They often developed in various parts of the world, including right here in the United States. These differences allow the truth of Islam and the joy of an Islamic life to easily take root among different people in all times and all places. (See Dr. Umar Faruq Abdallah’s classic article “Islam and the Cultural Imperative” for a more in-depth discussion of the cultural diversity of Islam.)

For example, some “languages” about Islam emphasize spirituality and the refinement of the heart. Some emphasize going back to nature and living off the land. Some emphasize intensive intellectual learning with books. Some emphasize political and community activism. Different groups draw from different traditions based in various countries: Scholars trained in Egypt, for example, often have a different “vibe” from scholars trained in Syria, or Mauritania, or Senegal, or Pakistan, or Malaysia, or Saudi Arabia, or Morocco, or Bosnia.

As Muslims we are free to seek out a “language” about Islam that speaks to us to help develop a strong practice and a deep, meaningful relationship with Allah that comes from the heart. We do not have to live inside little cardboard boxes! Embracing diversity, and allowing ourselves to explore, enjoy, and respect differing opinions and religious approaches within mainstream, orthodox Islam will add to the joy and stability of our faith.

The diversity of Islam and Muslims is so vast that it can be overwhelming to a newcomer. It can be comforting to find the mythical One Right Way and stick to it rather than try to figure out which is the way that makes sense to follow. We often feel pressured to hurry up and “pick a team” even though this is not a competition or a race and there are not winners or losers. Don’t let yourself be bullied into fearing that if you don’t “pick a team” that you aren’t a real Muslim, a good Muslim, or that you might be making the “wrong” choice and in danger of the displeasure of Allah.

Many converts also come to Islam after or even during an experience of trauma, mental health challenges, and/or tumultuous and unstable living situations. For these converts in particular, taking a One Right Way approach can provide structure, predictability, and comfort. This is not unique to Islam, and it is well-known that people seeking out stability after instability tend to gravitate toward restrictive interpretations of any religion.

Let’s also remember that as converts we are not immune from the same spiritual diseases of the hearts as anyone else. Our past sins being erased upon conversion is not the same as protection from sin moving forward. It also doesn’t mean that we have erased patterns of thought and behavior that are not good for us. We still need to learn and develop ourselves spiritually over time just like everyone else. The lure of being “right,” self-righteous, praised for our “devotion,” and “better” than other people and other Muslims is very strong for many of us. In community and social media environments, people often tell us explicitly to our faces that we are “better than them” because we chose Islam while they were just born into it.

White converts in particular are often sought out to be spokespeople to the broader community because they believe our whiteness provides Islam and the Muslim community credibility in the broader society. Therefore it is easy to get sucked into an idea that we are supposed to be speaking on behalf of Islam and teaching others at a young “age.”

Finally, there are many groups that specifically target converts in the hopes of molding us into ambassadors of One Right Way approaches. They know how appealing this message can be to many new converts. Any group or teacher who says that their opinion or version of Islam is the only right way; or spends lots of time trashing other groups and teachers; is NOT a group or teacher that represents a mainstream, mature, secure idea about Islam. This is a RED FLAG.

To be continued in part 2: “Going Hard.”

Convert Counsel #1: Losing My Identity

*Note: this is the first in a series of convert Q&As I’ll be posting based on my convert support work over 15+ years and my 28 years as a Muslim.

Question: I’m a Muslim revert of 6 years alhamdulilah. I’ve been struggling for some time with identity issues. I feel like I’ve lost my identity. I don’t know who I am anymore. I’ve changed so much over the last few years and my life is very different from how it was before. I’ve been trying really hard to make myself a better person in accordance with Islam and our teachings. But I feel like I’ve forgotten who I am, and what I love and I’m feeling quite lost.

Answer, by Ustadha Jennifer: Salaam!  This is a very common experience converts face and I’m so proud of you for thinking it through and reaching out. 

When we become Muslim we face a number of pressures, some from the community, and others from ourselves.  

Sometimes the Muslim community or the Muslim friends we hang with seem to want to turn us into “Muslim mini me’s” and there is pressure to conform to their expectations. People often want us to be Muslim in the exact same way they are Muslim because it makes them feel validated when someone new to Islam lives and practices like they do.   

Sometimes in our quest to be The Very Best Muslim we read books or advice from other countries or based on understandings of Islam (especially for women) that tell us that there is “only one right way” to be The Very Best Muslim.  Most of these resources are produced by men in countries like Saudi Arabia and they promote very narrow ideas about what a “Good Muslim Woman” looks like.  We then feel that we have to give up important parts of ourselves in order to be the Very Best Muslim.  

Sometimes we lack role models to show us examples of a fully integrated Muslim personality or what a healthy Muslim convert from our culture looks like.

Sometimes we ourselves want to “prove” that we “belong” as a Muslim by meeting the expectations of the other Muslims around us. Sometimes they don’t actually put this pressure on us but we put these expectations on ourselves because of our own insecurities.  Note that if we are white, we are often experiencing “being different” or “being a minority” for the first time (among Muslims) and we try to blend in to avoid the discomfort.  

Sometimes we are married to men from majority Muslim countries and we rely on them to “teach us” Islam and how to be Muslim.  The vast majority of them are not in any way qualified to teach us either and we may be limiting ourselves based on their expectations or their claims about what a “real Muslim” looks like. 

Sometimes when we came to Islam we wanted to actually “escape” parts of ourselves that we didn’t like, didn’t understand, or didn’t know how to integrate into a fully Muslim self.  Sometimes when we came to Islam we were struggling with mental health concerns, sin, trauma, or less-than-ideal lifestyles and behaviors, and distancing ourselves from our entire personality is easier than deconstructing and separating the healthy and unhealthy parts.  

A lot of this, however, is actually not related to becoming Muslim at all. These phases are a normal part of growing up and becoming fully adult.  Most of us generally convert in our 20s or during periods of upheaval or change in our lives. We haven’t lived long enough to have experienced the changes and evolutions that will happen later in life.

I’m in my 40s.  I have definitely been through several phases of life and evolution as a person during my almost 30 years as a Muslim.  10 years ago I realized that there were certain aspects of myself I had neglected, not because I was Muslim so much but more because, well, LIFE happened!  I discovered that I needed to bring those important things back into my life in order to feel complete. When I did start doing those things again, it was the first time I was doing them as a Muslim.  That was the time of my life when I started working on my Islamic knowledge and my Qur’an recitation and memorization again and I also went back to riding and owning horses which is something that was an important part of my life when I accepted Islam.

I have a working theory that the things that were important to us around the time of our spiritual awakenings/conversion to Islam are often things that speak to the deepest and most spiritually engaged parts of ourselves.  So I often recommend that you think back to who you were at that time. How did the things you were doing contribute to opening your heart and mind to Islam?  How do those things relate to your best spiritual self, the “person who accepted Islam”?

Some converts close themselves up into a cardboard box they have labeled “Islam.”  When a person stays crumbled up inside that box, they start to feel stiff, limited, and isolated in the dark. Eventually, they can’t take it anymore and they have to bust out.  In my experience, that tends to happen around the 10 year mark so it’s perfect timing that you are thinking about this now, in your 6-7 year time.  

This doesn’t mean that you are supposed to be the same person you were back then. In fact, you shouldn’t be the same. Growing through life means we change because we are adding layers of life experience and learning.  I have also found that I went through a mini-evolutions around my multiple of 10 birthdays (20, 30, 40). 

But you want to make sure that you are collecting all the things that make you who you are and nurturing them. Leave behind things that don’t serve you and making sure you keep the things that make you feel alive and competent.

When you feel alive and competent you will also be tapping into your best self and this will help you to become more spiritually competent. Self-knowledge means you can have self-awareness and honesty. It means you can feel at ease knowing that Allah created you and brought you to Islam because you are valuable and you belong in Islam. You can be honest and open in your prayer and du`aa’. You can understand what “language” of Islam speaks to you and find communities and teachers that speak that language so you can grow as a Muslim. You can learn about Islam more deeply and fit what you learn into the patchwork of your heart and your life. You can become a more developed and refined spiritual person. And you can use all of that to discover your mission for this season of your life.

White Converts: We Have to Face up to our White Supremacy and Privilege

Dear fellow white converts:

When we wear hijab, we have NOT given up our white privilege. If I hear one more of us say that I think I’ll scream.

Ask black sisters who wear hijab and you will learn that they are still treated MUCH differently. Our whiteness still gives us a pass in most situations.

When I lived in Oklahoma for example, our local tag agency made news for telling a black sister she had to take off her hijab for her driver’s license photo even though the law clearly stated that religious headwear is allowed in photos. I was surprised that this happened because I had never had that problem. My black sisters told me straight out: “That’s because you’re white. When you’re black, they treat you differently.”

Also, we are not suddenly absolved from our own unexamined internalized white supremacy and white privilege. And we cannot erase these things by simply declaring that “there is no racism in Islam” and we DEFINITELY do not erase these things by marrying guys from other cultures, especially if they are non-black Muslims.

Here are a few examples of our tendency to fall into patterns of unexamined white supremacy and white privilege as white converts:

*When we assert that Muslims should not follow their cultures and instead “only follow Islam.” We do not have the right to evaluate or demand erasure of other people’s cultures.

*When we get upset because we feel “out of place” in the masjid because people are speaking languages other than English, eating spicy food, or generally not prioritizing *US* in the social space. We are not entitled to instant popularity the minute we set foot in a Muslim space.

*When we expect or accept to be positioned as the “real” representatives of Islam, Muslim converts, or Islam in America.

*When we act like we are the first/only “Americans” to become Muslim and spend a lot of time complaining that it is so hard to be both, again while making no effort to learn from the long history and vibrant community of African American Muslims doing just that.

*When we try to “become” Arab or “ethnic” in unexamined and performative ways. When we believe that Arab Muslims have a higher authority on religious matters than other Muslims.

*When we accept to be taught about Islam only from “ethnic” Muslims but not African American Muslim scholars. (Pro tip: Have you diversified your social media and the scholars/teachers you listen to online?)

*When we criticize the ways different Muslims practice Islam that don’t make sense to us-that may in fact be valid interpretations- because we believe that all Muslims should think and act the same.

*When we leave Islam citing mistreatment by the Muslim community, yet we have not made any effort to learn from the history and experiences of the black Muslim community and/or have made no effort to seek out black-majority mosque or learning circles to attend.

*When we claim that we completely understand the black experience because we have faced discrimination while wearing hijab.

*When we uncritically jump on the bandwagon of right-wing Christian arguments about society, economics, and morality because we assume that Muslims are “the most conservative” and therefore all conservative causes and opinions must also be Muslim causes and opinions.

*When we uncritically jump on the bandwagon of privileged immigrant arguments about “hard work” being the solution to all socioeconomic problems. South Asians and Arabs in America have benefitted from the fruits of the civil rights movement and DO NOT face the same challenges and roadblocks as African Americans.

*Finally, I have found that when I raise this issue in groups of white converts, there are some people who react very strongly to these points and feel very offended by them. Please look up the concept of “white fragility” and realize that recognizing the ways in which we carry unconscious and unexamined attitudes and habits is part of spiritual development.

Can you think of others?

The Lost Art of Watchfulness

One of the lost arts in our time is the ability to spend a long time observing and just “being” in a place or with a person or a thing, no distractions, just watching. 

As we have been spending time outside in the yard this week working intensively on chicken coop construction, I have noticed things about our back yard that I’ve never noticed before. There are plants, leaves, moss, bumps, insects, weather patterns, and tons of other things to appreciate that you don’t see until you sit and watch: with consistent attention, no agenda, no distractions, relaxed and curious observation, attention to small details, and a sense of awe and openness.

Even watching the chickens free ranging around the yard becomes fascinating. In the “old days” before channel-surfing, binge-watching, and feed-scrolling this is what people watched. This is why we crave watching things that are slow-moving and repetitive. This is where we can quench the thirst of our soul, with things that return.

There is a lesson in this for our spiritual selves: If we don’t feel that our faith and its practices have anything to offer us, then we need to really spend time with God, with salah, with the Qur’an, with dhikr, and with the deep beauty of all the aspects of our faith from its spirituality to its legal structure. It takes consistent attention, no agenda, no distractions, relaxed and curious observation, attention to small details, and a sense of awe and openness.

The longer we spend, and the more experience The better we get at observing, the more we will observe. We get better at seeing small things, unlikely things, hidden things.

We’ve been conditioned to look only at things close to us- mostly our phones, but also books, computers, and things that we hold between our hands– so we actually have to exercise our eyes and re-train ourselves to hold attention at things that are far away and to give prolonged focus at objects or places.

The same is true for our spiritual eyesight. It takes time to learn or re-learn how to focus deeply, see beyond ourselves, and develop the patience and attentiveness for noticing.

Just as in nature, when you develop your spiritual eyesight, whole worlds will suddenly appear to you, worlds that existed just outside your doorstep.

Before long, you won’t even remember what it was like to live without the knowledge of the worlds now revealed to you.

They were always there, but now you have joined them.

Getting Off Our Butts

One of the challenges of being a Qur’an teacher is knowing that most of my students- the teen ones especially but not exclusively- don’t do homework or practice.  Especially for my teen students who are already drowning in school work, I understand this. Our approach to the Qur’an is also a problem because we treat it like another piece of homework.  

One commonality between “homework” and “Qur’an work” is that we have a tendency to do both while sitting down.

In fact, most of our lives are lived sitting down.  We sit on our butts constantly. So how can Qur’an work feel any different from all of our other daily work?

It’s been interesting to note that one of the most noticeable things people are doing to cope with quarantine is getting up and taking walks outdoors.  Here in Michigan, there was something of an outcry when the governor asked all large-scale (50,000 sf or greater) garden centers to stay closed as part of the expanded stay-home order.  Gardening, too, it seems, has become a lifeline for many people.  

I don’t know about you, but I got overwhelmed and tired of everything being online almost immediately.  My school was moved online. My son’s school was moved online. The masjid’s educational programs and sermons were moved online.  New online courses and meetings emerged to help meet people’s needs for socialization and to fill the gap of many people’s desire to learn.  Great, right? Easy, right?

I’m so sick of my computer screen.  My eyes are bugging out. I’m having headaches.  And my regular Qur’an students who all meet me online because most of them are in different states, have also disappeared and not met with me for the past few weeks.  I get it. It’s ONLINE OVERLOAD.  

I find myself going outdoors just to have an excuse to look at things far away.  I also had a physical therapist who taught me some eye exercises that help with issues I’ve had from past head injuries.  (If you’re interested, look up eye exercises for neck and shoulder pain online.) When you spend time in the sunlight and fresh air and force yourself to look at things far away and breathe deeply, you can literally feel your brain and body chemistry changing.  

When something is important to us and we want to make a commitment to single it out from everything else we do, we often first think of ways to metaphorically “get off our butts” to make that happen.  This usually involves indulging in self-flagellation of guilt and shame, followed by making paper charts and schedules, followed by failure, and abandonment of the commitment.  The whole process from beginning to end usually involves something we have to physically “sit on our butts” to do, so no wonder we develop malaise and lose motivation quickly. 

So here’s an idea I use with my Qur’an students a lot:  

Find ways that we can physically get off our butts to make spiritual practices something we do while in motion.  Qur’an reading, du’a (personal prayer), dhikr (remembrance/meditation) are all things we tend to do while sitting down, and because we do everything else while sitting down, we tend to (literally?) fall or sink into a kind of malaise because it feels just like everything else we “have to do.”  

Where can we relocate our Qur’an reading and practice?  I’m a big fan of taking it outdoors, using swings, reading to animals, even practicing memorization while walking slowly.  I advise my memorization students to print at least two copies of the page they are working on and hang them in prominent places (such as the refrigerator, dresser mirror, or bedside lamp) where they can see it regularly and do “drive-by homework”.  As they are moving around they can check in with a line or a few words, then continue to repeat them as they go about whatever work they are doing. (This is also part of my teaching on how to “change the noise in your head.”)  

Dhikr and du’a are easy to do while in any kind of motion.  Numerous hadeeths of course prescribe sayings connected to specific activities, but we are not limited only to those.  Connecting a particular prayer or remembrance to a specific activity can help develop a habit of connecting activity to a state of prayer, and allows one to effortlessly or even accidentally enter into a state of prayer without going through the stages of mental inertia, guilt, and shame we sometimes face.   For example, years ago I was participating in Rabata’s salawat challenge when I had just started going to physical therapy.  I developed a habit such that I now associate salawat with exercise repetitions, and I automatically “breathe” the salawat when I use resistance bands and weights.  

(Don’t worry if the repetition is mostly “mindless.”  This is also part of my teaching on how to “change the noise in your head” which I will write about soon inshallah.)

Even salah, the act that we are literally told to “stand up” and perform, can become an act of metaphorical and physical “sitting” if we get malaise about how where we perform it. This is one of the benefits of prayer in the masjid, right? And now the masjids are closed. Consider varying your prayer location if you feel like you are in a rut. Pray outdoors if you are able. Even the bumpy ground has something to teach you about the spirituality of being in motion.

What are some ways you can think of that you can literally and physically “get off your butt” for the sake of your mental and spiritual health?  

On Barn Closures due to Quarantine Orders

In the past few days, many states have announced stay-at-home orders. In many places, this has meant that equestrian facilities, as “non-essential businesses” have had to close, cancel lessons, and most importantly, tell boarders that they can’t come visit their horses for the duration of the lockdown. This has caused a LOT of grief and outcry on horse groups. I’ve seen people demanding prorated or refunded board, saying they want to move barns because they don’t believe it’s “legal” to tell them they can’t visit their horses. I’ve even seen some sketchy logic claiming that “horse boarding isn’t a business” which shouldn’t be covered by the orders. Wow.

We horse people love our horses like family, the same way we love our dogs and cats.  But unlike our dogs and cats, most of us can’t keep our horses next to us in our homes.

Instead, we have to rely on boarding our horses at facilities and we rely on barn owners to do the daily work of caring for our horses and maintaining a facility with barns, tack rooms, cleaning equipment, lights, indoor and outdoor arenas, performance equipment like jumps, fencing and gates, water systems, feeders…and they source (or grow), store, move, and feed the hay and grain and often the supplements and medications we add to our horses’ diets, and on and on.

In my experience as well most of the barn owners (who are, according to statistics, 90% women) are also doing all this while managing families, children (often as single mothers), and chronic health conditions.  

If we’ve learned nothing else from the Covid-19 pandemic, have we at least learned that there are a lot of people and privileges that we take for granted?  Grocery store workers, healthcare professionals at all levels, food service workers, bus drivers: We take these people for granted and we allow a system to exist that values their labor and their lives so little that they can’t live. 

Can we appreciate the great blessing of horse ownership?  How many of us could really own horses without the labor of barn owners?  Do we also appreciate that barn owners don’t really make money off our board checks? 

Can we also take a moment to appreciate natural areas, agricultural land, and greenbelts?  My particular barn is located in an area of preservation farmland where several farms are surrounded by new housing developments, literally 2 minutes from the developed city area served by the bus line and 10 minutes from downtown.  This important natural space might not otherwise exist without the labor of the farmers who manage these lands.

Many of the closures have also affected public park and recreation facilities.  National Parks, city parks, Metroparks, etc., have become overcrowded. One of the only things left for people in suburban areas to do is go outdoors and walk in their neighborhoods and nearby undeveloped land. People in urban environments do not have this privilege, and especially not now that public transportation has been shut down or severely limited.  

Fear makes us do mean things.  Fear makes us become resource guarders like horses who have become food aggressive because they were malnourished or pushed out of food by herd dynamics.  

The events of the past few weeks are unprecedented and things are happening so fast, it feels like every day something new is being taken from us.  The barn and our horses are a major part of our support system and our mental health and it is absolutely a difficult and sad situation to be told “stay home and don’t come see your horse until the stay home order is lifted.”  That feels like the rug being pulled out from under you, I know. I KNOW. I can’t go see my horse either and he lives 3 minutes down the road from my house. 

Coping with Separation from our Horses

Don’t deal with the grief and fear by lashing out at the people who make it possible for us to have horses in our lives.  A spiritual best practice (regardless of what your actual religion might be) is whenever you feel a sense of righteous indignation, anger, entitlement, or “me-ism” to talk back to it and do things that counteract that narrative in your head.  

Fight back by taking a moment to remember what a blessing it is to have horses at all.  Then think of all the things your barn owner has to do and maintain and spend money and energy and time on to make sure your horse is healthy and safe.  Think of all the ways it would be hard for you to do that.  

Then fight back by forcing yourself to reach out and GIVE rather than take.  

  • Send some supportive texts to your barn owner/manager.  Tell them you appreciate them. 
  • Check on them and ask if there’s anything you can do to physically help them, especially if you know they need to self-quarantine and/or they’ve lost their help.  With many people being forced to stay home with kids out of school, or they are self-quarantining because they are high risk, it’s possible that your barn owners/managers are working with little or no help. 
  • Lessons are canceled in most places as well which means your barn owner/managers and trainers have lost money and they might not be eligible for unemployment benefits. So:
    • Find ways to help out remotely by sending them gift cards for take-out food.  
    • Pay your FULL board amount and don’t demand a refund. 
    • Seriously, if you can, try to throw in some extra money to your board amount. We’re all on tight budgets but maybe the $50 we’re not spending on lessons this week, the $20 we’re not spending on gas to get to the barn, or heck even $5 with a nice note.
  • Pray for them. They are part of your horses’ family (and hopefully your friend and community too) and they deserve for you to mention them in your prayers.  

Finally, many of us women fulfill our needs to be caretakers by lavishing that care on our horses.  Many of us are middle aged, have raised children who didn’t (or still don’t) always appreciate our care.  Caring for our horses makes us feel competent, appreciated, and special. We can care for our horses from a distance by:

  • Brushing up on our horse care knowledge.  Some ideas include:
  • Researching our next supplement or tack purchase
  • Plain old window shopping online or in catalogs 
  • Watching videos and learning how to train our horse to do something new when we are reunited (I recommend The Willing Equine!  https://www.thewillingequine.com/)
  • Sewing or crocheting a fly bonnet or costume item for our horse
  • Creating a photo book or other project made from pictures of our horse
  • For those of us with Off-Track Thoroughbreds, researching their race history, finding their race videos, and trying to track down track photographers and former trainers if we haven’t already, and building a memory book of our findings. 

We all know that horses are a tremendous blessing.  We all know that NONE of us has horses for the money.  We all have horses because in some way we rely on them as much as they rely on us.  Extend that mutual reliance and love to the people who are part of your horse’s family.  


FAQ on Salah and Mental Health

FAQ on Keeping up Salah When Struggling with Mental Health: A working list.

This was originally devised for the converts’ support group I run, and I had many requests to make it shareable so I have posted it here for easy distribution.

Depression, anxiety, and other mental health difficulties can make it difficult to do normal daily activities. This includes religious practices and obligations.

It can be demoralizing and spiritually damaging to get into a habit of missing prayers, and developing an identity of “I am a person who stopped praying/misses prayers” can actually make the downward spiral of depression worse.

The following are some tips to make keeping up salah during low times easier, with the goal of limiting the number of missed prayers and preventing a person from developing a “not praying” identity.

The eventual goal would be returning to regular practices when feeling healthier.

Things to Remember:

  • There is no conflict between Islam and getting mental health treatment. Mental illness is not a spiritual failing. Medical treatment and therapy are all important and encouraged in our religion.
  • Keeping up with spiritual practices as much as possible has been shown to help improve mental health symptoms, and spiritual practices are an important aspect of treatment.
  • It is normal to struggle at times with Salah and this happens to all Muslims at different points in their lives. You are not less of a Muslim because you find this difficult.
  • Even if you miss prayers, you are still a Muslim, especially if you feel bad about missing them.

Tips and Modifications that May Help:

Prayer times

  • If 5 prayer times per day is difficult to maintain, consider praying one prayer at the end of the time and then waiting a few minutes and praying the next prayer right at the beginning of the time. For example, delay dhuhr prayer until the very end of its time period, wait a few minutes and then pray asr. The same can be done for maghrib/isha.
  • In extreme circumstances, dhuhr/asr can be combined and maghrib/isha can be combined. These combinations are allowed when traveling, are frequently applied by Shiites, and some schools of thought allow these combinations in emergencies as long as they don’t become a “habit”.
  • There are two options for praying dhuhr prayer: In the Hanafi school, Asr prayer starts about 45 minutes later than other schools of thought. Check with your local community prayer schedules to see which method is being applied, and you may have extra time to pray dhuhr.


  • Some schools of thought allow wiping over even thin socks instead of outright washing the feet.
  • Some people with obsessive-compulsive disorder find that making a “dry ablution” by dry wiping, or making a sort of pantomime wudu, is necessary to prevent excessive washing episodes.

Prayer practice

  • Most “how to pray salah” resources include a lot of the sunnah actions and words of the prayer that aren’t *required* for the prayer to be legally valid and complete. Here is a list of the *obligatory* acts of salah ONLY
    • Opening takbeer
    • Surat al-fatiha
    • Allahu akbar and ruku’
    • Subhaana rabbi al-adheem one time
    • Allahu akbar and stand up
    • Allahu akbar and make sujud
    • Subhaana rabbi al-a`laa one time
    • Allahu akbar and sit
    • Allahu akbar and make sujud again
    • Subhaana rabbi al-a`laa one time
    • End of prayer while sitting
      • The tashahhud
        • Many converts find this difficult to memorize: break it into chunks
      • Ashhadu an laa ilaaha illa Allah wa ashhadu anna Muhammadan Rasul Allah
      • Instead of the complete “salawat Ibrahimyya” one can say simply a minimum of “Allahumma Salli `ala Muhammad”
      • One salaam at the end (to the right)

Other prayer modifications

  • Some people with depression find it easier to pray sitting if praying standing is difficult.
  • If you miss a prayer, try to make it up as soon as you realize.
  • Consider praying with others as often as possible. Sometimes it’s easier to let someone else lead the prayer and then they take on the mental load of counting raka`ats and saying the parts aloud.
  • Pray only the obligatory prayers and don’t worry about the sunnah prayers. The obligatory prayers are 2/4/4/3/4 raka`ats.
  • If you feel stuck in bed or a chair and can’t get up, you can make a “dry” wudu and pray as you are, even if all you move are your eyes.
  • Some salah is always better than none at all, even if you are inconsistent.
  • If you are struggling to find spiritual feeling or a connection to God during salah, don’t forget that a complete salah experience ideally includes some time after the salah to make duaa (personal prayer, talking to God) when you can say whatever you want in whatever language you want.

Lifestyle and support

  • Consider establishing a dedicated “prayer area” in your home. It can be small- the size of a prayer rug or even a hand-towel. This can call you and remind you to pray and can serve as a calm, beautiful, nice-smelling meditation-type area.
  • Try practicing some type of calming or grounding activity just prior to starting your salah such as deep breathing, dhikr, tapping (EFT), affirmations, reading a short verse of the Qur’an or duaa, or something that works for you.
  • As much as possible get support. If you don’t live with someone who can help you wake up for fajr or remember to pray during the day, consider finding a buddy or starting a prayer-buddy system or group text with friends.
  • Consider trying a salah or prayer times/adhan app to help you remember to pray.

Special SituationsSubstance Abuse

  • As per the Qur’an, if you are intoxicated or under the influence you should wait until you have recovered and then pray.
  • A hadith is popularly quoted that if a person drinks alcohol, their salah is not accepted for 40 days. This does not apply to people who are struggling with addiction and don’t feel in control of their actions. It only applies to a person who does not repent. Continue praying as normal even if you have fallen off the wagon and are using substances such as drugs and alcohol.

PTSD from Spiritual Abuse

  • Sadly, there are many women who suffer from PTSD surrounding religious practices related to having been spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and physically abused by men who use “religious” justifications and controlling behavior aimed at religious practices.
  • Approaching salah can trigger anxiety, panic, and other post-traumatic responses.
  • Many spiritually abused women report that they were told that their prayers are not accepted by Allah because they are “bad” or “disobedient” wives.
  • You are not alone, and you are not a “bad Muslim” like he may have said you are.
  • Remember that Allah knows you better than you know yourself and He is forgiving and merciful.
  • Some survivors of spiritual abuse recommend finding acts of worship to do first that don’t trigger PTSD responses, such as dhikr, duaa, spiritual reading (Qur’an or other religious books), etc.
  • Work with a therapist to learn ways to reapproach your spiritual life without fear.


  • Discuss the importance of your spiritual/religious practices with your therapist. Even if they are not Muslim they can help you identify ways to create healthy habits that support your religious life.
  • As you begin to heal, challenge yourself. For example, if you’ve been wiping over your socks instead of making a full wudu you can tell yourself “today I’m going to challenge myself to make a full wudu” or you may say “today I’m going to add sunnah prayers to fajr”.
  • When you find yourself struggling with worship, Anse Tamara Gray recommends identifying acts of worship you find easy for you and doing as much as you can. So if salah is difficult, try increase in your daily Qur’an reading, fasting, or amount of dhikr.

Listening: By Charles Upton

Listening: By Charles Upton

From The Book of Nature ed. Camille Helminski

When trying to tell the difference between things by naming them, we tend to rely on our eyes: we attach a particular name to a particular object we see.  But to get a sense of the original Unity that exists before we start naming things, one thing we can do is pay more attention to what we hear than what we see.  When we name things, we merely attach words to them; when God names things, He brings them into existence.  If we stop speaking and talking to ourselves for once, and listen instead to the sounds of the world, it is as if we were listening to the sound of God’s original act of creation.  

Listening softens the gaze.  And if we listen deeply enough- if, that is, we stop talking to ourselves completely enough- then the Eye of the Heart may open, and let us see into the heart of things.  

The world is God’s first Book, in which every form is a letter or sentence.  But the world is also an echo of God’s spoken Word, in which every sound is a reverberation of the original word Kun, “Be!”, by which He brings all things into existence.  THe sense of sight is related to our ability to tell things apart by naming them.  The visual forms of objects appear as established facts; they seem to exist in their own right.  In the face of their matter-of-fact existence, we tend to forget that, in reality, all things are signs of God.

The sense of hearing is different.  It is related more to God’s continuous act of creating the universe than to the catalogue of what He has already created.  This is why, in Islam, the written and spoken word is emphasized over the image, and why making images of the natural world is discouraged, and why making an image of God is forbidden: because an image is always in danger of turning into an idol.  

Whenever we take something literally, as if it existed in its own right rather than being an act of God, we have made an idol out of it.  If we see the universe as made up of things, we are tempted to identify with those things, to desire and possess them; and the first step toward possessing something is to define it, to give it a name.  That which you serve, apart from Him, is nothing but names yourselves have named [12:40].  

But if we see the universe as made up of acts of God, acts which we can no more predict, or control, or grasp with our greedy hands than the next gust of wind or the next cry of a bird, then this kind of idolatry becomes impossible to us.  All we can do is wait, in attentive silence, for God’s next gift. His next warning. His next command.  

Instead of always trying to name and define things, why not keep silent, and listen to how God is pleased to name and define things?  Why not let Him teach us their shapes and definitions?  He taught Adam the names, all of them [2:31].  After all, it is He, not us, who creates them.

Sound is bigger than us; it surrounds us and washes over us.  We can deliberately look in a particular direction, but we can’t deliberately listen in a particular direction.  Sounds simply come to us, unpredictably, uncontrollably, from beyond what we know.  This is why hearing is related to obedience— instead of judging and discriminating we simply “hear and obey” [2:285].  To hear is to heed.  With our eyes we investigate, we spy things out– but the knowledge that flows into our ears is something that is impressed upon us, not something we can grasp or locate on our own initiative.

The will of God comes into our experience through the dimensions of time. We become sensitive to the will of God by paying attention to the changes that are always going on- and one of the best ways to do this is simply by listening instead of looking.  If we listen deeply enough, we can hear the subtle changes in the quality of passing time, like changes in the weather, or the quality of light or the mood we and our friends are in. If we listen deeply enough to the sounds of the world, we may almost hear the silent pressure of God’s creative power- the word Kun— by which He brings all things into existence.  When He decrees a thing, He says to it “Be,” and it is. [19:35]

In listening to the sounds of the world, you simply sit and attend to all the sounds within your range– birds, wind in the trees, flowing water, traffic sounds, human voices– and hear them as the voice of Allah, the vibration of the primal creative Source of the Universe, finally reaching your ears.

When you listen to the sounds of the world, you begin to see yourself as part of the world around you, a universe created by God before you were born, immensely bigger than you in space, immensely older than you in time.  And you also come to understand that God’s act of creating the world never ended; it is still going on. If He were to stop saying Kun! (Be!) for one instant, the universe and everything in it would fall into oblivion.  This is one way of coming to a deeper understanding of what it means that God is Creator, Producer, Fashioner, Lord of all Worlds (1)

The practice of paying attention to the natural world is a discipline in itself; it requires us to suppress our formless agitation, our obsessive strategizing, as well as the images produced in our mind by fear and desire.  We must never forget that heedlessness is only cured by discipline; we must also never forget that Paradise is a Garden, of which the natural world is the clearest of signs. As for those who have attained to righteousness– what of those who have attained to righteousness?  They, too, will find themselves amidst fruit-laden trees, and acacias flower-clad, and shade extended, and waters gushing and fruit abounding, never failing and never out of reach. [56:27-33]

When we go out into the natural world, into that part of the planet which is neither destroyed nor cultivated by human action– the part that “arises of itself”, not by our own efforts and plans and agendas, but by the will of God– we meet a different part of ourselves.  When you are in a natural, living environment, an environment that possesses life, like you do, but does not possess serious heavy ego, then you can begin to feel how your body is a part of nature, part of God’s creation, one more living organism among the bugs and plants and birds… there is no beast that walks on earth and no bird that flies on its two wings which is not [God’s] creature like yourselves: no single thing have We neglected in Our decree [6:38].

(1) Note: Although this kind of deep listening can be practiced anywhere, among the best places to do it, are by a stream or waterfall, or on the shore of the ocean, or in a wooded area, during a gentle wind.  (Or if at night, the frogs and the crickets.) ~C. Upton

A Hadith to Give Hope to People Struggling With Addiction

In my work with converts, I have come to love and respect many sisters who are dealing with addiction.  I also have a number of both Muslim and non-Muslim friends who are in various stages of recovery and I have moderated online discussions of convert sisters who are dealing with various stages of addiction and recovery. 

Many Muslims don’t really know how to “handle” the subject of addiction because our knee-jerk reflex is “alcohol and drugs are haram, period” and “if you can’t control yourself around substances you must be a bad person.”  

As a public health student, we learn that the medical definition of addiction is that it is a disease and that treatment of the disease has both medical and self-control components, similar to diabetes.  

In my roles as a public health student, convert counselor, spiritual advisor, and also as a friend, I can tell you that people in recovery are some of the most beautiful and strong people you will ever meet.  

Most Muslims struggling with addiction are full of shame and embarrassment.  I’ve had sisters tell me I’m the only Muslim they have told about their struggles with addiction.  In one case, a friend of mine went public with her recovery journey when she started AA and got sober and I was privately contacted by other Muslims who told me I should advise her that it’s “haram to openly discuss your sins and normalize alcoholism among Muslims.” 

I can tell you that that nobody WANTS to be an addict.  Addicts see and know painfully well the negative impacts their addiction has on their lives.  They don’t need a lecture about the evils of alcohol or the harmfulness of drugs. They don’t need you to tell them it’s haram.  They don’t need Qur’an verses or Hadiths about punishments and warnings. In fact they probably know more than the average Muslim, from lived experience, the meaning of “there is harm and benefit in them but the harm is greater than the benefit (2:219).  

This Hadith (which you can find in the 40 Hadith Nawawi collection) is important for anyone struggling with addiction:

On the authority of Ibn Abbas (may Allah be pleased with him), from the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him), from what he has related from his Lord: Verily Allah ta’ala has written down the good deeds and the evil deeds, and then explained it [by saying]: “Whosoever intended to perform a good deed, but did not do it, then Allah writes it down with Himself as a complete good deed. And if he intended to perform it and then did perform it, then Allah writes it down with Himself as from ten good deeds up to seven hundred times, up to many times multiplied. And if he intended to perform an evil deed, but did not do it, then Allah writes it down with Himself as a complete good deed. And if he intended it [i.e., the evil deed] and then performed it, then Allah writes it down as one evil deed.” [Al-Bukhari] [Muslim].

Observe what we learn here:  

  • If a person does a good deed and they do it, they are rewarded for doing it 10 times.
  • If a person is on track to do a good deed and something gets in their way and they end up not doing it, they still get the credit for having done it once anyway.
  • If a person does a bad deed they only get credited for doing it once.
  • And if a person is on track to do a bad deed and they DON’T do it, they get credited as having done one good deed.  


  • People struggling with addiction are constantly working to keep themselves from doing bad deeds.
  • People struggling with addiction are often living day-to-day (“One Day at a Time” as they say in AA), or even hour-to-hour and minute-to-minute.  
  • EVERY TIME a person struggling with addiction makes that decision not to drink or use, they are getting credited for a good deed.  Over and over again, multiple times per day. The rest of us have to actually DO a good deed to get that good deed.  
  • In the end, a person who struggles with addiction may achieve a higher spiritual rank because of that daily struggle.  Just sitting on the couch,just existing, brings good deeds.  That is more muraqabah (self-monitoring) than most of us will ever achieve.  

So for those of you who are struggling with addiction, know that God sees you,  I see you. You are beloved to God.  

And if anyone tells you about that Hadith that “your salah is not accepted for 40 days if you drink” know that this Hadith only applies to someone who has not repented and is happy with their drinking.  It does NOT apply to people struggling with addiction. DO NOT stop praying your salah. If you are drunk or under the influence, wait until you have recovered and then pray. If you have missed some prayers you can make them up.  But know that your prayers ARE heard and accepted. It doesn’t even have to be a “good” prayer, just showing up to the prayer rug and making the best effort you can is enough.   

And to those of you reading this who, like me, have never struggled with addiction: Educate yourselves. One thing I have learned in life is that there is no one struggling except that they can teach you more about hard work, honesty, and compassion than you can ever imagine. The most you will ever learn and grow is from serving people who are struggling with things you don’t understand. Instead of judgment, learn to be of service to those who are struggling.

Additional reading:

The Night Before Eid:  Substance Abuse and the Muslim Community:  Sh. Suhaib Webb


Muslims and the Problem of Addiction: Ustadh Mohamed Ghilan


I Saw My Husband Smoking Marijuana:  Seekershub