“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.”

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