Reflections of an American Muslim

(Shahid Athar , M. D.)

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"Oh you who believe, make not unlawful the good things which God has made lawful for you, but commit no excess for God loves not those who commit excess" (5:90).

Living as a Muslim in a non-Muslim society is difficult but not impossible. We are to enjoy what is permitted and avoid what is forbidden. Sometimes this distinction is easy and sometimes it is not. There are situations that fall in the grey zone and according to the Traditions we are also to avoid that which is doubtful. However, what is not appropriate is that we like to do things which are wrong because of a cultural habit that we have formed and justified. On the other hand, there are things that we must do: for example, attending Friday prescribed congregational prayer, but we find an excuse not to do so. Thus we should not try to make what is forbidden, permissible and what is permissible, forbidden because it is only up to God to do so. Also sometimes we are not able to define priorities of certain situations. For example, someone may be very careful in choosing the blessed slaughtered meat because that is permissible, but not careful in performing the five daily prescribed prayers which are obligatory. On the Day of Judgment, we will be first questioned about our prescribed prayers much before we will be questioned about what kind of meat we ate.

The late Dr. Fazlur Rahman once wrote an article entitled "How to Revive Islam From the Debris of It's Past." By past, he meant the past 1,300 years because some Muslims have not tried to figure out how Islam flourished and developed after the first one hundred years, especially when they went to non-Muslim societies in Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Far East.

By the debris, he meant all the cultural and regional influences on Islam which have covered the beauty and essence of pure way of life by such practices. Thus, in order to see the true beauty of Islam, we have to remove that debris and uncover the pure Islam while still making adjustments to different climates in which Islam finds itself. Thus I am going to divide our concerns with the prohibited and permissible into different areas and at the end. I will present an actual survey of opinions of different Muslim scholars in the United States on the same questions.

The number one concern is that related to our diet. In Islam, Muslims are told not to eat pork, pork products, alcohol and dead meat. The difficulty is that in may food items, lard is mixed, lard products like gelatin are present, or enzymes from swine or pork are part of the ingredients. Similarly, in many medicines, alcohol is present to a certain degree. My humble suggestion in this area should be that we should make a habit for ourselves and our children to read the labels of all food items and medicines before we ingest them. This is a blessing in this country that we can know what we are eating. In most of the other countries, including Muslim countries, food ingredients are not on the label, therefore we don't know what we are taking in. We should use items which are of vegetable shortening only and do not have a gelatin or enzyme products. Similarly, we should try to avoid any oral medicines which have alcohol in them if we can find a substitute. Many of the cough medicines now are being developed without alcohol. It may happen, although rarely, that a medicine cannot be dissolved in water or other ingredients or especially in injectable forms; therefore, for those essential medicines, we ask God's forgiveness.

In terms of the blessed slaughtered (Islamic slaughter) meat, the controversy in whether God's Name has been invoked or saying, "I begin in the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate" should be done at the time of slaughter or at the time of cooking or at the time of eating the food, preferable, all three. Again, there is no consensus among Muslim scholars if the meat eaten by the people of the book is acceptable to Muslims or not. Many say "yes" using the verse in the chapter al-Maida giving this permission. On the other hand, those who object say that those verses apply to food in general and not for meat because for meat the verse they quoted is from 16:115, which says, "Do not eat any meat over which name of other than God has been invoked." In either case, the blessed slaughtered meat is a healthier meat because the blood and blood products have been drained and the chances of infection and anti-body formation are much less. For the same reason, kosher meats are acceptable to some Muslims although, again, at the time of slaughtering, Jewish rabbi do not use God's Name on each individual animal, but do a prayer in mass. My own suggestion is that one should use only the blessed slaughtered meat if that is available to that person or it is within driving distance. If blessed slaughtered meat is not available and one cannot live without meat, then one has to decide between being a vegetarian versus invoking God's Name at the time of eating the meat. The worse situation will be that those two groups, while insisting on being right, accuse the other group of infidelity or ingratitude and hurt the feelings of the other Muslims and earn the displeasure of God.

The second item is social mixing and dress code for men and women. Both men and women in Islam have a dress code so while women should cover their body's in all areas except face, hands, and feet, men should also be in appropriate dress. The other aspects of dress is that it should not be too tight or too thin, should also apply to both sexes. Muslim women constantly complain that when they put on the head cover, they are identified as Muslim women and thus discriminated against by society. What is the identification for Muslim men who do not have a beard or do not have a cap? Here again are questions of priorities and cultural biases. Some women consider the sari of Indo-Pakistani women an un-Islamic dress because it sometimes reveals portions of the belly. Now on the other hand, the Indo-Pakistani women do not like the skirt showing part of the legs of women as appropriate Islamic dress and consider it as Anglo- French culture. The point I am making is that in Islam, there is nothing like the Arab dress or Pakistani dress. Many Arab Christian women also dress the same way as Arab Muslim women and Pakistani Christian women dress the same way as Pakistani Muslim women. In order to be identified as a Muslim, the women and men should know the guidelines of Islamic dress and try to design their dress according to this. A nice booklet by Dr. Jamal Badawi is available on the title, "The Dress Code in Islam."

In the area of social mixing, the separation of the sexes is emphasized very much in Islam. By this, mixing is meant non-business, intimate mixing. Muslim women in the past and even now in societies where Islam is practiced, have conducted their regular business whether in terms of teaching or nursing by the side of men if both of them have their Islam etiquette in their dress code, manners and talking. Neither of them should dress or behave in a way to incite the other nor should they talk in a romantic way to make some suggestions. Other than that, they can mix while conducting a business or running an organization. Women should be allowed to go to the mosque, to pray and to participate in other important activities in the mosque. However, there should be separate areas for them for such purposes.

Interactions with non-Muslims is another tricky situation. We are asked to spread the message of Islam and give missionary work and take care of our neighbors even if they are non-Muslims, help the poor and needy even if they are non-Muslims, but how do we do these without mixing with them? My solution to this situation is not that we have to stay inside our home or inside our mosques and let those seekers of missionary work visit us. We have to take ourselves and our religion out of the closet and into the open air to expose non-Muslims to practicing Muslims and Islam. The best way we can do this is, first, at the work place, where we do meet non-Muslims and from our words and mostly from our actions and appearance, we let them know we are Muslim and available to answer any questions they may have about Islam and be prepared to answer those questions. Thus it implies that we must learn and practice Islam first before we go out on this venture.

Secondly, we don't have to be forceful in giving such preaching of Islam rather than just give the necessary information and praying to God to accept our effort and give guidance to those who seek it. We have to be pleasant in manner and have wisdom as outlined in the Quran and know the techniques of giving missionary work. However, we must choose our playground. We should not play games on their ground, but should engage in discussions on our terms. We must participate in the interfaith process and visit synagogues and churches, while allowing non-Muslims to visit us during our social functions like the Festival or the post-sunset ending of the prescribed fast so that they may witness the practices of Islam. As far as our children are concerned, we have no choice. Our children will mix with non-Muslims because they do in their schools anyway. We have to set the rules for after-school hours, that is where they should mix. If they must meet and Mix with non-Muslim children of the same sex, it has to be in Muslim's house and not in non-Muslim houses where the rules of the game may be entirely different.


Now I am going to describe some of the obsessions with priorities of permissible and prohibited which give the wrong messages. These are real stories and not made up for this article. A Muslim scholar visits my house for a social function. He was not sure I would serve him blessed slaughtered meat so he brings his own food. That surprises everyone else and hurts my feelings. A devout Muslim woman visits the house of another Muslim in a social gathering. Before the food is served, she asks, "Do you serve permissible meat?" The host, obviously hurt, replies, "My faith is very strong, but I do have blessed slaughtered meat for those who have weak faith." The questioner should have used blessed slaughtered rather than permissible or should not have asked any questions at all. The third situation in this area: after my lecture about Islam, a Muslim woman came forward and asked me if McDonald's hamburger is permissible. While answering her, I had to look the other way because her dress was very inappropriate.

Another situation which occurred in a Muslim country. A group of Muslims were arguing whether wearing a platinum ring is permissible for men or not. One group said it was permissible because only gold is mentioned in the Traditions, and the other group said it is not permissible because platinum is costlier than gold and therefore should have the same restrictions. I patiently listened to their discussion while the call to the evening prescribed prayer was being recited from the nearby mosque. I went to offer my prescribed prayer at the mosque. When I come back, none of those people had prayed and they were still arguing about permissible and prohibited. In this regard, a question was asked from me, "Who is better, a Muslim who never performs the prescribed prayer or the one who prays occasionally when in the company of Muslim friends or Muslim boss?" The answer is neither. The former is a disbeliever and the latter is a hypocrite.

Another situation mentioned to me by a young man was that his parents were so strict that they never allowed him to talk to Muslim girls in his mosque or social functions in the community so he did no know any of them. Since he grew up only knowing non-Muslim girls at public school and college, he is going to marry one of them I am not justifying his reasoning or actions.

I was told that in Detroit, a certain Muslim opened a grocery and meat store. He wrongfully included pork in his meat business store. Muslims obviously did not like it and objected to it in a very forceful way. First by complaining to him, then by defaming him to those in the mosque, even to those who evidently did not know him and thirdly by picketing in front of his shop and labeling him a disbeliever. Finally, this person gave up and he had a sign in front of his shop one day when they came to picket. The sign said, "Yes, I am a non-Muslim so please leave me alone." The lesson is that a Muslim is not to push a half-Muslim into disbelief, but try to bring him back by wisdom and beautiful manners if he can do that. Maybe this brother needed more education. Maybe he needed a rich person to buy all his pork meat and throw it in the trash or whatever, but to drive him to declare that he is a non-Muslim was not the best thing that could be done.

Several years ago, I mailed a questionnaire to about twenty prominent Muslims in the U.S. to assess their opinion of lawful and prohibited in social situations while interacting with non-Muslims and the opposite sex. I asked them questions giving real situations from my own experience.

Twelve out of the twenty returned my questionnaire with a response and a comment. They are as follows:

1. In Islam, men and women should not shake hands. However, several of my female patients, especially older ladies for whatever reason, extend their hand to shake hands. What should I do?

Eight of the respondents said that I should go ahead and shake hands as my intentions are pure. Two said that I should never shake hands with women.

Discussion: Even though those who said that it is allowed, they agreed that one should try to avoid shaking hands as much as possible and keep the hands busy otherwise. Two of them who did not approve used the saying of Prophet Muhammad that, "I am a man who does not shake hands with woman," and other sayings, "It is better to be clubbed with a rod of iron in your head than to touch a woman to whom you are not related by Divine Law." The "touch" here is a sexual touch rather than casual shaking of hand. As a male physician, when he takes the hand of his female patient in his hand, he is increasing her confidence and offering a form of psychological treatment. Similarly, Muslim nurses who helped the injured during the battles in the days of the Prophet, had to touch men in order to provide treatment. But those days, taking care of Muslims, not sex, was on the mind of the people. "All of our actions will be judged by our intentions," according to a Tradition of the Prophet.

2. At the annual faculty staff banquet which I had to attend, wine was being served at the table, to which all of them accept except me. What should I do?

Three out of ten said I should leave the table where wine is being served while seven out of ten said I should do nothing and sip my ice tea.

Discussion: Several other comments came to light. One was that maybe the non-drinkers should have a table of their own and if one has to sit at a table where wine is being served, he must explain to others why he is not drinking, giving himself a chance to explain Islam. One of the learned scholars mentioned that in his company, when non-Muslims are drinking, it is their business provided that we do not serve, handle, facilitate, or promote the act of drinking. He said that we should not back out of all such occasions and activities in which non-Muslims are drinking and Muslims have to attend those gatherings because of their status or department position.

3. 1 am traveling on a plane, tired from lack of sleep, beverages are being served, and my neighbor in the next seat orders a small glass of wine. However, the old lady cannot open the bottle herself and asks me to open it. What should I do?

Seven of the respondents said that I should refuse to open the bottle and three said I should quietly open it and go to sleep.

Discussion: Opening this bottle is equal to serving wine and one should not offer wine to anyone, that one should politely explain to the lady that this is against our religion. Another respondent suggested I should push the call button so that an attendant may come and open this bottle and relieve me from this dilemma.

4. My friends and patients know that I am a Muslim and I do not celebrate Christmas. But during Christmas-time, they send me many Christmas gifts, candies, and cards, etc. What should I do?

None of the respondents suggested that I should refuse to accept these gifts and all ten suggested that I accept the gifts and thank them and maybe send a nice gift back during 'Id or other Muslim holiday.

Discussion: The learned scholar who wrote a five-page long response to my questionnaire, mentioned that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) accepted gifts from non-Muslims and sent gifts back to Jews and Christians. However, we must explain to our Muslim friends why we do not celebrate Christmas or the birth of any prophet; we must reciprocate their good will by giving them gifts including gifts of Islamic literature on our occasions.

5. I invited a new non-Muslim faculty member to my house for dinner. He, out of his ignorance about me or Islam, brings a bottle of champagne with him. What should I do?

Six respondents said that I should ask him to take it back while five said that I should take it and destroy it.

Discussion: The learned scholar mentioned that I should take it and destroy it after he leaves, better than in front of the children of my family to remind them we don't drink. We should also explain to our guest why we don't drink It was suggested that returning the bottle to the guest and asking him to destroy it may embarrass him as he meant well.

6. In my office, although I am a Muslim and don't celebrate Christmas, my good secretaries are Christians, and consider this office as their second home, and want to have a Christmas tree or some decorations. What should I do?

Three out of twelve said I should not allow them to have a Christmas tree since it is my office and the boss sets the rule and they should respect my feelings. Eight out of twelve said I should let them practice their religion as my office is their office as well and a Christmas tree is more culture from German tradition than a religious symbol.
I wonder what these eight would say if my secretaries were Hindu and wanted to place and idol of Rama during Diwali.

7. At the hospital, many colleagues, patients, nurses, etc., while walking or in the elevator, will say to me "Have a nice Christmas" or "How was your Christmas?" What should I say?

All said I should give appropriate, short response, i.e., "have a nice day!" and move on.

Comment: Islam is simple and asks us to be polite and humble and even meet bad with goodness and politeness and good nature is missionary work in itself. Goodness of conduct constitutes half of religion.

In conclusion, the guiding Islamic principles in the lawful and the prohibited are:

1. Everything is permissible except that which is specifically prohibited.

2. To make things lawful and to prohibit is the right of God only "It is notfittingfor a believer, man or woman, when a matter has been decided by God and His Messenger, to have any option about their decision: if anyone disobeys God and His Apostle, he is indeed on a clearly wrong Path" (33:36).

3. To prohibit the lawful and permit the unlawful is equal to polytheism (associating partners to God).

4. What is permissible is sufficient and what is unlawful is superfluous.

5. Whatever leads to unlawful is also unlawful. Based on this, the mixing of the two sexes and serving or selling wine is prohibited).

6. Good intentions do not make wrong acceptable. For an action to be acceptable, the intentions are to be pure and the action itself must be pure as well. There is no concept of Robin Hood in Islam.

7. Doubtful things (makruh) are also to be avoided according to the Tradition of Prophet Muhammad: "The pemiissible is clear and the prohibited is clear. Between the two, there are doubtful matters which people don't know are permissible or prohibited. One who avoids them to safeguard his religion and his honor is safe while one who engages in a part of them, he may be doing the prohibited."

8. The Law of Prohibition applies to everyone alike, rich or poor, average citizen and the highest official, the illiterate and the scholar. In many Muslim societies, the rich and the powerful get by with all the wrongdoing while the Divine Law is being enforced on the Muslim masses. To the contrary, Prophet Muhammad PBUH) said, "if my daughter Fatima is caught stealing, her hand will be cut off as well."

9. The necessity makes the exception (that is, permission to eat pork if no food available to save life).

10. Given a choice, a Muslim should take the lesser of two evils. For example, a Muslim has a choice to buy a house on mortgage in a nice neighborhood versus raising his family in a rented apartment in a dingy neighborhood infested with drug dealers and violence. Which one should he choose?

I will let the reader ponder on this one.

Those who responded were Dr. T. B. Irving, Dr. M. S. Meghahed (Buffalo), Imam A. M. al-Khattab (Toledo), Dr. Hassan Hathout, Dr. Maher Hathout, Dr. Mahmood Rashdan, Dr. Jamal Badawi, Dr. Muzzamil Siddiqui, Dr. A. S. Hashim, Dr. Moazzam Habib (Indianapolis), Imam Shakir el-Sayyed (Plainfield, ISNA), and one preferred to remain anonymous.