Maintaining our identity in Islam

Being Muslim is a big part of our ‘Islamic identity’; meaning a complete set of beliefs, practices and ideologies as derived from the Qur’an and the sunnnah of Muhammad (saw). The Islamic identity is that which separates us from the non-Muslims. However this doesn’t mean that we have to deprive ourselves of having fun, spending time with non-Muslim friends or family or dressing in a way that is true to our lifestyle or culture; as long as these things do not compromise our faith.

The Prophet (pbuh) said,

“This religion is easy. No one becomes harsh and strict in the religion without it overwhelming him. So fulfill your duties as best you can and rejoice. Rely upon the efforts of the morning and the evening and a little at night and you will reach your goal.” [Sahîh al-Bukharî]

Here, Rasooloolah (saw) defines the concept of moderation from an Islamic perspective. We are not required to go ‘overboard’ in matters concerning our faith, otherwise we run the risk of overwhelming ourselves and making Islam difficult to practice. Rather, we should focus on maintaining our efforts in Islam according to our ability and as consistently as we can.

In Sûrah al-Baqarah: 143 Allah says,

“Thus We have made you a moderate nation.”

Yet many of us find ourselves exaggerating matters in the deen, complicating our religion and losing our identity.

Some of the most common mistakes we tend to make are as follows:

1. Changing your name

Adopting an Islamic name is a common practice amongst reverts and there is a misconception that this is an obligation in Islam, rather it is optional. However, a Muslim is required to change his name if it conveys a bad meaning (even if it is an Arabic name). If ones name conveys a meaning for any other religion besides Islam, it should be change too, so, a name such as Christian should be changed. It is important to note that it is okay to name a newborn a non Arabic name or change your name to a non Arabic name too. It is unlawful for a Muslim to change his family name, which is a common practice among reverts and newlyweds. A persons surname identifies their parentage and preserves ones identity. Not having an Islamic or Arabic name or the surname of your spouse does not make you any less of a Muslim or wife.

2. Abandoning ones customary or cultural dress

Being identified as a Muslim is certainly not something we should shy away from. However, we should be careful not to mistake Arab customary dress for the sunnah or abandon our own cultural dress, if it is in keeping with the requirements of ‘Islamic dress’. For example, many of us perceive the wearing of a turban to be the dress of the sunnah, however, the Prophet (pbuh) only wore a turban because it was customary of the Arabs to do so. Therefore, our Islam doesn’t oblige Muslim men to wear turbans anymore than it prohibits the wearing of one.

Likewise, it is not obligatory for a Muslim woman to wear an Arab style niqab; she may wear a ‘western’ style niqab if it conforms to the requirements of the niqab, i.e it is not see-through or showy ,it sufficiently covers the face and it is loose etc. It is very common for us to find African, Asian or Western Muslims adopting the dress of the Arabs. Whilst there is nothing wrong with us wearing the clothing of other cultures, we should not lose sight of our own traditional dress. Allah says,

“O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another.” (Qur’an 49:13)

3. Cutting ties with non-Muslim friends and family

Often in the guise of self righteousness, we distance ourselves from our non-Muslim friends and family, when perhaps there is no need to go to these extremes. This conveys negative dawah and can make Islam seem like an intolerant religion; it may also dissuade a person from accepting Islam.

When we cut ties with our family, some of our identity is lost too, as our family are who helped make us who we are today. If visiting non-Muslims means being in a haraam environment such as a bar or an atmosphere of free-mixing, then this is discouraged in Islam.

However, we do not have to completely cut them off because their lifestyle doesn’t coincide with our Islamic one. Rather, we can invite them to our homes where we are in control of the environment and naturally, they have to respect our rules. If it is too much of a fitnah (trial) being in their company, then we should exhaust all other means of keeping ties, such as sending cards, emails and texts when we can.

In a hadith related by Al-Bukhari and Muslim, Muhammad Ibn Jubayr Ibn Mutam cited his father as having said to him that he heard the Prophet saying,

“No one who severs the ties of kinship will enter Paradise”.

4. Maintaining our Islamic identity in a western society

It is easy for a Muslim to lose his Islamic identity from the influence of western education, media and society (if he is not careful). However, it is required of us to hold on to our Islamic identity by following the ways set out in the Qur’an and Sunnah, keeping good friends, and striving to abstain from sins.

Narrated Abu Musa: Allah’s Messenger said,

“The example of a good companion (who sits with you) in comparison with a bad one, is like that of the musk seller and the blacksmith’s bellows (or furnace); from the first you would either buy musk or enjoy its good smell while the bellows would either burn your clothes or your house, or you get a bad nasty smell thereof.”

We should take precaution when being in the presence of non-Muslim(s) or weak Muslims who may have a negative influence on us, even when giving them dawah. It is advisable to be accompanied with a friend, preferably another Muslim who is firm in faith, in order to preserve your emaan and avoid sins. Avoid mixed environments and being in the company of those who are unlawful for you for verily shaytan is the third party.

Adhering to the sunnah in ones dress, actions and speech will help remind us and others that we are Muslim. It will discourage us from conforming to the cultural norms of others that conflict with Islam. It is important for others to identify our Islam so they are given dawah and eventually get used to us as Muslims insha’Allah.

Practicing Islam wholeheartedly doesn’t mean we have to erase our ethnic traditions or dress. However, these practices must not be bidahs (innovations) or shirk (associating partners with Allah) and the sunnah of Allah’s Messenger (saw) should precede them. We are Muslims first and foremost, although Allah blessed us with out own unique ethnic identity and this should be appreciated too. Adopting another cultures customs or dress and making it obligatory upon ourselves to practice  that which is not a sunnah, can become a burden in our lives later on. We may feel that we have lost ourselves and abandon Islam and the sunnah all together!

May Allah make us of those who are true to Him first and foremost and then to ourselves, ameen.


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