This reflection was originally published in Ramadan 2018. To read other reflections in the series click here.
By Sean Champagne
There are also those (hypocrites) who built a mosque (only) to cause harm, promote disbelief, divide the believers, and a base for him who made war against Allah and His Messenger before. And they will certainly swear: We desired naught but good. And Allah bears witness that they are certainly liars. — 9:107
Mahomet’s creed [was] a better kind of Christianity than the miserable Syrian sects with their janglings about Homoiousion and Homoosion [same substance and similar substance] — the head full of worthless rambling, the heart empty and dead. — Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes and Hero Worship
Juz’ 11 (9:93–11:5) brings me back to an earlier time in my life, when Islam was still a foreign land to me. The juz’ opens with a reference to an episode in the history of Islam, where the infamous Abu Amir, a Christian enemy of Prophet Muhammad (SAW), establishes a place of worship directly adjacent to one of the Prophet’s mosques out of spite. The early days of Islam are filled with episodes like this, where the breach between what the people did and what they truly believed was not always manifest, except to the Almighty. The superficiality of the good deeds that are decried in this section of the Qur’an reminds me of my younger years, when I found myself searching for and stumbling around for genuine meaning in my own religion.
When I found Islam, I had been alienated from the religion of my birth for about 5 years. I was a cradle Catholic, raised by a family who took the religion far less seriously than I did. This had been a source of pride for my family; even the least observant Catholic hopes to raise devout children. However, I became frustrated with what I perceived as the increasingly vacuous nature of American Christianity. The Christianity of my youth was confused and and aimless; I was surrounded by Christians who took for granted a system of beliefs that had little to do with what Christ spoke of in the Gospel. As the younger me saw it, Christianity was less a belief system than it was a cultural signifier; a way for those who embraced the label to determine who was or was not one of them. I longed to call my Christianity the Christianity of Martin Luther King Jr., James Hal Cone and Howard Thurman, but these voices always seemed small. I would never find a church that preached their doctrines from its pulpits or that would do more than simply tolerate their existence. So I ran. I left behind the religion of my birth in search of one that honestly sought after God. I would find their Christianity in Islam, or at least that was my hope.
My initial perception of Islam was colored by the accounts of Malcolm X and those who wished to use his story for the purposes of dawah. Like Carlyle, I perceived Islam as a superior version of Christianity, one that preoccupied itself only with truth and devotion rather than isms and schisms. Like Malcolm, my conversion experience was profound, and I saw myself as part of a divine brotherhood that transcended race, where people of all different backgrounds could come together in submission to the one God. Juz’ 11 makes manifest the Qur’an’s refusal to tolerate the hypocrites, those who reject the substance of their faith in favor of what Dr. King called “pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.” Filtered through the zeal of conversion, Islam seemed to be a religion free of hypocrisy. And so, I made it my home.
It did not take long to be disabused of this notion. Indeed, the hypocrisy that I loathed about Christianity was not, as I had believed, native to Christianity. Muslims pose our own “janglings about Homoiousion and Homoosion” (i.e., robust arguments about aspects of the deen): arguments about whether the Qur’an was created or uncreated; whether there is such a thing as a female prophet; whether you must call the place of worship a “masjid” rather than a “mosque” or whether your knees or hands should touch the ground first in prostration. The lack of formal sects had not prevented the sectioning off of Muslims from one another, defining themselves by their adherence to their chosen Islamic identity. Whether this identity was framed by sincere faith seemed to be an afterthought.
Hypocrisy was no more native to Christianity than reindeer are native to Africa. Christian hypocrisy is its own hypocrisy, but it is paralleled in any religion with human adherents. Islam is no different; it has its own hypocrites to cope with. Once the rosy illusion had been dispelled, what more did Islam have to offer me?
Say: O people, if you are in doubt as to my religion, (know that) I serve not those whom you serve besides Allah, but I serve Allah, Who causes you to die; and I am commanded to be of the believers. And that you should keep your course towards the religion uprightly; and you should not be of the polytheists. — 10:104–105
Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive. — Howard Thurman
It took some time for me to realize that the “illusion” had been manufactured by a well-intentioned but misguided attempt to sell Islam. The Almighty had never promised a faith free of hypocrisy; that had been a later invention. Rather, He had brought forth Islam as an invitation to live a life free of hypocrisy. That much becomes clear as you read through the juz’, which describes how most of the communities of Muhammad, Noah, and Moses (peace be upon them all) failed to understand the message. Interestingly, Allah indicates to the prophets that those who are led astray are those who do not think, suggesting that a lack of self-consciousness is what makes a non-believer.
It is easy to be lovestruck by the beauties of Islam, particularly for the new convert. But Islam is not a religion that expects perfection. It never has been. It is a religion that challenges every nation it has ever been presented to. It is a religion where complacency and self-assurance are not an option. It is a religion where blessing is found in the struggle alone. Hypocrisy is not something that can be conquered; greater persons than us have tried and failed to do so. But, it is something that can be recognized and wrestled with, and indeed the Almighty commands us to do so. It is only by doing so that the true beauties of Islam are made manifest.
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Sean Champagne is a Junior Associate at ALG Research. Previously, he was a Re Enfranchisement Fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center. Sean holds a Juris Doctor from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law (2017). He also served as an Interfaith Ambassador for the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh from 2014 to 2017.