by Tahir Rasheed (British Columbia, Canada)
It was the month of February, many years ago. We were a week or so into our move to Canada from the Subcontinent. Like most, our first order of business was to find local Muslims and ask them about—you guessed it!— halal food and a masjid. Alhamdulillah, the tiny Muslim community of a small East Coast town welcomed us very warmly. They had recently seen off a well-settled professional and active community member to a bigger town. Perhaps he was in search of a larger community to fulfill his needs with a growing family. The timing of our arrival served as a kind of “good omen” to the community adjusting to this recent transition.
The first few months were quite instructive, not only concerning the change of geography, but also in the practice of religion. The former was easy to handle and black-and-white to understand. Snow jackets and snow tires solved most of the adaptability issues. As for the latter, well, we humans are creatures of habit and quick to question anything that falls outside our sphere of practices—especially our religious practices. I found myself doing that when the local leader of the community at the time would conduct many things differently from my “back home” experience. When I mentioned something different to his own practice, he politely asked me about the evidence for it. Of course, the only evidence I could come up with was, “That’s how I always saw others doing it.” That obviously was not a response anyone would be impressed by—myself included.
This gentle questioning, I now know, was the greatest stimulus I ever received to acquire more knowledge. The questioning was initially directed at confirming my point of view, which it did, but the sincerity and non-confrontational approach of the prompter helped me step back and take a more open-minded approach towards dealing with differences. The more I learned (and I’m still learning, by the way!), the easier it became for me to understand why I practiced the way I did. In addition, I began to recognize the nuances in religious practices based on regional influences. I realized what’s important to take a stand on (like curbing innovations) and what isn’t (like variations in the sunnahs of salaah). I discovered what’s actually religion and what’s merely culture and nationalism. The earlier a new Muslim immigrant can understand this, the better it is for him and his community. We have much bigger fish to fry than arguing over whose imam is the greatest. Because in reality, they were all extremely righteous scholars and leaders of their times who deserve full respect from us today, whether or not we follow their madhhab.
This new desire to acquire knowledge made clear to me what is negotiable in religion and what is absolutely not. While it is undesirable to compromise on the practices clearly in contradiction to Quran and Sunnah, a lot of our disagreements start on subjects where there is room for variation. Still, we have a tendency to defend the variation we follow by putting the others down. In our very heterogenous Muslim society in the West, the acceptance of these variations is the only way we can thrive.
Our differences should be celebrated, not frowned upon. Our survival and flourishing in the West depends more than ever on this single point of accepting the “other” point of view—without ever putting a label on it. If we don’t accept one another, we will unfortunately become divided, banished into our own closed cocoons based on the geography of where our ancestors originated. Hence, we find Bengali, Pakistani, Arab, and Somali mosques in cities where the populations are large enough to divide. But once we allow ourselves to acquire more knowledge, we may come to find these minor differences can be overlooked. Instead, we can then focus on forming educated, united, and accepting communities.
Tahir Rasheed moved to Canada more than ten years ago, and he’s been involved in volunteer work with the local Muslim populations in two different locations ever since. He always tries to understand the challenges faced by modern Muslims living in the western land and worries about the rise of extreme fundamentalism in Muslim and non Muslim countries alike. His other interests include climate change and the new discoveries in the field of nutritional science that affect us all.