How do we relate to non-muslim relatives?
Dr Aisha Hamdan offers practical advice to converts.
For those who have studied, pondered, and struggled with the idea of becoming Muslim, there is often great relief when the realization comes that Shahada must be pronounced. As time goes on and more knowledge is acquired regarding the deen, another realization soon begins to surface, the challenges and questions have not ended and may only have just begun. This is particularly true when it comes to the issue of dealing with and relating to non-Muslim relatives, especially those with whom one has developed a close relationship.
This topic is particularly relevant for women due to the fact that more new converts are female (although the trend may be changing as more men enter Islam) and also because women may have more opportunity to visit with and spend time with other family members. If children are involved, this will most definitely be the case. We understand, of course, that parents and other relatives should be treated with kindness and respect and that there are serious consequences for one who severs the ties of kinship.
The challenges and questions that arise concern the boundaries and specific guidelines that need to be established for dealing with non-Muslim relatives, primarily as it pertains to practical aspects of the religion. Let's take a look at a few scenarios to clarify the topic. Read through the scenarios and the guidelines that follow and determine which guidelines should be used for each scenario.
Sarah, a new Muslimah, has always had a close relationship with her parents and siblings and does not want this to change now that she has become Muslim. Her family has been very understanding, even making accommodations for Sarah so that she continues to feel comfortable during her visits with them. A few examples are: they no longer serve pork at meals, alcoholic beverages are removed from sight, etc. Several family members have even begun to ask questions about Islam and its beliefs and practices.
Sumayyah has been a Muslim for almost 5 years now and she has been struggling with her family since the beginning. When she goes to visit them, there is often loud music playing or an inappropriate program may be on the television. Her family does not take her religion seriously and often joke about her hijab or the "strict requirements" such as prohibitions against alcohol, gambling, etc. Although Sumayyah has tried to teach her family about the things that make her feel uncomfortable and that are offensive to her beliefs, the family refuses to change its lifestyle just because she is visiting. She is somewhat shy about discussing these issues with her family and does not want to offend them. These issues have begun to concern Sumayyah even more as her children get older and she worries about the negative influence that her family may have on them. Holidays are particularly challenging topics.
Zahra is in a particularly difficult situation because each time that she visits with her family they confront her about her new religion. This has been occurring for several years since she became Muslim and has become increasingly more serious. Her family is very upset and unhappy about the changes she has made in her life and sometimes tells her that she must be "crazy." There have even been blatant attempts to ridicule and embarrass Zahra, her husband, and their children. Following overnight stays by the children, Zahra often discovers that they have deliberately been exposed to things that she has clearly explained as prohibited in Islam. On one occasion, the family served pork during a meal and joked in front of the children about the ridiculousness of this prohibition. Zahra feels very estranged from her family, but worries about breaking the ties completely. Some of her family members have already done this of their own initiative.
One of our main goals each time that we go to visit family members should be to teach them about Islam. I have heard from many women that this is one of the most difficult things to do and that they would much rather conduct dawah [invitation to Islam] with strangers. This may be due to the fact that if a stranger does not accept what we are saying we can just go on our way, but when family members do not understand or are reluctant to enter discussions, it may put a train on the relationship. Regardless of the difficulty that we encounter, dawah to family members should be given first priority. Out of love for them we should have a strong desire to share the special gift that God has given us and attempt to save them from the hellfire. It is important to understand that this should be done with special care, gradualness, and an understanding of the unique qualities, beliefs, and circumstances of each individual. This may require a great deal of persistence and patience, but we should never give up nor despair of God's mercy and guidance. Of course, if our efforts were successful this would solve a great deal of problems.
For family members to understand the changes that a new Muslimah has made in her life, they need to be educated about the specific practices, requirements, and prohibitions. This should always come with an explanation of the rationale for each action so that a complete and true understanding may be obtained. If family members realize the logic involved in the religion it may be easier for them to accept and even begin to respect these practical aspects. This obviously means that the Muslimah needs to be educated herself, but this should only be one more incentive to continuously gain knowledge. It is also helpful to become familiar with the religions of other family members so that some common ground may be shared. For example, stimulating discussions may be generated around the fact that references pertaining to requirements for hijab and fasting, and prohibitions against pork, alcohol, and usury (interest) are present in both Christian and Judaic teachings and books. This may also be effective in generating other questions such as why there are such similarities between these three religions, the only answer can be that there is one God who has sent the messages since the beginning of Man.
There will obviously be times when it will be necessary to place limitations during visits with families. For example, it would not be appropriate to sit in areas where alcohol or pork is being served or where inappropriate programs are being watched on the TV. One can discreetly move to another room if this is an option. In families where it is particularly difficult and members have refused to be respectful towards one's religion, then it may be essential to limit visits or put conditions on where visits will take place. It may, for example, become a rule in your family that visits will only occur in your house and that certain beverages are not allowed. This would obviously be the easiest way to control what occurs during these times and be another effective way to introduce relatives to "life as a Muslim". It is always important to remember that ties of kinship are important but not at the expense of leading us to disobedience to God. God says,
"But if they strive with you to make you join in worship with Me that of which you have no knowledge, then obey them not, but behave with them in the world kindly" [31:15]
Use creative ways to engage family members. Creativity can go a long way sometimes and be especially effective in more difficult situations. Discussions about Islam may be stimulated by sharing an interesting and attractive book, pointing out a recent story in the newspaper, or by watching a video that introduces Islam or covers a particular topic. The Muslim who is really proficient can divert relatives with interesting talk or useful activities and entertainment such as sports activities, board games, computer games, etc. This will give the others an alternative to forbidden things and make for a much more enjoyable experience for all. It will be especially helpful in alleviating the worry that is often present when children are involved. For Sarah in Scenario 1, all that may be required of her may be guidelines one and two above. She has a fairly easy path ahead of her with many opportunities to educate family members about Islam. In actuality, these suggestions should be used with any family regardless of the particular circumstances.
Scenario 2 As for Sumayyah, she will have a more difficult time and may need to incorporate step three in her plan for working with relatives. There is some potential here and distraction may be most beneficial in reducing the haram activities that family members engage in during visits. She will also need to be creative in stimulating discussions about her religion and may want to determine the special interests and "soft spots" of each person.
In Scenario 3, Zahra has a challenging road ahead of her and she may initially want to consider limiting visits with her family, at least in the short term. She should continue to follow guidelines 1-3 and may find it helpful to share her struggles with other Muslim women who would be able to offer support and advice. The most important thing to remember is that God is aware of our struggles and that these are tests for us to see which of us are most righteous. Allah says, "You shall certainly be tried and tested in your wealth and properties and in your personal selves; and you shall certainly hear much that will grieve you from those who received the Scripture before you and from those who ascribe partners to God. But if you persevere patiently and become pious, then verily that will be a determining factor in all affairs and that is from the great matters." (Surah Al-imran 3,186). Let us ask God to make us successful in this life and in the hereafter.
This article originally appeared in Aljumuah magazine.