Every year, we witness family and friends making resolutions to change for the better: “I will lose 20 lbs”; “I will start praying regularly”; “I will spend more time with the kids”; “I will seek a more fulfilling career”. But most of us stop at this stage, not planning in detail how we will reach our goals, as well as neglecting those that will better the community. We might, for instance, aim to read more books or give more in charity. But how many of us resolve to teach at the local weekend Islamic school and share our knowledge or devote our expertise and skills to rethink how our Masjids work? While striving towards personal development, we must also consider what we can do for Islam on a collective level and what exactly we need to do, mapped out in small but concrete actions. Here are a couple of ideas for the coming year.
1. Strengthen our Relationship with God
Faith does not stay at one level. The Prophet, peace be upon him, said that it goes up and down. At a time when there is so much pressure on Muslims, we need to draw strength from our enhanced relationship with the Creator. One Yale University survey found that about 50% of all Arab-Americans surveyed had clinical signs of depression. While some might need clinical assistance, all can benefit from a praying connection with our Lord. Sabr (patience) and Salat (prayer) are two methods He has given us to achieve a better relationship with Him.
The starting point of all good, on an individual or collective level is the Merciful, Compassionate Creator of us all. He is the One in control and He has power over all things. There are many ways to strengthen our connection to Him this year: through constant striving to improve the quantity and quality of our prayers; making dua for things both big and small; giving up one week’s worth of café latte at Starbucks to sponsor an orphan; making a concerted effort to shun backbiting and gossip at the next social gathering or instead or spending 10 minutes every morning reading the newspaper or surfing the web, finding a quiet corner and reflecting on just five verses of the guidance from our Creator.
Like all other things which we take seriously in life, it is important for us to evaluate where we stand in terms of this important relationship and plan with a pen in hand to strengthen it.
2. Reach out, and then reach out some more
The reviews of Islam and Muslims in America since 9/11 have gotten worse, not better in the last few years according to a study conducted by the Pew Center for Religion. This despite the fact that more Muslims have been involved in outreach than at any time before the attacks. However, a glimmer of hope is offered in the report: among those who know a Muslim, a majority (56%) has a favorable overall impression of Muslims, compared with just 32% of those who are not acquainted with a Muslim.
Reaching out is not just about Masjid open houses and interfaith dialog groups. Sharing Islam happens in so many casual encounters, we often miss the opportunities: during a child’s softball practice while cheering with other parents; at the grocery store’s checkout line; while being part of a sports team or exercise class; on the daily bus or train route to work; in the school cafeteria sharing a meal with peers. Daily or at least weekly, find ways to reach out to your neighbors, coworkers, classmates, friends and strangers.
Consider that Muslims have never had any formal missionary systems or public relations offices. It was always Muslim individuals whose words and deeds opened the hearts of their neighbors. Nothing beats the human touch. So let’s plan to spare some time and money in 2008 to strengthen our personal relationship with our neighbors. May God open our hearts towards our neighbors and vice-versa.
3. Invest time and money in politics
The only course of action a citizen has is to translate her anger into energy for change. We are living at a time when it is fashionable for presidential candidates to make Islamophobic statements about bombing Makkah, this country and that country; one candidate has chosen a well-known Islam-hater as his foreign policy advisor, and another’s wife recently reassured an audience that, “he is not a Muslim. He is not a terrorist.” We cannot and must not sit silently and allow Islamophobia to become a point of pride for those running to become leader of the planet’s most powerful nation.
Muslim Independents, Muslim Republicans and Muslim Democrats have enough friends around them to internally and externally advise these candidates to move forward from the politics of fear towards rebuilding America.
Politics will remain a dirty word unless good people stop shying away from it, especially Muslims. America needs its Muslims to restore its moral position in the world. That can only be done if America is living up to its ideals. That will happen only if we make an effort.
Keith Ellison was not elected as a Muslim. Most of his constituents are not African-Americans. But he has already had an impact. Gov. Howard Dean, chair of the Democratic National Committee told me that if someone has a problem on the floor of the United States Congress, they can approach him directly about it.
Politics is not just about voting. It is a commitment and relationship that requires time and money. This year, please spend these resources on those who are trying to empower Muslims.
4. Strengthen Our Families
Nothing hurts more than the shrinking dollar. However, for Muslims the economic difficulties have doubled since the wages of US Muslims decreased by 10% as a result of 9/11. That has added pressure to our families where more than 76% of young Arab Americans are reporting being personally discriminated against. It is therefore, important to pay more attention to our families.
In your immediate family, sit down with your spouse and run a “marriage inventory” of the past year; do a “family inventory” with your kids. Reconnect with the family. Prayer brings love. Pray for a parent, sibling or relative you’ve been neglecting for the last few months or years; seek forgiveness and forgive. Strong individuals and strong families are what strengthen the Muslim community and empower us to face our ongoing challenges and difficulties.
If our homes have become hotels with spouses, parents and children rarely spending time talking, praying, discussing and eating together, this has to stop. Make this the year all of you truly connect as part of your higher commitment to Allah and the Muslim community.
If you love your family, you must invest in that relationship, especially with your time.
It all boils down to relationships: our relationship with God the All-Knowing, the All-Forgiving Creator; with the family; with neighbors, as well as with the elected leaders who control our tax funds. This idea is hardly unique. But that is the point. If we take these relationships seriously; evaluate the current status and plan and budget to invest in strengthening them in 2008, with God’s blessings we will be better Muslims, better citizens and better neighbors.