It is important to our faith that we surround ourselves and our families with good company. As adults, we naturally gravitate toward people with whom we have things in common and with whom we can comfortably be ourselves. The people who we choose to hold dear and keep close may well be reflections of ourselves. It is natural that Muslim parents are concerned about who their child takes as an intimate friend. Ideally, our friends share the same or similar values. But what happens when our children befriend those outside their faith? Should we be concerned? What is the best way to approach the matter?
The importance of friendship is widely recognized by Muslims and non-Muslims. Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, once said,
“A man is upon the religion of his best friend, so let one of you look at whom he befriends.” (At-Tirmidhi)
Interestingly, in Spanish, we have a similar saying: “Dime con quién andas, y te dire quién eres” – tell me who you hang out with, and I will tell you who you are. The English equivalent is “birds of a feather flock together.”
About a week ago I was speaking with another Muslim mother about schooling options for her children and she expressed her distaste for public school. One of the reasons she cited was the relationships that could potentially develop between her children and their non-Muslim peers. Understandably, she did not want them being around any “bad influences” or troubled kids. What parent does? However, I posed a question to her: What if our children are the good influences their classmates need? InshaAllah, if our kids have a solid foundation at home and they know the basics of their faith, their Muslim identity will remain intact despite their surroundings. It could be they are the ones who provide the guidance rather than the ones who stray from the path. I even shared something personal for her to ponder over – if I had not made a Muslim friend in a public high school, I may have never converted to Islam.
Non-Muslim Girl Meets World
I first learned about Islam while I was in public school at the age of 15. I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and I learned that he embraced orthodox Islam toward the end of his life. That was my introduction to Islam, but I did not know any actual Muslims. The following school year, when I was a junior in high school, I met a friend in English class. At first, I thought she was a fellow Latina – maybe Puerto Rican like me or Mexican – because of how she looked. She had an olive complexion and curly dark hair. She kind of looked like me, so I gravitated toward her. I later found out she was Egyptian and since I had never met anyone from Egypt before, I was fascinated and excited to learn about her culture.
We had a lot in common. Both of us were from immigrant families, both spoke another language at home, both of our parents were strict, and we were the only child at home (my older and only brother was already out of the house, and she did not have any siblings). For us to see each other outside of school, our parents had to meet first. So, one day we arranged for me to come to her house with my family. The moment we met her mother and I saw that she was wearing hijab, I realized they were Muslims (my friend did not wear hijab at the time). Our parents hit it off well, also finding a lot of common ground between them. They both gave their blessing to let us hang out together and they would take turns taking us to the mall or to each other’s houses.
My Egyptian friend and I became inseparable. Although we had mutual friends at school, we preferred to hang out together most of the time. We would watch movies together, surf the web, do each other’s hair and make-up, and have dinner with each other’s families. There was no doubt in our minds that we were best friends; sometimes, we would even feign being sisters! I had never had a closer friend than her.
Eventually, I was introduced to my friend’s extended family through gatherings and even Islamic holiday parties. By this time, I was asking them all sorts of questions about their beliefs and practices. I wondered why Muslim women wore veils, but my friend did not, and why men prayed in front of women. My friend explained the easy and common-sense questions. As far as the hijab, she did not feel ready, and her parents did not want to pressure her. When it came to the prayer, I remember her saying “Well, duh, Wendy… if the women are praying and bending over in front of the men, what do you think they will be looking at?” I laughed heartily at the thought!
When it came to theological questions and general advice, my friend’s father was usually my go-to for answers. I would follow him around like a toddler asking him “why this” and “why that.” He used to chuckle at my endless badgering until finally telling me, “You ask too many questions! Here, take these books!” He handed me literature about Islam, Muslim-Christian dialogue, and my first English translation of the Quran. These books are what would ultimately lead me to embracing Islam, however, it was my interactions with my friend and her family that led me to that moment.
To Befriend or Not Befriend, That Is the Question
What if my friend’s family, like the sister I spoke with recently, had not approved of their daughter having non-Muslim friends? What if they assumed I may be a “bad influence”? Those could have been legitimate concerns. After all, there are verses of the Quran that warn against taking disbelievers as allies, protectors, and even intimate friends. Here are two examples:
“Oh, you who have believed, do not take the disbelievers as allies instead of the believers…” (Surah An-Nisa, 4:144)
“Oh, you who have believed, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies. They are [in fact] allies of one another. And whoever is an ally to them among you – then indeed, he is [one] of them. Indeed, Allah guides not the wrongdoing people.”
(Surah Al-Ma’idah, 5:51)
In effect, my friend’s uncle began to grow concerned about how close his niece and I had become. He once overheard her say, “Wendy is my best friend!” and immediately stopped her in her tracks. He told her, “She cannot be your best friend because she is not Muslim!” My friend objected and defended our friendship. She told him that we never spoke about religion other than when I asked questions. This was true. Despite our closeness, my friend never initiated any conversations about religion. She had no intention of calling me to Islam.
Her uncle still disapproved. His wife, however, took a different approach. One day I walked into my friend’s bedroom, and I found her there. She stood up and said, “I have a feeling that one day you will be a Muslim!” My friend was so embarrassed and upset at her comment. She scolded her aunt, who was more like an older sister, asking why she would even say that to me. What my friend did not know was that she was absolutely right!
After some time, I had to move out of state, but I kept in touch with the family and visited them on a few occasions. It was during this time away from them, when I finally realized that I wanted to become Muslim. I continued to read and research all I could about Islam on my own and ended up converting four years after I met my best friend. She and her family were not even aware that I was considering embracing Islam, so they were surprised to find out. My friend’s aunt had suspected it all along, but her husband was shocked. He was so strict with his own children who were still in grade school that he forbade them from mixing with non-Muslim neighborhood kids. Once he saw that I became Muslim because of my relationship with his niece, he realized the error of his ways. He began approaching his neighbors more and allowed his children to play with their children. I found out about this and his earlier comments after I converted.
What Islam Says about Non-Muslim Friends
When it comes to friendship, there are many words used throughout the Quran that refer to friends. In the hadith mentioned previously, the word that is translated from its original Arabic to mean “best friend” is khalil. A khalil is an intimate and dear companion that is always and consistently present. There are other types of friends listed in the Quran such as wali or awliya. Dr. Hatem al-Haj, fiqh expert and member of the Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America (AMJA), says that while your closest advisors and confidants should be Muslims, it does not mean that a person cannot have friends who are not Muslims. He said in a fatwa regarding having non-Muslim friends,
“What is meant in the Quran by wali or khalil or bitanah (a confidant) – who need to be Muslims – is different from simply a friend. They mean your closest, most intimate, and trusted companions … This sort of companion needs to be one who will help you stay on the straight path of Islam, which requires them to be Muslim. Moreover, you are not to pick any Muslim for this type of friendship, but one who is righteous and pious. Allah says in the Quran:
‘Friends on that day will be foes, one to another, except the Righteous.’
(Surah Az-Zukhruf, 43:67)
“For the rest of the people, you will maintain a friendly relationship with those who are fair to you, and don`t persecute you on account of your religion. Allah said:
"Allah forbids you not, with regard to those who fight you not for (your) Faith nor drive you out of your homes, from dealing kindly and justly with them: for Allah loveth those who are just." (Surah Al-Mumtahanah, 60:8)
So, for those you can – and you are encouraged to – exchange gifts and visits with them and look after their homes, properties, or kids when they are away. You may help them in their times of need, visit them when they are sick, and console them when they have lost loved ones. You will be rewarded if you intend by this to show them the beauty and generosity of Islam and Muslims….” (AMJA Fatwa ID: 2108)
Some Practical Advice
I often hear the phrase, “Non-Muslims don’t read the Quran, they read us, so be a good Muslim.” We are ambassadors of Islam even if we are not actively engaged in dawah. Islam encourages us to deal amicably with people outside our religion, especially if they show no hostility toward us for being Muslim. Learning how to be courteous in all our interactions begins at home.
Based on my own experience as a teen from the outside looking in, here are some ways you can help your child when they have non-Muslim friends:
1. Think well of them.
Just because a family or child is not Muslim does not make them a bad person. This is a misconception that runs rampant in our communities and it is important to put a stop to it beginning in our own families. We should consider people as either Muslims or potential Muslims. Even those who do not end up embracing Islam can still become our allies/defenders if we show them the best of ourselves.
2. Get to know them.
Do not automatically jump to conclusions just because your child has a non-Muslim friend. Ask your child to introduce you to them and be welcoming and polite. Show them the true character of a Muslim by personifying the hadith:
“Verily, the best people in Islam are those with the best character.”
(Musnad Imam Ahmad)
3, Pray for them.
I cannot even count how many times I was introduced to other Muslims by my friend’s family and their immediate response was to put their palms up and mutter Arabic phrases that I know now were duaas. Complete strangers prayed for me when they saw me with my Muslim friend. Perhaps my accepting Islam was the answer to their prayers.
4. Meet their families.
There is nothing more effective for breaking the ice with your child’s non-Muslim friends than having them and their families over for tea or dinner. My Muslim best friend’s family welcomed us into their home and made us feel comfortable. My parents still speak very highly of them even though they are not Muslim themselves (may Allah guide them). They were so impressed with their manners and values that they even let me live with them for a year after I embraced Islam while I was in college. This is coming from parents who never let me spend the night at any other friend’s house, much less live outside my home! Even if for whatever reason, you are unable to invite them, at least try to meet them somewhere outside.
5. Provide information about Islam.
If your child’s non-Muslim friend or friends are curious about Islam, talk to them and answer their questions. Be patient and never preachy or pushy. Let them guide the conversations about religion. Seek their parents’ permission to give them literature to satisfy their curiosity. Why Islam is a good resource where you can order free brochures and copies of the Quran in English, Spanish, and other languages like French. Present these items as a gift so it is better received. Add goodies to the gift like candy and other souvenirs.
6. Show them your culture.
The first thing that drew me to my Muslim friend was her culture. I was so excited to learn all about Egypt and by default, all about Islam. Kids, especially, are eager to learn about the world. There is one thing that unites human beings, no matter where they are from and that is food. Food is a universal love language and an integral part of our cultures. Introduce your child’s friends to good food and it’s guaranteed to have them coming back for more and hopefully to learn more about Islam.
Remember, whether our children are in elementary school or college, or at the playground or grocery store, they will inevitably meet people from outside their faith. This especially holds true for those of us who are living in majority non-Muslim lands. They are discovering themselves, becoming increasingly independent, and learning to navigate relationships. It is our hope that they will be prepared to interact with others respectfully and courteously as outlined by our faith.
Teach them to have good character and live by the timeless advice of our Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, when he said,
“Love for people what you love for yourself and you will be a believer. Behave well with your neighbors and you will be a Muslim.”
Wendy Díaz is a Puerto Rican Muslim writer, award-winning poet, translator, and mother of six (ages ranging from infant to teen). She is the co-founder of Hablamos Islam, a non-profit organization that produces educational resources about Islam in Spanish (hablamosislam.org). She has written, illustrated, and published over a dozen children’s books and currently lives with her family in Maryland. Follow Wendy Díaz on social media @authorwendydiaz and @hablamosislam.