Published at Islamonline.net (now OnIslam.net)
“I saved her, I converted her,” he said to the translator on our two-hour return from Chernobyl to Kiev, referring to his wife. A sense of pride, we all have it, a sense of achievement, we all crave it. But having chosen to follow Islam as my way of life, I found myself questioning what it is he was saving her from, and where it is he brought her. In my youth at a Christian boarding school, the daily chapel services among other things simply reinforced my belief that what was being preached wasn’t truth — at least not my understanding of truth.
It is often said that the balance that Islam preaches is the point where the passion of the heart and the mind’s intellect meet. This pattern is reflected, for example, in fasting: the spiritual lesson of the fast is balanced with the human need for nourishment. Abandoning food for days upon end may at first seem a way to make us understand the plight of the starving, but in doing so the body is harmed. Thus a daily fast, with meals at either end of the day, helps achieve compassion and sacrifice without compromising health. This virtue of balance, your yin and your yang — call it what you like — allows us to find truth in whatever we do.
The driver, Constantine — in his jeans, leather jacket, and Monchino sunglasses — looked like a blend of Antonio Banderas and the KGB. Having taken the wrong turn at a junction, he shouted something as he swung the car around in the middle of a busy street facing traffic, as if James Bond was hot on our tail, revolver in hand and shooting at us. As I reached for my seatbelt I realized that, while this may be the former Ukrainian energy minister’s car, back in the day seat belts were not a requirement. And so Hanna and I swung to the left while she translated Constantine’s comment, “The great legends about Russian driving must be based on fact.”
My translator, Hanna, is the epitome of an everyday Ukrainian girl. As a student of economics she spent a year in the United States, which now enabled us to have a dialogue in fluent English. Not only did she reschedule her classes to accommodate my visit, but in what little free time she has between studying and translating she manages a program to help orphans. As if that isn’t enough, she is extremely modest, has a strong commitment to her (Christian) faith, and is more ambitious than Pooh Bear trying to reach a pot of honey! She truly represents the next generation of Ukrainians who will shape the country.
There is to my knowledge only one Mosque in Kiev and that day, Friday, was the first trip ever to a mosque for both Constantine and Hanna. I recall Constantine innocently asking whether it was OK to smoke his cigarette as we stood outside in the car park waiting for the prayer to begin. He did not realize that half of the people inside the mosque were probably also smokers. In the meantime, Hanna was fiddling with the white lace scarf on her head.
Kiev Mosque occupies three floors and looks like an old converted warehouse or office block. The ground floor houses the main prayer hall for the men. Upstairs there is a women’s prayer room as well as a large auditorium for students at Al-Noor school, which was established by Arraid (the Federation of Social Organizations), the largest umbrella of Muslim organizations in Ukraine. The place breathed hospitality: it’s not often that you find young women walking around mosque premises without covering their hair. That may seem like a small issue to some, but this degree of flexibility certainly seemed to increase accessibility for local Ukrainian women to access the mosque and be exposed to Islam.
As a devout Christian, Hanna would cover her hair whenever she entered a church; she now did the same as she entered the mosque. Being a curious girl, she decided to go upstairs and join the women for prayer. To her distress, one of the women decided to move her from the end of the row to the center, not knowing she was not a Muslim. Not wanting to disrupt the prayer, Hanna joined in the motions of prayers. I now wish I had taken the time to explain to her what was being said so she would have gained some understanding of it.
There was equal excitement in the men’s section as one of Ukraine’s TV Channels had chosen it as the location to shoot a short clip on Muslims in Ukraine during Ramadan. The blonder-than-blonde reporter in her high heels had realized that she couldn’t go into the men’s section for prayer, so one of her colleagues took to reporting. As we prayed, a number of cameramen walked up and down the aisles — not realizing that according to some interpretations walking in that small space would invalidate our prayer. Thankfully, the congregation seemed tolerant and didn’t make it an issue. But when we all prostrated, the cameraman standing in front of me and the fellow to my right didn’t know where to go. Fortunately we made space for him, and as we finished the sujud (prostration) he ran to the end of the row as fast as his two legs would take him!
In my free time I toured the city and visited Chernobyl in the company of a couple of American guys with their translator. I learned that it had been the firemen of Chernobyl who risked all to limit the damage of one of the greatest man-made disasters of our time. “Sigh!” how poorly we recognize the people who save us from calamity! Seeing the reactor and the nearby abandoned city, a sad reality dawned on me: There are people in this world who are so confused and disenfranchised that they actually plan to inflict similar harm on other human beings. May Allah Almighty have mercy and protect us from those who abuse faith to achieve their objectives. Ameen.
The two-hour journey both ways didn’t lack entertainment. One of the American guys was convinced that I was an MI6 (British Intelligence) agent. To which I replied that while I have the greatest respect for Her Majesty’s service, I wouldn’t consider it on the current benefits package.
It was during the return journey that I overheard the other American fellow say “I converted her, I saved her” as Hanna was taking a nap. It had been a long day, or perhaps it was the effect of absorbing three times the radiation of an x-ray machine. I thought about what my American friend said and how it relates to Islam.
Allah Almighty confirms in the Qur’an that there is indeed no compulsion in religion. The concept of doing something against one’s natural will not only creates a state of imbalance in an individual, but also limits that individual’s ability to grow. If we as Muslims take the example of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) and that of the early Muslims as our guide in understanding how to apply Islamic principles, then it is clear that while certain rules and duties are obligatory on Muslims, they are not on non-Muslims, for the mere reason of their being non-Muslims.
Somewhere over time this understanding has blurred. Restoring the balance seems to be the challenge for today.
Allah Almighty says, [Invite people to the way of the God with wisdom and beautiful preaching]. At no point is there a reference to insisting that someone should believe something they do not understand. What is encouraged is establishing dialogue. The only condition for effective dialogue is that a degree of respect has been established. Prophet Muhammad was known for his diplomacy and that is one of the reasons why his message was received well.
In spite of the many Muslims professing the stale “we are all ambassadors for Islam,” the real diplomats — at least in the English-speaking world — are very few. The majority preach the same mundane approach centered on fear of God. In the words of Black Eyed Peas, “Where IS the love?” What happened to the love, the compassion, the joy that Islam brings? To me, this focus on fear of God as the backdrop to inviting people to Islam plays into the hands of those who claim that Islam was spread by the sword. The emphasis on fear is, in my opinion, contrary to everything Islam stands for.
On one of the last days of my stay Hanna took me to one of the most prestigious churches of Kiev. There I saw in her the sincerity and commitment that all of us should have in our faith. With my knowleddge of Christianity and my faith in Islam, seeing her sincerity brought about happiness as well as sadness; the former as I see a young, modest, mannered, hard-working lady go through the motions of faith, and the latter as my knowledge and belief in Islam shows that perhaps the efforts of those who associate partners with God may have their good deeds rejected — for every action should be to please God, and part of this requires us to separate God from God’s creation.
Granted, yesterday (Friday) was her first trip to a mosque and I was probably her first proper encounter with a Muslim. As no doubt she is one of the future leaders of her country, her opinion and influence, I hope, will be affected by her increased knowledge and understanding of Islam and Muslims. That is to say that all of us want and seek the same things in this life: peace, security, and happiness.
Despite our different spiritual views on life, the two American guys I met are among the good people of this world. They were in the Ukraine for a large missionary organization that is conducting research for the establishment of hospitals and orphanages. Perhaps I misunderstood their comment about conversion.
It is my understanding that it is not for me to convert or save Hanna or anyone else. Guidance is a mercy from Allah alone, and “to be saved” is something that can only be chosen voluntarily after receiving impartial information that enables informed decisions. What I can do is engage in dialogue.
In Islam we should not set out with the intention to “convert” or to “save” a person because what is being offered — guidance — isn’t something that belongs to us. It is a blessing and mercy from God. And Allah knows best.
Ukraine is a wonderful country with very hospitable people.
May Allah Almighty have mercy on us and guide us all. Ameen.