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 Thoughts of an American Muslim

Three years ago David Miller embraced Islam and became Yousaf Omar. This transition had a great deal to do with his disillusionment from his society. Here he reflects on the nature of American culture through the worldview that has transformed him.

Whenever I think about myself living in the United States these days, two stories come to mind. The first is from Maulana Rumi and the other, although a joke, is very revealing of the viewpoint that prevails here.

In the first book of the Mathanavi, Rumi tells a story of a man who lived in a desert and who, urged on by his wife, agreed to take an offering to the King in the city. The offering was a pitcher of rain water, which the man and his wife had laboriously collected. They considered this water precious because it was sweet compared to the brackish water of their well, their only major source.

Meager though the offering was, the King received it in the spirit in which it was offered and, emptying the pitcher, filled it with gold. The King also arranged for the man to return to his home on a boat. Seeing the vastness of the river on which he traveled, the man marveled at all the water the King had at his command and at the way he took the poor man’s meager offering and rewarded him.

It is one of Rumi’s renditions of the Islamic ethos. In fact, it is so rich in implications that Rumi himself narrated it with more than the usual splendid digressions which enrich his work. The King, Maulana makes clear, is God and His bounty is as boundless as all the water on earth.

What enchanted the story was the understanding that prevailed throughout, an understanding of an Islamic Ummah, of compassion, of knowledge of the world, of tolerance and of the recognition of the different kinds of people which constitute the Muslim world.

I must admit, however, to one question which continued to bother me until most recently. Was Rumi’s society an ideal or did it really exist?

Then, a couple of weeks back, I read in a special travel supplement to the New York Times of an American author, Annie Dillard, giving a short description of her ‘sojourn’ in North Yemen. She was there during an earthquake and she described how people shared their possessions with the victims and gasoline station owners ‘opened their tanks’ so that the gasoline would be free and how wage earners contributed one month’s wages.

A Yemeni told her of some of his people’s responsibilities: ‘If someone is sick, or old, or poor, well, we give our food; we get that person clothes; we build for a widow a new house if the old one is falling down.’

The remarkable thing about Dillard’s description is how full of appreciation it is. Most American travelers, returning from Islamic countries, do not give positive reports of Muslims, even of those who have been hospitable to them. They were unable to see any women, these travelers complain, except those who were heavily veiled. They mention how exasperated they became because of the constant references to God and the frequent addition of Insha’ Allah to statements about the future. Even writers sympathetic to Islam often reveal a bias. They describe the tabs as ‘worry beads,’ without any regard to what dhikr is and how serenity is achieved through the remembrance of Allah.

Rumi’s story presupposes a vital aspect of the Islamic ethos, the presence of a moral understanding among all the people. The trust the wife places in the King, the treatment of her husband at the palace gates, the ready acceptance of his meager offering, the fact that those with the King also took this acceptance in stride, the way the husband was treated in the King’s city.

A world, in short, so conspicuous by its absence in this narcissistic country called the United States. There is a moral aridity here which parches the throat and lips and which also parches the soul. It is best summed up in a joke.

There was a rich girl in a class who was assigned to write on a poor family. ‘Once upon a time’ she wrote, ‘there was a poor family. The father was poor, the mother was poor, the children were poor, cook was poor, the maid was poor, the butler was poor and the chauffeur was poor.’

The United States is that girl, unable to see beyond a very limited set of assumptions it holds dear. After all, its people insist that their country is the epitome of civilization by virtue of its abundance of wealth and weapons (their only criteria for judging whether a country is civilized).

There is something drastically lacking and that is a commonly understood sense of either morals or ethics.

The United States today is, in short an amoral world. Not immoral, which presupposes the existence of morals, which in turn means that the people are fully aware that they are doing wrong when they do, but amoral. A ‘people’ as the Qur’an puts it, ‘without any awareness (of right or wrong)’ (11:29).