By Mehdi Khan
May 20th signaled a day of apprehension and worry for the Muslim community in the United States. For the first time, the attention and controversies surrounding drawing the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) were brought close to a local level. What was once an issue which triggered peoples’ raw emotions and anger was manifested through the burning of effigies and flags, and regrettably sometimes through violence on television and other media was now very much a real local issue. The spotlight was on me and my community in Davis. How would I deal with someone showing me an insulting picture of a man whom I love and admire—a man who I consider the role model for all of mankind? Would anyone have the audacity to exhibit such disrespect publicly? For the first time in my life I got on the University bus system’s Unitrans E-line and felt like I may be targeted. For the first time in my life I could sympathize with those who are of African descent, where a simple bus ride was filled with an apprehension and confusion. How am I supposed to react? Would I be justified in shouting someone down? What if they taunted the religion and way of life I have grown to love, a system which has revolutionized my life and is the very essence of who I am? Would I be justified in becoming violent? Would people blame me for throwing a punch? Little did I know that this day would not only help broaden my point of view, but would reaffirm and strengthen the faith and love that I have for the religion of Islam and its final prophet.
I am sure many readers were wondering if there was any confrontation between the Muslims and participants of this “free for all” for “free speech” across the country. Luckily for me here at UC Davis, the Agnostic and Athiest Student Association did not portray obscene images of the Prophet, but rather historical ones. Although I do not agree that our beloved prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) should be the poster person for the free speech campaign, I did respect the perspective which this organization came from. They made it a point not to use offensive pictures (as many have done in the media), but to use historical ones in order to simply prove their point that free speech is a sacred right. I of course agree with them, but I believe I do believe that all speech should be responsible in nature. If you aim to offend and hurt the sensitivities of people no matter what religion or race, you can only expect a reaction—and sometimes it won’t be peachy.
My dialogue with members of this organization shed light on how the general attitude of people is towards discussing Islam. I came to learn that many people have an innate apprehension in discussing religion even as a general topic. Islam specifically, as one may expect, is even more of a hot button that few may have the willingness to discuss. This came as a shock to me. I consider myself an average baseball loving American, a guy raised loving the San Francisco Giants and the 49ers—in other words, no different from anyone else. I am more than willing if not excited to discuss religion, philosophy and politics with anyone, even those who hate what I believe. Why should I be afraid? Many people, I came to realize, feel that any questions posed about the religion of Islam that are controversial will offend people of the Islamic faith—that we Muslims are unwilling to hear any form of criticism. This could not be further from the truth. Muslims here in America are just as rational and open to hot topics as anyone else—or irrational as anyone else depending on whom you’re comparing. The wife of the Prophet, Ayesha, used to question the rulings which were ordained even more so than any of the male companions of the prophet (wives are a lot harder on their husbands, naturally). We are thus taught by those who we believe as the greatest people in history, to not take anything at face value, but to question and understand our beliefs and practices. Entire scholarly works were written by erudite scholars hundreds of years ago dedicated to discussing why we Muslims pray and fast—practices which few understand the benefits of even today because they simply don’t ask “why ?”. When something seems off the mark to us that we read in the Quran, we are taught that it is not the Quran that is irrational, but our understanding of it.
After all, God would not reveal a Book which was innately opposed to human intellect and reason. We are taught to try and understand the commandments of our faith, and rationalize them to the best of our abilities. Thus, questions posed by non-Muslims to us are not only welcomed as an opportunity to teach others about our faith, but more importantly they further help us explore and understand our own faith. It isn’t the question per se that may offend us, but the manner and intension with which it is posed. If someone has the intension of offending, this is what he will convey through his demeanor, but if a person is sincerely curious, naturally the other person will understand that. The idea that Muslims are all angry people who will chop the heads off anyone who poses questions about their faith is not only ludicrous, but goes against the very fundamental nature of human beings.
In the end, one interaction really hit home and was the “walk off homerun” of what the very point of having a faith is and I will remember it for the rest of my life. This story not only touched my heart, but made me evaluate my own relationship with God and my fellow man. I was conversing with an older atheist gentleman (by old I mean he looked retired) about religion and faith when he told me of one interaction which defines what should be the result of having any faith. One night he was sleeping outside of the library when around 3 a.m. two girls woke him up. “Sir,sir? Are you awake?” they asked. He thought in his sleepy state of mind that it must be security. He opened his eyes and realized that in fact, these were two Muslim girls in hijab (headscarves). “Do you want a blanket? You look cold we have one in our car,” they said. He replied “oh no thank you I’m fine.” They went on: “do you want food? We have some left over from studying” to which he again declined appreciatively. He explained that these two girls were the only ones of the hundreds that walked passed him to offer any help to him that late night.
He concluded our conversation by saying that even though he may know of one hundred Muslims who may be murders, he has met and knows of two that are truly good, two Muslim girls who care about their fellow man. “Actions speak louder than words” he told me, to which I could not agree more. I realized that the media could say whatever it wants about my religion—in the end it won’t affect me and in fact will make my faith in Islam stronger. The point of my very existence is to serve God through my actions by serving humanity, just as those two sisters in Islam and humanity did that one cold night.
Mehdi Khan is a graduate student in the department of Civil Engineering at the University of California, Davis.