Answered by Sidi Yahya Birt
I am a recent convert. I began the process last fall and observed Ramadan, though having little understanding of the full intention and impact of it’s meaning. I did not have enough witnesses, so didn’t “officially convert” until April. I have the sincerest intention and want to learn and know about Islam, but find that I am pushed too hard. I am expected to act and have the understanding, faith, and knowledge of a born Muslim, but somewhere in there, people forget that I only recently converted. I would like to have some basis to quote from AL QUR’AN or from the the sayings of the Prophet tell people to “Back Off!” “I am learning!” “Be Patient with me!” I cannot learn the same level of Piety and understanding, in 6 months, that others have taken 30, or 50 years to develop. Some people look down on me, and I feel like they are pushing me away from Islam. I won’t let them! They say that it is the shaytan getting to me, but I feel that if there is any truth to that, then the shaytan are acting through them…. not distorting my thoughts. (In this Holy Month, we all know the shaytan and the Jinn are all chained up anyway… and all of the fish in the sea are praying for us to have strength…) When I try to explain that I feel overwhelmed, they say that I should use the free time that I have and it seems they would have me submersed 1000% into the study of Islam. Too much at one time can have a bad effect. I am learning to become very weary of talking to these people, who were the people I looked up to most. They were patient with me, they didn’t push me…. now I feel alone in the journey. I don’t feel like I can ask them questions like before. How can I tell them to be patient with me? Did the Prophet say anything about patience with converts? Please help.
Converts, in the early days, have entered a big new world that is often confusing for them, and so they do not always protect their new found faith adequately in the early days. One manifestation of this is the propensity to ask ordinary Muslims questions about Islam which they are not equipped to answer, while not possessing the restraint to refer you to someone else who knows better.
My best advice would be to deliberately find one knowledgeable scholar in your city whom you respect, and to ask him to help you by giving you answers and advice when sought for. It is highly desirable if you agree to have some private tuition with this scholar, and ideally that you agree upon what is the right pace for you to proceed in learning the basics.
So the best way to avoid bad or ill-informed advice is to nominate this one learned person to act as your mentor, and then to politely decline the active advice of others, while acting as a good brother to them, until you have found your feet. Finding your feet means knowing what is personally obligatory for you at this moment (some obligations might fall on you later on in life, like providing a lawful income for your wife after you get married).
As for gradualism in religion, the Holy Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) said:
“Verily this religion is inexorable, so enter its depth gently (Ahmad, 12618); if you try to seize it all at once, it will overpower you” (Bukhari, 39).
A contemporary American scholar in Hanafi jurisprudence, Hedaya Hartford, who is also a convert, comments on this hadith that: “We must take this religion one step at a time. It is a complete way of life and requires time to adjust. In learning your religion, you must begin to re-examine and regard things in its new light. Apply Allah’s commands in the spirit of ‘We hear and we obey’ (Qur’an, 5:7). Assimilating what you learn consistently will facilitate this. It is through Allah’s mercy and wisdom that we are shown our faults gradually. As many converts to Islam can attest, it may take years to really shed non-Islamic manners and patterns of behaviour. Whether new to Islam or not, your keeping to Islam is a tremendous blessing from Allah, for in it lies the means to earthly and eternal happiness.”
Source: Hedaya Hartford, ‘The First Steps’, Islamic Marriage, first edition (Damascus: Dar al-Fikr, 2000), p. 19.
So what about those first steps? A man came to the Holy Prophet and asked: “Messenger of Allah, say something to me about Islam which I will not ask anyone else except you.” He said, “Say, ‘I believe in Allah’, and then remain upright [literally go straight].” (related by Muslim)
The great scholar Imam Nawawi comments on this prophetic tradition that remaining upright means persevering in the path by doing what is obligatory and leaving what is forbidden.
How should we aim to progress towards Allah?
The Holy Prophet (may Allah bless him and give him peace) said that Allah Most High said: “[…] My slave does not draw closer to Me with anything more beloved to Me than that which I have made obligatory upon him. My slave continues to draw closer with optional extra acts until I love him. […].” (an excerpt from the hadith narrated by Bukhari)
About Him Most High saying “My slave does not draw closer to Me with anything more beloved to Me than that which I have made obligatory upon him”, Imam Nawawi comments, “There is proof that performance of obligatory acts is better than optional extra acts. It has been narrated in the hadith literature that ‘the reward of the obligatory is preferred seventy times over the reward of the optional acts’ [related by Ibn Khuzayma].”
About Him Most High saying, “My slave continues to draw closer with optional extra acts until I love him”, Imam Nawawi comments by way of example that “whoever prays extra optional prayers along with the obligatory prayers becomes more beloved to Allah. [Note: Imam Nawawi has mentioned prayer as an example, but included in the meaning of this prophetic tradition are all the acts of Islam, obligatory or non-obligatory.] Love from Allah is [His] willing the best [for one]. Whenever He loves His slave He occupies him in His remembrance and obedience, He protects him from the Devil, He occupies his limbs in acts of obedience, He makes hearing the Qur’an and dhikr [recollection of Allah] beloved to him, and makes hearing [lewd or base] singing and instruments of diversion detestable to him. He becomes one of those about whom Allah has said, ‘When they hear useless talk, they turn away from it’ [Qur’an: al-Qasas/55], and [about whom] He Most High said, ‘When the ignorant address them they speak peacefully’ [Qur’an: al-Furqan/63], that is, if they hear some indecent talk from them they turn away from it, and they say something with which they are safe [from wrong action]. He guards his sight from those things which it is forbidden [to see] and he does not look at that which is not permitted for him, so his looking becomes a look of reflection and consideration, and he does not see anything which has been created but that he has a proof from it of its Creator. `Ali (may Allah be well pleased with him) said, ‘I do not see anything but that I see Allah Most High before it.’ The meaning of consideration is to pass , through reflection, from creation to the power of the Creator, so that he glorifies [Allah] at that, declares His sanctity and vastness, the movements of his two hands and his feet all become solely for the sake of Allah Most High, and he does not walk for a purpose which does not concern him, doe snot do anything profitless with his hand, rather his movements and his stillnesses are all for Allah Most High, and so he is rewarded for that in his movements, stillnesses and in all of his actions.”
So to recap the main points.
1. The path in Islam is a lifelong one, and our religion is of the greatest depth and profundity. One should not enter its depths at the beginning because they will prove too much for us before we have gotten the basics right.
2. We should find one teacher to learn our religion from, and to seek general advice from. We are commanded to seek knowledge from learned people, that is the scholars of Islam, and not from ordinary Muslims at the mosque. We should politely disregard their advice.
3. We should first learn about what is obligatory for us to practise and establish that in our lives. The obligatory acts are what is most beloved to Allah. These are the basics. After that, we can learn about and practise what is non-obligatory in order to seek Allah’s love, and to thereafter swing in the profoundness of religion. So don’t worry about the non-obligatory until you have cracked the obligatory.
4. There is a prayer which we can say to keep us steadfast in this way of religion: rabbanaa la tuzigh quloobanaa ba`da idh hadaytanaa wa hablanaa min la-dunka rahma innaka antal-wahhaab [O Our Lord, do not cause our hearts to wave after they have received guidance, and give mercy to us from Yourself; Truly You are the Bestower.]