Islam À La Carte

Riding a Bike

Half-heartedness doesn’t reach into majesty.
You set out to find God,
but then you keep stopping for long periods
at meanspirited roadhouses.

Maulana Rumi

If we were all perfect believers, there would be no need for mosques, churches, synagogues, or temples. There would never have been a need for any prophet or messenger after the first man. We wouldn’t need scholars, priests, imams, rabbis, gurus, shamans, or any holy men to impart upon us wisdom. If we were all perfect believers, the world would be a microcosm of paradise and much less distinguishable from the Garden of Eden. But in reality, the world is far from that and we are all far from being perfect believers.

Because we’re imperfect, we need educated, wise people to guide us. We need divinely-inspired prophets and messengers to guide our civilizations and communities back to the path of righteousness. We need places of worship and contemplation where we can seek healing for the sicknesses of the heart. With that being said, I say that I am completely imperfect; both as a human being and as a believer. I could not, with any legitimacy, admonish anyone for being a bad Muslim or a bad Christian or a bad Hindu. I try my best not to make sweeping generalizations or preach a doctrine I myself follow haphazardly. The best I can do is to relay the way I think, the experiences I’ve had, and the lessons I’ve learned.

On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Matthew 9:12-13

Against this backdrop, I’ve chosen to write about the phenomenon that we colloquially  refer to as ‘pick-and-choose’ faith. I know I’m not the only one familiar with it, and I have been on every side of the fence regarding it. I’ve been a pick-and-chooser, I’ve slammed it, I’ve defended it, I’ve understood it, and it’s seemed completely illogical at times. The fact is that I’m still an ‘à la carte Muslim’ as I call it, but I’m working on it.

Sometimes I wonder if being a perfect believer is even possible. The world is such a place where being completely righteous leads to ostracization and lower living standards. My parents are ‘à la carte’ Muslims too, but I can’t possibly blame them for it. Yes, they pray, maintain a halal diet, live within the bounds of the law, and are good people – but they also pay interest on their mortgage, credit cards, and car loans. Interest (riba) in Islam is expressly forbidden, and is sinful for both the receiver and payer. To express the extremity of the crime, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said that, “Riba is seventy types, the least of which is equal to one having sexual intercourse with his mother.” Even the most innocent and least severe type of riba is equivalent to having sex with ones own mother. Yet nearly all of us do it. In fact, somehow I look forward to the day I can take out a mortgage for my first home – it’s become a feat to be accomplished. How can I call myself a perfect believer or consider myself a good Muslim while admittedly breaking this law? Even if we disregard riba for a moment because of the enormous societal pressures, there are plenty of other commands that my religion makes that aren’t so difficult to overcome. I don’t nearly lower my gaze as much as I should in the presence of women, I use profanity regularly, I don’t eat bacon but that double cheeseburger at McDonald’s is still pretty enticing. Does that make me a bad Muslim?

Such is the strength of the burden of habit. Here I have the power to be but do not wish it. There I wish to be but lacks the power. On both grounds, I’m in misery.

Augustine of Hippo

I know it’s not up to any one of us to make such a judgement. We should all know ourselves well enough to know where we deviate and what our weaknesses are. God is All-Knowing and the sole true Judge of character. I’ve always subscribed to a ‘go big or go home’ kind of philosophy, and indeed some schools of thought encourage that when it comes to religion. For some, becoming a good Muslim means growing a big beard, wearing some kind of jalabiya, forsaking any and all forms of contact with the opposite sex, learning Arabic, moving to Saudi Arabia to become a scholar of Islam, and deleting my Metallica discography. Either that or you’re not really a good Muslim. That ‘go big or go home’ mentality made me choose to not be the ‘good Muslim’. At one point, I wasn’t even concerned about being an ‘à la carte’ Muslim – I just didn’t care at all because I didn’t think that was the life for me. I don’t think the ‘go big or go home’ way is the right one. If someone who has never even waded in a shallow pool were to be thrown into the middle of the ocean, the end result would be predictably unfortunate.

But whoever desires the Hereafter and exerts the effort due to it while he is a believer – it is those whose effort is ever appreciated [by Allah].

Surat Al-Isra [17:19]

When I was learning how to ride a bike as a child, I was so afraid of taking my training wheels off. Plenty of people tried to teach me, but it never quite worked. The fear overtook me and when I felt my balance leaving me, I jumped off the bike and didn’t want to get back on. I abandoned riding my bike and the fear of falling was so strong that I didn’t even want to learn. While my friends sped around the block, I walked, ran, or just sat down. One day, maybe a couple of years later, I got curious again. I really did want to be able to ride my bike and join my friends, but I knew my fear was a huge obstacle. I decided to just let go and jump into it. I went to a little hill and got on my bike. As it rocked forward and gravity began to pull the bike down the hill, it picked up incredible speed. The hill was bumpy, and the fear had locked me in its grip but there was no bailing out this time. The bike reached the bottom of the hill, and I went flying over the handlebars – landing on the hard ground. My knees and elbows were scraped and I’m sure my wrist was sprained, but I knew the worst was over. The rest of the day was spent falling, getting bruised, damaging my bike – but there was no more fear. Just a process of trial and error. The next day, I asked my father to come outside so I can show him something. I took the bike out and started riding up and down the street like a pro, just like the rest of the kids. He was proud of me, and I was so proud of myself for it. I took the bumps, I took the falls, and I got better every time I got back on the bike. I wasn’t picking and choosing how to fall off my bike, I was just learning how to ride it.

The challenges we all face in the way of becoming better people and better believers are numerous and seemingly insurmountable at times. None of us are perfect, but faith is a process. Coordinating all parts of our hearts, minds, desires, dreams, and compulsions is not an easy task. There’s a delicate balance to be achieved, but as long as we aim for continual self-improvement and promise ourselves to remain righteous, we can all learn to ride the bike.

By time, indeed mankind is in loss, except for those who have believed and done righteous deeds and advised each other to truth and advised each other to patience.

Surat Al-Asr [103:1-3]

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