Where did we go wrong with our deen? And how do we get back on track?

I frequently find myself looking at the state of the Muslim ummah and asking myself, “Where did we go wrong with our deen? How were we so easily divided and distracted? Why are we stuck in this toxic cycle of rituals divorced from meaning?”

The answer eluded me for years. I’d find myself yearning for the companionship of devoted Christian woman. (This is not because they are guided. I sometimes long to be surrounded by pious Christian women because they really do put family and community first. This is something Muslims are supposed to be doing as well, by the way.)

Meanwhile, the Muslims really do have guidance. Unfortunately, as a group, we are horrible at both implementing and thereby showing that guidance to the world. By doing this not only do we leave our communities bereft of real meaning, we fail at sharing our deen with others.

You’ve been saying “deen” a lot.

Deen is often translated as religion, but that isn’t fully correct. Deen is supposed to be a living, breathing organism. The English word “religion” really doesn’t do it justice. It’s so much more than just a religion. Deen is all encompassing. If we live correctly, every single action we make is for our Creator. Even when we sin or make mistakes, we take that mistake and seek forgiveness from Allah. Then Allah turns that black mark in our ledgers into a nice, clean spot, ready for good deeds to be written on top of it.

Some of us are so embarrassed by our deen that we try to hide it. We think Islam is inferior and that no one would willingly want to follow it. So we hide the light of our religion and seek the treasures of the world. Others have hearts that are disconnected from religious duties. (Both of these conditions, by the way, can be due to colonization.)

So as a group, we’re sitting around thinking our religion is backwards and shameful. Meanwhile, the average non Muslim is simply not content with the status quo of modern life. To the contrary, many people out there are desperately seeking an answer to basic questions, like why are we here and what are we meant to do? And we have the answer, but it largely goes unnoticed because some of us have decided to hide or deny it, while others have no idea how to live it.

Islam vs. a hollow shell

When I became Muslim over seven years ago, I did so not because of community but because I became convinced that Islam is absolutely correct. It is the perfect way of life. I soon found myself, however, in the company of a mere handful of Muslim women – the ones who seemed to be the most at peace. I tried to soak up everything I could from them. But I still fell into the trap of hollow, empty rituals being ticked off daily in order to try and fulfill my obligations.

People aren’t interested in empty rituals. But that’s what we’re obsessed with. Years of forcing myself to worship because “it has to be done” left me feeling stressed and empty, not peaceful. And the women who were at peace with themselves weren’t able to communicate what differentiated their approach vs. my approach.

Fixing the “empty rituals” issues has to be done ASAP, as the way Muslims practice vs. what Islam dictates really is a major reason for people either rejecting Islam outright or leaving Islam. But in order to fix the empty ritual issues, we need to look at our tendency towards another issue.

We became a people of technicalities

If you have a fitness tracker that you wear on your wrist, you probably know exactly where I am going. When you go to the grocery store and push a cart (or if you push a baby in a pram), you don’t get credit for those steps. This is because your hand is largely motionless as it pushes and steers. So if you want to fully track your walking, you wind up pushing the cart with one hand or doing some other weird adjustment.

Sometimes, this is how we Muslims approach our deen. We look for religious opinions (fatwas) that justify what we want to do. We make massive excuses for ourselves as to why we’re straying from the straight and narrow path. (But we rarely extend those reasons to others!) We “perfect” our worship by focusing on where our hands are located, or if we’re reading at an early enough time (but not too early).

And when your religion is based on technicalities, people who reject or are unaware of your technicalities become an issue.

The section on sects

When the method, and not the engagement of the heart, becomes priority, something strange happens. Muslims who reject or are ignorant about the way you’ve chosen to approach your worship are seen as deviant, regardless of their reasons. “They’re not like us!”

This results in sectarian divisions. People who are dead set on a specific method without engaging at the heart often spend significant amounts of time correcting others. We all know that one uncle who corrects everyone on the placement of hands in salaah. Many of us avoid that one aunty who absolutely has to comment on everyone’s hijab, because she’s the only one doing it right.

Some people take it so far that they will write massive diatribes on why wiping over regular socks is wrong/right. Conformity becomes the goal in life. Critical thinking is rejected. Suddenly, a Muslim literally worshiping a grave (which is totally forbidden) and a Muslim who raises and lowers his finger in tashahud are both seen as equally problematic!

The one who commits to following a specific sect, to prove “my way is the right way”, (unknowingly) associates their pet group as an ilah – a god – with Allah. They have made a partner with Allah. I sometimes think this is because the heart itself is so disengaged from the remembrance of Allah that it has to be engaged with something. Otherwise it will feel empty. But the Qur’an reminds us very eloquently not to do this:

…do not place a partner as an equal with Allah, while you are knowing (He has no partners)

So is it only our deen that’s an issue?

Deen is just one facet of being a Muslim. One also needs faith (iman) and ihsan (perfection of applying their Islam holistically). Most of us are taught about these three things at some point in our lives.

Unfortunately, we frequently see deen, iman, and ihsan to be completely separate. They are not. A person might start off with only one aspect (usually iman, sometimes deen), but all three should be actively cultivated.

For example, a person might start out with a weak iman that only gives light within his heart. But as he learns about Islam, he starts implementing deeni practice. This in turn will build iman, and iman will build deen. And as he progresses, he will find that both will establish the foundation for ihsan.

How do you build deen/iman/ihsan?

The utmost important thing to keep in mind is that it is first and foremost intention which builds all three. Making intention is not just a step to check off when you’re making salaah or hajj, for example. It needs to eventually become a deep, pondering intention. Our Lord says in the Qur’an:

Allah intends ease for you and He does not intend for you hardship, and for you to complete the period (of fasting Ramadan) and for you to glorify Allah regarding your guidance, so perhaps you will give thanks

Our Creator intends ease for us! Can you imagine if we took that thought with us into salaah, into hajj, into purifying ourselves daily, into eating food even? Paradigms inside our hearts would shift. Life would no longer be drudgery from one empty ritual to another. Instead, we would find meaning in what we do, realize it is for our benefit, and sincerely thank Allah from the depths of our souls for allowing us to be in this deen.

The powerful message of the Qur’an is one of the reasons why I suggest that people who want to study Islam should make Qur’an a priority. I’m not saying to study Qur’an alone, but rather to make Qur’an the priority. Everything else (hadith, fiqh, aqeeda) should be supplementary to that.

As we engage with our Creator via the Qur’an, we will see the difference. Our lives will center around the positive attitude of Islam. We will stop feeling shame for not being what the neocolonialists want us to be. Instead of having a bit of Islam here and there in ways that engage our limbs and tongues while leaving our hearts empty, we will have the entire package.

But this is just the beginning

This mindset of gratitude and praise would penetrate our entire lives. Instead of arguing over where to put hands in salaah, we would be giving thanks that people were even praying to begin with. If we found people were making serious mistakes, we’d know the etiquette for correcting them.

We’d see that sister who is a hardcore Quranist and instead of mocking her, berating her, or smearing her name we’d make duaa for her guidance. We’d do our best to gently show her that the Sunnah is indeed an established part of deen.

If we found people seriously innovating in their worship, we would do our best to gently guide them back to the straight path. Wouldn’t that be so much better than shaming them?

Even our everyday, mundane actions would turn to gold because of our connection with our Lord. There is, for example, the hadith that states:

Iman consists of seventy or eighty portions… the lowest of it is to remove harm from the road.

Can you imagine removing a nail or a board or a tree limb from your neighborhood street as an act of thanks and praise for your creator? There would be no hard feelings. “Why do I have to do this drudgery?” could transform itself into “I’m so happy I am able to serve others while pleasing my Maker”.

We’d finally have the changed lives that come from fully embracing the life-changing system of Islam.

Is it really so simple?

Yes, it really is. Take time and evaluate your attitude during the course of this week. Where are you in terms of thankfulness?

When did you last pick up the Qur’an with the intention of reading it with understanding? That is the firmest connection you can have with your Lord. Reciting Qur’an in Arabic is also rich in rewards. And there are so many videos explaining the Qur’an from numerous people. Find recordings from a teacher who reminds you about your higher purpose and your akhira, and dive in.

Then look at your salaah. And your charity. Take it one step at a time. Really get to understand what you’re doing and why. Definitely learn a basic level of fiqh if you are unaware. But rather avoid leaving your salaah at that “technically correct” level. Instead, seek to engage your heart once your limbs and tongue know what to do.

This deen is amazing but only if we let it reach our hearts, if we sincerely check our intentions and actions and work towards good. Make yourself a pebble which only causes very small ripples when it first dives in to water, but those waves expand and affect everyone else as they increase in size. Do this by worshiping Allah fully. Worship Allah as you reach out towards others (Muslim and otherwise) as you can, while remembering that guidance is Allah’s domain. As simple as all of this sounds, it really is the recipe for changing the condition of the ummah. Allah has explained it to us so perfectly:

Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves

So be that change you want to see. It’s the way out of our current condition.