New Muslims: Lonely Communities Within Communities

I wanted to post this article from The MuslimLink Newspaper, It’s an awesome article from Tariq Nelson a fellow DC area Muslim who has a lot of insightful things to say.  I must say, I certainly agree with him.

Synthesis (sin’thi-sis): an integration of two or more pre-existing elements which results in a new creation.

By Tariq Nelson

I spent my first decade in my hometown as a Muslim attending an ethnic masjid where the Imam did not speak English. The vast majority of the people at this masjid were of one ethnicity, the Khutbah was in their language, they spoke in their language in the masjid and they did things amongst themselves. That may sound wonderful, but the converts were left out.

Eid would be a festive occasion for them having spent it with family and friends, while I – being single at the time – would spend that day sitting in my room alone watching TV or some years even choosing to go to work immediately after the Eid Salaat even if I had the day off from work. The same was the case for the few other converts.

We’d go to Eid Salaat, pray, hug the brothers and then everyone was gone with places to go and people to see, while I had nowhere to go and noone to see. The masjid would be almost completely empty at Thuhr time. Eid was one of the loneliest times of the year for me for many years.

This particular masjid was not a place that I could bring a family member or a non-Muslim friend to come and learn about Islam or see how the Muslims live. In fact, quite honestly, deep down I dreaded taking a person that was interested in Islam to the masjid and preferred to take them to my home and invite 1-2 other brothers to come as well.

Unfortunately, I have found that there are many masjids like this across the country where converts and people of other ethnicities are an afterthought. This is why one the things that I feel is necessary for the continued growth of the American Muslim community is a “synthesis” of the American Muslim community: a melding of cultures (and the connecting issues) that have come together here into one someone homogenous culture.

This synthesis is what many of us thought ALREADY existed to a certain extent in the American Muslim community when we became part of it. Perhaps I am being naïve here, but this expectation is probably what shapes my point of view on this subject.

The question I often ask myself is: will we – as American Muslims – be able to form a community in which the issues are common for everyone in it? Let’s keep in mind that I am speaking of the American Muslim community and not the communities and cultures overseas (which all each have been through this process to a large extent).

In other words, I am NOT calling for a utopian global homogenization of all Muslims on the planet. What I AM saying is that the Muslims in THIS country should share the same goals and concerns and even to an extent the same culture. At the very least we should not be so culturally foreign to each other in spite of being in the same city.

As it is today, in many cases we have ethnic communities that often do NOT share goals and values and are sometimes even in competition with one another. I don’t think that we can continue to have communities that are “mini-Pakistan”, “mini-Egypt” or “mini-Somalia” and so on  – right here in America – that (unintentionally) alienates people outside of that particular masjid’s dominate culture and each community seeing the other’s issues as “their” problem.

This ethnic fragmentation has also led to a level of decrease of trust and co-operation between communities. The members of these ethnically based communities work well with each other, and are involved in their own community’s affairs as it relates to their own country, but rarely with another.

This lack of synthesis has in many ways left many individuals – especially converts – stuck on the outside looking in, wounded and spiritually dying. In my travels from community to community, I have found many converts that were sadly angry, confused and fed up with this situation.

On the other hand, the only way that some converts believe that they can survive in this environment is to jettison their pasts as bona fide Westerners in favor of becoming “honorary immigrants”. This is the reason we find that some American brothers will even speak with a fake accent in an attempt to somehow Islamically “authenticate” themselves – as if being a Westerner is not an authentic expression of being a Muslim. What is wrong with the environment inside of our masjids that some brothers feel the need to do such things?

Some may argue that this is diversity and it is beautiful for each ethnic group to have its own masjid with no sort of overlap. And I understand that it is natural for this to happen, but our long term growth depends on having less of this fragmentation because most people of other ethnicities – particularly converts – will NOT feel comfortable in these masjids.

Without grappling with these topics, we will continue to lose new Muslims and others will continue to feel uncomfortable, subservient and trodden under the feet of the dominant ethnic cultures established in these masjids.

Now, let me be clear that I don’t mean that new Muslims and people of other cultures are treated rudely in ethnic masjids. I mean that many masjids in this country have established an environment that is comfortable for only one ethnic group. The announcements after Jumuah are made in the dominant culture’s language (often with no English translation), the posts on the bulletin board are in that language (with little to no English), the khutbah is given in that language, and most of the people in that masjid huddle and speaks in that particular language.

Some years ago, back in my hometown, a small group of us decided to complain to the board about this situation. We had grown angry and resentful because we felt that we were intentionally being left out. However, that was not the case at all. They just ASSUMED that we were having a good time with our families and friends just like they were on occasions like Eid. We were just an afterthought.

After our complaints, some efforts to integrate the converts were made, but there were still many stumbling blocks. The most obvious was that it’s hard for a new Muslim to speak to the Imam when he doesn’t speak the same language as you or communicates very poorly in that language.

Then there was the bi-cultural problem – namely, two different ways of looking at things. With Eid planning, for example, getting people of differing cultures to agree on how to celebrate it is harder than fostering consensus among people who all grew up with the same mental picture of what an Eid celebration should look like. Likewise, even in the distribution of zakaatul maal where our much more numerous immigrant brothers decided to send the money to the poor in their country instead of distributing it amongst the local needy Muslims because “there was no REAL need in America”.

Also, when it came to the issues that were “important” or “Islamic”, similar lines were drawn. We converts saw dawah to our family and friends, concern for the outside community, civic duty, and other domestic issues as “Islamic” priorities. The larger immigrant community eschewed our “poor understanding”, and deemed that the conflicts “back home” (especially in their country) were top priorities and raised a lot of money for good projects there.

So because of these differences in outlook, understanding, and concerns, the small band of converts became a “community within a community”, but still not fully integrated. We were not a single community. There was, the overwhelming majority of the people on one side from one ethnic group and the small band of converts just trying to hang on for dear life to each other and to their Iman.

The environment in that masjid was such that the only way you could fully integrate was to “convert” to the dominant culture. Hence, you would see some brothers adopting the phony accent in attempts to fit in. You would also see a married convert couple cooking a particular ethnic group’s foods EVERYDAY in an attempt to be “more Muslim”.

So one of the main reasons a “new Muslim welcoming committee” or such things often fail in a masjid is because instead of integrating the converts into the community they form their own little clique that will eventually fizzle out from lack of support from the greater community. It can even become a crutch as the rest of the community that is not involved in the new Muslim committee will see no need to be inviting to new Muslims because there is a committee. So after many years, the new Muslim never “graduates” out of the “new Muslim” program and never begins to integrate into the rest of the community.

This is why the entire environment of our masjids and Islamic Centers across the country must change to be welcoming for everyone and not just one ethnic group. If we can do that, then the new converts would be able to successfully make the transition from the “new Muslim committee” to the greater community.

If we can “synthesize” and have a gradual melding of the many cultures and issues that make up our community, people from all these different cultures will begin to appreciate and even adopt certain aspects of others’ cultures such as foods (not fake accents). That is why I like it when some masjids during Ramadan will pick nights to have various cultural iftars (“Latino Night”, “African-American night”, so on) to give the community members an appreciation of all the cultures in the masjid instead of just catering to just one. Others have done wonderful programs like “Eid house hopping” with converts in mind – who are now, like I was in my first years, spending that day alone. Over time, traditions like this – if they can spread – will lead to a melding, Insha Allah. This is what Islam has traditionally been able to do: adapt and meld.
If a synthesis can happen, then perhaps there can even be more tangible results like American Muslims adopting a somewhat standardized mahr (dowery) for our culture as it is in other countries instead of going by what is the standard “back home”.

If this synthesis can happen, then the problems amongst Black American Muslims will become “our” problems instead of “theirs”.

Another goal to add to the list of things to do during Ramadan: try to visit as many masjids as possible during that time instead of just one. Let’s try to mix it up a little. Get to know some people outside of your circle. And on Eid, try to remember that a lot of converts are spending the day alone.

This synthesis can happen and co-operation between the ethnic groups can increase as we place more emphasis on a common transethnic identity as American Muslims. Tariq Nelson lives in Northern Virginia and blogs at


One Comment

  1. Assalaamualaykum,

    Alhamdulillah your artilce touched my heart. I too have felt the cultural isolation within a Pakistani community, where the after Khutba’s are in Urdu. I’ve spent over a year going to Juma’at and not once have I come away with a deeper understanding of Islam.

    I don’t understand why we have ‘imported’ imam’s or main programmes in Urdu I thought it was the duty to spread Islam to the local community. Non-muslims have expressed a dis-like to consider Islam because it seem’s like an ‘Asian’ only religion. In my heart I find it difficult to invite them to the Masjid because I know I how deeply lonely I feel in my local community, being the only single black-carribean Muslim my age in the area (2 others both another generation and married). Anyway Alhamdulillah at least there is comfort in knowing I’m not alone.



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