Ulema and the New Muslims

Is Jeffrey Lang misleading or simply crying for help?

11 Rabi-ul-Awwal 1422, 3 June 2001

[We reproduce below the correspondence between Br. Yahya (John Smedley) of U.K. and Albalagh regarding our review of Jeffrey Lang's book. Our purpose is to bring to light the problems of many new converts as well as of the new generation of Muslims in the Western world.

We especially hope that the students and teachers of Islamic religious schools in the English-speaking world will read it. We assert that the gap John Smedley is referring to is a communication gap and to address it does require inclusion of some subjects of study in the curriculum of these schools. Just learning rudimentary English is simply not good enough. We think that these students must be fully aware of history of Europe and America, and the history of Western thought and civilization. They must also have a good grasp of the English language and literature. The also need an appreciation level knowledge of physical sciences. Without this our future religious leaders may not be able to reach the people who most need them. The result will be that the gap will be filled by those who lack knowledge and understanding but who can articulate their ignorant views with eloquence.

We stand by our opinion that the book by Jeffrey Lang is misleading and dangerous --- most of all for himself. A believer, who is conscious of the grave dangers involved, would never want to take the risk of misleading a single person. Without endorsing his book, we do realize that his book, in an unfortunate manner serves to point out the problem out there, which is ignored as we gloat over the news that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the World.]

Letter #1: The Review is Unfair
From: John Smedley (Yahya) U.K.

I found Khalid Baig's review of Jeffrey Lang's book "Struggling to Surrender" rather unfair. As a Muslim convert myself I found that the questions he raises and many of the answers he provides are common to most converts I have talked to (including myself). The point is not whether the answers he gives are correct (which he himself repeatedly states) but that the wider Muslim community blankly fails to address them.

The point is not whether the answers he gives are correct.

I hope that many people read this book (and its companion book "Even Angels Ask"); not because the answers he provides are the real answers; but rather that the question he asks are genuine and common to most Muslim converts. The wider Muslim community would do well to formulate answers to these questions to guide the new Muslims to the correct and true path.

Response: The Book is Misleading and Dangerous
By Khalid Baig

Thanks for your feedback.

I would request you to rethink your statement.

The proper way of asking questions is to ask the questions.

May I suggest that writing a book is a rather unusual way of asking questions. Let me give you an example. I have read many books on nutrition, written by professionals. They include contradictory information, leading to lot of questions in my mind. Now would it be proper for me to write a book giving my personal answers to those questions. And would you recommend it using the same logic? (The answers may be wrong (although they are forcefully argued and have the potential of misleading and endangering) but the questions are important!)

The proper way of asking questions is to ask the questions. All of the questions he raises have been answered by the scholars. But instead of trying to understand, he wants to argue and produces the book in the process. I would humbly suggest that this is very dangerous both for the reader as well as the writer. Because, God forbid, for anyone mislead by his work, he would also share the burden of the other person's sin.

Letter #2: We Need Answers in a Western Context
From: John Smedley (Yahya) U.K.

I agree in principle with your points. However there is a major area that his books do address, which the wider Muslim community fails to. In my (and many other peoples) experience the local mosques, far from encouraging and educating the convert, they actively repel such people (Lang cites this as a major cause of apostasy. I have also witnessed a number of such cases).

It is right that the Muslim should ask! But invariably the convert finds that either there is no one who will listen or that the answers are the answers to the question in Pakistan (or wherever). There is no effort to explain the answers in a western context - don't get me wrong here. I am not advocating change in the way Lang suggests. Just the way in which the questions are answered needs to address the current outlook of the convert.

The divide between the wider Muslim community and the convert has caused the apostasy of thousands. The community seems to be unaware even of its existence.

This is not only useful for the convert but also for the wider Muslim community. All too often the current generation of Muslim children have no idea how to relate their Islam with their western upbringing. It is not that the two are totally incompatible. Islam is there to guide the society to a better one. But what is better in one part of the world may be slightly different than in another part.

What Jeffrey Lang seems to be trying to do is to point to the divide (which unfortunately is a big divide) between the wider Muslim community and the convert. This is a divide that has caused the apostasy of thousands. It is a very serious issue of which the wider Muslim community seems to be unaware even of its existence.

My experiences as a convert are very much inline with Jeffrey Lang's and also most other converts I have spoken to. Our conclusions may be different and varied and I agree that Lang touches dangerous territory when he puts his own points of view. In his defense however he does say that it is only his point of view.

Unfortunately the problem, as I have already mentioned, is how to get these questions answered. If I go to my local mosque I will only get standard dogmatic answers - often answers to questions have no basis in the Qur'an or the Sunnah. They have their basis in a certain culture. Even if an answer is part of the Sunnah of Islam there will be no explanation or contextualisation. To the westerner brought up in a society where all things are reasoned this is essential. It is not that this is alien to Islam. Almost everything that Islam promotes upholds reason. Nor is it (as I have often been accused) a desire to use reason as an excuse to pick and choose easy parts of Islam - searching for a scholar who will give me that answer that I like. It is simply "so that our hearts may be satisfied."

I hoped that books like Jeffrey Lang's would enable some of the Muslim community to understand the needs and problems faced by the convert. As things stand at the moment I continually see new converts embrace Islam but then find themselves as an alien within the community - not belonging to the Muslim community and having rejected the western community. They refuse to attend the mosques for fear of loosing their faith. And all too often that is the result.

I hope that you and people in positions such as yourself can understand and appreciate this problem so that Insha-Allah the Muslim community can grow with both converts and born Muslims as a single ummah.