Over the past several months, I've been reading about Islam on my own and talking online about Islam with a few Muslims.
I have also been taking an “Islam 101” class at the local masjid that is geared towards new Muslims (i.e. recent converts) and potential converts.
I go every week to this Islam class, and I try to appreciate it for what it is.
It is not a class run by scholars or for people with theological/philosophical interests.
It often feels like an Islam-based support group, a place in which people share anecdotes about their everyday lives and the class leader responds with a comforting hadith or Quranic passage. There is no clear structure to the class. Plenty of room for a 10-minute tangent conversation about different brands of turkey bacon or how to best place hijab pins.
For the most part, the class has veered away from interesting and challenging theological questions. I gather that the teacher does not want to confuse us newbies, overwhelm us with information, or make us think very hard. She wants to make the conversion process easier for the members of the class, and part of that project involves boiling down Islam to some basics.
The attitude of the teacher of the Islam 101 class is very open and forgiving of mistakes. She encourages students in the class to maintain views and practices that are “close enough” to halal even if they are not necessarily totally halal and correct by Islamic standards. The emphasis is not on precision, just on making the right niyya and "doing your best".
The group is for women only and takes place on the sisters’ floor (i.e. the basement) of the local mosque. The big room in which the class meets is the room of the masjid in which sisters pray, study, talk with each other, and care for children. It is also the room in which extra chairs and other such supplies are kept. As a result, there is a lot of traffic of sisters through the space and many of these women join in our discussions even though they are not converts themselves. I greatly appreciate the participation of these sisters, especially because I can then get differing perspectives from knowledgeable “born” Muslims, and see that Islam includes diverse opinions and experiences and not a singular unitary perspective.
The class is scheduled such that the group can do both Asr and Maghrib prayers together. My favorite aspect of taking part in this class is praying together in the mosque. Often times there is a brief talk by a brother following the prayers, and I have appreciated hearing those speeches, which can be an informative and thought-provoking complement to what I hear in the "Islam 101" class.
I recently learned that Muslims are required (according to many scholars anyway) to talk with non-Muslims who ask them about Islam. That knowledge made me feel very guilty about asking questions of a woman at the masjid. She is a born Muslim and a brilliant legal scholar and a wonderful resource—I appreciated her comments in/to the group. I asked her if I could ask her some questions about the Quran, and she then must felt obligated to meet with me; she could not say no because I was a non-Muslim asking about Islam. Now that I have that information, I would not so carelessly and greedily ask a Muslim to talk with me about Islam.
I also read recently that there is a big "reward" for Muslims who manage to convert other people to Islam. That gives me an uneasy feeling about certain interactions I have had with Muslims, particularly some very friendly and zealous Muslims who are active in teaching about Islam to recent converts and non-Muslims. This knowledge of the “reward” for dawah makes me wonder if the only reason these Muslims have helped me and talked with me was because they hoped to lead to my conversion and thus I wonder whether they would continue to engage in such conversations with me if I do convert--or if their task would then have been accomplished already and their reward assured. I want to think of these sisters as my friends, not as people who are just using me for their own spiritual benefit.
To me, a system of ethics and values rooted only in "reward" and "punishment" seems crass and simplistic. Such a carrot/stick approach sidesteps the need for rationale, moral reasoning, or debate. That language suggests that every person is their own individual subject with an insular relationship between Allah and the self, while other people are merely tests or means of reward/punishment.
I have very mixed feelings about this class. Still, I continue to attend, because I feel that I owe it to myself and to Allah to make at least that minimal effort.