"Our Dialogue" 6th Edition Rev

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To give a brief sketch of what is required of a Muslim, we mention the five pillars upon which the structure of Islam is built. The first is the declaration we have already mentioned. Secondly, a Muslim must attend regularly to his or her prayers. These have a specific form which must be learned. A Muslim prays five times every day of his life. This may sound quite a heavy burden but hardly any practicing Muslims finds that prayers interfere with his work. What is required here is a reasonable amount of adaptability. Prayers are invaluable in maintaining one's consciousness of Allah and reminding one of the need to obey His commandments at all times and in all situations.

Thirdly, Muslims fast from dawn to dusk throughout the lunar month of Ramadhan. When they fast, Muslims abstain from food, drink and sex. Fasting is a great exercise of self-discipline and it is greatly beneficial to the individual and to the community.

Fourthly, Muslims who own more than the equivalent of 634 gm. of silver are required to give away every year a portion of their wealth, not less than 2.5 percent, to the poor. Eight class of people may benefit from this share which is termed zakah, or purifying alms. When we remember that this payment share is imposed on capital, not on income, we realize that the amount raised is substantial and it goes a long way toward wiping out poverty.

The last pillar of our religion is pilgrimage, which must be performed by those who have the physical and financial ability to do it. The requirement is to offer pilgrimage at least once in one's lifetime. A Muslim must also refrain from all sinful acts such as murder, adultery, drinking, lying, stealing and all corruption generally. Islam is a religion of serious morality and strict discipline. So, a Muslim must always weigh up his actions before doing them and avoid all kinds of sin. Should he yield to temptation and commit a sin, he should repent and pray for Allah's forgiveness.

According to Islam, all Muslims are equal and should be treated equally. The Prophet has emphasized this on many occasions and Allah lays down the only criterion of distinction among Muslims. He says in the Qur'an: "The noblest among you, in the sight of Allah, is the most God-fearing." (49;13). Yet people may not live up to this very important requirement. Family or tribal or national considerations may lead to different modes of discrimination. Islam shuns such practices. It is often the case, however, that people's practices fall short of their ideals. We have, therefore, to distinguish between what Islam lays down and what Muslims do.

A point which is often raised by readers is that which concerns one's family. This is a tricky question which I am attempting to explain.

Obviously, there is no problem when both man and wife make the same decision together. Their children should be brought up as Muslims. If the children are of age, they should not be forced to follow their parents' example but they should be encouraged to learn about Islam and make their own decision.

Problems arise, however, when either husband or wife decides to go for it alone and embraces Islam. It is always to be remembered that Islam lays down that the adoption of faith must come through personal conviction. No compulsion or pressure should be exercised on one's partner. That does not preclude wise counsel and friendly persuasion. When such caring efforts go in vain then one has to make up one's decision according to one's own circumstances.

The easiest of these cases is when the husband decides to adopt Islam but his wife decides to stick to her own religion which happens to be either Christianity or Judaism. Islam has enough common grounds with these two divine religions to allow marriages between Muslim men and Christian or Jewish women. It only asks the husband in such a marriage to bring up his children in the same way as all Muslim parents bring up their children. There is, therefore, no reason for a new convert to Islam to divorce or separate from his Christian or Jewish wife. They may continue to live together for the rest of their lives.

When the wife follows any religion other than these two, or if she does not believe in Allah at all, then the marriage is automatically nullified. Allah commands us in Qur'an: "Do no hold on to your marriages with unbelieving women." (60;10). This is because the family is of prime importance as the basic unit of society. It is the mother who looks after the children who, in turn, form the future generation. An unbelieving mother cannot be trusted to enhance in her children the natural tendency to believe in Allah. As we say in Arabic; "He who has not got something cannot give it to others."

Should the wife only decide to become a Muslim, her marriage to her non-Muslim husband is considered null and void the moment she makes the declaration which makes her a Muslim. This ruling applies whether the husband is a Christian or a Jew or a follower of any other belief. There is no disagreement among the various schools of thought as to the nullity of the marriage if only the wife adopts Islam. Some, however, enforce an immediate separation for a period equivalent to a divorcee's waiting period (nearly three months), before the marriage is declared null and void.

The idea here is that in any family the man is the master. He is in charge of the house and the protector of his wife and children. For a Muslim woman to be in such a relationship with an unbeliever is not acceptable.

This question has been the subject of a great deal of discussion in recent years as more and more people adopt Islam and the problem becomes increasingly common. The fact remains that no one has come up with a different ruling supported by the Qur'an or by some pronouncements of the Prophet.

Allah declares in the Qur'an on the question of relationship between believing women who have recently accepted Islam and unbelievers: "They (the women) are not lawful to them in marriage nor they (i.e. the unbelieving men) are lawful to them (as husbands)." It is an established rule of Islam that no ruling made by Allah in the Qur'an or by an authentic pronouncement of the Prophet may be challenged by any argument, no matter how logical it may sound. For Allah has taught us what remains best for us in all ages and societies.

• Becoming a Muslim: Reluctance - the do’s & donot’s

I am a Christian who practices her religion at home and maintains good conduct, although I rarely go to church. I believe in the miraculous birth of Jesus Christ and that he was a true messenger of God, but I do not believe that he was son of God. I understand that Muslims too believe in Jesus Christ, but they also believe that Muhammad was the last messenger of God. I may begin to share their faith, not for any worldly gains or for the purpose of marriage, but for my own salvation. Indeed, I have no intention to get married; I wish to continue to serve my parents, as I am their only daughter. However, I understand that if I become a Muslim, I shall be bound by many "do's" and "don'ts". I fear that I may not be able to fulfill that, and thus commit more sins, which will run counter to my whole purpose. I will have to take a new name and I do not know how I shall react to my new identity at this stage of my life. Above all, I fear that the effect on my parents may be very negative, as they may be unable to withstand the taunting of my relatives or other people in general. I shall be grateful for your advice as to what my course of action should be. Can I remain a Muslim at heart, without observing the ritual prayers or fasting.

It seems to me that you have not learned enough about Islam to help you make up your mind whether you wish to adopt it as your faith. Your approach so far seems to be a rather emotional one. You see certain areas which are common to your own faith, as distinguished from mainstream Christianity, and the Muslim faith, particularly as it relates to the position of Prophet Jesus Christ (peace be on him). However, your desire to be on the correct lines is genuine. Therefore, it is important for you to learn more about the Islamic faith before you make up your mind whether you wish to adopt it or not. I cannot give you in this column more than hints which you may wish to pursue in order to help you determine your next step. Before we speak about Jesus Christ and Muhammad (peace be upon them) as messengers of Allah and prophets, there is a principle of Islamic faith which must be very clear in our minds. What Islam requires of its followers is to submit themselves wholly to Allah. That submission is reflected in our actions, as well as in their beliefs, thoughts and ideas.

Islam is based on the principle of the Oneness of Allah. That is what you actually say when you make your declaration which brings you in the fold of Islam. You say: "I bear witness that there is no deity save Allah and that Muhammad is Allah's Messenger." The first part of this declaration places the strongest emphasis on the Oneness of Allah.

Godhead means authority. In relation to Allah, that authority is total, all embracing. In every sphere of life, in every affair, in every case and situation, Allah's authority is supreme. He does not only determine when we are born and the time of our death, but also decides how we should conduct our lives. He has given us a message and a complete way of life for us to implement. What that means is that He has total authority to legislate to us in all matters and in all spheres. The prophet conveys to us Allah's message and we accept it without hesitation. This acceptance, coupled by the determination to do what Allah has bidden us, no matter how difficult it may appear at times or how costly it is, is a manifestation of our submission to Allah. This is indeed the very meaning of the term "Islam". In Arabic, it means "to surrender". We surrender ourselves to Allah, in the sense that we determine to do His bidding in all situations and in all affairs. If we make the declaration that we believe in the Oneness of Allah, but have no intention of following his orders, our declaration is without value. Therefore, if one wants to be a Muslim, one should know what being a Muslim entails. That is the least expected from a person intelligent enough to decide what faith to follow on the basis of his or her choice.

You seem to be worried about the requirements of the Islamic faith. What you have to remember is that Islam is a complete way of life. It provides us with guidance in every aspect of life. It does not make a lengthy list of duties and prohibitions just for the sake of giving orders. Nor is there any arbitrary prohibition of duty. Everything that Islam requires of its followers to do or to abstain from has a reason behind it. In their real total sum, Islamic duties work for the benefit of man and help establish human life on a very happy basis.

If we look carefully at the duties and prohibitions a Muslim is required to observe, we find that they fall into three main divisions. Some of them relate to basic beliefs, such as the duty of worshipping Allah alone, and the prohibition of associating any partner with Him. We can also include in these the acts of worship; such as prayers, fasting, etc. These are meant to enhance the good character of a person. When we think of prayer and how it provides a real and continuous relationship with Allah, we are bound to recognize that it sharpens a Muslim's sense of what is appropriate and what is not. The Prophet says: "A faith which does not require its followers to pray is devoid of goodness." Fasting molds the character of a Muslim to be able to with-stand any sacrifice which he may be called upon to render.

Other duties and prohibitions of Islam relate either to moral values or to day-to-day transactions between people. They ensure that a Muslim does not take advantage of others or usurp their right or property. Together, they provide safeguards which ensure that every one of us receives what is due to him or her. Allah does not benefit by restricting our movements or our actions. The benefit of Islamic duties and prohibitions is reaped by us. Allah tells us that if every single one of us was as pious and God-fearing as the most righteous amongst us, we will not increase His kingdom in any way, nor will we decrease it in any way if every single one of us was as wicked and disobedient as the most evil person that has ever lived.

Islamic duties and prohibitions are not difficult to observe. There is nothing in them which is included arbitrarily. They all serve a common purpose of making human life easy, happy and fair. No Muslim has ever complained that to observe his Islamic duties is difficult. It is true that every one of us may at times yield to temptations to violate Islamic teachings, but we can always repent and pray to Allah for forgiveness. He is the most merciful, the most forgiving. He finds no pleasure in punishing us for our mistakes. Indeed, he loves that we repent and declare our regret for having committed a sin. When we do that, He forgives us. When we declare that we believe in Him, we must always try as hard as we can to observe His teachings. When we make an error, as we all do, we try to rectify it. Furthermore, we know that our observance of what He requires of us will ensure for us great reward. The total sum of that reward is admittance into heaven.

Furthermore, what we are required to do is to try to be as obedient to Allah as we can. If something is prohibited, we should refrain from doing it. When we are required to do something, we will do it to the best of our ability. If we have that approach, we can easily earn Allah's pleasure.

Many new Muslims prefer to have Islamic names. This is, however, not always required. The Prophet changed the names of some of his companions, because their names had a bad meaning. The overwhelming majority retained their names. I do not see any reason for you to change your name.

As for the effect on your parents on your becoming a Muslim, I feel that you should handle this in a careful way. You may start by speaking to them about Islam, in order to dispel any lingering prejudices they may have about it. The problem may be no more than being not fully aware of what sort of faith Islam is. If you are able to persuade them that Islam is totally unlike the distorted picture Western culture paints of it, they may have no objection to your becoming a Muslim. As for the taunting of other people, I am afraid that you may be exaggerating these. Anyway, you should balance the pros and cons of any major step you wish to take.

As far as becoming a Muslim at heart, without revealing the fact or practicing Islam, I am afraid this is not acceptable. Many people asked the Prophet to allow them a relaxation of certain duties, but he told them that that was not up to him. Islamic duties are imposed by Allah, and He alone can forgive anyone who is lax in fulfilling them.

You may choose not to publicize the fact that you have become a Muslim, but you cannot just overlook your Islamic duties.

• Begging in an Islamic community

Giving alms and charity and feeding the poor is highly recommended in the Qur'an and the Hadith. Does it not encourage pauperism in the community? As a result of this we frequently see people who are physically and mentally fit and able to work but they prefer to resort to pauperism as an easy way of making money. There are always reports about beggars amassing a great wealth out of what they get from other people. As you realize, pauperism has been abolished by law in many civilized countries. Why then is the Islamic world lagging behind in eradicating this awful social evil which injures the human dignity to a great extent? Can we set certain parameters to allow certain categories to live on charity on a license?

Perhaps people have some justification in thinking that an Islamic community is one in which beggars go around in the streets, able always to rely on Muslims' unfailing charitable sense. It is indeed this permanently alert sense of charity that leads to the cases which you have mentioned of those who beg, pretending to be very poor, yet amassing a great wealth. But is this truly the sort of behavior Islam encourages or even approves?

One thing is certain: Islam finds poverty repugnant and does not allow its followers to accept it as a matter of fact, but requires them to take positive action to stamp it out. Islam has in fact put in place specific legislation to combat poverty and ensure its eradication. That legislation is embodied in the provision governing zakah which is the third pillar upon which the structure of Islam is built. Every Muslim is liable to pay zakah provided that he is in possession of an amount of money which exceeds the threshold of zakah. A specific percentage is required to be put aside immediately once a person becomes liable to pay zakah. It should be pointed out that zakah is not a favor granted by the rich to the poor, nor is it a voluntary charity which makes the poor keenly aware they need to receive favors from the rich. Zakah is indeed an act of worship required of all Muslims provided that they meet certain conditions.

Some people may wonder how we can call the payment of money an act of worship. Islam looks at worship in a much wider perspective than the strict sense of devotion and rituals. In the fulfillment of this religious duty of zakah, Islam treats the person who pays zakah and the one who receives it as equal. Both seek to win Allah's pleasure. The payer by the fulfillment of his duty, setting aside every year the amount of zakah he is required to pay and ensuring its payment to those who deserve it, and the recipient by trying to maintain the straight path of Islam as he goes about meeting the needs of his family. When we look carefully at the zakah system, as outlined in Islam, we can easily find out that zakah is not a handful of pilasters, or halalahs, or a couple of Riyals given to a beggar, nor is it some victuals to silence the pangs of hunger. Zakah is a complete self-financing system which aims to eradicate poverty and achieve a fair distribution of wealth.

The first thing about zakah is that it is a duty defined by Allah who will eventually question people about its fulfillment. When the Prophet was once asked by some people to give them a portion of zakah money, the Prophet told them that 'Allah has not assigned the task of distributing zakah either to a Prophet given a message, or an angel who occupies a high position. He Himself has ruled over its distribution, dividing it among eight classes of people.' The Prophet then told those who requested to be paid some money from the zakah fund that if they belonged to any of those classes, he would willingly pay them, but he would not exceed that limit. He also stated that "No share of zakah may be paid to a person who is self-sufficient or to one who is physically strong." He meant that the one who is physically strong should find it easy to obtain a job and earn his livelihood.

The eight classes of beneficiaries of zakah are outlined in verse 60 of surah 9 which may be given in translation as follows:

"Charitable alms may only be paid to the poor, and the needy, and those who are employed (to conduct its collection and distribution), and those whose hearts are to be won over, and for the freeing of slaves, and relieving insolvent debtors, and for serving Allah's cause, and to help stranded wayfarers. It is a binding duty imposed by Allah, and Allah is well knowing, wise."

When you look at those eight classes of people, perhaps the first thing to draw your attention is that those engaged in the collection and distribution of zakah are to be paid from zakah funds. This is what we mean by the system being self-financing. The system looks after those who are chronically attached to whom reference is made in the first two beneficiaries, and it looks after those whose need is accidental, such as stranded wayfarers and who have incurred debts but cannot pay them back. In addition to payment for the freeing of slaves (and slaves no longer exist in society), the system also addressed certain tasks that serve the Muslim community as a whole.

Islam does not like that a certain group in society continues to depend on zakah. It wants poverty to be terminated. Hence, the poor are given enough to meet their needs. Moreover, a poor person who is able to work is helped to find employment. Scholars have discussed how much a poor person is to be given of zakah. Many scholars are of the view that he is to be given enough to satisfy his needs for the rest of his life. That does not mean that his annual needs are calculated and then multiplied by the number of years he is expected to live. Rather, he is helped to have a job which generates for him enough income to meet his needs.

This is a far cry from the picture you have painted of paupers roaming the streets in a Muslim community to be helped with a Riyal here and half a Riyal there. Indeed, Islam does not approve of begging. It makes it a sin that a person should beg when he has enough to satisfy his immediate needs.

All begging is forbidden in Islam except in one of three situations, as outlined by the Prophet who says: "Begging is not permissible except for one of three: a man who has taken upon himself a large payment (for a good purpose such as achieving peace between two warring tribes), he may ask others for help until he can fulfill his pledge; a man who has suffered a disaster that has left him without money, so he may ask other people's help until he can meet his needs by himself, and a man who has suffered a financial loss to an extent that makes three wise people in his community say that he has suffered such a loss. He may ask other people's help until he can get his situation straightened." (Related by Muslim)

This is clear that it is not permissible from the Islamic point of view to beg. We on our part, must not encourage beggars unless we know that the person who is asking for help belongs to one of the three types that are allowed to seek other people's help.

We can say with all certainty that if Islam is properly implemented in a community, that community will steadily progress towards the eradication of poverty, until all its people attain the standard of self-sufficiency.

• Behavior — unbecoming

1. I have been married for only a few months, yet when I go out with my husband I noticed that he stares at other women in a way which is so embarrassing to me. I have tried hard to persuade him to stop this, particularly when I am with him, but to no avail. This has caused me a great deal of misery. Please comment.

2. A friend of us is very keen to do his worship duties on time. He always prays with the imam at the mosque, and frequently goes to offer the Umrah, and wears a long beard. Nevertheless, he watches movies which may have scenes that are totally unacceptable from the Islamic point of view. He does not listen to the advice of people who tell him that he should stop this, at least out of respect for his beard. Please comment.

I have grouped these two question together because they are closely related in the sense that they question behavior which falls short of our expectations. The lady is perturbed by her husband's behavior, and rightly so, because it does not fit with her idea of how a religious married man should behave when he goes about in the street or when he is in public places. To her, his behavior is so embarrassing.

In the second case we have a man who is expected to be consistent in his behavior showing lack of consistency in his choice of entertainment. Yet the first thing which we should remember is that we are all human beings and we are able to make mistakes, slip, indulge in what gives us immediate pleasure, etc. The best among us, therefore, are the ones who repent whenever they make such a mistake.

The other thing to remember is that we cannot place people in categories and expect them to conform to the standards which we assign to each category. Notice how my reader speaks of "respect for his beard." This suggests that a person with a beard may not do things which are less unacceptable from one without beard. This is not the Islamic way of looking at things. People may make all sorts of mistakes and they may remain good people, if they always repent and try to bring their behavior in line with Islamic standards. Besides, the whole question of watching movies is not to be equated with grave sins. It belongs to much lesser categories.

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