The message of Islam has the potential of appealing to a very large part of the world population, if three factors are properly addressed: The propaganda that it encourages terrorism is effectively shelved, the parts of its teaching that are misunderstood are properly clarified, and the difficulties confronted by non-Muslims while converting to Islam are removed. While the first two aspects are getting attention from many Muslim scholars, the latter aspect is by and large getting ignored.
When a non-Muslim begins to take Islam seriously, he/she is confronted with challenges which at times are so enormous that for an ordinary person the idea of conversion seems impossible: changing the name, announcing before everyone that he/she has changed faith, saying prayers openly, using Islamic expressions while conversing in a way that the change appears quite noticeable, for instance using Allah instead of God or the equivalent expression of it, women becoming prominently overdressed to the dislike of the non-Muslim family members and friends, at times women announcing they were parting ways with their husbands if they weren’t going to change faith likewise etc.
The end result of all these expected changes is that the interested individual is discouraged from making the change and even if he/she converts, the rest of the non-Muslim community makes it a point that the person is either ostracized or at least not taken as a normal member of the group anymore. The important questions we must address ourselves are: Are all these changes necessary? Is it important to undertake these changes immediately? What is the most important thing God desires from His servants after learning about His message? Did all companions of the prophet, alaihissalam, convert immediately exactly the same way as the most prominent among them did? Do Muslims by birth adapt immediately to the expectation of change on learning about Islamic teaching?
The fact of the matter is that God wants first and foremost that His servant should have a change in attitude towards life on acknowledging a few realities called beliefs: That God is one; He is the only creator and sustainer of this entire world; that He arranged for His messages to be disseminated to the humans through His chosen men, the last of who was Muhammad, alaihissalam; that this worldly life is to be followed by another one, a reality which is important to always be considered while leading this life. Apart from acknowledging these realities, God wants His servants to say their prayers and pay Zakat regularly. Having done that, they are complete Muslims in the eyes of God. All other changes applicable to them must follow gradually, keeping into account the circumstances of the individual.
In most of the cases, overnight turnaround in an individual’s life is neither helpful for the individual nor for the people living with him. The individual starts practicing a faith which he hasn’t properly appreciated in its entirety and his non-Muslims relatives and friends begin to become wary of the newly embraced ideology. The fact is that companions of the prophet, alaihissalam, took different routes to reach their faith and took their own pace in adopting Islamic way of life. So much so that while on the one hand it was declared at a certain stage of the Madinan period that all able-bodied men must migrate to Madinah to prove their faith, the Almighty nonetheless didn’t allow Muslims to attack Makkah because there were some believers residing there who hadn’t declared their faith openly. (Qur’an; 47: 25)
Many Muslims are non-practicing Muslims and yet are considered a part of the faith. Why is it that when it comes to non-Muslims who are beginning to appreciate the basic idea of Islam that we must put all the burden of practice immediately on them? Is it not a good idea to do the task gradually? After all, once they are inside the fold of Islam, whether by formally announcing conversion to it or not, they are more likely to take other matters more seriously in a gradual way.
What I am suggesting is that while spreading the message of Islam we should be gradual, polite, and intelligent. If a person shows interest in learning more about the message of God, facilitate him/her. If his/her circumstances don’t allow formal announcement, just ask the individual to make a commitment from inside to God and begin saying prayer privately, paying Zakat, reading the Qur’an, and learning about Islam. That way, inshaaAllah, we will be able to bring many more people closer to believing in and accepting Islam.
Our task is to invite people to the truth and pave the way for them to believe in and practice Islam. Our task is not to force them to conform to each and every aspect of Islam we think is important for them to follow. The Qur’an says “Your job is to remind; you are not their keepers (to force things down their throats)” (Qur’an; 88: 21-22). It also says: “Allah desires from you ease; He doesn’t desire from you difficulty.” (Qur’an; 2: 185) The prophet alaihissalam is reported to have said: “Make things easier for others; don’t make them difficult. And give them good news; don’t scare them away.” (Bukhari; 69) It is said about him: “Whenever two different options were offered to him, he would always choose the easier of them.” (Musnad Ahmad Ibn Hanbal; 24890)