Dennis and Dionne Newton

Dennis and Dionne Newton
Dennis & Dionne Newton

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Four Views on Islam

And whenever you give your word, say the truth

Sarajevo is approximately 80% Muslim. Just like Kansas City, which is probably 90% Christian, there is a wide range of types of Muslims. Under the moniker "Bosniak" Dionne and I know atheists, agnostics, devote, orthodox, liberal, bacon lovers, Ottomans, and fence sitters. During the summers, Middle Eastern Muslims flock to Sarajevo for vacation. The women are immediately noticeable because many wear full burqas, something we have never seen a Bosniak woman do.

In honor of the holy month of Ramadan, I want to share four views of Islam from four Bosnian Islamic women with whom Dionne and I are friends. (There is a wonderful series of Evangelical books entitled "Four Views" where they invite scholars with different views on a topic to explain and explore their opinions...that series was the genesis for this blog post.)

I selected all four women because each is trying to follow Islam in her own way. Two are students and two are married educators. Two have chosen to cover and two have chosen to not cover. Two are from Sarajevo and two are from smaller towns in Bosnia. Two of the four are comfortable with me using their names and pictures...one asked to remain anonymous and one has given me permission to share a picture but not much else.

I asked each six questions about their faith. I will present their words with as little editing as possible (however recognize that English is not the first language of any of these contributors). I am also planning on keeping my editorial comments to a minimum. I want their words to speak uninterrupted.

Feel free to share this post if you are so inclined. As you read their stories of faith, I do ask that you have respect if you choose to comment. If you have a question that you would like me to ask, I can certainly forward it on.

Two young Muslim women taking a selfie in Sarajevo.

There is no god but God, and Muhammad is His Messenger

Question #1 - How would you describe Islam to an American who does not know much about the faith?

"I would probably start by describing the concept of God in Islam (there are 99 names of God, each of which evoke an attribute...this person and I have had long conversations about the attributes of God...some we agreed on and some we did not) and then it would be easier to understand why this God has talked to us and who we are. I would explain the basics of Islam e.g. who established it, what is the book of the Muslims, what does it say, and why it is important to us."

The Shahada...the declaration of which is the first pillar of Islam. The other four pillars are salat (five daily prayers), zakat (giving to the poor), sawm (fasting which especially for Ramadan), and hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca).
"Islam is the religious faith of Muslims -- belief in Allah as the sole deity and in Muhammad as his prophet. Islam teaches us how to live and act in everyday life. Just as Christians have the Bible, Muslims have the Quran. We believe and know the Quran was dictated to Mohammed by God through the angel Gabriel. Islam confirms three other holy books: the Torah (which are the first five books of the Old Testament), the Zabur (which are the Psalms of David) and the Injeel (the Gospel of Christ). However, it is said in the Quran that people changed some parts of these books adn that Quran is the last of God's book sent to mankind and that the Quran is protected from changes. Islam orders only good and if you follow Islam and the Quran you will be honest, hardworking, modest, and gentle while at the same time a strong personality who helps other people no matter of their social status or religion. The first word to Muhammad the prophet that the angel Gabriel told him was "Ikre" (Read.Learn). The duty of every Muslim is to learn and educate himself or herself and to be a useful member of society. If you read the Quran, you will find many facts and information that were not discovered when the Quran was dictated. So modern science confirms the Quran words and Islam itself."

Adisa is a wonderful example of a true servant of Allah. She is a public school educator who runs Mala Sirena in her spare time without compensation. One her life's passions is be an advocate for children with disabilities. She is that "strong personality" who has done immeasurable good in her little corner of the world.
"Islam is the religion of love, peace, harmony and good human relations. Real Islam (not the one related to terrorism) teaches us to love and respect everyone and everything -- humans of all races and nations, animals, material things, etc. Unlike today's common belief, real Islam forbids and condemns killing and hurting people (in Quran it is said that if you kill one person it is the same as if you killed all humanity). Islam teaches us to be generous, to share money with the poor, to feed the hungry, to treat your parents well, and to never let them down, to take care of your family, and to be in good relations with them, to be kind and humble, never to think of yourselves as better or more valuable than other people. In Islam there are certain rules too -- you must not drink alcohol, you must not eat pork, you must not gamble, cheat, kill, and you must not have premarital sexual intercourse. To many people these rules seem to be too harsh but in fact they all serve us for our own sake to preserve our own physical and mental health and to help us be honorable persons."

Inscription above a doorway leading to a mosque in Baščaršija.
"Faith is something that can not be just spoken about because there are not words to describe all the beautiful feelings. Islam is a really old religion. People that belong to Islam are Muslims. Muslims from all over the world are brothers and sisters. Muslims believe in One God who has many names but the most beautiful is Allah. Our book that guides us through life is the Qur'an. The Qur'an is Allah's word and he swore that He will protect the Qur'an until the end of time. The aim of our lives is to live dedicated to committing good deeds. Good deeds are anything that will make other people next to you feel safe. Like speaking beautifully, being calm, not cursing, etc. Muslims believe in an afterlife, doomsday, and a judgment day. Judgment day is a big day where all people will be gathered and asked for their deeds. People will be granted or punished for their deeds. There are two angels sitting on our shoulders, Kiram-en Katibin, and their task is to write all of our deeds. And on judgment day all of us will get the book in their right or left hand according to the weight of our deeds. If they were good in the right hand, and vice versa."

Five year ago, Esma suffered a massive stroke which changed her life forever. She has worked hard to overcome the physical and psychological effects of the stroke. She had to re-learn how to talk, how to walk, and lost the use of half of her body for a time. We work with Esma weekly at Rider's of Hope and are constantly amazed at the "good deeds" she is writing in her book.


And fulfill the Covenant of Allah when you have covenanted

Question #2 - How would you describe your personal relationship to Islam? If you consider yourself a "true Muslim," how did you convert to the faith?

"I believe that I am a pretty good Muslim (not perfect, of course, we can always do better). I fear Allah and his punishment so I always have Him in mind when I do anything. I have never done any of the "must nots" listed above. I pray every day (it's not always all 5 prayers due to my obligations and work but I do my best). Actually, I never converted since I was a little girl I've been doing my best to be a good Muslim. I grew up in such a family, my mother was a religious woman so she taught me to love and honor God, to pray, to be kind and humble, to help anyone who needs help, to respect and treat the poor just like those who are not, to love my family, to behave myself in all situations, to wear decent unrevealing clothes. I believe that the last war strengthened my faith. I was only four when the war began but I remember my mother crying and praying all the time for her father (who unfortunately didn't survive the execution and his remains have still not been found, along with my mother's uncles and cousins). Once I asked her why people were torturing us and why they destroyed our house. Her answer was 'because we are Muslims.' I didn't understand then but later, and still today, I wonder why. What's wrong with us if we are Muslims. We never caused any problems to our neighbors or anyone. All the problems my family and I went through only increased my faith even more."

This iconic photo is from Srebrenica. The term "ethnic cleansing" was first coined in reference to the atrocities that occurred in Bosnia.

"I was born as a Muslim. All my family are Muslims. We Muslims find it a pleasure to have Allah as our God. Of course, when I was a child I was imitating my parents while they were praying, fasting, and everything else. In adolescence, people start to question their lives. So did I. Even if I already was Muslim I started to research more about Islam. And as I learned more, the more I loved my religion. When I got sick, there were really hard times when I felt depressed. Of course I have been asking 'why did all of this happen to me?' And each time I asked myself such a thing, I had an answer. Allah has some big plans for me. I have been chosen for something. And He will reward his Muslims for being patient. Because he loves those who have gone through trials. My faith has kept me alive."

Esma has a special relationship with this ornery fellow named Gypsy. They love each other. He just loves to bite me.
"My parents are Muslims. My mum was always a true Muslim. She taught us (my brother, sister, and me) to pray to God, to be honest, hardworking, and responsible. She sent us to the mosque to learn about Islam and the Quran. As a little girl, I loved to get up early and pray to Allah. When I grew up and got married, I decided to put hidjab (a scarf -- to cover). Islam is my way of life and I am trying to be as good a Muslim and person as I can. That makes me satisfied and happy."

Women and children gathering at a mosque in Baščaršija for prayer.
"My personal relationship with Islam is like fish and water. Since childhood I've been reading the Quran, thinking about what it says, and comparing it to life around me. It always made the perfect sense that I couldn't find anywhere else. In Islam I felt like I was home. In hard times it gave me comfort and hope that if I do what is right, nothing will be lost for me. If I have questions, I find answers in the Quran. It gives me solutions to all of my problems. (In regard to the conversion)...I was born into this faith and I was taught things in school. But I wouldn't say that's the reason I'm Muslim. I don't accept anything for granted. The real reason is that Islam always made perfect sense to me and I feel that it is logical and true. It didn't happen all at once. It's a process of living within the faith. And the more you are in it, the you see it is true."

Ilma is not comfortable with me saying too much about her so I will not. She did give me permission to use this photo. I will just say that she is a courageous and remarkable woman whom Dionne and I care for  dearly.

So, verily, with every difficulty, there is relief

Question #3 - Share an experience (spiritual or non-spiritual) that you have had in your life that is related to Islam.

"One of my experiences was having my younger son. He was a child with disabilities and later I understood that Allah sent me my son with a reason -- so that I could establish an association of parents of children with disabilities. In our town, I have been able to help many other children with disabilities and their parents. Today my son does not need professional support. He is attending the sixth grade in primary school and he is an excellent student. He is a child whom everybody loves and admires."

Adisa and her son.

"I think the most valuable experiences for me are the moments of feeling light inside my heart when I read the Quran, feeling confused about how to describe God's grace, and staying speechless during some prayers, crying a lot, feeling connected to God, and receiving his mercy. Those are the experiences I appreciate the most."

A Quran displayed at Blagaj Tekija, an ancient dervish house located near Mostar.
"There are these beautiful experiences every day of my life, especially when I am studying and learning new things from the field of genetics. Allah has created all things. And when I see the harmony in the process of DNA replications, I always feel some extraordinary admiration and think 'He is the most beautiful and wise Creator.' And the greatest miracle of all in my life is that I live again. I study, talk, walk, and ride. Every minute of my life is a blessing from Him. Life and death are is His hands. And yet He gave me a chance to live again."

Walking the streets of Baščaršija at night.

"As I mentioned before, I have been practicing my religion since I was a little girl and I have always lived my life silently and normally within the frames of Islam. However, there are some experiences, painful experiences in my life, which strengthened my faith even more. In my early days it was the war, and later, when I was 18, it was the death of my grandfather whom I loved very much. We had lived together in the same house since I was born (my parents, grandparents, and my brother), and we were very close and affectionate with each other. His sudden death (which was the first experience of that type for me in my adult age) was a great shock for me. I couldn't eat nor sleep for days. I was very sensitive and vulnerable and my only consolation was prayer. I prayed a lot for my grandfather. His death also motivated me to learn Arabic letters so that I can pray more deeply using the Quran. I believe in life on the other side so I hope I will see my grandfather again one day."

A small Muslim graveyard in Baščaršija.

Ramadan is the month in which the Quran was sent down

Question #4 - Will you celebrate Ramadan? What does Ramadan mean to you?

"Ramadan is the month of God's special mercy and it is the month when fasting is obligated to those who accept God and his message. It is somewhat of a trial as well. For me it means enjoying doing something for God and getting closer to Him through my deeds. I fast all of the days of this month and it gives me a special feeling."

An imam making the call to pray.
video

"I would celebrate Ramadan if I can make it a way to not make anyone else feel uncomfortable. Ramadan is the most beautiful month of the year. During the year Muslims are like 'I can't wait for Ramadan.' When it comes, in my personal opinion, during Ramadan it is possible to feel love. What can be more beautiful than to love and be loved. Each Ramadan I am trying to be a better human. We all try to do that. That is one of the phenomena that makes Ramadan so special. Thirty days every year you're dedicated to doing good deeds only. You're seeking to do good deeds all year but during Ramadan good deeds are valued even more. People feel differently during Ramadan and usually that is the time to make some big changes. Many girls decide to cover on Ramadan. Some people stop drinking alcohol and start praying."

Esma and her family during Ramadan. Love the rabbit ears!
"Ramadan is something sacred for me, it always has been. I started fasting when I was in the sixth grade and I haven't missed a day in Ramadan without fasting since then. I wouldn't use the word 'celebrate' but I am definitely going to spend the month praying, fasting, sharing with the poor, and everything else that a Muslim should do during Ramadan. This makes us better people and grants us His mercy and forgiveness."

I was sent this picture of a typical "iftar," the evening meal which breaks the daily fast.
For me, going with water and other liquids all day would be the hardest part of Ramadan. I asked Ilma if Ramadan includes going without cigarettes. She told me that smoking is not expressly prohibited in the Quran although most feel that it is against the spirit of the "law." This means that smoking is something that someone might give up during Ramadan but they do not have to. In Bosnia, not smoking all day would probably be 10 times harder than giving up water!
"Ramadan is very important to me and my family. Every Ramadan we fast. We prepare dinners called 'iftar' for family, neighbors, and friends. We are also invited to iftars. There are also prayers called 'Teravija namaz' every evening in the mosque. Ramadan is the  month when my family and I spend more time together. We read the Quran, help the poor and ill people, and spend time with family and friends. Clean homes and personal hygiene is always important to Muslims but especially during Ramadan."

I can see how nightly "iftars" like these would certainly help unite families and friends.

They should draw their veils over their bosoms

Question #5 - What is your opinion about whether or not women should be "covered?"

"In my opinion, women should be covered (except face and hands) because that is our obligation and Allah orders us to do that. I am covered and as Allah says, it is protection for women. I always wanted to cover and I am so happy and proud because I am covered. I am a teacher at a primary school and the president of the association. I am really successful at my work and I communicate with a lot of people, organizations, ministers, media, etc. I was the editor of a TV show as well. My covering has never been a problem for me and I have never felt that somebody does not respect me because of it. However, I think that a woman that does not want to cover herself should not be forced to do so. There is no force in Islam. If a woman is covered, she should show others that she is not a slave but is proud of being covered. I always say that my scarf is my crown. And indeed it is. Not every woman can wear hijab. Only the strong and happy women can do it. It is important to know that some women are wearing scarfs as a modern detail and this is not 'to be covered.'"

Adisa and her staff training on tablets for the first time.

"In my opinion, women and men as well should be covered. But what I mean by that is not covering their hair or having some special dress code. Rather both should wear modest clothes, act, talk, and walk modestly, watch things that are modest, and try to live life modestly. That is exactly what God ordered to the believers in the Quran. If we see things this way, a lot of men and women are covered properly even though they are not religious."

What a "covered man" looks like. However, I would say Elder Hardy is definitely wearing his scarf as a "modern detail."
video

"In my opinion, every woman should decided for herself whether to cover herself or not. It is definitely one of the "must do's" in Islam and we consciously sin walking around uncovered. Me first. But I believe that it is more important what you carry in your heart and soul than what you wear over your body and head. You cannot guarantee that a covered woman is a perfect Muslim in every aspect. When I was a teenager I also wanted to cover myself since I prayed and read a lot about our religion. But my parents were not very satisfied with that. They thought that it would be an obstacle in my education and work. They told me that I can be a good Muslim without covering myself, so I eventually gave up on the idea (buy maybe one day, who knows). I didn't cover then but I promised myself that I will always be decent with my clothing. So I never wear things like mini skirts. I wear shorts when swimming instead of swimming suits. I never reveal too much so I hope I don't sin too much. I must add, I don't understand why people condemn or mock covered women. For me it is a style of clothing just like men wearing baseball caps all the time. Nothing weird about that, right? I forgot to mention that my approving of covered women is related only to the 'normal' covering where you can see the face of women. I am definitely against the covering where the whole woman is in black including her face. That's prison for a woman and it is not demanded in the Quran. It's more a tradition coming from certain countries."

A window shop in downtown Sarajevo.

"Women must wear hijab (clothes that cover her body) but if a woman's life is endangered by wearing hijab then she must not wear it."

I jumped into this picture with Esma. Note that I do have a thing for baseball caps.


Indeed we belong to Allah, and indeed to him we will return

Question #6 - In your opinion, what is the greatest challenge or threat to Islam today?

"The greatest challenge for Islam today are those radicals who call themselves Muslim. They are doing all sorts of horrible killing across the world and saying it's in the name of Allah. Allah and Islam have nothing to do with those sick minds. Because of them the whole world is turning against Muslims and I am afraid that the situation won't get any better in the future."

This memorial at Srebrenica reads in part "may mothers' tears become prayers that Srebinica never happens again to no one no where!" While there are signs across Bosnia reminding us to "Remember Srebrenica," it is clear that the world continues to ignore this warning. There were tearful gatherings in Sarajevo a few months ago Syrian forces amassed against Aleppo. Just because both sides claim to be Muslim does not mean that ethnic cleansing does not apply.
"Greatest challenge is to stay human in this time of cruelty. As humans we also fight constantly with our ego and our desires (which are in common with animals)."

These are the children of some Muslim friends here in Sarajevo. If we could only keep the childlike wonder that these two have as they play with bubbles. But alas, our adult egos always seem to get in the way.
"Islam is a religion of peace, progress, and beauty. Unfortunately, today Islam is often shown as terrorism and something that is bad for the world. It is important to understand that Islam has nothing to do with terrorism. It is only used this way for political reasons. Islam says 'if you kill one innocent man, it is the same as if you killed all people in the world.' So terrorists can never be Muslims, they can only have Muslim names. I think this is the greatest threat and challenge to all mankind -- not knowing what is really Islam and Muslim."

A Muslim woman stands in front of the eternal flame, a Sarajevo WWII memorial. 
Today I think the biggest threat to Islam (as a religion) is the behavior of its followers and along with the hadiths (Islamic literature of what the Prophet Muhammad was doing or saying). Through the centuries a lot of mud was mixed with the first teachings of Islam and it became something totally different from what it was in the beginning. So, misrepresenting and misunderstanding God's way is the biggest threat."


I feel this is a very insightful comment. There are 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide and no centralized authority. This means that adherents are free to interpret Islamic teachings as they will. Power, politics, ideologies, science, imperialism, dogmas, populism, historical criticism, and social pressures will all play a part in shaping what Islam is and what Islam will be in the next few years.

My Lord, increase me in knowledge

I am here in Bosnia as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. This does not mean, however, that I cannot learn about the religions of others. Sarajevo is one of the great melting pots of religion. It is located right on the cusp of the East-West divide. By this I mean within Christianity and beyond. Christians are divided among Western (Catholicism) and Eastern (Orthodoxy), a schism that occurred over 1,500 years ago. About 500 years ago, the Ottomans introduced Islam into Bosnia which caused another East-West divide. And until the 1970s (when Tito approved their immigration to Israel), Sarajevo had a sizable Jewish population as well.

For someone interested in religion, Bosnia is like Disneyland. And this little experiment is just one way of sharing some of what I am learning with you.

Elder Deleeuw practices on a prayer rug at the Turkish dervish.
I have always cared more about what people actually believe rather than what pundits and "great" thinkers argue about. A religious movement is not truly a religious movement unless it becomes written upon the heart of a normal believer. Hopefully these four views gives you some idea of what Islam in Bosnia is all about. How they think about their religion. What is important? What is not? And how they try every day to go to sleep a better person than when they awoke.

The beauty of old town at night.
I greatly admire all four of the women whose views I have shared today. They are a credit to the great faith of Islam.

While I joke that true Bosnians were born to complain (especially about politics), it is also true that they were born to laugh. We see this gentleman on the streets of Baščaršija all of the time and he always has a smile on his face. I know not what life has or will bring him. But I know that there is contentment in his soul by just looking into his eyes.




P.S. #1 I am purposely withholding some of the my personal comments about Islam. I have spent a considerable amount of time studying Islam since I have arrived. And I continue to study. If you want to have a private conversation about some of my own personal thoughts, feel free to private message me.

P.S. #2 The issue of terrorism is very concerning to most of the Muslims that I have met in Bosnia. They feel that impostors are trying to hijack Islam. They are not "true Muslims," a phrase I hear over and over again here in Bosnia. Only a handful of Bosnian Muslims radicalized and joined ISIS. The people here agonize over the atrocities committed across the world.

2 comments:

  1. This is an amazing post and I am going to print it out so I can read it more carefully. Thank you and the women who were so open about their religious experiences!

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  2. This is beautiful! Thanks for taking time to reach into the lives of these amazing women and mostly thank you to them for sharing with us. I am touched.

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