What is it about Muslims and celebrity conversion? Many Muslims, the overwhelming majority, would never attempt to convert another human being to Islam. We’re not the types to whip out a pamphlet on the beauty of Islam in the middle of the dairy department of the grocery store, hand it to a little old lady, and then proceed to talk her half to death. Nor are we the types to go around muttering beneath our breath to anyone who will listen, “Allah loves you!” Nor will we be found going door to door talking up our religion. Most of us believe that we as human beings come to Islam, Islam doesn’t come to us. And that is, in this Muslim’s mind, the way it should be.
But, there is something that happens to us when anyone who is a non-Muslim is even remotely associated with talking up the cause of Islam. It’s like a switch is turned on, and we turn into a bunch of salivating poodles who’d just been waiting for that proverbial pat on the head from the master. Take, for example, any Orientalist writing about the history of Islam or the life of the Prophet Muhammed صل الله عليه و سلم. As soon as a new one pops up, writing all the glorious things that we already know, we get excited, and begin to wonder if he or she is really a closet Muslim. I’ve heard it said numerous times of Karen Armstrong, “I think she must be a Muslim deep down…she never denies it, although of course she wouldn’t admit it either.” Of course, she wouldn’t? Why the of course, as though it’s automatically a self-evident fact? Because the big bad Western world would collapse if she “admitted” it? Because the big, bad Western world would turn it’s back on her if she “admitted” it? She seems like a tough enough lady to withstand that. What’s there to “admit,” anyway? While people admit to crimes, they acknowledge things that are significantly less negative. While it’s entirely possible for Karen Armstrong to be a Muslim, it’s equally possible for her to write about Islam and still not be a Muslim. I’m a computer scientist not because I believe in the all-encompassing might and supremacy of computers over the universe. I’m a computer scientist because a) the field interests me and b) it brings with it a healthy income. Is it not possible that perhaps Karen Armstrong has similar tendencies towards the vast realms of knowledge within Islam? Maybe, just maybe, it’s a job she represents, and not a belief system?
When the former Cat Stevens converted to Islam, it certainly took the world by surprise, both the Muslim world and the non-Muslim one. While the non-Muslim world might have suffered more than a few palpitations, Muslims were busy congratulating ourselves for his achievement. It suddenly became very important to hang onto his every word, and even to look up his every song. And this from people who really do believe that listening to music is haraam. (By the way, I am not exempting myself from this group. I loved listening to the song Peace Train, and how about that Wild World?! And I learned about those songs during his whole dust-up over the Salman Rushdie Iranian death fatwa thing. How about that irony, eh?) Yet, many of those same people, who wouldn’t mind asking him to sign an album of his that they retrieved 15 years ago from a thrift store just because he is Yusuf Islam, well…those same people are up in arms that he’s picked up the guitar again and is riffing some new tunes. Well, guess what, people? His journey to and into Islam is just like yours and mine: one day he’ll be perfect, and the next day…not so much. Like our individual journeys, his is equally singular, although quite a bit more public. Rather than being elated that another famous person is a Muslim, praise the Lord, now Islam will be recognized for the beauty that it is, how about we give the newcomers some breathing room to absorb it all? Rather than being painfully disappointed when the celebrities stumble, how about we give them some space to recover? Kind of like that new Muslim brother or sister you see at the masjid, sitting alone in the corner, because he or she can’t converse in Urdu or Arabic about the latest Bollywood film or Syrian soap opera. We happily give those not-so-famous newcomers their space…let’s do the same for the famous ones. Especially the ones who are “still in the closet” about being Muslim. (Like Karen Armstrong. *eye roll*)
And, now, with the recent demise of Michael Jackson, there is a whole new furor with scores of Muslims concerned about whether or not he converted to Islam. First they said, “we’ll see with the way he is buried, if he was a Muslim or not.” Then, when it became clear that the funeral/burial arrangements might not be Islamic after all, they said, “The powers in charge won’t let the world know that he was really a Muslim, that’s why they won’t let him have a Muslim burial.” The only question I have is this: what does it matter if he was or wasn’t a Muslim? It’s especially pathetic, because he’s already gone to meet his Creator. His books are closed, and his fate is out of his own hands. Why on earth are we trying to yank his fate back to this side of the world, into our hands? Is our self-esteem so low that we need to make everyone Muslim, based on the slimmest sliver of evidence, without having to whip out pamphlets, whisper “Allah loves you!” and go door to door? Is “converting” famous people the only way for us to achieve validation? There is a weird celebrity vibe in our community, and I am just dying to know what makes that vibe tick.