I was actually in a relationship when I decided to embrace Islam. Not only did I not assume any tension between my relationship and newfound religious beliefs, I was proud of both! So it wasn’t uncommon, on the Fridays we didn’t have school, for me to invite my girlfriend to the mosque. And although she could never quite summon the nerve to enter, we’d often stroll about arm-in-arm afterwards; checking out the various vendors and their tables. Thinking back to that time, all I can say is: If I WAS doing something wrong, no one would’ve been able to guess. I walked as confidently among the community as I would have if she and I had been married. Now that isn’t to say, at that time, my girlfriend and I were doing other things married people do. I was familiar with abstinence as a religious virtue. In fact, among all the different social groups that existed within my high school, there was a group of popular, attractive, very outspoken evangelical Christian girls. They dressed modestly, threw their own chaperoned parties or attended the parties of others as a group. Perhaps the most curious thing about them was that they all wore rings on their ring fingers. And it seemed like they never missed an opportunity to hold up their left hands and tell all the hormonally charged young “heathens” lusting after them that sex would only happen, “when this ring is replaced by a wedding ring.” In retrospect, I can see their profound impact on me. They had chastity rings, an admirable solidarity, and they were completely unapologetic about who they were. As silly as it sounds now, for me, those young girls represented the ne plus ultra in terms of religious commitment as a teenager. And even they dated! It was normal to see one of them at homecoming with some clean-cut type who shared their conviction. Or you would see them at the movies with one of “the guys” who had been feigning an interest in devotion so he could test their virtue—only to report some hand-holding and maybe even kissing but ultimately, “that she wasn’t budging.” Hence, after embracing Islam the highest ideal of piety I could imagine was “not budging.” But there wasn’t anything wrong with hanging out. At that point, I’m not sure I understood there was anything wrong with making out. Just don’t have sex before marriage.
I was very serious for my age. Honestly, by 17 I had already seen a lot and I knew I needed some kind of religious discipline. And that ended up benefitting me tremendously. To the middle-aged and older black men in my community, I think there was just something about seeing a young black man, still a teenager, trying to apply himself to practicing Islam. It made them generous to me. I was always being reminded, “eat with your right hand,” “don’t lie down on your stomach,” “clip your fingernails,” etc. That being the case, whenever I happened upon a brother outside the mosque I would always approach them hoping to get a lesson of some kind. One day, while walking the mall with my girlfriend, I noticed one of my “Jumu’ah brothers” selling perfume at a kiosk. After introducing my girlfriend and purchasing some perfume, I asked Brother Wafiq to give us a lesson. I think I was hoping he would be able to say something to pique her interest in Islam. And he was unfailingly polite and engaging. There were no disapproving glances or coded references to our relationship, just a kind, gentle reflection. I remember walking away thinking about how much I valued the intergenerational relationships I was forming in the Muslim community.
The next time I encountered Wafiq I was alone. There were no customers at his kiosk and he appeared to be reading. More concerned with maintaining my reputation for enthusiasm than respecting his privacy, I was intrusive, “What are you reading? “This is a book about enjoining good and forbidding evil,” he offered with characteristic openness. Years later, I would become familiar with the unique battery of terms and phrases that make up the American Muslim lexicon. Then, however, phrases like circumambulate, ablution, supplication, expiation of sin, enjoining the good, etc. flummoxed me like they would almost any non-Muslim American! I followed, “I don’t think I’m up on that one. What does that mean?” He continued, “We have a responsibility towards each other. We must encourage each other to good and we must take each other to task when any of us slip.” He then cited the tradition of the Prophet (upon him be peace) which is recorded in the collection of Imam Muslim: “Whosoever of you sees something wrong let him change it with his hand. And if he is unable to do so then he shall change it by speaking out against it. And if he is unable to do even that then let him dislike it in his heart, and this is the weakest of faith.” When I asked him to provide practical examples, he said, “The task is not a simple one, Brother Will (my given name). For instance, what if you saw a brother--that you didn’t know well but you were getting to know—spending time with a woman he wasn’t married to in ways you thought could be spiritually harmful to the young couple? How would you address him? You owe it to him to say something but being harsh or overly forward might discourage him.” And there was no “ah-ha” moment or long introspective silence. He just moved along in conversation as if that particular example among the many others he hypothesized was of no special significance. It’s humbling when I think about some of the amazing people—without the benefits of Arabic fluency, religious training, residency abroad, or a title of any kind, who introduced me to the beauty and humanity of this great religion.
I didn’t rush home and immediately break-up with my girlfriend. There is no remarkable story about my teenage piety worth telling. But my older brother had planted a seed. I began to think about romantic relationships differently. They could be edifying or destructive. I began to recognize that sex was neither something to be engaged casually nor something to be avoided by a couple growing in emotional closeness. As such, to date, hangout, or engage in a physical relationship without the gravity, transparency, and commitment offered by marriage is to set intimacy on the wrong course. In other words, when our steps are not ordered properly an intimate relationship that should be a source of longing, enjoyment and blessing can become a source of avoidance, shame, and punishment.
I often encounter young Muslims—many of them on college campuses—who find the idea of limiting male/female romantic engagement to the purposeful pursuit of marriage to be an overkill. “Ustadh Ubayd is it really that serious?” they ask incredulously. I usually go into my subsequent insipid moralizing. Ah! I only wish I had the light Prophetic touch and deft hand of Brother Wafiq.