“And thus have We willed you to be a community of the middle way, so that [with your lives] you might bear witness to the truth before all mankind…” Qur’an 2:142
Muhammad Asad’s footnote explains that what is meant by this is “a community that keeps an equitable balance between extremes and is realistic in its appreciation of man’s nature and possibilities, rejecting both licentiousness and exaggerated asceticism”.
I have written before about how I feel a keen absence of a middle way in western Christianity. Traditional church demands little of its adherents besides standing up to sing hymns and bowing one’s head in prayer. Fundamentalist church, on the other hand, holds as its ideal a world in which everyone is consumed by passion for Jesus 24 hours a day. I no longer saw beauty in the world when I held this ideal.
While I know that Muslims can certainly veer off to these two extremes too despite the above verse, what I saw of family life in my husband’s country bore a definite resemblance to Asad’s footnote description. The first time I went in 2004, I was stunned to see one of himself’s family members praying right in front of me and others, rather than going into another room. My sister-in-law was fasting, and again this was accepted as perfectly normal. In my own traditional (well, now mostly secular) family, these things don’t happen! I loved the way religious practice was woven into family life, but in such a way that I, as an outsider, didn’t have to feel remotely uncomfortable. It was routine; unremarkable. It was also individual. This surprised me. Hardcore Christian families pray and worship and attend church together and so an outsider would probably feel awkward.
The second time I went, later in 2004, we went to a funfair in the evening. It was fun. Just like any other funfair. And yet somehow it surprised me to see all these women in hijab enjoying themselves on funfair rides, laughing with their kids. As if like nuns they should be sober and sedate, with their minds on the spiritual at all times. In a quiet corner of the funfair there was a prayer area, with a handful of people doing their prayers; right there in amongst all the family fun, God was being remembered, and it really touched me.
It’s little things like this that have really softened me towards Islam over the years. I am so impressed at both the efforts people make with prayers and fasting, and the calm, mature sense of normalcy with which they go about it. It does not seem “weird” or pie-in-the-sky, and yet sincere devotion is apparent. I can’t help but feel that it’s a brilliant thing.