How to Talk to Us about Islam (Part 4)

Say “I don’t know” because you’re not expected to know all the answers.

While travelling to give talks and lectures around the world, I meet many people who are not Muslims and who are curious about my culture. Some of them have had wonderful impressions and want to share their stories and others share the lessons they learnt the hard way from less fortunate incidents. This series is an effort to listen to the advice of non-Muslims for Muslims on how to best represent Islam, taking into consideration that not everyone who is curious about Islam wants to become Muslim, and that gaining the respect of non-Muslims is just as precious as gaining a new Muslim, particularly in non-Muslim countries where Islam is under constant attack. In the previous article we have talked about the importance of effective listening skills and to not judge others based on the type of questions they ask. In this part we will talk about some equally important points:

Suspicion Creates a Barrier

Many Muslims in non-Muslim environments face a dilemma when someone asks them to explain Islam or to justify some rituals or behaviors Muslims practice. Particularly following the shocking events of September 11th, many doubts and suspicions were created on both sides: Non-Muslims are suspicious of Muslims being terrorists, while Muslims are suspicious about spies and infiltrators of the community. The truth is that both those stereotypes apply to a tiny minority on both sides. Most people we meet in our lives are normal, harmless people. So how do we tell the difference? Caution is one thing, and suspicion is another. Caution is something that intelligent people do; suspicion is something that doubtful people do. In dealing with strangers anywhere any time, we should all be cautious at first until we establish trust, but if we start our communication based on suspicion, it will never be a constructive communication. A barrier is built that prevents both sides from benefiting from the encounter. And no matter how well you try to hide your suspicion, it will show: in your body language, in your eyes and in the tone of your voice, as well as your choice of words. If we apply these communication principles to the situation where someone interested in understanding Islam is asking questions to a Muslim, we will gain many important insights: If the questioner is genuinely interested to learn and the Muslim is suspicious, their first reaction will be to doubt why that person is asking and what their true intentions or hidden agendas might be. This is a negative thought. In contrast, the positive thought is to wonder why that person is asking, then to simply ask them to explain -with a smile of friendship not a frown of suspicion- and then to listen effectively (as we have explained in the previous article). This way, we can start the communication on a positive note, and we can establish respectful human communication with a potential friend of Islam and Muslims, rather than a perceived potential enemy. Here’s what one non-Muslim woman advises: ‘Don’t question why I ask you all these questions, why I just don’t seem to get it. Don’t think that I ask you this because I don’t like what you say or because I want you to change your mind. It might take years before I find the answers I’m looking for, I’m simply asking because I want to know, so either answer me or show me how to find the answers on my own.’ And this brings us to another important point:

Say I Don’t Know!

You’re not expected to know all the answers, even knowledgeable scholars don’t have all answers, so it’s ok to say “I don’t know” and then suggest for both of you to research to find the answers and discuss them later. Try to let go of the teacher-student type of communication and enjoy the learning opportunity yourself. Most of the non-Muslim women I have met who have asked me about Islam have all enjoyed reading the books and websites I recommended to them. When someone is on a journey of self-discovery and trying to find answers to existential questions, they need their personal space, and they need time on their own to think and contemplate the information they find. And while the education system in most Muslim countries is based on memorizing and doesn’t include enough focus on reading, research, and critical thinking, education in western countries is based on those elements, so people are used to researching to find their own answers, and they don’t prefer the instructional style most of us are used to in school. So try to avoid that type of style as much as possible. Also, try to have a list of recommended readings handy to share with people who ask you for information. Find yourself a credible source and do your homework in advance to compile that list. That applies to those who are living in non-Muslim communities, and those who are travelling there for work or vacation, you never know when you will meet someone who needs information, so get ready in advance, this in itself is a good intention to help others, and the time you spend researching and learning to prepare yourself is considered a good deed in Islam which is highly rewarded, so don’t deny yourself this great opportunity of personal growth. In the next articles in the series, I will explain more of these insights, please share them with the Muslims in your community to help us spread love, respect and understanding. ________________________  aken with slight modifications from


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