How to Live in a Non-Muslim Land

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Indeed, the principle is that the Muslim should prefer an Islamic land so as to establish the rights of his religion, but circumstances may force him or her to live in a non-Muslim land. And Islam, being a religion that provides guidance for all aspects of human life, has addressed this issue. Numerous texts within Islamic literature have expounded on the topic of Muslims living in non-Muslim lands, and the story of Prophet Yūsuf (Joseph), peace be upon him, serves as an ideal source of reference for such a discussion. The Prophet Yūsuf, peace be upon him, was forced to leave the land of the Prophets, the land where his father Ya‘qūb (Jacob), peace be upon him, resided and where the Heavenly Law was being applied. Due to the betrayal of his brothers, Prophet Yūsuf, peace be upon him, was taken as a slave by a caravan and eventually purchased by a minister of Egypt known by the title al-‘aziz.

The man in Egypt who bought him, said to his wife: “Make his stay (among us) honourable: may be he will bring us much good, or we shall adopt him as a son”. Thus did We establish [i.e. give authority to] Yūsuf in the land (Quran, 12:21).

The hint within this ayah (verse) is that a person may not be able to gain authority in his own land but may acquire it in another. This brings us to the question of how Prophet Yūsuf, peace be upon him, conducted himself in this non-Muslim land.

The most obvious challenge that faces the Muslim in such a land is how to cope with the non-Islamic values within society that inevitably leads to a prevalence of fawāhish (1) and thus conflict or clash with one’s faith. Certainly, falling into this fawāhish is easy, but it was just as easy in the time of Yūsuf, peace be upon him, as the ayah on Yūsuf’s encounter with the wife of al-aziz illustrates:

And she, in whose house he [Yūsuf] was, sought to seduce him. She closed the doors and said, “Come, you”. He said, “I seek refuge in Allah. Indeed, he (your husband) is my master, who has made good my residence. Indeed, wrongdoers will never prosper” (Quran, 12:23).

It is not fitting for the Muslim who believes in Allah, Glory be to Him, and the Last Day to come near obscenity. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, mentioned seven people who will be shaded by Allah on the Day of Judgement (2); among them is a man who turns away from the temptation and seduction of a woman with beauty and status, saying “I fear Allah.” It is upon the Muslim to fear Allah, Glory be to Him, in every gaze and in every instance he or she is alone. And living in an environment where the opportunities to sin are manifold, if a Muslim is not careful, he or she may not only fall into a sin or two but perhaps may reach a stage of being immersed in sinning, such that one abandons repentance. Soon, a love for these sins develops and by this the Muslim leads himself or herself astray.

And Allah would not let a people stray after He has guided them until He makes clear to them what they should avoid (Quran, 9:115).

The Muslim who abandons having taqwa (piety) and does not repel the fawāhish, his or her heart may start to see the evil as good, perhaps even leading him or her out of the pail of Islam. So it is incumbent on the Muslim to strive against the fawāhish and constantly seek the help of Allah, Glory be to Him. The Quran relates how Yūsuf, peace be upon him, sought the help of his lord in his situation:

And if You do not avert from me their [evil] plan, I might incline toward them and [thus] be of the ignorant. So his Lord responded to him and averted from him their plan (Quran, 12:33-34).

The desires and lusts are great and numerous, but they remain trifling in the eyes of the believer, the one who is sincere to Allah and trusting in His assistance.

Thus it was, that We might ward off from him evil and lewdness. Indeed, he was of Our chosen servants (Quran, 12:24).

Therefore, if the Muslim turns to Allah, Glory be to Him, in supplication and with sincerity, seeking refuge in Him, Allah will surely protect him. Thus, the first thing a Muslim must do in this society is to confront the fawāhish that he or she faces and strive to overcome them.

After the Muslim is rendered victorious against his or her desires, it is upon him or her to exemplify high Muslim morals, manners, and character while living in this society, as the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, instructed, “Treat the people with good manners.” It has been established that Yūsuf, peace be upon him, was innocent of what he was accused of, yet he was oppressed, accused unjustly and put in jail where he stayed with two youth.

And there entered the prison with him two young men. One of them said, “Indeed, I have seen myself [in a dream] pressing wine”. The other said, “Indeed, I have seen myself carrying upon my head [some] bread, from which the birds were eating. Inform us of its interpretation; indeed, we see you to be of those who do good” (Quran, 12:36).

Yūsuf was seen to have high morals and character and because of this, the two men trusted him and related to him their dreams. This is the way a Muslim should live in a non-Muslim land, having high morals and good character by which he earns the trust of the people and shows the greatness of Islam.

Unfortunately, some Muslims turn others away from Islam due to their bad character and end up becoming a source of trial for others. “Our Lord! Do not make us a trial for those who disbelieve” (Quran, 60:5).

The scholars of exegesis said explaining this ayah that reason for the Prophet Ibrāhīm, peace be upon him, and the believers with him making this supplication was not simply for the sake of saving themselves but also because they did not want to become a source of trial for others such that they become the cause them turning away from Islam. [Meaning] “Oh Allah do not give authority to the disbelievers over us such that they will punish us and be led to think that by possessing this authority over us, they are upon truth and we are upon falsehood.” Although, if this oppression occurs against the believers, the blame remains in the hands of the oppressors and the believers carry no blame. In the time of Musa (Moses), peace be upon him, when Pharaoh used to torture the children of Israel (the Israelites), the believers amongst them clearly had no cause in this. So how about a situation where a Muslim engages in evil behaviour and takes it to the level of carrying out suicide bombings, terrorism, etc.? Undoubtedly, this will turn people away from Islam!

If the Muslim treats the people with good morals, and shies away from the fawāhish, then there are two additional matters he or she should fulfill. Firstly, the Muslim should be a caller to Allah, Glory be to Him, ceasing every opportunity to enlighten the people with the greatness of Islam. He or she should begin their call with al-tawhīd (3), as the Prophets did, since it is the cornerstone of the religion and the reason for Allah sending down revelations and Messengers. The Muslim makes his priority calling the people to sound beliefs and does not allow him or herself to call the people to other things before al-tawhīd. Yūsuf, peace be upon him, did not call the youth inside the prison to seek revenge against the government, nor did he preoccupy himself with defaming the wife of al-azīz. He was far above all of this. Rather, he seized the opportunity before interpreting the dream to call to al-tawhīd, to that which will benefit them in the Hereafter, grant them Paradise, and save them from the Fire. This is the way the Muslim should be.

O [my] two companions of prison, are many lords better or Allah, the One, the Prevailing? You worship not besides Him except [mere] names you have named them, you and your fathers, for which Allah has sent down no authority. The command is for none but Allah. He has commanded that you worship none but Him. That is the right religion, but most men understand not (Quran, 12:39-40).

The second matter is that the Muslim should exert him or herself towards benefiting others so as to be a blessing for the society, as Prophet ‘Īsā (Jesus), peace be upon him, said about himself, “And He has made me blessed wherever I am” (Quran, 19:31). A Muslim should become a source a blessing for all, whether to Muslims, non-Muslims, or animals. Yūsuf, peace be upon him, became a source of blessing for his society by being the cause that led the people of Egypt to evade and prevent an economic crisis.

[Yūsuf] said, “You will plant for seven years consecutively; and what you harvest leave in its spikes, except a little from which you will eat. Then will come after that, seven hard (years), which will devour what you saved for them, except a little from which you will store” (Quran, 12:47-48).

[Yūsuf] said, “Appoint me over the storehouses of the land. I will indeed guard them, as one that knows (their importance)” (Quran, 12:55).

Yūsuf, peace be upon him, not only offered a plan to save the people from the crisis but also asked to be the supervisor of it. That was part of him showing benevolence to the people whom he lived with.

In summary, the Muslim should strive with his or her utmost effort to shy away from lusts and desires because it is a danger for one’s belief and religion due to it being a stepping stone to fawāhish. He or she must also exemplify high morals and behaviour amongst the people so as to show the greatness of Islam. The Muslim should also call to Islam through al-tawhīd, prioritising in what he or she calls to, showing kindness in his or her calling, and carrying solid arguments with proofs so as to self-guard his or her faith. And finally, the Muslim should strive to benefit those in his community so as to become a source of blessing for a people. These are some of the great and exemplary traits that can be derived from the life of our Prophet, Yūsuf ibn Ya‘qūb ibn IsHāq ibn Ibrāhīm, peace be upon them.

* This is an English translation and rendering of a lecture given on February 12, 2008, at the University of Toronto (St. George) by Dr. Khalid al-Anbari, hosted by the Muslim Students’ Association. The MSA wishes to thank al-Quran & Sunnah Society of Canada for making this lecture possible. The Shaykh is originally from Egypt and earned his Ph.D. in Islamic Shari‘ah from Kulliyat Dar al-‘Ulum (Cairo).
1. Obscenity, indecency, immorality, lewdness, especially in regards to prohibited sexual behavior.
2. The hadith is narrated by Abu Hurairah and collected in Sahih al-Bukhari [English trans. vol.1, no.629, p.356] and Sahih Muslim [English trans. vol.2, no.2248, p. 493].
3. Islamic Monotheism – “There is no deity worthy of worship except Allah.”