How to be Good?

A Chat with a Muslim Imam - Part 1

March 08, 2021 Sarah Buckmaster Season 1 Episode 7
A Chat with a Muslim Imam - Part 1
How to be Good?
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How to be Good?
A Chat with a Muslim Imam - Part 1
Mar 08, 2021 Season 1 Episode 7
Sarah Buckmaster

What does it mean to be a good person according to the teachings of Islam? 

We ask Imam Abdulah Polovina to share his opinions on being a good Muslim. Imam Abdulah is a warm and approachable leader and in this conversation, we talk about what it means for a Muslim to be a good person, talking about the 5 Pillars of Islam, how Muslims feel about forgiveness and what Imam Abdulah recommends we all do more of in our day-to day-lives. 

Because our conversation was quite long in length, we've divided it across two episodes. This is part 1 and covers the usual questions we ask about being good – the second part, which is available as our next episode goes into more depth about the mechanism of faith, diving into the role of women in Islam and Imam Abdulah’s experience of the Bosnian war.

If you’d like to learn more about Imam Abdulah Polovina, this is a great article in Portland's Street Roots magazine: Demystifying Islam, a Portland Imam opens his mosque.

Show Notes Transcript

What does it mean to be a good person according to the teachings of Islam? 

We ask Imam Abdulah Polovina to share his opinions on being a good Muslim. Imam Abdulah is a warm and approachable leader and in this conversation, we talk about what it means for a Muslim to be a good person, talking about the 5 Pillars of Islam, how Muslims feel about forgiveness and what Imam Abdulah recommends we all do more of in our day-to day-lives. 

Because our conversation was quite long in length, we've divided it across two episodes. This is part 1 and covers the usual questions we ask about being good – the second part, which is available as our next episode goes into more depth about the mechanism of faith, diving into the role of women in Islam and Imam Abdulah’s experience of the Bosnian war.

If you’d like to learn more about Imam Abdulah Polovina, this is a great article in Portland's Street Roots magazine: Demystifying Islam, a Portland Imam opens his mosque.

[Podcast Theme Music: upbeat electro/beats]

Sarah Buckmaster  0:03 
Hi everyone, I'm Sarah and this is "How to be good?" - the podcast that explores what it means to be a good person in today's world.

Today I'm talking with Muslim Imam Abdulah Polovina.

Imam Abdulah Polovina  0:16 
"Being a good Muslim means being a good person, and being a bad person means being a bad Muslim, or perhaps not being a Muslim at all."

Sarah Buckmaster  0:33 
Abdulah Polovona is the Imam for the Islamic Bosniak Educational and Cultural organisation and leads a community of Bosnian Muslims in Portland, Oregon. He is also Head Imam of the Majlis 1 West of Islamic Community of North American Bosniaks. In case you haven't heard it before, the term "Bosniak" is the historical name referring to the majority ethnic group of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This is where Imam Abdulah was born and where he raised his family until moving to the states just over 20 years ago.

Imam Abdulah Polovina  1:01 
"I have a family, my lovely wife - Hatija - and I have five children; four sons and one daughter. My oldest son actually got married. And now I have, let's say one more kid with my daughter-in-law."

Sarah Buckmaster  1:19 
As you can tell from how he talks about his family, Imam Abdulah is a warm and approachable leader. And I genuinely felt that I could ask him anything during this interview. As a faith leader, he is passionate about fostering understanding among Muslims and non-Muslims and opens the door of his mosque to anyone who would like to learn more about his faith,

Imam Abdulah Polovina  1:39 
"No matter whether Muslim or non-Muslim, or Christian, Jew. I mean, we are all humans. I believe we came from same source, you know, so we need to be there for each other."

Sarah Buckmaster  1:53 
And it's important to know that Imam Abdulah really practices what he preaches when it comes to understanding and respecting different faiths. He was the first Muslim ever to enrol at Seattle University's School of Theology and Ministry, which is a Catholic college. He graduated from there with a master's degree in 2015, and now counts many other faith leaders as friends and family, or as he says brothers and sisters. In our conversation, Imam Abdulah explains the key Islamic teachings linked to being a good person, and also shares some of his deeper, more personal beliefs and experiences. This interview is a really special one, and because it was quite long in length, I've divided it across two episodes.

This is part one and covers the usual questions I asked about being good. The second part, which is available as my next episode, goes into more depth about the mechanism of faith, diving into the role of women in Islam, and Imam Abdulah's experience of the Bosnian War.

So without any more introduction, let's get into this first part. It is my absolute pleasure to introduce you all to Mr. Abdullah Polina.

Imam Abdulah Polovina  3:07 
First of all, dear Sarah, I would like to greet you and your listeners with the greeting of Islam,. That greeting is greeting of peace: As-salamu alaikum - meaning peace be upon you. We use this greeting because it is kind of first step to show that positive and goodness in each of us, you know, sharing the peace. So that is first I would like to say, and also I would like to express my appreciation for giving me this opportunity to share certain thoughts about being good and goodness in Islam. And I hope that you and your listeners will get more, not just information but meaningful understanding about one of the faiths that is, in general, most misunderstood in these times.

Sarah Buckmaster  3:59 
Well, thank you so much for joining me. I definitely know little about Islam and so I'm excited to learn more about your religion. And maybe we just throw ourselves in with that first big question. What does it mean to be a good person according to the teachings of Islam?

Imam Abdulah Polovina  4:15 
So first of all, to answer the question, I would like to share a couple things. We take in Islam our knowledge and practice from two sources, first is Quran, our holy book, the word of Allah, God in Islam, Quran - that was revealed to our beloved prophet of Allah, Muhammad, peace be upon him. And second source is actually the Sunnah - that is the practice of the Prophet; the way of life of our beloved Prophet, peace be upon him. So in that regard, what comes to my mind is first one short chapter from Holy Book, Quran called 'Surah Al Asr' meaning 'time'. In that short surah God, in some sense teaches us what the meaning of being good is, what to do.

As you know, time passes on, every day, every minute, every second, we get older, you know. So this is really important, and God's verse with this time, and actually teaches us that those people who believe good, who do what's recommended, who give advice about the truth, who are patient...  those people will not be in loss, not just in this life, but also in hereafter. That is also one of our main beliefs. We believe there is not only this life, but also the hereafter, the next life. So that is one part that we need to understand about the goodness in Islam, that whoever does good will be among those who will succeed, who will be counted as good people, good persons.

And also the second part, I hope you and let's say most of the listeners have heard about the five pillars of Islam. I will just shortly mention them because those five pillars of Islam, they are kind of all concrete, tangible markers, of the faith of Islam, not only as it appears on the outside, but perhaps more importantly, how it manifests on the inside;  how it purifies our hearts and refines our characters in a way that benefits the lives of all those around us. So first pillar of Islam is (1) declaration of faith, to believe in one God, Allah, and believe and follow His Messenger and Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. (2) The second is prayer. We have five daily prayers that devote Muslims should do every day, early morning prayer, noon prayer, late afternoon prayer, sunset prayer, and late one at dusk (fifth one) and also the next one is you know (3) charity; on a yearly basis to help those in need. The fourth one is (4) fasting the month of Ramadan. We have one holy month, in one year 29-30 days, we fast from the dawn all the way up to the sunset, no drinking, no food, nothing just during the day. And also after that one, the last one is (5) the Hajj, the pilgrimage, that all the world Muslims are obligated to do it once in a lifetime. They can do more, but you know, once in a lifetime, let's say obligatory.

So why I'm saying this about those five pillars of Islam, dear Sarah, because by practising and doing those five pillars of Islam, we Muslims, we beautify ourselves, inside and outside. And then when we beautify ourselves, when we beautify our character, our manners by doing those five pillars of Islam, actually, we beautify ourselves, and then we beautify others when we talk to others, you know, other Muslims, other non-Muslims or people that we are in contact with time-by-time, our family members, so on. And actually, in doing all those, let's say, acts of worship, especially prayer, we kind of express that deep meaning and practical part of how to be good, of the good in Islam.

 And maybe to add, you know, in general, I would like to say that faith in Islam is a comprehensive way of life, consisting of outward and inward dimensions, ritual and creed, spirituality and morality, and it cannot properly be reduced to outward rituals without any practical moral implications in daily life. So that is the reason why we practice that and maybe to finish this part about how to be good person, maybe I can say this.... faith in Islam, as described in the Quran, our Holy Book and Sunnah (the way of life, the practice of our beloved Prophet Muhammad) consists of not only a theological creed, but also a set of character dispositions. The five pillars of Islam that I mentioned and which are the religious core rituals of worship, all contain moral dimensions that inform both a believers relationship to their creator - in our case Allah - and to other created things and beings; I mean, creation, because God created.  It is a categorical error to claim someone can simultaneously be a good Muslim and a bad person. Because a good Muslim believer is, by definition, a good person. When you define the Muslim, that is the most simple .. one who spreads the peace, does good.

Sarah Buckmaster  10:22 
You mention actions, and I'm really interested because I've read an article about you where someone described you as a man of "putting your faith into action". And so I'd really like to hear a bit more of what it means to you personally, to be a good person on that day-to-day basis, and how you put your faith into action within your local community.

Imam Abdulah Polovina  10:42 
Dear Sarah, within our heart, when I go deeply, you know within that deep knowledge of Islam, so within our spiritual heart, there is a lifelong battle between the forces of heaven and earth, good and bad. So there is a term in Islam, one is "al-Nafs [additional word hard to hear]" - that is the lower self that clings to the earth, those earthly desires, lust, so on. And then there's the higher Nafs - the higher, the self, sometimes like blaming, but in a sense to be good - to check yourself. Why I'm saying this is because these, let's say demonic and angelic forces struggle to control our behaviour.

When our demons, you know the lower self, win - we give in to our anger, our greed, our selfishness, arrogance, and lust. But also when our higher self, let's say, good part of our spiritual heart prevails, we are kind, generous, good, forgiving, and patient. So I'm saying this, because, you know, we can control these demons in our lower self by treating them like wild animals that need to be tamed. There is no need to deny them. Acknowledge them, acknowledge that part within ourselves. But be a good Zookeeper. If I can say that - in a sense, you know, like, when you go to visit zoo, there are so many wild animals and they are in a cage. If they were free, we'd go there and be harmed. That is kind of how we need to control that, let's say, our lower self. So keep your wild beasts under control, and always refer to our higher self.

In general, no one has the monopoly of good or evil. We all stumble around, through life, we all make mistakes, we all have the capacity for the best and the worst of human nature. So sometimes, you know, that is that mechanism of faith, because we cannot do this on our own. We cannot fight against the lower of ourselves. We need God's help. Also, I'm trying on the daily basis to practice this, you know, as I mentioned, those five daily prayers.... me as an Imam, and also devout Muslim, to practice those five daily prayers, and let's say, between those five daily prayers, I'm trying to be good and in general, for me personally, to be good person is in some sense to understand the purpose of life. So in this regard, I think, I must beautify and illuminate the space around me, people around me, starting within my heart and working out. It is constant work. Also, I must become like beacon of light in the darkness. You know, in these challenging times. I'm also person with all my, let's say good and bad parts, my shortcomings. You really try to be light to illuminate, to encourage, motivate people to be positive.

You must attempt to live life of balance and harmony with body, mind and spirit completely integrated. So, I mean, in general, I try to set up kind of example. My lifestyle, I'm constantly thinking, should be an inspiration to others, you know, so all people around me should feel safe in my hands, from my actions, with their lives and their possessions. That is how I understand in connection, you know, with my personal belief, personal practices, and as I mentioned, trying all the time between the prayers to do something: go outside, calling people - try and help people, no matter whether Muslim or non-Muslim or Christian or Jew, I mean, we are all humans. I believe we came from same source, you know, so we need to be there for each other, you know, despite all negativity that sometimes surrounds us, we need good people. We need people with good heart. God created us and he did not leave us to live by ourselves. Yes, we have some level of freedom but he sent us the prophets, he sent us the books, he sent us the guidance to help us in which way and that way of good to live to succeed by doing good. God bless.

Sarah Buckmaster  15:44 
You've touched on things that might fall on that bad side, the greed, the selfishness, arrogance - those demons that pull on us. How does the concept of forgiveness work in Islam?

Imam Abdulah Polovina  15:56 
Yes, thank you this, dear Sarah. Yeah, pretty much you know, all those, let's say main religions like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, they're pretty much similar in those concepts of goodness, forgiveness. Religious people commit atrocities too - some will argue -  and it is indeed true. Islam, however, does not separate religion from morality as some people misunderstand. So one cannot be a good Muslim and a bad person at the same time, because worship and character are two sides of the same coin. The use, dear Sarah, and abuse of religion for evil ends is definitely a reality. But it does not represent the true expression of faith. So we Muslims know, we worked within ourselves. I'm constantly reminding myself and my fellow Muslims to do our homework. Because one of the main things in our faith is time-by-time to ask God to forgive us because we do things towards God we don't mesn to - we do not pray regularly, we do not give charity, you know, something that is prescribed from God to us to do. So, we are encouraged to make forgiveness you know, and our Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, encouraged us, whenever you do bad, immediately do good to erase that bad.

This is the concept of Islam - to forgive, to go beyond (as I mentioned earlier) that lower self. So yes, sometimes the requirements in Islam to be forgiven is from God and also to accept and acknowledge to God "yes, God, I did this sin, I did mistake. Please forgive me. I will try not to do it again".

And also I would like to add, you know, as I mentioned that kind of hypocritical part within some people. There are many, dear Sarah, to be honest, there are many religious people who practice the faith, let's say in this regard faith of Islam in an arrogant and hypocritical manner, who commit atrocities, crimes, and offences by cynically exploiting religious sentiments, and the language of righteousness. Being a good Muslim means being a good person. And being a bad person means being a bad Muslim, or perhaps not being a Muslim at all. Sometimes, you know, in media you hear some Muslim does something, especially that terrorism thing, but we cannot attach anything that is that action to any faith, any devoted followers. Even when we see the Muslim name or Christian name or Jewish name doesn't matter. It doesn't mean that that person is Muslim even, you know, like, as I mentioned, here, sometimes those hypocritical people, they are even practising the faith coming to mosques but they have that illness in the heart. You know, the term that is used in Islam, for hypocrisy is  "nifaq". In that regard, faith can be spoiled by the appearance of hypocrisy in which a person outwardly professes and practices Islam, as I mentioned, but has internalised characteristics of unfaithfulness such as dishonesty. So an outward Muslim, who has no faith in his or her heart commits major hypocrisy while a Muslim who has faith and manifests sinful actions contrary to faith, commits lesser hypocrisy.

True Muslim, as I mentioned, when he or she realises, maybe they've committed something that is sinful, will immediately be running towards God to ask for forgiveness. We all make mistakes, we all are victims some sense, but we need constantly to be reminded about those, let's say good parts and work with that higher self.

Sarah Buckmaster  20:29 
It's really interesting because one thing that's come up in the interviews across the different faiths is this idea of intention and action. And the Jewish Rabbi I spoke with said the action is important because you can have the best intention, but the action could harm someone. It sounds like within Islam, the harmony between intention and action is really important. So is intention or action more important, or is the harmony between them important?

Imam Abdulah Polovina  20:55 
Yeah, thanks. Yeah, I mean, in Islam, the concept of pure and good attention is very, very important. The concept of that intention, our beloved prophet teaches us that actions are measured or counted by good intention. The teaching of Islam goes in this line, like, if you have good intention to do good, and you did not do it - God will write down that you actually did that good deed. So, if you have good intention - to do good actions, good deed - and you do it (practically do it), God will write down kind of double, let's say account or reward for that. And also, if you have bad intention, and you did not do it, God will not write that as bad. But if you do it, he will record the size of that bad deed.

So, this is something that actually expresses the mercy of God. Because to be honest, Sarah, people sometimes lack to understand that in all of these faiths, especially Islam, we are talking about God of mercy, God of love. Yes, God says somewhere about punishment, but not only we as faith leaders, but we as all people (Muslims, Christians, Jews and so on), you know, sometimes we cannot take the religious, the faith knowledge from the surface; we need to go deeply, deeply in that divine knowledge. You know, like, when you see the ocean, from the surface, you can see some beauty. But when you go deeply there, you see the vast beauty inside- that lives there. So that is the point. We need all of us in this time, to go deeply. To understand, as you mentioned, the point of goodness, the point of good intention, that psychological part, to help us and help all around us, you know, especially the family to understand, as I mentioned, the true meaning of life, the purpose of life. After we leave this world, what is next? where am I going? This is, as I mentioned, that mechanism, that tool of faith. It can provide us with those answers, provide us to live... live with dignity, with integrity, you know, with all honesty. Yes, time-by-time, we fall down, but we rise. And in these times, we will rise together. We will get up together. But we need to do it in a humble way. To be honest, Sarah, you know, as I mentioned, after every action of worship in Islam, we Muslims should be better; after each prayer, after every Friday sermon. To be honest, after this interview, I'm kind of unrequired - and you - I need to be good. Better. Because you encouraged me. And I hope we will both encourage the listeners to think, to go deeply, to go beyond themselves, beyond their lower self, just to think positively, to understand the point of living together and sharing this earth. Sometimes, you know, through the struggle, through the suffering, we understand better who we are, who is our God, and what to expect in this life and hereafter.

Sarah Buckmaster  24:37 
One of the really nice questions I'd like to ask is: if you could give our listeners one piece of advice about how they could go out today, especially in these challenging times, and contribute positively to the world - one good thing you'd recommend that they do - what would that be?

Imam Abdulah Polovina  24:54 
My dear friends, the listeners, you will attract what you are. Do good and good will come back to you. Be kind and you will be offered the same. When you radiate positive energy, you will surely attract the likes of positivity. So, make a commitment to do good because what you give out is what you get back.

I think that is something that really we need to practice because, in general, whatever we do, it will ... how we say here in America? - what goes around comes around. So, you know, whatever we offer, we will be offered same. So strive to develop a positive mindset and attitude - it can have a good impact in your life, our lives. And maybe first, a positive person can accept any change with an open mind and heart. And also second, positive person will show concern for others and strive to help those who are in need. So, let us kind of do that. And maybe it's best idea to finish with the golden rule that all faiths have. What says our Prophet Muhammad - peace be upon him: harm noone, and noone will harm you.

[Podcast Theme Music comes in, and then gently fades so it's quietly playing in background as Sarah begins talking...]

Sarah Buckmaster  26:33 
We've come to the end of the first part of this conversation. But Imam Abdulah and I continue talking about women in Islam, the mechanism of faith, and his personal experiences of living through - and being injured in - the Bosnian War. So if you'd like to hear more from this inspirational faith leader, then head across to the next episode.

And if you've enjoyed this episode, and would like to hear more episodes and interviews exploring the question of what it means to be a good person in today's world, then please consider hitting the subscribe button. And if you have time and liked what you heard, then I would love you to leave a review and share with your friends. I'm in the early stages of this podcast, very much learning as I go. And so any help and support is really appreciated. Thank you for listening. And if you have any questions or suggestions, please email me at any time. It's sarah@howtobegood.co.uk and I would love to hear from you. Thank you.

[Podcast Theme Music, fades out]

Transcribed by Sarah Buckmaster and https://otter.ai