Why Ta’leef? – A Personal Reflection by R. David Coolidge
When I converted to Islam in 1998, the choices were bleak, but I didn't know it. I was entering a faith with a rich intellectual tradition, but was offered simplistic answers to complex questions. I had chosen a community known for spiritual excellence, but was fed little more than rituals and politics. I had taken a courageous leap into a social world I knew nothing about, but was met with very little sympathetic understanding of where I was coming from. C'est la vie, as they say, or in a Muslim idiom, "masha'Allah (whatever God wills)."
I don't harbor any resentment - none of the people or organizations I interacted with in those crucial first few years were explicitly focused on addressing "my issues." And by the grace of God, I found my way through the often alienating maze that is modern Muslim discourse. But I did suffer spiritual damage that took years to heal, and some of my convert compatriots didn't survive the journey (may God restore their faith and bless them in this world and the next). And so once I found my footing in the life-altering decision to follow the Messenger of God, blessings and peace be upon him and his family, I looked to "give back."
I could have started my own organization, and on and off that is what I thought about doing. But then I came across Ta'leef Collective. Just like thousands of others around the globe, my first exposure to Ta'leef was through its professionally-produced media, as I watched a short documentary describing the Ta'leef model of welcoming people as they are to Islam as it is. It immediately resonated with me. I had just come off a painful experience trying to counsel a new convert to avoid extremist and puritanical understandings of Islam, but had failed. I realized in the process that it is not enough for converts to have a singular sympathetic voice to act as a sounding board - they needed a comprehensive experience that provided the physical space, intellectual content, and spiritual companionship needed to successfully incorporate Islam into their lives as a holistic and natural reality. They needed a communal expression of their adopted faith where mercy was experienced, not simply talked about. Ta'leef seemed to be that kind of place.
After some months, I went to visit the first Ta'leef community in California, and was inspired by what I witnessed. In attendance was a remarkably diverse population of seekers, united by the desire for meaningful and uplifting community while traveling together on the path to God. A dedicated team of paid staff and volunteers worked tirelessly to provide what so many were looking for and desperately needed. The Convert Continuum of Care (CCC) program made sure that, in addition to communal activities such as the overflowing Living Right class, each person was treated as a unique individual with specific needs. The focus on dispensing contextually relevant spiritual guidance was very consciously balanced with a healthy reverence for the sacred traditions of Islam. And so after that initial visit, I became a board member in order to help Ta'leef grow. "Why start my own thing," I said to myself, "when these sisters and brothers are doing it better than I ever could?!" I have since returned to California numerous times, and also been to Chicago repeatedly, to assist the many hands who are building the Ta'leef community. With each visit, my initial feeling is restored, as I see so many served so well.
For me, Ta'leef is ultimately about the call to all living human souls to return to our Creator, or what Muslims often simply term da'wah. It is not focused on Islam as simply a socio-historical construct, or being Muslim as nothing more than an identity marker in an increasingly pluralistic world. It is about truly believing that the Prophet Muhammad, blessings and peace be upon him and his family, is alive and aware of the concerns of his community, and is continuously asking us to honor those he called "my brothers" - people like us who have not seen him, but still yet believe in him and are trying to follow him in our day and age. God says in the Qur'an, "Say (O Muhammad, to the people)! If you love God, then follow me, and God will love you and forgive you your sins! God is Forgiving, Merciful." We are all in need of better understanding, embracing, and realizing of what it means to love God and follow the Messenger, and in turn discover God's love for all of us. That is why I am a part of Ta'leef, and I hope you will be too, insha'Allah (if God so wills).
May peace be upon all of you.
R. David Coolidge
Board Member, Ta'leef Collective