The scenario I’m about to describe has happened to me more times than I can count, in more cities than I can remember, mostly in Western cities here in the U.S. and Europe.
I walk into a store. There’s a woman shopping in the store that I can clearly identify as Muslim. In some scenarios she’s standing behind the cash register tallying up totals and returning change to customers. She’s wearing a headscarf. It’s tightly fastened under her face where her head meets her neck. Arms covered to the wrists. Ankles modestly hidden behind loose fitting pants or a long, flowy dress. She’s Muslim. I know it. Everyone around her knows it. I stare at her briefly and think to myself, “She can’t tell if I’m staring at her because I think she is a spectacle or because I recognize something we share.”
I realize this must make her uncomfortable, so I look away. I want to say something, something that indicates I’m not staring because I’m not familiar with how she chooses to cover herself. Something that indicates that my mother dresses like her. That I grew up in an Arab state touching the Persian Gulf where the majority dresses like her. That I also face East and recite Quran when I pray.
“Should I greet her with A’salamu alaikum?” I ask myself. Then I look at what I picked out to wear on this day. A pair of distressed denim short shorts, a button-down Oxford shirt, and sandals. My hair is a big, curly entity on top of my head; still air-drying after my morning shower. Then I remember my two nose rings, one hugging my right nostril, the other snugly hanging around my septum. The rings have become a part of my face. I don’t notice them until I have to blow my nose or until I meet someone not accustomed to face piercings.
I decide not to say anything to her. I pretend that we have nothing in common and that I don’t understand her native tongue or the language in which she prays. The reason I don’t connect with her is that I’m not prepared for a possibly judgmental glance up and down my body. I don’t want to read her mind as she hesitantly responds, “Wa’alaikum a’salam.”
I’m guilty of judging and projecting my thoughts onto her before giving her a chance to receive this information and respond to it. It’s wrong. My hesitation in these scenarios comes from knowing that a sizable number of people from my religion look at people dressed like me and write us off as women who have lost their way and veered off the path of Islam. I don’t cover my thighs, let alone my ankles. (The most dominant Islamic schools of thought consider a woman’s ankles to be ‘awrah, meaning an intimate part of her body, and revealing it is undoubtedly a sin.) Nothing in my outward appearance speaks to or represents the beliefs I carry. Some might even get to know me and still label me as a non-practicing Muslim—I drink whiskey and I smoke weed regularly.
However, I am a practicing Muslim. I pray (sometimes), fast, recite the travel supplication before I start my car’s engine, pay my zakkah (an annual charitable practice that is obligatory for all that can afford it) and, most importantly, I feel very Muslim. There are many like me. We don’t believe in a monolithic practice of Islam. We love Islam, and because we love it so much we refuse to reduce it to an inflexible and fossilized way of life. Yet we still don’t fit anywhere. We’re more comfortable passing for non-Muslims, if it saves us from one or more of the following: unsolicited warnings about the kind punishment that awaits us in hell, unwelcomed advice from a stranger that starts with “I am like your [insert relative],” or an impromptu lecture, straight out of a Wahhabi textbook I thought was nonsense at age 13.
Islamic studies was part of my formal education until I graduated from high school in the United States. The textbooks we used were from Saudi Arabia, which is the biggest follower of the Wahhabi sect of Islam. The first time I realized it was okay to verbalize how nonsensical these books were was when I was watching a movie with my mother about a family that lost one of their children due to a terminal disease. I must have been 6 or 7 years old. My mother said something to the effect of, “I know Allah has a special place in heaven for mothers that lose their children at a young age.” I looked at my mom and asked her, “Even if they’re not Muslim?” Without breaking eye contact with the TV set she responded, “Even if they’re not Muslim.”
That was all the permission I needed to allow myself to believe in a more compassionate God than the one spoken about in these textbooks. My parents are pretty religious. They don’t know I smoke or drink. I’m honestly not quite sure how they would react to knowing that I do, but I’m not exactly ready to find out. They encouraged me and my sister to wear headscarves, but they didn’t force us to. Like most parents they didn’t want us wearing anything too revealing or attention grabbing. They would not approve of my wearing shorts.
When it became fairly evident that we weren’t always praying five times a day, they mostly stayed quiet and occasionally spoke to us about the benefits of prayer. My mother loved reading novels by American writers. She loved movies. She loved music. She tried hard to memorize the Quran, but thought she started too late. They welcomed our male friends and didn’t look at us with suspicion when we walked out of the house with them. My parents hoped their children would closely follow in their footsteps, but trusted us with our own choices.
I’m steadfast in my belief that exploring and wandering are the reasons I know I am Muslim. Learning about Buddhism brought me closer to Islam because it taught me what surrendering means, a lesson none of my Islamic studies teachers have been able to teach me even though that’s literally what Islam means. My Islamic studies teachers taught me how to how to obsess about the mundane—about all the things I’m doing incorrectly and therefore my prayers will not be accepted. They taught me guilt. They taught me fear. They taught me that being a good Muslim is difficult.
I never quite rejected Islam, I just took a break from going through the motions of prayer out of guilt. I wanted to see if I could be compelled to return to my prayer rug. I did. I returned when I felt like my life was empty without worship. I prayed out of gratitude. I prayed and it gave me solace. Ablution became less about splashing water over various parts of my body and felt more like a daily cleanse. A baptism. I stopped obsessing about the small things and my new mantra was “Al-‘amal bil niyat,” which means actions are dependent on their intentions. My other mantra was “Al deen yusr,” which translates to religion is ease.
Exploring and wandering gave me the tools I needed to critically look at the hypocrisy of the ‘ulama’a (Islamic elites/scholars/clerics). I realized that I did not have to practice my religion from the point of view of a largely misogynistic group of people. Two years ago, I denounced most hadith (prophetic traditions and sayings), fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and tafseer (interpretation) because these three things, all of which play a huge part in how Islam is practiced today, are filtered through the perspective of Muslims born into normalized extreme patriarchy.
I haven’t denounced all hadith. I kept the ones that undisputedly made me a better person by teaching me a lesson in morality, kindness, and patience. The two mantras I mentioned above were, in fact, adopted from hadith. The mantra, “Religion is ease” is from a hadith related by Abu Hurayra, one of the Prophet’s companions and the mantra, “actions are dependent on their intentions” is from a hadith related by Umar ibn al-Khattab, one of the successors of the Prophet.
I mentioned before that there are many like me. Outliers, outsiders, passing as non-Muslims in the vicinity of other Muslims. When confronted, our stance on religion is waived off as a rebellious phase or an urge to fit in with the dominant non-Muslim society we live in. Despite this feeling of not belonging, we are, generally speaking, not tormented by this existence. We live very healthy, dynamic, and diverse lives. We’ve established connections and common ground with many different groups of people and we don’t feel like pariahs. We’ve accepted that until a drastic cultural change happens, we’re going to continue to lead dual or multiple lives.
I have a new mantra these days, a short surah titled Al-Kafirun (the Disbelievers). For me, the disbelievers, commonly understood to mean those who don’t believe in God and the prophet, also take the form of those who disbelieve that I, too, am a Muslim. The last ayah states, “Lakum deenakum wa liya deen,” meaning for you is your religion, and for me is my religion. A simple phrase that holds the power of interconnectedness in spite of our differences. A verse that can empower me to smile at and greet the woman in the headscarf without fear of judgment.
Thanaa El-Naggar has been living in the U.S. for the last 19 years and currently resides in Brooklyn, NY.
[Illustration by Jim Cooke]