My sister recently said to me that she's so proud of my "millenial" family- I have three Korean-American, Egyptian, Muslim children. But I guarantee that I never, ever imagined that this is where my life would lead me, and that I would have someday been trying to convince the Korean shopkeeper that I was indeed Korean, despite my headscarf.
I pretty much grew up in the Catholic Church, in a small Midwestern town. At St. Joe's, everyone knew that I held a sort of honorary status as a non-baptized Catholic. I was a cross-bearer, a member of the choir, I often read the second Bible reading in Mass. I found a home in the church that gave me purpose and status. But what I realized as I moved on from St. Joe's, was that the faith hadn't moved me to implement it in my personal life. I could write a rousing report on St. Sebastian, but couldn't extract personal meaning to apply it to my daily life.
When I was 21, I began working with someone who did some very peculiar things like fasting, and disappearing to pray at odd times of the day. When I learned that they were Muslim, I became intrigued. I wondered what was within this faith that could impel someone to engage in these acts so publicly, but do them with such pleasure and conviction. So I picked up the Quran and read. The very first page captivated me:
"In the Name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful.
"All praise and thanks is due to the Cherisher and Sustainer of the Worlds; the Most Gracious, the most Merciful. Master of the Day of Judgment. Thee do we worship, and thine aid we seek. Show us the Straight Way, the way of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace, Those whose portion is not wrath. And who go not astray. Amen."
I read those seven lines maybe three or four times over. It was such a complete prayer- one that filled my heart with such hope for the future. I continued to study the Quran, finding treasure troves of not only spiritual guidance, but scientific facts that quenched my need for some kind of intellectual foundation.
A few months later, I reticently walked into my boss’s office and told him that I would need a longer lunch break than usual. I could have told him that I had a dentist’s appointment and he would have believed me. Instead, to combat my fear, I said it out loud: “I’m going to the University of Maryland for Muslim prayer services.”
I think he found it amusing. Silly, naïve young woman having an identity crisis, seeking truth in the world’s religions. He smirked at me, didn’t ask too many questions, and complied with my request without hesitation.
I cannot tell you that I remember the words that were spoken at that prayer. I can tell you that I remember who spoke them, and that still today he speaks with the same conviction and persuasiveness with which he spoke 12 years ago. I do remember the orderliness of the day. I remember how compartmentalized the men and the women were, and how unnaturally natural it was that it didn’t feel odd. I remember how quiet the audience was, and how clearly the speaker’s voice echoed through the air, and how the silence between his pauses formed sweet moments of serenity that seemed to wash over us as purification. I remember how it felt when a cohesive rustle erupted from the congregation when he called to establish the prayer. I remember how it felt to pray, for the first time, with purpose and meaning. I remember the thrill of feeling shoulders on either side of me, being ecstatically bound by something that was not restrictive, not suffocating, not forced, and not false.
Over the next few years, my transformation became final. Donning the headscarf, I could no longer use my appearance as a crutch in the workplace. My self-worth was released from the grip of personal opinion, and my talents and abilities stood by themselves for the first time.
After 9/11 I wrote an op-ed piece in the local Muslim newspaper, fearing for the legacy that we might leave our children if we did not deal with this tragedy properly. I said that we would no longer be practicing our faith in obscurity, but for all intents and purposes we would be front and center stage. Having studied political science at the Naval Academy, I knew that the repercussions of 9/11 would certainly be long-lived. I warned that we were standing on the forefront of a historical era in which we help determine what would be written in the history books. I then asked each and every Muslim out there to conduct themselves with the highest Islamic standards, the standards of conduct that had drawn me to the religion in the first place.
Through the ensuing scrutiny and frequent disparagement, I found greater strength and commitment to my faith. There are answers for every charge or insult, and they are bound in dignity, mutual respect, and grace.
Islam is a commitment. It is a commitment to live your life with integrity, sincerity, magnanimity, mercy, and patience. It is a commitment to recognize that everything that you have had, have now, or ever will have, is a bounty from God that you cannot take for granted. It is a commitment to be God-conscious, to train yourself to see the signs and goodness of God wherever you look. I know that I, and my fellow Muslims, may fail the spirit of Islam in so many ways on a daily basis, but what I know for sure is that Islam never fails us.
So, I'll handle all of the puzzled looks that surface at the Korean store with pleasure. Because I, too, am proud of my "millenial" Muslim family, who eats halaal chicken that we buy at the Korean store, prepare with Pakistani spices, and share with our American, Chinese, Pakistani, Moroccan, Syrian, and Egyptian Muslim friends.
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