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Dear Speaking of Faith,

First of all, I was ecstatic that your program wanted to outreach to Muslims to get their first hand perspective about their faith. So many times other people speak for Islam and it's about time that Muslims are able to speak for themselves about their own faith.

Being Muslim means everything to me. Immigrating to the US at the age of 7 from Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion had a great impact on my family and I. We had to leave everything behind and start all over in a new land, with a new language and a new culture. In order to assimilate into the new life, my family and I began to lose our religious identity. Growing up in California in the 80's and early 90's, I had no Muslim friends at school and had very little knowledge about Islam besides some of the basic rituals such as the 5 prayers, fasting and the Eid celebration. When I was in junior high school, my sister was diagnosed with severe depression. Her illness and subsequent behaviors made me start searching for answers to life's major questions at an early age in life. I had this ardent desire to find a meaning to life and search for the path to happiness in order to help my sister find happiness and peace in her own life.

My search was accelerated when I went away for college.I was living away from home for the first time and had to establish my own individual identity. Furthermore, I had to face some moral dilemmas. I knew alcohol was forbidden in Islam. Yet it was so rampant in college life that not drinking would make you an outcast. I also knew that having sexual relations before marriage was forbidden, but I was ashamed to tell my college mates that I never had a boyfriend and was still a virgin at the age of 17. I was so torn between my American identity (and trying to fit in with my peers) and my religious identity (which I knew little about but yet wanted to still uphold). This identity crisis became more accute when certain friends would ask me why Islam forbids this and that which I had no answers for.

So my own personal spiritual quest as well as the questions I was getting from classmates pushed me to research Islam further. In my search, I was amazed at how wholistic the religion was and how Islam was a way and philosophy of life rather than some random set of rituals and edicts. During this time, I was taking classes on other world religions and I saw the similarities in the messages and universal values that these religions shared. Fasting was not unique to Islam, but also practiced by Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Jews. Alcohol was also discouraged in other religious traditions and for the same reasons; while it may have some benefits, the evil that it causes is far worse than its benefits. I knew this from personal experience as my brother in law suffers from alcoholism and has made the life of my sister and nephew very miserable. Chasity and modesty was also a univeral value, and the headcover was part of Christian and Jewish traditions very similar to Islam. While many may have argued against need for chastity and modesty, I saw that it provided real value in the life of women because so many times I had friends who suffered from broken hearts from guys who had their fun and moved on to other girls when they became bored of this one. I also felt that the specialness between a husband and wife was completely eradicated because sex was not something new to either of them. It just became a physical act like eating and drinking rather than a romatic or spiritual union which I always imagined it to be.

Holding these views made me very different from the majority of my peers and I felt very lonely until I finally met like-minded Muslims at the Muslim Student Association (MSA) at my college. It was this group of Muslim boys and girls that made me realize and appreciate the beauty of the Muslim sisterhood and brotherhood. I finally had a sense of belonging, of not being backward and "weird". The more I learned about Islam, the more I wanted to incorporate it to my daily life. I began to attend a masjid (mosque) for the first time in my life. There, I met Muslims from all walks of life, with different cultures and languages, but yet the same desire to follow the traditions of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). My friends were Palestinian, Bosnian, Afghan, Sudanese, Pakistani, Indian, Indonesian, American, Turkish, Egyptian, Chinese, Russian, German. Suddenly that loneliness that I had felt for so many years dissipated when I knew Muslims spanned the entire globe and that we all shared this common faith in God. Also, during my last year of undergraduate, I had the chance to study abroad in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world. It was the first time that I felt what it's like to be in a majority group. The Indonesian people were very welcoming, especially when they found out that I was a Muslim from America.

In the 1990s, I witnessed a more openness towards Muslims in California; people were becoming accostomed to seeing women with headscarves and men with beards. However, while my faith was growing, I was still a "closet" Muslim and only shared my faith with people I knew and trusted since so few Americans knew about the religion and had their own misconceptions of it. But after 9/11, the fury of right-wingers and neo-conservatives against Islam became mainstream. It was not just Pat Robertson saying derogatory things about Islam and Muslims, but now anything to do with Islam and Muslims was connected to some form of terrorism, oppression or abuse. Somehow 9/11 gave everyone the right to bash on Muslims, even though what they were saying was either an outright lie or twisting of the truth. Surviving the Soviet Invasion and witnessing how the 13 year war destroyed the country, killing 2 million of my people, and leaving behind millions of starving widows and orphaned children, I was amazed at how suddenly everything wrong with Afghanistan was the fault of the "Islamists". While I never defended the extremist views and actions of the Taliban, I felt the media, the neo-cons, the right winged Christian fundamentalists were using the Taliban as an excuse to debase and attack the entire religion of Islam. I became fed up with the stereotypes about Muslim women, and tired of the fear mongering put out against the peaceful Muslim American community. I wanted to counter these misconceptions and prejudices by showing that Muslims are not some fanatic crazy minded group of people. So on March 23rd 2003 I decided to put on the headscarf and come out of the closet and be proud of my religious identity. I had just finished my MBA program and had started my doctorate degree in Islamic Studies. So this was my way of saying that a highly educated, independent, free-minded, moderate woman would out of her own personal belief and free will practice the beautiful religion of Islam without apologies. The Islam that I have for years studied and practiced and seen being practiced by the Muslim communities in all the places I have traveled is nothing like the Islam that the media portrays. There is no inherent conflict or clash of cultures between the Christian west and the Muslim world. On the contrary, many Muslim Americana initially voted for Bush because we felt that the Christian values and Muslims values of community, of helping the poor, of belief in a higher power and higher purpose were so similar.

Fighting the misconceptions, distortions, prejudice, and outright hatred of some people in America will always be a challenge for Muslim Americans. It's a challenge that Muslims need to rise up to. We can do this best by embodying in our own lives the beautiful message of Islam by helping our neighbors and those in need, educating ourselves and others, defending the rights of those being oppressed anywhere in the world, being able to look critically at ourselves and correct the flaws that ail our communities, particularly by distinguishing and separating what is cultural practice with what's religious practice. The most important step we need to take is to engage with the broader American society rather than isolating ourselves from it. Participating in programs like Speaking of Faith is a terrific way to share the real Islam--the Islam which teaches that one has not attained real faith when one sleeps with a full stomach while his/her neighbor sleeps with an empty stomach; the Islam that teaches that women are twin halves of men and that paradise lies at the mother's feet; the Islam that teaches tolerance, love, patience, perserverance, justice, fairness, charity, discipline, moderation, modesty, kindness, cleanliness, and the virtue of hard work. This is the Islam I have come to love, to believe in and to practice. It defines me and what I aspire to be.

Thank you for your time and opportunity to share my story of faith.

Umm Zaheen