A response to “Practicing Islam in Short Shorts”
“I suppose it’s natural to feel judged when we know we’re not living right. Our guilty conscience projects on everything around us. Innocent laughter becomes mockery. A fleeting frown becomes scorn. Even dhikr (remembrance of Allah) becomes offensive. But it’s so much easier to just start living right than to expend so much energy complaining about all the people judging us for doing wrong.”
— from the journal of Umm Zakiyyah
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 here in the U.S. and at times during my travels to Muslim countries.
I walk into a store. There’s a woman shopping there that I know is Muslim. In some scenarios, she’s standing behind the cash register tallying up totals and returning change to customers. She’s not wearing a headscarf. Her clothes are tight against her body. Her neck and cleavage visible. Arms exposed to the wrists. Bare legs showing in her mini dress or short shorts. She’s Muslim. I know it. But no one around her knows it. I stare at her briefly and think to myself, “She can’t tell if I’m staring because I think she is a shameful spectacle or because I know something that we both share.”
I realize that this must make her uncomfortable, so I look away. I want to say something. Something that indicates that I’m not staring because of how she chooses to uncover herself. Something that indicates that some of my closest friends and family dress like her. That I grew up in a mostly non-Muslim family and an American Muslim community where the majority of women dress like her. That I also struggle in my practice of Islam, though in a way not so visible to others. That I also face East and recite Qur’an when I pray.
Should I greet her with “As-salaamu’alaikum?” I ask myself.
Then I look at what I picked out to wear on this day. A wide, formless abaya. My hair is covered in a dull-colored hijab. Then I remember my face veil, my niqaab. It has become a part of my face. I usually don’t notice it until I have to blow my nose or eat in public, or until I meet someone unaccustomed to this form of Islamic dress.
I decide not to say anything to her. I pretend we have nothing in common and that I don’t understand her religious beliefs or the Arabic we both recite in prayer. 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 (if at all) responds, “Wa’alaiku mus salaam.”
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 joined an extremist path of Islam. I cover my hair…and my face (The most popular Islamic opinion allows a woman’s face to be shown, so covering it is extreme to some Muslims). Nothing in my outward appearance speaks to or represents my open-mindedness and my love for all my Muslim brothers and sisters, no matter their personal struggles or how they dress.
However, I am a normal Muslim. I pray (five times a day, every day), fast, recite the travel supplication before I start my car’s engine, pay my zakaah (an obligatory charity paid on one’s wealth for all who can afford it) and most importantly, I believe in Allah and hope for His mercy and forgiveness when I die. There are many like me. We don’t believe in picking and choosing which parts of Islam we will follow or believe in while still calling our belief system Islam. Yes, we fall short repeatedly and sin often, but we call our shortcomings “human fault” and our sin “disobedience to Allah.” Despite our natural human diversity, we believe in a monolithic path to Paradise: It’s called the Straight Path in the Qur’an. We love Islam, and because we love it so much, we refuse to reduce it to an ever-changing, flexible belief system based on the whims and desires of ourselves and others. We’re uncomfortable trying to pass for non-Muslims or “non-practicing Muslims,” even if it saves us from one or more of the following: unsolicited warnings about how people who dress like us should stop judging others; being called a Wahhabi or extremist before we even open our mouths to share what we think or believe; unwelcomed advice from a stranger that starts with “You don’t have to dress like that here in [insert country]”; or an impromptu lecture, straight from an Islamophobic textbook that I knew was nonsense at age 13.
Islamic studies were part of my upbringing until I graduated from high school. (I’m indigenous American and my parents converted to Islam). However, the textbooks about Islam in my school portrayed people who look like me as fundamentalists and extremists and said we were followers of the Wahhabi sect of Islam (though I’d never heard of that group until I opened those books). The first time I realized it was okay to verbalize how nonsensical these stereotypes were was when I studied Islam for myself and realized that Allah has a special place in Paradise for everyone who dies as a believer, no matter how they looked or dressed on earth, and no matter how many faults and sins they had.
That was all the permission I needed to allow myself to believe in a more compassionate religious outlook than the one spoken about in those textbooks, and from the mouths of the Muslims who called me a Wahhabi or extremist for merely loving to obey my Lord.
My parents and many of my Muslim friends are pretty religious. They don’t know my sins, and I don’t know theirs. I’m honestly not quite sure how they would react to knowing what I struggle with every day, but I’m not exactly ready to uncover what Allah has concealed for me for so long. They encourage me and others like me to wear hijab and don modest clothes, but they don’t make a big fuss about it. Like most good parents and Muslim friends, they don’t want me doing anything harmful to my soul. They would not approve of the sins that I battle in private, so I keep them to myself and cry to Allah.
If it were to ever become fairly evident that I’m not keeping up with my prayers, my parents would give me gentle reminders, saying, “Keep up your prayers, sugar,” and my friends say, “Let’s pray together.” Though my parents didn’t memorize the Qur’an themselves, they always encouraged me and my siblings to study and memorize Qur’an. If they found me or my sisters talking to any “male friends,” they swiftly invited the young men over and taught them about Islam, but my parents would never compromise our modesty and dignity by allowing us to walk out the house alone with those men. My parents hoped their children would follow in their footsteps, and they hoped we’d improve on the choices they’d made.
I’m steadfast in my belief that adhering to the fundamentals of Islam while respecting other beliefs from afar is the reason I remain Muslim today. I don’t feel the need to study Buddhism, Hinduism, or Christianity to get closer to Islam. Islam brings me closer to Islam because that’s what submission means, a lesson none of the Muslims who judge me have been able to pass on in their teachings, though it’s what they claim to uphold.
But they taught me how to obsess about the mundane, about all the things I’m doing incorrectly and therefore prove that my “religiousness” is just a show. They taught me shame. They taught me guilt. They taught me that the eyes of people are more important than the judgment of Allah. They taught me that it’s better to take off hijab completely if I can’t get everything else right. They taught me that it’s better to give up practicing Islam in public if I sin in private. They said, “Don’t be a hypocrite.”
But what they were really saying was, “Join us, and feel free to disobey Allah without shame.”
They taught me that I can wear short shorts, smoke weed, drink liquor, reject hadith, and then point to the hypocrisy of scholars to defend my sin and faulty beliefs.
They taught me fear. They taught me that being a good Muslim is difficult. That remaining Muslim isn’t as simple as holding on to my fundamental beliefs, praying my five prayers, and striving to obey Allah in my dress and behavior despite my falling short from time to time. They taught me that if I’m sincere, I’ll announce my sins amongst friends and online, and make any fleeting doubts about my faith the foundation of my outlook in life. They taught me that a “real Muslim” doesn’t hide her sins from others unless she’s a religious hypocrite trying to fool the world.
If I listened to them, I might have rejected Islam. So I took a break from being around them. I didn’t do it because I was judging them. I did it because I feared for my soul.
I saw how many youth (and grown men and women) they’d pushed from Islam. I saw how many girls they encouraged to remove their hijab, telling them, “Cover when you’re ready, not now!” I saw how many people stopped praying and practicing Islam under their mantra (borrowed from hadith), “Al’amal bi niyaat,” which means actions are dependent on their intentions, and under their other mantra“Al deenu yusr,” which translates to “religion is ease.”
They made me feel like I was just going through the motions of prayer to show off. They did everything they could to push me from returning to the prayer rug, even when I wasn’t around them. They did everything they could to poke fun of people who looked like me. They did everything they could to praise the “sincerity” and “honesty” of people who looked like them. They did everything they could to paint themselves the victim and me the judgmental aggressor, even when I didn’t even open my mouth. They did everything they could to make me feel like a liar when I said, sincerely, that I don’t see myself as different from any other Muslim, no matter how they dress. They did everything they could to make me feel like an extremist for believing that I couldn’t pick and choose what I wanted to believe in or follow from the Qur’an and authentic hadith.
So I left their company and kept them in my prayers.
I knew actions are dependent on intentions, and I knew my religion is easy. But they tried to convince me that I could disobey Allah while claiming my heart and intentions were good. They tried to convince me that the ease of Islam was stringent and difficult, and that the path of disobedience was the “balanced, middle path.”
Intuitively, I knew they were calling me to Hellfire under the guise of Islam. But my nafs, that weakness in myself, made me inclined to believe that I should follow them and not Qur’an and hadith. So I had to leave them alone.
Exploring the depths of my soul brought to light what was happening to me and others like me. But I felt powerless to speak up. I didn’t know what to say when they said, “Don’t judge me!” as they proceeded to bash and judge everyone else. I didn’t know what to say when they said, “Only Allah can judge!” as they proceeded to oppose Allah’s judgments themselves.
By Allah! I was confounded and confused. I prayed to Allah for strength, guidance, and direction.
How did this happen? How did it happen that only the openly sinful had the right to speak without interruption while the rest of us were silenced lest we be called judgmental or extreme? How did it happen that only the defiantly disobedient had the right to patience and good treatment while the rest of us were openly insulted, publicly humiliated, and mercilessly called to account for our wrongs? How did it happen that blogging about open sin and rejecting hadith was heralded as “inspirational” while the mere whisper of “Fear and obey Allah” was denounced as insensitive and “demotivating” to one struggling on the Path?
But please don’t get me wrong. All is not well in “my crowd” either. Shaytaan is busy stirring up animosity and division amongst us too, telling us to wrinkle our noses at those who don’t wear proper hijab. To storm the Facebook pages, YouTube channels, and sites of those who follow the opinion that not all music is haraam. To insist that everyone must follow our sheikh, our scholar, or our school of thought lest they are followers of Shaytaan. To insist that matters of difference of opinion must be treated like clear matters and foundational beliefs. To insist that you must choose a label or a group unless you are not a “real Muslim,” or not Muslim at all. To even insist that it is closer to righteousness to remain silent when someone is doing open wrong, imagining that your wide smile alone will “charm them” back to the right path.
So, no, I don’t feel comfortable in “my crowd,” or any crowd, truthfully. As I mentioned before, there are many like me. We are outliers, outsiders, passing through Muslim communities of East and West, sometimes in the vicinity of Muslims, sometimes in the vicinity of non-Muslims.
When confronted, our stance on religion is waived off as rebellious because we refuse to be pigeonholed into a single group. But despite our feeling of not belonging, we are, generally speaking, not tormented by our “lonely” existence. We live very healthy, dynamic, diverse lives. We’ve established connections and common ground with many different groups of people, and we don’t feel like the judgmental pariahs people paint us to be (or the judgmental pariahs others are often toward us). We’ve accepted that until a drastic spiritual change happens, we’re going to continue to operate in dual or multiple groups. Because no one quite knows what to make of people who want no belonging to any label except that of Muslim or believer in Allah.
So if you see me outside (or in the store), I’d appreciate if you leave off labels like Wahhabi and extremist and instead take a moment to get to know me beyond the cloth on my head or veil on my face. I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t shout, “Don’t judge me!” when you know full well what you’re doing is wrong. I’d appreciate it if you would stop saying, “Only Allah can judge!” when all I’m doing is sharing what He’s already judged as wrong or right. I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t try to silence me as you hide behind the veil of victimhood, enabling you to freely announce and celebrate your faulty beliefs and sins.
But if you do choose that path, that path of dishonesty in front of yourself and Allah, no worries. Because I have a new mantra these days, inspired by the short surah titled Al-Kaafiroon (the Disbelievers). No, I could never claim that anyone who says, Laa ilaaha illaAllah is a disbeliever no matter what they think of me, and no matter how far their outward appearance strays from Islam. But the last ayah of this surah resonates with me as I think of all those who call me judgmental (or extreme) because I want Paradise so much that I call others to it whenever I can. The last ayah states, “Lakum deenukum 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 wearing short shorts and no hijab, without fear of judgment. And a simple phrase that represents a perfect faith, empowering me to keep practicing Islam despite my human faults and sins…and despite the Muslims who tell me that, when I get confused and weak, it is Islam that is in need of fixing, not me.
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