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They Said We Put Each Other on a List: Adama Bah’s Ordeal




This article is based on original reporting as well as content from the documentary film Adama which will be broadcast nationally Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016 at 8/7c (check local listings) on WORLD Channel’s America ReFramed series.

Adama and her father

Adama Bah’s story begins at Fajr time on March 24, 2005.

That morning, agents from the FBI, the New York Police Department and immigration authorities knocked on the door of her family’s apartment in Harlem. Adama was 16, the oldest of five children of Guinean immigrants.

“They woke us up. They pulled our blankets off,” Adama recalls. The agents assembled the family in the living room.

“Sitting in the living room with strangers with guns and logos on their uniforms – for a 16-year-old that was very traumatic.”

She and her father were led handcuffed out of the apartment into a black SUV. For years after their arrest she would panic at the sight of a black SUV.

“What are they going to do? What are they going to do?”

Her mind repeated that thought as she and her father were driven to an unknown place for unknown reasons.

How Long Am I Going to Be Here?

Adama is now a 25-year-old wife and mother of two small children. She speaks about that morning calmly and factually as she has done many times before in interviews but even 11 years later she cries when describing seeing her father in handcuffs. She talks about the experience as she saw it then, looking through the eyes of a 16-year-old.

The voice of that 16-year-old can be heard in a documentary entitled simply Adama, directed by David Felix Sutcliffe. In the film we see much of her story in real time.

It is a story of naiveté and perseverance, of family and freedom and of the post-September 11 view of immigration and religious freedom.

An Empty Place

Adama was detained with another 16-year-old girl, a Bangladeshi national named Tashnuba Hayder. Both had been brought here as young children by immigrant parents. Adama says that until the day she was detained she had no idea that her parents – and thus she – lacked legal resident status.

According to a New York Times report from April 2005, a government document provided to the newspaper stated that each girl was “an imminent threat to the security of the United States based on evidence that they plan to be suicide bombers.” No evidence was provided and federal officials would not comment to the Times reporter, Nina Bernstein, who followed the cases of Adama and Tashnuba closely.

Adama and her father were taken to a federal detention facility in lower Manhattan, where they sat and waited, still handcuffed on a bench. Within a few minutes Tashnuba joined them and Adama watched as her father was led away, to where she did not know.

The two girls were driven to a federal juvenile detention facility in Pennsylvania. Adama did not know where she was being taken.

She had started that day with an arrest in the early morning, then watched as her father was taken away in handcuffs, then driven in a dark van to an unknown destination, and now was delivered to an unknown building in an unknown place.

“I wanted to scream to the officers don’t leave me here,” she says, recalling the irony of turning for help to the officers who had driven her to this place, as though they had become her companions as they rode together in silence. Perhaps she was thinking of her father. She had no way of knowing when she would see him again. However, she expected to return home herself that day.

“I was fingerprinted and had photos taken, so I figured I am going home now,” she says.

She was wrong, just as she was wrong in thinking that having done no wrong would spare her from the next trauma, the strip search.

In the film, she describes the strip search as “the worst thing in the world.”

“They took our clothes one by one off,” she says. “They had to search through them. Stand and turn around. All this stupid stuff. Spread your b#%t cheeks. Let me see between your toes. Lift your b##bs up, do this, do that. It’s disgusting.”

Next came a lecture about the rules of the detention center.

“Keep your hands down at all times, keep your eyes forward, strip searches, no fighting, no this, no that. We had to take off our hijabs because we weren’t allowed to have the scarves in the room,” she says.

“The next morning we saw all the other inmates, the other area. It was an empty place.”

She began to think: I’m going to be here forever. They’re not going to let me out.

She describes that moment as the most religious she has been in her life.

“I was just praying praying praying that this was over,” she says.

Only the FBI and Allah Know Why

There are many theories from many sources as to why she was taken – perhaps because she briefly wore niqab, whom she associated with, which masjid she attended, fallout from other immigration cases; there was even speculation that a simple salaam exchanged between Tashnuba and Adama led to suspicion.

However it happened, Adama ended up answering FBI agents’ questions without an attorney or parent present. She describes them as very friendly, but they asked open-ended questions that she did not know the answers to. She reports they asked if she knew people whose names weren’t familiar, and they asked her about Tashnuba, the other teenager who was detained with her.

The FBI agents told her Tashnuba had signed Adama up for a “list” of likely suicide bombers.

“I was like, is there a list?” she says.

In the film Adama reports that she asked Tashnuba if she signed her up.

“Tashnuba said they told me you did. That’s when I knew everything was bullshit.”

Tashnuba and her family returned to Bangladesh, which appeared the only remedy to her case.

Adama was released from the detention center with orders to wear an ankle bracelet and maintain a 10 p.m. curfew. When she returned, her father remained in Guinea.

“When I got home I took the longest shower ever and cried because I felt like I could cry now,” says Adama. “You could tell my dad wasn’t there. It was home but it wasn’t home. With my dad gone, there’s no food, no money, no nothing,” says Adama.

Her mother spoke little English and had to rely on Adama to be the head of the family.

“I don’t have a job,” her mother says in the film. “I don’t have any relatives here to help. My husband always handled the bills, the phone. Everything.”

Adama became the family’s support, in virtually every way her father had. She left high school and took work as a babysitter. In the film you see her again and again returning home smiling as she embraces and jokes with her younger siblings, now her wards, the people for whom she holds responsibility.

Adama also reveals the chaotic nature of her family’s life. There is a series of scenes where her siblings count down the time till 10 p.m., her curfew, frantic that she will be late and face another detention or, like their father, deportation. They don’t all seem to understand what exactly will happen if she doesn’t make it on time; they only know that they will be lost again. She arrives barely in time to dial a number and hold the phone to her ankle bracelet, which makes a loud electronic beeping noise to acknowledge that she has checked in.

During this period, Adama’s role was relieved to great extent by Maryland activist Mauri Saalakhan.

“Because the oldest boy was not going to school – there were a lot of pressures on him and the little brother and sister and on the mother of course – he was on the verge of being taken out of the family home,” says Saalakhan. “They asked if I would take him with me. He stayed with me for a couple of years. During that period I would get his little brother and sister from time to time and we were doing what we could to help the family make ends meet.”

Saalakhan also worked to bring her case to the attention of the public and press. Adama remains grateful for his help.

“I’m telling you he was sent for a reason,” Adama says.

Adama had seven immigration hearings before she was granted asylum on the basis of her likely undergoing female genital mutilation on return to Guinea. While they were waiting in federal detention her father warned her of this and said she couldn’t allow herself to be deported.

“When we were first arrested my father and I were sitting on a bench in the federal building and my dad said don’t go back to Guinea because they’re going to circumcise you there,” says Adama. “He said you can’t go back. There’s nothing for you there.”

She says in the film that she attended one immigration hearing without wearing a head scarf.

“I changed myself so the judge can let me stay in the country, so I can prove I look like you guys – normal – but after I took it off I was still treated like shit,” she says. “This time I knew why and it’s never coming off again. It’s not me. I am a Muslim woman.”

Upon receiving asylum, her ankle bracelet was removed. In the documentary she passes her new ID card around to her friends and family, reveling that at last she is free.

“Only the FBI and Allah know why I was detained,” says Adama.

What seems clear is that as a teenage girl she was compelled to become the head of her family because she was detained on the basis of her immigration status, and quite possibly because she is Muslim.

“If they don’t have proof they can’t touch you but if you’re an illegal immigrant they can,” says Adama in the documentary.

Everyone is Collapsed Into a Single Identity Bloc

For the film’s director, David Felix Sutcliffe, Adama’s case gave him an opportunity to express his passionate opposition to anti-Muslim bigotry and the type of injustice he sees in Adama’s case.

Adama was the first extended film he made upon completing graduate school, and it gave him the opportunity to highlight through her story what he sees as a chronic disparity in justice.

“Without a specific accusation there will always be this cloud over Adama. She was never given a chance to tell her story,” says Sutcliffe.

He points to cases such as that of Robert Doggart, a Tennessee man who made savage threats of violence against a community of Muslims in New York state. He was released on bail and his crime was not described as domestic terrorism. He also cites the takeover of a federal facility by extremists in Oregon, which was not met with immediate force and not characterized as terrorism, as another example of what he describes as a “separate system of justice.”

“It’s disgusting and it’s shocking to see what’s happening in terms of Islamophobia we see occurring right now,” says Sutcliffe.

He points to a lack of accurate representation of Islam in the mainstream media. Terrorist imagery fills the void.

Current media coverage reinforces the unrealistic expectation of the larger community.

“Everyone is collapsed into a single identity bloc,” Sutcliffe says.

He says there is no access to stories like Adama’s and that it behooves the media industry to compensate for that. He also notes that the media needs to be more inclusive.

“The mainstream media is saturated with white males, making a sort of patriarchy,” says Sutcliffe he points to a series of media analyses which demonstrate the racial makeup of newsrooms as low as 5% non-white staff.

He calls for proactive changes among media professionals including filmmakers like himself.

“We need storytellers of our society,” Sutcliffe says.

He often went home and cried after filming with Adama and her family. During a scene from Adama, her younger brother takes over the camera to share his opinion about his sister’s upcoming immigration hearing.

“If 9/11 never, ever happened, never, ever happened, no one would take our family, we would’ve had a better life,” he says. “And that’s what I want: a better life.”

Those are a child’s words, not analysis of the state of anti-terror activities, but the way in which those policies impact families. That’s the kind of story Sutcliffe seeks to tell in his films.

Sutcliffe says the media industry needs to be inclusive and more diversified, and that those of us in the narrative business need to tell stories like Adama’s, those that put a human face on issues of the day, such as immigration, FBI surveillance and extremism.

“The young sisters did nothing wrong,” says Saalakhan. “It was an issue of guilt by association and then a manipulation of fears and anxieties around the threat that Muslims are supposedly becoming.”

Trumpism In The Wings

At the time of this writing the possibility that Donald Trump will become the Republican presidential nominee strengthens and nears inevitability.

Make no mistake: Trump is a dangerous man, for minorities, for Muslims, for our foreign policy and for basic standards of civility.

He has proposed banning Muslims from entering the United States and enthusiastically shared a myth about a general who shot his Muslim enemies with bullets dipped in pig blood. He demonizes the media. He is narcissistic, unkind and vulgar. It has been quite some time since anyone approaching his level of danger has come so close to the presidency.

Adama shares pictures from her smart phone of her small children. She worries about them, she says. She feels Trump is dangerous to her and her kids.

“Now you’re not talking about just me but my children too. He’s going to destroy our country and I can’t let that happen,” she says. “He’s against blacks, against Latinos, everything our country is. I hope, and I’m making a lot of dua, that he not win. It is the responsibility of every black, every Latino, every Muslim, every color to vote.

Adama shows what fear can do to you. They put my family thru this ordeal for what?”

Filmmaker Sutcliffe has a similar take.

“With Trump a segment of the American population has become emboldened,” he says.

Eleven years after Adama’s experience, Islamophobia is reaching unprecedented levels. She knows well where it can lead when people are not given the chance to defend themselves.

“There needs to be a forum of all of us, different colors, different nations,” says Adama. “I think it’s our responsibility.”

Adama should know. She has known since the moment she was led handcuffed into a black SUV how it feels to be a victim. She knows how strongly people of conscience have to fight.




  1. Avatar


    February 23, 2016 at 8:49 PM

    how to get adama’s contact

  2. Avatar

    Ruth Nasrullah

    February 23, 2016 at 8:53 PM

    She is on twitter.

  3. Avatar


    February 23, 2016 at 9:32 PM

    thank you, ruth

  4. Avatar


    February 24, 2016 at 10:40 AM

    This is a truly heartbreaking story that more people need to know about … Thank you for sharing , Adama and her family are in our prayers x

    • Avatar

      Ruth Nasrullah

      February 24, 2016 at 11:33 AM

      The good news is that Adama is now married with children, has citizenship, and her father finally was allowed to return from Guinea in 2011.

      The photo above is especially poignant because she describes herself as a “daddy’s girl” and really suffered in his absence. When he returned she was also relieved to no longer be essentially the head of the household and to turn that responsibility back to her father.

      However, she does still worry about similar injustices being visited on her husband and kids. It’s kind of like PTSD. She has little reason to think the system ensures her and her family’s safety.

      I brought up Trump (as I always do) because his rhetoric and threats, which have become more violent, increase the possibility that her experience could be repeated among others in the Muslim community, especially Hispanic Muslims.

  5. Avatar


    February 26, 2016 at 7:50 PM

    Got enraged when I read they did a strip search.

  6. Avatar


    March 2, 2016 at 1:40 AM

    Do Muslims believe in being honest and obeying the laws of the country they are in? Adama’s father lied and broke laws to bring in his family illegally.

    Muslims, would you like it if I went to one of your mosques and lied about who I was because it was convenient? Perhaps I could dress up in a hijab and pretend to be Muslim to fit in. Perhaps I could spin a tale of being a Bosnian immigrant widow who needs money or help from the mosque. Would you like to be treated like that? Shall I go to Mecca pretending to be a Muslim because I want to see what it looks like and they forbid non-Muslims from going?

    If Muslims think it is okay to lie and deceive the United States immigration services, then when else is it all right to lie?

    • Avatar

      Ruth Nasrullah

      March 2, 2016 at 10:31 AM

      Yes, of course deception and breaking the law are wrong no matter who does it.

      Not sure, though, of the logic in posing your questions to all Muslims.

      • Avatar


        March 3, 2016 at 8:16 PM

        I’m posing my questions to Muslims on this site who clearly view the Bah family as victims to be sympathized with.

        I don’t sympathize with liars and frauds of any religion, because it is my moral belief that one should be an honest dealer as much as possible. The Bah family got in trouble for entering the USA illegally and using resources and infrastructure illegally, a form of theft from the US taxpayer.
        At least three of the children now have US citizenship rights and privileges based on the father’s fraud.

        The story of Adama Bah is the story of deception, and lawlessness perpetrated on the United States by a Guinean man and his family. I am trying to figure out why they are tragic heroes to the Muslims of Muslim Matters.

    • Avatar


      March 4, 2016 at 12:11 PM

      I am afraid you will not like what I am about to say but it is the absolute truth.
      1) A good 80% of Muslims in Europe are illegal immigrants who flee the Police when they see them approaching; they often claim citizenship based on stolen or forged passports (made in Turkey) and live on the system for the first 6 months of theis stay in Europe; but if their application for asylum is rejected (false passport means you are lieing; else, most come from nations NOT at war) they flee and become fugitives, and are often enlisted into local gangs of organized crime;
      2) These “gentlemen” (a mere 55 of immigrants are women) are known for their “after dark” drinking sprees; I have never seen young men ingurgitate so much beer as the young North Africans or alleged Syrians (it turns out they are mostly Turkmenis, Pakistanis or Bangladeshis) They WILL pimp cocaine or marijuana on occasion.
      3) At the time of writing, (3 march 2016) some 40% of Jail space in Italy is occupied by these gentlemen. NOT a good example of coexistence.
      4) Having said all the above, take the opening story, switch “Muslim” with “Christian” and you have the idea of what goes on in Pakistan or Egypt. Christian communities date back to 300 years before the Prophet Muhammad (read that again, 300 years) yet they are persecuted for the only reason they are “different”.
      Again, not a good example of coexistance.

      You have a nice Forum and I like to read of your issues and matters BUT if you wish to coexist you ought to find a way to coexistence: calling people of an Abramitic faith “unbelievers” is not a good way to start.

      We have far more in common than you would believe.
      Europe has lòearned Wars of Religion are not good for either side, the hard way.
      And the USA are hardly the ideal choice to use as an example.
      Trust me, I’m European, and they are “Europeans from across the Ocean” ;)

    • Avatar

      Ibrahim Farrier

      March 29, 2016 at 4:17 PM

      So…the process these guys went through was ok? They were clearly not treated as illegal immigrants, but as torrorists. Check the process is you don’t believe me. I guess it’s ok for the US govt to break the law? They were lied to by the US govt, about the girls putting each other on a list, is that ok?
      Reasons; he decided that the unstable govt of Guinea was no place to raise a family. His daughter was going to be mutilated. Maybe his reasons are wrong, however, if it were me, I’d try to do it the “right way” but in the end I will do whatever it takes to make a better life for my kids. In any case, right or wrong, his reasons for doing what he did are, no doubt, better than the govt reasons for handling things the way they did…Islamophobia.

      Adam IS a hero in her amazing level of perseverance, her father is a hero for doing WHATEVER it took to get his kids a chance at a better life, the family are hero’s as well for the support they provided which I am sure had a price to pay, as well.

      I support legal immigration, and I support deportation of illegals, but it is vital when deciding the deportation of an individual that one has compassion. Only a MONSTER would deport someone knowing that person would be mutilated, tortured or killed, and clearly even the govt agrees with that.

    • Avatar


      June 21, 2016 at 6:03 PM

      You guys do it already… don’t need to ask us whether we like it or not.

  7. Avatar

    Ruth Nasrullah

    March 4, 2016 at 10:54 AM

    Thanks for clarifying. The documentary and this article are about Adama’s experience. Hopefully the article didn’t seem to support her parents’ choices. It wasn’t intended to be an analysis of immigration policy.

  8. Avatar


    December 14, 2016 at 1:24 AM

    The story touched me. I am a minority woman and i can relate. I experience this every day.

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Of Dreams and Shadows

A short story





By Saulat Pervez

Tears streaming down her face and her lips moving fervently in supplication, the lady’s terrified face spoke volumes. Watching the lady, she realized how closely this woman was viewing death. She herself always considered someone passing away as a reminder, casting a shadow on her consciousness, making her hyperaware of the transience of life, but the darkness would dissipate as the hours passed by, overtaken by the urgent demands of the mundane. For this woman, however, death was no longer an abstract concept: she stood mesmerized by the fear gripping the woman who could see herself being carried off in a coffin very soon.

That night, she wrote in her journal,

We often ask one another what we want to do with our lives, but rarely think about our own deaths. Perhaps it’s time for us to work backwards. Let death be the starting point and then find purpose in our lives – knowing that no matter how old/young we are, or whether we have a prognosis hanging over our heads or not, death is right around the corner. In our zeal to accomplish everything we want, are we cognizant of the fact that anytime our life can come to an end? Too often, there’s a disconnect and death – despite its certainty – comes as a surprise. Instead, I want to think about the person I want to be at the time of my death and then figure out everything I need to do to be that person.


“So, how were the latest test results?”

“Not good. Her kidneys are getting worse, and now the liver is affected too.”

“And, how old did you say she was?”

“She’s 80.”

“Oh, so she’s old,” she casually said, shifting her eyes to the computer screen.

He realized it was the end of that conversation and looked at his notes for the tasks to be accomplished for the day, pushing his ill aunt in a faraway country from his thoughts. Lurking in his mind, though, was the question: Can we decide when it’s okay for someone to die? To say that they have spent enough time in this world?

“Anything new today?” she asked.


He lay there, staring into space. A grandchild sat some distance away, a coffee cup next to her. From the window, he could see the hospital next door. Somehow, it looked really flimsy in his slanted gaze, as if the slightest jolt would crumble it into a miserable heap. His glance returned to the coffee cup for a fleeting second. He could taste the mocha latte in his mouth, but felt no appetite for it at that moment. His granddaughter looked up from her phone and caught his eye. “Would you like anything, Nana?” she asked, leaning forward.

He shook his head quietly and felt his son’s hand slip into his with a squeeze. He looked around the room and saw his family spread out before him, standing, sitting on the sofa handle, slouching on a couch, reading, whispering, praying. He felt a sudden burst of love. He closed his eyes and saw the words that he was thinking: Am I ready to leave all this? He winced before sleep mercifully overtook him.


Her husband had been in a coma for only two days but the doctors were already recommending that he should be taken off the ventilator. His brain had been damaged – his heart had stopped beating for a couple of minutes before the paramedics had managed to revive it. His organs had started failing soon after the heart attack.

She was horrified. How could she take such a huge decision? Wouldn’t she be ending his life if she agreed to pull the plug? What if he woke up in the next minute, day, week…? Taking his life was not a decision for her. She would refuse.

The doctors told her that she was only prolonging his pain. Let him go. But, to her, he didn’t look like he was in pain. And she wondered if they had ulterior motives – did they want to give his bed to someone else? Was he costing the insurance provider a fortune? Did they want to salvage whatever organs that remained intact? All sorts of thoughts kept plaguing her. Oh God, why are you putting me through this? She held her head in her hands.

She sat next to him. His heart was beating, he was breathing. She knew that if they removed him from the respirator, he would deteriorate very quickly. To her, the machine was keeping him alive and they wanted to take it away. But, then, a thought crept up to her: Had his soul already left his body? Was he even alive? 

She remembered reading somewhere that a baby’s heart starts beating within the first few weeks in the womb. But her faith taught her that the soul isn’t breathed into the baby until the 12th week. So, technically, the heart could be beating without any soul. She let this sink in. The conflicting thoughts in her mind gradually grew quiet.

She looked at her husband and decided to listen to the doctors. I will let his life take its course. If he is meant to live, then he will survive, somehow.


Their house had an eerie silence, casting long shadows on everything it touched. Unless they were fighting, which happened quite a lot lately. It always began with whispered fury, as if their son was still living in the next room, but would escalate inevitably into a crescendo that would topple the silence into smithereens. Followed by a lot of sobbing and slammed doors. It was their way of mourning their only child, who had left them as suddenly as he had entered their lives.

She didn’t think she had any maternal skills, but she knew how much he wanted a baby, and she had eventually given in. She would always remember the day she birthed him as the day a mother was born. He soon became their sun, their world revolving around his every need and want, years passing by. Of course, in her eyes, her husband was never as careful as he should be around him. And, to him, she was too overprotective and needed to lighten up. As he became a young man, though, the three had formed an endearing friendship and life seemed perfect.

It would’ve been an ordinary day in their mundane lives had tragedy not struck and snatched their grown child away senselessly. In the aftermath, they both found themselves standing on the edge of a precipice, their bodies weighed down by grief and blame. And then the letter arrived, yanking them back onto safe space.

It began with, “In the Name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful. Exalted is He who holds all control in His hands; who has power over all things; who created death and life to test you [people] and reveal which of you does best––He is the Mighty, the Forgiving; who created the seven heavens, one above the other. You will not see any flaw in what the Lord of Mercy creates. Look again! Can you see any flaw? Look again! And again! Your sight will turn back to you, weak and defeated” (Qur’an, 67:1-4).

Written by a mutual friend who was thousands of miles away, it amazingly acknowledged their pain and anger while reminding them that neither could’ve changed the fate of their son. It exposed their raw feelings towards each other and demanded that they not let this tragedy cause further damage by pulling away from each other. That, in this time of unspeakable loss, they need each other the most. It spoke of life and death as something far larger than them, and nothing they could’ve done would’ve saved their son. At the same time, it encouraged them to invest their energies into causes that would prevent others from suffering like they were. And, it ended with, “Say, ‘Only what God has decreed will happen to us. He is our Master: let the believers put their trust in God’” (9:51).

They didn’t know how many times they read the letter and when they curled their arms around each other, tears flowing. And that’s when their long, torturous journey toward healing finally began. Together.


Inna lillahi wa inna ilaihi rajioon, to God we belong and to Him we return. She couldn’t believe the news: Was he really gone? As much as she wanted to deny it, she had to accept the reality. A sudden gloom settled in her. The distance killed her. She knew she wouldn’t be able to go for the funeral. Worse, she felt guilty for not visiting. She should’ve known, she should’ve gone.

She went about her day like a zombie. She was physically present, but mentally and emotionally, she felt completely numb. Flashes from her childhood kept distracting her. He had always loved her like his daughter. As she began imagining family and friends gathering to console the immediate family and prepare for the funeral, she felt lonely – tinged with poignant nostalgia, the detachment made the loss more pronounced, compounding her sorrow. She lost her appetite and everything around her became dull. Instead, she hungrily sought every detail around his death. She messaged ten people at once and waited anxiously for the responses. As they began pouring in, she began to cry, utterly desolate.

Through the layers of grief and loss, a voice managed to speak: Is this about him or you? She was caught off guard. She realized that she was so self-absorbed that she hadn’t even prayed for him. She started murmuring supplications, asking for his forgiveness and peace. She reached for the Qur’an and opened it to Surah Ya-Sin and began reciting. The lyrical verses gradually soothed her. Her mind began to fill with his smiling face and the happy moments they had spent together. She suddenly understood that what mattered most was the time they had shared when he was alive – the ways in which she was there for him, the things he had done for her.

It isn’t about him or me. It’s about us.


“What is the procedure for inducing here? How long after the due date do you wait?”

“We don’t wait. If you aren’t in labor by your due date, we schedule you.”

“Oh. My other two babies arrived late—”


“Why can’t we find the baby’s heartbeat?” The doctor said to herself as she walked over and took the device from the nurse, pressing and moving it firmly on her swollen belly.

She woke up in a sweat. This is how the dream always ended. Except each time the setting was different. Tonight, they were in a massive kitchen with the doctor and the nurse in crisp, white aprons; the device was a shiny spatula and she was lying flat on a counter.

Instinctively, her hand stroked her stomach, now flattened. In the bleak light, she looked at the empty corner where the crib had stood not too long ago and she wept, consumed with longing. For the umpteenth time, she asked herself, When was the last time I felt the baby kick? She could honestly not remember. The night before, she had been up late, worrying and waiting for her husband to come home from work. During the day, her toddler kids had kept her occupied until it was time to rush for the doctor’s appointment. She had just started her ninth month.

The truth of the matter was that she had never thought anything would go wrong. After all, her other pregnancies had been entirely normal and natural. She had stayed active and agile until it was time to go to the hospital. So, what happened? No one knew. There was a heartbeat, and then there wasn’t. If only I had sensed that something was wrong. What kind of mother am I?

Flashbacks, flashbacks, and yet more flashbacks. She was riddled with flashbacks lately. It’s incredible how suddenly the entire stage can be reset. One moment you have something and the next, it’s gone – and you’re left looking at your emptiness shocked with wonder: how did it happen? Just like that, life ends or a catastrophe strikes, and colors everything a different shade.

As she wallowed in her sorrow, she was yanked out yet again by the same verse: Not a leaf moves without His knowledge. She shook her head, amazed by the simple phrase that sprinkled her conversations so casually: insha’Allah, if God wills. She would say it and yet expect certain outcomes. This time, when He had other plans, it hit her with such force that she felt completely dwarfed.

She sighed. She whispered quietly, inna lillahi wa inna ilaihi rajioon.

She got up and went to check on her kids. As she kissed them and sat by them, she reminded herself: You are an amanah, a trust, from God. I do not own you. And I am ever so grateful that He has given you to me. I promise to take care of you. But, ultimately, we all return to Him, for every soul must taste death.

She returned to bed, taking refuge in this moment of comfort, knowing full well how elusive it was. But it’s what kept her afloat and she held on to it dearly.


Saulat Pervez has come of age, both as a child and an adult, between Pakistan and the United States. She has taught English Literature in Karachi, worked remotely for Why Islam, a project of the Islamic Circle of North America, and is currently an Associate Researcher at the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) in Herndon, Virginia.

As a result of her diverse encounters here and abroad, and grounded in her experiences in teaching, writing, and research, she is committed to investigating ways to cultivate reading, writing, and thinking cultures both locally and globally, especially in multilingual contexts.

Saulat has been writing stories since she was a newly arrived immigrant and middle schooler in Central Jersey. Most of her adult life, however, was spent writing journalistic pieces and website content, with a few children’s books published in Pakistan. She has also mentored six teenagers in the writing of a collaborative murder mystery, Shades of Prey, which is available on

This particular short story — made up of discrete yet connected pieces — has been a labor of love which she hopes the reader will find intriguing and thought-provoking. Much like her life, it has been written between places, with snatches of time both at home and during travel. 

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To Decorate Or Not To Decorate – Is That The Ramadan Question?

As Ramadan approaches and we prepare our hearts and homes, decor brings meaningful reflection.




As a Muslim born and raised in America, I strongly believe in making my religious holidays feel as special and magical as non-Islamic mainstream American holidays. The broader American culture and society that I grew up in definitely informs this conviction as well as my love of crafting and decorating.

However, I have noticed a troubling trend on my social media that reminds me of some of my favorite scenes from the year 2000 film How the Grinch Stole Christmas (when Martha May’s light-affixing gun and Cindy Lou Hoo’s mom causing a traffic accident after stealing a traffic light for her home’s Christmas decorating).  All the Facebook groups with a bunch of strangers posting about their decorating and activities has really led me to ask–to decorate or not to decorate for Ramadan and Eid?

Well, that’s not really the question! It’s a lot more nuanced than that, which leads me to the real questions I want to ask myself and all of us–why to decorate or not, how to decorate or not, and what are the ramifications of decorating or not.

Why Decorate or not to Decorate

There is a complex cultural issue here for Muslims living in America. What are the many cultures we identify with and how do they interact with each other? I identify as a Pakistani-American Muslim and I also feel a strong pull towards the other hyphenated-American and international Muslim communities and the histories of the Ummah around the world. Which cultures do we identify with and how and why do they signify and mark upcoming festivities and holidays? These two questions are essential for us to ask ourselves when we consider why we choose to decorate, or not, during a special time like Ramadan or a holiday like Eid.

But one reason a person should never decorate is that they feel pressured into it because of those around them or other social or cultural factors. Just because our social media feeds are blowing up with cute and amazing Ramadan decor or the local halal meat store has some Eid decor for sale does NOT mean that we should feel like we need to decorate ourselves. It is so easy for us to feel pressured into doing things because we “see” (or think we see from others’ projections of their lives on social media) all of these people we know doing them. Truthfully it sounds so simple when we talk about teenagers feeling peer pressure at school or with friends, but do we actually consider the types of peer pressure we experience as adults in our cyber-lives? (And we have not even talked about advertising posts from different companies or small business owners, and these can sometimes be from friends who are affiliated with certain companies or products.)

Yes, it’s great to share ideas and get inspired from many different sources, but when it crosses the line from inspiration to feelings of guilt or compulsion or from fun to serious jealous competition it is dangerous and compromises our happiness, mental and emotional health, and spirituality. These decor posts are so decontextualized because we really don’t know the details of everyone’s lives, but we still get intimate glimpses into their personal spaces. It doesn’t matter that every Muslim mom is making an advent calendar for their kids or that the one Instagram posting-enthusiast built a miniature masjid in their living room. Similarly, it doesn’t matter that people generally engage in hanging up wreaths or sprinkling confetti on the dinner table as a cultural norm if we don’t understand the use of it, are uninterested in doing so, or have some sort of convictions against it.

The other issue I have with feeling compelled to decorate is when it seems like a piece of Ramadan or Eid worship that is mandatory or given a higher priority than other mandatory acts of worship.  What other people do in their spiritual lives or their worship regiment is none of our business and nothing we should be concerned about generally speaking. There could be a friend or two we have a close mentoring relationship with, and in that special case, we might share details of our spiritual lives with them. But now let’s think about something as trivial as decorating the home for Ramadan–is it really something any of us should take so seriously in a comparative way?  If the whole point of decorating for Ramadan is getting ourselves and our families in the “Ramadan spirit” or to be excited about celebrating Eid, then isn’t it an act of worship with the right intentionality? So if we go around comparing our acts of worship to others,’ is that something our Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) or scholars have advised us to do in any way?

Sure, it is very easy to compare my decor with someone else’s because it is something with an obvious outward manifestation (just like I can compare my modest clothing practices to another woman’s.) But is it healthy or good in any way? And just as a final note–if our decorating is causing us to commit sins, like missing prayers or being rude or unkind to family members, or overshadows other Ramadan preparations for mandatory worship, like getting in some practice fasts or seeking medical attention for health issues related to fasting, we really have our priorities wrong.    

How to Decorate or not to Decorate

It’s common sense that we should have a set of considerations for anything we do, and I want to bring a high level of intentionality to this issue, even though it may seem trivial. Now is a great time to air these considerations out as the American Muslim community (and generally Muslims living in the West) is embracing the practice of decorating for Ramadan and Eid at the moment.

The crux of this issue is simple to me: if we are treating decorating for Ramadan as a voluntary act of worship, what are the conditions that should be met for God to accept this deed? Basic religious principles such as prioritizing obligatory acts of worship over voluntary or simply permissible ones, not violating anyone’s rights or hurting others, etc. should be part of the considerations, as well as practical logistical issues.   

The reason why I think it’s important to be mindful about decorating is because I fear this phenomenon will become shallow and meaningless very quickly in our lives, and if we want decorating to be part of our Ramadan/Eid worship we should be as thoughtful about it as other acts of worship.

  • Budget. How much money do I have to put aside for a non-essential expense? Am I justified in spending money on a non-essential expense if I have debts, loans, or other financial obligations? Should I use the money for another cause, like donating to a charity? Am I going into debt to fund this project or engaging in a questionable activity religiously to finance any purchases? For my means and lifestyle, would any of these expenses be considered israf or unnecessary/over-the-top?
  • Effort and Ability. How much effort and time do I want to spend myself or expect my family to invest in order to achieve the end result? Do I or others in my family enjoy doing stuff like this, or is it going to be a miserable task which will actually make me and others feel stressed out or have negative feelings about Eid or Ramadan? Am I taking too much time from obligations (mandatory prayer, mandatory fasting, spending time at work looking up decorating ideas instead of working, etc.) or from other good opportunities (taking care of family members, visiting the sick, exercising or getting healthy amounts of sleep, reading Quran, etc.)?
  • Ethical Concerns. What types of items will I purchase to decorate with and what is the background of how they were manufactured (environmental impact, sweatshop factory, funding oppression, one-time use or going to be kept for decorating for multiple years, etc.)? Would God be happy with the purchase I made based on how it was created?

The Ramifications of Decorating or not Decorating

So, a family has decided to decorate! The next question is–how do we interact with our decorating after it’s been completed? There are two relevant areas here: inside the home/for the direct intended audience and outside the home/for a broader audience.

It is important to remember that these efforts were undertaken for the people inside the home who are in fact the ones meant to benefit from these decorations and festive atmosphere. I’m not sure how others interact with their decorating efforts, but limiting the engagement to simply passive or highly useful actions seems to make the most sense to me. For example,

  • Useful: an item with the supplication for breaking the fast written on it and having one family member read the supplication out-loud before everyone breaks their fasts
  • Not useful and cumbersome: setting an elaborate tablescape with decorations every night which make eating difficult
  • Neutral: spending a minute turning on decorative lights near nightfall for a festive feel
  • Passive: spending half an hour hanging up a sign and a few paper lanterns somewhere visible and just leaving them for the remainder or Ramadan and/or Eid.

I think knowing what will be useful or neutral or annoying falls into common sense and knowing which type of person you are–someone who needs to restrain themselves or someone who could push themselves a bit more to be more enthusiastic–will help us easily decide what to do.

Another thing to keep in mind is evaluating the effectiveness of your decor once or twice during Ramadan (or Eid). Is what we’ve done in our home distracting from or counterproductive to mandatory or highly recommended acts of worship? (Such as only turning on decorative lights and candles so that a family member who wants to read from the Quran does not have enough light to read.)

Are the efforts we’ve put together so demanding that they are squeezing us in detrimental ways? (Such as setting the table in a specific way causes us to delay our fast-breaking or a family member’s lack of willingness to participate is causing tension in the household.) We often evaluate how our diets or hydrating plans are working for our energy levels in Ramadan and how our commitment to prayers and other acts of worship are influencing our spirituality or sleep schedules, and I think extending an evaluation (maybe just a quick one) to our decorating set-up is worthwhile. Is what I’ve done to my home actually of any benefit to me and my loved ones at this sacred time? That’s a question we need to ask ourselves.

Divine Decor: Worshipping Through Decorating

The other area–the indirect audience outside of the home–is one that I think mostly has to do with the idea of publicizing our good deeds to each other and/or showing off. If we have all agreed to the underlying premise that decorating for Ramadan or Eid is an act of worship that we’d love to be rewarded for from God, then we can compare this action with other similar actions (such as praying or helping an injured animal). If I find a large stone in the middle of a walkway and decide to remove it, should I go around and tell people what I did for the rest of the day? If I generally am regular in my prayers and visit a mosque to perform one, should I make my prayer longer than normal to seem more pious or connected to God because I’m no longer alone? If I am feeling charitable, should I broadcast a live video on a social media platform and show those I know how much I am donating to a certain cause? No, of course not. We know that publicizing our good deeds can ruin our good intentions and compromise any act’s validity in the eyes of God. We also know that this can go a little further and compromise the integrity of our spiritual state by encouraging us to develop spiritual diseases, such as becoming arrogant or unnecessarily competitive for material things.

And this is exactly where I find a conundrum in showing off our decor for broader audiences outside of the home–is our act of worship still sincere, will our good deed still be accepted, and is our spiritual state still pure? I’m not even beginning to broach the topic of social media usage in general and what are healthy ways to interact with it–I’m simply concerned with keeping any good deed we might be engaging in a “good” deed after all.  

The Prophet ﷺ said, “He who lets the people hear of his good deeds intentionally, to win their praise, Allah will let the people know his real intention (on the Day of Resurrection), and he who does good things in public to show off and win the praise of the people, Allah will disclose his real intention (and humiliate him).

حَدَّثَنَا مُسَدَّدٌ، حَدَّثَنَا يَحْيَى، عَنْ سُفْيَانَ، حَدَّثَنِي سَلَمَةُ بْنُ كُهَيْلٍ،‏.‏ وَحَدَّثَنَا أَبُو نُعَيْمٍ، حَدَّثَنَا سُفْيَانُ، عَنْ سَلَمَةَ، قَالَ سَمِعْتُ جُنْدَبًا، يَقُولُ قَالَ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم وَلَمْ أَسْمَعْ أَحَدًا يَقُولُ قَالَ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم غَيْرَهُ فَدَنَوْتُ مِنْهُ فَسَمِعْتُهُ يَقُولُ قَالَ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم ‏ “‏ مَنْ سَمَّعَ سَمَّعَ اللَّهُ بِهِ، وَمَنْ يُرَائِي يُرَائِي اللَّهُ بِهِ ‏”‏‏.‏

We’re generally encouraged to keep our good deeds secret and private and inviting a non-intended audience into our homes with pictures and videos seems to go directly against that principle. There is a fine line between sharing how we’ve decorated our homes with others in an encouraging way to them that does not push us towards a culture of unhealthy peer pressure or competition, just like there is a fine line between sharing how we’ve decorated in a way that does not compromise the validity of our potentially good and rewardable deed. (We’ll leave decorating for Ramadan or Eid parties for another day.)     

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How to Teach Your Kids About Easter

Don’t tell my dad this, but growing up, I was sure I wanted to be a Christian. It had nothing to do with the theology though, it was – really and truly – all about the chocolate.

Zeba Khan



Don’t tell my dad this, but growing up, I was sure I wanted to be a Christian. It had nothing to do with the theology though, it was – really and truly – all about the chocolate.

Don’t get me wrong, I did not grow up in any sort of conservative, chocolate-deprived bubble. My mother was – and still is – a Christian. My father was – and still is – Muslim, and our home was a place where two faiths co-existed in unapologetic splendor.

My mother put up her Christmas tree every year.  We children, though Muslim, received Easter baskets every year. The only reason why I wished I was Christian too, even though I had no less chocolate in my life than other children my age, was because of the confusing guilt that I felt around holiday time.

I knew that the holidays were my mother’s, and we participated to honor and respect her, not to honor and respect what she celebrated. As a child though, I really didn’t understand why we couldn’t celebrate them too, even if it was just for the chocolate.

As an adult I’ve learned that I’m not alone in this conflicted enthusiasm for the holidays of others. Really, who doesn’t like treats and parties and any excuse to celebrate? As a parent though, I’ve decided that the best policy to use with my children is respectful honesty about where we stand with regard to other religions.

That’s why when my children asked me about Easter, this is what I told them:

  1. The holidays of every religion are the right of the people who follow them. They are as precious to them as Eid and Ramadan are to us.
  2. Part of being a good Muslim is protecting the rights of everyone around us, no matter what their religion is. There is nothing wrong with non-Muslims celebrating their religious non-Muslim holidays.
  3. We don’t need to pretend they’re not happening. Respectful recognition of the rights of others is part of our religion and our history. We don’t have to accept what other people celebrate in order to be respectful of their celebrations.
  4. The problem with Muslims celebrating non-Muslim religious holidays is that we simply don’t believe them to be true.

So when it comes to Easter specifically, we break it down to its smaller elements.

There is nothing wrong with chocolate. There is nothing wrong with eggs. There is nothing wrong with rabbits, and no, they don’t lay eggs.

There is nothing wrong with Easter, but we do not celebrate it because:

Easter is a celebration based on the idea the Prophet Isa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) was Allah’s son, who Allah allowed to be killed for our sins. Easter is a celebration of him coming back to life again.

Depending on how old your child is, you may need to break it down further.

Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) Created the sun, Allah is not a person whose eyes can’t even look directly at the sun. Allah Created space, Allah is not a person who can’t survive in space. Allah Created fire, Allah is not a person who cannot even touch fire. Allah is not a person, He does not have children as people do. Prophet Jesus [alayis] was a messenger of Allah, not a child of Allah.

Allah is also the Most-Merciful, Most-Forgiving, and All-Powerful. When we make mistakes by ourselves, we say sorry to Allah and try our best to do better. If we make mistakes all together, we do not take the best-behaved person from among us and then punish him or her in our place.

Allah is Justice Himself. He is The Kindest, Most Merciful, Most Forgiving Being in the entire universe. He always was, and always will be capable of forgiving us. No one needed to die in order for Allah to forgive anyone.

If your teacher failed the best student in the class so that the rest of the students could pass, that would not be fair, even if that student had offered that. When people say that Allah sacrificed his own son so that we could be forgiven, they are accusing Allah of really unfair things, even if they seem to think it’s a good thing.

Even if they’re celebrating it with chocolate.

We simply do not believe what is celebrated on Easter. That is why we do not celebrate Easter.

So what do we believe?

Walk your child through Surah Ikhlas, there are four lines and you can use four of their fingers.

  1. Allah is One.
  2. Allah doesn’t need anything from anyone.
  3. He was not born, and nor was anyone born of Him. Allah is no one’s child, and no one is Allah’s child
  4. There is nothing like Allah in the universe

Focus on what we know about Allah, and then move on to other truths as well.

  1. Christians should absolutely celebrate Christian holidays. We are happy for them.
  2. We do not celebrate Christian holidays, because we do not accept what they’re celebrating.
  3. We are very happy for our neighbors and hope they have a nice time.

When your child asks you about things like Christmas, Easter, Valentines, and Halloween, they’re not asking you to change religions. They’re asking you for the chance to participate in the joy of treats, decorations, parties, and doing things with their peers.

You can provide them these things when you up your halal holiday game. Make Ramadan in your home a whole month of lights, people, and happy prayer. Make every Friday special. Make Eid amazing – buy gifts, give charity, decorate every decorat-able surface if you need to – because our children have no cause to feel deprived by being Muslim.

If your holidays tend to be boring, that’s a cultural limitation, not a religious one. And if you feel like it’s not fair because other religions just have more holidays than we do, remember this:

  • Your child starting the Quran can be a celebration
  • Your child finishing the Quran can be a celebration
  • Your child’s first fast can be a celebration
  • Your child wearing hijab can be a celebration
  • Your child starting to pray salah can be a celebration
  • Your children can sleep over for supervised qiyaam nights
  • You can celebrate whatever you want, whenever you want, in ways that are fun and halal and pleasing to Allah.

We have a set number of religious celebrations, but there is no limit on how many personal celebrations we choose to have in our lives and families. Every cause we have for gratitude can be an opportunity to see family, eat together, dress up, and hang shiny things from other things, and I’m not talking about throwing money at the problem – I’m talking about making the effort for its solution.

It is easy to celebrate something when your friends, neighbors, and local grocery stores are doing it too. That’s probably why people of many religions – and even no religion – celebrate holidays they don’t believe in. That’s not actually an excuse for it though, and as parents, it’s our responsibility to set the right example for our children.

Making and upholding our own standards is how we live, not only in terms of our holidays, but in how we eat, what we wear, and the way we swim upstream for the sake of Allah.  We don’t go with the flow, and teaching our children not to celebrate the religious holidays of other religions just to fit in is only one part of the lesson.

The other part is to extend the right to religious freedom – and religious celebration – to Muslims too. When you teach your children that everyone has a right to their religious holidays, include Muslims too. When you make a big deal out of Ramadan include your non-Muslim friends and neighbors too, not just because it’s good dawah, but because being able to share your joy with others helps make it feel more mainstream.

Your Muslim children can give their non-Muslim friends Eid gifts. You can take Eid cookies to your non-Muslim office, make Ramadan jars. You can have Iftar parties for people who don’t fast.   Decorate your house for Ramadan, and send holiday cards out on your holidays.

You can enjoy the elements of celebration that are common to us all without compromising on your aqeedah, and by doing so, you can teach your children that they don’t have to hide their religious holidays from the people who don’t celebrate them.  No one has to. And you can teach your children to respect the religions of others, even while disagreeing with them.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are bound by a common thread, and there is much we come together on. Where the threads separate though, is still a cause for celebration. Religious tolerance is part of our faith, and recognizing the rights of others to celebrate – or abstain from celebration – is how we celebrate our differences.

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