Now a short MOVIE and bestselling novel!
It all began with this widely popular short story series:
Story 20: Time To Heal
“You’re suffering from PTSD,” Dr. Melanie Goldstein said to Reem early Tuesday morning, a week after Reem had called to make an appointment.
Reem’s veil was flipped back revealing her face, and her gloves were folded neatly on top of her handbag that she’d set on the floor. But Reem was having difficulty relaxing, and she kept pulling at loose threads on her black abaya.
What does she think about Palestine? Even as she asked the question in her mind, Reem knew she was being irrational. Was it possible that living in a close-knit Arab Muslim community had given her an unhealthy distrust of others? She hated when Americans viewed Arab Muslims as one dimensional, so why was she doing the same by behaving anti-Semitic? Certainly, Jacob wouldn’t refer Sayed to someone unsympathetic to Muslims.
But what if Jacob was unaware of Dr. Goldstein’s views on Palestine?
Stop it, Reem mentally commanded herself. This is ridiculous. Her question was merely a frantic attempt to avoid accountability for emotional healing. If she could convince herself that the psychiatrist had anti-Muslim views, then Reem would have an excuse to cancel treatment.
“What’s PTSD?” Reem asked, mentally shifting her focus to the session.
Though the earliest time slot for an appointment with the psychiatrist had been two months away when Reem initially called, the office assistant had informed Reem that if she could arrive to the office by seven o’clock in the morning, Dr. Goldstein would see her as early as the following week. When Reem had mentioned to Sayed her pleasant surprise that a busy psychiatrist would come to work an hour early just for her, Sayed admitted that he had asked Jacob to personally request that the doctor view Reem’s case as urgent. The gesture had been so moving that Reem had gotten choked up thinking about how compassionate and generous her husband and Jacob were being. But she couldn’t deny how terrified the gesture made her feel. If her husband felt the need to have special arrangements made for her, then she was probably in worse shape than she realized.
“Post traumatic stress disorder,” Dr. Goldstein said. “It’s actually quite common for people who have experienced or witnessed something traumatic.”
Reem averted her gaze. She hadn’t revealed to the psychiatrist what Fahad had done. She had only mentioned her constant anxiety and angry outbursts. “I haven’t experienced anything traumatic,” Reem said, a nervous, reluctant smile on her face. She didn’t want to mislead the psychiatrist into thinking she had survived a war or anything like that. “I’m just really stressed, that’s all.”
“Life can be stressful,” Dr. Goldstein said. “So it’s okay to not be okay sometimes.”
A lump developed in Reem’s throat. She’d often heard the saying, It’s okay to not be okay, but right then it touched a deep part of her. “I’m doing okay,” Reem said, her voice rising awkwardly as she tried to sound positive. “God has blessed me with a lot, so I’m grateful.”
“He’s blessed all of us,” Dr. Goldstein agreed, her voice soft and empathetic. “But true gratefulness isn’t possible without self honesty.”
Reem nodded, and she felt her cheeks go warm in embarrassment. “I’m honest with myself.” She didn’t mean to sound defensive, but she didn’t want the doctor to think Muslims weren’t honest people. “In our religion, it’s a sin to lie.”
A faint smile formed at Dr. Goldstein’s lips. “In every religion, it’s a sin to lie,” she said. “But struggling with self honesty is not the same as lying.”
“Not in Islam,” Reem said. Now isn’t the time to give da’wah, she told herself. You can teach about Islam another time. But how could she leave the appointment without defending her religion? She couldn’t allow the psychiatrist to think Muslims were deceitful. “We have to tell the truth, even about ourselves,” Reem said. “God tells us that in the Qur’an.”
There was a thoughtful pause.
“Reem,” Dr. Goldstein said, prompting Reem to make eye contact, “I know how it feels to be misunderstood and to have others make assumptions about you because of your faith. And I know how it feels to carry the burden of presenting a positive image of yourself and your people to the world.” Her lips formed a thin line. “But know that’s not a burden you have to carry in my office. Here, you are free to be Reem, the human being, without the Saudi or Muslim label.”
Reem contorted her face in disapproval. This was exactly what she’d feared. In the name of therapy, being forced to give up the parts of herself that mattered most. “But that’s who I am,” she said defensively. “I’m a Saudi and Muslim, and I’ll never give that up, not even in here.”
Dr. Goldstein smiled knowingly. “And I’m not asking you to,” she said. “What I’m saying is, you have to allow yourself to heal. And to heal, you have to connect with the part that makes you human. Yes, you are Saudi and Muslim, just like I’m American and Jewish. But when we cry or stress because we feel overwhelmed, it’s not because we’re Muslim or Jewish. It’s because we’re human beings. And every human being struggles with carrying the weight of life’s burdens. This is what I mean when I say you are free to be Reem, the human being.”
Reem averted her gaze and started pulling at the threads of her abaya again.
“Oftentimes when we come from religious families, our religious label becomes a handicap,” Dr. Goldstein said. “I don’t mean that religion itself is a handicap,” she clarified. “Like you, my faith in God means the world to me, and I wouldn’t give that up for anything. But sometimes we confuse personal religious spirituality with public religious perception. And this is where our religious label becomes a handicap.”
“I don’t see being publicly Muslim as a handicap,” Reem muttered, yanking at a black thread that wouldn’t come loose. “I’m proud to be openly Muslim.”
“As you should be,” Dr. Goldstein said. “But being openly Muslim is about personal religious spirituality, not public religious perception. Being openly Muslim is a natural result of doing what you believe,” she said. “But how you’re perceived as a Muslim is rooted in how others understand and view your beliefs.”
“I can’t help what others think about me,” Reem said, annoyance in her tone. “So how is that a handicap?”
“When what people think about your religion matters more than your personal needs,” Dr. Goldstein said.
Reem folded her arms in a pout. “I don’t care what people think,” she said. “I do what I know is right.”
“But what happens when you don’t know what’s right?” Dr. Goldstein asked, narrowing her eyes curiously.
Reem shrugged. “Then I pray about it.”
“Give me an example of something you’d pray about,” Dr. Goldstein said, her tone conveying keen interest.
Reem shrugged again. “I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe if I should marry someone or have another child.”
“Did you pray about telling me what he did to you?” Dr. Goldstein asked.
Reem’s eyes widened, and her jaw dropped. “I can’t believe this,” Reem blurted in frustration. “Sayed told you already? How dare him…”
“Who’s Sayed?” Dr. Goldstein asked, genuine curiosity in her voice.
Reem shook her head and pinched her eyes closed, as if to will the confusion from her mind. “I mean, Jacob. Sayed must’ve told Jacob.”
“Jacob didn’t tell me anything,” Dr. Goldstein said. “Except that when a woman named Reem Muhammad calls, to make room on my schedule.”
Reem rolled her eyes irritably. “Then how did you know about Fahad?” She met the psychiatrist’s gaze challengingly. “And don’t tell me you’re psychic. I don’t believe in stuff like that.”
Dr. Goldstein drew her eyebrows together in confusion. “Who’s Fahad?”
Reem grunted. “You know exactly who he is,” she said accusingly. “You just asked me if I prayed about telling you what he did to me.”
Dr. Goldstein nodded as if in confession. “I did say that.”
“Then who told you about him?” Reem said as she met Dr. Goldstein’s gaze.
There was an extended pause, and Dr. Goldstein’s gaze grew distant momentarily. Reem sensed that the doctor was trying to find the best way to respond. “You told me,” Dr. Goldstein said finally, looking directly at Reem.
Reem opened her mouth to reply but realized she had no idea what to say. Had Reem herself mentioned her half brother without realizing it? Was her anxiety so bad that she was becoming forgetful? “I don’t remember saying anything about him,” Reem muttered defensively.
“You didn’t have to,” Dr. Goldstein said. “I could say it was a wild guess, but that wouldn’t be completely honest.”
“Then how did you know?” Tears stung Reem’s eyes, and her face was aflame in indignant mortification.
“I didn’t know,” Dr. Goldstein said. “But based on your symptoms…” She gestured toward Reem. “…those I see, as well as those you’ve shared, I know whatever happened to you violated something very personal. And with female patients, especially those from very traditional cultures, it’s usually something sexual.” She pursed her lips thoughtfully. “And often by a close relative, or a friend of the family.”
Arms still folded in a pout, Reem averted her gaze.
“In the nine years that I’ve had this private practice, I’ve had only two Saudi female patients,” she said. “You being the second. And I know it takes tremendous courage to seek professional help and talk to a stranger about something like this.”
“It’s not like my family is going to kill me if they find out I’m here,” Reem mumbled. She wiped the moisture from her eyes with the bottom of her palm. “They’re not like that.”
“When I said courageous,” Dr. Goldstein replied, “I don’t mean your physical life is at risk. I mean your sense of self, your cultural and religious pride, and your psychological and emotional safety.”
Reem started to respond, but the words got caught in her throat. She lowered her head and wiped her eyes again, hoping to hide her tears from the psychiatrist.
“And I’m not going to lie to you,” Dr. Goldstein said. “Talking to a therapist, or to anyone for that matter, is taking a risk. How do you know you can trust me? How do you know I won’t judge you? How do you know I even care?”
Reem tucked her chin to hide her face. She tried to discreetly wipe away the tears again, but they filled her eyes and slipped down her cheeks before she could stop them. Her nostrils moistened, and she sniffled as she rubbed the flat of her hand under her nose.
Reem heard slight commotion before she felt something being placed on her lap. Instinctively, she held on to it to keep it from slipping. In her blurred vision, she saw that it was a box of tissues. Chin quivering, she was overcome with shame as she pulled a tissue from the box. Her head was still lowered when she wiped her nose.
“And the scary thing is,” Dr. Goldstein said, “the answer to all of those questions is, you don’t know. Even if I were to assure you that I am trustworthy, that I won’t judge you, and that I care, you can’t be sure that any of that is true.” Her voice was soft and empathetic. “This is where you have a difficult decision to make, and it’s one you have to make alone.”
Reem wiped her eyes again. It was embarrassingly cliché to cry in front of a therapist.
“Before you come to a follow-up appointment,” Dr. Goldstein said, “ask yourself two questions. Do I want to heal, and can Dr. Goldstein help me in this?”
Reem nodded hesitantly, indicating that she understood. But she didn’t try to respond.
“And even I can’t claim to know the answers to those questions,” Dr. Goldstein said. “So this is something you should pray about.” She paused thoughtfully. “But I’ll go ahead and ask my assistant, Fredrick, to book you for the next available appointment, which is about three months from now. That will give you enough time to decide what you want to do.”
“What if I want to come before then?” Reem said weakly, avoiding Dr. Goldstein’s eyes.
“Then I’ll tell Fredrick to book you before then, even if it’s an hour earlier than I usually open.”
“No!” Aliyah said, laughter in her voice as she spoke into the wire mouthpiece as she drove from work Tuesday afternoon to pick up Ibrahim.
“I swear to God,” Salima’s voice said through the earpiece, humor in her tone. “I called you right after I hung up with Jasmine.”
“Does Larry know?” Aliyah asked curiously, her tone serious.
“I don’t know,” Salima said, as if exhaling her words. “I was tempted to call and ask him, but I figured I’ll wait till I got home from work. But I assume he’s the first person she called.”
“You’re still at work?” Aliyah said.
“Unfortunately,” Salima said, lighthearted sadness in her voice. “I’ll probably be here for another hour.”
“The onsite childcare center stays open late?” Aliyah said, her voice rising in admiration.
“Only until six o’clock,” Salima said. “But I usually bring Haroon to my office if I stay later than that. Unless my brother gets off before me. Then he picks up Haroon.”
“Well, mashaAllah,” Aliyah said after a moment’s pause, her voice reflective and subdued. “May Allah preserve her.”
“Ameen,” Salima said noncommittally. “It’s just hard to believe, that’s all.”
“I know…” Aliyah agreed. “But only Allah knows what’s in people’s hearts,” she said, obligatory deference in her tone. “So we have to assume the best.”
“That’s true…” Salima said. “The timing is just funny.”
“Is there a wrong time to become Muslim?” Aliyah asked rhetorically.
“I know, right?” Salima said, laughter in her voice. “I’m just worried because Larry’s parents have been trying to convince Jasmine to use her relationship with Larry to make him leave Islam.”
“I know…” Aliyah sighed. “But once someone says the shahaadah, we have to assume they’re Muslim,” she said. “Unless their words or actions prove otherwise.”
“That’s true,” Salima said, as if regretful. “I just can’t help thinking about the ayah in Ali’Imraan where Allah says, Waqaalat taa-ifatummin ahlil-kitaabi aaminoo billathee unzila ‘alallatheena aamanoo wajhan-nahaari wakfuroo aakhirahu la’allahum yarji’oon.”
As Salima recited the Arabic, Aliyah silently prayed that Allah would bless her to know the Qur’an like that someday.
“The general meaning is,” Salima said, “some of the People of the Book tell each other to believe in Islam at the beginning of the day, then disbelieve later so that it will encourage the Muslims to leave Islam.”
“SubhaanAllah. I remember reading the tafseer of that,” Aliyah said. “Isn’t that when some of them would pray Fajr with the Muslims then disbelieve later that day, so some of the Muslims would think they realized some contradiction in Islam that made them apostate?”
“Exactly,” Salima said. “Or just something generally wrong with Islam.”
“Let’s just assume that’s not what Jasmine is doing,” Aliyah said, her voice firm in reproach. “Calling a Muslim a disbeliever is a serious sin.”
“It’s not Jasmine I was thinking of,” Salima said. “It’s Larry’s parents. Even if Jasmine is sincere, they’ll probably try to convince her to use her affiliation with Islam to steer Larry back to Christianity.”
“Allahu’alam.” Aliyah sighed as she propped an elbow on the driver’s side window seal, gripping the steering wheel with her other hand. “But I think about stuff like that when I read all those stories online about people leaving Islam. I mean,” she said rhetorically, “how many of them are just doing what Allah is talking about in the Qur’an?”
“Allahu’alam,” Salima said, acknowledging that Allah knows best. “But today, we have enough real Muslims leaving Islam that they don’t have to rely on that method too much.”
“You think so?” Aliyah said doubtfully. “I think they use that tactic today more than they did in the past.”
“Maybe,” Salima said noncommittally. “But the Qur’an also talks about people who believe then disbelieve, so both are possible.”
“But how can someone leave Islam?” Aliyah said, contorting her face. “I mean, I understand getting weak and struggling to hold on to your emaan. But giving up entirely?” She shook her head. “That doesn’t make any sense to me.”
“How can kufr ever make sense?” Salima said. “The whole concept of throwing away your soul is inconceivable,” she said. “But if you understand how it feels to struggle in your faith, it’s not too hard to understand giving up entirely.”
“I see what you’re saying,” Aliyah said thoughtfully. “It’s just scary to think about.”
“Yes it is,” Salima said, sincere reflection in her tone. “But life has a funny way of making the most harmful things feel like the right thing to do. That’s why most people never enter Paradise.” She grunted then added, “After they knew full well that Islam is true.”
“May Allah protect us,” Aliyah said.
“When I was in undergrad, I took off my hijab,” Salima said as if lost in thought. “At the time, I really felt I was doing the right thing.”
Aliyah was quiet momentarily, unsure if she had a right to ask what was on her mind. “Had you memorized Qur’an at the time?”
“Oh yeah,” Salima said, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. “I finished the Qur’an when I was nine years old.”
“MashaAllah,” Aliyah said, admiration in the tone.
“But I’m not sure that made much of a difference,” Salima said. “I don’t mean there’s nothing special about being a haafidhah, because mashaAllah, obviously there is. But I’m saying memorizing the Qur’an doesn’t automatically protect you from spiritual struggles.”
There was an extended pause. “But why did you take off your hijab?” Aliyah said. “If you don’t mind me asking.”
Aliyah heard Salima sigh thoughtfully. “I don’t know,” Salima said. “I guess I just felt there was too much emphasis put on it, you know? It was like everywhere I went, all that seemed to matter was who wore hijab and who didn’t. And even if you wore hijab, Muslims were always nitpicking about right hijab and wrong hijab. I got sick of it. Especially when imams did lectures on how decorative hijabs are a fitnah for men,” she said. “And how if men are attracted to us, it defeats the purpose of hijab.”
Aliyah rolled her eyes and shook her head. “I know what you mean,” she said. “I don’t listen to those lectures anymore. It makes me feel like the whole measuring stick of correct Islamic modesty is whether or not some random guy thinks I look good.”
“I wish I had thought to stop going to those lectures,” Salima said. “That makes a whole lot more sense than doubting that Allah sees me as a human being.”
“SubhaanAllah,” Aliyah said. “Did you really feel like that?”
“To say the least,” Salima said, lighthearted sarcasm in her voice. “I actually started to think the whole purpose of hijab had nothing to do with me.”
“I’ve felt like that sometimes,” Aliyah said, shame in her tone. “But I made a lot of du’aa and asked Allah to purify my heart and make me understand His religion better. Now, if I hear a lecture about hijab that talks about men’s struggles instead of Allah’s instructions or women’s souls, I just turn it off or leave,” she said. “Staying and listening causes too much spiritual confusion.”
“I wish I had thought of that back then,” Salima said. “But when you’re young, you’re so trusting of people who seem to know more than you. So I just figured Allah only created us to serve men and make their lives easier, and it made me feel distant from Allah,” she said. “It sounds funny now, but back then, I felt that taking off my hijab would draw me closer to Allah.”
“Do you feel like it did?” Aliyah asked. “In retrospect, I mean?”
“No,” Salima said. “But, wallaahi,” she said, swearing by Allah, “at the time, I felt like it did. I felt freer. I felt better about myself. And I even felt like I loved and appreciated Allah more.”
“Then why do you feel it didn’t draw you closer to Allah?”
“Because being close to Allah isn’t a feeling,” Salima said. “It’s something only Allah can measure. But if we are close to Allah,” she said, “then we certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable disobeying Him every day.”
“But none of us obey Allah perfectly,” Aliyah said. “Some people struggle with hijab but are stronger in other things.”
“That’s true,” Salima said. “So I can’t speak for other women who took off their hijab. Maybe their obedience to Allah increased in other areas,” she said. “But for me, I convinced myself I was taking off hijab because Muslims put too much emphasis on outer appearances. But trust me.” She coughed laughter. “Once I took off my hijab, I started paying way more attention to how I looked. I spent more time styling my hair. I wore more make up. I took more pictures of myself. I even started being more friendly with guys.”
“But how did you pray?” Aliyah said, reminded of when Mashael had asked to borrow her prayer garment. “Did you keep a hijab or prayer garment with you?”
“In the beginning I did,” Salima said, her tone reflective. “But of course, over time, I just started delaying my Salaah or skipping prayers altogether. Sometimes I’d go a whole day without praying at all.”
“SubhaanAllah…” Aliyah said in dismay.
“But that’s how Shaytaan gets you,” Salima said, referring to Satan. “He makes you feel righteous about doing wrong. For me, I kept thinking to myself, See, I’m not a bad Muslim. A lot of people who cover don’t even pray all their prayers.” She coughed laughter. “Notice how none of my justifications had anything to do with Allah. It was all about what other Muslims were doing. Or were not doing.”
“But what made you put it back on?” Aliyah asked.
“It wasn’t one thing in particular,” Salima said honestly. “Things just kept gnawing at my conscience.”
“Like Ramadan, for one,” Salima said. “That’s when I would review my hifdh the most and recite the whole Qur’an from memory. And as soon as I would recite isti’aadhah, I’d feel horrible. But I would try to focus on the tajweed and hifdh and not think too much about the meaning, astaghfirullah,” she said, invoking Allah’s forgiveness. “But it was hard, and sometimes I’d just break down crying because I hated myself so much.”
“Did you ever put it back on just during Ramadan?”
“No,” Salima said. “Because I felt like, what’s the point? I’m just going to take it off afterward anyway.”
“So what was the last straw, the final thing that made you cover again?”
“Two things,” Salima said. “Seeing how I started getting annoyed every time someone said something good about hijab, and meeting Muslims who believed hijab isn’t obligatory.”
“Whoa… A’oodhubillaah,” Aliyah said, seeking refuge in Allah.
“I think that was when I realized that taking off hijab isn’t as simple as not covering,” Salima said. “When you do something wrong, it’s human nature to rationalize, so it almost never stops at the sin itself,” she said. “And when I started socializing with people who said covering your hair isn’t mandatory, I got scared I’d commit kufr.”
“But you’d still be Muslim,” Aliyah said, confusion in her voice.
“Not if I started denying clear parts of the Qur’an,” Salima said. “Maybe the other Muslims didn’t know what Allah says about hijab in the Qur’an. But I knew. So I had no excuse to believe something like that.”
“I see what you mean,” Aliyah said thoughtfully.
“But I did start philosophizing about the exact meaning of hijab,” Salima said, embarrassed humor in her tone. “But even as I tried to convince myself that hijab was just dressing modestly, I knew it wasn’t about Allah. It was about making my life easier. So I had to walk away from that and get myself together.”
“MashaAllah,” Aliyah said. “Maybe that’s how memorizing the Qur’an saved you.”
“Maybe…” Salima said noncommittally.
Aliyah paused thoughtfully. “Can I ask you something?” she said hesitantly. “Why do you wear a head wrap instead of a khimaar?”
Salima forced laughter. “Oh, let’s not go there…”
“Why not?” Aliyah said, embarrassed laughter in her voice.
“I have a no-comment policy on that one,” Salima said, humor in her tone.
“Really?” Aliyah said good-naturedly. “Why?”
“Because it reminds me too much of what I went through before I took off my hijab,” Salima said. “All the your-hijab-is-wrong nonsense.”
“You don’t think there’s a wrong way to wear hijab?” Aliyah asked curiously.
“I didn’t say that,” Salima said. “I’m just saying I’m not interested in justifying myself to anyone. The way I see it, everyone should do what they believe Allah asked them to. I may or may not be wearing hijab properly. But I’m just Salima, not the Prophet, sallallaahu’alayhi wa sallam. So what difference does it make why I do what I do? I’m not your example.”
“Ouch,” Aliyah said playfully.
“I didn’t mean you specifically,” Salima said. “I just have a pet peeve about Muslims pretending to care why I dress like I do, when their question is really just an underhanded attempt to tell me I’m wrong.”
Aliyah creased her forehead. “But why do you assume they think you’re wrong? Maybe they’re just curious about something they’re unfamiliar with,” she said.
“Maybe you’re just curious,” Salima said. “But trust me, most Muslims take one look at me and think they have to save me from the Hellfire.”
Aliyah frowned thoughtfully. “But is that a bad thing?” she said. “I know it can be offensive, but aren’t we supposed to try to save each other from Hellfire?”
Salima huffed. “Judging someone and sincerely caring about their soul are two different things.”
Aliyah was quiet momentarily as she considered what Salima said. “But how would you know whether or not someone sincerely cares?” Aliyah said. “I don’t mean any disrespect to you. But isn’t that the very definition of judging to claim to know someone’s intentions? If it’s wrong to judge someone for how they dress, isn’t it just as wrong to judge someone for trying to help?”
There was an extended silence. “You make a good point,” Salima admitted. “I just wish we could find a new topic, you know? I’m tired of talking about our clothes.”
“I know how you feel,” Aliyah said. “But I try to remind myself that obeying Allah is a topic that we should never get tired of. Though I do think we need to be more balanced when discussing women’s issues. Women have a spiritual existence outside the context of hijab.”
“If only the Muslim world realized that,” Salima said reflectively.
“If only…” Aliyah agreed.
“But girl, let me get back to what I’m supposed to be doing,” Salima said. “Just make du’aa that Allah preserves our new sister in Islam and guides Larry to do what’s best.”
“I will, insha’Allah.”
“Then I’ll see you Friday insha’Allah,” Salima said.
Aliyah was confused momentarily. “Friday?”
“Muslim Marriage Monologues,” Salima said.
“Oh yeah…” Aliyah said, chuckling at her forgetfulness. “But my aunt and uncle just got back from their trip a couple of days ago, so if I don’t have to visit them, I’ll come insha’Allah.”
Reem was sitting hunched over on the floor of the living room of their home when Sayed came home from work. Hana and Muhammad were running back and forth, chasing each other, seemingly oblivious to their mother’s despondent state. Sayed wondered what time Reem had returned home. She was still wearing the black shoulder abaya from early that morning, and her khimaar sat on her neck like a loosened winter scarf. For a moment, trepidation gripped him as he wondered if his wife was conscious. But when he offered the salaams and closed the front door, she started, turning her head toward him.
As their gazes met, she smiled weakly and lifted a hand in a halfhearted wave. “Wa’alaiku mus salaam,” she mumbled.
“You okay?” Sayed said, his voice etched in concern.
His question seemed to bring life back to her, and she got to her feet and walked toward him, a tired but pleasant expression on her face. She embraced him without responding, and Sayed held her close for several seconds.
“As-salaamu’alaikum, Baba!” Hana and Muhammad called out cheerfully before they zipped out of the living room again.
Sayed smiled and replied to his children as he loosened his embrace in preparation to change clothes and prepare for Asr prayer. But Reem tightened her grip. Confused, he embraced her again, his heart aching for the pain she felt right then. Maybe it had been a bad idea to hire a driver to take Reem to and from her appointment. Sayed should have been there as emotional support. But Reem had insisted that she didn’t want him to adjust his work schedule while he had insisted that she not drive herself.
“Do you love me?” Reem’s muffled voice said, speaking into Sayed’s neck.
“Of course,” Sayed said. “More than anything.”
“How is your love for me?”
Sayed smiled, relieved that even in her melancholic state, his wife had not lost her sense of humor. Whenever Reem was feeling sentimental or playful, she would ask Sayed the question that the Prophet’s wife Ayesha would ask the Messenger of Allah. “Like a knot,” Sayed replied, his voice soft as he mimicked the answer that the Prophet would give.
“Okay,” Reem muttered. “Just checking.”
Sayed brushed the top of her head with a kiss, his lips cushioned by her mass of hair. “I love you too much,” Sayed said, playfully mocking the way some of their Arab friends who weren’t proficient in English used the word too in place of very or so.
Sayed heard Reem chuckle, her shoulders moving rhythmically as she laughed. A wave of compassion swept over Sayed from how much he cared for his wife, and he pulled her closer and kissed her head again. Seconds later Reem’s chuckles turned to whimpers, and Sayed felt the moist tears on his neck as her body trembled with the sobs.
“It’s okay, habeebti,” he said, pulling his head back just enough to meet her gaze. “It’s okay.” He wiped away her tears with the flat of his fingers then kissed her moist cheeks. “Allah is with you,” he said as he held her close again. “And I am with you.”
Aliyah was overcome with dread as Jacob and Deanna’s house came into view and she slowed her car to a stop in front of the mailbox. When she put the car in park, she felt a shortness of breath, and her chest constricted in anxiety.
Ever since we met, Aliyah heard Deanna’s voice in her head, that’s all I’ve ever done: listen to you and help you. I helped you get a husband. I helped you get a job. I help pay your bills. I listen every time you stress over your stupid, childish problems. But when will you listen to me?
Guilt and shame choked Aliyah as she recalled telling Jacob it was okay to talk to her uncle about marriage. Was she out of her mind? What was she thinking? She couldn’t marry Jacob. Everything about it was all wrong.
You and Bailey are not going to do this to me!
In her mind’s eye, Aliyah saw the angry, contorted face of Deanna as she lunged at her. Aliyah leaned back in her seat and shut her eyes, waiting for the painful squeezing in her chest to subside. To steady her breathing, she inhaled through her nose and exhaled slowly through her mouth. Gradually, the anxiety loosened in her chest.
A shrilling sound caused Aliyah to start, and her eyes shot open. Heart thudding forcefully, she realized the cell phone next to her was ringing. Instinctively, she picked up the phone and looked at the display.
“As-salaamu’alikum,” Aliyah said, speaking into the wire mouthpiece as she set the phone back into the compartment next to the driver’s seat after accepting the call. “I’m outside.”
“Wa’alaiku mus salaam,” Larry said. “I can see that…” Lighthearted teasing was in his tone. “I was just wondering if there was any particular reason you didn’t call to say you were here.”
“I’m sorry. I was just—”
“It’s fine,” Larry said good-naturedly. “I’ll send Ibrahim out now.”
“Larry?” Aliyah said quickly, hoping to catch him before he hung up.
“Will I be picking up Ibrahim here from now on?”
There was an extended pause. “Why?” Larry said.
“No reason,” Aliyah said, her voice awkward in its forced cordiality. “I was just trying to…um, plan my schedule.”
“Most likely,” Larry said. “I’m not always at the same place with the boys each day, so Jacob and I thought it’d be easier if I bring them here each afternoon and stay with them until he got home.”
“That makes sense…”
“But I can make other arrangements if you need me to,” Larry said. “I’m flexible.”
“No it’s okay,” Aliyah said, feeling self-conscious for having even asked. “This is fine.”
“Okay…” Larry said, doubt in his voice. “Then I’ll send Ibrahim out now.”
Aliyah ended the call and bit her lower lip as she stared distantly beyond the windshield. Beggars can’t be choosers, she told herself. It wouldn’t be fair to ask Larry to disrupt his nephews’ routine just to save her the discomfort of coming to Deanna’s house every day.
The front door to the house opened, and Aliyah turned to see Ibrahim running out, an excited grin on his face. As he approached the car, a grin spread on her own face.
“Mommy!” Ibrahim said, breathless as he opened the back car door and climbed into his seat. “Uncle Larry said I run fast!” He closed the door and buckled his seat belt.
“Wa’alaiku-mus-salaam, Himy,” Aliyah said, playfully teasing her son for not giving her the salaams.
“Oh, sorry, Mommy,” Ibrahim said, giggling. “As-salaamu’alaikum.”
“So you run fast, huh?” she said, glancing at him in the rearview mirror as she put the car in drive and eased forward.
“Yes,” Ibrahim said eagerly. “And I kick the ball high!”
“MashaAllah,” she said. “I bet you do. You have strong legs.”
“Uncle Larry says I can be the best soccer player ever!”
“I think Uncle Larry is right,” Aliyah said, glancing in the mirror again. Ibrahim exhaled a sudden breath before leaning his head on the back of the seat and looking out the window. She smiled to herself. He was tired, but he was still wired from the exciting day. She silently prayed that Allah would bless and preserve Larry for helping with her son.
Her phone rang, and instinctively she glanced to the compartment next to her. Larry Bivens. Concerned, she answered immediately by squeezing the button on the wire that was still snaked to one ear. “Is everything okay?”
“Yes, it’s fine,” Larry said, apology in his tone. “I just forgot to mention that Jasmine called to say she took her shahaadah.”
“Oh, mashaAllah,” Aliyah said, hoping she sounded genuinely surprised. But she couldn’t help wondering why Larry thought it was important for her to know the news.
“And she asked if you could teach her how to pray.”
It took a few seconds for Aliyah to register what Larry was saying. “Me?”
“She says you seem like a good Muslim, mashaAllah.”
“But why not Salima?” Aliyah said. “Jasmine and I don’t even know each other.”
“I asked her the same thing.”
“And what did she say?”
“That you seemed knowledgeable about the religion and that she felt she could learn a lot from you.”
“But…” Aliyah didn’t know what to say.
“I guess you must have made quite an impression at the mall,” Larry said, lighthearted teasing in his voice.
“But we barely spoke,” Aliyah said as if genuinely confused.
There was an extended silence. “I can’t say for sure…” Larry said, his tone suggesting that he was uncertain if he should share the information. “…but my hunch is that she put two and two together.”
Aliyah creased her forehead. “About what?”
“Remember that family dinner you went to at my family’s house months ago?”
Aliyah’s heart sank. She had completely forgotten about that. Oooooh, Aliyah could still hear the voices of Larry’s family in her head. It looks like Larry finally got over Jasmine! “Yes…” Aliyah said tentatively.
“My guess is that she’s curious about the mystery girl my family thought had stolen my heart.”
Aliyah’s stomach churned. “Larry, I…” she said, apology in her tone. “I’m sorry, but I can’t…”
“I know, I know,” Larry said good-naturedly. “I’m just passing on the message.”
“Thanks,” Aliyah said.
“But before she mentioned you,” he said, “she asked whether or not it was her Islamic right to have her Muslim sisters help her learn everything.”
Aliyah felt weak with dread. “SubhaanAllah,” she muttered.
“Jasmine’s done her homework,” Larry said, humored admiration in his voice.
Aliyah was silent for some time. “Can’t she just go to the new Muslim classes at the masjid?” she said weakly.
“I’ll mention that to her, insha’Allah,” Larry said as if the idea hadn’t occurred to him.
“But don’t say I suggested it,” Aliyah said quickly.
“Of course not,” he said, laughter in his voice. “But don’t be surprised if she calls you up herself in the next couple of days.”
Aliyah groaned. “Please don’t tell me you gave her my number.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” Larry said. “But Jasmine is very resourceful, so I thought I should give you a heads-up.”
Aliyah was suddenly overcome with guilt and shame. It was wrong to purposely avoid her new sister in Islam, especially if all she wanted was to learn how to pray. Perhaps the phone call with Salima had prejudiced Aliyah against Jasmine. “If she calls,” Aliyah said, exhausted obligation in her voice, “then I’ll do what I can, insha’Allah.”
“I assume you don’t want me to tell her that?” Larry said, slight teasing in his voice.
“Please don’t,” Aliyah said sincerely. “I was just thinking out loud.”
“Are you sure?” Benjamin’s voice said through the receiver as Aliyah held the cordless phone to her ear that evening after Ibrahim had fallen asleep.
Aliyah sighed as she slowly sat on the edge of her bed, letting the mattress receive her weight. “Yes, I’m sure.” But even as she said it, sadness enveloped her, and she wondered if she was doing the right thing.
“Well, I’m sorry to hear that,” Benjamin said, sadness in his tone. “I think Jacob would be perfect for you, bi’idhnillaah.”
“You really think so?” Aliyah said in a small voice.
“Absolutely,” Benjamin said. “Like I told you when I first mentioned him, had I known he was open to marrying a second wife, I would have suggested him years ago.”
Aliyah bit her lower lip as she considered what her uncle was saying. “It just doesn’t feel right…”
“For you?” Benjamin asked doubtfully. “Or for how others will think of you?”
Married ladies! Aliyah recalled Juwayriah bint Abdullah’s Facebook status from months ago. Hold on to your husbands. I ain’t one to call a sister out, so… #NuffSaid #YouHaveBeenWarned
“I don’t know…” Aliyah said, crippled by self-doubt. “Maybe a bit of both?” What if she was the home wrecker that Juwayriah accused her of being?
“When he was married, you felt uncomfortable with polygamy,” Benjamin said. “So what’s the problem now?”
“What kind of person marries her best friend’s husband?” Aliyah asked, her voice tight in emotion. “Doesn’t that make me a bad friend?”
“I don’t know,” Benjamin said honestly. “That depends on your definition of a friend.”
“No real friend would take advantage of someone during their most difficult time,” Aliyah said. “I can’t do this to Deanna. No matter what she’s done, she doesn’t deserve this.”
“But Jacob and Deanna aren’t even married anymore.”
“Well, I’m sure Deanna doesn’t see it like that,” Aliyah said.
Benjamin was quiet momentarily. “I’m sure you’re familiar with the story of Zaid bin Haritha and Zaynab bint Jahsh, may Allah be pleased with them?”
Aliyah drew in a deep breath and exhaled, dreading the conversation being turned into an Islamic lesson. “Yes…”
“What do we learn from their story?”
“That an adopted son shouldn’t be treated like a biological son,” she said, speaking in monotone to underscore her disinterest.
“Uncle Ben,” Aliyah said after a few seconds, exhaustion in her voice. “I know it’s not haraam to marry Jacob, so that’s not what concerns me.”
“I never thought you were under the impression that it’s forbidden to marry him,” Benjamin said. “I’m mentioning the story to remind you that sometimes you have to make the unpopular choice for the greater good.”
“How can selfishness ever be the greater good?”
“Selfishness is a character flaw,” Benjamin said, “not a marriage choice.”
“But selfishness can be a marriage choice.”
“True…” he said tentatively. “But all marriage choices are selfish on some level.”
“Not the marriages of the Prophet, sallallaahu’alayhi wa sallam,” Aliyah said. “And he’s our example.”
“Ally,” Benjamin said, reverting to her legal name as he often did, “all I’m trying to tell you is, if you think protecting other people’s feelings is a condition to your own happiness, then you’ll probably be unhappy and single for the rest of your life. So you have to decide who your Lord is. If it’s Allah, then know that He hasn’t put these unnecessary conditions on you. But if it’s people, you’re destined for misery no matter what you choose.”
“It’s not shirk to protect other people’s feelings,” Aliyah said defensively.
“I’m not talking about the type of shirk that takes you outside the fold of Islam,” Benjamin said. “I’m talking about doing things for the sake of people instead of Allah.”
“They’re not always two separate things,” Aliyah said. “Look at the story of Ali and Fatimah, radhiyAllahu’anhumaa.”
“And is that story the exception or the rule?” Benjamin asked challengingly. “Or better yet, is it the only story that exists in our religion with regards to marriage?” he said. “If you want to derive a principle from Islamic history, then it should be based on striving to please Allah, and being compassionate to others while striving for the greater good.”
“Exactly,” Aliyah said. “How am I being compassionate to Deanna by marrying her husband?”
“Her former husband,” Benjamin corrected. “Either way, pleasing Allah must be your starting point,” he said. “And pleasing Allah does not always equal pleasing people. And pleasing people is not the same as compassion. Remember that.”
“I know,” Aliyah muttered.
“Don’t make the same mistake of cultural Muslims,” Benjamin warned.
Aliyah creased her forehead. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“I met a Muslim brother who was worried he wouldn’t be able to marry the woman he wanted because in his country, all the elder relatives of the woman and man had to approve the marriage.” Benjamin huffed. “And when I told him that Allah doesn’t stipulate those conditions, he said it’s part of Islam to respect our elders.”
Aliyah rolled her eyes. “That’s stupid.”
“And how many other ‘stupid’ cultural rules have you heard from Muslims?” Benjamin asked rhetorically. “You must marry from a certain tribe,” he said as if enumerating. “The person must have a specific lineage. You can’t marry a divorced woman. The woman must be younger than you.”
Aliyah sighed, recalling the difficult conversation she’d had with Reem about whom Hana and Muhammad could marry. “I know,” Aliyah said sincerely. “And I don’t agree with any of that.”
“I know you don’t,” Benjamin said, his voice soft with empathy. “And I don’t either. But I mentioned cultural Muslims because if your main reason for refusing Jacob is because he used to be married to your best friend, then you’re no different than them.”
“That’s not true,” Aliyah said, unable to quell her offense. “Being sensitive to other people’s feelings isn’t the same as forbidding what Allah has permitted.”
“Have you ever met a cultural Muslim who says outright that it’s haraam to go against their traditions?” Benjamin asked doubtfully. “Chances are, most will at least acknowledge that their customs are not Islamic requirements. But does this knowledge affect their behavior?” he asked. “For many, it only emboldens them because they don’t feel they’re changing the religion. They’re just doing what’s best for their children or trying to avoid problems in the family or marriage, they say.”
“I know in Islam it’s allowed to marry outside your culture,” Aliyah recalled Reem saying, “but it’s not encouraged. It can cause too many problems in your marriage and family.”
“Years ago, thinking about the hypocrisy of cultural Muslims would make me angry,” Benjamin said reflectively. “But today, I realize that we have our own hypocrisy as American Muslims. We all have a lot of work to do.”
There was a thoughtful pause.
“But it’s not the same,” Aliyah said. “Americans are much more open-minded about following true Islam.”
“Not really,” Benjamin said doubtfully. “It’s just that the things we’re close-minded about are widely accepted because of Westernization,” he said. “So no one’s going to call us on it. And even if they did, we wouldn’t listen. Our Western arrogance makes us feel that our cultural adjustments to the religion are based on wisdom. But for others, we claim it’s based on ignorance.”
Aliyah drew her eyebrows together. “I don’t see American Muslims doing that,” she said. “We try hard to follow the Sunnah no matter what our culture says.”
“I’m not denying our sincere efforts,” Benjamin said. “But what we have in common with cultural Muslims is that we have our own un-Islamic traditions, and in the name of wisdom or some greater good, we dismiss Allah’s teachings when it suits us.”
“Like what?” Aliyah said doubtfully.
“Well, our anti-polygamy attitude, for one.”
Aliyah groaned. “But polygamy is breaking the law, Uncle Ben,” she said. “So no one is dismissing Allah’s instructions. It’s obligatory to follow the laws of the land.”
“To follow or to respect?” he said challengingly.
“What’s the difference?” she said, contorting her face defensively.
“One is placing human law above Allah’s, and the other is avoiding breaking the law,” he said. “There’s a difference.”
“Well, not partaking in polygamy is avoiding breaking the law,” Aliyah said monotone, as if reciting the obligatory way to phrase her statement.
“No. Not marrying legally is avoiding breaking the law,” he said. “Legal marriage isn’t obligatory in America. So why do Muslims do it?”
“Because it makes the most sense,” Aliyah said matter-of-factly. “That way, you follow the laws of Islam and your country.”
“Ally,” Benjamin said, “anyone who is sincerely trying to follow the laws of Islam and their country would never get legally married,” he said, “in monogamy or polygamy. But that we do, then use it as an excuse to prohibit polygamy is just further proof of how we dismiss Islam whenever it suits us.”
Aliyah contorted her face, glancing sideways at the cordless phone. “How is it haraam to get legally married?”
“I didn’t say it’s not allowed to get legally married,” Benjamin said. “I said anyone who is sincerely trying to follow the laws of Islam and their country wouldn’t do it. But this is just my opinion, not an Islamic ruling.”
“But why wouldn’t they get legally married? In your opinion?” Aliyah added.
“Because the requirements of a legal marriage contradict those of an Islamic marriage,” Benjamin said. “And any Muslim with basic knowledge of Islam knows it’s not permissible to enter into a contract that has conditions that go against our faith,” he said. “Especially if you have a legal alternative.”
“But I don’t see any contradictions,” Aliyah said. “We might have different conditions on who can marry whom, but whether it’s legal or Islamic, marriage is marriage.”
“But what if you want a divorce?” Benjamin said. “I know dozens of Muslims who have been divorced according to Islam for years, but they still don’t have a legal divorce. And they knew full well before they got married that their legal contract would contradict Islamic laws if the marriage didn’t work out. But they still got a legal marriage,” he said. “Why? Because it never really was about doing what was Islamically required. It was about doing the best they could given that this isn’t an Islamic country. But when it comes to polygamy, we want to claim that other Muslims can’t do the same,” he said. “And some of us even go as far as to claim Islam forbids it because America forbids it.”
Aliyah was silent as she considered what her uncle had said.
“So yes, we have our own cultural traditions that we use to replace Islam,” Benjamin said. “But it’s easy to look at other Muslims and point out their faults,” he said. “While the real challenge is to look in the mirror and be honest about our own.”
“I see what you mean…” Aliyah said thoughtfully.
“And let me ask you something,” Benjamin said. “Did you pray Istikhaarah when you refused Jacob’s initial interest in marrying you?”
Aliyah creased her forehead. “You mean when he was still married to Deanna?”
“No,” Aliyah said.
“And why not?”
Aliyah didn’t know how to respond.
“Because your dislike for polygamy was so ingrained in your American psyche,” Benjamin said, answering his own question, “that the idea of consulting Allah Himself didn’t even cross your mind. ”
Aliyah started to defend herself when she was reminded of what she had said to Reem. “I get the whole preference thing. But what I don’t understand is why your culture doesn’t allow you to see Allah’s plan as bigger than yours.”
Perhaps American Muslims weren’t so different from cultural Muslims, she considered. If she was genuinely convinced that it wasn’t wise to marry Jacob at that time, why hadn’t she consulted Allah before responding to her uncle? Certainly, praying about it would have only confirmed what she already felt. As it would for Reem and her husband regarding whom their children should marry.
“Don’t complicate your faith, Aliyah,” Benjamin said. “If Allah hasn’t forbidden something, there’s a very good reason for that.”
Aliyah bit her lower lip as she listened.
“And as for Jacob’s current proposal,” Benjamin said, “there’s no law against marrying the ex-husband of your friend. In Islam or America,” he added.
“But how do I know I’m making the right decision?” Aliyah said weakly. “I could just be convincing myself I’m trying to please Allah while I’m just following my desires.”
“You’ve said yourself that your biggest regret in marrying Matt was that you didn’t consider what you wanted and needed,” he said. “And if there’s anything in which following your desires can also mean pleasing Allah, it’s in the halaal bond of marriage.”
There was extended silence as Aliyah considered what her uncle had said.
“Ally,” Benjamin said compassionately, “don’t get me wrong. I know this isn’t an easy decision. And I acknowledge that I could be wrong about Jacob being right for you. Perhaps it is best for you to leave it alone. And maybe for all the reasons that make you uncomfortable,” he said. “Allahu’alam. But I don’t want you to say no until you’ve done some honest self-reflection and made du’aa and Istikhaarah.”
She sighed. “Okay.”
“I’ve known you most of your life,” Benjamin said, “and if there’s one thing I worry about, it’s your tendency to overthink things and worry about protecting everyone else.” There was a thoughtful pause. “So do me a favor,” he said. “Think about what I said. Then get advice, and make Istikhaarah. If you still feel the same by this weekend, then I’ll tell Jacob you said no.”
“Then insha’Allah, I’ll see you this weekend,” Benjamin said.
“Insha’Allah,” Aliyah said.
“Wa’alaiku mus salaam wa rahmatullaah, Uncle Ben.”
Read the bestselling novel:
Watch the WORLDWIDE ONLINE PREMIERE: