This series is derived from the UZ novel by the same name and does not feature the full book. To read the entire novel CLICK HERE.
I remember the fall of 1995, the first term of my junior year in college, as the time I really embraced Islam. It was then that I recall my first flicker of zeal. It was also the year I turned eighteen, and when I felt as if I’d finally matured into an adult, a person with her own mind, soul, and heart. For the first time in my life, I didn’t care about my position in the eyes of others, only my position before Allah, the Creator Himself.
My most evident show of spiritual maturity was my donning an African style wrap, worn like a turban or with a cloth bun at the nape of my neck. I chose clothes that fell loosely around me, even more modest than the ones I’d worn as a member of The Church. I preferred long shirts to waist length ones, wide legged pants to jeans, and skirts to pants themselves. I loved my new look and thought it more sophisticated than the style Felicia and Anita had introduced me to.
Because we had requested it, Felicia, Anita, and I were all roommates in a building that offered homely suites rather than the cramped dorm room of the previous years. In retrospect, this probably wasn’t the best idea, given my newfound spirituality. It would have been, perhaps, easier to live with a complete stranger than to face the questions and opposition from friends. But I hadn’t yet learned that one’s desire for spiritual sanctity inspired a fire of rage in others’ hearts, a rage that rendered silent or even respectful understanding an impossibility.
My friends’ initial attacks were subtle, if not harmless. As late as October, during mid-terms, I hadn’t yet told them of my conversion. However, the omission was not intentional. It simply did not occur to me that I should mention it. I was still Renee, and this was a personal decision I made for myself, and I never imagined that it would make any difference in the relationship I had with them.
I was wrong.
Their comments first took the form of jokes about my new dress. “Oh no, she’s going straight African on us!” Anita would say. “Let’s give her an African name,” Felicia would respond. Or “What’s wrong with your hair? You don’t like the style I did for you?” “No, I think her hair is falling out.” “Maybe she don’t like her African hair after all.”
I would laugh with them or shrug them off if I wasn’t in the mood. Initially, I took it as the friendly humor that it appeared to be—until the day I excused myself to pray. That was the moment it hit me that they really didn’t know. I had prayed many times in the suite before, but apparently, they had never been there or had been too distracted to pay attention to me.
“I have to pray,” I said, standing abruptly one evening.
“You have to what?” It was Anita.
“Yes. It’s after sunset.”
“That’s what I do at this time.”
Felicia stiffened and grew silent, her eyes following my motions suspiciously. I could almost feel her disapproval burrowing into my chest.
That’s when the realization suddenly came to me. They don’t know.
Not much was said as I performed ablution, but I could hear their hushed whispers as I covered my hair and prayed a comfortable distance from them. It was almost impossible to concentrate, but I tried. It was the first time I was conscious of my every movement and how bizarre it must appear. My hands resting on my chest, my bowing until my torso was parallel to the floor, my head touching the ground.
I finished and found my space next to them, but the aura in the room had changed, as if I’d entered another reality entirely. They stared at me. I said nothing, forcing a smile but feeling a biting coldness that made me afraid to even move.
“What the hell was that?” Anita spoke as if I’d insulted her.
She glared at me. “All that crap you were doing. Kissing the floor.”
The comment stung. But I didn’t show it. “It’s prayer.”
“I never saw anybody pray like that.”
“Now you did.” It was a weak attempt at humor, I admit, but I didn’t know what to say. I was at a loss. It was similar to the feeling I had when my family was discussing William’s conversion. I simply could not understand how my prayer had anything to do with them.
Despite her continued silence, one side of Felicia’s lip turned up in a sneer. She snorted and rolled her eyes, turning from me.
“What church prays like that?” It was a rhetorical question, I knew, but there was a part of me that really believed Anita wanted to know.
“It’s not a church prayer.”
Anita’s eyes studied me, her gaze taking in my every attribute, assessing each one—and finding fault.
“She’s Muslim.” Felicia’s voice was matter of fact, and cold. She didn’t look at me, refusing to.
“What the hell is that?” Anita wrinkled her nose.
“Just that,” Felicia said.
Felicia stood and picked up her keys. Anita, as if on cue, did too. They headed for the door. Opening it, Felicia turned and gave me one last look, contorting her face for so long that I thought she would remain there all night.
“I already warned you not to do it,” she said, “so keep your miserable life to yourself. We’re not interested.”
The door slammed before I could register the cruelty of her words, and the meaning. Oddly, I felt sudden relief at my isolation, and I exhaled, having not realized I was holding my breath. My heart thumped, progressing in intensity with each second, until I felt the pounding in my throat and head. Because I hadn’t yet come to recognize their contempt for what it was, I sat there, dumbfounded, wondering what I had done wrong.
Living in the suite became almost unbearable after that. I was cordial, they were cold. I would ask something, they would respond noncommittally, not even bothering to look me in the eye. I tried to strike up conversation, they would shrug and say they didn’t know or would just shrug.
As much as I hated the cruelty of their words the day they saw me pray, I preferred speech, even if in disagreement, to this. The silence was overbearing. I felt shunned. But most excruciating was my inability to comprehend what I had done to offend them.
I imagined that Felicia, perhaps, had justification in feeling betrayed. She had advised me not to accept Sumayyah’s religion, and I had. But the question that I couldn’t answer was why it mattered to her at all.
Anita was an entirely different mystery. I could find no reason, no logic behind her treatment of me. A week before, she didn’t even know what a Muslim was, so how was it possible to harbor so much animosity for a decision she knew nothing about?
Today, I cringe when I think back to my naiveté in seeking to reform the friendship I somehow felt responsible for ruining, even as I could find no plausible conclusion as to my particular crime. I compensated by apologizing through my actions. If I fixed dinner for myself, I made enough for three. If the phone rang in their absence, I took detailed messages and left a meticulously formed note for them on my best stationery. If the suite was untidy, I’d clean it before they had opportunity to. Even if I was doing laundry, I’d wash and dry their clothes with mine, even going as far as to fold theirs neatly and place it on their beds.
They never protested my actions or refused my food or services. But they never openly appreciated them either. They grew to expect it, and even occasionally requested I have their clothes or food ready at a certain time. I mistook their requests and acceptance of my kindness as signs that they had forgiven me and that we could again be friends. However, soon after, I learned that they were merely taking advantage of me. In their own perverted way, they saw servitude as my proper place before them. My religious choice had relegated me to a station beneath them.
Most humiliating is my memory of the day a few weeks after mid-terms, when I approached Felicia, having procrastinated as long as I could bear, and asked her what time was best for her to do my hair. My scalp was dry and itchy, despite daily oiling. My braids had once been secured tightly in small plaits against my head, exposing my scalp in rows. But the new growth was so much that I could see nothing but hair beneath the braids. It was as if I had a short Afro with frayed braids atop. I was often tempted to undo the plaits and wash my hair anew, but I resisted until I could secure a definite time shortly thereafter to have my hair freshly done. I knew the result of my tight curls drying to a frizz after a shower, especially if they were pulled by an elastic band at the back of my head.
Anita was out, and Felicia was studying at her desk, having just finished eating dinner, which I had made. I had done the laundry a day before, and she could have easily been wearing something I had dried and folded for her. I thought this was the most opportune time to ask, especially since, as we had eaten our meals within feet of each other, I had asked how everything was going for her, and she actually gave more than a terse remark and a shrug. She had joked about stealing past exams from the professor’s file cabinet, and we had laughed.
The silence that followed made me acutely aware of every sound. Felicia’s turning of a page in her text, the click of her pen as she prepared to write, my picking up the dishes and setting them aside, and my release of breath as I prepared to speak.
“I need my hair done.” I heard nervousness in my voice, but I detected humor too. I was apparently on the verge of laughing at my pathetic state.
She didn’t respond. I heard the rustling of a page turning. I went on.
“It’s getting pretty bad. I might even have the beginnings of dreadlocks.” The sound of my sudden laughter filled the room and made me more at ease, but a second later I was painfully aware of the awkwardness of my lone voice. Felicia had not even turned to acknowledge me.
“So,” I said, “when do you have time?”
There was a long pause. She continued reading.
“Felicia?” I raised my voice.
She turned enough for me to meet her gaze. Her forehead was creased and her eyes narrowed in disapproval.
“When do you have time to do my hair?”
For a moment, we just looked at each other.
Now, I creased my forehead. “You don’t do hair anymore?”
“I didn’t say that.”
My mouth opened to form a question, but I didn’t know what to ask.
“I do hair,” she said finally. “Just not yours.”
The words were so unexpected that it took several seconds for me to register their cruelty. Because it was the only logical response to the ludicrous, I laughed. “You’re kidding.”
She just looked at me for a second more then turned back to her reading.
“Think what you want. I’m not doing your hair.”
She continued reading as if her words had not created an impenetrable wall between us. I sat, unspeaking, too shell-shocked to know what to say in response, or if there was anything I should say at all.
“If you’re ashamed of the styles I do, then I don’t have time to do any.”
She said nothing, her face still turned away from me.
“You know this has nothing to do with your styles.”
She slammed the book shut and turned to me, eyes fierce in agitation. “You want to be Muslim? Then live the Muslim life.”
It wasn’t until that moment that I felt something inside me rip open, exposing anger that I hadn’t known was buried there. “What?”
To my ears, I sounded like Courtney, but it did not bother me in the least. I felt emboldened.
“Like I said, keep your misery to yourself.”
“My misery?” I could have spit the words at her I was so livid.
“I grew up with that bull crap,” she said, her words taking meaning even as I could not calm my rage. “I don’t want it near me again.”
I stared at her for several seconds, my emotions tempering momentarily as curiosity erupted. “You grew up Muslim?” My tone gave the impression that I was disgusted, but it was merely my inability to nurse two raging emotions at once—or perhaps, there was something that I found inherently repugnant in her words.
“I warned you,” she said, ignoring my question. But I wasn’t entirely sure she had registered it in the first place. “All fire and brimstone, and I don’t want to hear any of it from you.”
“Fire and brimstone?” I felt my defenses kicking in. “You mean Hell?”
I was stunned by her use of the Arabic term, which was, even in her snide mockery of it, only vaguely familiar to me. For a moment I just stared at her, seeing in her eyes a pain I couldn’t measure or define. I had no idea why my heart softened momentarily, but it did. I felt sorry for her. But even this I couldn’t fully comprehend.
My knowledge of the religion was still somewhat rudimentary, but I couldn’t understand how someone could abhor the same faith I had grown so fond of. There were several questions forming in my mind, but, of course, she wouldn’t have answered them even if I could find words to give them voice.
“Jahannam,” I repeated in amazement, my voice barely above a whisper. I stared at her, feeling a brief connection—common ground. In a strange way, I felt more at ease, relaxing in the knowledge that my religion was not as foreign or bizarre as I had imagined.
I wanted to say something, anything to express this sudden realization. But Felicia rolled her eyes and turned from me as if my mere presence made it unbearable for her to remain in the room.
“I wish you would find somewhere else to live.”
Her voice faltered, and I thought I detected a thwarted whimper. But I said nothing, turning my back as I stood, lifting the dishes and walking away.
Today, I wish I had had the fortitude to confront Felicia and draw the story out of her. But her history remained a mystery and I left well enough alone. I was too focused on my own spiritual growth to give energy or thought to another person’s spiritual degeneration. To my knowledge, Felicia had no religion, but I suspected that Anita was Christian, at least in the way most Americans are members of the same faith—allegiance in only words, with no heart or actions following suit.
My suspicions would neither be confirmed nor denied. After the argument, they were never cordial to me again. Most days, they stayed out late at night, returning only to sleep and shower. Their words grew colder, their treatment crueler, and my faith grew stronger.
I often ponder the phenomenon of conviction in one’s faith, how the greater the trial for a believer, the more fortified the faith, and not the other way around as one might expect.
I grew more reflective of my Creator and my purpose on earth, which I suppose was a natural response to their cruel abandonment of my friendship. I tried to understand them, empathize even, instead of submitting to the loathing that was growing in my heart.
It was difficult, I cannot lie, because there was no logical explanation for their treatment of me. I could have understood better if it had followed a heated argument in which I unwittingly insulted one or the both of them. But, as it stood, their attacks were preemptive, and I learned to always be on guard. I no longer felt safe or relaxed in the room, understanding for the first time the authenticity behind harassment claims, even as I didn’t fear for my person or life.
I began to fear that no one would support my decision, or respect it even, and I wondered what that meant for me in both the short and long term, in school and in life. However, it never occurred to me to take back my shahaadah. My Islamic affiliation was not so much a choice as it was a submission to what God wanted from me, from all humans in fact, so the thought never entered my mind, at least not then.
It is these reflections that I carried with me as I made my way across campus one afternoon in late November, my hands nestled warmly in the pockets of my jacket, my book bag heavy with texts and notebooks at my back. My head was covered with a black cloth that was wound into a bun at the back of my head, and I wore black leather boots on my feet. My blue jeans were wide-legged, and my white sweater hung over them past my thighs. I was only vaguely conscious of my appearance, which I had grown to love, and as usual I was lost in thought.
Despite the cold, I was walking slowly. I was dreading returning to my room. Living there was becoming more unbearable by the day. My nights were mostly sleepless, my evenings tense, even when I was in the suite alone. The sound of voices or keys jingling in the hall made me stiffen, the noise portending Felicia’s or Anita’s entry at any moment. Most days, I studied in the library, but because I wasn’t yet comfortable praying the daily prayers in public places, I’d eventually return to the suite, where I would resume studying after prayer.
Recently, I was having frequent headaches. Sometimes the mere sight of Felicia or Anita, even if from a distance, incited a painful throbbing in my head. I would go out of my way to avoid them, but it seemed they did the opposite for me. But it’s possible that this was not the case. Although the Maryland campus was by no means small, it was, after all, only a college campus, and the popular eateries and libraries were in definite locations, so our chances of passing each other wasn’t low, especially since we lived in the same residence hall.
My shoulders jerked slightly, and my heart pounded at the sound of my name. I was at that moment remembering Felicia’s refusal to do my hair and my calling Hadiyah the next day and her giving me the number of someone who could. I hadn’t yet called the woman, having resigned myself to self hair care for the time being, but I was thinking how it was becoming too much for me and that I should give the woman a call.
I searched the eyes of the students around me, fearing that it was Felicia or Anita taunting me again. Instead, my eyes met those of a smiling student standing opposite me. She wore a UMD cap and sweatshirt that hung to the waist of her fitting jeans. In the dulling afternoon light, gold loop earrings sparkled on either side of her brown face, and permed hair was peaking out beneath her ears from where it had been tucked.
It was Natasha, my friend from the Bible study group. It took a moment for me to recognize her. In my new life, she belonged to an entirely different world, one that I had drifted from before I had even considered Islam. I had forgotten about her and was amazed that she was still at the school although I saw no rational reason for her not to be.
“Oh, hi.” I forced a smile, my heartbeat slowing to a normal pace.
“Girl, where have you been? You just up and disappeared.” She playfully slapped me on the arm, my hands still tucked in my jacket pockets.
“Just really busy.”
“We have a potluck tonight at my place. Why don’t you come?”
I shook my head, a hesitant smile on my face. “I can’t.”
Her expression told me she had read more into my words than I intended.
For a second, she studied me, but I didn’t know if my new dress would be suspect. A lot of African-American women covered their hair with a similar wrap, particularly when they were in between hair appointments.
I felt laughter escape my throat, surprised by how good it felt to laugh, and how strange it sounded coming from me. “Girl, you don’t want me there.”
“Why wouldn’t I want you there? We miss you.”
I grinned, unsure how to explain myself, and even less certain that I wanted to. But something inside me gave. I was tired of feeling alienated because of who I was.
“I don’t believe in Jesus like you do, I never have actually.” I was surprised by the honesty of my words. “I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable.”
She was silent, but there was a smile still on her face, as if she was not bothered in the least by what I’d said. “Is that all?”
I creased my forehead. “What?”
“Is that all you’re worried about?” She laughed, shaking her head, slapping me playfully again. “Girl, nobody cares. We’re just there to eat.”
I started to protest.
“I want you there.” She squeezed my arm with a grin. “You look like you need a break anyway.”
I grinned too, nodding. “Yeah, I do.”
“It’s at six.”
She started to walk away. “Oh yeah,” she said, and I met her gaze. “Do you mind coming to help me get ready?”
My eyebrows rose. “I don’t know. I have—”
“I’m about to start now if you want to come along. That way you’ll know where I’m staying.”
Oh. I hadn’t thought about her not being in the same room as the year before.
“You don’t look like you’re in the mood for studying anyway.”
I considered it briefly, glancing toward my residence hall in the distance, realizing that I really wasn’t ready to return there yet.
Before I could respond, Natasha looped her arm through mine and led me to where she lived.
As it turned out, Natasha had an apartment that year, and a car. When we arrived, the food was all ready, at least what she had prepared, so we were reheating and doing minor set-up until the guests arrived.
As we placed the dishes on the table and the food was being heated on the stove and in the oven, Natasha made a comment about how it was already after five o’clock. She frowned as she looked out the window into the growing darkness. “It looks like it’s six already.”
I too walked over to the window.
“Oh my God,” I said, thinking aloud. “I need to pray.”
It wasn’t until Natasha stared at me in confusion that I realized what I’d said. “You need to pray?”
I hadn’t planned on divulging my conversion. But it was too late. I dreaded another scene, so I decided that I didn’t care what Natasha thought. I wasn’t going to bow to others for the rest of my life.
The apartment grew silent and she stared at me, unable to keep from looking displeased. “Muslim?”
A second later, she shrugged. “Okay.”
“Where’s your bathroom?”
She pointed me to the hall. “The first door on the left.”
I returned from ablution, and Natasha watched as I prayed. But she didn’t stop setting up for the dinner.
My praying took longer than usual because I had to make up a prayer. I had forgotten about Asr, most likely because of the sudden change in plans.
When I finished, I rejoined Natasha in the dining room.
“Why do you pray like that?”
“It’s how the Prophet prayed.”
She nodded, as if the name was familiar. “I heard of him.”
“Not Elijah Muhammad.”
She chuckled. “I know. That’s the Nation of Islam. You’re orthodox Muslim, right?”
I nodded, impressed by her knowledge.
“My uncle is Muslim.”
She nodded. “I hear bits and pieces from my aunt.”
“She’s not Muslim too?”
“No. He converted a few years ago.” Her eyes grew distant momentarily.
“It’s causing a lot of problems in the family,” she said.
I was unsure what to say, so I remained silent.
“They separated for a while, but now they’re back together.”
“They separated because he’s Muslim?”
“Yeah. But my Mom’s taking it really hard.”
“She doesn’t want them back together.”
I couldn’t conceal my shock. I chuckled at the ridiculousness of it. “What difference does it make?”
Natasha lifted a shoulder. “That’s what my father says. But my mom’s afraid for her sister.” She paused. “And the children.”
I thought of Sumayyah and what she had said about her family. I wondered if this family’s sentiments were the same. I wanted to ask but didn’t want to say too much.
“What is she afraid of?”
A grin formed on one side of Natasha’s face, and she toyed with a fork amongst the silverware. “Him making them convert too.”
I nodded, my gaze lifting toward the open curtains and seeing darkness there. I turned away, looking at her before I spoke. “Why does it matter? They’re his children.”
She was silent for some time. “To be honest, I’m afraid for them too.”
She looked at me as if realizing that her comment may have hurt. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. It’s natural to feel like that. Before I studied, I would’ve felt the same.”
She regarded me with her eyes narrowed in deep thought, a hurt expression on her face. “But why Islam, Renee? I know you said you never believed in Jesus, but—”
“I believe in Jesus.”
“But you said you didn’t.”
“I never believed he was God, that’s what I was saying.”
“So you don’t believe in the Trinity?”
“No. I was raised to believe in Jesus as God’s son and God as God.”
“What do you believe now?”
“The same, except I believe Jesus is a prophet, not the son of God.”
Her face contorted slightly. “But how can you think he’s just a prophet?”
I didn’t know how to respond. Because I had read so much Islamic literature and had a new appreciation for prophets, I often forgot how insignificant they had been to me as a child. It was difficult hearing her say “just” as if being chosen as the student of God himself, as if being spoken to directly by the most respected angel in the heavens, and by the Creator himself, was not a venerated status, was not the highest position a human could attain on earth, as if it was not the nearest any creation would come to divine pleasure.
Her words reminded me of a Biblical image of one of the most revered prophets—that of drunkenness. Words could not convey how incorrect, and blasphemous, such portrayals were in light of my new knowledge. How far removed the prophets were from what humans had penned in the name of God. At that moment, I thought, too, of how loosely the word prophet was used. Buddha, Socrates, and Aristotle were referred to as prophets at times, and even the singer Bob Marley I’d heard referred to as such.
I wanted to share with Natasha what I’d recently read, a hadith, heartfelt words expressed by Prophet Muhammad on his deathbed. Do not exaggerate your praise of me like the Christians praised the son of Mary. I remember sitting on my bed, moved by his words. They made me think of the spiritual link between Jews, Christians, and Muslims, a bond broken only when someone deviated from the prophets’ pure teachings, or rejected a prophet altogether. It was a warning not to stray from the pure worship of God, to not fall into the errors of former peoples—and of people today.
But I doubted Natasha would understand.
“I don’t think he’s just a prophet,” I said. “I believe that out of the thousands who were sent, he is among the best.”
Natasha pursed her lips then sighed. “I don’t understand how you can do it. I can’t see myself throwing my religion away like that.”
She paused. “Don’t you fear for your soul?”
The response took her aback. “Then why do it?”
“Because I do fear for my soul. More than I ever did before. That’s why I became Muslim.”
I wondered how much she’d heard from her uncle about Islam.
“Well,” she said with another sigh. “To each his own. I’m going to stick to what I know is true.”
“But how do you know it’s true?”
She looked as if I’d slapped her. “Because it’s what God says.”
“It’s what people said God said. Jesus never claimed to be divine.”
She started to respond, but the sound of the phone ringing interrupted her. She shook her head and made her way to the phone in the living room.
On the phone, she confirmed that she had plates and forks but asked the person to bring ice. She laughed at something and said, “Yeah right.” A pause. “Not yet. But Renee’s here.” She wore a grin. “That’s a long story. Later for that.” “Okay.” Another laugh. “Bye.”
She returned to the table and said we’d better get the food set up. People were on their way.
We prepared the meal in silence, exchanging only polite words about classes and majors and what we planned to do after next year. Nonexistent was the cold atmosphere I lived in daily, although the atmosphere had undoubtedly changed. But I appreciated Natasha’s affability, even in her disapproval of my choice. It was refreshing to remember I was human and actually had a right to choice in the first place.
Natasha and I remained acquainted, and she was amiable despite our differences. She stopped by my room periodically to say hello. Although it wasn’t as often, she sometimes asked a question about Islam. She would talk freely about her aunt and uncle and her mother’s fears. Her aunt, it seemed, was not only reconciling with her husband but being influenced by his beliefs. I didn’t understand why Natasha felt comfortable sharing this information, especially with me. She knew I’d side with her uncle, but she spoke as if I would empathize with her.
I always gave another point of view and explained what Muslims believed on a matter, at least as I understood it at the time. Natasha seemed sincerely intrigued by what I shared. Occasionally, she reported to me that she was telling her mother what I’d told her.
Eventually, I told her of my stressful living situation, mostly because she witnessed my roommates’ coldness on more than one occasion. She found it hard to believe that their cruelty was only because I’d become Muslim, and she pressed me for more details. I gave her as much I could recall, even sharing the conversation about my hair. She was a bit perplexed.
“I understand where they’re coming from,” she said one day, “but I don’t agree with how they’re showing it.”
I was offended by her expression of understanding, but I didn’t say anything.
“But you should really consider moving out,” she said. “You look stressed every time you hear someone outside the door.” She laughed. “If I didn’t know you, I’d think you were abused by them or something.”
I nodded, embarrassed that she noticed my discomfort and fear. “I don’t have anywhere to go.”
“Just go to the residence life office. They can help you. People switch roommates all the time.”
Oh. I hadn’t thought of that.
“If you go now, before break, they might have something for you by January.” We were in mid-December, finishing our finals before Christmas vacation.
“It’s best if you have someone willing to take you though.” She paused.
“You don’t know any Muslims on campus?”
I knew only Sumayyah, and she lived with her parents. I shook my head. “Not really.”
“Check out MSA. They might know someone in the same situation.”
I took Natasha’s advice and decided to locate someone from the MSA before I approached the office. I wanted a definite placement before any official paperwork was put through. After a few phone calls, a Muslim student named Nasrin agreed to meet me after exams on the last day of finals. I had a flight to Indianapolis the next morning and was crunched for time. I had a hair appointment with the woman Hadiyah had referred to me, and the hairdresser had agreed to pick me up from Greenbelt metro station at eight for no extra cost. For obvious reasons, Nasrin and I agreed to meet in Nasrin’s room instead of mine.
It was after four o’clock when I knocked at her door.
“Come in,” I heard a voice call.
I turned the handle and peered in hesitantly before stepping inside.
“It’s fine, you can come in.”
The door closed behind me, and immediately I was pulled into an embrace. The show of affection took me off guard, and I mumbled a reply to the Arabic greeting she gave me as her cheek touched mine.
A half smile crept at one side of my mouth after Nasrin released me, still holding my right hand in hers. Her olive skin glowed bronze as she smiled broadly, shaking my hand to introduce herself even as I knew who she was.
“I guess you know I’m Renee.”
She motioned for me to sit down, and I took a desk chair while she prepared tea from a coffee maker and handed me a cup before sitting on the bed. Her jet black hair was pulled back into a thick braid, and I noticed that she was wearing a dark blue shawar kameez with gold trim at the neck and wrists.
“So what made you convert?”
I took a sip from the cup and set the tea aside, glancing at my watch, conscious that I didn’t have a lot of time. I hadn’t expected small talk. I started to change the subject to why I’d come, but one look at how her dark eyes glistened in anticipation made me change my mind.
I told her how I came to Islam, at least I summarized the story for her. Although I was impatient to get to the subject of moving to another room, I couldn’t help feeling a bit relaxed as I spoke. It was the first time anyone had asked me my story, and it rejuvenated me to realize that it was an important story, and a good one. Living with Felicia and Anita had robbed me of feeling proud of my choice.
“Are you the only Muslim in your family?”
My eyes surveyed the walls of her room before they met hers. I started to speak but was surprised to see tears in her eyes, and a lingering smile on her face. I didn’t know what to say. Until then, I didn’t realize my story could be moving.
I told her that I was, and she wiped her eyes. “May Allah bless you.”
The words settled over me in their kindness, and I felt a lump in my throat. I lifted my teacup again and sipped.
“I really admire you.”
She was still smiling when our eyes met again. I set the teacup down and chuckled. “Well, there’s not much to admire.”
“No, I mean, how you accepted Islam. That’s so beautiful.”
I picked up my tea again, unaccustomed to compliments. But I couldn’t help reflecting on what she was saying.
It was, indeed, beautiful.
“Sometimes I wish I could convert, just to see how it feels.”
“You grew up Muslim?”
She nodded. “I’m from Pakistan. My whole family’s Muslim.”
“Even your aunts and uncles?”
My eyebrows rose in surprise. “You’re the lucky one.”
She shook her head. “But they don’t all practice.”
I creased my forehead. “What do you mean?”
“Some of them don’t pray.”
Her words confused me. “But I thought you said they’re Muslim.”
She waved her hand dismissively. “It doesn’t make sense, I know.”
I nodded though I could not comprehend what she was saying. Hadiyah had told me, and I had read, that prayer was a foundational aspect of Islam. I didn’t understand how a person could be considered Muslim without this.
“But, alhamdulillaah,” she said, “my family practices, and my parents’ families too.”
It took me a moment to realize she was now referring to sibling-parent relationships as opposed to extended family.
“Is your roommate Muslim?”
She furrowed her brows in disappointment, her gaze resting on something to her right before responding. “No.” Her voice was quieter.
She sighed, and I wondered if my question was too personal. “She moved out a month ago.”
Nasrin shook her head, a faint smile forming at her lips as she lifted her eyes to me. “I’m Muslim. She’s not.” She shrugged. “What can I say?”
I felt a smile tugging at my lips. “Yeah, I know what you mean.”
“But she still lives here, at least on paper.”
“I wish my roommates would move out.”
She drew in a deep breath and exhaled. “I know you’re looking to move out,” she said as if apologizing. “But to be honest, I doubt Joni will agree to let you live here.”
“But do you know anyone else looking for a roommate?” I didn’t want to lose hope.
She shook her head. “Not on campus.”
We were silent momentarily.
“But you’re welcome to stay here,” she said tentatively. “I don’t think Joni will be back.”
“Then why would it matter if I moved in officially?”
She shrugged. “That’s just how she is. If she thinks it will be a favor to me, she won’t do it.” She sighed. “It’s hard to explain.”
I nodded in reflection. “I understand. That’s how my roommates are.” I laughed. “If I need something, they will do everything they can to make sure I don’t get it. Otherwise,” I sighed, “they don’t have time for me.”
“Yeah,” she said with a shake of her head, “that sounds like Joni.”
I paused as I considered her offer. “You don’t think Joni will come back?”
She shook her head. “I doubt it. Unless she has no choice.”
I studied the room. “But her things are here.”
Nasrin shook her head. “She took it all out. I redid the room when she left.” She turned and pointed to the other bed. “That’s even my sheet and blanket.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“If you’re sure it’s not a problem…”
“Please come. I’d love to have some company once in awhile. Especially a Muslim.”
The words were so heartwarming that I couldn’t hide my pleasure. This would definitely be better than living with Felicia and Anita.
In December 1995, I returned home for break unashamed of my new faith. Knowing I was not alone endowed me with the strength to face my parents and family. At my hair appointment, I had met two other converts, Wadiah, the hairdresser, and Ghazwa, a customer I met only because she arrived while I was getting my hair done. Both were African Americans who came from Christian families who opposed their conversion to Islam. Wadiah, soft spoken and pleasant in nature, sighed in reflection whenever I asked a question about her and her family. “Allah is the best planner,” she’d say. “I just pray Allah guides them.” Ghazwa, on the other hand, was robust and unapologetic. “Forget them,” she’d say, rolling her eyes. “I ‘on’t care what they think.”
Wadiah was the elder, in her mid-forties, and had been Muslim for almost ten years. She was divorced from her first husband because he refused to accept Islam, and now she had been remarried for almost four years. Ghazwa was in her early twenties and had been married for almost two years and Muslim for one. She married her boyfriend after he accepted Islam and insisted they end their relationship or marry.
“You know you on the haqq,” Ghazwa said in response to my concern about facing my family. “They ain’t, so don’t even worry about it.”
It took me a moment to understand she meant that I was on the truth. I was still unfamiliar with most Arabic terminology.
“But it’s hard,” Wadiah’s soft voice rose from behind my head, where she was braiding. She sighed. “I cried for three weeks when my mother said I wasn’t her daughter anymore.”
“Allah told Prophet Noah that his son wasn’t his family.” Ghazwa shrugged. “Good riddance.”
Despite Ghazwa’s no-nonsense encouragement and Wadiah’s heartfelt empathy, my heart was pounding when I met my mother at my flight’s gate upon arrival. I was wearing my black African head wrap and a heavy coat and gloves. She pulled me into an embrace, beaming.
“How was your trip?”
A bit surprised that she didn’t notice my head cover, I answered coolly, my mind on my new dress. We talked casually on the way to baggage claim, and it wasn’t until we had loaded my bags into the car that I realized why she didn’t mention anything about my head cover. It was winter. Even she put her neck scarf over her head while we arranged the luggage.
It was just after sunset when we pulled out of the parking lot of the airport. The sky was dulling to a charcoal grey as I stared out the side window during the drive. My mother played Christmas music and sang along, oblivious to my far away thoughts. The songs aided in soothing my anxiety, as their cheerful and melodic tones reminded me that I was home and with family. But I couldn’t escape feeling the painful distance between me and my mother. Part of me wanted to sing along too, if only to contribute to the merry atmosphere, but there was a stronger pull to stay quiet and gather my thoughts.
I decided that I would make no efforts to hide my Islam during this trip. I wouldn’t go to church. I would say all my prayers. I would participate in no discussions that made me uncomfortable.
Holiday music was still wafting from the car speakers when we drove slowly down the streets of our neighborhood. My mother was now quiet, enjoying the mellow tunes without moving her lips. Colorful lights adorned the homes, and decorated trees could be seen through the open curtains of living rooms. Plastic snowmen and likenesses of Santa and his reindeer stood in the lawns patiently awaiting heavy snowfall for Christmas. One yard bore plastic models of a Muslim family.
I did a double take.
It took a few seconds for me to realize that this display was representing the birth of Jesus. I stared at these images intently, even turning my head as we passed. The woman covered in hijaab, the man in a thobe, his beard exuding a religiosity I associated with Muslims.
I had seen artificial likenesses like these dozens of times, but never before had I noticed how they were in stark contrast to how Christians portrayed themselves in life. Years later I would laugh at the irony of passing a yard with these images out front while the inhabitants of the home would glare at me and my husband for our appearance—which mirrored that of the people they venerated in their front lawn.
The sky was dark when we pulled into the driveway of our home, and I knew I’d have to pray Maghrib immediately. My mother and I dragged my luggage into the house, where we were met by Michael and Elijah. I stared at them, amazed by how much they had grown in such a short time. Michael was five now and Elijah was eight, but Elijah was almost as tall as me and Michael, although noticeably shorter than his brother, could have passed for eight himself.
Unabashed, Michael threw his arms around my waist, thrilled to see me.
“Merry Christmas,” he sang out. His words complimented the cozy holiday atmosphere, made apparent by the decorated evergreen tree standing a few feet from us.
I burst into laughter, which relieved me from having to respond in kind. “Woe,” I said as if I was losing my breath in his embrace. “I missed you too.”
Elijah hung back after Michael finally let go, but I teased him. “Hey, you’re ashamed to give me a hug?”
He grinned and walked over to hug me. “Merry Christmas.”
I rubbed his head, aware that my silence was a bit awkward following his greeting.
“Hey, little sister.”
I looked up to find Courtney leaning lazily against the entrance to the kitchen, her arms folded. She was wearing a fitting long sleeve white shirt with images of mistletoes all over, and a pair of form fitting jeans. Her permed hair was pulled away from her face to reveal a pair of mistletoe earrings to match her outfit, an outfit that could never pass The Church’s litmus test for Christian modesty. I wasn’t surprised that she would wear it, but I was surprised that she felt comfortable wearing it in our house.
“Hey,” I said, smiling.
We met each other halfway in bestowing the obligatory hug.
My mother dragged one of my bags up the stairs to my room, and Courtney surprised me by taking the other.
“Come help us in the kitchen,” my mother said after they returned. It was an offer to spend time together as a family, and I was happy that this was something I could participate in with a clear conscience. But I had to pray first.
“Okay,” I said. “Just let me change.”
I skipped the stairs two at a time, my nervousness shocking me. I had promised myself that I wouldn’t lock the door while I prayed, but I was having second thoughts. After I performed ablution and changed, I covered my hair, deciding at the last minute not to lock the door.
I prayed Maghrib, but I had difficulty concentrating. I heard the door open during my last unit of prayer, and I froze. I was in the bowing position, so although the door was in front of me, I couldn’t see who was there, at least not without lifting my head. Moving to the next position, I stood. It was then that I saw it was my brothers. But I didn’t look them in the eye. My head was bowed humbly, and I mumbled the Arabic words to myself, hoping they couldn’t hear.
I stood longer than I should have. I was stalling, hoping they’d lose interest and go downstairs to where my mother and sister were preparing dinner. But they didn’t. My head began to pound, foreseeing what was about to occur. Michael and Elijah were already staring at me curiously, but nothing could compare to the curiosity they’d feel once I moved to the next position—sajdah. I had to place my forehead on the ground.
Drawing in a deep breath and mentally telling myself that only God mattered, I prostrated, painfully aware of their staring. I sat too quickly then prostrated again, trying to get this over with, and hating myself for my weakness.
“What are you doing?” It was Michael’s voice.
My head was still on the ground, but at the sound of his voice, I sat. My legs were folded under me, my forefinger of my right hand pointed as I whispered the last part of prayer.
A second later, I felt Michael standing directly in front of me.
Although it was difficult, I ignored him, my face growing hot in embarrassment.
He tilted his body sideways until his face was in front of mine.
“Are you okay?”
I could feel the warmth of his breath on my face, and I forgot what I had been saying. I started over, hating myself for being distracted.
He sat down in front of me and tapped my shoulder.
“Renee?” His voice sounded concerned now.
“Leave her alone,” I heard Elijah say from the doorway.
“But something’s wrong,” Michael cried, turning slightly. “Maybe she’s deaf.”
“She’s not deaf.”
For the closing part of prayer, I turned my head to the right then to the left, reciting the Arabic greetings of peace. Relieved to be finished, I exhaled, a smile playing at one side of my mouth as I met Michael’s contorted face. He looked on the verge of tears. I reached out and rubbed his head, but he jerked slightly, as if unsure whether it was really me.
“Are you okay?” he whined.
“Yes, I’m fine.” I laughed.
“What were you doing?” Elijah invited himself in, as if now knowing it was okay to enter. His arms were folded and he stood a comfortable distance from me.
He creased his forehead. “Praying?”
“Yes.” I smiled widely now, pretending my praying was the most normal thing in the world.
“I never saw no prayer like that,” Michael said.
“Shut up,” Elijah said, turning to his brother abruptly before returning his attention to me.
“Is that a special Christmas prayer or something?” Elijah said once our gazes met.
I couldn’t comprehend his expression. His forehead was still creased in curiosity, but his eyes looked hurt, as if I had betrayed him somehow. But I didn’t understand what this meant.
“No. It’s just prayer.”
He studied me as if I were not being completely honest.
“Does Dad know you pray like that?”
Stunned, I didn’t know what to say. I just looked at him.
It was our mother’s voice. Apparently, she didn’t know where they were.
They turned at the sound of their names and immediately started for the door. Michael ran out, disappearing into the hall, most likely anticipating dinner. But Elijah retreated out of obligation, giving me one last look before leaving, a look that told me he wasn’t finished with me.
My father arrived late that night, after we all had eaten and my brothers were in bed. I had finished praying ‘Ishaa minutes before and lay awake reflecting on my predicament. I had locked the door this time, having decided that it was better for my concentration. I was beginning to feel like a coward and wondered if I had the strength to be as open about my Islam as I had hoped.
There was a knock at my door followed by an attempt to open the door. But I hadn’t yet unlocked it after praying. I swung my legs to the floor and hurried to the door.
I greeted my father with a hug and talked to him only briefly before he made his way to his room. He was exhausted, I could see it in his eyes, and I wondered if his growing church was beginning to take a toll on him.
A moment later I realized that in two days, it would be Sunday.
I groaned. Church. I didn’t have too much of a choice in divulging my conversion.
I avoided church by saying I wasn’t feeling well, but on Monday afternoon I was beginning to feel suffocated by my sin of omission. I was sitting on one of the twin beds in Courtney’s room talking about school when she mentioned Patricia, who had graduated from Ball State a couple of years ago with a degree in interior design. It was known that my parents were disappointed with her major. Her love had always been political science, and before meeting James she had wanted to become a lawyer.
“I’m proud of her,” Courtney said from where she sat cross-legged on the bed opposite me. Her hair was pulled away from her face by an elastic band, and she wore a white Christmas tree sweatshirt and jeans. Small gold earrings glistened at her ears, illuminating the brown of her face. Her eyebrows were still joined, and I faintly recalled her once saying she wouldn’t separate them because she feared the hair would grow back thicker.
I too wore jeans and a sweatshirt, but my shirt was dull grey, bearing no tribute to the approaching holiday. In a week, Christmas would be here, and I felt no joy at the knowledge, only dread.
I nodded in response, not knowing what else to say. I always felt left out of their close relationship.
“She’s modeling now.”
“Modeling?” I wanted to make sure I’d heard Courtney correctly. “Modeling homes, you mean?”
Courtney rolled her eyes, a smirk on her face. “You would think that.”
I was quiet momentarily.
“She’s modeling. You know, like Naomi Campbell?” She studied my face for a few seconds as if making sure I’d heard of the model.
“You don’t sound happy.”
I shook my head. “It’s not that. I’m just…” I didn’t know how to put my feelings into words. It wasn’t that I disapproved, although I couldn’t safely say I agreed with her choice; it just wasn’t what I’d expected, especially given her newfound love for the church, even if it wasn’t the one we grew up in. “…shocked.”
“Why? ‘Cause it’s not what you’d do?”
It was a challenge, as if I were thirteen all over again. I chuckled to lighten the atmosphere. “Come on, Courtney, I’m a different person now.”
Skeptical, she raised her eyebrows. “Really?”
I laughed loudly. “You’re the one responsible for that.”
“Yes. Giving me all those CDs.”
“You listened to them?”
“I’m practically addicted.” And I was. But this was before I read, much later, the hadith forbidding musical instruments.
She looked surprised. “I’m impressed.”
“You’re not the only one with a mind of your own.”
She rolled her eyes playfully. “I already knew that. We were just waiting for you.”
“To wake up?” I joked.
She creased her forehead, then relaxed it a second later as the memory came to her. She laughed. “Yeah, to wake up.”
“Well,” I grinned, “I definitely woke up.”
She didn’t catch the hint in my words, but then again, I didn’t really expect her to. She had no idea I was Muslim.
“I’m just glad Tricia is happy.”
I nodded, thinking more of myself than my sister. “Me too.”
An awkward silence followed. In the quiet, I realized it was probably a good time to confess to my actions.
“You ever think about religion?” I asked.
She gathered her eyebrows as she met my gaze. “Religion?”
“Yeah, you know, which one is true?”
She shrugged then answered honestly. “Sometimes. I know what Dad says, but then again, Tricia seems to have found the truth.”
“But what about you?”
“Me?” She wrinkled her nose. “I don’t like all this religion stuff.”
“Really?” I don’t know why I was surprised. A couple of years ago, she had openly speculated the existence of God.
“I think you should just do what makes you happy. Nobody can tell you what that is.”
I considered her point briefly. “But you don’t believe there’s one religion that’s the truth?”
She lifted a shoulder and shook her head. “To be honest, I don’t know.” She paused for a few seconds, her gaze distant for a moment. “And, honestly, I don’t care. Not right now.”
I leaned forward, intrigued, forgetting my troubles right then. “Why not?”
“You know,” she said, looking at me in accusation. “You saw how we grew up. I don’t think it’s right to tell somebody how to live their life.”
“Even your own children?”
“Especially your own children.”
I was quiet as I took in her words. “But what do you teach them then?”
“That they have their own minds and can choose for themselves what to believe.”
“What about their souls?”
“What about them?” She looked at me as if disgusted. “I’m not God.”
“So you think all religions are true?”
She shook her head. “No, I think none of them are.”
Taken aback, my eyes widened. “None of them?”
“You show me one that only believes in God and doesn’t follow a whole bunch of manmade laws, then I’ll eat my words.”
Silence followed. I was surprised that I had said it. My heart raced and I reluctantly met my sister’s gaze, but she just looked confused.
“Yes, you know, the religion.”
I was offended by her mention of our cousin. She never seemed to like him. “No. His religion wasn’t Islam. It was the Nation of Islam. There’s a difference.”
She stared at me, but I couldn’t tell what she was thinking.
I briefly explained the difference, but she didn’t seem satisfied.
“You’re talking about that Middle Eastern religion?”
“It started in the Middle East, but it’s not only for Arabs.”
She shook her head. “That’s worse than The Church.”
Her comment stung, mostly because I knew how much she loathed our childhood church. It was the worst insult she could possibly give. I felt myself growing defensive. “Nothing’s worse than The Church.”
She looked at me with widened eyes. Even I couldn’t believe what I’d said. I was trying to insult her, but it came out all wrong. I had insulted my father instead.
We said nothing for a few minutes, lost in our thoughts, and surprise.
“Well,” she said after some time, as if trying to make me feel better, “like I said, people should be able to believe whatever they want.”
I decided to leave it at that for the time being, unsure how the conversation would play out if I said more. Besides, it was time for Asr.
Monday evening, Reggie came over but I ignored him, leaving him to chat with my father. I said hello but nothing more, and returned to my room to read a book and pray. He came over almost everyday after that, and I grew irritated. My frustration was mostly because he came unannounced, and my brothers or sister let him in without telling me first. I had been covering my hair in front of males for months, and I hated feeling like I’d have to cover in my own home. But because I never knew when he was coming over, I never covered my hair. I merely excused myself after exchanging polite words when I ran into him. I made it clear that I had no desire for his company. Only when he called would he get a little more conversation out of me, but even that was strained.
The opportunity to chat with him wasn’t even remotely appealing to me, and I found myself turned off by him more and more each day. He seemed so immature in his attempts to win me over, and I found myself wondering what I’d seen in him in the first place. He was still a dedicated member of my father’s church, and even that seemed artificial to me. But then again, maybe he was really a believer.
I wasn’t. So it didn’t really matter.
On the morning of Christmas Eve, I avoided church again, but this time there was some arguing. I said I didn’t want to go, and my parents insisted. Courtney stayed out of it, watching it all unfold with no apparent emotion either way.
“It’s Christmas Eve,” my mother said, as if it wasn’t obvious.
“I know. And I’m not going.”
“You are going,” my father said, glaring at me.
“I’m not.” For some reason, Courtney’s presence encouraged me, and I was determined to get my way.
“Renee,” my mother’s voice rose in anger, “get dressed now.”
“Mom, I said I’m not going.”
My face grew hot, but I wasn’t backing down. It was strangely refreshing to stand my ground for once. I shook my head.
A second later, my mother grabbed my arm and tried to lead me toward the steps to my room. I followed, unwilling to physically fight my mother. I stumbled up the stairs behind her, catching Elijah studying me from where he stood in the doorway to the kitchen. I held his gaze for a moment, my head turned awkwardly behind me. He held the same hurt expression from a week earlier, but now I detected understanding. I sensed he knew this act of rebellion was somehow related to my strange prayer. Michael stood next to him, dressed in an identical three-piece suit and tie, perplexed. He had no idea what was going on.
My mother nearly shoved me through the doorway to my room. A second later, my father stood behind her, shocking me. It was as if he merely appeared. I hadn’t heard him behind us.
Crossing her arms, my mother repeated her command. “Get dressed.”
I sat on the bed, feeling tears sting my eyes. “I’m not going.”
She stormed into the room and stood towering over me as my father took her place in the doorway. “You’ll put a dress on and get in the car.”
“Why aren’t you going?” My father’s voice startled me in its abruptness.
I had to lean my head slightly to the right to see him. I blinked, trying to catch my breath. I didn’t want to break down. “It’s a pagan holiday.”
For a minute, it felt as if all the air had been sucked from the room.
In the stillness, it took them several seconds to register what I’d said.
My mother stepped back, wounded. “What?”
My father’s brows furrowed as he stepped inside the room. “Excuse me?”
For some reason his challenge emboldened me. I raised my voice. “It’s a pagan holiday.”
“What’s a pagan holiday?” It was a dare. I had never opposed my father before, but I somehow felt a firm resolve to stick to my position.
My mother was speechless.
“It’s not Jesus’ birthday. It’s some sun god’s. We shouldn’t be celebrating it anyway. I thought we were following pure Christianity.” My words were rushed, as if afraid I wouldn’t get them out in time. I wanted my parents to feel the sting of every word.
Now, when I reflect on this moment, I cringe. I see my arrogance for what it was, and my gross lack of wisdom. It was the wrong thing to say, the wrong day, wrong in every possible way. It wasn’t da’wah by any stretch of the imagination, and it certainly wasn’t representative of the religion I’d embraced—a faith that considered dishonoring one’s parents a grave sin. Perhaps I had read this somewhere, perhaps not. Either way, I was being hot headed, representative of nothing except my ignorant self. I could have called them ahead of time and told them of my religion, given them a heads-up, anything but this. But as it stands, I’ll always remember this morning as the day I was afflicted with the infamous youthful zeal.
“Who do you think you are?” my father spat out.
“You taught us to follow pure Christianity, that’s what I’m doing. Jesus never told us to decorate trees and celebrate paganism.”
“And what makes you the scholar?”
“What makes you?”
My father smacked me so hard, and fast, that I didn’t realize he could reach so far, and inflict so much pain. I fell to the side, holding my cheek in anger.
I could have left it at that. But now my pride was hurt, so I took the leap. I narrowed my eyes at him before I spoke.
“Is that what Jesus teaches?”
The silence that followed was biting, cold. I had won. I had to repress a snide grin.
They looked at me for a few more seconds, my mother’s lip upturned, my father glaring, breathing heavily, trying to compose himself.
I had won.
When I heard the front door open and close a few minutes later, followed by the starting of the car, I laughed out loud. But was met with only the echoing of my own voice.
I had won.
But, strangely, I felt as if the walls were closing in on me. I felt the air shift, as if even it didn’t want to be near me. It was then that I knew I was free to believe whatever I wanted. Just like Courtney had said.
Because I was no longer considered a part of the Morris family.
Christmas Eve came and went, and the excitement in the house grew as I heard Michael and Elijah scream in anticipation of opening their presents, oblivious to my crimes of the day before. I heard their restless feet pounding down the stairs after midnight and the whoops and hollers as they opened their presents. I was surprised to hear Courtney’s motherly voice as she asked them questions and feigned surprise as they opened their presents. I didn’t hear my parents at all, imagining them to be smiling off to the side, unable to offer more overt pleasure than that. I had taken that from them. I then understood what was happening. My sister was compensating for their inability to participate like they usually did.
I felt betrayed, enraged at Courtney for siding with them. She hadn’t said a word to me since my refusal to attend church, and in my fury, I branded her a two-faced hypocrite. I was breathing fire as I sat alone in my room, still too zealous to realize I had dug my own grave. I blamed my sister, The Church, my father, my mother, and even Patricia. Anyone but myself.
Even now I recall how, although I was left to pray in peace, I was unable to relax as I stood before Allah. I had yet to learn this was because of my sins. It didn’t occur to me then that I had displeased God in the least. I imagined that my actions had been for His sake.
This was soon to become a familiar theme in my zealous transgressions.
But, for the moment, I was drawing the battle lines, imagining that it was my new religion that they hated, not me. Yet, they hadn’t even learned of my Islam.
Patricia and her husband arrived Christmas evening, apparently having wanted to be home for the morning. There was a lot of cheer in the house as James and his son filled the home with carefree laughter. I heard lots of oohs and ahs, which I later discovered were because Emanuel, who was now about fourteen months, was walking like a big boy, and talking like one too, at least in his own language.
Once again, I felt left out, and resentful.
I lay in my bed staring at the ceiling, too prideful to go downstairs and greet Patricia. I was tired, frustrated, and hungry. But I was paralyzed by loneliness and pride. So I suffered in silence.
I was surprised when I heard a knock at my door a couple of hours later. Not bothering to answer or get up, I raised my head and watched the brass handle turn and the door open.
Patricia peered in. Our eyes met immediately, and she smiled, stepping inside and closing the door behind her. Her skin was paler than I remembered, but then again, I was always taken aback by her white complexion. But she looked good, at least in the worldly sense, but I still couldn’t picture her on a catwalk. She didn’t seem to belong there, although her fitting black dress and long permed hair said that she did.
Her kind expression inspired me to sit up and smile weakly in return.
“Hey.” She took a seat next to me and punched me playfully in the shoulder.
“Hey,” I said.
“Why aren’t you downstairs? For a second, I thought you were still in Maryland.”
I tried to laugh, but I couldn’t. “No, I’m here.”
In the seconds that passed, we looked at each other. Her lips were closed tight in an expression of understanding, as if she felt sorrowful affection for me. She seemed older than I remembered, and more mature. Her eyes were tired but loving, and I felt something inside me go warm. I loved her. I hadn’t really felt it so completely before.
I knew then that my parents had told her. I could have been angered by that, but, strangely, I was glad they did. Perhaps I was relieved that I hadn’t been completely forgotten.
“What’s going on with you?” Her expression changed to concern. She laid a hand on my thigh, a gesture to let me know she wanted to hear it from me and see my point of view.
I looked away from her momentarily, unsure how to respond. “Didn’t they tell you?” I was being sarcastic, still too hurt to open up completely.
“They told me what you said, but that doesn’t tell me anything.”
I shrugged. “Well, what do you want to know?”
“What’s going on.”
“Ray.” Her voice was soft, as if she was leveling with me and saying, Let’s be real.
I sighed, gathering my thoughts. But the words that came surprised me. They weren’t the ones I’d planned in my mind. “I’m Muslim.”
I wasn’t looking at her at the moment, but her already still hand stiffened and slowly she moved it from my lap. After a few seconds, I met her gaze, unashamed by what I’d said. Her eyes were slightly widened, and I imagined that she had that expression frozen on her face.
She was speechless.
I was too.
Again, the seconds passed and we looked at each other. Then she blinked, the deliberate blinking that one does to ascertain they had heard correctly. Her gaze grew distant and concerned, and she bit her lower lip, shaking her head as if she couldn’t process my words.
“Are you sure?”
It was the oddest question anyone has ever asked me after I shared my conversion. But I understood that she was simply trying to reconcile what was happening, what had happened. It simply made no sense.
She looked at me, brows furrowed. “Mom and Dad said you were some fundamentalist Christian now.”
I furrowed my brows. “Fundamentalist?” I’d never heard the word used in real life. It was a term I associated with television, and it was never in the laudatory sense.
“Yes.” She was still looking at me, demanding an explanation.
My expression softened as I realized the misunderstanding. “I said I was following pure Christianity.”
She shook her head at a loss. “But you just said you’re Muslim.”
“I know. That’s what a Muslim is.”
“A fundamentalist Christian?”
“Patricia,” I said, my voice on the verge of frustration, “I don’t even know what a fundamentalist is.”
“An extremist.” Her voice rose in accusation and rebuke. “A person who takes things literally and life too seriously.”
“You mean, like The Church?” Again, I was defending myself by insulting our childhood church. It wasn’t right, but I was offended. I had no idea what she was getting at, but I knew it had nothing to do with what I truly believed.
“Ray,” her voice was a plea now, “don’t you know those people oppress and kill people in the name of their religion?”
My head pulled back in shock and disgust. “What people?”
“What?” I almost jumped from where I was sitting I was so taken aback by her ludicrous statement. This was worse than Reggie saying women had to hide under the floorboards. “Where did you hear something like that?”
“Do you even watch the news, Ray?”
At that, I felt my chest grow hot in anger. “The news?”
“As in television?”
I contorted my face and made her taste my disappointment. “The same TV that did blackface comedy? The same TV that showed Blacks as animals? The same TV that still stereotypes us?”
“Why, Patricia, because it’s you getting hurt? Did you even learn anything from what happened to us?”
“But look at what they do in their countries, Ray. That’s not a stereotype.”
“And look at what so-called Christians do in this country, what they’ve done for centuries.” I wanted to yell, but I kept my voice as composed as I could manage. “It was the Bible they pointed to when they told us we weren’t human. It was the Bible they used to justify oppressing us, Patricia, killing us, oppressing the whole world. Do you even study history? What about the Crusades? Or even what’s happening today?”
Amazingly, she stayed calm, but I could tell I’d made her shift gears. “But Christ called to peace. Their religion calls to violence.”
She shook her head, clearly not up to arguing. “Look, Ray, all I’m saying is the only truth is through Jesus as your Lord and Savior.”
“So now you think he’s God?” I couldn’t believe she’d actually regressed spiritually. “We never believed that, not even in The Church.”
“But our church isn’t a real church, Ray. It’s heresy.”
“Did you tell Dad that?”
She drew in a deep breath. “Dad and Mom know what I believe now. I just pray they accept the truth one day, for the sake of their souls.”
For a moment, I was more infuriated with her than I was with my parents. At that point in my life, I couldn’t fathom a person actually believing Jesus is God after being raised to worship God himself.
“So you believe in the Trinity now?”
She nodded. “Yes, I do. And I hope you’ll find Christ too.”
“But how can you believe that?”
“Because it’s the truth, Ray. I can witness to that.”
I stared at her, my eyes pleading. “But on the Day of Judgment, Patricia, can you witness to that then?”
I was hoping to spark something inside her, make her think about what she was saying, even fear standing before the Creator carrying the most grievous sin possible—associating partners with Him.
She smiled, rolling her eyes up to the ceiling in pleasant reflection. “God, Ray, if you knew all that Jesus has done for me, you’d know my answer to that.” She sighed. “One day, hopefully, I can make you understand.”
I was perplexed. I didn’t know what to say.
Today, I’m more polished and can point out the inconsistencies in the belief that someone other than God answered one’s prayers, even if a person calls on other than Him. As one convert reflected in a book I’d read, “In His infinite Mercy, Allah answered my prayers when I called on other than Him, why shouldn’t I answer His call to mercy that I can attain through worshipping only Him?” But at the moment, I was too shell-shocked to even comprehend that she could believe that.
Dinner went more smoothly than I expected, although my parents’ exaggerated laughter and intonations in James and Patricia’s company made it clear that they hadn’t forgotten, or forgiven, my impropriety. It was all they could do to deny my presence entirely. I was grateful.
Courtney wore a tight-lipped smile and kept looking at Emanuel, who was entertaining himself on the floor. I sensed that this too was an effort to avoid me. I sat directly across from her, but her eyes danced over me whenever she took a bite of food, preferring to turn at every sound of her nephew. Patricia sat next to me, her husband on her other side, and they made obvious efforts to include me, looking at me each time they shared a story or told a joke. There was something unsettling about this scene, particularly Courtney’s avoidance of my gaze, but I couldn’t pinpoint what it was.
Whenever my and Elijah’s eyes met, I made a weak attempt at looking pleasant. It was due more to unease than kindness. He couldn’t stop staring at me from where he sat next to Courtney, Michael on his other side. Fortunately, my parents sat farthest from me, my father at the head and my mother at an awkward angle next to him, as if her chair placement had been an afterthought.
My Islam was not mentioned during the entire meal, and I couldn’t help being impressed with Patricia for her silence. Or perhaps she had forgotten my confession, or simply viewed it as insignificant in light of what I had already been accused of.
I doubted it.
I waited for her to drop the news.
She didn’t, at least not until we were relaxing in the living room after dinner. But I don’t think she meant to betray me. It was the logical response to the flow of conversation at the moment.
“I see some unopened boxes under the tree,” James had said, bending forward as he steered Emanuel from the gifts, his large hand on his son’s back. My brother-in-law tilted his head as he read the name.
My heart sank as I realized what should have been obvious, logical even.
I was the only one who hadn’t participated in this morning’s activities. The boxes were mine.
I sat on a chair at the edge of the living room, facing my family. I didn’t feel comfortable on the floor with Patricia and James, and certainly not on the couch with my parents, Courtney on the loveseat at an angle next to them. In any case, Michael was wedged between my mother and father, Elijah sitting lazily on the arm of the couch.
I didn’t belong there. My presence was merely a necessary completion to the familial atmosphere.
At James’s words, my mother stood immediately and walked over to the tree and scooped up the gifts in her arms, managing to carry all five somehow. My heart ached as I watched the boxes’ shimmering paper—gold, red, and green—against her arms as she carried them to the foyer closet. I wasn’t hurting because I wanted the presents, but because I knew how much effort must have gone into selecting them. I felt horrible. She deposited the gifts in the closet before returning to her place on the couch.
She grinned. But her gaze was on Emanuel. “There,” she said. “Out of the way.”
He laughed and ran to the tree again, this time tugging on the branches. Again, James stood, reaching to pick his son up before Emanuel pulled down the tree.
“Why are those the only ones left?” James was grinning, so I knew he meant no harm. He was preparing another joke. I cringed when he looked at me. “You have a special time you open yours that nobody knows about?”
The room grew quiet and I felt all eyes on me. My face grew hot and I tugged at the hem of my long-sleeve T-shirt. “Not really.” I wished my parents had told James about my “Christian fundamentalism” when they had told Patricia. It would have saved me the headache.
I knew my parents wanted to steer the conversation in another direction. I could sense it. But no one knew what to say, so in a way, Patricia saved us.
“She’s Muslim.” Her words were soft, matter-of-fact, and non-judgmental. I remember that. But, still, it was a moment of revelation for everyone else. I think she was as confused by their reaction as they had been by her words, but I’m sure it was only a matter of seconds before it occurred to her that she was the only one who had known.
I twisted the hem of my shirt and glanced up, heart racing. I looked at my brother-in-law first. But he was looking at his wife. A half grin was still on his face and he was leaning sideways, tugging at the hand of his son, who was insisting on toppling the tree. His expression said, No kidding? but he said only, “What?”
“Muslims don’t celebrate Christmas.” Her voice remained kind, diplomatic even, as if her words explained it all.
My eyes darted in my parents’ direction, and I found them glaring at me in disbelief, their firm set jaws demanding an explanation or a denial. I dropped my gaze then lifted it, willing myself to meet their stare. But I couldn’t take it.
Inadvertently, my and Courtney’s eyes met, and for a second I held her gaze, stunned by the seething anger I saw there. Her nose flared before she rolled her eyes, turning from me. But, like everyone else, she said nothing.
“Is that true?” my mother demanded, her eyes narrowing.
“Yes.” I was surprised by how calm I felt, even as my hands were trembling slightly.
My father shook his head at me. Then he and my mother, as if on cue, looked at each other. I didn’t know what they were thinking, but I sensed they felt that their fears had been confirmed.
“So you were talking to William?”
The mention of someone else took me off guard, and at first I didn’t know whom my father was talking about.
“William?” I said his name as if I’d never heard of him.
“The time for games is over, Renee.”
“I’m not playing.”
“You know very well what I’m talking about.”
I shook my head, my forehead creased as I struggled to understand my father’s meaning. Seconds later, it occurred to me that I did know William. “You mean Reggie’s friend?”
“What about him?” I was genuinely confused.
“You told us you two haven’t been talking.”
It was then that I recalled our last conversation about religion. They had hoped William wasn’t trying to convert me. “We haven’t.”
“I don’t talk to him.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
“But, Dad, this has nothing to do with him.”
“Oh? So I suppose it’s just a coincidence that you joined his religion?”
I felt myself growing agitated, but I tried to remain calm. “It’s not his religion. It’s Islam.”
“I know what it is.”
Defeated, I stared at him, growing more furious by the second. He couldn’t be serious. Amid my raging emotions, I was offended. I had a mind of my own. I could think for myself. Why would I do something because of William? He meant nothing to me. We weren’t even friends.
“I told you to stay away from him.”
“Don’t lie to me.” His voice rose in anger, daring me.
“I’m not lying.”
“Daddy, what’s a Muslim?” The innocence in Michael’s voice softened the tension somewhat, derailing my father, at least for the moment.
My father’s eyes glanced down at his son and softened slightly. “A heathen,” he said, looking at me again. “That’s what it is.”
“It’s a person who only prays to God and believes God doesn’t have children,” I said, my eyes on my little brother. “And who believes in all of God’s prophets, including Jesus.”
“What’s wrong with that?” Michael asked innocently.
For a second, I thought my father was talking to Michael, but when I looked at him, I saw that his eyes were on me. But Michael’s eyes widened as he looked at our father in fear, realizing he had said something wrong.
“Don’t corrupt my children.”
“Corrupt?” I almost laughed, but I didn’t. “But you don’t even know anything about Islam, so how can you—”
“You don’t know what I know. Don’t forget, I know more about religion than you ever will.”
Oh yeah. Harvard University. “Then why aren’t you Muslim?”
If my father hadn’t been rubbing Michael’s back at that moment, I think he would have slapped me again. But this time, I wasn’t trying to be caustic. I really wanted to know. I couldn’t fathom a person studying the religion and not accepting it.
“Because it’s a load of crap.”
I started to say something, but I bit my lip. I didn’t want a repeat of the day before.
“It’s okay,” James said, clearly unable to relax in a conversation devoid of laughter. A grin still lingered on his face, but he was sitting now, as was Emanuel, who appeared as engrossed in the exchange as everyone else.
“No,” my father said, “it is not.”
“But James and I believe differently than you,” Patricia said, trying to patch up the wound she had unwittingly inflicted.
“Patricia,” my mother cut in, her patience running thin, “don’t make excuses for your sister. She has no right bringing a pagan religion into our home.”
Out of respect, Patricia dropped her gaze, her fingers tugging at the carpet. I could tell she wanted to say more, but she wasn’t willing to argue with her mother.
“It’s not a pagan religion,” I said.
My mother’s finger pointed at me. “You, close your mouth. I don’t want to hear another word from you.”
I frowned. “But that’s not fair.”
“What did I say?”
I grunted, but I remained quiet. I didn’t want to make things worse than they already were.
“Isn’t Christmas supposed to me merry?” It was Elijah’s question. His arms were folded, and he was pouting.
“Talk to your sister about that,” my mother said. She gave me a sideways glance, placing all the blame on me in that gesture. “That’s what happens when people leave the church. They ruin God’s blessings for everyone.”
How convenient, I thought. Blame the Muslim. I would get used to it over the years, but it wouldn’t get easier. I would always feel it was a copout, a cruel one at that. I wasn’t the first to get angry that Christmas evening, but somehow everyone’s anger was my fault.
My fondest memories of my holiday vacation that year are two: Patricia’s efforts to lighten the atmosphere that Christmas evening, and Elijah’s undying curiosity about my new faith, even as he and Michael were forbidden to talk to me, something I discovered by accident.
A couple of days before New Year’s Day, my mother went shopping, leaving Michael and Elijah in Courtney’s care at home. My father was gone, as usual, working at the church. Patricia and James had gone the day before, so Courtney had lost her companion, and the family had lost its mediator. Since Michael and Elijah were older now, they didn’t need constant vigilance, only an adult presence in the home. So after my mother left, Courtney retired to our parents’ bedroom to watch a movie, and I retired to mine to be alone. Since my secret was out, and since I wasn’t the first choice of company in the home, I kept my room door unlocked, even when I prayed.
I had just finished praying Dhuhr when I sensed someone else’s presence. I looked up to find Elijah in the doorway. This surprised me, mostly because I hadn’t heard the door open.
When our eyes met, I started to greet him, but he spoke first.
“I’m not allowed to talk to you.”
His words shocked me, not only because they were news to me, but because his very presence was in obvious contradiction to them.
I stared at him, his words hurting more than I let on. It cut deeply to know my parents would actually make such a rule, and behind my back. The hypocrisy upset me. When Patricia had done the unthinkable—got a boyfriend, eloped, and left the family’s church—no such injunction was passed down. But I had done only the latter. Where was the justice in that?
Despite my hurt feelings, and pride, I couldn’t help grinning at how more mature Elijah looked. The look on his face was grave, and if I didn’t know any better, I’d think he was at least thirteen. His arms were crossed defiantly, and his face was twisted in a pout. His eyes were glassy as he glared at me, as if blaming me for the injustice of our parents’ rule.
“Then why are you talking to me?”
I was only teasing him, but he seemed to grow more agitated. He pursed his lips and looked up momentarily, his arms still crossed in defiance.
“Can I come in?”
“Sure.” I gestured my hand toward my bed although I still sat on the floor, where I had finished praying.
He stepped inside, closed the door behind him, and locked it. His movements were so deliberate in their seriousness that I brought a hand to my mouth to keep from laughing.
He let out a heavy sigh when he sat down on my bed, facing me.
I stared at him. He stared at me.
“Do you want to know why I’m talking to you even though I can’t?” He was glaring at me, having resumed his pout, frowning with his arms crossed over his chest.
“I’m talking to you because I want to know why I can’t talk to you.”
“Ah,” I said, unable to keep the humor out of my tone, “yes, of course.” I paused.
“And you’re sure the rule doesn’t apply to the question at hand?”
He huffed and seemed to think seriously about it. “I don’t know. But I want to know anyway.”
“Okay…” I feigned concern. “But only if you’re sure it’s okay.”
“It’s fine, just hurry up. I don’t want Michael to wake up.”
“Oh yes, he might tell.”
He narrowed his eyes. “Of course he’ll tell.”
“Okay, then, let me speak quickly.” I drew in a deep breath and let it out, feeling my grin widen. “I don’t know.”
“What?” Clearly, this wasn’t the answer he wanted.
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?”
“I don’t know, Elijah. This is the first time I heard of the rule.”
“That don’t mean you don’t know.”
I furrowed my brows. “Why do you say that?”
“You know it’s because you’re that new religion now.” It was an accusation, as if I were trying to withhold something from him.
“Oh, you mean, Muslim.”
“Yeah, Muslim.” He stumbled over the last word, trying to analyze its pronunciation for himself, but eventually it came out right.
“Then if you know the reason, why are you asking?”
“Renee,” he said, frustrated, “I need to know what it means.”
“Because I might get in trouble too.”
I was silent for some time. “In trouble?”
“Yes, like you.”
“Why would you get in trouble?”
“Because I think I might be one.”
I studied him for a minute, unsure what he was saying. “You might be what?”
At that, I grew quiet, the reason for his distress becoming clear to me then. But so much of his unease was still a mystery. I had no idea if he knew what he was saying. After all, he was a child, only eight years old. It was possible that he was simply confused. Adults’ arguing often had that effect on children.
“But why would you think that, Elijah?”
“Because of what you said.”
I shook my head, squinting my eyes as I tried to grasp his meaning. I couldn’t. “What did I say?”
“You remember. On Christmas.”
“That I’m Muslim?”
“No.” He groaned, growing impatient with me. “You said Muslims believe in God.”
My eyebrows rose as the memory came back. I nodded. “Yes, I did.”
“And you said they believe God doesn’t have children.”
I nodded again. “You’re right. I remember saying that.”
“So what am I supposed to do?”
“I think I’m Muslim, Renee.” It came out as a whine.
I gathered my eyebrows. “But I’m the one who’s Muslim, Elijah, not you. You can’t get in trouble for that.”
“But I believe that too.”
I paused, staring at him as if seeing him for the first time. “You believe what?” I spoke slowly, wanting to make sure he understood my question clearly.
“That God doesn’t have children.”
I creased my forehead, concerned. “You don’t believe Jesus is the son of God?”
He wrinkled his nose. “I never believed that.”
“Even in church?”
“Church is stupid.”
I blinked, his words stinging. Despite my newfound belief, it just didn’t seem right for him to talk like that. “Don’t say that, Elijah. It’s not stupid, even if you don’t agree with all of it.”
“But it is stupid.”
“Don’t say stupid, Elijah.” I spoke as gently as I could. “Just say what bothers you.”
“When the ladies dance around like that.”
Oh. He was referring to the Holy Ghost. That used to terrify me as a child too.
“And that statue with blood on it. I don’t like it.”
I nodded, unable to say anything to that. I didn’t like it either. “But that doesn’t mean you’re Muslim.”
He groaned, his eyes going to the window for some time. “Then what am I?”
At that moment, I remembered reading that each child is born upon the fitrah, the inborn nature to worship God alone and submit to Him. In essence, we were all born Muslims. It was our families who made us otherwise.
I got to my feet and walked over to the bed, sitting next to him. I put my arm around him. He relaxed somewhat.
“Look,” I said, unsure what to say. I knew I’d be held accountable on the Day of Judgment if I didn’t tell him the truth. “You want to hear a story?”
At first, he didn’t respond. Then he shifted his shoulders in a shrug. “Okay.”
When I didn’t speak right away, he looked at me. Feeling his gaze on me, I pulled him closer and smiled.
“Before God put Adam’s children on the earth, He did something very important.” I looked at him then, and he blinked, waiting. “You know what it was?”
He shook his head.
“He asked all of us if we would testify that He alone is our Lord.”
“How many children did Adam have?”
I shook my head, still smiling. “I don’t know. But every person is from Adam, so we were all there when this happened, even me and you, and Mom and Dad. You heard of Adam and Eve, right?”
“They’re everyone’s parents. Even yours and mine. But this was way before Mom and Dad were born.”
“I know. I read about that.”
“Adam and Eve, you mean?”
“Well, good, because that makes the story easier to tell.” I took a deep breath before continuing, surprised by the slight pounding in my chest.
“So,” I said, “everybody said, ‘Yes, we testify that You are our Lord.’ And then God told them why He asked them to do this.” I paused. “You know why He made them testify?”
“He told everyone to do this so they’ll have no excuse on the Day of Judgment if they blame their parents for worshipping something other than Him.”
“But I don’t remember that.”
“I know. I don’t either.”
He looked confused.
“Nobody remembers, Elijah. Not in our minds. But in our hearts,” I reached over and touched his chest, “that’s where you hold the memory.”
“Well, in everyone’s heart is the truth. God created us like that. This is so that we don’t have to guess which religion is right. We know when we learn about it.”
His eyes were intent as he studied me, listening.
“So, I’m going to tell you something very important.” I met his gaze, an intent expression on my face. “But it’s something you can’t talk about until you’re big enough to go to college. Can you wait that long?”
He shrugged. “Okay.”
I paused, gathering my words. “You were right, Elijah.”
“Being Muslim. You are Muslim.”
He grinned hesitantly. “I am?”
“Yes, you are. Because you still believe in God like you’re supposed to.”
“I don’t want to get in trouble though.”
“Don’t worry about that. Just pray to God to help you learn more about being Muslim, and don’t say anything to anyone until you’re bigger, and God will take care of you.”
“Can you teach me about being Muslim?”
I hesitated, but nodded seconds later. “Yes, but only if no one knows.”
“I want to learn how to pray that special prayer you do.”
“Okay, but you remember what I said?”
“I won’t say anything.”
“Except to God.”
He nodded, grinning widely now. “Except to God.”
Before I returned to Maryland, I gave Elijah a small book on Islam and told him to keep it in a safe place. It was a pretty basic book, about the oneness of God, the five pillars, and the importance of prayer. I had no idea if I was digging my grave in the family or merely being an instrument of guidance to my brother who was Muslim at heart. Either way, my heart was at ease. I did the right thing, that I was sure about.
Standing at an oceanfront at sunrise can be a powerfully moving experience, as one is left in awe at the magnificent beauty of the sun stretching out over the horizon and announcing its presence to the world. The gentle ripples of the ocean glow and twinkle, moistened stars moving calmly upon the water.
At such a moment, one may marvel at what great power sustains a creation as magnificent as the sun. One may ponder what great force sets it in motion each day, a force causing it to rise and set on an infallible course, never falling short of its schedule.
A spiritual person credits this phenomenon to a Creator, feeling at that moment a closeness that reminds her that she is not alone in this world. Others may credit Mother Nature or science. Regardless of one’s explanation, no eyes can behold such splendor and truthfully believe it all occurred by chance, that there is no power setting it in motion and sustaining it each day.
For a Muslim, the majestic exhibition at sunrise evokes more than speculation as to the power behind its brilliance. The display is, undoubtedly, a sign from the Creator, a reminder of Allah’s eternal presence—and the reminder that she has a duty to Him.
She, at that moment, will know with certainty that life is not without purpose, and that her time is measured on the earth. Regret or sadness may well within because she recalls Allah’s countless mercies and blessings, and that she ever falls short in showing gratefulness to Him.
She may even feel fear, as the sight may have triggered thoughts of life beyond. Life in the grave, standing before Allah on the Day of Judgment, and one’s ultimate abode in Paradise…or Hell.
If she was afflicted with depression—that immense weight of shouldering life’s burdens—she may begin to feel a tinge of hope, or even joy. A smile may crease the sides of her mouth, because the magnificence reminds her that Allah is always near, as is His help. It is not unlikely that she will weep as the sun makes its way overhead. Her tears may be of joy or of sadness, or both.
The reason for such a poignant reaction to this simple solar movement rests in her knowledge of her Creator, of His attributes, of His sole right to worship, of His being far above having a son or daughter attributed to His Glory. The poignancy rests also in the camaraderie she feels in embracing the religion of Adam, Abraham, Jesus, and Muhammad, a faith untainted by falsehood or the finite constraints of the human mind.
The core of this knowledge of God, this firm belief, is formed by a unique concept that is the foundation of a religion whose concept of the Creator goes beyond the realms of mere emotion or spiritual experience.
The year 1996 will always hold a special place in my memory. It is, for me, the year of enlightenment. It is the year that the light of Islam illuminated my heart, broadened my mind, and guided me on a path that would remain my fortitude in life, even in times of difficulty. It is also the year that I first understood truly the meaning of my shahaadah. What I learned that year has become so much a part of me that the knowledge permeates my very being and directs my words and actions. Yet, it is life experience—my triumphs and errors, the suffering of bumps and bruises, and the simmering of my youthful zeal—that would transform my spiritual knowledge into the light of wisdom.
The year began routinely, with my returning to the University of Maryland in the middle of January to complete the second semester of my third year. I was a math major, but my love for algebra and trigonometry and statistics and calculus settled in a place at the far back of my mind as I moved on to embrace more completely my new faith.
I was still sore over what had happened on vacation, but it didn’t abate my inspiration to delve deeply into the world of Islam. I was hungry for Muslim companionship and wanted badly to be in the company of Sumayyah and Hadiyah. It felt like years since I’d last seen them.
Because the term had just begun, I withheld calling Nasrin. Less than a week into the new term Felicia and Anita became cruelly unbearable again. But now I was less intimidated than I was irritated in their presence. Perhaps it was because I now had a choice to sleep elsewhere, or perhaps it was simply because I began to see them for what they were—heartless and immature. Till today, I cannot understand how a person’s religious choice can spark so much animosity in the hearts of others. Or perhaps, the sight of someone openly choosing a different faith doesn’t inspire animosity at all but instead incites a deep, painful reminder of one’s own shortcomings. I imagine that, left alone, this insecurity can lead to a host of unpleasant eruptions in the heart.
This, I can relate to.
There was a time, after the youthful euphoria had tempered, that I became so spiritually discontented that I no longer recognized myself, let alone the turmoil of my heart.
But that wasn’t so in 1996. That year, I hadn’t yet learned the authenticity of internal struggle or its intricacy. I was on a high, and my inevitable dips in faith were diminutive. My spiritual lows amounted to, at worst, my lessening the amount of voluntary prayers I performed in a day. I didn’t imagine it could, or would, get worse than that.
My year of enlightenment began with my experiencing Ramadan for the first time. The month of fasting began on the twenty-second of January—although I didn’t discover this until the twenty-fifth.
I was in the suite furiously throwing my important belongings into a black garbage bag, mumbling under my breath with each motion. I was so aggravated that I didn’t even think about the suitcase that I had tucked away in my closet. I had decided minutes earlier that I couldn’t stand Felicia or Anita any longer. I didn’t even call Nasrin. I was going to simply show up at her door. If I had tears in my eyes when I knocked, so be it. Maybe then she’d have sympathy on me and forgive the sudden intrusion.
The phone rang, the sound making my heart leap. My eyes immediately shot in the direction of the door—an irrational reaction, but that’s how on edge I was at the moment. My roommates’ treatment was becoming more and more condescending, and we hadn’t even been back to school a good two weeks.
The phone rang again. This time I let out a sigh, my left hand over my heart as I rolled my eyes to the ceiling in relief that it wasn’t my former friends returning.
On the third ring, I walked over and lifted the receiver from its cradle.
“Hello?” I could hear the edginess in my voice, expecting the call to be for Felicia or Anita.
I was so unaccustomed to hearing the Islamic greeting of peace, especially on the telephone, that it took me a moment to realize that I understood the foreign phrase.
I replied, my broken Arabic pathetic even to my novice ears.
“This is Nasrin. How was your vacation?”
Her voice was chipper, a sharp contrast to the atmosphere of my room right then. I was delighted to hear a familiar voice, especially a Muslim one. I often think back to how, at that moment, I felt an instant connection with Nasrin, despite having met her only once. Inside, the stress that was constricting my chest eased, and my heart opened. I forgot my troubles and felt a grin spread on my face.
I exhaled audibly and shook my head, still grinning. “Don’t ask.”
I heard her chuckle. “Okay, never mind.”
“No problem.” There was a brief pause.
“Could be better,” I said. “How are you and Joni getting along these days?”
At that, she laughed. “Oh, you know, inseparable. Like always.”
“She’s back for good?”
“Hmm. Don’t think so. You know, absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
“Yes, of course.” I twisted the black plastic in my fist as nervousness overtook me. “You up to knowing the opposite of that?”
When she didn’t catch on, I said, “Right before you called, I was just thinking how you were growing too fond of me.”
“Really?” Her high pitch told me she understood the joke. “Great. I was beginning to like you a lot. It was making me uncomfortable.”
“So you really don’t mind?” My voice was serious now, on the verge of a plea.
“Of course not. I already told you that. When will you come?”
I hesitated. “Now?”
She laughed again. “No problem. That works out better anyway.”
“Better than what?”
“Me coming to you.”
“You were thinking of coming here?”
“I meant to pick you up, not live.” There was amusement in her voice.
“Oh.” I didn’t know what she meant by picking me up but I didn’t want her to know that, sensing this was something I was supposed to already know.
An awkward silence followed.
“Don’t you want to know why I was coming to pick you up?”
I coughed in embarrassment, but I was still smiling. “Oh yeah. Sure.”
“There’s an iftaar tomorrow night. I can’t stay long though. But Sumayyah said it’s no problem for her to take you home.”
I creased my forehead and adjusted the phone at my ear. “There’s a what tomorrow?”
“An iftaar, you know? That’s what we call it when we break our fast.”
For a few seconds Nasrin said nothing. When she spoke again, she sounded concerned. “You know Ramadan started Monday, right?”
For a moment I didn’t understand the question. Then, vaguely, I recalled reading about Ramadan, the month of fasting. “Ramadan started on Monday?” It was Thursday.
“Nobody told you?”
I felt my head begin to ache. “No, I… This is the first time I heard about it.”
“Are you serious?” Nasrin sounded upset, but it was clear that she wasn’t blaming me. “I’m so sorry, Renee. Astaghfirullaah. I just assumed… I mean, we should’ve known…”
Feeling guilty that she was beating herself up about this, I said, “Don’t worry. I should’ve called you when I first got back.”
“No, it’s my fault. I’m the one who should’ve called. But…” She drew in a deep breath. “Well… what’s important is that you know now.”
“When you get here, I’ll make sure you have suhoor and iftaar everyday inshaAllaah. That way at least you don’t have to go emergency shopping for your meals.”
Minutes before sunset on Friday evening, Nasrin and I pulled in front of a large brick home. I was slightly self-conscious as the car slowed, aware of the khimaar that I wore in place of my favored African wrap. The fabric was soft against the sides of my face and beneath my chin, where it was pinned with a small silver brooch. Nasrin had helped me arrange the white fabric about my head so that the cloth fell over my shoulders and my neck was concealed. She had told me briefly about the hijaab and its conditions, and I felt embarrassed as I recalled reading about hijaab in a book. I don’t know why it never occurred to me that my wrap was not consistent with the Islamic injunction to display, at most, “face and hands” in front of unrelated males. Later, when I read the Qur’anic verses on hijaab, I realized my mistake immediately. I hadn’t used the head cover itself to cover my neck and chest.
I self-consciously ran a hand over the cloth on my head as my attention was drawn to the massive house, a feeling of awe overtaking me as I gazed at it through the passenger side window. A circular window glowed above the double doors of the home, displaying a massive chandelier sparkling and winking in illumination. Four white pillars stood proudly from the roof to the ground, guarding the expansive front porch.
Next to me, Nasrin was nonchalant as she slowly guided the car into a space along the dark winding driveway aligned with small heaps of snow. Three cars—a Lexus, BMW, and Mercedes—were already parked along the curved drive that was shaped like a U, facilitating passage to and from the home. We got out of the Camry and walked together up the cement path leading to the front door.
“The sister hosting the iftaar is Sister Desta,” Nasrin told me, her breath white clouds that appeared gray next to the white khimaar she wore on her head. “But most people call her Umm Muhammad because her oldest son is Muhammad.”
“She lives here?”
“Yes. Her son and daughter live here too with their families.”
Nasrin pressed the doorbell with a gloved finger, setting off the sound of a tune playing behind the door. Pushing my hands deep into my pockets, I turned to admire the other homes, some of which still bore elaborate decorations for Christmas.
“She said her niece goes to Maryland.”
“Really?” My voice was of feigned interest. The cold was beginning to cut through my coat and I wanted to go inside.
“But I’m not sure if she’s practicing.”
“No, their family’s Muslim, like mine. They’re from—”
The door opened. “As-salaamu’alaikum.” A woman with a broad smile greeted us, stepping aside as we entered, the warmth of the house drifting toward us in that motion. I relaxed, relieved to be out of the cold.
The woman wore a large gray khimaar that hung to her knees, revealing only the cinnamon brown of her face. I’d never seen a garment like it. It appeared as though she was wearing two gray skirts, one on her head and the other at her waist. It was beautiful.
The soft fabric gathered at the wrist of her henna-dyed hands, revealing gold bangles as she extended her palm to greet me and Nasrin before pulling each of us into a hug. She smelled faintly of food, the same rich aroma that filled the foyer, tickling our nostrils and reminding us of how hungry we were.
She took our coats and gestured for us to put our shoes in the room to our right. We stepped inside the room, removing our shoes before placing them on a small shelf reserved for that purpose.
“Renee, this is Fana, Sister Desta’s daughter,” Nasrin said when we returned to the foyer, gesturing toward the sister who greeted us. “And Fana, this is Renee. She took her shahaadah a few months ago.” Nasrin broke into a grin, her face glowing with pride as she turned to me.
Fana’s eyes widened and brightened, and she embraced me again. “Mabrook!”
“Actually,” I said as she released me, “it’s been like a year now.”
“She goes to Maryland,” Nasrin chimed.
“Really?” Fana was so excited that it was contagious. I couldn’t keep from grinning. I was unaccustomed to people being intrigued by me. “My cousin goes there too.”
I nodded, remembering Nasrin telling me that. “Yes, I know.”
“You know her?” Her eyes sparkled in anticipation of having something in common.
“What’s her name?”
“Abrinet.” I’m not sure if this is the name Fana said. The pronunciation was so awkward to my ears that I can’t be certain that I’m remembering it correctly, or putting the right vowels and consonants in order. This would remain a struggle for me for the next couple of years, my ears and mind adjusting to learning so many foreign names at once. After becoming Muslim, I was thrust into a world of true multiculturalism after living in Black and White all my life. It wasn’t easy. Despite my good memory, recalling names and saying them properly were true challenges for me.
I shook my head, my eyes squinted, a smile still on my face. “I don’t think so. Nasrin and Sumayyah are the only Muslims I know there.”
Fana looked as if she were about to say something but withheld.
“She’s here,” Fana said, tugging my hand. “Let me introduce you.”
She led me to an expansive living room, where she directed me and Nasrin to sit, the smell of exotic food burning my nostrils as my stomach growled. Fana disappeared down a hall, and Nasrin, who sat beside me, glanced at her watch.
“I think it’s time,” she whispered.
“I hope so.”
A minute later, Fana emerged from the hall carrying a tray, behind her a young woman who wore a wide light blue traditional dress of some sort. The woman’s hair was uncovered, synthetic braids spilling over a shoulder and behind her neck. Red lipstick glowed from her lips that bore a wide cordial smile, but the dark makeup around her eyes did not hide her displeasure with her cousin having dragged her out to greet us. Nevertheless, her hand was extended as she approached where Nasrin and I sat, Fana’s cheerful voice explaining that Nasrin brought a new Muslim with her who went to Maryland. Nasrin and I stood to greet her, polite smiles on our faces.
Abrinet stood before us, and my eyes met hers, recognition coming to me slowly, mostly because the face was completely out of context. Abrinet’s face fell, her hand dropping just as I extended mine. A scowl replaced her smile and her nose flared. Abruptly, she rolled her eyes, turned her back on us and walked out, angry footfalls heavy on the steps as she retreated.
Dumbfounded, I stood with my hand still extended, my smile fading as I realized what had just happened—and who she was. My face grew hot and I felt the beginning of a headache. The realization came to me in blurred pieces, fogging my perception. It took, perhaps, a full minute for it all to make sense to me.
I remember Fana’s mouth falling open in shock and her eyes widening in disbelief. A second later, her eyes narrowed in anger, a tray of dates still in her hands.
“It’s time,” I remember Nasrin saying softly, reaching for two dates and handing one to me. Mechanically, I took the strange fruit, my eyes burning behind my lids, my mind elsewhere.
Fana set the tray on a table in front of us, saying quickly, “The sisters are eating downstairs” before she disappeared up the stairs.
The doorbell rang, and I saw Nasrin hasten to get it, aware that Fana would not be able to. The door opened and the sounds of cheerful greetings filled the house. My chest tightened as I recalled the painful encounter.
Felicia was the last person I expected to see there that night.
I didn’t go downstairs to join the other sisters, not for another hour. I was too shaken. Instead, Fana returned minutes later apologizing profusely and guiding me out of the living room—out of view of other guests. Her hand was gently on my back as she ushered me into a room down the hall where she and her cousin had entered minutes before.
Nasrin had grown quiet and hung back, unsure what to do. She had no idea what was going on. She had never met my roommates, so it wasn’t possible for her to make sense of anything.
In the room, I sat on a soft bed, the date still in my hand.
“Eat,” Fana said, seating herself cross-legged on the floor in front of me. “You have to break your fast.”
I brought the date to my mouth and took a small bite, the soft brown fruit delicious on my tongue. I had never tasted a date before, but I couldn’t savor the moment. The thought of Felicia made my stomach churn.
“I’m sorry,” Fana said again. “I had no idea you knew each other.”
The sound of her voice brought me back and I forced a smile. “Me either.”
Fana bit her lower lip and glanced around the room for a second. “Let me bring you a plate.” She stood, and a second later, she was gone.
I exhaled, the reality of what had happened coming to me suddenly. I felt myself growing infuriated with Felicia, but I thought of Ramadan, knowing I’d have to temper my emotions for the time being.
Fana entered the room with a large plate. I was amazed that she could carry it. The sight of it reminded me that I hadn’t eaten for the entire day. I had just completed my first day of Ramadan. This thought soothed me. I could hardly believe it. I don’t know how I would’ve survived my first day without someone like Nasrin. She had kept me busy, reading from Qur’an then reading the English, then bringing up various Islamic topics, even going over my Arabic pronunciation of the prayer.
Steam rose from reddish soup that filled a large bowl, small chunks of meat or chicken thickening the soup. Beside the bowl was a stack of thin spongy bread folded at one side. Brown rice, at least it looked like rice to me, was on the other side of the bowl. Fana placed this on the floor of the room then disappeared again. She returned with a tray of salad and a white mat tucked under an arm.
She spread out the plastic-coated floral mat then placed the food on it. She closed the door and tugged at her khimaar, removing it from her head in one motion. A small gray triangular scarf was still on her head, revealing thick curly hair pulled back by an elastic band. She pushed up the sleeves of her fitting white shirt and waved me to the floor, a broad smile on her face.
“Eat. We’ll pray in a few minutes, inshaAllaah.”
Because I didn’t want to soil it, I too removed my head cover and pushed up the sleeves of my blouse before seating myself across from her on the floor.
Using the spongy bread instead of silverware, we ate until she asked me if I’d had enough, the tasty food still on my tongue. I nodded, not wanting to appear greedy although I wanted more. I didn’t know that she was asking if I had had enough to satisfy me for prayer, so after she led me in Maghrib, I was pleasantly surprised when she sat back down and removed her khimaar in preparation to continue our meal. I followed suit.
“I’m sorry about Abrinet,” she said after licking her fingers.
I shrugged, disappointed at the reminder. “It’s okay. I just…”
“No, don’t apologize. It’s her. We don’t know what to do with her.”
I dropped my gaze to the plate and continued eating although my curiosity was peaked. “I didn’t know her name was Abr…”
“She said her name was Felicia.” But I recalled seeing the name on her mail.
Fana shrugged. “I’m not surprised. Ever since high school, she hasn’t been the same.” She sighed.
“She didn’t want to wear hijaab. Her parents fought with her about it, but she still refused to wear it.” She shook her head. “She has four sisters, and she’s the only one who doesn’t wear hijaab.”
There was a long pause as we ate in silence.
“She told me she used to be Muslim.”
“Used to be?” Fana’s hand halted inches from her mouth, taken aback by what I’d said.
My forehead creased. “Oh, I thought that’s what you were saying…”
“No. I never heard this before.”
I began to doubt myself then, my brows gathering as I tried to remember her exact words. Perhaps I had heard her wrong. “Maybe I misunderstood…”
“What did she say to you?”
Eyes squinted, I shook my head, unable to recall. For some reason, even as my memory failed me, I felt guilty, as if I was betraying her through the mere effort of recollection. Part of me hoped I wouldn’t be able to remember.
Keep your misery to yourself. I grew up with that bull crap. I don’t want it near me ever again.
The words returned to me so suddenly that I stiffened at the painful reminder. Had she really referred to Islam as “misery” and “crap”? I didn’t want to repeat it.
“What?” Fana’s expression was tight with concern.
“Renee, tell me. It’s for her own good that we know.”
I was reluctant at first but eventually my mouth formed the words.
Fana’s eyes narrowed in disbelief. “What?”
I didn’t know what to say.
“Why would she say something like that? What happened?”
Hell. She also called Allah’s religion hell. I shuddered as I recalled this being her answer to Anita’s asking what a Muslim was.
I told this to Fana, strangely enjoying the power I had over Felicia at that moment.
Felicia’s cousin shook her head in dismay, wounded. Her face contorted, unable to fully digest my words, and I thought I saw her eyes glisten in sadness.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” I said. “But maybe she didn’t mean it.”
“She said hell, that being Muslim is hell?”
For some reason, I felt a sudden urge to come to my roommate’s defense. I feared I had exaggerated her errors by sharing only two exchanges. Maybe I wasn’t being fair.
“I think she was trying to be funny.”
Her eyes glistened more, a hurt expression on her face. “But that’s not something to joke about.”
“I know. It’s just that I think…” I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t conjure a single positive image of Felicia, not in the spiritual sense anyway. My heart ached as I saw the pain in Fana’s eyes.
“Her mother would die if she knew this.”
“I’m sorry. I thought you knew.”
“We knew she didn’t like hijaab, but…” Her eyes grew distant and she drew in a deep breath and exhaled, trying to recover from the weight of my words.
“Maybe she never got over that boy,” she said with a shake of her head. “He was—” She stopped, realizing she was sharing too much. “Never mind.”
We finished eating in silence, my mind wandering to the boy Fana had alluded to.
When it was clear I couldn’t eat anymore, Fana pulled the khimaar back over her head and lifted the large plate, setting the salad tray on top. She set it on the floor as she opened the door then carried it out of the room.
She returned and folded the mat to keep the fallen food from dropping to the floor.
“Let’s go downstairs,” she said with a smile, clearly wanting to make up for our somber discussion. “I don’t want to keep you from mingling with everyone. I think they have all the drinks down there anyway.”
I stood, preparing to follow her to the door. But she waited, looking at me.
“Put your hijaab on,” she said. “We have to pass the brothers.”
After I covered my hair, we made our way down the hall. She deposited the mat in the kitchen before turning to walk toward where Nasrin and I had been sitting earlier. As we approached the living room, the noise level rose so high that I was surprised that we hadn’t heard the men talking and laughing while we were in the room.
The sound of people passing distracted some of them, but only momentarily. After they saw us, they turned their attention back to their friends and lowered their voices slightly to continue their banter. The room was packed with dozens of men, several on the couches along the wall, others on the floor, plates of food before them. I had never seen so many people in one room.
In front of me, Fana’s head was down, and she was moving quickly. I quickened my steps too, but I slowed them when my eyes met those of a young man who was laughing with a brother whose back was to me. It was Yusuf.
Instinctively, I smiled in recognition and waved. It was my second mistake of this fashion, and I realized it only when his expression changed to embarrassed cordiality and he responded with the faintest motion of his hand. Fortunately, everyone else was too engrossed in their own conversations to notice my error. But the brother across from him turned to see what had distracted his friend.
I had started to move along, but I did a double take as my gaze met that of Yusuf’s friend. I recognized the blue eyes and dark beard immediately.
I quickly lowered my gaze, not wanting to embarrass him too, but in my peripheral vision, I saw that he was still turned, his eyes following me, a shocked expression on his face.
“This way,” Fana whispered, gesturing me in the direction of a door around a small corner on the far side of the living room.
It wasn’t until I was halfway down the carpeted steps that William’s reaction made sense to me.
Until that moment, he had no idea that I had accepted Islam.
Despite my unfortunate run-in with Felicia, I managed to enjoy myself for the remainder of the evening. I met several sisters I hadn’t met before, and I was even able to spend time with Sumayyah and Hadiyah. They both were there.
I was surprised that Nicole had come with Hadiyah, but I could tell she hadn’t come voluntarily. She sat in a corner near her mother, but she interacted with no one.
Shortly before it was time to go, I decided to say hello, so I moved to the space next to her, although I was already in earshot from where I sat across from Hadiyah. But I sensed that Nicole wouldn’t feel comfortable including too many people in a conversation, so I decided to go to her.
We exchanged small talk, and I noticed Hadiyah glancing in our direction often. But I could tell she was pleased I had taken the time to sit with her daughter.
“How was it for you when your family converted to Islam?” I asked.
“Okay, I guess.”
“Was it hard for you?”
Nicole shrugged. “They can do what they want. It doesn’t matter to me.” It was clear from her tone that she wasn’t being honest with herself.
“Nikki is not taking our lifestyle change too well,” Hadiyah said, moving over and turning herself to us.
“Oh,” I said, though this wasn’t news at all. I had suspected as much. “Your whole family didn’t convert?”
“Everyone except Nikki.” Hadiyah reached out and pinched her daughter’s cheek playfully. “She’s always been the stubborn one.”
Nicole brushed her mother’s hand away, but a slight grin creased a corner of her mouth. “I’m not stubborn.”
“You are. I’ve known you since the day you were born.”
“Still, I’m not stubborn.”
“See? You just proved my point.” Hadiyah laughed at her own words, and her daughter fought the urge to respond in kind. A second later, Nicole’s expression conveyed frustration.
“For twenty years, I did everything you said, and you call me stubborn? Even now, I’m still doing what you taught me. You’re the one who changed.”
“Yes, you’re right.” Hadiyah was still smiling as she spoke.
“Why didn’t you convert?” It was my question.
Nikki shrugged. “Ask my mom. She loves to talk about it.”
“No, I mean seriously,” I said. “You don’t believe Islam is true?”
“I don’t know what I think about the religion.”
“You believe in the Trinity?”
She rolled her eyes. “I’ve already been through this a zillion times with Mom and Dad.”
“But I’m curious. A lot of Christians don’t really believe in it. They just accept it on faith.”
“Well, I don’t accept things on faith. I follow clear evidence.”
“So, you’re no religion now?”
My forehead creased in interest. “But the evidence says that a true Christian is Muslim.”
She raised an eyebrow as she met my eyes with a sneer. “I don’t think so.”
“You ever heard of the Nicene Council?”
“Yes.” Her voice was flat with boredom. “I know all about the meeting.”
My eyes widened. “What about Paul and how—”
“He never met Jesus,” she droned, rolling her eyes as she recited the information monotone, “and was the first to teach about the Trinity, blah blah blah.”
I was stunned. “And you still believe the Bible is God’s Word?”
I didn’t know what to say.
“Like I said,” Hadiyah interjected. She pursed her lips and looked at her daughter, defeated from years of exhausted efforts. “Stubborn.”
Nasrin proved to be a tremendous blessing for me that Ramadan, and year. Selflessly she drove me from lecture to lecture, class to class, and even sacrificed sleep to answer my questions about Islam. Hadiyah too was a blessing, a phone call or car ride away. And I cannot forget Sumayyah, for whom I am most grateful to Allah for choosing to help guide me to Islam.
In those names alone lie so many blessings that I am at a loss when enumerating them, let alone in counting the blessings in the dozens of Muslims I met thereafter.
Amidst my enlightenment and spiritual high, my regrets of 1996 are only three. In not seeing then what I see now in the value of a university degree in this world, in not realizing the value of family in my life and Islam, and most painfully, not holding onto the simple lesson of life and faith so eloquently conveyed to me in Hadiyah’s words a year before.
The religion is easy. In sticking firmly to the Qur’an and Sunnah is where you’ll find your strength, and peace. Do not let the unrest and unhappiness of others distract you from this simple truth.
SubhaanAllaah. If only I knew the weighty value, and relevance, of those words before I tread a path in stark contrast to the immense Islamic faith and wisdom conveyed in them.
In retrospect, I do not know from whence my confusion was born. Before I cultivated a relationship with anyone who would be my rope to transgression, I knew already simple Islamic truths.
I knew that Allah alone is my Lord.
I knew that He is the only One I should call on in prayer.
I knew, already, that no creation, no imam, no sheikh, no pious person on this earth, or in the grave, can hear my supplications, let alone respond to them, and that, even if they could hear them, they would be as effective in answering my prayer as they had been in disrupting their appointment with the Angel of Death.
I knew, already, that He is above the Heavens on His Throne in a manner befitting His Majesty and Glory.
I knew that He, in His infinite knowledge, is closer to me than my jugular vein, even as He is above the seven heavens that He constructed as a canopy in the sky.
I knew, already, of His Qadr, His Divine Decree, recorded in the Preserved Tablet.
I knew too that Allah’s first creation was the Pen. And that His first command was, Write. And that the Pen, in obedience to its Creator, wrote everything that was to happen until the Day of Judgment.
I knew, already, that His Qur’an, His Speech, is not created.
I knew, already, that the true Religion is one. And that Islam is the only path to Paradise.
I knew too that Allah’s last revelation was two, both the Book—the Qur’an—and the Wisdom—the Sunnah.
I knew, already, that in the Qur’an and Sunnah lay the only path to true Islam and that those who lived and understood it best were Allah’s Messenger and his companions, and the students of his companions, and the students of the students of his companions. And that, even as Prophet Jesus returned before the Day of Judgment and lived a life in testimony to the guidance of his brother Prophet Muhammad, the religion of Allah would remain unaltered and that the scholars of Islam, the inheritors of the Prophets, were only those whose knowledge moved them to live more firmly in testimony to this.
Fortunately, it would be months before I would be diverted away from even simpler truths than these, a diversion called to by those who came under the guise of calling me to the truths in which I already believed.
My year was fulfilling and blessed before that, by the mercy of Allah, and it is these earlier memories of that year that make 1996 the year of spiritual growth and guidance for me, and the year that would always hold a special place in my heart.
It too was the year that the idea of marriage was introduced to me, an idea that had not even crossed my mind. Today, I cannot decide whether or not this is a regret because I know now the tremendous blessings marriage can bring. Yet, I still do not see why it couldn’t have waited another year, at least until I finished school. I am still trying to come to terms with the urgency with which my Muslim sisters exhorted me to marry, even as there was no candidate in my heart or mind. And I too am trying to come to terms with my naiveté in listening to those who made me believe that there was somehow a contradiction between my newfound faith and my desire for a university degree in math.
It is true that I was more enamored with Islam than school, but by no means would I have given up my matriculation had I known more about the value that degree would be for me in life, and in Islam.
In later years, when my desire to settle in a Muslim land took root in my heart, I shuddered to think what I would have done had I not had the sense and wherewithal to go back and complete my degree even as I was years late. I cannot count how many Muslims I know who had the same desire to live in a land of Islam, only to return back to the very land they left, all this to obtain the piece of paper that would grant them passage into the place they felt they belonged.
So while I am in doubt as to whether or not my marriage so soon is a cause for regret, I am in no doubt as to my regret that I allowed this tremendous blessing, along with the even greater blessing of my firm belief in Islam, to disrupt my obtaining my degree in 1997, when neither of these blessings was mutually exclusive to the degree in math that I had for so long desired to earn.
“Girl, you crazy, you better get married.”
These words came from Ghazwa, the feisty sister I’d met at Wadiah’s when I was getting my hair done the year before. It was now a Saturday in mid-March, less than a month after Ramadan had ended, and I was at a gathering Ghazwa had invited me to. I was sitting on the floor holding my paper plate of half-eaten fried chicken, potato salad, and collard greens, a plastic fork in my right hand. The two couches in the apartment living room were filled with sisters chatting and laughing amongst themselves.
I rolled my eyes and grinned, responding a second before I lifted a forkful of salad to my mouth. “Whatever.”
“I ain’t playing. I ‘on’t know what you waiting for.”
“Maybe the right person?” Wadiah teased, nudging her friend.
Ghazwa sucked her teeth. “What she need the right person for if she ain’t trying to get married?”
At that moment, Ghazwa reminded me of Patricia, but even today I don’t understand why. Aside from their pale skin they had nothing in common, in personality or appearance. Patricia’s complexion was unblemished, while Ghazwa’s was disrupted by mild acne sprinkling her cheeks and forehead. Patricia’s hair was black, while Ghazwa’s held a tint of brown. Patricia’s lips were thin and Ghazwa’s attractively full, and Patricia was of average height, around five-six while Ghazwa towered near six feet.
Although Patricia definitely had her moments of being strong-minded and stubborn, even her worst moments couldn’t compare to the boisterous vibe Ghazwa sent off when she as much as walked into the room. It was as if every word Ghazwa spoke was emphatic, and there was no middle ground. If I didn’t know her, I’d think she was in a heated altercation with whomever she happened to be talking to.
I was never comfortable around Ghazwa, but I never told her this. Given that she made me a bit nervous at times, my discomfort only made sense. I didn’t speak my mind around her. She didn’t really give me chance to in any case. I was known as quiet at school, but the people who knew me well knew that I didn’t fare too well with keeping my opinions to myself, let alone in exercising humility in sharing them. But I wasn’t myself around Ghazwa.
Perhaps it was that we came from completely different worlds, I from a middleclass college degreed family while she was a daughter of “the hood” as she called it. But I know even this distinction is being overly simplistic, if not unjust, because in the months and years that followed I would meet others with the same background as Ghazwa and have no difficulty in relaxing completely around them and even sharing a love for academics and strong family background.
Oddly, despite my discomfort, I loved hearing Ghazwa talk, being near her in a gathering, and most importantly I loved being in her good graces. Her stories were intriguing and humorous, sending me into fits of laughter or pensive silence depending on what she had shared. More than anything, it gave me a sense of calm knowing she counted me as a friend, even if I could never open up to her enough to feel the same.
“You know what I heard?”
I lifted my gaze to see a sister smirking and leaning herself forward from where she sat on the opposite side of the room. She met Ghazwa’s eyes and glanced at me as if she and I were sharing a private joke.
“What?” Ghazwa asked, raising her voice, inviting the rest of the room to stop mid-sentence to hear what the sister was about to say.
“There’s this White boy she’s talking to for marriage.” The sister’s smirk spread on her face as she met my eyes that were now widened in disbelief. “That’s why she ain’t saying nothing to you.”
Like a scene from high school, the room was filled with taunting oohs as if her comment was somehow “fighting words.”
Ghazwa exploded in laughter. “Girl,” she said to the one who had spoken. “You smoking something. Renee ain’t talking to no White boy. Wadiah getting her hooked up with her cousin.”
I was too confused to be mortified, so I looked at Wadiah, a question mark on my face. Wadiah shrugged and shook her head, as if saying, Girl, don’t ask me. You know better than to pay attention to anything Ghazwa says.
“Where’d you get that from?” I said to the sister who spoke the rumor, aware that my voice was a cross between playing along and taking offense.
“Don’t worry,” she teased, looking at me over the glasses she was wearing. “I got my ways.”
There was more laughter.
I didn’t even know who she was.
“Don’t pay no attention to Lisan,” someone said in a tone that was obviously meant more as a friendly tease to the sister than any consolation to me. “She always talking about something she heard. That’s how she got her name.”
“Forget you, Arwa. Ain’t nobody talking to you.”
“Don’t be trying to make yourself look good. We all know the truth.”
“You know that’s right,” someone else said.
“Renee,” Lisan said as if we were lifelong friends, “don’t let these sisters get to you. The truth is they jealous ‘cause they don’t got no man.”
There was another round of oohs in the room. That was when I lost track of who was saying what. I resigned myself to finishing my food and counting down to when Wadiah, my ride, was leaving so I could leave too.
“Oh, no you didn’t.”
“I got a man!”
“He don’t count.”
“If she want to marry a White boy, what’s it to you?”
“I ain’t say nothing was wrong with it.”
“Then why you acting like something wrong?”
“Who’s acting like something’s wrong except you?”
“I’m just happy she getting married.”
“Girl, no you ain’t.”
“Who said she’s getting married?”
“Wadiah’s cousin is good for her, I think.”
“How you know what’s good for her? Worry about yourself!”
“I know you didn’t just say that.”
“Yes I did.”
“You know what I think? What she need to do is…”
Needless to say, in the car later that night, I asked Wadiah if she had any extra-strength Tylenol in her purse.
She handed her handbag to me and told me I could find a small bottle in the right hand pocket. I found it and retrieved two pills, not bothering to worry about washing them down with water. Besides, there wasn’t any in the car.
Wadiah drove in silence, occasional streetlights illuminating the walnut brown of her face in the dark. Her gaze was on the road beyond the windshield and mine on the night beyond my passenger side window. I listened to the soothing calm of the car’s soft engine as we rode down the interstate leading to the exit for College Park, where we both lived. Tonight’s conversation was bothering me, but only slightly, as my mind was on school and the fact that William had indeed been calling me often. Once or twice he mentioned the future, but that’s exactly how I thought of it—something too detached from the present to hold any real meaning in the now. As for me, I was just enjoying the conversations because it gave me the opportunity to relax and discuss Islam. It was relieving to have someone to relate to, especially someone from my hometown.
It would always remain a mystery to me how the sister Lisan heard anything of these conversations, let alone a rumor that we were planning to marry, something neither William nor I ever discussed. But this misunderstanding of our activities doesn’t bother me as much as it astounds. Even today, I am amazed by the phenomenon of hearsay, and how humans so often place in it more value and faith than they do wisdom, experience, or truth.
Of all people in the world today, I think Muslims know this irony best—how their true beliefs or lifestyle is of no consequence next to that which is claimed of them through radio airways, newspaper print houses, and the infamous plug-in box that never has a dearth of talking heads to tell viewers what they should hold true in their minds and hearts.
But even the transgressions of those who rely on a colorful entertainment box more than they do their sense is not as phenomenal to me as the damaging powerful of hearsay amongst those who don’t fall prey to talking heads and tantalizing headlines.
Had I not experienced for myself, had I not been poisoned myself, and had I not suffered myself, from a small but pernicious group of people who recited the same religious truths as those spoken from the lips of believers who actually held them to be true—in word and deed—instead of merely making the claim, I would have laughed in the face of anyone who claimed that such inanity existed at all amongst the best people on earth. Yet, I learned a painful lesson over the next few years—that the difference between a scholar and a worshipper is indeed vast, and that the difference between a label and its truism is even greater.
And that sometimes the most powerful aid you have in navigating darkness under the guise of light is that slight flutter within, that wavering in the heart, that acts as a pulsating warning to call you back to true righteousness. Back to Allah’s Book and Wisdom.
I know now that it is this flutter that is sometimes the lone indicator in your heart that Allah wishes for you good.
Want more from this story? Read the novel HERE.
This series is derived from the UZ novel by the same name and does not feature the full book. To read the entire novel CLICK HERE.
Copyright © 2011, 2015 by Al-Walaa Publications. All Rights Reserved.
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