“No,” Hasna had said flatly to Sharif’s inquiry to determine if she was willing to consider wearing hijab after marriage.
That night, it was this one response that kept playing over in Sharif’s mind, precluding any likelihood of sleep although his body was desperately in need of rest. He couldn’t help noticing the uncanny parallels it held to the response he’d received when he’d asked Hasna to accompany him to Riyadh.
Perhaps it wasn’t the way she had responded that troubled him most, Sharif considered. This matter-of-fact manner was a part of Hasna’s character whenever she felt strongly about something and was unwilling to change. But he also knew that she was more stubborn in words than she was in heart. On more than one occasion, she had proven that she was amenable when given the space and opportunity to turn the matter over in her mind.
That very night, Hasna had shown flexibility when he asked about her willingness to study more about Islam. She openly admitted that she had a lot of growing to do. She also shared that she now prayed every day, although she was, admittedly, not as regular as she should be.
No, it wasn’t her response itself that disturbed him, he concluded.
It was that he sincerely wanted his wife to wear hijab.
But earlier that day, it had seemed like such a small point to insist upon, and as he thought of it now, it was insignificant in light of Hasna’s willingness to study more about Islam.
But this small point troubled him nonetheless.
Like Hasna, Sharif had been taught that hijab wasn’t necessary and that it proved nothing about what was truly in someone’s heart. His own mother did not wear the head cover, and he could think of no woman he admired more. Growing up with a role model as monumental as his mother had meant that, as a child, the hijab meant little to Sharif. He associated it with a foreign culture, a foreign people. And a foreign expression of faith.
“Hypocrites,” his father would sometimes say of the women in head covers and men in large beards. “They’re obsessed with the façade of Islam, thinking they’ll get to Heaven with pieces of cloth on their heads and hair growing out of their faces. They have no idea about the spirit of Islam. That is in the heart.”
But even as a child, this argument had troubled Sharif. It was years before he could properly articulate his source of confusion.
It was true that the seat of Islam was in the heart. No one could or would dispute that fact, Sharif reflected. But the argument implied that outward obedience to Allah was indicative of a diseased heart—and that outwardly disobeying Him purified the heart.
Hypocrisy itself was a matter of the heart, yet only Allah knew what lay in the breasts of men.
And if what was on the outside mattered not at all in comparison to what lay within—
Then on what basis did his family call Muslims hypocrites in the first place?
After all, it was only their outward actions that people could see.
Why not then say these people’s Islam also lay in the hearts, and that we couldn’t judge them? Even as there was some indication of their religion in what could be seen.
“I like her,” his father would say whenever Hasna and her family would visit. “I hope you two get married some day.”
“No,” Hasna had said frankly earlier that day in response to Sharif’s question about hijab, “I’m not willing to wear it.”
Sharif blinked in the darkness of his room as the scene repeated itself in his mind. There was a heaviness in the pit of his stomach as he recalled his weakness in, if not calling off the wedding altogether, in at least delaying it to give himself more time. But, as it stood, the date was only four months away.
He felt a knotting in his head until it ached.
“I wouldn’t be caught dead in something like that,” Hasna had once said years ago when Sharif himself had been repulsed by hijab. “It is so tacky.”
“Why do they feel the need to show off their Islam?” Sharif had replied in agreement.
“I have no idea,” Hasna said, disgust in her voice.
Sharif shut his eyes, willing himself to sleep. He was exhausted and needed the rest. He had no idea how long this jet lag would weigh on his limbs.
Islam means submission.
The words returned to him as he felt the grogginess of sleep. These simple words were ones he had spoken often in response to a classmate who asked about Islam.
And a Muslim is one who submits to Allah.
Like an epiphany, in that moment between sleep and wakefulness, Sharif realized his community’s greatest flaw—and what his own had been as a youth.
If outward submission wasn’t a direction expression of the faith in one’s heart, why then did Allah call His religion Islam in the first place?
He could have simply called it Emaan.
The woman stood in the lobby of the masjid, and Sharif’s father, the imam, sat in his office chair facing the area where she stood, his door open as he smiled proudly at his son. Light from the sun illuminated the entire expanse of the lobby, shining brightly through the windows, making the marbled tile glow. The sound of Qur’an being recited reverberated throughout the entire area and seemed to be coming from outside, its source somewhere above the bright sky. The Arabic verses were the last four of Al-Fajr: “O reassured soul, Return to your Lord, well-pleased and pleasing [to Him]. And enter among My servants, enter My Paradise.”
Sharif approached the lobby, drawn by the phenomenal recitation, the likes of which he’d never heard before, his heart trembling at its remarkable beauty. The first thing he noticed upon entering was the light. It seemed to be coming from every direction, even as its source was the rays streaming through the glass windows. He halted his steps and raised his gaze to the ceiling, which at that moment became like the bright blue of the sky, even though he had not left the building. He stood, tears brimming his eyes, wondering who was reciting these inimitable words, certain that it could be no mortal. He wondered if the voice was that of his Creator but recalled a moment later that no human who was not endowed with prophethood could hear the Voice of Allah in this life.
Sharif continued listening, watching in amazement as the sky shook, a trembling that mirrored the rhythm in his chest as the sound grew in beauty and intensity. At that moment, Sharif was able to discern only that the amazing sound and vibration was like that of a chain being dragged over a rock.
That was when he heard the laughter, as if coming from that same heavenly source, but he realized the sound was in front of him. That was when he saw her. And the realization came to him in that moment, with no ambiguity or doubt. She was his wife. Immediately, his heart was filled with love and yearning so weighty that he felt as if his heart would burst.
Sharif walked toward her, seeing only the soft black fabric of the jilbaab, the cloth draping from the top of her head and falling over her feet. Her veil was lifted but she was not facing him, so he could not see her face. Her gloved hand held the palm of a young boy, whose skin glowed the same golden brown as his wife’s, whose cheek he could barely make out as he neared her.
She was talking to someone he could not see. He walked faster, drawing closer, until he was but a step away. That was when she heard him and quickly dropped the veil over her face, glancing behind her, sensing that a strange man was approaching. But she did not see him although he was right before her at that moment. Sharif opened his mouth to speak so that she would know it was only her husband and—
Sharif woke in the stillness of his room, a spiritual tranquility filling his chest. He ached to be in the company of his wife and the beautiful recitation. Heart still trembling as he recovered from the dream, Sharif blinked in the darkness as he slowly registered the surroundings that were momentarily foreign to him. It took several seconds before he remembered that he was no longer in Riyadh.
And that he had just had the dream again.
He could not recall how many times he had seen it in the last seven years, but in each of those years, it had been at least twice. Whenever he would see the dream, he would wake with increased faith and dedication to stay firm upon his religion. The dream had inspired him when he was down and motivated him when he was discouraged. Due to the constant spiritual turmoil his Islamic studies incited, the dream had been much needed during those years.
The first time he saw the dream was a week after he proposed to Hasna, and the dream had confounded him. At the time, he, like Hasna, was a junior year in college and did not even know he would be studying abroad (That proposition would come from Imam Rashad months later). Sharif had just entered the field of his major and had worked out the details of how he would take a job teaching high school biology to take care of Hasna. He too had decided, after many sleepless nights, that he couldn’t stand waiting any longer. If she said yes, they would marry no more than a week after they graduated from college.
Sharif and Hasna had known each other since childhood and had openly admitted their feelings for each other during high school. It had been difficult enough to remain patient as their parents actively encouraged the relationship but categorically discouraged the marriage. Their parents told them that they were too young to marry and that, should they ever decide to marry, it would have to wait until they finished their bachelor’s degrees.
It was unfair, they both lamented, even though neither of them had vocalized to their parents a desire to marry. Still, they felt it was unfair to be robbed of the opportunity.
Presently, Sharif glanced at the clock. The red letters glowed 3:49, a small crimson dot next to the top of the nine, indicating that the time was early morning instead of afternoon.
Now fully conscious, Sharif sat up and recited the supplication for waking, tossing aside his blanket and swinging his bare feet to the carpeted floor of his room.
He fumbled for the light switch on the lamp next to his bed until the room was suddenly illuminated, and, instinctively, he blinked until his eyes adjusted to the sudden light. He then walked over to the piece of paper he had printed and tacked to the wall the day before. Sharif saddened at the reminder that he would have to depend on this single printed sheet instead of the sound of the muezzin. He ached to return to where multiple calls to prayer reverberated throughout the entire city five times each day.
Sharif ran his finger along the rows that denoted the names of the current month, day, and prayer, along with its corresponding numerical time.
How could he stand this, greeting his prayers day after day, week after week, and year after year, forced to depend on the sterility of a columned chart to announce this monumental act of worship? Was it even possible to grow accustomed to something as lifeless as this?
Growing up, he had never heard the adhaan except within the confines of a masjid or from a radio or television. But even then the masjid itself was less a house of worship than it was a community center, a social hall, or a club house where members congregated for the weekly potluck, lecture, or party. Otherwise, it was virtually empty. For many masjids, if they were open at all during the times for Dhuhr and Asr prayers, the adhaan was greeted with eerie silence, and if one happened upon a masjid at this time, he would find a lone imam leading himself in salaah—unless the janitor happened to be there to join him.
In Riyadh, the masjid was a place of worship where the believers congregated at least five times each day—answering the call of the muezzin, even during the workday, as businesses closed for salaah. In the States, most masjids were ghostly silent during weekdays’ standard work hours—if they were unlocked at all.
Prayer, then, was not an act of worship associated with the masjid. It was associated with a prayer chart hung on the walls of homes inhabited by those believers conscientious enough to have even this lone indicator of daily worship. It troubled Sharif that he had, like most Muslim Americans, rarely pondered this complacency with the absence of the public adhaan—the single symbol that the early Muslims used to determine if a particular region was occupied by Muslims at all.
“Allah knows our hearts,” Muslims would say if the topic was broached, excusing themselves of yet another Islamic responsibility.
It was disheartening to Sharif that this constant absolution of accountability—usually attributed to inadequate circumstances beyond the Muslims’ control—would continue even when the believers’ souls were seized at death. Even then, Muslims who were content in their meager conditions would recite the mantra of the weak Muslim that they had rehearsed in life, hoping to escape, even in this final moment, the accountability that Allah had informed them of in His Book.
Verily, as for those whom the angels take [in death] while they were wronging themselves, they ask them, ‘In what [condition] were you?’ They reply, ‘We were weak and oppressed in the land.’ They say, ‘Was not the earth of Allah spacious enough for you to emigrate therein?’ Such men will find their abode in Hell—what an evil destination.
Except the weak ones among men, women, and children who cannot devise a plan, nor are they able to direct their way. These are they whom Allah is likely to forgive,
And Allah is Oft-Pardoning, Oft-Forgiving.
Today, Sharif pondered the fact that Allah indeed knows what lies in the hearts, and he wondered at those who sought this knowledge as consolation.
August 9, 2004. Fajr. 4:56.
After reading the chart, he glanced at the clock again. He had an hour before the first prayer.
Sharif rummaged through the suitcase that lay open, still unpacked, and found the thin white pants traditionally worn under the Saudi thobe. He quickly pulled them over his pajama shorts before leaving his room and heading down the hall to the bathroom.
Back in the room, his face and arms still wet from wudhoo, he removed from the footboard of his bed the white thobe he had worn to lunch the day before. He pulled it over himself in preparation for Qiyaam, the voluntary prayer that the Prophet prayed each night.
Before going to Saudi Arabia, Sharif had prayed Qiyaam only in the last ten nights of Ramadan and had no idea it could or should be prayed at any other time. He now knew that it was not only permissible to pray Qiyaam throughout the entire year, but it was strongly recommended.
Sharif faced the direction of Makkah and raised his hands as if in surrender, marking the beginning of prayer. He recited aloud the first chapter of the Qur’an, reflecting on the meaning of the Arabic words that he had learned to recite in Arabic for the first time when he was already twenty years old and a first-year student in the Islamic university in Riyadh, although he had been a Muslim all his life.
The realization of this favor alone made his heart humble in gratefulness to his Creator. Sharif had grown up saying his prayers in English, having been told, as the members of his community always had been, “There’s no need to Arabize Islam. Allah understands all languages. Pray in yours.”
Show us the Straight Way, the way of those on whom You have bestowed Your Grace,
Not the path of those who have earned Your Anger, nor the path of those who go astray.
“Hal ta’rifuhum…?” The professor’s question hung in the air like an offering, Do you know who they are? These people Allah discusses in this single prayer that we recite at least seventeen times a day?
The university students were quiet, unsure if they had within them the knowledge to respond, even as the teacher looked at each of them, one by one, occasionally repeating the question as his eyes met that of a student.
Sharif had creased his forehead that day, having never thought of the words beyond the literal meaning. When the instructor looked at him, Sharif decided against responding, realizing his ignorance right then. Even if Sharif understood the words literally, he didn’t know what they meant practically. And that bothered him. He had been praying this prayer for more than ten years, yet he had never taken time to learn what he had been asking for all these years.
“Al-yahood wan nasaara,” a student called out. The Jews and the Christians.
“Ayyuwa…” Correct, the professor said, a smile of triumph on his olive face, which was framed by a graying beard. But those who earned Allah’s Grace?
The Muslims, the student said.
Hands went up, some with confidence, some with reluctance. But all hands were in the air in the span of ten seconds.
No, they are not, he said.
“Kayf, ya shayk?” How can this be, Professor?
Are you all Muslim?
Is your life that Straight Path that all believers are praying to follow as they recite this prayer?
“Man ta’rif?” Who can answer?
No one responded.
Can you look at your life and how you have lived it and say that others should take that Path, that others should follow you to earn Allah’s Favor?
“Kallaa,” the sheikh answered his own question. No, for surety, you cannot.
Then who? Who represents this path?
The Prophet, peace be upon him? a student asked tentatively.
Hands went up, but only midway, and cautiously this time. But not everyone raised their hands.
My brothers, is the pronoun in this verse singular or plural? Are we asking to follow the path of a single person or a group of people?
Then who is this group?
They are the Prophet, peace be upon him, his Companions, and those who adhere to their way, the professor said.
This, he emphasized, is the only path to Paradise.
And who are those who earned Allah’s Anger? the professor asked.
Anyone who has knowledge and does not act upon it, the professor corrected.
And who are those who have gone astray?
Anyone who follows misguidance while thinking he is doing right, he corrected again. And it is only the path of those who act upon righteous knowledge that leads to Paradise.
Until he studied the religion for himself, Sharif had been of those who had gone astray.
He could only pray that now, after having been endowed with basic knowledge of his religion, he would be among those who act upon the righteous knowledge that Allah had given him.
“The Sheikh never taught any of these things. Why would the community want me to study in a university that would teach something he was opposed to?”
It was Monday evening and Sharif sat in the leather chair opposite the desk of the imam at the masjid that he was to officially head that coming Friday. Opposite him, in the desk chair, Imam Rashad clasped his hands, his peach-colored face framed by a large grey beard that Sharif could not recall Rashad having before Sharif left to study.
So much had changed, and perhaps these changes were positive, but Sharif wanted to understand this sudden and drastic shift in ideology, and theology. But, most importantly, he wanted to understand his place in it.
There would be opposition, Sharif imagined, and he feared being faced with community uncertainty and discord. He could barely stomach the idea of the imam position itself, let alone the obstacles that would come along with it.
“Believe it or not,” Rashad said, “we didn’t even consider that.”
Sharif furrowed his brows. “But my fath—”
“You have to remember something, Sharif. At that time, Islam was new to all of us. We didn’t establish this masjid based on any specific philosophy or madh-hab. Your father, Karim, and I were the only Muslims in this part of Maryland at the time, at least as far as we knew. We just thought it was a good idea to have a masjid.” He smiled reflectively. “We didn’t even know what we’d do once we had it.”
Sharif leaned back in his chair, scratching the skin beneath his facial hair. “But my father always mentioned the Sheikh…”
“Yes, the Sheikh was instrumental in bringing us back to Islam, but—”
“I thought you were always Muslim.”
“I was,” Rashad said, his thick grey eyebrows drawing together, apparently taken aback by Sharif’s comment. “In Pakistan, my parents and grandparents made sure I prayed and fasted and anything else required of me. But once I came to America and got married…” There was a pause and Rashad drew in a deep breath and exhaled audibly, and his gaze fell to a pencil he was now using to write something on the large desk calendar that covered most of the desk. “Well, let’s just say things changed. I thought I was Muslim. But looking back, I think I left Islam not too long after I left my country.”
“How did you learn about the Sheikh?”
“Your father mostly.”
“Your father met him by chance after Karim told your father about a masjid in D.C. that he passed sometimes. Your father was just going there to take his shahaadah. You must have been a baby at the time.”
“But I thought he became Muslim before I was born.”
“He told me that one of the reasons he and your mother became Muslim was that they wanted to raise their son properly.”
Sharif creased his forehead, intrigued.
“I think what he was saying to you was that they raised you from childhood as a Muslim.”
Yes. Those were the words his parents had used. Sharif also recalled his father saying that it was Karim and Mona who were responsible for sparking their interest in Islam.
“What I’m trying to say, Sharif, is that our association with the Sheikh was limited. Your father was impressed with him, and that was all. Dawud kept in touch with him and attended his lectures when he could and shared what he learned. But the Sheikh had already returned to Syria before we even purchased this property.”
Rashad shook his head, laying the pencil down. “I doubt the Sheikh even remembers your father today.”
“But what about the other Muslims here? They speak highly of him.”
“They speak highly of him because your father did. No one knew him except through your father’s lectures.”
A thought came to Sharif. “But why not you or Brother Karim? Why was my father chosen as imam?”
“It wasn’t really a choice so much as it was just expected. Your father had a natural charisma, and he loved learning. He was always reading some book, researching some issue, and pondering how he could apply that information either practically in his own life, or by imparting it to his students in the school where he worked. He was a natural teacher, and he applied that same zeal to Islam. Karim and I never even considered taking this position.”
Rashad laughed. “You see how short my Friday talks are as it is, and the people are still nodding off. Imagine if I’d been the one inviting people here when we were first starting out.”
Sharif couldn’t conceal the humor he found in the imam’s statement. Rashad was one of those people whose voice itself was a soporific. Two minutes into anything he was saying and you could look around and find one of two things among the congregation, someone glancing at their wristwatch or someone’s eyelids growing heavy, if you didn’t find both.
“And I think that answers your next question,” Rashad said good-naturedly.
“Not really…” Sharif searched for the right way to explain. “I don’t have my father’s gift of words. These things are not inherited.”
“But you have your father’s charisma.” Rashad paused thoughtfully. “And more besides.”
Sharif drew his eyebrows together. “What do you mean?”
“You have your father’s natural way with words, but you have your mother’s quiet dignity.”
Sharif wanted to respond but was quieted by the comment regarding his mother. He did not think of her as quiet, though his natural love for her as his mother made her dignified in his eyes. He had never considered her image in the eyes of others.
Sharif tried to recall times when she was in public, and it was difficult to recount. She was not one who enjoyed going out much. Sharif’s father did most of the grocery shopping, and she would prepare the meals and do the housework because she didn’t work at that time. She solicited help from Sharif and Wali on occasion though it was clear that her standards and theirs were different, thus she was most content cooking and cleaning herself. But Sharif did recall the moments he had crossed a line in public and his mother had been there to witness it. She would say nothing to him and would continue, effortlessly it seemed, nodding during a pleasant conversation she was having or listening attentively to her husband speaking at a Muslim event. Whenever her and Sharif’s eyes would meet, however, Sharif would see in them a message so distinct that it would have been less agonizing to hear it aloud. Sharif would then be restless with anxiety as an hour turned to minutes and minutes to seconds, the countdown to when they would go home, where he was sure to be justly punished for what he had done.
But never did she raise her voice in public, and she was generally not sociable though she wasn’t antisocial either. During events like Eid, Sharif would often find his mother helping the servers or cooks, or quietly knitting, Asma or Wali playing at her feet.
Quiet dignity. Yes, his mother had that. His father could inspire fiery motivation in any crowd, and his mother could evoke admiration and reverence with her presence alone.
But Sharif saw neither in himself.
“But I’m not a teacher.”
“I didn’t say you were.”
Sharif grew quiet, more doubtful of himself then.
“But you are a leader.”
Sharif’s eyebrow rose and he started to disagree, but before he could say anything, Rashad spoke.
“In history,” Rashad said, “the best leaders have never been those who covet position or imagine themselves worthy of that role. They were those who, when circumstances dictated, rose to the occasion, even though they felt others would do a better job.”
“And why would he even ask you something like that?” Kenya wrinkled her nose from where she sat on the floor of her living room Monday night. The fingers of both of her hands were at work twisting the roots of her hair so that the new growth would lengthen the locks and allow her scalp to breathe. “You weren’t wearing it when he asked to marry you. Why would he ask you to wear it now?”
“That’s what I was thinking.” Hasna too was sitting on the floor, both arms behind her as she leaned her weight into them as carpet cushioned the palms of her hands.
“Now wait a minute, ladies.” Vernon sat on the couch, his fiancée inches from his legs as she sat with her back to him, Hasna opposite them. Before this moment, he had been engrossed in some ESPN program about the star rookies for the new football season, pretending to be too engrossed in the highlights to pay attention to them.
He pressed the mute button on the remote control, abruptly silencing the talking head, an indication that he was inviting himself into the conversation.
“I have to disagree.”
Kenya turned to glance at her boyfriend and rolled her eyes playfully. “Why don’t you mind your business and let us do our girl talk?”
“If it were girl talk, you wouldn’t be doing it in my living room.”
“Our living room,” she corrected. “We share everything in here.”
“Then that includes conversations.”
Hasna laughed. “He has point there.”
“You can’t side with him,” Kenya joked. “That would be sexist.”
“It’d be sexist if I sided with you.”
“No, that would be friendship. Siding with him is sexist.”
“Because I sided with a man?”
“Case in point,” Kenya said humorously. “Vernon is not a man. It’s the first thing he confessed to me after he asked to marry me.”
Vernon threw a pillow at Kenya, and they all laughed.
“Seriously,” he said, laughter still in his voice.
“How can you disagree?” Kenya said, now turning her body to face him at an angle, resuming her hair grooming a second later. “You can’t ask somebody to change for you.”
“He’s not asking her to change, Hershey. He’s asking her to grow.”
Eyes widening playfully, Hasna lifted the pillow that had fallen next to her and raised it, threatening to throw it back at Vernon. “Are you saying I’m infantile, Attorney Sheldon?”
“Come on, Hasna,” he said. “You can’t tell me you don’t see where I’m coming from.”
“I can see that you’ve insulted me.”
“No, my love, I’m giving you a compliment. Just because he’s asking you to grow doesn’t mean you’re the one in need of growing. It’s a matter of perspective. He thinks you should grow because he sees your lifestyle as inferior to his. But we all know who’s really superior.”
Hasna tossed the pillow to him and he caught it. “Okay, you’re all clear. Lying to a woman is the fastest way to her heart.”
She narrowed her eyes playfully. “Now, tell me the truth. What are you trying to say?”
“Let’s be honest for a second, Hasna.” His voice grew serious though he retained a diplomatic tone. “You’re Muslim and—”
Immediately, Hasna felt a pang of offense in her chest. She hated when Vernon pointed out her religion to her. But she could not fault him. One of the things she loved about her best friend was his honesty. Without it, he wouldn’t be Vernon. Besides, he wasn’t trying to hurt her; he was just making a point.
“—Sharif just graduated from a prestigious Islamic university, so you can’t exp—”
“Uh, I think the term prestigious is a bit extraneous here,” Hasna said. “It’s arguable whether it was even Islamic.”
“Now, you can’t be serious,” Vernon said, distracted from his argument momentarily. “We can’t debate something as fundamental as that.”
“Objection,” Kenya said. “She’s the Muslim here. She should know.”
“Okay, fine. We’ll call it a Muslim university.”
Hasna shrugged. “Okay, I can deal with that.”
“So after studying in this Muslim university, can you really expect him to come home unchanged and not want to apply what he learned to his own life?”
“His life. Her life,” Kenya said. “Two different things.”
“No they’re not.” Vernon looked at his fiancée and motioned a hand to the living room around them.
“Remember your small point at the beginning of this conversation?” he said. “That this house is ours?”
Kenya nodded, running her fingers through her locks to make sure they were not entangled. “Yes, I remember.”
“But who bought this house?”
She smiled and shrugged in response.
“I did,” he answered himself. “But now that we’re a couple, it’s ours. Therefore, anyth—”
“But physical property is different,” Kenya said. “I have the right to believe whatever I want.”
“And I have a right to share something with you if I think it’ll benefit you in the long run. And you have the same right with me.”
“But you have to respect another person’s lifestyle.” She pointed to Hasna. “Do you think it’s fair for him to ask her to live in purdah? Come on, Vern, give me a break. We’re Americans, not the Taliban. Why should she have to wrap herself in Afghani rags while he’s walking around wearing what he wants?”
“He’s not asking her to do that.”
“I think he is.”
“No, he’s not. He’s gauging how committed she is to the faith they both believe in.”
“Islam is in the heart though,” Hasna interjected.
Vernon waved a hand at her. “Hasna, please. You know that’s not true.”
Her face grew hot in offense. “It is true. I don’t have to act holier than thou to prove to the world I’m Muslim. As long as I believe in my heart, who is anyone else to judge?”
“I’m not talking about judging. I’m talking about commitment.”
“Vernon,” Kenya said with a sigh, “get to the point please.”
“All I’m saying is that religion is not just a set of beliefs. If it were, I’d still be Muslim myself.”
“I don’t believe you ever were Muslim,” Kenya said, rolling her eyes. “Your parents maybe. But not you.”
“You can think what you want, Hershey, but I know what I believed then, and I know what I believe now.”
Hasna had started to interject, but at this confession, she grew quiet. It wasn’t that the information was new to her. Days after she and Vernon had met, Vernon had happened to pass her on campus while they were both on their way to lunch. After exchanging small talk and realizing they were both planning to go eat, they agreed to have lunch together in one of the popular university eateries. It was over this meal that Vernon divulged that his parents had accepted Islam when he was five years old and that he had practiced the religion himself until he graduated from high school. But by then his parents were divorced, and his mother had returned to Christianity and his father to live as an American expatriate in Cairo, where the family had lived for the duration of Vernon’s middle and early high school years.
Vernon’s former Islamic affiliation was the one thing that had both surprised and impressed Hasna after first meeting her best friend. It was refreshing to talk to someone who understood and respected her faith without the pollution of stereotypes and misinformation. However, Vernon had told her that he was no longer a religious person. But if he were to choose a religion, he said, it would be Islam.
Other than that, Hasna had never drawn the story out of him. It had been enough consolation to know that he respected Islam at all, and he was the only classmate she had in law school who shared that much in common with her. This common ground was probably the most significant in inspiring their friendship to develop as deeply as it had. And the feeling was mutual. Vernon had said that even Kenya could not relate to his affinity for Islam.
Hasna was quiet now. Religion was a rare subject of conversation, especially in Kenya’s presence. If Hasna were completely honest, she was particularly uncomfortable with the subject herself, especially around Vernon. When she was with her best friend, she liked to focus on what they had in common. It was liberating to be around someone with whom it really didn’t matter what differences existed between them.
“Are you serious, Vern?” Kenya’s expression showed intrigue, and a grin lingered on her face. “You really believed all that stuff?”
He frowned slightly, apparently offended by her subtle mockery. “Yes, I did. And I tried to live like a Muslim too.”
“You never told me that.”
“Yes I did. You just weren’t listening.” His tone was serious, and for a moment Hasna felt uncomfortable, unsure if she should be hearing this. “You always thought I was joking.”
“Well, you were always laughing when you talked about Islam.”
“That’s because it was an uncomfortable subject for me. But my father is Muslim, Hershey. You think I should respect him any less because of that?”
“That’s not what I meant. I’m just saying, you made it clear that you and you father were estranged as far as you were concerned, so I just as—”
“That had nothing to do with his religion.”
“—sumed it was because you didn’t want to be Muslim.”
“Hershey, please. You know I’ve always said I respect people’s right to believe what they want.”
“But this is different, Vern. Every time that man calls here, I can feel his disappointment through the phone.” She shook her head. “If you respect his beliefs, he certainly doesn’t respect yours.”
“And I don’t expect him to.”
Kenya laughed. “You are too forgiving, Vern. If I were you, I’d—”
“If you were me,” he interrupted, “you’d know my father like I do and respect him for loving me the only way he knows how.”
Kenya shook her head, smiling. “Honestly, Vernon. That’s why I love you. You have such a big heart. I can see why you think Sharif is totally justified in forcing his beliefs on his fiancée. It’s not about Sharif, it’s about your father.”
“And what if it is, Hershey? What’s wrong with that?”
The sincerity in Vernon’s eyes and expression made Hasna turn away, and her heart ached. But Hasna didn’t understand this sudden discomfort. Part of her suspected it was embarrassment; she wasn’t as passionate in her reverence for her parents, or Islam.
Hasna could sense that the remark had embarrassed Kenya. Hasna could feel it in the sudden silence that permeated the room.
The quiet was suffocating. Hasna herself wanted to say something, anything to break the stiff atmosphere. But she already felt like an intruder. Her speaking would only make that feeling more pronounced.
“I’m sorry, Vern,” Kenya said finally. “I didn’t know it meant that much to you.”
“It’s not that, Hershey,” he said, apology in his soft tone. “All I’m trying to say is you can’t assume someone’s trying to force their beliefs on someone just because they want them to be a better person.”
Kenya parted her lips to say something but decided against it. Instead she pulled her knees close to her and rested her chin on them, her attention on Vernon. There was a softness in her eyes and expression, showing a sincere desire to learn something she hadn’t known before.
In that gesture, Hasna saw how much Kenya respected Vernon, and it was then that Hasna understood why it was Kenya, not Hasna herself, whom Vernon loved most.
And why Sharif was unable to show Hasna the love and affection she desired.
Humility. That was what Hasna lacked. Yet it was what Vernon and Kenya shared and what joined them in an un-severable bond.
But with Hasna and Sharif, there was no bond. Because the humility was one-sided.
Sharif could not show Hasna love and affection—because she didn’t have eyes or heart to receive it.
It was then that Hasna understood a deeper significance to Vernon’s words.
Hasna, please. You know that’s not true.
Why had he been so sure of himself?
Because love itself was not “only in the heart.” True love was, by definition, shown through a person’s actions, and enjoyed and felt by all those in the person’s life.
So it was with faith.
Next… Story 6 of 15 Posted every Friday
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