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Growing up: Muslim? Mormon? Confused!

I’ve been asked to write about how, even having been raised in a household with two faiths, I came out to be Muslim. And I have to admit I feel like I’m writing an essay for homework. (That’s irony, said the English teacher.)

Well, my mother was (and still is a Christian) and a my father was (and very much is) a Muslim. When my parents got married sometime back in the seventies, they were both under the impression that each would have the other converted within six months. This joke has only gotten funnier in their last 26 ½ years of marriage. Of course, it’s rather sobering to remember that of all the interfaith marriages we know of where both members were practicing, my parents’ marriage is rare in that they’re still married to each other.

As the story goes, we were born, four of us, each two years apart. We were all given Muslim names and the best Muslim upbringing that my father could manage while working 14 hours a day. We were taught how to read the Qur’an and pray, but there was a limit to how much my father could teach because he had to work. My mother stepped in from there, and on Sundays when a babysitter wasn’t available we went to church. At home, our mother bought and cooked halal because our father said so, but we children didn’t know why and I had secret longings for Oreos that were never fulfilled until Nabisco made them kosher much later.

I have to say that both of my parents became good at compromising and making allowances for the other faith. Our mother made sure we got our food at family parties before it was blessed in the name of Jesus Christ, because that would make it no longer halal. Our father paid for yearly Christmas gifts and Easter candy.

It was a confusing way to be brought up though, and I can remember being eight years old and adamant that I would not dress up for Halloween because it wasn’t Islamic, and the year before that crying because my father wouldn’t let me be in the school ballet for the same reason. (My mother snuck me there anyway. Good thing dad doesn’t read my blog, eh mom?) I’m not going to say that my mother tried to maliciously Christianize us, because any mother who believes her faith is true will try to instill it in her children. Not out of malice, but love. We absorbed church hymns and Bible stories. We grew up with bits of both religion, and I have to admit that I was quite confused for a while. Sometimes I get my stuff mixed up even now. (You mean we don’t have Daniel in the Lion’s Den? Are you sure that story belongs to the Christians? I coulda sworn…)

Having two practicing parents meant that I absorbed a solid base in both religions, but being raised in a totally average American society meant that I didn’t practice much of either. I knew enough to get by in both, but I personally had no strong interest in either religion until I was in high school. And I won’t say that I went and looked for truth. I say truth found me, and that’s well…the truth. It is solely, exclusively through the Grace of God that I was given faith, because I wasn’t looking for it. It happened like this.

One year, my sister and I were talking to our shared best friend, Sabah (our parents were friends before any of us were born so we’ve known each other since we were fetuses) and she told us about this great camp that was all for girls, where they had swimming and rock climbing and workshops and best of all, it was for Muslims. I don’t think we would’ve been able to go off to camp if it weren’t for the fact that it was just for Muslim girls, and before that summer, none of us had canoed or been rock-climbing, or prayed much for that matter. Well, I know it was true for me, but I’m not going to speak for Sabah and Aniraz.

At the time I was 15 and stupid, and the boundaries of my spiritual universe went no farther than Eid prayers twice a year. My world was friends, and school, and giggling about boys, and wishing mom would let me wear make-up and learning to become an artist and writing poetry and terrorizing the mall with my friends. That was my world. I never came to Islamic Camp for the Islam, I came for the camp! And I was not at all hoping or expecting to find Islam.

Well, we went to this camp, and I was just blown away. I was in shock, not because of the spiders (though I refused to sit on the grass the entire time we were there), but because of what I saw. I saw hijabis, beautiful, intelligent, loud, crazy, wonderful hijabis who destroyed all the myths that even I believed about Islam and Muslim culture. It’s true, being raised in the US I had the same stereotypes about Muslim women who covered, that they were oppressed with the cultural baggage of a scarf that their fathers/brothers/camel-riding husbands forced them to wear. It never one occurred to me that there might be logic or beauty or even free will behind it, and I had never been challenged before to open my eyes or even do any independent thinking about religion or what it meant.

That was not the year I started wearing a scarf and practicing Islam, it was the year after that. That was just the year my eyes were opened, just a little. I couldn’t see the big picture, but I knew it was there, and I knew that I had some looking to do. I started asking myself questions, but very, very slowly, because part of me didn’t want to. No one wants to do what’s hard, no one really wants to go and make a difficult change in their lives. It was hard for me to start thinking about being a Muslim, because it wasn’t something I had thought about often. My identity was of reluctant half-Pakistani American.

(*Note, I never called myself a half-American Pakistani. For years I told everyone my ancestors were Mongolian rather than admit I was a ‘gandhi’ Pakistani. There was one year when I told people to call me Diana. The next year I wished my name was Brittany. If I remember correctly, I think Aniraz had wanted to be Clara)

Out of the four of us siblings, I can easily say that I am the most Caucasian looking. Without a scarf I am practically unrecognizable as anyone remotely non-Anglo. I have my mother’s nose and her Irish freckles, the only people I know with paler skin than I are Europeans. I know dozens of half-breeds like myself, but none of them look an un-Pakistani as I do. I used to consider this an advantage, because except for my name, I blended into Anglo-American society perfectly. So perfectly, in fact, that when I finally started wearing a scarf a year after attending camp, many of my friends were shocked. They hadn’t even known I was Muslim.

I can’t blame them for not knowing. I lived in T-shirts and jeans. I never spoke Urdu except in Pakistan (and even that with a terrible accent) and I had never talked about religion. Until I started wearing a scarf they had all thought I was like them, normal.

But it was a long year between my first camp and my first time wearing a scarf. My second year of camp I was a nervous hijabi with a badly pinned, highly unmanageable scarf. Luckily my second year of summer camp came with the best, closest, most inspiring, most Islamic circle of friends I have ever had in my entire life. Of course Sabah was in it, but now we had Hana, Shamaila, Nadia, Aneeqa, Fareena, Yasmine, Amira, Sana, Naeema, Fareeha… There were so many hijabis, they were all great people, and they were my inner-circle from that year until the day I left the US, five years later.

It is said that your friends, and not your parents, have the greatest impact on who you are and who you become. I believe that 100 %, because it was not my initiative, but my friends’ initiative that carried me farther into learning about Islam, about debating the questions we had and figuring things out for ourselves. I had never been outside of cultural ‘Pakistani Islam’ before, in which religion was prayer on holidays, a shawl for when the azhan was called and a dupatta on your shoulder. That was all. Once you covered those bases you were 100% guaranteed a spot on Paradise.

I had never thought even for a moment what Islam meant and whether or not there was a point to anything at all, and when I started finding out I was awed. And humbled. And naturally, very guilty. Not because any of my friends ever told me to wear a hijab or ever rode me for being such a substandard Muslim, but because I realized that I owed Allah gratitude and faith, and I was measuring up short. I had to put my money where my mouth was, and if I said I was Muslim and that I believed Islam was the best, then I should be practicing it.

And it’s been slow going, and I’m still nowhere near my destination. But here I am today, and I have Allah to thank for it, for giving me parents who taught morality no matter what religion and kept me from straying too far before I had sense enough to look for a path on my own. I thank Allah for my friends, and I still pray for them though I haven’t seen most of them in nearly four years. I thank Allah for making me Muslim, cuz God knows that if I was left to my own devices, I would have vanished into the spiritual no-man’s land that people sleep-walk their lives through.

Alhamdulillah. That’s all.

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