Every Monday evening, my mother-in-law attends a Qur’an study group. This is almost exactly like an Islamic version of a Bible study group, and I’ve had the pleasure of sitting in on her group a few times when the meeting was held at our house. I didn’t understand every single thing, of course, since it was entirely in Arabic. But as I sat and watched the ladies chat and snack and sip cups of gahwa, my heart was warmed. No one talked about the permissibility of birthday cakes. No one worried about hearing music (one lady shared a funny YouTube video with music in the background, and the phone was passed around the room so everyone could see. Everyone laughed–or at least smiled–and no one “advised” her that music is haram). And then a teacher sat at the front of the room and read Qur’an aloud, and the ladies discussed the meaning of each ayah and how it could be applied to everyday life. I wanted to take pictures of the gathering and post them (although I never would, of course, because it was an abaya-free gathering), so that people in the States could see just how much this resembled an American Bible study group. I just sat there thinking, “How is it possible that there are people who cannot see just how alike we all are?”
But as alike as we all are, I know that there are essential differences in how many of us see the world. And that’s okay. Still, this can leave some of us feeling quite isolated a lot of the time.
See, I’m Muslim. (I mean, just in case you didn’t know.) But I wasn’t always Muslim. I grew up Catholic in the Bible Belt (i.e., surrounded by Protestants). I found comfort in my Catholic faith, and I honestly never envisioned leaving it…until I found Islam, which to me, embodied all of the comfort I find in sacred ritual while tying it up with a theology that actually made sense to me. Accepting Islam didn’t feel like the ridiculously huge step that it may seem like from the outside. It felt like a homecoming of sorts, which I suppose is exactly how converting to a religion should feel. It felt this way in so many respects, both big and small…even in the way I dressed. I never wanted to be a nun, but I always admired the very identifiably Catholic way in which many nuns dress, and I always wanted to wear a mantilla at Mass, although I never did out of fear of being judged for it. But as a Muslim, I could even wear a headcovering without others in my religious tradition thinking that I was a nutjob (as for those outside my religious tradition…well, that’s a different story).
But it’s hard to be a convert in any religion, and Islam is no exception. You have to learn to pray in another language. I mean, you can pray to God at any time and in whatever language you wish, but for the ritual of the five daily prayers, you need to know some basic Arabic words to perform them (just like until around 50 years ago, Catholics had to know the basic Latin words to pray in Mass). You can learn those words privately and at your own pace, but even outside of prayer, suddenly people all around you are using random Arabic words in everyday conversation and you’re struggling to keep up. It can feel like a secret club…one in which people throw foreign words at you like rocks in order to demonstrate that you should listen to them because they know more than you. Stir in the myriad cultural variations that inevitably color the practice of Islam, and it gets even more confusing and potentially alienating.
But when you join a new religion, more than anything, you want to feel that you belong. This leads converts to join what is affectionately (or at least, sometimes affectionately) known as the Haram Police–they spend an inordinate amount of time “advising” their fellow Muslims as to what is permissible and forbidden. (But always, always calling you “sister” while they do it.) I know that for some people, focusing on certain little things is what makes them feel like they are truly a part of the religion. I get that. But for me, that’s not what religion is about, and it’s not what enriches my life. For me, it gets exhausting, and it’s hard to find a community of converts to Islam that doesn’t fall into the trap of wasting time debating whether or not it is permissible to wear pants in public.
I don’t care about the permissibility of wearing pants in public. I don’t want to know what you think of my Christmas tree. I don’t give a fig about how you feel about having a dog in your house. I couldn’t care less about what instruments you think are permissible before the sound they make qualifies as haram music. And I don’t have any interest in what you think about parents who let their children watch Peppa Pig.
It’s not about the little things.
Nope, I just want to talk about faith. I want to talk about the big picture. I want to feel encouraged. I don’t want to feel alone. I want to feel closer to God. I trust myself to adopt and maintain the earthly rituals that make me feel closer to God, and pants have nothing to do with them. (Well, I mean, I guess they kind of do. I do wear pants. Mostly jeans. Jeans are my favorite.) Arguing about pants doesn’t make me feel closer to God. It makes me feel like God is rolling his eyes at me.
There are elements of Christianity that I love and miss and wish they were more a part of mainstream Islam. One of my favorite Instagram accounts currently belongs to a Christian college student who makes beautiful/adorable sketches in her Bible that illustrate important verses on the page; I want to highlight and make notes in my Qur’an without being scolded for desecrating it. I want to be able to admit that even though I don’t consider the Bible to be the unaltered Word of God, I do find wisdom and comfort in it alongside the Qur’an. (And I kind of want to commission that college student to make sketches in a Bible and Qur’an that illustrate the verses that are most important to me on each page.) I want to open a devotional book and read words that strengthen my faith, not present judgment on my plucked eyebrows. I don’t want to be on perpetual defense because I wear pants (yeah, I’m really sticking to the pants example). I’m already on perpetual defense because I’m Muslim.
I’ve thought about starting a Facebook group for other Muslim convert women who feel the same way, but in my experience, groups like this tend to implode on themselves because they inevitably devolve into a mess of bickering. If I did start a group, there would have to be rules. Like, no copying and pasting fatwas from Islam Q&A. No asking other members, “Do you think *insert mundane practice here* is permissible?” Figure out what works for you there on your own. You’re a grown woman with a brain that God gave you. I’m not going to waste my time typing out to you exactly why my conscience doesn’t trouble me when I wear pants.
I don’t know. If there’s interest, I may start a group. Send me a message or leave a comment if you would be interested. Maybe we’ll get something going. Although I can’t guarantee that it won’t go down in a blaze of birthday cake debate.
I guess I’ve been thinking about these things especially because it’s that time of year again…that time when my Facebook newsfeed is filled with pictures of Christmas trees, snow, twinkling lights, stacks of presents, gingerbread men, holiday music, all of which bring on pangs of homesickness and the occasional round of sobbing…alongside the reminders from my more conservative Muslim Facebook friends that Christmas is haram.
I don’t know if those folks realize what they are saying when they attempt to “enjoin the good” by announcing that any sort of activity related to the holiday season is haram. I know they don’t mean it this way, but to me, they are basically saying that my childhood is haram. My happiness is haram. The memories and the love and the warm fuzzies of a now-secular season (to me) that I cherish are all haram, because I am Muslim now, and that should erase all that came before.
Well, it doesn’t. It just doesn’t. And I don’t want it to. So there.