Musings on Muslim identity (I)

As God says, “Fa-aina tadhhabun?” (Where are you going?)

*   *   *   *

In the beginning, it seemed quite simple: belief that God is one (as opposed to belief in a trinity), belief in the prophets with Muhammad as the last, reading quranic passages in my personal prayers more frequently than Bible verses… I couldn’t even pretend to fit into any Christian church any more. My religious beliefs, my ritual language, were undeniably becoming more and more Muslim.

But that was before I had encountered a Muslim community. I had met individual Muslims—most of whom were students who weren’t very practicing, although a few nonetheless plied me with dawah literature. But they were not an organized conservative community, with clear ideas of who was “in” and who was “out,” or an interest in policing what people believed or did. So at that point, gradually becoming a Muslim was primarily about my own individual, private spiritual practice.

Once I married my ex, however, the specter of community slowly began to rear its head now and again.


I began to realize just how little regard that he and his friends had for non-Muslim women. In their view, Muslim women were by definition morally superior. He told me that while I could believe what I wanted, that whatever happened, any children we might have would definitely have to be raised Muslim. (Which was news to me—before marriage, he had agreed that our kids could go to church if they wanted. When I pointed out that he seemed to have unilaterally changed his mind, he just laughed dismissively.) And marriage for him was a sign that it was now time for him to settle down and play the role of a fully adult male. He became increasingly practicing, and paid much more attention to what his more religious (and Islamist) friends were saying about how Muslims should see the world.

So, my conversion process was not just about my own beliefs and practices anymore—it now had a community dimension, with implications for how my ex (and I) would be seen by his peers, as well as for what our family life would be like. But still, my ex did not try to get me to convert fully, or to practice. By that time, I was no longer eating pork, and shunning alcohol, so he didn’t have to worry that I would bring unlawful foods or drinks into the home. I was also wearing hijab by then—which he did not approve of, and tried to discourage, but at least he didn’t have to be embarrassed in front of his friends by my dressing “immodestly” either. But still, my religious beliefs and practices were primarily my own to negotiate. I taught myself to pray from a book. I learned how to perform a valid Ramadan fast the same way. And I finally decided that I was in fact a Muslim.

And then, we moved. To a larger city, with a much larger and better organized Muslim community (or communities, really, even at that time). And community in conservative and increasingly controlling senses of the term began to take over my newly minted Muslim identity. Helped along by the rejection I experienced from some family members, as well as the often prejudiced attitudes that I encountered whenever I went outdoors in my hijab. I quickly learned to look to Muslims for any sort of acceptance or sense of belonging. Although I seldom found all that much of either, I still kept looking….

*   *   *   *   *

“I don’t understand.” M. looked at me, her blue eyes puzzled. “Why do you care about belonging? I never have. Who needs it?”

I had first met M. about a year after moving to that city. Like me, she was a white convert married to an immigrant Muslim man—but the similarities pretty much ended there. She had always been blatantly non-practicing, even wearing sleeveless blouses in public. It wasn’t that she didn’t know anything about Islam, or wasn’t interested in it—on the contrary, she knew more about it than many born Muslims. I couldn’t understand why she didn’t practice at that time, and had felt vaguely threatened by her. She finally moved away, and we lost contact for a time.

But now, two decades later, it was different. I had left that city, that marriage, and no longer surrounded myself with conservative Muslims. I could now have a conversation with M. about religion, and not feel threatened by her very different experiences. But her words rang in my ears. Doesn’t everyone care about belonging? What would it be like to be happy to not belong anywhere?

Our conversations continued that year. I asked her about her identifying as a Muslim, but not practicing—was it because she hadn’t wanted to be drawn into the whole “ideal Muslimah” thing? Yes, it was, she said. She said that she knew that as soon as she started to even practice a bit—to make salat, or to fast—then the whole structure of expectations of how a “good Muslim woman” should behave would be imposed upon her, by her (now ex-) husband, and by the community.

Oh good, an ally, I thought. But she wasn’t at all receptive when I came out to her, and was scandalized by a question that I voiced about the history of the Qur’an. Sigh. Practicing or not, was M. the real Muslim in this picture?

*   *   *   *   *

C. and I were walking. C. is an old convert friend of mine, from way back when we were both hyper-conservative Muslims. We had gone out for dinner, and now were in the mood for a long walk.

We walked along, chatting animatedly. We hadn’t really thought about where the street we were walking along was going to lead us… until it did.

We stopped, and looked up. We had both lived in that grim, dingy-looking apartment building years ago, back when we were young mothers. We had visited each other almost daily, and helped out with one another’s kids and the cooking and sewing and supported one another through pregnancies and miscarriages and rocky relations with our visiting mothers-in-law… as well as through our very dysfunctional marriages.

Memories came flooding back. Our hot, stuffy, roach-y apartments, furnished with second-hand furniture and stuff scrounged from the garbage. Our attempts to design and sew suitably modest clothing. Us teaching our kids the Arabic alphabet. Us praying, and getting together for iftars. Me, bleeding heavily from a miscarriage, lying on a makeshift bed of blankets in her room, holding prayer-beads and trying to distract myself from the pain by doing dhikr while she tended my kids as well as hers (I have no idea where my then-husband was that day, but it was typical for him to be absent whenever we needed him). C., weeping in my arms while her mother-in-law “joked” that C.’s husband really ought to marry another, better wife. A real woman, from his own background.

Of a conservative Muslim immigrant man, also married to a white convert, who had lived in that building. He had made his disapproval of me plain almost from the beginning, although he didn’t know me, and had never even had a conversation with me. “If a sister wears hijab, it doesn’t tell me a lot,” he proclaimed in a small immigrant Muslim, almost entirely male, gathering that I was unfortunately present at. “No, it doesn’t tell me a lot. What tells me a lot (and he paused for emphasis) is how she behaves.”

Of how hard our lives were then. The poverty. The social isolation. And the endless judgment, not just from our birth families and many in the wider society (who could be expected to disapprove of our very religious lifestyles) but from other conservative Muslims—even those who agreed with us theologically.

“Why?” I turned to C. “Why? Why was it that no matter how much we gave up, no matter how much we tried to be good wives and mothers, no matter how much crap we put up with… it was just never, ever enough? That the message we were always getting was that we are Western women, so of course we are selfish and individualistic and we aren’t sacrificing and serving our husbands nearly enough, like a true Muslim woman would do?”

C. shook her head. “So many reasons,” she said faintly, squinting up at the building. “Class, post-colonialism, race….”

I sighed. Yes, she was right, but I couldn’t get past all the judg-y meanness, which had sometimes veered into outright cruelty. The way that our lives had been dissected and picked over and rejected as not good enough, by our supposed brothers and sisters in Islam.

“Why could we never, ever be good enough for them?” I asked again. “What more did they think we should have sacrificed? We gave whatever we had. What did they want us to do—lie down in the street and take poison??”

Of course, I knew the answer to that—our very existence was innately wrong, but then, so is suicide. Even if we’d killed ourselves, we would not have been good enough. We couldn’t be, because we were white western female converts, who moreover weren’t managing to fit into the hyper-feminine “ideal Muslimah” mold no matter how hard we tried. Never real enough Muslims. No amount of suffering could have fixed that.

And now in their eyes, our lack of true Muslimness was laid bare for all the world to see, with the wind ruffling our hair as we stood below that building. They knew that they had been right about us after all.

“Some people,” I went on, “still think that we didn’t try hard enough. And they will probably always think that.”

“I know,” C. answered.

I shook my head as I tried to get my mind around how much some people had hated us, had wanted to grind us right down into the cement. Classisms, racisms, post-colonial traumas, male western convert insecurities… and straight-up misogynies.

And how we had hated and despised ourselves even more. And thought that this was piety. And had thought that those calling us to ever-more extravagant acts of self-hate and internalized misogyny were the ones who were preaching true Islam. Because they were the only ones who hadn’t compromised with “the West” or modernity or misguided modern liberal sentimentality and upheld Tradition (TM). Or so they claimed.

*   *   *   *   *


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  1. #1 by Quills & Bones on February 23, 2013 - 2:39 pm

    “Stupid people will like you after five years. Envious people will always hate you.” -Dr. Who

  2. #2 by nmr on March 13, 2013 - 1:31 pm

    Adis Duderija’s book lays it all out there, using many of the hadith you have quoted. It’s listed on Amazon for $99, but I got a pristine used copy for $10, so keep your eyes peeled for the used ones.

    “Constructing a Religiously Ideal ‘Believer’ and a ‘Woman’ in Islam” by Adis Duderija, Palgrave Series in Islamic Theology, Law, and History, 2011

    Sets forth the assumptions, textual usage, reasoning and argument styles of Neo-Traditionalist Salafis (NTS) and Progressive Muslims i.e. the two opposite poles of current Muslim identity debate. This book has been floating around academic social scientists circles but has yet to make it into the mainstream.

  3. #3 by Raza on March 16, 2013 - 10:59 pm

    I somehow stumbled on to your blog, and boy am I glued? Your words are deep and passages profound. I really look forward to reading more of your blog posts.

    I am intrigued as to how do you currently feel about Muslims and Islam having had not so pleasant experiences in the past.

  4. #4 by Shawnee on March 19, 2013 - 5:09 pm

    I teared reading this. So many memories came flooding back. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who felt this way. Thank you.

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