“Where I’m from, do you know what your name means?” the doorman said with a knowing smile. “Uhh… yea… I’m pretty sure, but you tell me,” I said. I’ve been here before, so I am more cautious than I used to be. I used to just blurt out, “it means precious. Of course I know what my own name means!” But these days, I’m much more reticent to assume that I know what it may mean in every country the world over. Perhaps it means frog legs where he’s from, and I would surely like to know that now before I spend a lifetime considering myself a gem of the earth.
“It means precious,” he said. “Phew,” I thought. “Yea, I know,” I said with a sigh. “But not like pretty precious, not like gold and jewelry. I mean like air.” With my ‘whatchu talkin’ bout Willis’ face on, I inquired further. “It is precious, as in essential. Something you cannot live without. Think, like water, air. You know, it’s about being essential to life,” he said.
And there in lies my identifier. No one with an understanding of Arabic language or Islamic culture will assume that I am not of the same. I don’t always look the part. I am a bit unassuming in appearance and sometimes I require an explanation – mainly because of my American last name. But, upon introduction I am asked about where I pray. Am I married yet? No. Why not? How old are you? “You need to marry a Muslim man. It is time.” This is generally the progression of things. I am not usually asked to explain myself beyond, “my parents are Muslim. I was born Muslim.” Even in this North Indian world where I have about as much a place as an albino leopard in a gorilla’s cage, I can belong as a Muslim.
It’s interesting though, because I’ve never wanted to belong as a Muslim. It is possibly one of the few identities I could attach myself to that I never needed the validation of attachment for. I have read the Quran in its entirety. I went to Islamic school when I was quite young. I have worn a hijab for days on end for no reason at all. I was born Muslim, so I don’t owe an imam my shahada. Allah and I have had conversations where I confessed that I will never practice my faith as heretics claim the literal Quranic translations should be lived. I’ve never felt the need to explain my beliefs or their waverings. And, I have never needed to be Muslim to believe in Islam.
Perhaps it’s hard to understand how those of us Nation of Islam babies, or us Sufis, or us Ahmedis, or us Bhoras get along in life – accepting a level of culture that stands apart from the religion itself. The assumption is, of course, that the world’s Muslims are either Sunni or Shi’a. The assumption is, of course, that Muslims speak Arabic, pray 5 times a day, and lock their women in cages with a “Polygamy is my mistress!” sign on it. Some Muslims subscribe to certain ritualistic prescriptions of the religion itself, and others subscribe to the cultural narratives their elders have taught them about how to live the religion. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish one from the other.
The fighting for jihad, the guns, the guts, the restrictions – dare I say, come out of Middle Eastern cultures that encapsulate its many rigidities into beliefs about Islam. But their beliefs in Islam are not universally recognized or understood by the rest of us who could call ourselves Muslims. Nor would I argue that their beliefs are wrong. They aren’t consistent with what I believe, but who am I to say wrong?
And this comes after being told in high school that most Muslims don’t consider the Nation of Islam’s subscribers to be Muslim. “That is not true Islam,” I was told. And this comes after the Ahmedis living in an Islamic country are considered blasphemous and, thus, persecuted as if they were proselytizing the word of Yahweh and eating pork chops on Mohammad’s birthday. There are the Sufis of West Africa and South Asia who fast, whirl like dervishes, see djinns and praise Allah just the same. There are the Bohras who even pleasantly surprised me when I discovered them in Mumbai last week, with their established high society, colorful capes, and formal events where only men do the serving.
I have spent all Ramadan fasting. And instead of reading the Quran, I’ve found myself reading about the cultures of Islam. From “City of Djinns” to “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” I’ve pondered the practices and the mythologies; these conversations and spaces of holy worship that are socially accepted in certain regions, but lay outside of the universal religious prescription. They have given me much to think about this holy month.
While the intertwining of God and politics has always been accepted in America when it comes to Christian values, my birth into Islam came at a time when Black people chose a counter norm. No doubt, Islam in my life has been as much political as say the politics of shari’a in Saudi, but my politics are fixed from an inner pulse of core values that don’t require stoning or penal codes to reinforce. I can surely say that Jews aren’t the only ones who get to be ‘cultural’ or ‘religious.’ I’m claiming my space as a card toting cultural Muslim.
For every salaat I have not made, I have – without provocation and/or a second thought – said ‘stafallah’ when I killed a bug or spat a foul word. I feel bad when I don’t say grace before eating and, yes, I still say it half in Arabic like I learned it when I was 4 years old. Pork is not allowed in my house, though alcohol is a favorite meal. Submission to life’s way is something I fully subscribe to, but some things are worth fighting for and that, too, is life’s way. I understand that hair is a crucial aspect of vanity and I love shoes and black eyeliner just as much as any Muslima. I have learned to be content to walk alongside religious Muslims, but not with them every step of the way.
What Ramzan (the Indian pronunciaton of Ramadan) in India has brought me is a fuller understanding of what Islam means to me and a greater respect for what Islam means to others. What faith doesn’t motivate and inspire – some to their highest point, others to the weakest of states? While some feel the need to travel to Mekkha and Medina to venerate God, I have had enough frank conversations with God in the comforts of my own home that I’m pretty sure that me and Allah already got a thing going on. My understanding of Islam is that it can be just as ample as the wind – sometimes whimsical, sometimes dangerous. Like the Jordanian version of my name, I remain focused on life giving. Some pray for daily sustenance. Some of us find God in the art of living. We can all be called Muslims, that is, if we want to be.