|Painting by Arna Baartz|
Another white Muslim convert once told me, “I’m glad I decided to follow Islam before I met too many Muslims.” As he was a man, I’m impressed that he was able to stick to his faith despite coming up against many so-called believers who communicate in a way that seems far from the message of love and compassion revealed in the Quran.
I say “as a man,” because my female biology has allowed me to remain connected with Allah, even when the behavior of Muslims, some very close to me, has been alienating. From the time we first bleed—in cycle with the moon, just as Islam marks the passage of time—to opening our bodies to the act of love and the vulnerability and power required to carry and birth a baby, we women are reminded of the Creator and our place in the cycle of creation.
* * *
Descanso: Here I place a roadside cross (or crescent, if you prefer) for those women who wished to bear children but could not, reverence for those who became mothers to people not of their own bodies, and love for my sisters who faced judgment because they did not wish to have children. I believe that the concept of “woman as mother” is not limited to literal children, as we all give birth to whatever creations we put forth into the world. In fact, as women, whenever our individual lives don’t match society’s expectations, we are challenged to connect with the Divine, to recognize that we have an inner guidance system that supersedes external messages.
* * *
With my very biology connecting me to God, why bother having a religion at all? Isn’t that rather like a bird buying a flying machine?
Raised as a Lutheran in a fairly liberal environment (our congregation was welcoming to people of various races, sexual orientations, and even belief systems), I saw Sunday school, choir practice, the service itself, and the post-church coffee hour as a chance to socialize. The Bible was a literary work. God was distant and male.
He was a bronze, 1970s-style Jesus on the altar—kind-looking enough, but static in his robes, which seemed stuck mid-flow. I lost touch with Him and his Father as close companions and real entities when I was very young. The Holy Spirit was something truly ephemeral—some kind of benevolent ghost, maybe. My Sunday school teacher told me to pray for what I wanted, so I spent many nights in bed sincerely asking God to fill my room with toys while I slept. “In Jesus’ name. Amen.”
I believed I would wake up to a kind of magical wonderland of streamers, jack-in-the-boxes, music makers, and stuffed animals. But it didn’t work. Either the order/fulfillment model I’d been taught was broken, or I wasn’t worthy. Still, I liked the music and coffee cake church brought into my life.
My world outside of church was more spiritually significant for me. I went to meetings of the Theosophical Society with my father, attended Thursday bhajans (spiritual singalongs) with my mother, who followed an Indian guru, and lived for a couple of years at the International Buddhist Mediation Center in Los Angeles. I even spent part of my mid-twenties living and working with a fun-loving group of Israelis, which resulted in my attending the occasional Seder.
I developed an “all roads lead to Rome” approach to spirituality, noting a similar sense of connection and good feeling in each of these settings.
My Israeli friends, many of them fresh from their mandatory army service, had traveled the world on the cheap. I was inspired by that and made my own plans to backpack trough Asia in early 2002. Just after I bought my plane ticket, the shock of September 11, 2001 hit us. Despite the fears my family had about me traveling in the ensuing months, I headed for Asia, where my perception of myself as open to various spiritual outlooks was challenged.
I found myself in Mysore in the South of India, feeling some trepidation as I passed the city’s biggest place of Muslim worship, The Green Mosque. I didn’t want to judge Islam, but my heart beat faster when I saw a group of men praying towards Mecca or recognized Arabic writing. I was mad at myself. I thought my feelings couldn’t be co-opted by the media or my culture, or even my family. There was this sense that brown Muslim terrorists were “out there” to “get me.”
Of course, the truth was that, at the time, the United States was “surgically” bombing Afghanistan. Graphic pictures of innocent Muslims killed and injured in Operation Enduring Freedom were appearing on the front pages of The Hindustan Times. It seemed as if my countrymen were at least as dangerous as any imagined “them” “out there.” This was a provocative opinion to have in an era when America seemed to have gone mad with the “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” outlook of the White House.
I was also meeting some of “them.” More than 10% of the world’s Muslims live in India, and if you go to the country and are not invited to tea by at least one nice Muslim family or shopkeeper, then you’re spending too much time in your room.
Jamshed and Rashid were two brothers who ran a little convenience cart outside my front door. They sold me small, sweet bananas for one rupee each and supplied me with lemon-scented Odomos lotion to keep the mosquitoes at bay. They introduced me to their source for desserts from their home region of Kerala (the fried banana stuffed with coconut was a mind-blowing experience) and asked many questions about me and my country. They were kind and curious.
Then there was Muhamad, the Kashmiri shopkeeper in Bangalore who sold me a horrible sari and some beautiful papier mâché tchotchkes. We talked quite a bit about his family and their safety, about his business, coming down south each winter with his wares, and how his brothers took turns running the store and caring for their parents.
When I met my future husband, a dental student who owned the internet café where I checked my email, I read the Quran for his sake. I wanted to understand him and his religion better. What struck me about the Quran was the concept of a direct connection between the Divine and the creation. There was no need for a priest or a pope, no need to invoke anyone’s name. You could just have a chat with God any old time you wanted. She was as close as your jugular at all times (Quran 50:16) and your relationship with Her was deeply personal, not something to be enforced or judged by an outside party. That was a concept of God I could get behind.
When I told my fiancé I would become Muslim, and that we could raise our children as Muslim if he liked, I felt as if I’d made a decision. He replied, “Of course our children will have to be Muslim.” His de facto assumption foreshadowed the difficulty I was to experience living with other followers of Islam.
The day I took my shahada—statement of faith—in the mosque, I received many tearful congratulations from my new sisters in Islam. In India and America, though I continued to be plied with warm smiles and bottomless cups of tea from my Muslim cohorts, now that I was Muslim, I was escorted to the ladies’ side of the house. Socializing with the multicultural students in my Arabic class—only the female ones, of course!—I found the talk was rarely very profound. The ladies were intelligent, but it seemed there was a line of propriety that wasn’t to be crossed, one that meant we could not discuss the meaningful.
Officially becoming Muslim was like sending out an invitation to family members, mosque aunties, and random strangers who saw me in hijab to give me advice. These counselors ranged from those who, judging from the sounds they heard on my side of the bathroom stall, gave me impromptu personal hygiene lessons, to those who admonished me for listening to music, showing my ankle, wearing nail polish, eschewing meat, allowing my son to wear a bracelet, not changing my name to an Arabic one, fasting on a Monday, touching a holy book while menstruating, or being an ally to my LGBTQ brothers and sisters. Let me just say that the list goes on and touches every part of my life and body.
At first, I wasn’t too shaken by all of this. Their intentions were good, no doubt, and no one could interfere with the direct connection between me and the Creator, right? But over the years—13 now—Islam came to represent to me more the meddling condescension of people than that sure, true line of communication with God.
Not knowing how love for ourselves or our children or our Creator is supposed to thrive in these circumstances, I began to ask myself whether I was right, so many years before, to fear Islam, not because of its teachings, but because of the narrow definitions of its followers of what constitutes belief and goodness.
I spent some serious time considering these thoughts last year when I was pregnant with my third child. Something about being pregnant—the hormones, the thought of being caretaker and guide to a new human being on this planet, seeing in the mirror the fully belly and breasts of a 35,000-year old Venus statue—accentuates life and what is important in it.
My other children instinctively understood the specialness of this. They crowded around my tummy, kissing it and rubbing it and, asking about their own time in my body, even saying they remembered some of it.
My baby is now at my breast, on my hip, in my lap—an extension of me until he defines his own place in the world, a process that will take many years.
This is what seems real, this chain of life and death that extends back from my great, great, grandmothers, the inner voice that becomes strongest when I am the active link in that chain, urging me to make the important decisions and sending me magical, meaningful dreams. It is sometimes enough to make me want to give up calling myself a Muslim and just go about enjoying my ever-present relationship with the Creator.
But then I run into wonderful activists like Irshad Manji and Ani Zonneveld, who have revived Islam’s tradition of ijtihad; scholars like Amina Wadud and Laury Silvers, who have interpreted Islam through women’s perspectives; and a thriving online community of Muslim progressives. Many of these communities are secret, because their members fear what their friends and families would do if they knew their true thoughts. I’ve even participated in launching a branch of Muslims for Progressive Values in my hometown.
I don’t know where Islam and I will stand in the long run, but that connection to God, pumping through my very veins, is a constant for me, and I have faith that the same source that keeps my heart beating and my lungs working, my breasts producing milk for my baby, and the sun rising and setting will guide me in living in, and contributing to, the world as I’m meant to.
The first surah (passage) of the Quran is called “The Opening.” This could imply a mature male energy of a key fitting in a lock, as well as the female aspect of receiving the key and allowing access to the treasures inside. My children have given me the gift of reminding me that I possess both those aspects and that, as a woman, I embody the qualities of trust, opening, and giving. Now it’s my sacred obligation to mirror it back to them. This lesson of biology grounds me in the big and small choices I make each day. My body, which society might say is too fat, and the immature male portrayal of Allah says is shameful, is actually the key to the kingdom. For that, I open up in gratitude and let the love pour in.
by Kim Mohiuddin. An excerpt from the upcoming Girl God Anthology, Jesus, Mohammad and the Goddess.
Kim Mohiuddin is a writer and storyteller who has lived and traveled across the U.S. and India. She’s earned a living in every conceivable way, from truck driving to massage therapy. These days, Kim creates award-winning career documents for executives, tells stories to live audiences, and home schools her three children.