Being young and Muslim in the U.S. means navigating multiple identities. Nothing shows that more than falling in love.
Taz Ahmed is 38, single, Muslim, and Bengali. She describes herself as spiritual, but not particularly religious. When she was growing up, her immigrant parents hoped she would marry an I.T. worker they found for her in Oklahoma. “I’m like, ‘I don’t even know who this person is, what do you even know about him?’” Ahmed recently told me. “They’re like, ‘You’re asking too many questions. You don’t need to know this much information.’”
Like other U.S. Muslims of her generation, Ahmed has spent a lifetime toggling between various aspects of her identity. She got to prom night by promising her mother she’d go with a gay guy. She swapped marriage in her 20s for a master’s degree. She even followed a band as it toured the country—a coming-of-age story straight out of Hollywood, except that it was a Muslim punk group called the Kominas.
“It would have been so much easier if I would have just gotten an arranged marriage,” she said. “But my parents were really half-hearted about it.”
Certain big life moments tend to force a reckoning with cultural identities. And there’s nothing that invites more questions about identity and values than figuring out who to date and marry.
American culture often presents two opposing paths for young Muslims. On one side are people like President Donald Trump, who retweets unverified videos purporting to show Muslim violence; says things like “I think Islam hate us”; and claims there’s “no real assimilation” among even second- and third-generation Muslims in the U.S. On the other are movies like The Big Sick, which depicts the autobiographical love story of Kumail Nanjiani, a Muslim comedian who rejects religion and falls in love with a white woman, devastating his immigrant family.
A disclaimer is in place before I proceed to predict the future of millions of Muslims from various cultures and nationalities who adhere to Islamic tradition. I cannot claim to be comprehensive in my assessment, since I am dealing with different manifestations of religiosity among Muslims. My field work in various Muslim cultures warns me against overgeneralizations that can take away the peculiarities of different peoples that make up the Umma — community.
I am both an “insider” and an “outsider” to the tradition and to the community. As an insider, I face specific challenges in my assessment because of an inclination to look at my inherited perspectives and allegiances uncritically. The major challenge to me is to step outside my own community in ways that allow me to explore normative Islamic tradition and evaluate its ability to expand its hermeneutical horizons. How supple is the retrieval and interpretations that are sometimes implicit and at other times explicit in the scriptural sources for application in the modern age? How much of the tradition is relevant to the contexts in which the community finds itself? As an “outsider” academician, I am able to transcend my ties with the Muslim religious establishment and offer honest assessment of the future of the tradition and the community.
My extensive field work, which stretches for more than four decades, forces me to search for the future of Islam in peoples who profess that religion, that is, those men and women who have throughout history kept the flame of their hopes alight and have trusted the truthfulness of their creed and practice. And yet, I am cautioned against presenting them as a monolithic group. I must consider their differences in light of the religious practices and culture that suggest some kind of unity in their appropriation of the 7th-century Arabian religion. I cannot gloss over the diversity that exists among Muslims and their religious leaders about the special claims of Islamic scriptures on Islam’s adherents, societies, and those states that claim to be founded upon its political values. The future of Muslims will be determined by the aspirations and expectations they maintain regarding historical Islam — the religion and the culture that shaped its civilization. What is important to understand today is the relevance of this rich heritage that can speak to the Muslim peoples living under markedly different circumstances than their ancestors.
Muhammad Ali’s conversion to Islam, in many ways, defined his career and legacy as a fighter with conviction. He went on to become an icon for American Muslims.
Just years following his conversion in 1964, he got in a fight that prompted him to write down some reflections on what drew him to the faith in the first place.
It wasn’t a fight in the boxing ring, but an argument at home with his wife, Belinda.
Ali was out of control, Belinda said. He had lost all traces of humility. He was acting like he was God. You may call yourself the greatest, she told him, but you’ll never be greater than Allah.
Like a schoolteacher, Belinda instructed Ali to sit down and write an essay. She asked him to write about why he became a Muslim. Ali obliged, taking out blank sheets of paper and a blue pen and beginning to write.
I think it belongs there — not only because it reveals a great deal about Ali’s character, but also because it teaches us about the religious life of one of the country’s best-known African American athletes and activists. His story reminds us that even the most powerful spiritual journeys can have humble beginnings.
Various Western intellectuals, ranging from Thomas Friedman to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, have argued over the past decades that Muslims need their own Martin Luther to save themselves from intolerance and dogmatism. The Protestant Reformation that Luther triggered exactly 500 years ago, these intellectuals suggest, can serve as a model for a potential Muslim Reformation. But is there such a connection between the Reformation in Christendom and the “reform” that is arguably needed in Islam?
To start with, it’s worth recalling that Islam, in the form of the Ottoman Empire, helped Protestantism succeed and survive. In the 16th century, much of Europe was dominated by the Holy Roman Empire, which had ample means to crush the Protestant heretics. But the same Catholic empire was also constantly threatened and kept busy by “the Turks” whose own empire-building inadvertently helped the Protestants. “The Turk was the lightning rod that drew off the tempest,” noted J. A. Wylie in his classic, History of Protestantism. “Thus did Christ cover His little flock with the shield of the Moslem.”
More importantly, some early Protestants, desperately seeking religious freedom for themselves, found inspiration for that in the Ottoman Empire, which was then more tolerant to religious plurality than were most Catholic kingdoms. Jean Bodin, himself a Catholic but a critical one, openly admired this fact. “The great empereour of the Turks,” the political philosopher wrote in the 1580s, “detesteth not the straunge religion of others; but to the contrarie permitteth every man to live according to his conscience.” That is why Luther himself had written about Protestants who “want the Turk to come and rule because they think our German people are wild and uncivilized.”
I am a Christian who was raised, and now choose, to profess Christ as Lord and Savior. I was born into a white middle-class family in suburban Maryland. I was part of the majority of Americans who received little education on Islam. I didn’t know that, in addition to sharing a common humanity, we also shared core teachings of our faith. It was not until I left home, at age 17 that I even met anyone who identified as Muslim.
Now I work at Davidson College in the Chaplain’s Office, as an interfaith educator. My job includes supporting students who live faithfully according to the practice and teachings of Islam. Every day, I find that students who identify as Muslim teach me to be a better Christian and a better citizen.
Islam deeply values humility. The Arabic word Muslim means “one who submits [to God].” Submission takes many forms, including daily time for prayer and bowing oneself before God, offering hospitality to one’s family and neighbors, and cherishing peace. I learn from practitioners of Islam the teaching of Jesus that “those who humble themselves will be exalted,” for they place God before all else (Matthew 23:12). Without humility, we destroy our own social fabric.
The first thing I felt Monday morning was grief. The slow trickle of news about another mass shooting can feel like just the next chapter in a long national assault on helpless victims, but it’s important we focus our energy on the victims whose experience in Las Vegas on Sunday night is new. Right now, I’m thinking about them and everyone else who has experienced this horror. My heart is broken.
The second thing I felt Monday was relief. That’s what I always feel when I learn a mass shooter wasn’t Muslim.
I wish, like many other Muslims I know, that my mind didn’t immediately arrive at “Oh God, was it a Muslim terrorist?” That’s a terrible way to think. But I don’t just feel that way because I don’t want my community to be forced to confront false associations. I’ve learned Americans have more pointed, sobering conversations about the root causes of this violence when they’re forced to confront a perpetrator they can’t so easily separate from themselves.
I know what will happen as soon as I hear a Muslim-sounding name connected to a shooting on the news. There’s question of accountability: Why didn’t “moderate Muslims” do more to stop it? What could I have done in New York to stop the Muslim shooter in Florida? Or California? If the shooter was born in America, the question then turns to the parents: Should they ever have been allowed to come here?
That’s how it went down after Omar Mateen was identified as the shooter in the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando in June 2016, until Sunday the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. Within hours, reports chased down his immigration status and his connections with foreign terror groups, and a New York Times writer declared it the worst act of terrorism on American soil since Sept. 11, 2001. By the following Monday, then-candidate Donald Trump had also seized on Mateen’s religion and national origin, bragging on Twitter “for being right on radical Islamic terrorism.” He added, in an angry, rambling speech, “The only reason the killer was in America in the first place was because we allowed his family to come here.”
“Immense faith had brought me here,” he writes. “I was obeying my highest calling as a Muslim.”
Somehow, the name on his Indian passport did not set off any alarm bells. The result is the first book about the Hajj from a gay perspective, written by a man with a deep knowledge of Islamic history. This pilgrimage is the centerpiece of his book, and he recounts it with courage and fierce emotion.
Part of Sharma’s compulsion to find his spiritual salvation at Mecca was a need to prove to himself that despite his sexual orientation, he was still holy enough to be worthy of this journey. It was far from a casual decision. As a child, a medical issue prevented him from having the required circumcision. To reduce one major risk during his pilgrimage, when he would be forced to wear an ihram, two seamless pieces of white cloth with no underwear, he had to have the operation as an adult.
He writes: “In my nightmares, my ihram would fall off in Mecca, subjecting unsuspecting pilgrims to my un-Muslim penis.” His grandfather had told him how after the partition of India and Pakistan, his two best friends were stripped and identified as Muslim by their genitals. They were then hacked to death.
Sharma’s struggle to reconcile his faith with his sexual orientation leads him on a search for the essential humanity of the prophet Muhammad. “Scholars learn to question faith,” he writes, “while believers just accept it. My adult self seemed to possess both abilities.”