March 4th, 2019
I spent the first five years of my life believing I was Christian. It was in my kindergarten class at my public, 99% Caucasian elementary school in gentrified Brooklyn, New York that I discovered otherwise.
The first writing assignment I remember was to make a “book” (one page, folded in half) on our family traditions. I don’t recall exactly, but the directions mentioned something about religion as an example of tradition, so I wrote that my family celebrated Christmas every year with my paternal grandparents, and that my family was thus Christian.
I came home that day and showed my book to my parents. Beaming with pride, I pointed to the drawing of a Christmas tree and began to explain all the different ornaments. My father, reading along as I described my piece, cut me off with a sharp bark of laughter when he reached the word “Christian.”
I was five years old and confused. What was so funny?
The funny part, my mother’s frown explained, was that I thought our family was Christian. Then I was frowning. “But we celebrate Christmas,” I argued.
“We also celebrate Eid,” she reminded me. I smiled at the mention of my favorite holiday. Although Halloween was lots of candy, Eid was money, candy, and clothes, and money bought candy.
What my parents explained that day was that our Christmas-celebrating, white-passing family was not, in fact, Christian. We belonged to a separate but similar religion called Islam, which made us Muslims.
Since my initial confusion, I’ve taken pride in my religion. As I grew older, my grandparents deemed me ready to start reading the Quran and educating me on our family’s culture. They took me to their Mosque, pictured in the image below, on Eid and every Friday that I was with them--my parents couldn't take me because they didn't go themselves. And as a result of that, I didn’t have a single Muslim friend. I understood this lack as I became more aware of the people around me: everyone I knew was Christian. I realized that, on a daily basis, I was alone in my religion; it was unique, and thus I was unique for being a part if it.
Though my family abides by a very watered-down version of Islam--we don’t abstain, and perhaps more importantly, we don’t pray five times a day, wear hijab except to mosque, or go to mosque except for Eid--my religion is a part of who I am. I look to Allah for guidance and protection, and I fast from sunup to sundown during Ramadan. In the summer, when I have free time, I personally go to mosque without my parents, because they don’t see the point but I feel like it brings me closer to God. I’ve defended it to school bullies who told me to my face that my religion champions murder and violence, and who criticized me for subscribing to such an obviously flawed belief system.
My religion has taught me control: over what I eat, what I wear, and how I act, namely in terms of my response to criticism of my family’s way of life. It has taught me peaceful conflict resolution. It has taught me how it feels to go about your day, taking stressful classes and walking miles just to get to school, without anything to eat or drink. And it has thus taught me respect and sympathy for those who have no choice but to do so every day of their lives. It has taught me what it means to adapt tradition to fit modern times, and to let your core beliefs differ from the core beliefs of another despite the fact that you worship the same God. I am not defined by being Muslim, but without Islam I would no longer be me.