A young Jordanian woman shares her thoughts on her identity as a Muslim woman and on how, through reflecting on the life of the Prophet Muhammad, she discovered a new lens through which to view herself and other women.
As a wide-eyed, fresh graduate from one of America’s leading colleges for the study of International Relations, I was full of pride and great hope for returning to my homeland, Jordan. I was equipped not with a degree in a hard-nosed major such as ‘political economy’, but with a versatile, humanities-based specialty in the post-colonial studies of the Muslim world—a perfect major for a somewhat cynical, but mostly idealist, Arab Muslim woman living in a post-9/11 world.
Even though I was born Muslim, I consider myself as having truly embraced Islam in college—a Jesuit one, no less! Ironically, in a country seen as having many qualms with Islam, I felt that my life on an American campus was conducive to “finding one’s self” through various outlets including a diverse Muslim community, an engaging interfaith chaplaincy, and an intellectually stimulating environment.
After bidding the academic and spiritual utopia of my alma mater farewell, fears of having to refamiliarize myself with Amman—the city where I grew up and the Westernized capital of the Arab world’s closest ally to the US—overcame me. I wondered: “How will I, a transformed young woman with big ideas about God, people and nations, possibly fit in a society that is characterized by uniformity, rigidity and conformity?”
Attending the first tea party with my mother’s perfectly coiffed, designer-clad circle of friends in Amman was a rather alienating encounter. I felt more comfortable discussing world history or the Revival of the Religious Sciences by Imam Ghazali than discussing the trials and tribulations of finding a good personal trainer or ideal evening clutch.
At first, I saw these second-hand-smoke-filled gatherings as an opportunity to “preach” about the big picture. There I was—a young (well-intentioned) 20-something bursting with spiritual emotion and erudite thoughts—slipping spiritual tid- bits here and there and inserting a comment or two about the necessity of political awareness and the value of “knowing thy self” to women at least 25 years my senior.
At religious circles at the mosque, I was often asked, “Where are you from?” to which I casually responded, “I’m from here” with a reassuring smile.
Yet I often found myself feeling like a work of confusing abstract art. To some in the West, or in Westernized parts of Amman, I was viewed as a raging “conservative” due to my headscarf. To other Jordanian Muslims, I was seen as a flaming “liberal.” Perhaps bewildered by my (relatively) eccentric taste in clothes, which mainly compromised of Moroccan jillabas and Indian tunics, or perhaps due to my fair complexion and “colored” eyes, I almost always stood out. In private discussions, I would sometimes express views about the centrality of spirituality in Islam that were too controversial. Listeners would conclude that I have been “influenced too much by America.”
The reality was that I could not be neatly boxed into any one category.
I felt like a stranger in my own land and in a world of hasty assumptions, shallow expectations, and petty constructs.
What I didn’t realize was that while I was taking every opportunity to speak out against the stereotyping of Muslim women, I was unknowingly doing just that. I was passing judgment on the Muslim women of my hometown. By seeking to negate the label of myself, I was unintentionally labeling others—”religious vs. Westernized elite” or “veiled vs. half-veiled or unveiled.”
Truth is, we all have the self-righteous tendency to see the faults or uncomfortable differences of others before viewing our own. It is narrated that the Beloved Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, once said: “He sees a splinter in his brother’s eye and fails to see a tree branch sticking out of his own eye.” And in another Hadith, “One does not enter Jannah (heaven) who has in his heart a mustard seed’s weight of Kibr (ego).”
I stopped using my religion as a tool to judge others and instead began using it for what religion was truly meant for: To aid me in the purification of my own heart and in polishing the image of my inner-mirror. Only then was I able to view everyone around me as brothers and sisters in God’s image, regardless of their dress, lifestyle or mannerisms.
Sometimes outward appearances serve as a helpful signifier, but more often they are a deceiving manifestation that builds barriers between people—for example, how a piece of cloth on a Muslim woman’s head can trigger feelings of hate, mistrust, or fear towards the entire religion of Islam in some Western communities. In Muslim majority communities this challenge exists, and is perhaps even greater. For a healthy “intra-Muslim” dialogue to occur, we need to change the insecure lens we, as Muslims, use to view one another.
As a result of the frustration I felt as a person homesick in my own home, I found hope and love within me through the life and stature of the Prophet Muhammad, the Beloved of God, peace be upon him. By reading his autobiography with a desperate eye, I relearned the Prophetic example (and took away far more than I had during what I thought were my most “enlightened” days). I was like a phoenix. In reading accounts of the Prophet’s gentleness with people and the extent of his merciful and noble character, the love I had for him burst my heart into flames and from the ashes arose a different woman. A new Muslim.
I would not trade the taste of this love for all the Latin font-embossed diplomas of this world nor a false sense of belonging to one “good” or “perfect” community. Realizing that labels and judgments—whether made unto me or made by me—only served to hinder the flow of love for God through the diverse sea of people He created. All else aside, I want to be judged by the Most Merciful. I will humble myself before all of His creation, and I will love Saint and leper. Whether on the street in Washington DC, in a mosque in Amman, or at an upscale café’ in Amman, I will carry the umbrella that will shade my eyes, tongue and heart with His Boundless Mercy. I will unshackle myself from the cage of worldly, human perceptions by remembering the greatest comfort of all: When all is done, “to him we belong and to Him we shall return” [Quran 2:156].