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Growing Up Muslim-American

From ages 5 to 13, I dutifully, although sometimes begrudgingly, attended Islamic Sunday School almost every single week. I nervously recited lines of the Qur'an when it was my turn in Arabic class, listened attentively to stories of historic battles between warring tribes, and even went to movie nights the center held with my sister and watched The Ring with the other Muslim girls our age.

For me, Islamic school wasn’t an optional activity. It was a duty imposed by my parents, the authoritative figures in my life. It was like regular schooling–something I didn’t particularly enjoy yet was deemed necessary for my growth. Growing up, I never questioned Islam, or my parents. I simply adopted the religious belief system that my parents held, and consequently those around me held. Islam, for much of my childhood, was less about submission to God’s will (as it was intended to be) and more about submission to that of my parent’s. Being Muslim was like a biological fact of my life, just as being a girl and having curly hair was; it was something unquestionable and inherited from my family.

When I started high school and became both more self- and socially- aware, I began to resent my parents ever so slightly; not for making me go to Sunday School, but for not explaining why I needed a religious education. For example, so that I could fully flesh out my spirituality as a young Muslim or so that I could come to understand Islam in greater depth.

Now, as a college student reflecting back on my childhood, I’m thankful my parents sent me to Islamic School. It added more structure to my week and offered a community space outside of secular American public school. However, I’ve come to realize that my experience there wasn’t always positive. Although it is difficult to pinpoint exactly why, it felt like my Muslim peers and I were in some sort of competition with one another, to prove to the adults/teachers that not only were we the best student, but the best Muslim. The measure of this seemed to be how well we recited the Qur'an, how many verses we remembered, or our score on an Islamic history quiz. I felt intimidated by my classmates, especially the girls who I perceived as the most pious–the ones who wore hijab or had already memorized surahs that were lengthier than the ones I knew.

Islam is a religion of rituals. Although the shahadah (Profession of faith) is the foremost pillar of Islam and the first step reverts take in their initiation, I felt that the Muslims surrounding me emphasized orthopraxy over orthodoxy; actions over belief. Pray nymas. Fast during Ramadan. Read Qur’an and dua. I disliked the idea of having a checklist to complete in order to achieve the status of a ‘good’ Muslim. I harped on the fact that people could perform these duties, appear devout to their community, and yet not truly be a good person at heart. Recently, I attended an in-person Jummah Prayer with Imam Khalid Latif hosted by Park51 in Lower Manhattan. In his khutbah, the Imam touched on this idea and it brought some clarity to my mind; he talked about the necessity of intent behind our actions. He spoke about how we can’t bend and prostrate in front of Allah during prayer for the sake of prostrating, and that we’re not just praying with our body, we’re praying for our mind. During a separate event held by NYU’s Islamic Center, titled “Responding To Doubts About the Qur'an With Sheikh Suhaib Webb,” this topic was discussed at length as well. The sheikh said that there is nothing wrong with experiencing doubt; doubt itself is normal. However, not addressing or understanding that doubt is where the problem lies.

Late one night, I spoke with my sister about some of my religious qualms. She told me that Allah isn’t imposing these religious rituals on us to control or force us; he is suggesting we do them for the sake of our own growth, for our own benefit. It’s a simple concept but it took time and reflection for me to grasp it. Though my uncertainty surrounding this specific topic has been lessened, having religious doubts has been central to my experience as a Muslim-American. This topic of religious insecurity and doubt is often overlooked by many, especially elders in Islamic communities.

My personal journey, if nothing else, has made me acutely aware of the need for more compassionate dialogue between leaders and teachers in the Islamic community and the Muslim youth. Although listening to khutbahs, lectures, and advice from our elders can be invaluable, if we had someone to discuss our doubts/ideas/questions with, we would be able to flourish spiritually with more ease. I hope that the next generation of Muslims are able to create religious spaces that feel welcoming, inclusive, and open to constructive dialogue. I hope we can begin now, simply by listening to the experiences of young Muslims. I hope young Muslims don’t feel judgment from their peers or elders, and I hope that they find peace and relief in their faith, not confusion or resentment. Finally, I hope watching The Ring is a scarier experience for them than reciting Qu’ran in front of their classmates.

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Amber Alirahi
Amber Alirahi
Mar 22, 2022

MashAllah this is amazing writing and incredibly relevant for many young Muslim youth today who need both the community of people willing to support and listen to them but also the guidance from those who are willing to understand not reprimand!

Nida Fazili
Nida Fazili
Mar 22, 2022
Replying to

Thank you so much for your response Amber! I wholeheartedly agree and I'm inspired by your leadership in NYU's Muslim community. <3

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