Before I had even been enrolled in kindergarten, my parents had signed me up for my local mosque’s Sunday school, with high hopes that I would connect with Islam from a young age. I remember looking forward to Sunday mornings, sitting among my peers in my mosque classroom where my Sunday school teachers encouraged us to learn the processes behind “wudu” (the practice of washing in preparation of prayer), prayer and many other facets of Islam.
Some of the greatest lessons I have learned were in Sunday school — it showed me that even the most trivial tasks had profound lessons behind them. Putting my shoes away in the shoe racks to ensure no one else would trip and fall taught me the importance of looking after others and gave me a sense of moral responsibility. Knowing that every time I had to come to the mosque, I should be in a state of wudu, maintaining “tahara” (cleanliness), taught me the importance of taking care of myself and looking presentable. Knowing that I was to be the first one to greet the various aunties and uncles when I arrived at the mosque showed me the importance of respecting my elders.
Week after week, I looked forward to learning more about my religion. The classroom we used was relatively small, and the teachers our mosque employed volunteered their time. It was different than what I experienced in academic school, but I, along with the rest of my Muslim peers, always felt like we were learning just as much. The stories we were told and read motivated us to make better decisions throughout the week.
A figure in Islam who I particularly enjoyed learning about was Khadija, the wife of the Prophet Muhammad. She is considered one of the most important female figures in Islam, known as the “mother of the believers,” as she was the prophet’s first follower. Growing up, I found that the people on television were often white males, and the fairy-tale movies I watched never had girls of color like me — I often felt a lack of role models to look to.
Our Sunday school curriculum went beyond storytelling — our teachers encouraged us to apply what we had learned from our stories and tales to situations going on in our own lives. There was an allotted time for discussion of current events. It followed with a talk about our feelings and an open invitation to ask for advice on any situation that may be troubling us.
When I was taught the stories of Khadija, I felt like she was finally someone I could relate to. Khadija was even from the tribe Quraysh, and my last name, Quraishi, is derived from the name of this tribe. I could imagine myself in the positions Khadija was put in in Mecca, the persecution she endured, and the grace with which she handled these situations. I found parallels in my own life to her stories, and her patience and tenacity inspired me.
Khadija was also known for building up her own business successfully through hard work while maintaining ethical decision-making. Inspired by her, I found myself from a young age dedicating myself to school and being met with my own smaller successes: correctly memorizing my times tables, advancing in my school spelling bees and competing in my district math field days. My school successes aside, it was Khadija’s character traits that most inspired me. She was known for her kindness and patience, qualities that I strived to have as well.
When I was younger, the lessons we learned from these stories were more innocent, but as I grew older, the conversations became more serious and had more and more depth, as I often found that to be labeled Muslim by the outside world came with its own set of hatred spewed upon me. Fortunately, I was able to look to my Sunday school teachers for mentorship and my peers for community.
While I no longer regularly attend Sunday school, the experiences I had I hold close to myself. Whenever I return to the mosque, I look at the school’s projects and assignments displayed on the walls and am reminded of my own work, of the fun times I had myself growing up in Sunday school, and of all the stories that have helped to shape me. Within the confines of the walls of my mosque classroom, I could freely talk about situations and I felt comfortable to grow and learn about the world.
Zobia Quraishi writes the Wednesday column on being Muslim and first-generation Indian American.