At this point in my abundant 17 years of being a Muslim, I have come to accept some basic truths:
- Almost every single part of your existence will invite questions.
- There’s always someone more devout than you and someone who can make you look like a nun. Sometimes these are the same people.
- Someone always thinks it’s possible to go a full month without eating or drinking.
As the first third of Ramadan passes us by, it’s easy for me to forget that I’m lucky to live in a city with overflowing mosques, ethnic Halal markets and frequent hijabis just around the corner. For many, that’s not quite the case.
Whether you visit a town riddled with Islamophobia or the most liberal cosmopolitan in the country, however, most Muslims still have to deal with daily reminders of how they are different – mostly, how many people don’t really understand them.
And of course, people have varying reactions to things they don’t understand. Think of the difference between who trashes the new transfer student’s locker in high school and who sits next to him at lunch while peppering him with questions. To both, the new student is equally a mystery.
Again, living in the Bay Area, I thankfully have to spend more time explaining that “no, you don’t drink water while you fast” as opposed to “no, not all Muslims look at the Quran the same way suicide bombers do.” Most Muslims are used to answering questions, or have at least accepted that to many non-Muslims, we’re considered unfamiliar, inviting responses ranging from innocent curiosity to open hostility.
I’m not writing this to reprimand anyone who’s ever asked a Muslim a question – after all, it would kind of defeat the purpose of this whole column. I am writing this, however, to share a bit of a secret:
We’re all different people.
I know, it’s a bit shocking. Feel free to take a minute to absorb that information.
What I mean is, a question asked of me will not receive the same answer as an identical question asked of someone from Saudi Arabia, for example, or someone who may have recently converted to Islam, or even one of my siblings. Each Muslim’s Islam is unique to themselves.
So I guess this column should have been called “How I Muslim for dummies,” but that doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
There are undoubtedly (and very clearly) disputes on which is the correct way to be a Muslim, ranging from what drove Muslims to separate into Shias and Sunnis (only 630 A.D. kids remember) down to how someone chooses to drink their water.
Just as with any other community with such a large base of people and an even larger source of opinions, we’re figuring everything out in our own way based on our own experiences and culture, and at this point we’re each left to our best guesses.
It gets a little complicated, however, because a lot of what makes a Muslim a Muslim are things that cannot be seen. A hijab or a beard, despite their obvious connotations, are no guarantee of piety, but they’re the first thing people see and draw conclusions from. Religion, to many, is an internal spiritual aspect that manifests through an external performance. To others, religion stays internal.
My point is, if you’re going to ask about something on the surface, the answer will usually lie in a deeper, internal concept. If you ever ask why someone doesn’t wear the hijab and you get awkward chuckling or vague answers (sorry), it’s not because they don’t know the answer, but because they don’t know whether it’s the right time or place (or person) to delve into their thought process.
Here’s what we’re tired of being asked this month, though: “You can’t even drink water? I thought you were allowed to drink water. Not even one sip?”
Or even better: “How long is Ramadan? A month? Holy shit – you don’t eat for a month?”
Though some Muslims have grown to appreciate being seen as some sort of superhuman yogi, some things will never not be annoying. While you may think you’re being cute and flattering when you insist that you could never fast, that you love food way too much to do that, I’ll take a minute to stray from my brand and speak on behalf of every stiff-smiling, fasting person you’ve ever said that to:
Thanks. We actually can’t relate to that; we hate eating. Food is the worst.
I’m also here to say that, in the grander scheme of things, there is rarely ever one correct answer to any question, and never just one Ramadan or one Muslim experience. I’m lucky enough to be in a position to be able to share mine, but that doesn’t make this the “correct” one or the most common one. Hopefully to you, it’ll at least be a human one.
Subaita writes the Monday column on Muslim identity. Contact her at [email protected].