Remember #MuslimsOfRutgers, the project to get anyone with a Rutgers ID and a shahada to write their story and share it with the world? Click onto Submissions every Friday night for the rest of the semester (Insha’Allah) to read amazing pieces by your fellow students and alumni!
In the name of Allah, the Most Merciful, Most Kind
“There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, is His final Messenger.”
The Shahada, also translated as the ‘the testimony’ is the Islamic creed declaring belief in the oneness of God and the acceptance of Muhammad ﷺ as God’s last prophet. It is centrally focused on the complete submission to God which is the core belief of Islam. In a way, it is the initiation to the Muslim faith. If you believed in the shahada, you were a Muslim and nothing could defy that. Everything else, although just as important, was a continuous reinforcement of that belief, for Islam is not just a religion it is a way of life.
I was born and raised in New Jersey for the first half of my lifetime as what I would call an average Muslim-American household. I attended public school during the week and Islamic schools on the weekends. The rules were simple: I was allowed to play outside when all my homework was finished, both Islamic and academic. There was no TV time until after I had finished praying my obligatory prayers and before each meal, in a unison chant with my siblings, I recited the duaa, to give thanks to Allah for blessing us with food on the table. Everything was my definition of normal.
In the summer of 2002, my family decided to pack up and leave for Egypt. As a family of six, the move was drastic in hindsight, but the adventure of moving across the globe was an exhilarating one for my curious self. I was sad to leave, but excited to reunite with the warm weather and family that I’ve grown to love over countless summer vacations. Before my departure, I called my best friend at the time on the phone, Taylor and broke the news. Taylor was heartbroken. I promised to stay in touch and that I’d be back. The phone call was short, mostly filled with silence. Who knew how true that was? We said our goodbyes and a few days later, I was on a plane flying to the country I was going to soon call home.
At first, Egypt proved to be an elating experience for a ten year old. I quickly mastered the Arabic language and ran to my cousins to practice. They laughed at my accent but they were impressed by the speed of my enthusiasm and willingness to learn. I enrolled into a private British school for my parents didn’t want me to fall behind on my “American” education, which proved to be ironic since Egyptians were so much more advanced in the math and sciences. I no longer attended Islamic school on the weekends since religious classes were integrated into the school system. I quickly adapted and learned to love my cultivated identity of an Egyptian Muslim. Before I knew it, I began to wear the hijab, the Muslim headscarf. The religion was almost culture in Egypt. No one asked questions, the slightest Islamic nuances were embedded to the everyday lifestyles of the Egyptian people. Everyone greeted each other with peace on the streets, a common Islamic practice that even spread to the Christians in Egypt. In due time, everything transitioned back to my definition of normal.
Years passed and my family decided to move back to the United States in late 2005. Times became rough in Egypt and my family left to seek out the priorities of the American dream for their children: an education and a hard earned future. Without much hesitation, we packed up and moved back to my old hometown. I’ll just pick up where I left off, my 15 years-old-self thought. I was excited to reconnect with my childhood.
It was at a local fair back in my hometown a few days before school began where I saw Taylor. I gleamed in excitement as I walked towards her, already feeling the rush of reconnection and friendship. “Taylor?” I called. She turned around perplexed. “It’s me, Rowaida. I’m back,” I stated the obvious, but Taylor didn’t seemed amused. She looked at me up and down and slowly began to piece together who I was. “Oh,” she said dryly. “You wear that, now?”
It took me a second to understand what “that” meant. Was my sweater not in style? Did she not like my boots? She can’t possibly mean my hijab. But she did and I quickly brushed it off. Taylor always knew I was Muslim when we were younger. Surely, I didn’t wear the hijab back then but I fasted when Ramadan fell during the school year. She told me about her Christmas vacations while I talked about Eid. We had our exchanges. What gives? “Yes, my hijab, I wear a hijab now,’ I acknowledged, “anyway, do you want to…” but my voice trailed off. She couldn’t get over the obvious nor did she care to. She looked impatient, with no desire to reconnect. “I’m sure I’ll catch you around,” she said as she walked off. What a welcome home that was.
However Taylor’s encounter proved to be a minute illustration of the society I was coming home to: an ethnocentric era of not just intolerance but of unprivileged discontent. Suddenly, the questions I was confronting no longer stemmed out of curiosity. People were no longer interested in expanding in their horizons and understanding the world and cultures around them for educational advancement. Instead they were asking to humiliate, put down and to fill a void of a societal inferiority complex. Throughout high school, college, and into the professional world, the questions became more matured with disdain and ignominy. It was no longer, “Why do women wear the hijab? I’d like to learn more,” but rather, “Why would you accept a religion of oppression?” Curiosity no longer motivated the inquiries.
Nonetheless, the inquiries did not stop my own curiosity. I sought out to learn more about my faith that suddenly became so controversial and intriguing. I asked the same questions that were thrown at me, I wanted to learn how the Prophet dealt with similar circumstances. I wanted to know why he was the model human being. I read the Quran intently but this time not to recite in unison with my classmates, rather to comprehend and appreciate the placement of each word, the intention of each verse and the story of each chapter. And with that, the beauty of my religion began to appear with every effort. I had no desire to become a scholar or imam, but I wanted to become a Muslim, a person who knew her religion and strived to know more. I picked up books, sat with local imams, attended seminars and asked the questions Muslims were constantly asked but hesitated to respond with. When the Prophet ﷺ first met the angel Gabriel, illiterate at the time, he commanded to recite over and over again until by the miracle of God, he began to recite. The Prophet’s first revelation was a command of knowledge and enlightenment, a sign for the importance of education and learning in the religion.
In the midst of it all, the experiences only convicted my beliefs. I yearned to learn more of my faith that suddenly became this intriguing mechanism of a fiery debate abroad and at home. I sought out knowledge for myself and because my religion tells me to do so. So that I am modeled after the example Sheikh Kamal Mekki set when he was accusingly asked what age did the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ marry his wife Aisha? He responded coolly with, “What age would you like her to be?” So with that, I ask those who question my faith, how would you like Islam to be? How should I look like to be an accepted person of faith attempting to redefine normal? And most importantly, what gives the media or any organization the audacity to define me, let alone my faith?
And although my personal journey did not change things externally, it sparked an internal change within me, the only change that mattered. Perhaps things were no longer my definition of normal and that I am no longer able to embrace the identity of a Muslim-American I once ignorantly thrived in throughout my childhood. Taylor told me that I couldn’t be both and modern day media tells me I can’t be both, that I will always be the clash of civilizations unable to reach an identity that would satisfy the ethnocentric culture I lived in.
Although some good did come out of my encounter with Taylor and those perplexed by my religion like her, instead of being filled with remorse and hate for her ignorance, I dove into a world of compassion and education. I would no longer seek out answers for my religion to quench the thirst of questions that fueled the judgment and intolerance. Quite the contrary, I took those questions and molded it into an opportunity to learn for myself and for when I was approached by someone who sincerely or insincerely wanted to ask why I believed in Islam. I reminded myself of the life, or the seerah, of the Prophet ﷺ and how in his worst of times where he faced brutal persecution and torment, he always responded with compassion and forbearance. Despite the many circumstances the Prophet pbuh faced, in good times and bad, he upheld his character, not allowing for those around him to define him. And with that I no longer sought the normality I once craved for, but rather choosing to seek an identity modeled after the beloved Prophet ﷺ and his teachings and spread those particular characteristics to those around me so that society one day will be revived with buoyancy and confidence like him and his ummah once before. ❧
Rowaida Abdelaziz is a freelance journalist based in New York City. Previously she worked for the Committee to Protect Journalists and Al Jazeera Arabic. Her written work has also appeared in various publications, including the Islamic Monthly and Elan Magazine. She graduated with a B.A. from Rutgers University with a double major in Journalism and Media Studies and Middle Eastern Studies in 2014. Follow her on twitter @Rowaida_Abdel.