Deconstructing the Hijabi Bride: Even Islam in America is Hegemonic

August 30, 2013 11:07 am54 commentsViews: 36062

A few days ago, I was scrolling through my Instagram account when a picture caught me off-guard. Amid a random stream of posts from friends, fashion designers, and celebrities, I happened upon a picture of a Pakistani Hijabi Bride, posted by a popular South Asian fashion account, desi_couture. To the typical observer, the pictured bride is the epitome of Pakistani fashion’s latest bridal couture: her makeup is flawless, her dress is a traditional peach color, it’s covered with hundreds of sequences upon beautiful embroidery, and it even features the newly popular “coat” style of evening wear.

Jaan by Rabia Malik Original photo courtesy of Rabia Malik. Edited photo courtesy of desi_couture.

Jaan by Rabia Malik
Original photo courtesy of Rabia Malik.
Edited photo courtesy of desi_couture.

To a keen observer, however, something stands out about this bride: she’s wearing a headscarf. Or maybe it’s her dupatta fashioned as a headscarf or maybe it’s a headscarf fashioned to look like a dupatta. Regardless, one thing is clear: her head covering isn’t styled in the traditional South Asian way – it isn’t see-through and neither her hair nor her neck is visible, both of which are typically adorned with jewelry.

When I first started getting serious about Islam, around three years ago, I realized that I would have to give up a lot of my Pakistani culture. Mostly, I was relieved. After all, it was my parents’ Pakistani culture and its unyielding grasp on their understanding of religion that pushed me away from Islam in the first place. But my newfound desire to separate Islam from Pakistani culture also meant giving up a few of the cultural traditions I actually looked forward to. I gave up, once and for all, on the idea of having an extravagant wedding, as excess and useless spending is looked down upon in Islam.

For years now, I’ve been thinking about how I’ll fashion my hijab on my wedding day – I’ve rarely seen a Pakistani bride wear a headscarf the way I do (neck and hair fully covered). The traditional Pakistani dupattas-as-head coverings just won’t do. Time and time again, I hear lectures given by popular American Muslim scholars warning against the “innovations” of South Asian culture and the wastefulness of South Asian weddings. A common question at these lectures is whether or not a bride can show her hair at her wedding, as is South Asian custom. “No, you can’t show your hair on your wedding day. That isn’t hijab,” is the typical response.

So when I happened upon that picture of a Pakistani hijabi bride on desi_couture’s Instagram account, I was duly excited. I finally found a wedding outfit that met my standards of hijab that also looked sufficiently Pakistani. But I was even more excited that the outfit was a tangible example of transnational dialogues occurring between Muslim communities throughout the world.  And better yet, I thought, the picture of the hijabi bride symbolizes an amazing counternarrative to the stories I typically hear about Muslim countries adopting secular, “Western” practices. If anything, this was an example of how historically Muslim cultures were being influenced Islamically by Muslims in the diaspora.

Curious to know whether or not the South Asian Hijabi Bride was actually a tradition begun in the diaspora, I decided to ask my grandma and mom about their experiences with bridal fashion.

“Dadi,” I asked, “Did you wear a hijab when you got married?”

“A hijab?” She was surprised. “No, no one cared what we wore back then.”

My grandmother spent the first thirty-five or so years of her life in Burma. Thinking over her answer, I remembered that several years ago, I had seen a picture of my grandmother on her wedding day. She wasn’t wearing a hijab – she wasn’t even wearing a dupatta, my grandmother wore a white wedding dress on her wedding day.

Next, I turned to ask my mother, who grew up in a small village outside of Peshawar, Pakistan. I had seen pictures of my mother on her wedding day and knew that she hadn’t worn a fully covered headscarf, so I already knew her answer to the question I had asked my grandmother.

Instead, I asked, “Mom, did any brides wear a hijab back when you were getting married?”

“No, not really, we just wore our dupattas.”

I replied, “Well you know that’s not really hijab.”

“Well, it’s not like I was around men when I was getting married. All of the functions were separate, so it didn’t matter if I was wearing a hijab or not.”

But you were still photographed, I thought to myself, and everyone can see your hair in pictures and that’s not hijab.

When I first encountered the picture of the hijabi bride, I saw the melding of Pakistani tradition and the reexamined ideals of Muslims in diaspora as an amazing correspondence occurring outside of the mainstream between Muslim communities throughout the world.

Yet there was something unsettling about the conversation I had with my mother that made reconsider my initial understanding. There was a strange yet familiar pain in her tone as she attempted to justify why she didn’t wear a hijab on her wedding day. She sounded a lot like I do when I’m trying to justify my decision to wear the hijab to people who don’t understand: she was frustrated that I was doubting her choice, she was frustrated that she had to explain her choice to me, and she was frustrated that I was looking down on her.

And then I thought about how I had acted in that conversation. I came into the conversation convinced that my mom—and by extension, all of South Asia – had Islam wrong. I assumed that her understanding was weak and at best, misguided. I acted much like the many people I’ve defended my choices (and myself) against daily.

That’s when I realized that American Islam is so American. For better or for worse, American Islam is so American. Reflecting on my attitude towards my mothers’ hijab choices, I saw in my own Islam the arrogance and assumed superiority Americans (and Westerners more generally) have had historically towards all things non-Western.

Put simply, cultural hegemony occurs when groups in power believe that their own beliefs are correct and therefore are to be universalized, at the expense of disadvantaged cultures and peoples.

Is American Islam hegemonic?

In many ways, I think it is. At the very least, there’s a silly air of superiority emerging in American Islam. American Muslims are being taught, and are beginning to believe, that the Islam of several Muslim cultures is tainted and therefore inferior.

Back in December, Haroon Moghul, Senior Editor at The Islamic Monthly, tweeted,

pullquote - zkahn

I don’t know many Muslim Americans who would explicitly say that “American Islam is Islam’s last, best hope,” but I know many who sure do act like it.

There’s a certain level of vindictiveness in the Millennial Generation’s American Islam. Many young American Muslims (including myself, at times) want to rub it in, just a little bit, to the older, immigrant generations that yes, we can be American and Muslim – and not only that, but also, our Islam is better and more pure than theirs.

In a sense, this vindictiveness is warranted. We’re a generation who grew up trying to synthesize a multitude of identities, several of which we were told were inherently incompatible. We were Pakistani/Indian/Bangladeshi/Arab/Persian/etc., American, and Muslim. Growing up as the “Others,” we faced the well-known narrative of American non-acceptance, but we also faced a similar non-acceptance from our immigrant communities; we weren’t ________ enough, so we weren’t Muslim enough either – to our communities, the two identities went hand-in-hand. Many of us fought this double-edged non-acceptance by reclaiming Islam, and divorced our Islam from the Islam of our immigrant cultures in the process.

In response to the entanglement of immigrant cultures and Islam, American (and more generally, Western) Muslims have formed a new, back-to-the-roots movement of Islam (the roots being the Qur’an and the Seerah or the story of the Prophet’s life). In many ways, the movement is necessary. Muslims living in historically non-Muslim countries, especially the children of immigrant parents, need to figure out, and are figuring out, how to be Muslim in the West.

Unfortunately, however, the back-to-the-roots approach to Islam is also bringing with it the idea that this Islam is the “right” Islam, especially when contrasted to the Islam of first-generation immigrant communities. It’s in this attitude of righteousness that American Muslims run the risk of cultural hegemony – advertently or inadvertently, American Islam is forcing other Muslim cultures to defend the legitimacy and fight the erosion of their religious traditions.

At moments, even American Muslim scholars like the ones I mentioned earlier have an absurdly American arrogance to them. When Muslim women ask about showing their hair on their wedding days, these scholars respond with a definitive answer: “No, as American Muslims we have to leave all those explicitly cultural traditions overseas.” The incorrect assumption on behalf of these scholars is that showing your hair on your wedding day is absolutely wrong. However, there is nothing wrong with a woman showing her hair in front of other women. A more nuanced and well-studied answer may look something like this: “Sure, you can show your hair on your wedding day, but make sure that no non-mahram will be able to see you without hijab.”

The emerging cultural hegemony of American Islam goes beyond clothing.

In high school, my neighbor’s mother began resenting her daughters’ attendance of religious lectures at local mosques. At first, she was ecstatic that her “Americanized” teens were starting to get serious about religion. But after a few of these lectures, she noted that all that was happening was that her daughters would come home and rant to her about how most of her practices are sacrilegious. “What’s the point of sending your children to the mosque if they come back without respect for their elders?”

Entire debates occur over whether pronouncing certain words with a Pakistani accent is “Islamic enough.” Should “Ramzan” be pronounced “Ramadan,” because after all, “the word really is Radaman.” Shouldn’t we say “Allah Haafiz” instead of “Khuda Haafiz”? We need to stop saying “Slaw-lay-kum.” How about “azaan”? Isn’t it really pronounced “adhan”?

At its root, the problem with the emerging cultural hegemony of American Islam is the belief that American Islam has the chance to be or, worse, is, a fresh approach to Islam. It’s impossible to separate American Islam from the American culture American Muslims were raised with.

Perhaps American Muslims are blind to the already well-developed American part of their American Islam because in most conversations, American Muslims are fighting against the greater hegemony of mainstream America. For instance, popular discourse calls for American Muslims to stand their ground against secularization and defend against the accusations that Islam is inherently patriarchal and promotes sexual suppression.

Given this discourse, it’s natural for American Muslims to ally with other subjugated groups who have suffered at the hands of Western Hegemony. However, it is vital for American Muslims to recognize that by the simple fact that they are American Muslims, they are also participants in, or at the very least, benefactors of Western Hegemony.

If mainstream Western discourse pushes Muslims to prove their worth against accusations of backwardness, American Islam is causing Muslim cultures to defend their Islam against accusations of impurity.

If anything, the modern phenomenon of the South Asian Hijabi Bride goes to show the complexity inherent to hegemony. The South Asian Hijabi Bride appeared in the South Asian diaspora, simultaneously in response to non-acceptance from and in defiance of Western and South Asian culture. However, the attempted universalization of wearing hijab in a certain way, as represented by the South Asian Hijabi Bride, also simultaneously represents how Muslims in the West are perpetuating a hegemonic American Islam. The former occurs in response to Western Hegemony and the latter through participation in Western Hegemony.

More generally, this conversation on the intersectionality and many layers of systems of oppression needs to occur in other social justice movements as well. Perhaps the two most striking examples of how one liberation movement can silence another take place in the Feminist Movement and the Civil Rights Movement. In the Feminist Movement, the voices of white women became the voices of all women and in the process silenced the voices of women of color. And with the Black Power Movement, the masculine voice became the voice, silencing and ignoring the voices, concerns and issues of black women. White women forget that they’re at the top of a racial hierarchy; black men forget that they live in a patriarchical world; and American Muslims forget that they’re part of a larger American cultural hegemony.


Author’s Note (9/22/2013)

Alhamdulillah, this article has gotten a lot of traffic in the last few days! I urge my readers to take a look at the comments, as many are well thought out and point out several key issues with the article.

As many have noted, I failed to give justice to the diversity and depth of the American Muslim Community by 1) Centering my piece around the experiences of second-generation South Asian American Muslims while 2) excluding the narratives and experiences of non-South Asian American Muslims and their communities. Others have pointed out that many of the issues I raise in my article can be explained by the rise of the Salafi Movement and the impact it has had in the United States and globally.  Anyways, the commenters do a much better job of explaining, so please take a look.

I hope my readers note these critiques and continue the conversation.


  • MashAllah!!! Such an amazing article. There is something about the way you write that seems so amazing to me! My eyes were glued to the screen until I reached the end of the article.

    I cannot believe that I am one of the perpetrators of this Western Hegemony.

  • Thank you for this beautiful article. It gives me much food for thought.

  • disqus_4nbFuKecOA

    Salaam! I think you make a lot of valid points in this article, especially that culturally predatory “back-to-basics” movements do not leave room for cultural expression in Islam and are often self-righteous.

    At this point, I became confused: “I saw in my own Islam the arrogance and assumed superiority Americans (and Westerners more generally) have had historically towards all things non-Western.”

    However, I do not see the link between “American hegemony” and “American Muslim hegemony.” Within the context of Islamic practice, how does “American hegemony” manifest itself within the practice of Islam? (Since the vast majority of Americans, and therefore American hegemony, are not related to Islam.) Do you feel that Muslims in America have somehow imbibed some sort of American arrogance and believe that everything “made in America” is superior to Islam from abroad? I find this hard to prove as a uniquely American problem that instead reflects a universal problem of arrogance.

    Are you specifically talking about “American” converts (from a variety of backgrounds) who did not grow up with a cultural background from a Muslim-majority country/culture? Do these converts still possess a prejudice against everything “non-Western”? If this is the case, I can see your train of thought, but I do not feel it is fair to stereotype all converts having this type of cultural hegemonic attitude (especially non-white converts), many of whom feel significant cultural confusion and instead often adopt a “Muslim culture” to try to fit in.

    Are you speaking of American hegemony in the sense that second generation American Muslims growing up in the United States have felt the need to assimilate into “American culture” and in doing so are absorbing “American hegemonic” behavior? If this is the case, is it the fault of second generation American Muslims for (re)connecting with their religion in a new cultural environment and not practicing Islam the same way their parents did? I feel this also is hardly fair to judge second generation American Muslims for not imitating their parents exactly in a totally different time and space (which also reflects a complex generational, cultural, immigrant struggle).

    I am not attempting to point fingers, per se, but I think that what you may be describing is the age-old problem of Arab hegemony in which back-to-basics movements privilege the earliest “Muslim cultures” who happened to speak Arabic, in your examples such as the switch from Ramzan->Ramadan. In my limited experience, I have found this to be a bigger problem with “Desi” and non-Arabic-speaking Muslims, rather than among Arab Muslims. I am curious to hear what Arab Muslims think about your argument and my comment.

    I see the American Muslim community struggling to find a unique identity that is a combination of so many cultures and I think that hegemonic behavior is something that must be avoided, so I am thankful that you raised the issue, especially with something as debated as hijab.

    With LOTS of respect and admiration for your piece of work,
    your sister in Islam,

    • Hi K, thanks so much for your thoughtful comments!

      The point of my article was to demonstrate that cultural
      hegemony (and more generally, systems of oppression) has multiple layers. As the title to the article stresses, it’s crazy to me that even Islam in America
      is hegemonic. Or, put another way, American culture is so hegemonic that its hegemony extends to even its most subjugated groups!

      My article is not at all about American converts, nor is it
      just about second-generation American Muslims. It’s about America, Muslims, American Islam, and American Muslims. I write from my own perspective (that of a Pakistani-Afghani-Burmese-American-Muslim) and use my experiences as a point of intersection from which to observe a larger trend.

      I think it’s vital to the success of any movement to be constantly
      self-reflective and more importantly, self-critical. That’s why I think it’s
      healthy for American Muslims to be constantly critical of American Islam, and I hope that my article achieved that goal.

      Anyways, I’m not arguing that second-generation Muslims
      should practice Islam exactly as their parents have. Actually, I point this out
      in my article when I say, “In many ways, the movement is necessary. Muslims living in historically non-Muslim countries, especially the children of
      immigrant parents, need to figure out, and are figuring out, how to be Muslim
      in the West.” Perhaps I wasn’t clear, but I meant to say that it’s natural for
      American Muslims to trek out their own path when it comes to understanding, implementing, and practicing Islam. I just think it’s important for us to be self-critical as we do so.

      you ask:

      “Within the context of Islamic practice, how does “American
      hegemony” manifest itself within the practice of Islam? (Since the vast majority of Americans, and therefore American hegemony, are not related to Islam.)”

      I think the answer to this question lies in the question
      itself… American Hegemony is related to American Muslim Hegemony precisely because American Muslims are American. And so, yes, American Muslims are imbibed with the greater hegemony of American culture. American Hegemony is not just about arrogance, but I think one of the easiest ways to see how American Muslims are perpetuating American Hegemony is in their arrogance towards other Muslim cultures.

      • disqus_4nbFuKecOA

        Thank you for your response! I have a few more questions:

        I do not quite understand how you are defining “American” or “American hegemony.” I find that there is a great variety of American Muslims who do not think the same way, so I’m sorry to confess I cannot understand the overarching label you are using, which is why I tried to break it down into categories (immigrant, convert, second generation, etc).

        With regard to “American hegemony,” I’m not sure in what sense you mean. Do you see the arrogance of American Muslims as a reflection of the economic and military power of the United States? Is it related to American “white privilege” and you feel that American Muslims are buying into that (while still being alienated from it)? I still hear many khutbahs about the corrupting influence of American culture and materialism, the “us-them” mentality, how American Muslims oppose American foreign policy and how American Muslims stand opposed to such “American hegemony.” I find it hard to believe that American Muslims are truly behind the state and the culture so as to promote “American hegemony.”

        ****Also I cannot see how the “arrogance toward other Muslim cultures” stems specifically from an American prejudice against such cultures. Are you talking about “orientalism,” the desire to define and subjugate people? Is there equal bias against Arab, African, Central Asian, European, South Asian and East Asian visions of Islam? I think not. Do you find this to be only in the United States? I think not, I have seen scholars from all over the world who are participating in the very same trend.

        ****I rather see a preference for “early Muslim cultures” that speak Arabic, as well as the preference for Islamic modernist movements (generally Salafi) which privilege “back-to-basics” ideology stressing the Arabic linguistic origins as well as the cultural norms of the Sunnah, Sahabah and the Tabe’in. By insisting on the purity of the roots of Islam, the “Quran-and-Sunnah” ideology privileges the early generations of mostly Arab Muslims against later developments in Persia, Spain, India, etc and reject them as cultural deviations. I see the fight against “impurities” from other cultures stemming NOT from American arrogance or Western “orientalism,” but an ideology DEEPLY rooted in a long historical view of Islam.

        ****What you describe, in my opinion is less of a reflection of American hegemony and more of an international Arabization of Islam. The formation of the American Muslim community is not in support of “American hegemony” in the political, cultural or economic context, it is merely another Islamic “culture” asserting itself.

        I am really intrigued by your argument, thank you for sharing it and I appreciate your discussion with me. JazakAllah khair.


        • Ahmed Zain Subhani

          Well from a Pakistani point of view, american immigrant do have some sense of superiority over the people left behind.. And yes I think love for the “white race” is so deeply rooted within our subconscious self that we don’t even realize how much we value the things associated with them, leaving aside the clearly haraam stuff…
          If the “Pakistani point of view” you think to carry less value, there is your answer right there…

        • Speaking as an Arab Muslim, I’m afraid that I have to agree with disqus. It’s not American hegemony at all but Saudi hegemony, which has always had a monopoly in the Muslim world as the “original arbiters of Islam.” I see it in South Asian adopting Arab dress, customs, language, etc. and among my Arab Muslim brothers and sisters frowning upon Islam that doesn’t match their upbringing. It’s a common response to anyone seeing something integral to their identity or culture expressed in an unfamiliar way, but we shouldn’t interpret that knee-jerk reaction as Allah’s law or the Arab way as the right way.

          The fact is, Islam was meant to be adapted. It was meant to be a universal religion, not a Saudi export. Especially when it’s proven so harmful. See the fataawa from the Saudi Council of Muftis. One of their gems: destroying churches, an innovation unheard of in centuries of Islamic tradition. We have to encourage critical thinking and debate (with love), rather than blind obedience, especially where related to justice. Thank you for this thoughtful article.

      • With all due respect, sister…your coined phrase, “American Islam” is a misnomer. Al-Islam is Al-Islam. If you and others have in some way received jacked-up information about Islam or even practice it according to how you think it should be practiced, that still does not affect the authenticity or purity of Allah’s deen. I think this article can be classified as rhetorical bantering without any meaningful purpose. A poor attempt to display one’s perceived intellectual prowess.

  • Well, you need to define what is American Islam a little better. Who are we talking about here? Second generation desis? Because while that is a part of “American Islam” it certainly isn’t all of it–and framing your discussion as if that’s the case brings up another type of hegemony. That hegemony ignores and erases the perspectives of American Muslims who don’t have to answer to “back home” in the same ways but nevertheless have to contend with religious authorities who construct “Islam” in ways that make it seem as if they have to stop being “American” in order to be a believer.

    I am an African American convert of over 20 years, and have struggled for decades trying to wade through all of the data–what is applicable to me *as a Muslim* and what are cultural practices of other people that most often don’t apply to me and are detrimental to my life in this context? Why do I have to become Arab or Pakistani in order to be Muslim? I personally know that I don’t–but I know that the discourse in many of our communities–from many of our religious authorities would lead you to believe otherwise. There is a sense from many with roots “back home” that “Western” or “American” is inherently imperialistic and anti-Islam–a sentiment that I find replicated in this particular article–that is just as hegemonic–so if we’re going to have this conversation we really need to have it.

    • Salaam janedoe,

      JAK for your response, I’m all about problematizing and calling out injustices, wherever and whenever they exist, so thank you for criticizing what I’ve written. You’re right, if we’re going to have this conversation, let’s have it.

      Anyways, I have a whole response written, but I’m still working on it. insha’Allah I’ll have it ready in some timely manner so I can post it and we can continue discussing. :)

      - Zainab

    • Once again, thank you for your insight full comments.

      To summarize (and correct me if I’m wrong):

      I’m criticizing my generation’s (read: second-generation American-Muslim youth of immigrant backgrounds, mostly South Asian) response to our parents’ and communities’ insistence that the way they practice Islam is the right way. I’m also suggesting that perhaps our response (which is in part justified) fits into the larger phenomenon of American Hegemony. And if this trend continues, American Islam runs the risk of becoming hegemonic.

      You’re suggesting that my article claims that American Islam is made up of second-generation Desis, or just some immigrant communities in general. And by making this claim, I’m perpetuating the hierarchy we see in our American Muslim communities: Desis (and Arabs) on top, while
      ignoring and refusing to include other American Muslims. You also note that many historically Muslim countries throughout the world see America (and American Islam) in its entirety as hegemonic, and my article perpetuates this view.


      You’re right; American Islam isn’t just made up of second-generation South Asians. Islam has a long, long history in America (and on this land, even before “America” existed) that wasn’t always dominated by Arabs and South Asians. And once again, you’re right, discourses like these often leave out converts, Muslims of other ethnic backgrounds, and American Muslims who don’t have a place to call “back home” (or maybe their back home isn’t a place that’s traditionally Muslim).

      I think there’s a generational divide within immigrant American-Muslim communities, or at least a back-and-forth, that we really need to highlight here. Similar to how you struggled with combing through several different immigrant cultures and deciding between what was actually culture and what was religion, many second-generation American-Muslims have to do the same with the cultures of their parents. I really hope my article articulated this well.

      Anyways, I apologize if my article made it seem like I believe that Muslims like me are the only Muslims in America, it wasn’t my intention. As someone who is a second-generation American-Muslim-Pakistani, who also fits into the more encompassing label of American-Muslim, I want to make sure that I’m always self-critical. In this article, I tried to do so by taking a step back and analyzing why I’m acting a certain way towards my parents. As you’re pointing out, maybe I need to need to think about whether or not I’m perpetuating racial hierarchies in American Muslim communities in my analysis of understanding the first problem.

      As for what American Islam is. Well, it’s certainly new; the country is less than 250 years old after all. It’s made up of many, many different kinds of Muslims, each individual with their own identity. I do think there’s a larger American Muslim identity, which is fluid and therefore always shifting. When I say that American Islam runs the risk of becoming hegemonic, I don’t mean that every American Muslim acts in a hegemonic way or perpetuates that hegemony. My point is that as American Islam develops, at every step of the way, we need to be critical. I saw something in myself that I didn’t like, and I wanted to work through it.

      From here on out, insha’Allah, I’ll try to be more nuanced in my writing.

    • @janedoe_jones:disqus THANK YOU FOR YOUR CONTRIBUTION HERE!!!!!!!!

      @disqus_naZ8j67qvf:disqus Salaam – This article is definitely only about Desis, Arabs, immigrants, and they kids! Total erasure of the majority of America’s Muslim population, African Americans! a people born and bred in America of an American legacy. You gotta sharpen your knowledge base before taking on this subject matter. The perception that Arabs and Desis “dominate” the American Islamic landscape, as you say below, is the very problem! Moreover it continues to facilitate immigrant hegemony in the American Muslim context. Absolutely amazing!

    • Mashallah, excellent comment, Janedoe. Your perspective is so important. It’s so important that we listen to our brothers and sisters and keep each other honest and thinking like this.

  • I don’t quite understand why anyone should feel offended that any Muslim scholar would say that wasteful extravagance and removing hijab at (mixed) weddings is not Islamic. Interestingly, even some South Asian (American or not) scholars say the same things. When they say these things, they are noticing general trends within various cultures, they are not saying that each and every aspect of Pakistani, Indian, Afghan, and yes, even American culture is bad. Go ahead, have a wonderful Pakistani, Indian, Afghan, Persian, Lebanese or whatever wedding, but keep it within the boundaries set by Islam — that’s what they mean. Therefore, the scholars are simply reacting against a general trend of practice within some groups of people which says that it’s acceptable to remove the hijab in front of non-mahrams at weddings (and let’s admit it, this hijab-removing or simply dupatta-wearing for weddings and other parties and even in everyday life happens very often in South Asian and Afghan weddings, and perhaps others. This isn’t an anti-Pakistani observation, it’s simply noticing a popular practice which goes against what those scholars know or understand to be the practice of the Islamic faith).

    Additionally, when they say that taking off the hijab isn’t allowed, it’s already an obvious implication that what is meant is that hijab cannot be removed in front of non-mahrams at that wedding. When the question “Can hijab be removed?” is asked and the answer “No” is given, the underlining assumption in this interaction is that the hijab removal would be in front of a mixed audience, so there’s really no need for scholars to play with semantics here (unless you really do think there are significant numbers of people out there who really do get confused and think that hijab cannot be removed even in front of one’s mother, aunt, or female cousin?).

    As others have mentioned, there’s no shortage of Muslim American scholars and Muslim Americans in general expressing disapproval of certain American happenings and cultural habits, so is this is American hegemony over American culture? There’s also no shortage of Arab and South Asian and Persian individuals, scholars and not, assuming an attitude of superiority over people of other cultures or ethnic backgrounds.

    I have to agree that fussing over whether Ramzan should be pronounced Ramadan and whether Allah Hafiz should be used rather than Khuda Hafiz is pointless and demeans the fact that different languages borrow and adapt words from other cultures into their own language in different ways. There’s really nothing wrong with that, why does everything need to be totally Arabized? To me it makes sense that if you’re speaking Arabic or trying to teach/learn Arabic or reading Qur’an, then use the Arabic pronunciation. But if you’re just using everyday speech with fellow South Asians, then go ahead, Ramzan and Khuda Hafiz galore. Different ethnic cultures in their language and dialects, arts and crafts, foods, clothing styles, etc. add flavor and color to the world, and that’s a good thing.

    However, if specific practices are against Islam, there is nothing wrong with scholars or others pointing that out, so long as it isn’t done in order to publicly embarrass individuals and it’s embedded in compassion. When Western women become hijabis, they (should) realize that the short skirts and halter tops and tight pants (<– often ignored) that are so popular in American culture aren't for them anymore, but perhaps even the clothes which are just fine for them are still nonetheless Western-based clothing. That's fine, so long as they fit within the boundaries that have been set by God and His Prophet and the Scholars with adequate knowledge and proof. It's not a degradation of all people and things Western to say or notice that. So trying to smother other people to the ground isn't right and we should really be more loving and welcoming of people, but our increased defensiveness and offense against hearing pointers of advice and discussions that attempt to correct un-Islamic behavior has also gone overboard. Some of us sometimes are looking for short-cuts to a fuller Islamic lifestyle or we want to always have our own feelings affirmed. To me that's also a problem, but increasingly no one wants to mention it lest somebody out there feels their individualistic rights and choices have been offended.

  • Elizabeth Victoria Charles

    I wanted to like this article, but being a person of mixed heritage and identity and having moved around the world so many times I strongly detest any thing that tries to vilify my religion, Islam. What is haram is haram. What is halal is halal according to shariah regardless of what your passport says you are, and regardless of the cultural roots that your parents say is yours.

    If the young wants to improve their practices of Islam and call it their own, then that should be embraced. If that is taken as a so called air of superiority just because others did not, then that is a shame and misguided that very act should not be villified as this article has done. This article fails to speak about the spirit of Islam – no compulsion in religion, no judging others,- correcting a wrong – self correction and peer support, racing towards Allah swt. When rasulullah saw and his sahabah abandoned jahiliyah practices for themselves, i am very sure the Arabs back then would say the same thing as you did. The Jews would say why are they praying in the direction of the Ka’bah no more al aqsa are we to be ashamed of the actions of rasulullah saw and the sahabahs ra?

    No. Because this article fails to see what Islam is. It didn’t stem from Arabia. It didn’t have roots in Mecca. It is not a culture, it is guidance from Allah swt and it will be superior no matter how anyone wants to fault it. The hijab practise didnt have arabic roots, it had Islamic roots even during maryam ra’s time she wore hijab.

    And I think what you failed to do in order to moralize others is to speak with understanding and guidance from e quran and sunnah.

    If a non muslim reader read this, it may be used against the muslim

    • I think we should also think about how Ibrahim (AS) treated his father. :)

    • Elizabeth Victoria Charlies, you said it so nicely here. If someone thinks they’re better and carry a holier-than-thou attitude, clearly there are some flaws in their intentions to get closer to Allah swt. But if someone sees haram as haram and halal as halal (whether it’s about eating the right kind of food, wearing hijab, not being wasteful etc) then we should root for them!
      I don’t think there’s any American-Muslim hegemony endangering other cultures. There are people living IN Pakistan, for example, who rediscover Islam and feel like they’ve been taught a bit incorrectly all along, who feel like the cultural impositions took a lot away from the true spirit of Islam.

      I agree with the writer on the points about insistence on ‘adhan’ vs ‘azaan’, etc. I feel like those who get caught up in narrowing down Islam to these non-issues are missing the spirit of Islam a bit.

      Thanks for starting this conversation :)

      • I agree with you, Farah and Elizabeth, that people are missing the spirit of Islam due to their focus on the details of ritual, of all things. However, I don’t think you should be blaming the author for that. She’s agreeing with you, that these scholars or other Muslims are forgetting that superiority has no place in Islam. It’s the religion of humility and moderation.

        I also want to add that we should never, ever stop questioning each other out of fear that the non-Muslim media might pick an article up. I think first, that the non-Muslim media doesn’t care, and second, that we have left that idea behind. We have seen the results of not encouraging critical thinking among our communities, and they’re not pretty. It leaves them open to manipulation by anyone calling himself a sheikh.

    • “If a non muslim reader read this, it may be used against the muslim”

      (waves from the non-Muslim bench)

      How can it be used against Muslims? Regardless of whether one agrees with it or not, what is here is the same thing that happens in any religion that shares ground in a person’s life with a variety of cultural heritages. Trying to understand how belief is affected by culture, trying to understand generational differences and their effect, and trying to understand geographical differences and their effect.

      This means that a person is thinking about why they practice as they do, and how they relate to other people’s differences, instead of merely turning their brain/heart/spirit off and letting unthinking legalism roll over everything like a tank. I have met ignorant non-Muslims who thought that Islam demands exactly that; this is evidence otherwise. I can’t see that making Muslims look bad.

    • Elizabeth Victoria Charles, if you seriously think this article was vilifying Islam instead of criticizing a specific brand of Islam that deliberately marginalizes South Asian Islam, including folk Islam, then you are missing the point. You focus on the spirit of Islam, but don’t mention how the spirit of a religion as versatile as Islam is adaptable to different cultures. It doesn’t have to be Arab to be Islamic, even if that is where it was conceived.

      I also find it extremely concerning that a person with an English name is passing such damning judgment on South Asians or implementing colorblind racism to debunk the points made in the article.

  • It seems like you are going for the hijabi bridal dress look only so non mahram men can attend the wedding. That being said, the picture you have posted above is not Islamic enough for non mahram men to attend. As you can see in the picture, the dress is fitted and shows the curves of the body which is not Islamically appropriate. The only way you can have an Islamically appropriate wedding is if the wedding is segregated. If the wedding is segregated you can wear any bridal dress, may it be a traditional South Asian dress with a dupatta or the hijabi bridal dress picture you have posted with the fitted curves.

    • That is her personal decision to make, but I do hope you caught on to the more important point the sister is trying to make here: to lets stay humble as we TRY to get closer to Islam.

  • Salam sister! What a great article! I am a first generation American. In my experience, identifying more closely with my beliefs has meant leaving some cultural traditions behind and creating a new identity as a “muslim-american” vs “lebanese-american.” I identified with a lot of situations you mentioned in the article!. Great topic to explore–thanks again!

  • Great article, and a great reminder to stay humble as we struggle to get close to deen.

  • I’m unsure as to why Muslims believe there can be a pure, cultureless Islam.

    Islam cannot exist without culture, and I can prove this to you – people who reject their culture and try to embrace just Islam often actually embrace another culture. Whether it’s Bedouin culture or Pakistani culture or what have you, people just wind up trading one culture for another but assuming that they’re only following Islam, which is just wrong.

    There is nothing wrong with measuring your culture against Islam and getting rid of practices which are against Islam, such as overly elaborate weddings where the poor are not invited.

    But someone can indeed belong to a South Asian culture and also follow Islam.

    This article did not once address Saudi hegemony on the ummah, and I find that to be disappointing. The arrogance that Muslim immigrant children learn in classes is not so much rooted in American arrogance as it is rooted in Saudi arrogance, this belief that the only “pure” Islam must be endorsed by the House of Saud and their scholars.

    I think that’s an unfortunate oversight, and by not acknowledging Saudi hegemony we risk the biggest innovation, which is assuming that the people who control the two holiest sites and the Hajj are somehow in charge of us. There is no Vatican in Islam, and yet we accept Saudi scholars and Saudi education as if they are somehow superior merely because of geography!

    • Salam Zainab thanks for the article.

      You raise important point that I believe can be attributed to the hegemonic spread of the salafi Islam, and this article relates more to these global trends than it is an article about hijabi brides.

      In deconstructing the hijabi bride I think its important to question how objectification, consumption of the young aesthetically pleasing bride is maintained whether she is covering hair or not, whether it is through the male gaze or through a segregated event where females look through the male gaze.

      I think we need to unpack the way a woman’s worth is measured through her passivity, which is unchallenged by the hijabi bride image but rather a continuation and religion here hasn’t served to critique this because as you say it is literally applied.

      I feel from your article that you value cultural preservation but I think we need to necessarily distinguish between positive transformation that occurs from within, and maybe second generation Muslims when calling for reform should first remember that they are from within instead of try to externally come with the truth.

      Is there dawaa that is not hegemonic? In my view definitely but the da3eya needs to come with an inside rather than colonialist mindset.

  • I liked this a lot. But the author missed that Salafi and Salafi influenced rhetoric also set people up to think they could have a purer, culture free Islam and get away from “tainted” cultural practices not only in the US but in Muslim majority countries and also among Indian Muslims. (“Proper” hijab vs. dupatta, and Allah Hafiz vs. Khuda Hafiz and all the rest is propelled by the likes of Dr. Naik and Al Huda Institute, Jama’at e Islami and Tablighi Jamaat, etc., all in their own ways…not an American invention, but something we got in the US from other facets of Salafist influenced movements within modern Islam. That is behind a lot of the denigration of her parents’ culture, actually.

    But tie that with our real weighty American hegemonic attitude and you have a double edged sword of arrogance making us think that Islam can exist without culture and unable to see our own American cultural lens informing our judgmental views of other ways of living as a Muslim.

    Another complicating factor is that American and other Western based (especially born/raised) Muslims are often seen as lesser Muslims and irredeemably Westernized, so I think part of this is also pushback from that notion. Like, they in the Muslim world think they are better than us, so we say we think we are better than them.

  • I could relate to this article in many ways. I went through exactly the same phases as you did, especially when i realized the big clash between Islam and some Pakistani traditions. We should not at all compromise our religion for traditions which contradicts with Islam and at the same time we should have a much more humble, understanding and soft approach when we we try to defy these traditions especially with our elders.

  • ‘When I first started getting serious about Islam, around three years ago, I realized that I would have to give up a lot of my Pakistani culture. Mostly, I was relieved.’

    - MY FEELINGS EXACTLY! Thank you, what a great read, I don’t feel like the only one out there now. Starting the hijab was the hardest thing in my life. Specially because none of my friends from Karachi did it either when I started last year.

  • Great article, masha Allah.

  • “However, the attempted universalization of wearing hijab in a certain
    way, as represented by the South Asian Hijabi Bride, also simultaneously
    represents how Muslims in the West are perpetuating a hegemonic
    American Islam.” – I found this quote interesting because there isn’t one way Muslims in America wear hijab – except there is a strong trend to do it properly.

    I get the jist of the article, but truthfully, I don’t think the “arrogant” view of “our version” of Islam is unique to being American. Just about every Muslim country and culture carries the same attitude of themselves, which is why, until the born and raised generation of Muslims grew up together – you found most original masjids in America were grouped by culture. Each group wanted it’s own masjid.

    Also – the “we know better” attitude is taught from different groups of Muslims too…so I also don’t think this is an American thing.

    I do agree that our young and growing with knowledge community did fail to grasp the big picture before going home to “fix up” their parents Deen – because this is how things were taught. An immense focus on what is wrong with their parents cultural Islam, while totally ignoring what was very right about it too.

    Each Muslim culture does bring with it certain traits that are honorable and need to be valued, while then making room for learning about that which was not from Islam.

  • As a Pakistani raised in Pakistan, who has come to America to go to college, I have felt utterly alienated by what I have seen as a very puritan, close minded and judgmental American Muslim community. This has often made me want to return to my once agnostic ideological leanings but I was intrigued by this community of puritan radicals. I am really glad that you are exposing the ideological elitism that they espouse and maybe we all learn to live and let live.

  • Salaams. I get what you are saying and I appreciate the awareness.
    It’s funny how Muslim Americans experience such similar moments, ie how to pronounce Islamic words, trying to lecture parents.

  • Although a good read, Islam is not as complicated as everyone makes it sound. There are simple guidelines, a clear path answered with a YES or a NO with no gray areas in between and it takes common sense to take it from there.

    You don’t have to be culture less to embrace Islam. You don’t have to be American or Pakistani or South Asian either. All you need are the guidelines of Islam that will mold your living for you around the culture you already live in. If only, you understand the guidelines without complicating them further.

    Pakistan, pakistani weddings are in no way a reflection of the Islamic wedding ceremony. They are but a true depiction of the Indian culture that still prevails in the minds of the Pakistani’s (read desis) all over the world. The best and the only guide for a Muslim is the Holy Quran. May Allah enable us to read it and understand it and help us adapt it to our current scenario’s. Ameen,

  • Vilas S. Pendse

    That was a great read, thanks.

  • An excellent read for all those individuals who want to feel superior in any way they can.All subjects;Weddings,Hijab,Islamic Culture and society were superbly highlighted and were thought provoking.

  • Thanks for this read. I’ve glanced at the comments and am disappointed to read that so many readers seemed to have missed the point. I believe this article is not talking about the practice of “correct” Islam, but the ATTITUDE one has when practicing Islam that they see to be pure and untainted with culture. The short version of this article would be, ‘Hey guess what, American Muslims. Your Islam has a culture, too! So stop trying to act like you’ve managed to disentangle religion from culture.’ Full stop. Is that so hard to swallow? I guess so.

    But that’s the power of discourse, isn’t it? When you’re in it, you can’t see it.

    Anyway, I appreciate what you’ve written there. So, thanks.

  • Very good article. It’s important that for American Muslims to be able to separate cultural practices from injunctions within our faith. In my experience, immigrant generation muslims often attempt to enforce a cultural understanding that is imported not only from a different locale, but from a different time period in that locale (if one were to visit those areas now, they may find even those areas have changed).

    However, it’s also accurate that sometimes the pendulum ends up swinging too far to the other side as we’re seeing with certain aspects of “American” Islam. The balance, I believe, is not about culture itself, since culture isn’t negated, but good culture vs bad culture. Good culture in a context is something to keep, while what is evil is to be removed.


  • The trouble with Americans, even well-meaning ones, even well-meaning Muslim Americans, is the tendency to think it’s all about America! That’s all part of cultural hegemony, and Zainab, you are doing it too. Muslim women in Muslim-majority countries around the world are wearning hejab where a generation ago they did not. This has nothing to do with American Islam. As for the particular style you reference, you will see plenty of women sporting it in Britain, Dubai, Kuwait etc.

  • Selma Salih Al Maria

    You are over your head in common cliches used over and over again, just this time modified to fit so called ‘Muslim experience’. Islam in America is anything BUT hegemonic. That is a view of Pakistani born in UK, who absolutely love to perpetuate their cultural norms using Islam as a cover. More importantly, Black Power Movement did not silence black women – it provided them with something other than white world view. Your writing is all over the place, incoherent if well-intentioned.

  • I appreciate that this article points out the arrogance that first/second generation Muslim Americans of desi/Arab immigrants seem to have. I am a Pakistani American Gen X-er, so I’m older. I also came here as a immigrant at the age of 5. I consider myself American, but after seeing the younger folks born here, I realize there’s quite a bit of difference between myself and them. Mostly, it’s a lack of broader awareness (on their part) of their own cultural specificity. Although you can point to your parents’ and grandparents’ generations and say they didn’t cover their hair, we could point to millenials who seem to think that skinny jeans, bodysuit tops, neck, and other skin is okay to show, as long as a cloth is somehow wrapped over the hair. This is not a critique of any individuals – I am just pointing out that diversity has existed among Muslims within all generations. The ladies in your family should have pointed out that the practice of Islam in older Pakistan was considered something poor / uneducated people did. It was not associated with enlightenment or modernity. It was a result of the colonial mentality. Although there were plenty of families who practiced Islam and very spiritually engaged with it, even without wearing hijab. I started wearing hijab as an adult. Many American Muslim Pakistanis my age don’t wear it. And it has been pointed out that your article assumes all Muslim Americans are like you. The cultural diversity in the U.S. extends to African Americans, and others. Muslims are a culturally diverse, even, fractured group in the U.S.

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  • the South Asian Muslim culture (in South Asia) has also been a melting pot in itself, where many types of foreign and indigenous groups came together over a long time. the lingua franca or the official ettiquettes that these different groups used or adopted were mainly Persian as language (later Urdu), and a fusion of Persian and indigenous ettiquettes. for example, although many historical Arab settlers in South Asia, brought their Arabic influence obviously, they or their later generations probably used Persian, Urdu and some other Indic-Aryan language as their spoken languages.

    the ‘purist’ movement among modern American Muslims should be expected. it makes sense that South Asian Muslims in the US for example adopt more Arabicizied etiquettes over the Hindustani-Persian influenced ones that are prevalent in the subcontinent, like as you said, Ramadhan over Ramzan and Adhan over Azaan.

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