When I was sixteen years old, my father handed me a thin paper folder consisting of numerous hand-written, translated verses from the Qur’an. Written in a blue point pen, on graph paper and in that sort of penmanship that only British schooling in former colonies can provide, each verse ended with a citation and each verse was listed under a category. Before my father had the chance to explain what it was, really, that he had given me I quickly skimmed through the thin pages. ‘Divorce,’ ‘inheritance,’ ‘marriage’ and ‘money’ were some of the words that immediately caught my eye. I suffocated the impending groan of teenage impnatience and zealousness, anticipating a father’s unsolicited sermon on how I should do more of this, more of that and less of this and less of that.
Instead, however, my dad offered me a lesson in feminism.
‘These, are your rights,’ he said.
‘These are your God-given rights that no man –be it me, your brother, your future husband, your grandfathers, your countrymen or anyone – can take away from you. You need to be aware of what rights you’ve been given in your religion. The Qur’an is the place to start. You have more power as a woman than anyone has probably ever led you to believe. Read this, read more, learn and practice what you find.’
I learned my social, economic and political rights in Islam at an age where my crushes ebbed and flowed between nerd-cute boys and big hockey players who appreciated my history class assistance; an age where I was reading the Greeks and your run of the mill introductory feminist literature in part, but not primarily, because it was so socially subversive to be doing so in high school. My father’s paper Duo-Tang was flimsy in the material it was made of but so incredibly powerful in the weight held within it.
Over the course of ten years, my father and I became so similar in habit, approach and personality that we became unbreakably different in belief. We were both, after all, the children of different generations, different cultures of ideology and different but interlocked experiences of spiritual, political and social evolution. These differences often collided in heated back and forth’s during dinner, dessert and bedtime during my short visits back home over the course of my university career. It was always about politics, ultimately. My father was an untrained lover of history whereas I was a relativist Rapunzel letting loose her newly discovered locks of knowledge from the great heights of her Ivory Tower.
These tête-à-têtes reached their pinnacle when labels were thrown into the mix of identity politics. Whereas I had become a self-declared “Western Muslim”, my father had begun to refer to himself as a ‘Salafi’, a term that elicited as much youthful and ignorant disdain from me as it did laughs. Everything I would associate with ‘Salafi’ was everything my father was not. He did not roll up his pants, nor did he have even a fist-long beard. He never felt a zealous entitlement to the lives or bodies of my mother and mine. He never saw the need to police other people’s personal choices; he always saw women as his equals, if not more, and practiced this belief in raising me to be excruciatingly independent, ambitious and career-driven. He was the guy who liked good disco and soul music; who worked hard to build his community and, even if he vehemently disagreed with the beliefs of other Muslims, he never let the mizaan (balance) of brotherhood break. He was the guy who blushed when women stopped mid-conversation to comment on his doe-like eyelashes; the guy who bought his daughter Notorious BIG’s Ready to Die, Heavy D’s Waterbed Hev and Salt N Pepa’s Very Necessary when she was nine years old.
To my under-developed pallet of nuance, my father’s self-identification did not match up to the images and ideas that had been engrained into my eyes and mind of both who he was and what he was claiming to be.
But that was then, during the fragmented naïveté of youth.
Just a month ago, during a conversation on Salafism, my father half-jokingly referred to himself as a ‘Liberal Salafi’, after I jokingly reprimanded him for being a terrible Salafi by the standards of the media and even many Muslims (including self-identifying Salafis) themselves. I laughed at his use of the term, but it was right then when everything enigmatic about my father, his faith and his practice made sense.
As a writer and journalist, I am part of a public sphere that unabashedly and dismissively uses poor labels for Muslims. For whenever it is convenient, there is a title for the sort of Muslim we discuss and create: the Moderate Muslim, the Extremist Muslim, the House Muslim, the Progressive Muslim, the Salafi Muslim, the Sufi Muslim, the Shi’a Muslim, the Sunni Muslim, the Feminist Muslim, the Liberal Muslim, the Secular Muslim, the LGBTQ-friendly Muslim, the Traditional Muslim, the Foreign Muslim, the Western Muslim; the Good Muslim and the Bad Muslim. And for each one of these Muslims, there is an equal Islam of some sort.
Some of these terms are used in a celebratory (even revolutionary) tone to connote acceptance and promotion of a particular ‘breed’ of Muslims whereas others, even if terms sourced in legitimate religious and political traditions, are used pejoratively. But all of these terms, especially in the framework of our use, ultimately box and limit the very human experiences of over one billion people. This isn’t necessarily done so with malignant intentions, but it’s the only way the industry I’m in – the media industry – knows how to understand Islam and Muslims. These are cookie cutter beliefs, identities and experiences that are anything but representative of even a single person but they make it easier to read a news story about Egypt, Syria, Pakistan or even the US and separate the good guys from the bad. Even we Muslims, ourselves, fall into dissecting our communities, friends, acquaintances and everyone else with these neat titles.
And, truth be told, it’s hard not to when there is constant pressure to justify, explain and present what you believe as a Muslim both within and outside your community. There is absolutely nothing wrong in identifying yourself with qualifying adjectives or descriptive nouns, contrary to the high school adage “labels are for jars.” If making sense of what you believe and what you’ve experienced involves putting a strict description on it, then that is your right. The problem comes in when we, those of us who create, perpetuate and simultaneously destroy discourses, can only ever discuss and ‘understand’ 1/7th of the world’s population through convenient terms that obscure how we all make decisions, take actions and think, on a daily basis, through the influence of several factors working in cosmically controlled synch. Instead, we just create more blacks and whites and never the shades of reality.
My father can call himself whatever he pleases and he can believe whatever he believes even if at times it seems contradictory to that little voice circling somewhere nefariously in the back of my head– but to me he’s my Dad and that’s the only label that really matters.