Last week Shelley discussed her worries about returning home, to a small, white and Christian town and family in California, as a Muslim. This week, she talks about being The New Kid at the mosque.
This past Friday evening, for the first time since embracing Islam six months ago, I entered a mosque. While visiting my sister in Berkeley, she, my mother, and I joined a Muslim friend who had invited us to attend iftar at her masjid. I had entered many mosques in the past, ranging from those in San Diego to those in Jerusalem and to those in Kampala. I’d wrap a scarf around my head and remove my shoes without a second thought. This time, however, was an entirely new experience. Oddly, finding faith in God and making the decision to internally embrace Islam was a far easier process than navigating certain external Islamic traditions and practice. While on one hand it is freeing not to have to conform to familial or cultural expectations in my expression of faith, I have often worried about how I will fit in with other Muslims without such ties to guide me. As I entered the mosque on Friday, awkwardly readjusting my headscarf, I felt like a kid on the first day of school in a new town. The butterflies and any concerns in my mind vanished, though, as I stood in line, shoulder to shoulder with other women to perform the Maghreb prayer. Not only was I welcomed with genuine warmth by others sharing in the iftar meal, but so were my non-Muslim sister and mother.
Despite having built a home and sense of community for myself in Cairo, to the majority of those strangers around me I was simply a foreigner. Several times in the past, being considered a tourist, I had not been permitted to enter mosques during prayer times. With no female Muslim friends in Cairo who attended mosque, the prospect of having to explain or defend myself in order to enter a house of worship in which I knew I belonged was something I was not ready to face. Therefore, I have used these past six months as an opportunity to connect with my faith and take the time to understand the roots of those practices and traditions that are commonplace to most Muslims. In practicing Islam more privately, though, perhaps I have allowed unnecessary concerns to fill my mind.
While I consider spirituality to be a personal matter, I understand the importance of community and shared tradition as we practice our respective faiths, whatever those may be. I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church and attended Mass each Sunday, yet “God” was always an incredibly abstract and distant concept to me. It was the sense of community I felt when reciting prayers, performing rituals, and singing hymns that constituted my spirituality throughout my childhood and adolescence. Like many who were born into Muslim families, I never had to learn to be Catholic. I simply was. However, consciously embracing Islam has required more purposeful learning and active decision-making when it comes to practice.
The night after visiting our friend’s mosque, my sister had arranged an iftar gathering at her house. We shared the evening with Muslims and non-Muslims, believers and non-believers. I joked with the others about my confusion the previous Monday night as I tried to figure out whether Ramadan had, in fact, begun in my area or not (I’m still not entirely sure if it was Monday or Tuesday evening after all!). Another Muslim explained his reasons for breaking his fast several minutes later than me because he was following a different school of thought for the calculation of prayer times.
In reflecting over these moments, I have been reminded of the multitude of narratives, practices, and nuanced interpretations that Islam encompasses. It was the inclusiveness and universality of Islam that originally struck me when I first picked up an English translation of the Qur’an over six years ago and I know I shouldn’t lose sight of this as I find my way down this path, learning, adopting and creating traditions along the way.
I’m sure there will be many moments when I feel like that little kid on the first day of school again. But knowing that there are those – Muslims and non-Muslims, family and friends, alike – who will make space for me at their table and go out of their way to show me that they accept my new-found identity and faith, will help to keep those butterflies at bay. After this positive experience in Berkeley, I am now more eager to reach out to the Muslim community in my own town, even if it means feeling those “new kid” jitter again.
Stay tuned for Shelley’s Ramadan updates next week.