As salaam alaikum,
“All is change with time / the future none can see / the road you
leave behind / ahead lies mystery!” – Stevie Wonder, “All in Love is
My mother told me the other day, “You know, I think your brother’s autism saved our marriage.”
Being single in a time of intense want—for a fulfilling relationship,
my own marriage, my own family—has made me hyperaware of other people’s
marriages. Over the years, I’ve noticed that many marriages, at one
point or another, hang by a string. Sometimes the couple recognizes this
fragility and this motivates them to make it work. Sometimes couples
don’t even know that they’re there, and it comes and goes without their
I feel like my parents are there right now.
My mother is Muslim, my father is Christian. They met as part of a
blind date, became friends who discovered they loved each other. My
father’s visa expiration and a youth service obligation led him back to
Nigeria, leaving my mother in the United States to pine over him and
wait with bated breath for his letters for the next three years. And
they married upon his return to the United States. They were Muslim,
several years converted from the Nation of Islam, and Christian, the son
of Nigeria’s head of the Faith Tabernacle Church, but love conquered
all and brought them together.
My mother later told me that their shared values and their conviction
against the need to attend a “religious sanctuary” were some of the key
practical elements that made the interfaith aspect of their marriage
work early on. This was less romantic to me, but it seemed to work out.
Growing up, my parents never argued, at least not to our hearing. My
mother sometimes lamented not going out as much as they used to, and my
father sometimes complained when his food wasn’t ready when he came home
from a long day of work, but that was it. My mother prayed and read her
Qur’an daily and my father watched his favorite televangelist, and
everything was fine.
They maintained this balance in our home until the summer in 2005. I
was 20 when I came home from college and decided, in the worst of ways,
to tell my father that I was Muslim. I told him, between tears and snot,
that “I will never be Christian.”
And things were never the same in my parents’ house.
During the worst of times, when I was home for New Years’ that same
year, my father blamed my mother for my brother’s autism. “If the family
had been united in faith and prayer, he could have been healed.” It was
surreal to watch my mother run up to their room, weeping. My father
seemed unrepentant. He returned to his office in the basement without a
word to me. My parents never argued like this. My father had never said
such mean things. I had never seen my mother cry. What was happening?
What did I do?
I initiated the stringing of my parents’ relationship. My being
Muslim is unacceptable to my father. He’s embarrassed by it. When he
goes to church these days and they ask where his family is, he gives an
elaborate excuse and tells them that I am Christian when they ask.
I’m sorry he feels that way. I find God best in Islam. This is how he
allowed my mother to raise me. This was the way my extended family
practiced. I wish my father would accept me.
He loves and accepts my mother. He reflects with sadness that there
were some churches he couldn’t attend because some would not consider
him Christian because he had a Muslim wife. And I told him that there
are Muslims who would most certainly question my mother’s Islam in the
same way. But my father loves my mother, and my mother loves my father, and they are dedicated to each other and to their family, both my brother and me.
He loves me, but he does not love my Islam.
My father was so upset to tell his elder brother, my uncle in
Nigeria, that I was “leaning toward Islam.” He told him two weeks ago.
He can’t bring himself to ever call me Muslim.
“This is huge!” my father told me. “You don’t understand…Nigeria is a
big country but mine is a small community. What would people think?
They would think this isn’t me. They would think that this can’t have
come from the son raised by his father, the son who sat at his feet for
every sermon. After the way that I was raised…”
It’s also that I’m Muslim, as were the people who killed my people
just prior to the civil war in my country. My father doesn’t understand
how I can be Muslim when “The Igbo and the Hausa do not see eye to
I try to fix it sometimes. Maybe I shouldn’t be so loud about being
Muslim. I told my father, “I’m sorry. If I had known it was such a big
“It’s not a big deal.”
But Daddy, it is a big deal. All you described to me are big deal things….
It’s my fault. Sometimes I feel like my brother really is the
unifying factor. My parents may argue sometimes, but if my brother
misses his medication and has a seizure, my parents will run to the
scene, catch him as he falls and pray over him for the duration of his
tonic-clonic convulsions and post-ictal state as he struggles through
slurred speech to tell them that he’s okay.
My Islam reminds them of their difference, the very real theological
difference between Jesus as personal savior and Prophet Jesus, between
God in three persons and God, the one, the only.
“You know, I think your brother’s autism saved our marriage.” my
mother told me last week. She then explained that the social isolation
from the Nigerian network in our state probably kept her from having
uncomfortable run-ins with Christians who would disapprove of her Islam.
It probably saved her from arguments with them that may have
jeopardized her relationship with Daddy. But she can’t know that…
…and I actually don’t believe that to be true. Their love has always
been more than shared aversion of religious sanctuaries held together by
my brother’s autism and epilepsy. They are each other’s best friend.
They don’t pray the same but they do pray together. They have similar
dreams and goals for their children and they love us more than they are
able to express. They came together in strength following a diagnosis
that was all the more devastating in the 1980s when professionals knew
so much less about autism. They’ve stayed together in a marriage
unmarred by infidelity and separations, physical or emotional violence
or any real discord. They did it! They are achieving interfaith
It wasn’t just autism. I realize my mother just said that because
their marriage is hanging by a string right now, and they don’t know it.
It’ll pass. I don’t know how or when, but inshAllah it will. Both love and are dedicated to this family too much, to my brother too much. Maybe one day inshAllah I’ll
get married and leave my father’s figurative house and my father won’t
feel so responsible for my being Muslim anymore. He can concentrate on
loving his Muslim wife instead of trying to convert his Muslim daughter.
Marriage is hard, and interfaith marriage is just one type of hard
that a couple can face, that I may face one day, whoever my husband may
be. There is no one way to do things, so there is no how-to. This is
just one way. It may hurt to tell it sometimes, but this is actually a
story of success. Success…on a string.