Friday, August 31, 2012

Illegitimate Daughter

As salaam alaikum,

If any of you couldn't tell, I got some daddy issues with Islam.

Some major daddy issues.

When I came into practice in late 2003 after growing up in an interfaith household, I searched for a way to bring meaning and sense to my world, a world that, in my teenage mind, tended a little too much towards chaos. Without having ever read the entire Qur'an myself or having gotten any religious instruction outside of what my mother taught me, I didn't understand how a just and merciful god could allow such suffering in the world.

Of course, being a teenager and just journeying into the world of abstract thought, I had no idea that this was a major philosophical question that has puzzled people for eons before my time, the answer of which has led many before me on several paths between devotion and atheism.

Of course, my life was good. I was an upper middle class kid from a semi-rural small town who had nearly everything she wanted. It wasn't just given to me, mind you...I afforded college because of merit scholarships, not Daddy's money. And of course, the grace of God, which I was spiritual enough to recognize at the time, but I wanted more. I was plagued by my own emotions, my own angst. If I was suffering so much from things just in my head, I could only imagine what it must be like for people with real suffering...women and girls subject to rape and sexual assault on regular bases, people starving, people without homes. It just caused me to delve deeper into a downward spiral of despair. If God didn't help these people who obviously needed it more than me, why would he ever help me who had the "fake" problem of depression?

So, as I entered college, I searched for more solid standing within Islam, to provide me with a much needed foundation for my spirituality, and to provide me with comfortable answers to my questions about the nature of God. Submission to God was the answer for me, and that would solve the problem of my depression and anxiety.

I was so not expecting to come into an Islam, practiced by Muslims I've encountered here in the United States, that would not always be that comfortable place to seek refuge, to submit to God, to rest my weary spirit from the unforgivable secular world.

I wasn't expecting to find out I was, in fact, an illegitimate daughter of Islam.

Sometimes, just sometimes, I wish I had remained in a state of innocence. I wish Islam had remained for me as simple and organic as my mother taught it. As I delved into Islam in college, I came upon a version of Islam that was at times hostile, inflexible and merciless. It felt very much unlike the way I was raised to believe in God, the Most Gracious, Most Merciful of my Yusus Ali translation of the Qur'an that my mother used to read to us when we were little.

It wasn't the first sticking point, but the most painful sticking point was the fact that my parents' marriage, under most interpretations of Islamic law, is invalid, because my father is not Muslim.

So I am illegitimate.

I mean, for a while, it didn't really matter, because people would see me at MSA meetings and think I was a non-Muslim interloper anyway, because I was black. Never mind that the first major populations of Muslims in this country were black. Never mind that the first president of the MSA at my college years ago was a black woman. How strange to enter a context in your own country where you are made to feel foreign when, as a Muslimah, especially a searching, striving Muslimah, I should have been made to feel welcome.

I'm always an outsider because my name and ethnicity make me a mystery. I always have to explain how I was raised Muslim.

So it hurts to be considered otherwise illegitimate by my coreligionists.

I struggled to find a way in a faith, as I understood it, that would require me to deny my father, or deny his culture, in a certain sense, if the culture considered itself diametrically opposed to Islam. Maybe it was the fact that I was exposed to Muslims on my mother's side that were not so rigid that I did not go down that road that many of those that come into the religion later in life do.

Maybe it was the fact that it was partially the values that my father raised me with that brought me to Islam. So how could I rebuke the man who was responsible for bringing me into the world and partially responsible for my Islam? It made no sense...

I could easily give up on a religion that always considered my parents' union, the union responsible for my life, illegitimate. I was always a bastard, anyway, so why even bother? Why even bother, if God never blessed my parents' union? Why even bother, if I'm completely dispensable in a community of believers, believers, the best of communities of people in this earth, because my ethnicity isn't usual, because my name isn't right? Believers will continue to strive in the way of Allah (swt) and insha'Allah find their reward with Him in paradise without missing the little misfit that either sat, tugging at her sleeves without hijab in the center of the room or sat, tugging at her sleeves with hijab at the corner of the room, spoken to by only a couple of sisters that took pity on her isolation.

I've given up on a few things over time, but alhamdulillah it never leaves me with nothing. When I let go of everything, I'm left with the simple, organic Islam my mother taught me, and Islam that would make sense for an illegitimate daughter like me to practice...illegitimate in the sense that I'm living here in a non-Muslim country, as an ultimate minority, irremediably and unabashedly American, beautifully black and proud, unlikely to fit in a country perceived to be more halal for me because of all the things that I am, unlikely to fit into Random Muslim Community USA because all of the things that I am...

My mother became expert at practicing Islam in almost complete isolation. And while I will not stay so isolated, this is the Islam for me, free of some of the toxic impurities that we have somehow absorbed over time and taken as dogma.

So yes, I grew up in Islam without a Muslim father, without a "father." But I think my fellow Muslims make huge mistakes in this life when they ignore people like me who are several ways "illegitimate." I think if we do this, we're missing the point, we're missing the purpose of life, we're missing out on blessings and we're missing out on forgiveness.


  1. Salaam Chinyere,

    A sad but interesting post. Some of what you say really resonated with me. My grandparents were a huge influence on my religious and spiritual development and I have to say the Islam of my childhood bears little resemblance to the Islam that is practiced today.
    To me Islam is beautiful and a source of strength and joy but when I see and read the ugly interpretations and practices of others my heart aches. Its devoid of compassion, kindness and even common sense.
    Hang on to God and faith the rest is ultimately redundant and often just consists of egotistical posturing and bullying by people who seek power or validation for their choices.
    As for practicing in isolation--it would be great to have like minded people but sometimes that is not possible and peace of mind (or even isolation) is preferable to rigid and dogmatic people.
    Please don't allow some fellow Muslims to make you feel less or unworthy with their callous comments and harsh views.
    I have no doubts as to the kindness, grace and mercy of our Creator nor do I doubt that justice will be served.
    I hope you and your family had a wonderful Eid and look forward to reading your interesting posts.

    1. Salaam, Maliha,

      Thank you, I did have a wonderful Eid surrounded by incredibly supportive co-residents and friends who checked on how I was doing during my first Ramadan in Seattle.

      You are right. Islam is beautiful. It is the foundation that I stand on, it is what gave meaning to my life after my struggle as a teenager. I'm just sorry that it was mixed with so much ugly as I journeyed to be a better believer.

      I think I need to get over not having a community sometimes and just focus on practicing in isolation. I used to feel sorry for my mother practicing in isolation, but she's more sane for it. Even the best communities are rough around the edges at best. And ultimately, always, on Judgment Day I answer for myself...I won't have a community (or lack thereof) to vouch for me.

      I'm sad about some things sometimes, but I think I'll be okay.

  2. Salaam Chinyere,

    I can completely sympathise with your desire for a community---its a desire we humans have and I went thorough the same at one point.

    I think its completely possible to love ones faith but also be able to look critically at how we practise it--this approach I find does not generally go down too well with the community.

    I am very sorry that you had to experience some ugly things. These things can either foster greater faith or result in a total loss of faith. Its a painful process, but one that I feel, is essential to cultivate a mature and deeper understanding of faith and our relationship with our Creator. What do you think?

    Yes, thats very true that ultimately we are accountable to God and no communities will be backing anyone then. A fact many forget when they indulge in the less pleasant aspects of group think.

    The internet and blogs such as yours and others help-- to realise that we are not alone and there are others who think and feel much like us and this is a comfort.

    I confess that I am irritatingly optimistic and am sure we all will be okay and things have a way of working out in the end.