By Sidra Mahmood
“I am impressed with your general Islamic knowledge. Is there a particular reason you’ve chosen more liberal approaches?”
“So, I think we’re on very different wavelengths of religion (you being on the conservative end). Hence, I am not sure how comfortable we would be with each other. I guess I am quite liberal…”
“I believe that much of what you are looking for in a man is something I aspire for, or more appropriately wish for, but currently do not have… But I wanted to say that I respect you for being so clear on who you are and what you’re looking for in a partner. If I could do that, I think I’d be in a much better place.”
“You want to stay single for the rest of your life?”
Above are some of the things Muslim men whom I have met online or through introductions by friends have written to me.
I sometimes feel so drained from being put in boxes by others and putting myself in boxes.
Liberal. Conservative. Open-minded. Religious. Hipster. Student of knowledge. Artist. Hijabi. Environmentalist. Family-oriented. Outspoken. Writer. Non-traditional. Feminist.
Boxes. Too many boxes! Am I permitted to step out and define myself outside of these boxes?
Like many, I had my life roughly planned out when I graduated college two years ago. Unlike most feminists who went to my women’s college, I thought I was “wicked smaaht!” for getting my priorities right so early on in life: I wanted to get married.
Living thousands of miles away from home as an international student and being financially independent from my family during my college career, I learned the importance of having a home. I wanted to create a home in the U.S. This is where I found both my identity and Islam, the main reason why America was closer to my heart than my homeland, Pakistan. The U.S. is where I would settle down to raise a family because back home, women did not attend mosques. Forget being “unmosqued”; most have never been “mosqued” even once during their entire lifetime. I wanted to stay back because I did not want to lose touch with the houses of God, nor did I want my future daughters to not experience what had taken me so long to discover.
So, I would move to a big Muslim community (in my case, Boston), fall in love, get married and have a home. I would figure out grad school and other things later because family came first. I thought that a partner in marriage in my early 20’s would make my life emotionally, financially and physically easier—giving me the chance to enhance my talents and better serve the community with the support of a significant other.
Yes, I moved to Boston, and yes, I fell in love right after, too. But it did not result in marriage. A broken heart and shattered spirits? Yes. A home? No.
Instead, I got placed in more new boxes than I could handle. Loud. Sensitive. Open. Immodest. Talkative. Obnoxious.
I became depressed. I could not understand what made me keep falling for the wrong men. I wondered if perhaps there was something genuinely wrong with me that caused the puzzle of my life to always fall apart right when it was about to come together. I took premarital counseling, spoke to aunties personally about the fact that I was “looking” (honestly it was one of the hardest things to do), made marriage resumes that I passed along to my contacts, and registered myself on a gazillion matrimonial websites—all because of my determination to find “the one.”
Unfortunately, the boxes my friends and I used to define me did not quite work. Based on my involvement in the community, people from the masjid introduced me to traditional-minded men with whom I was a misfit because of the independent life I lived. On the other hand, men online dismissed me for being too religious because of my hijab and Islamic endeavors.
As a result, I found myself shedding unnecessary tears as every rejection came down as a hard and personal blow. Why was God doing this to me especially when I was trying so hard? Did He not see that I was not only praying to Him but also tying my camel1 over and over again by taking practical steps towards the goal I had set for myself?
Amidst the chaos of my failed marriage endeavors and a career I no longer saw myself in, I became lost and confused about the direction of my life. My friends started calling me “desperate” and my loneliness became excruciatingly painful with the addition of this new box in my life. It hurt the most because it came from those who claimed to love me. The physically comfortable life that had taken years to build was of no avail, because really I had no peace of mind.
I was blessed to have the opportunity to perform `umrah, the minor pilgrimage to Mecca, last winter under the leadership of my mosque’s imam. Before we left the U.S., he told me, “It’s been a tough year for you. Just forgive yourself and those who have hurt you, and use this trip to clean your heart and sincerely connect with God.”
Alas! It was through those full-of-tears, head-on-the-marble-floor prayers that I regained the peace I had misplaced since the day I began placing myself in boxes according to people’s expectations of me. I forgot that along the way to find “the one,” I had forgotten The One. The One who elevated a woman, Mary (`alayha as-salaam—peace be upon her), without a man through the powerful words of the Qur’an:
“…and the male is not like the female…” (Qur’an, 3:36)
He honored her by acknowledging:
“So her Lord accepted her with good acceptance and caused her to grow in a good manner and put her in the care of Zechariah. Every time Zechariah entered upon her in the prayer chamber, he found her with provision. He said, ‘O Mary, from where is this [coming] to you?’ She said, ‘It is from Allah. Indeed, Allah provides for whom He wills without account.’” (Qur’an, 3:37)
Upon hearing the above ayaat (verses) in one of the prayers, I broke down in heavy sobs. Why was I placing my value in relation to a marriage all this time? While tying my camel* in the pursuit of “the one,” had I forgotten to lay my trust in The One in the first place? The One, the Ultimate Sustainer, who provided sustenance for Mary (as) in response to her devotion, sincerity and trust in Him and Him alone. God even gave her a child and eventually a family of her own, all due to her individual relationship and status with Him. What was I doing to improve my relationship with God? Was I doing anything?
My experience finding “love” taught me—unfortunately the hard way—that there is truth in being happy with one’s own single self before hopping onto life’s roller-coaster with another person. I realized that if I needed a husband even an iota close to the caliber of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, I had to first work on becoming a Khadija (the Prophet’s first love and wife, radi Allahu `anha—may Allah be pleased with her) myself.
And that’s when I gained the strength to take a leap of faith and seek The One before I sought “the one.”
The day before I moved to Texas to immerse myself in Qur’anic Arabic, a dear friend in Boston said,
“There’s someone waiting on the other end for the person you are about to become.”
I had tied my camel enough times and it was finally the time to act on the last step of tawakkul (trust in God).
And just like that, I walked away.
- Anas (radi Allahu `anhu—may Allah be pleased with him) reported that a person asked the Messenger of God ﷺ, “Should I tie my camel and have tawakkul (trust in God for its protection), or should I leave it untied and have tawakkul?” The Messenger of God ﷺ replied, “Tie it and (then) have tawakkul.” (Hasan) [Jami At-Tirmidhi] [↩]