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Diving for Pearls Rami Koujah

A recent encounter with a young girl opened my eyes to a silent, yet seriously disconcerting issue that many young people in our communities face. Almost everyone experiences something similar at some point in their lives; some succumbed to it while others overcome it. Yet for others it remains a constant struggle of negotiation and reconciliation. This isn’t an abstraction, it’s something genuine and deeply personal: the issue of doubting one’s faith and reconciling a perceived conflict of values.

The girl I spoke to was only 14. I could tell that she was unusually sharp for her age (our conversation was more stimulating than many I’ve had with adults). After giving a talk to a group of high schoolers about fasting the month of Ramadan, she found the opportunity to approach me once the audience had cleared. It was apparent she had many questions, difficult questions, and I was in no way qualified to answer most of them. I’m not a shaykh, an imām, or any type of authority, yet the fact that she approached me spoke volumes to a deeper issue.

Unfortunately, like many young people today, she was being mounted with the pressures of securing her future and navigating a career while still only a freshman in high school. She worried about securing her grades, playing sports, getting involved in school clubs, volunteering, and the list goes on. “How did you figure out what you wanted to do?” she asked. To her surprise, I told her that it wasn’t until a little over a year and a half ago that I discovered my calling. She didn’t know how to juggle all these demands and still be successful academically. It wasn’t until I suggested she spend her volunteer hours at her local mosque that our conversation took a more interesting turn.

Recent experiences, which I did not ask her about, had made the mosque an uncomfortable place for her to frequent. She told me that she did not wear the hijāb and that her visits to the mosque were usually met with judgment by other members and leaders of the community. Moreover, someone very close to her had become an atheist and, from what I understood, it was a subject of conversation between them. Finally, in a confessional outburst, she revealed that some aspects of Islam seemed sexist to her. I couldn’t blame her. She did not feel comfortable approaching anyone in her community. She had been alienated from and by her own tradition.

For many, she fit the profile of an irreligious, rebellious, and corrupted youth. Instead, I saw a concerned, passionate, and inquisitive mind desperately searching for answers. Her search for a moral anchor and authenticity had driven her to approach someone she had just met for the first time, and with no idea of the qualifications the basis of my speech. With my inexperience and lack of knowledge I didn’t really know what to say. Still, her worried expression indicated a hope that maybe I could provide some answers, maybe I could help ground her wandering pursuit for truth. Given that I was a stranger to her community, perhaps it was in the security of anonymity that she found comfort in opening up to me.

At 14, she seemed to understand these issues — hijāb, sexism, and atheism — as if they concealed seeds of hypocrisy. Maybe she thought that doubt is a taboo. Maybe it was my lecture’s discussion of al-Ghazālī, one of the greatest skeptics of our tradition, that inspired her to express her uncertainty. Obviously there was no one she felt comfortable in opening up to. In confirming my suspicion, she told me that she had only been exposed to a rigid binary law of halāl and haram (right and wrong), a model all too many of us falsely call “Islam.”

I tried the best I could. I told her that what she understood to be sexist was a construction of popular values that appeared to conflict with a particular interpretation or (mis)understanding of Islam. It was her way of reconciling what she understood to be moral and what she was told was “Islamic.” She didn’t tell me what it was exactly she found sexist about Islam, but I think I had a good idea. Like many other Muslims, especially at her age, she had been presented with a shell and nobody had told her about the pearl that lay hidden within it.

These issues often arise when Muslims try to reconcile a set of values with the outward form of an Islamic practice without knowing the morality and spirit embodied by that practice.1 What is surprising about a Muslim who questions the virtue of hijāb, marriage, and other issues pertaining to women when they are bombarded with what they conceive as being a contrary understanding of right and wrong? Young Muslims in the West are growing up in an environment where they struggle to reconcile their values — often conflated with their identity — with their immediate contexts. They are familiar with the rules, but they struggle to find meaning in them.

I felt that rather than trying to rationalize different Islamic rulings to her, it would be more effective and lasting if I shared with her a principle that could help her understand the roots of her struggle. God knows best, but I could have been wrong. Still, I know she sensed my sincerity. Echoing my teacher, Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl (may God preserve him), I told her that God is beautiful and His religion is beautiful. In short, I told her that she should not let her set of experiences or the way others convey Islam to her tarnish her appreciation for that beauty.

I’m reminded now of a time when my sister came to me with a very similar set of concerns some years ago. Having read a few books and taken a few classes, I told her that her questions were misguided and that she had been influenced by a corrupt set of values. I told her that understanding the wisdom of the law is irrelevant and all she should concern herself with is submitting herself to its letter. Alhamdulilāh (praise be to God), my sister was smart enough to see beyond my arrogance, or maybe my arrogance suggested to her that there was a problem. Nevertheless, she understood that God’s religion was more beautiful than that.

I ended my conversation with the 14-year-old girl with an analogy. God’s religion is an ocean. It is vast, deep, and beautiful.2 Any student who tries to navigate the ocean knows how easy it is to drown in it. Unfortunately, too many people tend to treat it like a kiddie pool. Don’t run! Don’t splash! Don’t jump in the pool! That’s the model that many of us grow up with: a strict set of do’s and don’ts. Yet we are expected to love it when we don’t even understand it. I pray that teachers, community leaders, and especially parents can tolerate the curiosity of our youth and, with empathy and compassion, show them the pearl that gives beauty and meaning to the shell.

  1. This is the heart of the issue that al-Ghazālī tackles in his magnum opus, Ihyā’ ʿUlūm al-Dīn []
  2. Some of my teachers have told me that roughly 80-90% of Islamic manuscripts have not been published. That is 80-90% of our tradition that is virtually untapped. []

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  • I can relate to this 14yo girl’s situation. Too bad some muslims like to judge other muslims right away instead of embracing each other. I am glad that i still have friends that would still treat me nice. Their attitude is really impressive. They are really good muslims who never judge others including me. One of the reasons i was learning more about Islam which i thought I had enough before. That is why now, I adopt their friendly & Kind attitude towards every one no matter what. Since I knew how it is like in this particular situation.

  • “God is beautiful and His religion is beautiful” is a good principle. It’s a shame that sometimes our experiences with those who lack common sense can “tarnish” it.

  • Salaam, thank you for this article. I’ve watched far too many people, young and old, struggle with their faith because of this problem of it having been presented to them as the shell and not the pearl. If you can share any useful resources or simple tips as to how to approach these types of conversations (i.e. where to start, how to gauge an individual’s understanding so as to frame things in a way that’s right for them), it would be much appreciated.

  • Mashallah, thank you for this article. As a new Muslimah I often feel afraid to ask questions that could be construed as questioning the faith so I end up not asking.

  • “She did not feel comfortable approaching anyone in her community. She had been alienated from and by her own tradition.” This is a problem many Muslims face, not just fourteen year old girls. They could be adult (even older adult!) converts or “born” Muslims who never received any serious foundation in Islam. When they begin to run into difficulties, often there is no one for them to turn to for help and guidance.

    In North America, many mosques and “Islamic centers” are largely run and staffed (and attended) by individuals from “the old country” who may speak some English (French, Spanish, as the case may be) but who really do not deep down understand western Muslims and their concerns and issues. Many of these “Muslim leaders” come from environments in which they never really encountered converts, for instance. They make remarks which seem to make sense to them in their “old country” frame of mind but which do not make much sense to struggling individuals.

    I am not saying that the imams / staff / whoever must capitulate to western values when those values might conflict (and sometimes they can) with *true* Islamic values (*not* cultural norms which are often confused with Islamic values). However, if they do not know how to communicate on the terms people can understand, then some people are going to slip away.

  • I’ve met so many people in this situation. I was in it myself more or less at some stages in life. Thank God I had some innate sense that Islam is the truth, and the truth can’t be wrong…that I just needed to learn more and explore and understand better and I’d see how it makes sense. Subhahanallah that is happening and a key thing that opened it to me was the principle ‘God is beautiful’. We focus on the names of Jalal so much in our psyche, we need to now equal the balance with the names of Jamal.
    Thank you for this well written article! Allah bless and help us all and fill us with His pure light!

  • Everyone should read Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl’s books. In particular ‘The Conference of the Books’ is outstanding. We are human. We have so many questions which we might be too afraid to ask our local imam etc, and The Conference of the Books asks those questions and the author expands on the issues. His mind is wonderful and his clarity of thought is exceptional. Everyone should read more books. If anyone wants to read an academic treatment of hijab then please read ‘Speaking in God’s Name: Islamic Law, Authority and Women’ by Dr Khalid El Fadl. The book isn’t just about hijab, but this book shows that the issue of veiling is more nuanced then the current traditional views on hijab. I agree with the comment above that ‘people are sleeping on his books’.

  • Salaam alaykum

    Timely article. My daughter runs into this frequently. She does not wear hijab and gets flak for it, both verbally and in those unequivocal judgmental stares.

    She’s a great student, an athlete, compassionate and always clearly identifies as Muslim. Many people are taken aback when she offers salaams and they note the ‘lack of’ hijab. Acquaintances think this is incredibly odd given that I observe hijab and do so in an extremely difficult professional setting.

    I support her decision, whether to wear hijab or not wear it. As she says, “the day I put it on, I never want to take it off, I want to be really ready.”

    • salam,

      had the same problem when i first put on the ‘hijab’. wasnt really ready n didnt quite understand the need for it. there was a point when i decided to take them off after many years of observing the ‘hijab’ for fear of my parents. now that i begun to understand the beauty of it, i totally like being veiled and dressing modestly to please Allah and nothing else.

      • Love the attitude that you and your daughter have about the hijab. It is extremely important to truly understand the essence of wearing the hijab and if you’re not ready, no imam, parent, or friend should ever force you to wear it.
        I was forced to wear the hijab as a child. By the time I got to college, I took it off because I didn’t know why I wore it. After understanding the meaning of hijab, I started wearing it again and insha allah I never plan to take it off.

  • Salaam Sister Rami,

    Jazak Allahu Khair for this article. It speaks volumes to the struggles that youth and even young adults are facing. I went through a very similar experience when I was in high school ad college.
    A couple of months ago, I volunteered at my local masjid. However, the attitude and hierarchy pushed me further and further away from the masjid. The sheikh called me disrespectful because I called him out when he was yelling and behaving rudely with another volunteer. Also, the sheikh would always talk about how Muslim women are destined for hell fire if they do not wear the hijab. That made me even more uncomfortable to come to the masjid.
    Things like this really do push people away from masajid and makes one question Islam since sheikhs and imams are supposed to be the role models of the community. And just to clarify that I am not saying this about all imams or sheikhs :)!
    I am glad that people are shedding a light on this topic and I hope insha allah we can be more empathetic and kind towards everyone, including the not ‘so perfect Muslim’ in our communities.

  • Assalam alaykum based on the article and previous comments please I would really appreciate if someone can point out a manual of a sort for us parents guiding us to show children the beauty and essence of Islam especially in their pre adolescent to adolescent years. Frankly I’ve been worried and scared I don’t want them to do the worship manually but to understand the essence and want and love to be Muslims. please I need help.

  • Salaam Sister Rami,

    The most concerning issue I see here is that the doorknob still has not been fixed yet. However I can tell some serious thought was put into titling this beautiful article.

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