By Umm Zakiyyah
“The one you are looking to for help and guidance needs patience and good treatment too. No Muslim is perfect, whether revert or born into a Muslim family, student or Islamic teacher, layperson or scholar.”
—from the journal of Umm Zakiyyah
It took years before I realized how others saw me. In my mind, I was still that self-conscious girl whose voice was trapped inside her in a world that belonged to other people. I was still the girl who would walk the boisterous halls of middle school with the daily hope—and prayer—that no one took notice. I did not want anyone to see the white cloth on my head. It was the double-take that scared me most. If someone looked twice, I knew a snide remark or sneer was coming…and then maybe them yanking off my hijab.
O Allah, protect me from them. That was my heart’s daily plea. The banging of lockers slamming closed. The whirling whisper of combination locks turning. And even laughter. These were the most terrifying sounds to me.
In elementary school I fought back—once. But the school had swiftly punished me for harming the boy who had harmed me daily. So I knew better than to seek comfort in teachers or administrators. My only hope was in wowing them with my wits. They were on the other side, opposite me. Their cordiality was an obligation, their kindness a contract term that expired at the end of the day. But their hearts were aligned with students who hovered near my locker, saying, “What would you do if we snatched that rag off your head?”
At such moments, my words were a gift, a miracle even. And I was often in awe at the effect they had on others, the effect they had in protecting me.
“But you’re Umm Zakiyyah,” a friend and colleague said to me one day when I came to her for advice regarding some problems the teachers were having at our school.
“What?” I said, taken aback. I had no idea what my being a published author had to do with addressing our concerns.
“People expect a lot from you,” she said, almost apologetically.
After a few more moments of puzzlement, my heart dropped in understanding. If I spoke up, people would think, What’s her problem? Who does she think she is?
And like a prophecy, my friend’s words kept manifesting themselves around me. “I never expected this from you,” an administrator said to me when I asked if my workload could be lessened. I was teaching more hours than my contract stipulated, and I was also being given unofficial administrative responsibilities. I did not think I could handle much more. “You’re not the type of person I’d expect to complain about doing extra to help the school.”
Oh my God, how do other Muslims do it? This is the question that stays with me today. How do imams and scholars, public figures and Islamic teachers, and even overtly “strong Muslims” and those active in their communities carry the burden of benefiting others while managing to be viewed as human at the same time?
And I am not talking about excessive workloads. I am talking about the expectations that others have of you. The inability to make a mistake. Having no right to a bad day. The requirement to get everything right. The swift criticism if your words inadvertently offend someone—or if someone feels you could have done more for them.
“I’m only human,” I have often said.
“But you can’t expect others to see you that way,” I was told.
Years ago, I would have taken these words to heart, believing that I myself should deny my humanity simply because others expected me to. But today I am more realistic, more hopeful even. Because now I understand that each of us has a similar struggle as we seek spiritual direction and help others along the way.
But there are still times that I feel like that girl in the boisterous halls of middle school, hoping and praying that no one does a double-take and sees a person who is distinctly different from them.
Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of the If I Should Speak trilogy and the novel Muslim Girl. Daughter of American converts to Islam, she writes about the interfaith struggles of Muslims and Christians, and the intercultural, spiritual, and moral struggles of Muslims in America. She also writes under her birth name Ruby Moore. Currently, she is working on an independent film project to turn her first novel into a movie. Visit her website at uzauthor.com
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WRITTEN FOR VIRTUALMOSQUE.COM