A Muslim's Search for Meaning

Zain Abdullah

Reza Abedini
Illustration by Reza Abedini

The first time I heard about "bad" Muslims was well before President George W. Bush made his announcements after 9/11.1 Three years later, Mahmood Mamdani pegged the idea to his book, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim.2 But, for me, it was in 1970. The American Motors Corporation (AMC) had just released its Hornet, an affordable family car with a sporty design, and my cousin Gregory, ten years my senior at age twenty-two, made it his first big purchase. One evening, after our regular run of basketball, we sat conversing in his car. Earlier that year, "Brother" Gordon, as we called him, had been talking to me about the Nation of Islam, an Islamic movement with a Black nationalist agenda. And I wondered what, if anything, my cousin had to say about it. "Well," he started, "you already have one strike against you 'cause you're Black. Being a Muslim would be two." I never forgot those words, and all I could think was that a "strike against" me was bad—really bad.

It wasn't that he said it with any malice. The entire conversation was rather casual. And at that young age, I wasn't sure what he meant exactly or the reason he was saying it. I certainly didn't believe that being Black required a strike. During the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Zora Neale Hurston boasted that she was not "tragically colored," rebuffing those who felt "nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal" because of their race.3 I knew nothing of Hurston then, but two years before the talk with my cousin, James Brown released the song "Say It Loud—I'm Black and I'm Proud," voicing the sentiment of a newfound consciousness and racial pride, while the civil rights and Black Power movements inspired unrelenting hope and harnessed demands for an unforgiving rage. Muslims from the Nation of Islam also seemed to embody this new awareness. Still, Gregory came of age in another era and under different circumstances. I think now about the irony of his statement, given the context of our conversation. The Hornet was designed by AMC to battle foreign imports, and as we sat in this automobile, his remarks and the manufacturer's intent now merge before me as a tableaux on American exceptionalism, the idea that there is a divine sanction that says to the world "either you are with us or you are against us"; and if you are not with us, there will be a "strike" against you, too.

But how does anyone really talk about being religious in the world? Hans Küng tried in his On Being a Christian, but was left wanting even after seven hundred pages.4 A conversation about what it means to be Muslim is equally complicated, and it deserves, not just requires, a great deal from us. It's not a simple matter of figuring out what all Muslims believe, then assigning them to a single creed like the arkan (articles of faith) or tawhid, the doctrine about the absolute oneness of God. Nor can we restrict the actions of over one billion Muslims to the five pillars—testifying, prayer, fasting, charity, and pilgrimage. Muslim cultures extend from Morocco to Indonesia and from Australia to Europe and the Americas, with dynasties spanning some fourteen centuries. And the expanse of this heterogeneity across time and space, not to mention a rapid migration propelling Muslim bodies, objects, and ideas around the globe, defies any crude attempts to map Muslims into specific culture areas.

Islam is not an orthodoxy (based on correct doctrine) but is more of an orthopraxy (based on correct practice), which means it pays less attention to theology (kalam) and debates about God. Yet even when it comes to ritual practice, of the more than six thousand verses of the Qur'an, Islam's holy scripture, only eighty deal directly with law, while most focus more on existential questions about the meaning of life, faith, and ethical concerns about poverty and achieving justice. If doctrine is not a central feature of the Islamic tradition, and the Qur'an is essentially not a book of law, where do we go for a conversation about what being a Muslim means? Perhaps our focus should be on the actual conversations among Muslims themselves, their overarching discourse, to examine some of the key ideas that shape their reality.

The Qur'an, for example, appears to be dismissive of official religion, since the term Islam (submitting to God) signifies a process, a series of attitudes or behaviors rather than a set ideology. Even the Arabic word for religion, din, has multiple meanings relating to various aspects of society instead of an exclusive sacred realm. The word "Muslim," meaning the one who submits to God, refers to all created things, since everything naturally surrenders to God's will (Qur'an 3:33). But "Muslim" actually identifies the first step in three stages toward personal development: muslim (submitter), mu'min (believer), and muhsin (perfected humanity). The word muslim occurs in the Qur'an about forty times, with about the same for muhsin, whereas mu'min (believer) appears two hundred and thirty times, and, if we include phrases like "those who believe," the count would increase by the hundreds. In contrast, kafir, the term often translated as "infidel" or "unbeliever," has less to do with faith issues than with exploitation, since kafir literally refers to someone who "covers up" what they believe is true, particularly with the intent to deceive others for personal gain. All of this raises many questions about how to translate sacred meanings properly from one religious context to another, and from one society to another. A brief exploration of these terms also speaks volumes about our use of categories and our tendency to reduce Muslims to labels like Sunni (orthodox), Shi'a (partisan), or Sufi (mystic). When we consider the deeper implications of words like Islam, din, Muslim, mu'min, and kafir, we find that the Qur'anic message is essentially a call to belief in a new worldview, or a way of envisioning a world that is different from the one we currently have. This approach will necessarily alter our sense of who Muslims are and force us to rethink their place in today's world.

I always thought that being a Muslim was a matter of choice, perhaps because while growing up religion was something of a choice for me. The Qur'an also seems to confirm that there should be no compulsion in religion, and that belief is strictly about free will, despite the fact that some Muslim-majority countries consider apostasy a punishable crime.5 Certainly, the places where we grow up, though, help to determine what our religious proclivities might be. Eudora Welty writes that "feelings are bound up in place," and she reminds us of its importance for understanding who we are.6 Each location is unique, and each place reveals the context for a Muslim mode of being in the world.

My journey as a Muslim began at birth, and the place was Detroit. I don't mean this in any religious sense, such as when Muslims claim that every person is born into a perfect state of Islam, or "submission" to God. A typist at the hospital named me "Zane," except that it appears on my birth certificate with a "strike" across it—almost the way my cousin described it, with a single-lined stroke—and then the name "Zayne" handwritten beside it. But why not name me Joseph, Charles, or Robert, which is my father's name? The more I learned about my name, however, about its meaning and the Islamic significance of the place where I was born, the more I was forced to question our ability to openly make religious choices.

The sociologist Émile Durkheim, despite his critics, was probably right to claim that there is a strong connection between religions and the societies that gave them birth.7 So, my story might go something like this: I was born in Detroit, Michigan, a city widely known for its heavy settlement of Muslim immigrants, and also the place where the Nation of Islam, the Black Muslim movement, was founded in 1930; my Christian parents, who spotted my birthright in a baby naming book, inadvertently chose a Muslim name, which means "good" or "the one who beautifies the believers," simply because it had a different ring. But all of this sounds much too esoteric and I must admit I didn't always think this way. Growing up, I guess I believed, like others, that we all had the freedom to choose our own destiny. Then, when I became Muslim in the late 1970s, everything came under the command of divine will (qadr), requiring that all human behavior begin and end with the phrases insha'Allah (If God wills it) and masha'Allah (God has willed it). Graduate school in the early 1990s forced me to rethink much of this, as I began wondering about human agency and whether Western scholarship could adequately explain our religious sensibilities.

Alfred Louis Kroeber, the mid-twentieth-century anthropologist, might offer an explanation with "cultural diffusion," his view of how cultural ideas move between individuals, sometimes unconsciously and even without direct contact.8 For example, my father's hit record, Tossin' and Turnin', made history before I was born. And Black musicians were increasingly attracted to Islam, often changing their names to Arabic ones. He surely traveled in these circles, and I wonder if my parents were influenced by this cultural process. Richard Rodriguez, a Mexican American essayist, says he never thought of his religion as a choice, when questioned about how he could be a Catholic when the Roman Catholic Church condemns his gay lifestyle. "It's chosen me," he replied. "It feels like . . . they're asking me how can you be your parents' son?"9 Muslims raised in Islamic societies may have similar feelings, since their religious identity often appears inseparable from their ancestry. Tone Bringa writes that "being Muslim" for Bosnians is not about strict adherence to Islamic practices but about how land, family, and gender dynamics shape their religious identities.10 So a question about what it means to be a Muslim can appear a bit odd, especially if we think it is detached from our sense of place or other realities within the larger scheme of things.

The first time I heard I had a Muslim name was at my high school in East Orange, New Jersey. In 1975, I was in the eleventh grade, and a classmate approached me, draped in her Nation of Islam headdress, tunic, and full-length skirt. "Do you know you have a Muslim name?" she asked sternly. I hadn't thought about being a Muslim since I had raised the issue with my cousin five years earlier. Her question stunned me, mainly because I was unsure of how to respond or, frankly, whether I even cared. I now realize that the incident is integral to the way I think about being Muslim, and not because it influenced my conversion in any way. Rather, I believe it reveals something about the sociocultural context in which I was raised, which included a heterogeneous mix of Black and immigrant Muslims, Christian evangelicals, integrationists, Black nationalists, and a Black working and middle class.

After high school and a brief stint in the world of disco, my interest turned to Black history. I read J. A. Rogers's World's Great Men of Color, Lerone Bennett Jr.'s Before the Mayflower, and a story in Jet magazine about the medieval Muslim empires of West Africa, which described rulers like Mansa Kankan Musa and Askia Muhammad I and how learning was a centerpiece in these African civilizations. All this left me with fundamental questions about life itself. The theologian James Cone professed that religion "pushes you to bring the political in harmony with the spiritual know-ledge that you have of yourself."11 For me, however, the process was reversed. I sought to understand myself as a social being and a political actor first, and then I embarked upon a spiritual quest and a search for life's meaning.

My mother claimed that I was "religiously inclined," or at least that's what she wrote in her 1973 college essay, "My Son." She added that I disliked attending Sunday school at the local Baptist church, but that I did read the Bible. Both my parents were Bible readers, and my father, perhaps sacrilegiously, highlighted passages and scribbled notes in the margins of his Bible. As a college sophomore majoring in marketing at Fairleigh Dickinson University-Madison, I began my own self-directed, late-night study of the Bible, which often ended at 3 AM. This was not a search for a "soft monotheism," a doctrine of the three interlocking dimensions of God. When I was growing up, there were portraits of Martin Luther King Jr. and Huey P. Newton, the Black Panther Party co-founder, on our walls, but there was no crucifix. And our reference to God was more or less absolute and indivisible. So, my religious readings, which included Daoism, Confucianism, and even Shintoism, were scrutinized by a hardline belief in a single God.

Later, I met Abdul-Malik, a spectacled, Black Panamanian Muslim selling jewelry in the student center, and we began a series of conversations about the Bible and Islam. I then discovered Abul A‘la Maududi's book Towards Understanding Islam. Unlike the dense academic texts on Islam that I borrowed from the college library, Maududi's work was clear and jargon-free. After completing it, I immediately decided to become Muslim. I suddenly found myself repeating the sacred words before Abdul-Malik that signified my conversion to Islam: la ilaaha illallah wa muhammad rasulullah (There is no god but the one God and Muhammad is the messenger of God). In June 1979, my name-change petition was granted, altering the spelling of my first name (presumably to a more Arabic version), and "Abdullah" became my surname. For me, being Muslim clearly did not occur in a vacuum, and even those raised in Muslim-majority countries have sensibilities that are shot through with their own sociocultural realities. Our ability to grasp the full measure of what it means to be Muslim requires a rigorous unpacking of these and other complex settings.

I felt compelled to marry less than two years after my conversion. She was also new to Islam. Being Muslim then meant being chaste and having a measure of self-restraint until marriage. If celibacy proved too difficult, the community found suitable mates, which typically meant passing off the next eligible person in line. Still, we were enthralled by the notion that marriage constituted half of our religion, and the Prophet urged us to fear God for the rest. But, more than that, matrimony is how adult Muslims enter into the inner sanctum of Islam, just as publicly participating in the five pillars demonstrates one's membership to the wider community. Marriage, then, represents a more intimate place to experience what it means to be Muslim.

The traditional prohibition on premarital sex, however, often forces young Muslims to marry too soon, before they are emotionally or economically ready. And I was among them, divorcing two short years later. But matrimony in Islam is also more of a contract than a sacrament, so marriage among the newly converted, especially when the couple is without familial advice (even from non-Muslim relatives), results in a high divorce rate and a succession of serial marriages. Asef Bayat and Linda Herrera write about what this might mean for Muslim youth, a fast-growing population far exceeding 50 percent in most Muslim-majority countries.12 Massive unemployment, coupled with prolonged political corruption, has caused a widening gap between sexual maturity (the customary dating age) and social maturity (the average age young people become financially solvent and start a family). The option for young Muslims has been to seek alternative marital arrangements beyond the customary nikah (civil), which is state regulated and usually expensive.13 But this hasn't resolved the issue, since the majority of Muslims favor nikah and exert extreme pressure on violators to conform.

Muslim youth do date and some become intimate without much regard to religion at all, similar to millions of nominal Christians or other individuals who would be considered nonobservant in their faith. Asra Nomani has argued for a Bill of Rights in the Bedroom, a referendum to remove shari'a punishments for consensual sex between adult Muslims.14 I have discussed elsewhere that globalization is altering Muslim identities and, accordingly, the consensual bond between marriage and sexuality is weakening under the sway of secularization, which is then blurring the line between formal and informal unions.15 It appears, though, that most Muslims are somewhat conservative and try to marry rather than engage in illicit sex, which is viewed as a major religious taboo. Yet, what concerns me is how marriage has become so closely linked to what it means to be a "good" Muslim. If marriage constitutes half of our religion, what does being a Muslim mean for an expanding population of the perpetually unmarried? And since any prolonged celibacy is equally prohibited, there is a strong tendency that millions will fall into deep states of depression and guilt, especially if they are unable to reconcile the tension of being a single Muslim in a family-oriented religion.

Matrimony, however, is about uniting families and not just individuals. In Muslim societies, the extended family networks typically insulate a new couple, and instead of experiencing isolation as newlyweds, they feel the expansion of kinship. Many practice the traditional custom of arranging marriages between cousins or longstanding neighbors, which serves both to expand the household and to strengthen community ties. Thus, much of what being a Muslim means occurs within the matrix of these larger, familial relationships. In my own case, the idea of an extended family was a foreign one. After my parents separated in the early 1960s, we became "nuclear," a word that always made me think we were being considered for some sort of scientific experiment. I was raised with two older sisters in a single-parent household. My oldest sister became Muslim several years after me (I expected the other sister would, since she was already familiar with the works of the Sufi saint Inayat Khan). As it turned out, the oldest had been covertly listening to my urgings. She and her husband are the only other Muslims in my family.

Muslim religiosity is centered on the notion that we share a type of communal globalism, which in reality is an imagined community.

Nearly all of my relatives, other than my aunt and her son, Gregory, lived in Michigan or somewhere other than New Jersey. This may be why we maintained a relatively tight family unit, and I suppose it shaped the way I think about kinship and, now, about being a Muslim. Also, growing up in a secular society like the United States, with its overarching ideology of individualism, shapes the way Islam is understood and practiced. The autonomous nature of American masaajid (mosques), for instance, along with a leadership structure based on an ecclesiastical model, reveals the Protestantization of Muslim life in the United States. I am no loner, nor do I consider myself antisocial. Muslims in America claim over one hundred nationalities, and experiencing the range and scope of these culturally rich communities, including my experience traveling in Muslim countries abroad, has been endearing. It's one of the main aspects of Islam that holds me to the faith. Nevertheless, for someone like me, it can still feel confining. Muslims around the world tend to be somewhat balkanized. Most maintain strict parameters for socialization and only marry within their own ethnic group.

Desert religions like Islam, though, are more public than private, more communal than personal. Richard Rodriguez calls them religions of the "We," collective traditions that require their rabbis, priests, and imams to routinely lead group prayers and supplicate on behalf of the entire congregation.16 Even the five pillars, for example, considered fard 'ayn, or personal duties, are best performed collectively. Moreover, Muslims, often referring to each other as brothers and sisters, belong to a single ummah, a word translated as "community" but literally meaning "mother." The Qur'an stipulates that our religious and civic claims must be based upon a mutual reverence for God and the "wombs" that bore us (4:1). Even the main attributes of God, heading each chapter of the Qur'an, not only reflect two different types of mercy, rahman and rahim, but share a linguistic origin with the word for womb (rahm). Muslim religiosity—in many respects, the whole idea of being Muslim—is centered on the notion that we share a type of communal globalism, which in reality is an imagined community. Still, the group sense of what it means to be Muslim constitutes an overlapping of three very distinct relationships: matrimonial, familial, and communal. The shape of these associations, however, varies and will result in multiple ways of understanding Muslims. But the tendency for both Muslims and outsiders to view Islam as a monolithic entity is clearly untenable.

Beginning around the BEGINNING AROUND THE eighteenth century, the "Jewish Question" marked a series of ongoing debates about the marginal status of Jews and their treatment in Europe. It was sometimes referred to as the "Jewish Problem," which reached its tragic end in Germany's death camps. Other groups have historically received a similar status: the Irish Question, the Polish Question, the Negro Question, the Eastern (Armenian) or Ottoman Question, and now the Muslim Question—all considered suspect populations, and all deemed to be problems. For many in the West, Islam poses a massive security threat. Muslims at the same time seek refuge in Islam from what they see as Western militarization and imperialism. We should remember, however, that Islam is a Western religion, even though its early expansion covered much of the known world, to the East and to the West. And its philosophical and scientific contributions to Western knowledge are legendary. Moreover, European colonialism dominated Muslim lands for decades, infusing these societies with many of its own ideas and values, and Western modernity continues to exert a heavy influence on these same regions. Given the historical past and current geopolitical realities, the line separating Muslims and the West is more imaginary than real.

For me, the more pointed question about what it means to be a Muslim lies just beneath the surface, as in, "How could you be a Muslim?" I've often thought about who gets to answer such a question and, more importantly, who benefits from the response? Before I embraced Islam, I asked my mother what she thought. "Do they believe in God?" she asked swiftly. "Yes, they do." "Well, I have no problem with it." That was then. Now, I suspect some version of the "Muslim Question" lurks inside her, too. "You Muslims kill," she said to me not long ago. I had spent years as an imam, a Muslim chaplain, and a professor of Islamic studies. She spent time reading the Qur'an and Muslim writings. So her statement stunned me. "Where did this come from?" I wondered. "The TV," she offered after some coaxing. How could I argue against her almost nightly communion with the evening news? She also watches a steady dose of evangelical television shows that wouldn't, I assume, endear her to Muslims, either.

Still, my mother isn't entirely wrong. Muslims do kill. Christians kill. Jews kill. Sikhs kill. Buddhists kill. Hindus kill. States kill. God kills. And people kill in the name of God. This is one of the most perplexing points about religious terrorism: How can otherwise pious people, bent on being good, cause so much suffering in the world? The upshot is that, though religious terrorism exists, as Steven Pinker notes, violence as a whole has actually declined.17 At the same time, the capability of detonating high-tech bombs from a cell phone, and with relative anonymity, has increased our ability to terrorize in ever more devastating ways. Muslims do indeed kill. And they also kill fellow Muslims, as four Muslim suicide bombers proved in a Muslim section of London in 2005. Grappling with these realities is part of what being a "Muslim" has come to mean today. Furthermore, the deployment of the term as a political category impacts us all, forcing a realignment of how we must now navigate our surroundings.

In 2009, for example, Nicholas George, a white American college student, entered the checkpoint at the Philadelphia International Airport, as he was traveling back to California. When his English-Arabic flashcards were discovered, he was immediately detained and interrogated for thirty minutes, being grilled on how he felt about 9/11 and if he knew who committed the attacks. He was then confined to a cell, in handcuffs, for two hours, then unshackled and left there for another two hours. What kind of world is the "Muslim Question" creating? What impact will it have on how Muslims and others see themselves? And what will be the consequences?

The Muslim Question is an invention from the top down. In 1903, W. E. B. DuBois wrote "How does it feel to be a problem?" addressing African Americans as the victims of the invention.18 I am a victim of both questions. As a result, I have feelings of abandonment and perhaps even some guilt. I have no fear of flying, but at times I read the Qur'an right before takeoff. Muslims believe that good deeds expiate sin, and reading the Qur'an as a devotional act just about guarantees it. I have come to rethink this practice now. That kind of self-consciousness is the sort of thing that could ravage the soul. My fear is that the guilt arising from these questions may cause Muslims to feel not only like a problem, but also like an enemy. Anne Norton reminds us that this sort of guilt, including any blatant disregard of our constitutional rights as a result, should force us to reconsider our commitment to religious freedom and democratic values.19

Two incidences defined what it meant to be Muslim for me in the late 1970s. One was my reading of Maududi's Towards Understanding Islam. The other was my loose affiliation with a Pakistani-based movement, Tablighi Jama‘at, at a Newark, New Jersey, mosque. During this period, Muslim nations, newly decolonized states, were entering into a new phase. Maududi of Pakistan, Sayyid Qutb of Egypt, and the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran argued that the Muslim ummah was suffering from "Westoxification," an intense and ill-fated admiration of Western culture and values. I was completely unaware of the politics associated with Maududi's work or with Tabligh, as we called it. To me, they appeared to be averse to statecraft. Towards Understanding Islam outlined the beliefs, practices, and history of Islam, the nature of prophethood, and a basic understanding of Islamic law and ritual behavior. Tabligh was a missionary group and didn't proselytize generally. Its focus was on redeeming the ummah through pietism, and its members diligently worked on recruiting fellow Muslims. What I did not know until later was that both were instrumental to the Islamic revivalist trends of the 1970s. For Maududi and Tabligh, Islam was all-encompassing and universalistic, and they demanded the practice of Islam as a total way of life.

Several times a day, Muslims inhale sacred words and breathe them back out into the world.

The Islam I had entered, and the growing ideology among Muslims at the time, constituted a major shift away from religion as a private affair to include religion as a public act. Leila Ahmed writes about the emergence of the veil in the 1990s as a far-reaching symbol of religious practice among Muslim women, a practice considered unimportant for Islamic piety in Egypt during the 1940s.20 Contrary to what many commentators would have us believe, this Islamic resurgence is not a repudiation of Western modernity. It is, in many respects, a mirror image of it—that is, it represents an outgrowth of modernity and a reaction to it. Modernity's colonial project involved restricting the religion of Muslims to certain spheres of life, like family and domestic issues—which served to neuter it and render it ineffectual—and this has produced a universalist response. Being Muslim in this context is not antimodern at all. It is, in fact, part and parcel of the modernist enterprise.

One might say that being Muslim is fundamentally about engaging the Qur'an as a living text. Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad was its embodiment—a theophanic and human manifestation of God's word. However, a Muslim perspective on the Qur'an is quite different. The Bible orders time chronologically, as the human drama proceeds from Genesis to Revelations. The Qur'an unfolds much like the precariousness of life—with imploding narratives about faith, marriage, trade, eschatology, the natural world, the cosmos, rearranging them as they might appear in our daily lives, as serendipity, calamity, or contemplative moments. Moreover, while some debate the nature of its compilation and authorship, what matters most is how the Qur'an, as a recitation rather than a physical text, enters Muslim life. Its aural rhythm matches the body's pulse and its divine speech engages the soul. It is the prosodic sound that is most distinctive and alluring. Several times a day, Muslims inhale sacred words and breathe them back out into the world. It is how they bring the divine presence into their very being and make their religious path public. This interpretation would seem to complicate any strict comparisons of the Qur'an with the Bible, particularly given the view that the former is considered the actual speech of God and the latter a divinely inspired text.

When Christians perform the Eucharist, for example, devotees ceremoniously ingest bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ, as they take divinity into themselves. The Qur'an describes Jesus as the "word" of God in several places (3:39, 3:45, 4:171). When Muslims listen to the Qur'an, they consume divine speech as a sort of Eucharist: the words (matn) form the body of the text, and its meaning (ma'na) signifies its lifeblood. Jesus and the Qur'an represent the consecrated word of God, and both are considered miracles, appearing before us through the pure vessels of a virgin and an unlettered prophet.

This is not to suggest that Muslims are uninterested in the actual message of the Qur'an. One passage, for example, holds a special significance for me. The first five verses of the ninety-sixth chapter, al-'alaq (The Clot), were the initial words given to Muhammad, after a traumatic encounter. A voice commanded him with a single word, iqra (Recite!); he refused to comply; each command grew more agonizing, finally forcing him to cry out, "What shall I recite?" and the Qur'an abruptly entered the world. What is instructive here is that our engagement with the Divine and the realities of our mundane existence must begin with a question. In fact, all pertinent knowledge begins with some sort of thoughtful inquiry, and the Qur'an itself prompts us with questions about the meaning of life. As new questions often breed divergent ideas, the Prophet proclaimed that there was mercy in the differing of opinions. But I fear a world in which Muslims (and others) see diversity as a threat and, instead, desire one that they can describe in black-and-white or binary terms.

While there are translations of the Qur'an, only the Arabic is used for devotional and ceremonial purposes. This does not mean that the Qur'an is exclusively an "Arab" text. In fact, Arabic speakers account for only about 15 percent of the Muslim ummah. The medieval scholar Jalal ad-Din as-Suyuti classified a legion of foreign words within the Qur'an as coming from approximately eleven linguistic sources: Ethiopic, Persian, Greek, Indian, Syriac, Hebrew, Nabataean, Coptic, Turkish, African, and Berber.21 In Being a Muslim in the World, Hamid Dabashi writes of a Muslim cosmopolitanism, a way of being Muslim that embraces the multiplicity of cultures and interpretations.22 This rich diversity inherently derives from the Qur'an itself, and its inclusive, rather than exclusive, nature brings us back to where this article began.

While my being Muslim has been relatively uneventful, there have been times when I have felt stricken—the way my cousin described it—and made to feel invisible or even erased.23 The "strike" occurs when an acquaintance, whether old or new, disregards my name and mistakenly addresses me as "Muhammad." I have often wondered about the context of this slip. Does the person really not see me before him, or realize that my name sounds nothing like the one used to address me? At these times, I've thought about my public persona, and what manner of caricature has replaced it. At other times, a strike may involve a self-erasure, when, for example, a Muslim alters his name from Muhammad to Mike to ease his integration into the mainstream of English-speaking countries.

Muslim radicalism is yet another kind of strike. It occurs when being a "good" Muslim is defined only by exclusions, a view of the world based on what is forbidden rather than on what is permissible.24 I have felt the strike at these times, too, since it attempts to reduce the entire domain of my life to religious practice. Moreover, this type of exclusivity breeds fanaticism and belies the multifaceted aim of a Muslim life, which includes a propensity to capture the fullness of life and promote the common good. I have felt the strike when Muslim men justify rampant violence against women, through honor killings, forced child marriages, and abuses like throwing acid onto the face and torso of the so-called disobedient. Yes, this is a strike against me. In fact, it's a strike against us all. There is much beauty in Islam, and this criminal behavior grossly misrepresents the religion and all the good I've seen it perform.25

At the same time, we must work to humanize Muslims as a group to others, because most Muslims do not take part in and unequivocally condemn these heinous acts. Over the centuries, however, outsiders have projected their own fears and hatred onto Muslims and the Islamic faith. This is perhaps the strike my cousin imagined. Any attempt to write off an entire religion, or all Muslim societies and cultures, must be reexamined and properly addressed. The first challenge is to recognize that being a Muslim has many meanings, as it does for Christians and for those of other faiths. We must, then, break through the reifications and false dichotomies—those that force us to choose Muslims as either a complete parody of themselves or as a two-sided depiction of "good" or "bad." This involves extricating Muslims from a perpetual present, a kind of never-changing sameness of culture and social conditions. Muslims must themselves make a similar adjustment. Many tend to rhapsodize about the self-styled glory days of Islam and romanticize a Muslim past, forcing them to march through life looking backwards for solutions to contemporary problems. In the end, the "strike" my cousin spoke of is certainly an unfortunate reality in today's world. However, it represents a challenge rather than a determination. The question is, of course, which will we choose?


  1. Bush divided Muslims into the "good folks" who are our "friends" and those "evil ones" who "hijack" their own religion. See President Bush's remarks at the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C., September 17, 2001; his address to a joint session of Congress and the American People, Washington, D.C., September 20, 2001; and his remarks at a town hall forum on economy, Ontario, California, January 5, 2002; all available online at georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news.
  2. Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror (Pantheon Books, 2004).
  3. Zora Neale Hurston, "How It Feels to Be Colored Me," World Tomorrow 11 (May 1928): 215–216.
  4. Hans Küng, On Being a Christian, trans. Edward Quinn (Doubleday, 1976), 21.
  5. Qur'an 2:256 and 10:99. Fifteen or so Muslim-majority countries consider apostasy a punishable crime in direct violation of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, section 18.
  6. Eudora Welty, "Place in Fiction," in The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays and Reviews (Random House, 1978), 118.
  7. Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, trans. Karen E. Fields (Free Press, 1995).
  8. Alfred L. Kroeber, "Stimulus Diffusion," American Anthropologist 42, no. 1 (January-March, 1940): 1–20.
  9. Richard Rodriguez, interview by Bill Moyers, Bill Moyers on Faith and Reason, PBS, July 21, 2006; transcript, www.pbs.org/moyers/faithandreason/print/faithandreason105_print.html.
  10. Tone Bringa, Being Muslim the Bosnian Way: Identity and Community in a Central Bosnian Village (Princeton University Press, 1995).
  11. James Cone, interview on This Far by Faith: African American Spiritual Journeys, episode 5, "Inheritors of the Faith," PBS, directed and written by Valerie Linson (Blackside, Inc., and The Faith Project, Inc., 2003), transcript page 10; www.pbs.org/thisfarbyfaith/about/episode_5.html.
  12. Asef Bayat and Linda Herrera, "Introduction: Being Young and Muslim in Neoliberal Times," in Being Young and Muslim: New Cultural Politics in the Global South and North, ed. Linda Herrera and Asef Bayat (Oxford University Press, 2010), 3–24.
  13. Other types of marital arrangements might include ‘urfi (customary), misyar (traveling), or mut‘ah (temporary). See Kecia Ali, Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur'an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence (Oneworld, 2006).
  14. Asra Nomani, Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005).
  15. Zain Abdullah, Black Mecca: The African Muslims of Harlem (Oxford University Press, 2010), 201–204.
  16. Rodriguez interview by Bill Moyers.
  17. Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (University of California Press, 2003), 7. Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking, 2011).
  18. W. E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903; Signet Classics, 1995), 8.
  19. Anne Norton, On the Muslim Question (Princeton University Press, 2013).
  20. Leila Ahmed, A Quiet Revolution: The Veil's Resurgence, from the Middle East to America (Yale University Press, 2011).
  21. Arthur Jeffery, The Foreign Vocabulary of the Quran (1937; Gorgias Press, 2009), viii, 12.
  22. Hamid Dabashi, Being a Muslim in the World (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
  23. James Baldwin's collection of essays, Nobody Knows My Name, seems to capture the mood.
  24. The irony, of course, is that most of Muslim life goes unregulated by Islam, which is what Islamic law terms mubah, or religiously neutral.
  25. These atrocities must not be allowed to occur on our watch, as the International Violence against Women Act promises.

Zain Abdullah is Associate Professor of Religion and Society and Islamic Studies at Temple University and author of Black Mecca: The African Muslims of Harlem (Oxford). He is currently working on a memoir and a book on Black Muslim conversion.