This is a Letter to Your Beautiful Mind
- Personally, I find this Muslim woman's cosmopolitan mind beautiful
We are not strangers
BY Mohja Kahf In The Washington Post
Posted on Sunday, July 29, 2007
FAYETTEVILLE, Arkansas —
A certain Middle Eastern religion is much maligned in
this country. Full of veils and
mystery, it is widely seen as sexist. Often violent, sometimes manipulated
by demagogues, it yet has sweetness at the core, and many people are
turning to it in their search for meaning.
I’m talking about Christianity.
This Muslim squirms whenever secular friends — tolerant toward believers
in Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam and Native American spirituality —
dismiss Christians with snorts of contempt. “It’s because the Christian
right wants to take over this country,” they protest.
That may be, but it doesn’t justify trashing the religion and its spectrum
of believers. Christianity has inspired Americans to the politics of
abolition and civil rights, as well as to heinous acts. Christian values
have motivated the Ku Klux Klan to burn houses, and Jimmy Carter to build
them. You can’t say that when Christianity informs politics, only bad
This may strike you as odd coming from a Muslim. My dears, it’s true:
People of faith do not signify the apocalypse for democracy. And (here
comes the Muslim agenda ) that goes for believing Muslims as much as for
other religious folk. Muslims, in a very specific way, are not strangers
in your midst. We are kin. Not just kin in the lovely way that all humans
are. We carry pieces of your family story.
I got a phone call one evening from a friend who is a lovable gossip in my
home town. “Have you read today’s paper ?” she wanted to know.
A letter-writing curmudgeon had mouthed off about how U.S. Muslims ought
to be expelled, as worthless, dangerous and un-American. “What are we
going to do?” she said. We’d worked together on non-pork lunch options for
our kids in school — we share that dietary law, as she’s Jewish.
Anyhow, I invited the letter-writer to coffee.
Walter declined, but we started writing to each other, his letters bearing
a Purple Heart address label; he had been wounded in World War II. Walter
was the crotchety, racist American great-uncle I never had. I sent him
family photos, as you do to even an ornery relative; he replied that he
guessed I was Syria’s loss, America’s gain.
“Huh ?” I said.
“Why, you’re a Syrian beauty queen,” the old charmer said.
One day, I found a plastic baggie of asparagus tied to my doorknob.
Mystified by this American vegetable, not one I cooked in my heritage
cuisine, I brought it in—then noticed, sticking to it, the little address
label with the Purple Heart. “Saute in butter,” Walter advised. He made me
promise to come to the cemetery on Veteran’s Day; I did.
A year later, I get a knock at my door. It’s Walter. “La ilaha illa allah
!” he says, before “hello.” “ You and I worship the same God. I know that
now. ” He limps into my living room, and we finally sit down to coffee.
Muslims are the youngest sibling in the Semitic family of religions, and
we typically get no respect from the older kids — Judaism and
Christianity. That our older sisters didn’t stick our pictures in the
family scrapbook doesn’t make us less related, sweetheart. And our stories
are no less legit just because we have a different angle on family
history. Want to know what happened to Hagar after she fades from the
Bible story of Abraham and Sarah?
Sit, have coffee, we’ll talk.
My cousin was president of a national student group, and reporters
constantly ask her whether Muslim youth turn to religion to reject their
American identity. She grew up in the South, with friends who went to
Bible camp in the summer. “Would you ask a Baptist that question?” she
says, smoothing her head veil.
Does wearing a veil make you less American than wearing a yarmulke or a
Mennonite bonnet? Does reading the Koran (even if it’s not Thomas
Jefferson’s copy ) make you less American than reading the Bible? If
deploring U.S. foreign policy is un-American, then half the population is
guilty. What else you got? Name your favorite symbol of Islamic
difference, and I’ll name other Americans who share it. The guy with all
the wives on HBO’s “Big Love,” does anyone question his Americanness ?
Assimilation is overrated. And it’s not what minority religions do in the
United States. Did Irish-Catholics stop being Catholic when they arrived
generations ago? People once believed that devout Catholics and Orthodox
Jews could never be “true Americans.” Today, I receive e-mails with solemn
lists of why Muslims, “according to their own faith,” can’t possibly be
“loyal Americans.” The work of nut jobs. Yet purportedly sane people in
Washington seem to think it’s a valid question.
The Muslim spectrum contains many complex identities, from lapsed to
ultra-orthodox. There’s this wisdom going around that only the liberal
sort are worthy of existence. No, my dears. Conservative Muslims have a
right to breathe the air. Being devout, even if it means prostration
prayer at airports, is not a criminal offense. And those stubborn
unassimilated types may have a critique of the American social fabric that
you should hear. I grew up Islamist. That’s right, not only conservative
Muslim, but fullblown, caliphate-loving Islamist, among folk who take core
Islamic values and put them to work in education and politics, much like
evangelical Christians. One of the things about the United States that
delighted my parents, and many Islamist immigrants, is that here, through
patient daily jihad, they could actually teach their children Islam—as
opposed to motley customs that pass for Islam in the Old Countries.
Look, Islam never really “took” in the Arab world. The egalitarianism that
the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him ) preached, for example, never
much budged Arab tribalism. The Koran’s sexual ethic, enjoining chaste
behavior and personal responsibility toward God on men and women both, not
tribal ownership of women’s sexuality, never uprooted the sexual double
standard or the pagan honor code. Honor killing, as a recent fatwa by
al-Azhar University’s mufti reminds believers, is a pagan rite violating
Here in the United States, religious Muslims can practice Islam without
those entrenched codes. They are also critical of casual sex and
immodesty. Such conservative Muslim criticism of mainstream American
culture isn’t new in American discourse. “Unlike Muslims, we Americans
believe in women’s equality,” someone will object. Really, that’s an
essential American trait? Tell that to citizens who struggle for gender
Muslims, pious ones even, will tell you that they believe in it, too, and
are no more sexist than you. Your sexism just takes forms so familiar that
they’re invisible; holding doors open for women doesn’t seem nearly as
sexist as walking protectively ahead of them.
Other American values are easily in synch with the Islam of the devout.
Observant Muslims have long seen meritocracy, consultation of the people
by the government and the idea that hard work should trump family name as
refreshing affirmations of Islamic values. “America is Islam, without the
Muslim ‘brand name,’” goes a refrain from the pulpit of immigrant mosques.
Usually followed by, “The Old Countries are Muslim in name, without
This is the Mayflower Compact of these new Pilgrims. That analogy may not
sit well with black Americans, whose ancestors didn’t come voluntarily,
and with American Indians, because it links newcomers to those who
devastated their lands. Nevertheless, this is one way immigrant Muslims
see themselves in this land: as part of a long caravan of faiths seeking
to build the beloved community. This American narrative merges with the
Muslim concept of hijrah — emigration for the sake of worshiping God
“How green is America !” a visiting relative of mine exclaimed upon
seeing the rolling hills of Virginia. The busybusy metropolis had not
appealed to him. I hoped to dislodge his stereotype of American life as
fast, crass and dehumanizing. When my husband and I moved to a small
Southern city and took him to the farmer’s market, he saw it — the other
America, past the glitz, where folks have time for one another, as they do
in the Arab world. “What church do you go to?” is the watchword in this
America. Like the Arab query “What family?” it means, “Where do you fit
We fit right in to your sweet bosom. Christianity and Islam have the
genetic structure of siblings. “Allah” is in the Bible. “Eloi, eloi, lama
sabachthani?” the New Testament has Jesus (peace be upon him ) saying on
the cross. “Eloi,” “ Elohim” of the Hebrew Bible and “Allah” are all
derived from the same root word for “God.” When I discovered that
fixed-time prayer was an early Christian rite, that Christians and Jews
once practiced prostration, like Muslim prostration in our five daily
salat, it was like recognizing my nose on someone’s face in a photograph,
then learning that the picture was of my great-grandmother. Joy !
Doctrinal differences abound, and each faith has its sacraments. Exploring
these distinctions should be a source of delight, not of one-upmanship. In
difference lie blessing and abundance. The Gospels detail many moments in
Christ’s life, but for Mary’s own feelings in labor, you’ll want a glimpse
of the Koran—and of Muslim hearts where the scene lives.
Pious Christian and Jewish values are not inherently in conflict with
American civic life, as secular folk tend to forget. Devout immigrant
Muslims don’t belong? That ship has sailed. Myles Muhammad Standish and
Harriet Halima Tubman are here. Not as strangers out of place, either.
This is a letter to your beautiful heart: We are your blood.
Mohja Kahf, author of the novel The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, is a
professor of comparative literature at the University of Arkansas. She is
preparing for publication a manuscript of poems on Hagar, Sarah and
Abraham. She is grateful to Rahat Kurd for letting her riff a line from
Kurd’s poem “This is a Letter to Your Beautiful Mind.”
- --- In firstname.lastname@example.org, laquerencia33@...
> Personally, I find this Muslim woman'sHi, Deborah! Thank you for sharing this.
> cosmopolitan mind beautiful indeed...
> "What church do you go to?" is the watchwordInteresting. Either question can be offensive,
> in this America. Like the Arab query
> "What family?"
depending on who is asking and who is answering,
if the one asking is judging on that sole factor.
I am not a churchgoer and dislike being asked
the first question, as if I *must* attend church.
(It happened to me recently at a funeral, and I
felt defensive, yet brushed past the the question.)
And it's a similarly disquieting position to be
in when a person makes a quick judgement about
you based on your family name. What if you happen
to have been born into a disreputable family?
> it means, "Where do you fit in?"That's the *real* question. :)
Do you know? Is there a definitive answer?
- Howdy Jennifer - I was taken aback when I moved to this small town how
often I was asked which church I went to. Just don't much care for being
pigeon-holed by any means so I answered in the most honest way I could
that I wasn't a church-goer and tried to leave it at that...knowing some
might make erroneous assumptions but really not wanting to get into such
matters with relative strangers. It did get to feel intrusive but I think
that's just a cultural difference between villages and urban areas. Here,
its considered neighborly to ask.
Where do I fit in? What I know, of course, is that I don't, not here or in
the larger culture either...if we can even call it that. I feel
fortunate, largely due to Steiner's influence and also to the traveling
I've done, that my identity is of being a citizen of the world rather than
strictly as a member of some political/cultural/racial/familial entity.
But I do remember Steiner's descriptions somewhere about a stage of
Initiation where an individual takes on being a representative of his/her
'people' - and this is what I think I see shining in Mohja these days.
- --- In email@example.com, laquerencia33 wrote:
> Howdy Jennifer - I was taken aback when I movedHow are we to know "our people"? I come here to
> to this small town how often I was asked which
> church I went to. Just don't much care for being
> pigeon-holed by any means so I answered in the
> most honest way I could that I wasn't a church-goer
> and tried to leave it at that...knowing some might
> make erroneous assumptions but really not wanting
> to get into such matters with relative strangers.
> It did get to feel intrusive but I think that's
> just a cultural difference between villages and
> urban areas. Here, its considered neighborly to ask.
> Where do I fit in? What I know, of course, is
> that I don't, not here or in the larger culture
> either...if we can even call it that. I feel
> fortunate, largely due to Steiner's influence
> and also to the traveling I've done, that my
> identity is of being a citizen of the world
> rather than strictly as a member of some
> political/cultural/racial/familial entity.
> But I do remember Steiner's descriptions somewhere
> about a stage of Initiation where an individual
> takes on being a representative of his/her
> 'people' - and this is what I think I see shining
> in Mohja these days.
this group and very much feel that I am among
my own; it's a sense of inherent belonging.