How I Came to See Islam in a New Light

Faith is more than just following the rules.

by Mariam Saleem

“Mom, please! I will wear the hijab tomorrow,” I tried convincing my mother as I got ready for my first day of 6th grade.

“No, Mariam,” she said. “You have to wear it. Come on, you’re running late.”

Instead of feeling nervous about adjusting to a new class, I was mainly worried about one thing: the hijab, or headscarf, that my mom said I had to start wearing every day.

I was scared this would affect how people thought of me. At my school girls who wore the hijab were often stereotyped as quiet and weird. I worried about being asked why I was suddenly covering my head because I didn’t actually know. When I asked my mom, I found her responses unsatisfying: “In our culture, a girl must cover up,” or “You’re no longer a child, you have to start wearing it.” When I pressed her she’d just dismiss me with a curt, “That’s just how it is.”

When I arrived at school, I saw girls wearing different-colored hijabs and felt relieved. If I got teased, I wouldn’t be the only one. But I was still uncomfortable because I didn’t know why I was wearing a hijab.

At the time I knew Islam mostly as a set of do’s and don’ts communicated by my parents and Quran teachers. Eating chicken nuggets from McDonald’s was haram (forbidden). (This is because the meat is not slaughtered in the halal, permitted, way.) You must go to perform Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, at least once in your life, and you must give zakat (donations) to people in need.

So Many Questions

I wanted to know the reasons for these rules. For instance, I learned that having a boyfriend is haram, but I was never told why. When I asked my parents, I got the same response: “It is what it is.”

“If I don’t understand, then why should I try being a good Muslim?” I asked.

“Because this is what we believe,” my mother said, stretching out each word and wagging her finger at me. “You ask too many questions, Mariam. Go do your homework.” Later I realized she ended conversations like this because she didn’t have the answers herself.

I was raised to understand that God could be punitive. When I was little and my siblings or I misbehaved, my mother would say, “Allah will hit you,” or “Allah is very mad at you,” to get us to stop.

I did believe in Shaitan, which means the devil in Arabic. I thought Shaitan lived underneath my house, and sometimes I stepped on the basement floor trying to hurt him. “This is what you get for being bad!” I would whisper mischievously to the ground. I even began digging in my mother’s garden behind our house to see what hell looks like.

My Bulletproof Vest

At school, some kids called me a terrorist for wearing the hijab. When a strand of hair slipped out of my scarf during class, I got teased with comments like, “OMG your hair is showing!” “So what?” I thought. It bothered me that my classmates interrupted my focus just to tell me this. I thought about taking my hijab off and letting them see all my hair just to shut them up.

But after a few months, I started to see the upsides of covering my head. I could get ready in five minutes because I didn’t have to style my hair. I wasn’t targeted by weird old men on the street who sometimes made comments about my other friends when we passed them. Even though I didn’t connect it to anything spiritual, my hijab now felt like a bulletproof vest keeping me from danger.

But it didn’t protect me from all the unsolicited advice I got from older relatives and family friends about how to be a good Muslim girl: “Don’t wear that tank top. Help your mother more around the house. You should pray every day. Learn how to cook. Don’t sit with the boys, it’s haram. You should wear the hijab all the time, not just when you’re at school.” By 8th grade, the more people told me about how to be pious and obedient, the less I wanted to follow my religion.

I only followed the rules to satisfy my parents. One rule was praying five times a day. My mother pushed me to pray, but I saw it as a burden and slowly drifted away from it. I wanted to have a relationship with God, but not understanding why Islam said I was supposed to do certain things made it hard to feel a spiritual connection.

Ramadan Rumbles

My relationship with Islam changed in high school. During freshman year, I went to Pakistan for three weeks. When I came back, it felt like there was a dark cloud over me that refused to evaporate. I told my mother how I was feeling and she said, “If you’re lost, go pray. Talk to Allah. If you remember him, he will remember you.”

I hoped that growing closer to God would help me feel better, so I started to pray more often, though I usually only did the morning prayer instead of all five throughout the day. I did not feel a bond with Allah when I prayed, but I tried as best I could. I still felt depressed, though, and for the next year and a half this dark cloud remained untouched.

In my sophomore year, I started talking to my friend Atiqa about religion during Ramadan, the month when Muslims fast and pray to feel more connected to God. We’d been video chatting for as much as two hours a day. We shared our opinions on French class and funny stories about Atiqa’s clumsiness. We also discussed aspects of our faith and gender roles.

“Did you know I chose to wear the hijab?” she said.

“Really? Not me. I was forced to,” I said.

“Wearing the hijab is your choice, because this is your own journey as a Muslim,” Atiqa explained. “Not your mom’s, her aunt’s or her aunt’s aunt’s. Allah asks us to wear the hijab so we can be identified as Muslims and show our pride in our faith.”

I thought Muslim women were oppressed because the majority of my female relatives are homemakers and all they do is cook and clean. This made me fear for my future. I did not want to stay home all day washing pots and pans. I saw myself working in an office conducting meetings and making money.

“So as a female, is that my sole purpose according to Islam? Or can I work outside the house?” I asked Atiqa.

“Women are encouraged to educate themselves,” she said. “In fact, not all Islamic scholars are men; some are women. If they can work, I’m sure all women can work.”

Reading Up on Muslim Feminists

After talking to Atiqa, I started doing my own research by reading the Quran and writings by Muslim feminists as well as other male and female scholars. The Quran preaches that it is the role of a woman to take care of her husband and children. However, this does not mean she is restricted to just these responsibilities. In fact, the Quran says women should pursue education and can have jobs.

While reading Islamic history, I found examples of strong females who inspired me. For instance, Khadija, the first wife of the Prophet Mohammed, was a successful businesswoman in Mecca. Aisha, his third wife, is known as the “Mother of Believers” for teaching others about Islam after the Prophet died. She was also a politician involved in military decision-making in the Battle of the Camel, which took place in the seventh century in what is now Iraq.

I learned there is an entire chapter of the Quran devoted to the Virgin Mary (Maryam in Arabic, like my name) as well another long one called “The Women,” which tells the stories of various female figures. It made me happy to learn that women are important in Islamic history.

After immersing myself in these readings, I began to see Islam as something that could uplift me, not hold me back. I told my mom about the things I learned, and I noticed her face glowing as she saw my interest in religion. Some of my research was news to her. For example, my mom was surprised to learn that the Quran encourages women to get a proper education and have a career.

I decided the hijab symbolizes a sense of security and reminds me of what I believe in. I began wearing it all the time, even outside of school. Though at first I covered my head because my mom said I had to, now it was my choice.

As I continued my research, I read about how praying namaz, the five daily prayers, brings peace and a surreal feeling in your heart. But even as I began embracing Islam, I didn’t feel this connection to God or the tranquility I had heard so much about.

A Peaceful Heart

Then one day a few months later, after junior year kicked off, I felt stressed and decided to try turning to the gold and light brown prayer mat for answers. But this time, as I began praying, I felt all the tension wash away. I closed my eyes to take in what I was feeling and I pictured all my worries disappearing into dust. I imagined my heart slowly glowing. The brighter it got, the more I felt my blood pumping.

Once I finished praying, it was time to make dua (where you speak to God directly). I brought my hands together and began asking for forgiveness, patience, and a closer connection to Islam. Dua had always been part of my prayers, but this time, I felt a strong sense of reassurance that someone was listening and protecting me.

Now every morning before school I pray to start my day with a peaceful heart and a clear mind. Understanding Islam on my own terms and figuring out what it means to me helped me find the missing piece to the puzzle: faith.

Before my parents would push me to fulfill my religious duties, but now I remind them of the do’s and don’ts so they won’t forget. I am proud to wear the hijab and I am excited to pray namaz because it makes me feel happier and more focused. After feeling like I was in the dark about my religion for so long, I finally see Islam in a different light.

Even though I didn't connect it to anything spiritual, my hijab now felt like a bulletproof vest keeping me from danger.
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