Renegotiating Islam

I’m sixteen, head bowed down in prayer in my local mosque, attempting to negotiate my relationship with God. My friends are out getting drunk or pushing their sexual boundaries with boyfriends and nameless lovers, doing the things young people do on a Friday night. As the prayer finishes and we raise our heads, I experience a rare lull of peace and tranquility, an absolute sense of belief and conviction, which anyone of faith will tell you is rarely promised. Those moments can be elusive and you must grab them with all your heart when they come along. The aunty praying next to me, who obviously isn’t my aunty but cultural tradition and respect for my elders always applies the honorific, taps me on the shoulder, and pointing at my nail polish, tells me that it’s haram to wear it and my prayers won’t be accepted. Just like that, in one brief sentence, she erases my worship and shatters my hard-earned peace. I want to furiously tell her is that my other Muslim friends are out getting drunk and isn’t it enough that I’m here? That I am present and attempting to discover what this faith might mean to me and she has made me not want to come here.

In one way or another, Muslim women, and men, have been pointing at me and shouting haram ever since that day. There is something about my outspoken attitude, my discussions around modernity and Islam and my willingness to publicly live as a Muslim outside of cultural traditions and accepted norms that infuriates them. They would rather I renounce my faith instead of so obviously subverting it, while on the other hand, the Western narrative also calls for me to be less Muslim, less terrorist, less oppressed.

It’s an uncomfortable space to exist in at the best of times, and at the worst it makes me impossibly angry at the other members of my faith and my fellow Muslims. Oppressed and marginalized groups band together for comfort and strength, but when your own people are calling for your silence there’s nowhere to turn to. I was briefly accepted into the clan when I used to wear a hijab, the visible declaration of my faith acting as a soothing balm, even if I was whipping it off every evening and spending the night in my boyfriend’s arms, but once I decided not to wear it and the dresses got shorter, I was promptly kicked out of the club. The faith in my heart, my relationship with God and my belief in Islam never wavered or changed, I just chose to engage with my faith in different ways.

At the same time, I chose to be more vocal about being Muslim in a post 9/11 world and the struggles that came with it, but when ISIS and honor killings are the daily headlines of choice, the community almost folds in on itself and becomes even more sensitive to any kind of criticism, and my insistence on pointing out their refusal to navigate modernity and Islam was not appreciated.

My social media tells me as much on a daily basis with comments ranging from the acerbic to terrible and sometimes humorous, although, it’s generally difficult to find the laughter when you’re asked to stop calling yourself a Muslim because you’re apparently ‘giving us all a bad name.’

However, it is now, more than ever, that we have to engage with these topics and create room for wider conversations. Young Muslims in the West, faced with age old interpretations of Islam, that are namely informed by a patriarchal scholarship, have little room to breathe and so naturally drift away from a faith in which they don’t see any space for themselves. If you do, like me, happen to want to engage with your religion there’s a distinct feeling you’re not welcome. Last year, walking home from work, I passed my local mosque in London, stopping to ask what time the night time prayers were held, only for the man to look me up and down with a sneer, taking in my short dress and bare arms, and ask why I wanted to know. I shrugged, told him it didn’t matter and continued walking home. I didn’t want to go anymore.

I wonder if perhaps we were more open about how we practice, he would have been more welcoming. Rebel or saint cannot be the two polar extremes we operate in any longer, for even the saints are sinning, but often they do it quietly while still engaging with the outside trappings of faith. We’ve been so hesitant to talk about this, which is understandable when you’re constantly under attack anyway, but there has to be a lot more honesty in the Muslim community about our shortcomings and the ways in which we’re stunting out own growth. We have to be able to detangle culture from theology and understand that faith comes in many forms, and without judgment. We have to be open to change and renegotiating our religion in our current context because whatever it is that we’re all doing, isn’t working. It hasn’t been working for some time now.


Salma El-Wardany