Muslim for a Month

I teach Social Studies in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area at a very diverse high school. In an attempt to better understand a significant portion of the student population, I have undertaken the idea to become "Muslim for a Month"; hence the title for this blog.

Location: Fairfax County, VA, United States

Saturday, September 30, 2006

“That sounds interesting, I guess”

Well, I told my mother last night about what I have been doing – I would have told her earlier except my father will be undergoing major surgery in a little over a week so that was the topic of many conversations, and then they have been traveling on the West Coast, so it has been hard to get in touch with them to do more than say Hi, or I got home safely from my trip. Anyway, I told my mother last night. I would say that I was not surprised, but maybe disappointed, by her reaction or lack thereof. The title of this post is a quote from our conversation. She had some of the same questions that other people had, but parents just have a way of saying things sometimes that can rub us the wrong way. She wanted to know why, what my endeavor encompassed, and whether I was thinking of converting, but it was the phrasing that made me feel that she was less than supportive. Partly, this is my fault. I waited to tell her until it was already underway, additionally my mother has always been very involved in her church for my whole life (and I used to be as well), and I think that she wishes I would return to active participation in the Catholic Church. She wanted to know if there were aspects of Islam that really appealed to me, and I said somethings, yes, but somethings I believe that I disagree with (all this pending more knowledge to be gained on my part). I guess too that I had gotten my hopes up. I have gotten such positive responses from other people, and I was hoping for the same from her. But then I remind myself that I did not start this so that people would think that I was cool or innovative or more anything than anyone else. I started this for me, and I need to keep that at the forefront of my mind. In the end, maybe I am glad I waited to tell her, since maybe she would have talked me out of it if I had discussed it with her earlier.

I also got the feeling that she thought I was being hypocritical, since she expressed concern that I was boiling down the entire faith to several outward aspects (prayer, fasting, and hijab). I sincerely hope that I have not done that; I have been trying my best to be genuine and sincere and live as much as a Muslim as I know how (I learn more everyday), and believe that by the end of the month I will be doing a better job of it, but that was the point – to learn more by doing than I could have purely through study. For example, from my reading and discussions with friends believed that women were exempt (but could still participate) from fasting when they had their period, but learned just yesterday that fasting and prayer are prohibited during this time of the month. I may never have made that distinction had I not been actively trying to adhere to Muslim practices 24 hours a day 7 days a week for the month of Ramadan. This is another issue on which my opinion is divided. I completely understand that if Allah tells you not to pray or fast when you have your period, you take that gift and do not contradict Allah. On the other hand, it makes me feel as if something is wrong with me during my period, that I am unclean, and therefore unworthy of praising Allah or participating in Ramadan (I will have to make up the fast days later) just for experiencing something biological, natural that happens to a large portion of the population on a regular basis.

Friday, September 29, 2006

More generosity: a gift of dates from the Arabic teacher/MSA sponsor, Apricot Paste from a student, scarves to borrow from a fellow teacher along with the offer to give me hijab pinning lessons. These three women have already given me so much (materially and informational-ly) that my debt and gratitude to them continues to grow. Additionally, a former student who is herself Muslim told me that she was proud of me for what I was doing. I am glad that my intentions have not been misunderstood by the Muslim community within my school – I have been made to feel so welcome, so included, that it has been a wonderful experience so far, and no one has, to me anyway, conveyed any disapproval of my endeavor since Ramadan has begun.

I have decided to speak to the school newspaper, mostly because I feel comfortable enough to do so, but partly to dispel rumors that are circulating around the school among faculty and students. Apparently, one story is that I married a Muslim gentleman and that is why I am wearing hijab, another theory is that I personally converted (no man involved). That is one thing about working in a high school – the teachers are as bad as the students in the way that we gossip and speculate about each other! Some adults have come up and asked me about what is going on, and I have happily explained. I do understand that many people whom I do not know that well may not feel comfortable broaching the subject with me; but I guess I feel that if you want to know the real story, you should go to the source rather than gossiping about it (which I know from personal experience is easier said than done!).

In terms of being treated differently I believe it is too soon to tell, and I need more outside-of-school experiences to see if I feel I am being treated differently. But in school I have noticed (or think I have noticed, it could be my overactive imagination) that other females wearing hijab look at me with a glance of recognition, an identification that we are similar because we are wearing scarves in a world and a school where we are a minority. Hijab is fairly common at my school, and I could not hazard a guess at percentages, but I would say it is in the dozens rather than the hundreds.

Friday prayer is conducted each week in the Student Commons across from our Cafeteria (also where the Muslim students who are fasting congregate during the lunch periods during Ramadan so they do not have to be in the Cafeteria). I am going to attend today for my first exposure to collective Muslim prayer. Up to this point, I have been praying on my own at home, so this will be a new experience. I am both excited and nervous, as with much of this experience to date. Excited for the additional knowledge and understanding this will afford me, but nervous because although I have been following a guide to do my prayers I continue to worry that I am doing something wrong and will therefore blunder in public.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

A Return to Earth

I just want to start off saying that I know the issues I wrote about in my last post are not the basis for the Muslim faith, or even at the center (except for the idea of equality of the sexes). They are, however, things that I have been pondering during this past week and previously as well.

On that note, I am taking a step back from the philosophical aspect of my experience and into the realm of personal experience.

People keep confusing me with another teacher at my school – the Principal, other teachers, students – because we are both fair skinned and wearing hijab (and they are accustomed to seeing her do so). The first time I saw some of my students this week they mistook me for a substitute. Some seem very interested in my endeavor, but one put it all into perspective for me: he wanted to know if I was still going to sell them breakfast even though I was fasting. For some it seems to make no difference at all; which is good, I guess, since that means I am no different whether I am wearing hijab or not, and I am the same person whether my religion is the same or different than theirs. That makes me really happy. Several female students I had never met came by to say that they thought what I was doing was really cool (they identified themselves as Muslim), and that they had heard about it from a friend.

I have gotten better at donning my hijab, and no longer end up with a mark on my chin at the end of the day the way I did on Monday. However, fasting is getting harder. Monday was really easy, I hardly felt hungry at all, but today I am hungrier than yesterday, and yesterday I was hungrier than the day before. I hope this plateaus, or I am going to be in trouble!

I have been invited to the home of one of my students (the President of the MSA) for dinner on Sunday. We are meeting at school in the morning to go to a lecture at the mosque nearby on the Principles of Islam. I am honored at the invitation in their home, but am a little nervous that I will be expected to know more than I do about the faith and the associated customs. Additionally, this student asked me today if I could convert. I told her that I am not saying I will never convert, but that it was a really serious decision, and one that I would not take lightly and have to think about for a long time before reaching a conclusion. I also told her that my goal was not conversion when I began this process; I am simply seeking greater understanding.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Original Sin and Equality among the Sexes?

I continue to read The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Islam by Yahiya Emerick, and have not finished it. Some of the ideas in today’s post I have discussed with a resource-friend, others I have not but plan to, in order to clarify my understanding of the issue.

There are things in Islam that make a lot of sense to me, and in some ways appeal more than the concepts in Christianity (the religion of my upbringing). For example, Islam does not have a belief in original sin, but instead believes that “we are all born pure” (Emerick, 43). I like this idea better, and, in fact, it gels with my questioning of the concept of original sin in Christianity. How can someone who has never had the chance to do wrong or offend or have the wrong intentions be sinful at birth? Additionally, the idea that the original sin was passed down from Adam and Eve is incongruous with my personal notion of individual responsibility and accountability. I do not believe that sins are passed on to the child from the parents, so how can sin be passed from someone generations ago to someone born today?

And while I have, at times, questioned the idea of Jesus as the literal “Son of God” I do believe that he was killed on a cross, which (as I have read) the Qur’an denies (Emerick, 43). I understand that Muslims consider Jesus to be a very important prophet, along with Abraham and others, but they do not consider Jesus any more unique than the others. I can live with that notion, but do believe that the martyrdom did occur, and believe that he could have risen from the dead (since all things are possible with God’s assistance).

Additionally, I like the concept of no clergy. I believe that I have the ability and the right to talk directly to God (again, back to my recent Reformation unit, way to go Martin Luther!) and do not need an intermediary or middleman to communicate on my behalf, or to go to seek forgiveness for my sins. As well, I have always disagreed with the Catholic Church on the issue of women as priests. I believe that gender does not make anyone more or less worthy or capable of serving God. The sexism that I believe this engenders within the entire Church hierarchy bothers me. But then, I see some of that in Islam. I have read, in several different sources, that men and women are equal before Allah, which is a concept I can support wholeheartedly. However, there are specifics that I feel contradict that notion. In order to obtain a divorce, men only need to proclaim that intention three times. Women can instigate a divorce, but need to file papers with an Islamic court or with a recognized scholar asking to divorce her husband. “Although she doesn’t need the permission of her husband, she does need a compelling reason” (Emerick, 262). How is this equal? If men and women were equal before Allah, then the requirements would be the same for both of them – either just making the statement to start the process or filing papers. Are women more prone to flights of fancy, or more likely to get irritated at their husband “during that time of the month” and divorce him for no good reason? It sounds like men are potentially more likely to make that statement in a fit of pique, since they need not have a compelling reason. There was an interesting story in the news earlier this year ( about a man who divorced his wife in his sleep. If that is a viable (maybe only in the village that decided that sleep talking was enforceable intent) divorce, with no or so little concrete intention from the husband, how, if women have to have a “compelling reason” is this equal?

While I live in the United States, which does not allow polygyny, I take exception to the notion that men can have multiple wives, but women cannot have multiple husbands. Ideally, I feel that marriage is a commitment between two people (one man and one woman, two men, or two women) and only two people, but feel the issue should be balanced – what is good for the goose is good for the gander? I understand that the role of women and men in Islam is different and defined. Men are responsible for taking care of women (wife, mother, sister, etc.), and women need not return the favor by contributing monetarily to the maintenance of the household. However, I take umbrage with the idea that if men have a propensity for sleeping around, it is better to have multiple wives rather than one wife and a mistress or two. As someone going through a divorce because of infidelity on my husband’s part, I have a personal stake (and potentially biased opinion) regarding this aspect of this issue, and have no interest in staying in a marriage with someone who cannot be faithful to the marriage vows we exchanged. I also understand that polygyny is not that commonly practiced anymore, however it is the idea that bothers me, I guess. Another reason given for polygyny being acceptable is if a woman is barren and unable to have children; therefore it is better for her husband to marry a second women rather than subjecting the first wife to being “divorced and cast aside in favor of a fertile wife” (Emerick, 261). What if a man is impotent and unable to sire children? Is this an acceptable reason for a wife to initiate divorce proceedings with her husband? What about her ability to marry a second man in order to have children, while not abandoning or casting aside her first husband?

As I stated at the top of this post, I am continuing to learn about the faith and practices of Islam, through reading and talking to people who know much more than I. If someone wishes to clarify, or disagree with, something I have said here please feel free to comment.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Praying the wrong direction, a hoodie to the rescue, and hijab slippage…

On Sunday morning, I faced the wrong direction for my prayers. I was visiting a friend out of town and thought that I had put everything I needed for prayer in the hallway, so that I could get up and not disturb anyone. A robe, the prayer rug, the book I was using for the prayers and instructions. However, I forgot my compass. So I was standing in the hallway, trying to remember which direction North had been when last I looked at the compass, thought I knew which way was East toward Mecca, and went through the steps of the Fajr prayers. When I discovered later that I was wrong (and not a little wrong), part of me felt terrible because I know that an important part of the prayer is to face Mecca, but part of me felt that I was trying really hard, and surely Allah would understand my well intentioned fumblings.

This morning, I was reading a different instruction book on Salāh, and found out that I was supposed to have my head covered during prayer. Putting on a hijab is still a very time consuming activity for me, and I needed to pray before 5:44am, which was swiftly approaching. Then, hopeful inspiration! I grabbed a red hooded sweatshirt (insert mental clip of Adam Sandler singing his song of the same name) from the closet, donned that (with hood up) over my pajamas, and went about my morning prayers. I spoke with one of my “resource-friends” this morning who indicated that she also uses this at times for prayer. This instruction book that a friend gave me last night (The Beginner’s Book of Salāh) is much easier to understand, and gives clear instructions on body position (standing, hands clasped, bowing, prostrating, etc.) along with the text that goes with it (in Arabic, in English, and in phonetics so that I can attempt to pronounce the Arabic).

I hope that I will master the donning of the hijab before my month is over. Even if I feel like I have fastened it tightly at my throat/chin, it will still slide forward on my forehead. I tried to counter this today with a safety pin attaching the scarf to a barrette that holds my hair back; it is an improvement in that it reduces the slippage, but not entirely. In addition to my struggles with the proper positioning of the hijab, I felt vain when I first tried them on. As I mentioned previously, I was given a gift of four scarves to wear as hijab. On Friday afternoon, I went home to try them on and practice fastening them. I immediately decided that I liked two of the four better for two reasons: they are larger, so I can tie the ends and drape them around the back of my neck, and they look prettier on me. The other two make me look even paler than normal. Even as I was triaging the scarves in this way, I was feeling that I was not being “Muslim enough”. I understand that the idea of the hijab is modesty, and to “cover your beauty” as one of my resource-friends put it. I felt hypocritical deciding which was the hijab that made me feel prettier than the others, when that feels like it should be the opposite of my goal.

Friday, September 22, 2006

People keep volunteering me for things...

The MSA hosts a dinner for students, their family members, faculty, etc. for Eid. My Principal asked me to share my month of experiences with whoever is assembled at that time. I have said yes, but need to check with the MSA to find out if that is all right with them, and I need to decide as my month progresses if this is something that I am comfortable sharing or want to keep for myself.

Then my Assistant Principal mentioned my endeavor to the Journalism teacher at school, and (I guess?) suggested that the school paper do a story about me and my month as a Muslim. I am friends with the Journalism teacher, so I sent her the link to this blog, but my initial reaction was “don’t talk to me, I am new to this, and am not sure I know what I am talking about.” I asked her to have the student journalists talk to the people I have been talking to: the MSA sponsor, the other teachers in the school who are Muslim; they are much better sources of information than I, and they have been my resources. I guess they want to do a profile on me and find out about my experience. However, all this attention is unnerving. I am beginning to feel like a fraud. I am only spending a month walking in someone else’s shoes, the people to talk to regarding their experiences as a Muslim are the people who are Muslim 365 days a year, not just for 30 days. While I enjoy the television show of the same name, and it does often provide insight for that person into their own biases, stereotypes, etc and hopefully, change their mind about things, they are no experts on the topic by the end of that month; nor do I feel that I will be. The only thing I will know is how I felt, and I am not sure how I feel about that being public knowledge.

That sounds weird to type into a blog that is available for anyone with a computer and internet access to read, but I conceived the idea of this coming month as a very personal journey. I intended for it to be a time for me to learn about myself, about a faith that is largely a mystery to me, and a chance to see if the world at large treats me differently. This could ultimately end up being an intensely personal experience, and I tend to see this blog as a diary that other people just happen to read. I have not described myself to the world at large specifically enough to be identified by people who do not already know me. The reason I went to the Administration in the first place was the knowledge that wearing the hijab at school and in the community will be very public, and I felt it only right to get their OK before proceeding, alerting them that they might receive questions about me. I understand that there are aspects to this that cannot help be anything but public, but I have to decide what I am comfortable making public beyond that. And only time can provide that.

On Religion and Interpretation of Texts

Having just finished teaching a unit on “Renaissance and Reformation” I was pondering the translation of religious texts into various languages. Having been raised Catholic (and born after the switch from Latin masses), I have only ever read and listened to excerpts from the Bible in English. Part of me believes this to be a wonderful thing. I can understand and read the religious text of my parents and ancestors in my everyday language, one of which I have a strong grasp; and I feel that I have Martin Luther to thank for that, since he took a risk by criticizing practices of the Catholic Church, including not really allowing people to read the Bible for themselves, and having it only available in Latin. But then I think that things get lost in translation. Different editions of the Bible have different phrasing for very important concepts, potentially leading to misunderstandings of what God passed down, or to disagreements between sincere believers. And although the Qur'an is only supposed to be quoted in prayer in the original Arabic, the words of Allah are still just as open to misinterpretation, as we have seen recently in the situation begun by the current Pope, who seems to have one understanding of what Allah meant by “jihad”, which is in complete contrast to what Muslims I have talked to believe Allah intended. I fear that if our religious and secular leaders seem to take such little interest in truly understanding one another, what can the laity do to help improve communication and consideration between religions that, in my mind, have much more in common than not?

Thursday, September 21, 2006

More generosity this morning: the loan of more books, as well as invitations to people's homes for evening meals, and a continuing influx of information. I am really looking forward to this weekend, but feel much like my students often must: I have so much homework (i.e. reading) to do!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

I have been telling more people about the endeavor on which I am about to embark, and I have received mostly positive feedback. The several Muslim women in my school whom I consulted prior to my official decision were so generous to me todaythat I am overwhelmed. One, a student of mine who is president of our Muslim Student Association (MSA), had previously offered to procure several scarves for me. Today I was presented with a bag of four beautiful and varied scarves, and was also told that I would not be allowed to pay her for them, that they were a gift. Not much later I was talking to the teacher who sponsors the MSA, asking her questions regarding prayer times and procedure, and I queried her on the appropriate rug to use for that purpose. What I was looking for was a description in terms of dimensions, and whether it had to be made specifically for that purpose. She offered me one of several prayer rug s that she keeps in her classroom for students to use to pray; then she opened a cabinet and offered me a robe to wear during prayer. Lastly, a fellow teacher who is a relatively recent convert to Islam willingly spent her entire lunch break answering my questions about the varying levels of modesty that women in Islam adhere to, further clarifying for me the role of women and men in Muslim society, as well as her own thoughts and feelings prior to and after her conversion. This willingness to welcome me into their faith, even temporarily, has amazed and inspired me. I always intended to do my best to be faithful to the teachings and practices of Islam as I am growing to understand them more fully, but now I have the generosity of these women to aspire to as well.

Today was a wonderful counterbalance to several comments (directed at my intentions rather than my mission) that I received earlier this week. I was talking about my upcoming journey during lunch with several fellow teachers when one asked, seemingly offhandedly, "doesn’t my plan seem hypocritical since it involves praying to a God I do not believe in?" I replied that I do believe in God, and while I was raised Roman Catholic, I believe that the God I grew up believing in is the same God (Allah) that I will be praying to during the month of Ramadan. I was disappointed that a colleague, who also teaches Social Studies (including classes that involved instruction on world religions), would presume to know my religious feelings and/or that I would consider dishonoring a religion by taking it so lightly or treating the faith in such a manner. Then the following morning I had to attend a meeting with the administrative staff at our school for an entirely unrelated reason, and the Principal (who I had talked with just the day before) asked that I explain to the rest of the assembled group what I would soon be undertaking. I did briefly, and one of the people present asked if my actions would be offensive to anyone in the building , because he felt that my plan might, in fact, be offensive. I explained that I was very concerned about that possibility, which is why I had already consulted with teachers and students who are Muslim to be assured that I would do no such harm by my actions. I understand where the concern came from, but I was honestly hurt. I feel that I am trying very hard to understand better, and that because of the respect I feel, I would surely have addressed that issue previously.

Monday, September 18, 2006

I teach Social Studies in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area at a very diverse high school. In an attempt to better understand a significant portion of the student population, I have undertaken the idea to become "Muslim for a Month" (the month of Ramadan to be exact); hence the title for this blog.

I cannot really say how this idea first came to me, but as soon as it popped into my head I could not shake it loose until I acted upon it. I spent much of that first evening pondering how best to go about my personal social and spiritual experiment without offending anyone, or seeming to trivialize an entire faith and culture. In this vein, I queried numerous people about this notion before deciding to give it a go. I spoke with a close friend, then several teachers at my school who are Muslim women to get their take on the subject, spoke with students in our Muslim Student Association to gauge their reaction, and then to our Principal. All I have gotten is positive feedback. At the suggestion of one of my fellow teachers who converted to Islam as an adult, I am chronicling my experiences during this upcoming month of Ramadan through this blog.

I intend to follow all the tenets of Islam as I proceed through this coming month. Come Saturday, I will don a scarf to cover my head and neck, begin my prayers, fasting, and other lifestyle changes that accompany my commitment.

Luckily, I have a student in one of my classes who is president of the Muslim Student Association (MSA); she has kindly offered to be my guide during this time. She has promised to get two scarves (of different styles) for me, as well as teach me how to properly wear them. Additionally, other students who are members of the MSA have stopped by my classroom to drop off literature that instructs me on how prayers are to be said, and that have given me additional insight into the beliefs that are at the heart of the Muslim faith.

Like any new adventure, I sometimes worry that I may have bitten off more than I can reasonably chew – no pun intended, but my biggest concern is the fasting. I am a snacker, and the prospect of not eating from sun up to sun down is daunting. But I am so excited about this experience upon which I am about to embark that I usually end up thinking that I cannot wait for my 31 days to begin.

I have so much to learn about the world’s fastest growing and second largest religion, and I only hope that I can do it justice during the next month. I know that this experience will forever change my view of the world, and make me a better teacher and person for it.