I was born to Pakistani immigrants who came to America in the 80’s. When I was growing up there was a constant struggle of defining my Pakistani, Muslim and American identities.
Most of the times these identities seemed mutually exclusive. If anything went together, it seemed to me that it was my Pakistani heritage and the Muslim culture. I wasn’t really sure what it meant to be American.
I was taught that I need to wear certain clothes to the mosque and those were always the long tunic and harem pants – the traditional outfit of many South Asians. Attempts to wear jeans and a shirt were considered inappropriate and it was not an easy time to grow up with a mixed culture and Islamic faith during my childhood.
As a child I was instilled with Islamic values and traditions – but as I went through Junior High and High School I started to question why it was so important to do certain things. Certain ideas and practices didn’t make sense and I was looking for a community and answers.
As I came into college and got involved with the Muslim Student Association, I met so many people of diverse backgrounds. The only thing that bound us together was our way of life, Islam. As I began to be exposed to new ideas and philosophies I began to fully realize the beauty of my faith. I learned that God has made each of us unique and special.
I started to see that, in Islam, community spirit and brother and sisterhood transcend any worldly labels. All Muslims pray to One God and unite and rally to enjoin good and forbid evil. God has created diversity as one of His signs. In the Quran He says:
“O mankind! We created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes that you might get to know one another. Surely the noblest of you in the sight of Allah is he who is the most righteous. Allah is All-Knowledgeable, All-Aware.” (49:13)
I used to think that “Americans” were either of the Christian or Jewish faith. Then I realized that one of the most American things for me to do was to fully embrace what was important to me. I started wearing the hijab and also loved my American Identity which helped me to embrace my diversity and speak freely about it.
I guess for me College was a time in which I saw African American, Caucasians and Asians come to learn more about the religion of Islam. One day I even met a former high school classmate. He was a Caucasian nursing student, a break dancer and was very curious about Islam. He started coming to the events on Campus and told me that he was drawn by the universal themes and the acceptance of anyone by Islam, and he soon converted to Islam.
While I struggled with my faith and identity, as an adult I realized that my identity is just one part of me, but the real spirit lays within the heart. As a Muslim I have a global community and can connect with any other Muslim and say the greeting “Peace be with you.”
I can go into any mosque anywhere in the world and know the exact prayers regardless of what the congregation looks like. Being an American Muslim allows me to be a global citizen and embrace diversity – because God does not care where we’re from – He is only looking at our hearts.