“I feel very bitter,” Manahil says regarding the negative stereotypes of Muslims in mainstream western media. A twenty-six-year-old Texan of Pakistani heritage, Manahil travels to Turkey in the summer 2014 to fill gaps in her childhood education, and to learn how to deal with the challenges she faces as a Muslim woman and as a mental health therapist in a men’s prison.
Growing up in a family which she characterises as moderately Muslim, with parents who didn’t “stress us out that much,” Manahil’s upbringing was different from her more conservative Muslim peers.
“I think their families were like, you’re Muslim, you’re Muslim. They’re Christian, they’re Christian. I saw them struggling in high school because I think their parents were like this is us, this is them.[But],you still have to go to school with them. And I’m sure that created some sort of war within them.”
Manahil’s parents aligned themselves with other immigrant families, Indians for example, who they felt shared similar cultural values, despite the different religious beliefs. Manahil ticks off the elements her mother found acceptable in their Indian friends: no boyfriends, good education, no pork, no alcohol. Unequipped with detailed knowledge of the multiple dimensions of legal rulings, her parents focused on teaching good morals and values, a mixture of both ethnic culture and religious mores. “We grew up with just the culture stuff, like being modest, and not eating haram [food], not drinking alcohol, being good to your parents,” an unintelligible life manual, she implies.
At the same time, she bears a bit of frustration towards her ethnic community for their focus on the manual-like stuff. “I feel like Pakistanis… just pay attention to rules, rules, rules, but if you go a step higher then it’s like what’s the understanding of the rules. Let’s go a bit more. Let’s figure out what the culture was at the time when Islam was established. We don’t think like that.”
Still, she beams with pride when she reflects on her childhood memories of her mother.
“I just remember she used to tell us stories. Where I live, we have… a [religious] school, which would be Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. She used to drive us there, and we’d have homework. And she was really involved in that sense. And then on the weekend, we would sit down, and she would tell us stories [about] the Prophet (peace be upon him) just good stories, like…Pakistani folktales.”
“She did an excellent job,” Manahil says. Her father, though present, played a more indirect role in her upbringing. “We are an immigrant family, so he was working. He was working like no one’s business, which today I understand. It showed me a good work ethic.”
Working as a mental health therapist in a men’s psych prison imposed a heavy daily burden upon Manahil. The stress, compounded by a recent breakup with a young man she had hoped to marry, eventually broke her. “I was having a really hard time coping and dealing with my issues.” She turned to religion, searching for answers and comfort. First stop, YouTube.
Manahil entered keywords which she felt related to her challenges — patience, destiny, and gender roles. She was also searching for a deeper understanding of her faith.
“I was hurting. I grew up as a Muslim, so it was really convenient for me to pray and have those things, but as far as education, I felt like I never understood history. The dynamics of Islam as it was being established. So, I looked into that. And I found a lot of good answers.”
She recalls an event that occurred one day at work. A colleague’s client, named Jesus, was acting awkwardly towards her. After his session ended, she went to her colleague to ask if everything was alright. He told her that the client, a Christian, knew she was Muslim and felt uncomfortable. “I’m like, oh my God let me tell you! Jesus Christ, peace be upon him, is mentioned more than the Prophet [Muhammad], peace be upon him, in our Qur’an,” she recalls saying to him, “in a good, assertive yet friendly way,” she says. She continues,
“…Jesus has a lot of respect in our faith. He’s even mentioned more times in our actual book. So, you know, you just kind of plant that seed. So, they’re like wow okay, Muslims aren’t just those people you see on TV, in the mountains, they’re actually people who are interacting and how Jesus has so much respect that he’s mentioned more times than their own prophet. So yea, any opportunity like that. I don’t think I would have done that if I wasn’t educated. My parents didn’t tell me that Jesus was mentioned more times than the prophet, YouTube did.”
During her online exploration, one teacher stood out: Hamza Yusuf. “He was just so informative and not demeaning. He was so peaceful — go with the flow. And this is life. So, then my focus was on Hamza Yusuf and the way he taught,” she says. After a while, YouTube lost its utility. Manahil explored online courses but felt they were inadequate. “I don’t want to do busywork. I want an interactive model,” she states. She learned about the Rihla programme from one of Yusuf’s lectures and was determined to attend. “I want to be an educated Muslim. I want to be a mature Muslim. I’m going to do it! I need this.”
The programme dates aligned with her vacation days and money was no obstacle, so Manahil jumped at the chance. “When I got my acceptance letter, I was like heck yeah, I’m going! That fire never died. I hope it never dies. I think studying Islam, studying religion, there is no way it can lead you astray,” she says, smiling. However, her parents didn’t see it that way. She failed to disclose to them that she was going to another country for three weeks to learn about Islam. She only informed them after paying the $3,500 tuition, confident that the non-refundable fee would prevent her plans from being thwarted. Her parents didn’t understand why she needed to go from Texas to Turkey to learn Islam. They told her they would teach her whatever she wanted to know. “I don’t think that’s going to happen,” she replied.
Rihla can help prepare Manahil for her adult years ahead.
“When I get older, I want to find a mate, and I want to go back to my religion. When I invest, I want to make sure I’m investing money that’s not investing in non-Islamic activity, like pornography or alcohol. When I give zakat (alms), I want to make sure I’m giving correct zakat. Just raising children, finances…I want to learn all that I did not get from my parents.” She found this in a Muslim-majority country, miles away from the hustle and bustle of her daily life.
“It’s away from this Western society. You see how this world lives and how modesty is just excellent and how you sell stuff. We went to the shops, and I saw the beautiful long dresses, and I’m like, wow! You would never see this in America. You see how Islam is promoted within this culture. It’s excellent, it’s just so great.”
Manahil sees traces of Islamic civilisation on the streets and in the architecture of Konya and Istanbul. These experiences contribute to the development of her Muslim identity, connecting her to a history of Muslim peoples across time and space. A link she feels distinguishes her from her non-Muslim peers.
“I think the number one thing is that I get a sense of connection. I’m not just some person. I feel like Westerners are always kind of like, ‘I’m just walking this earth alone, I’m trying to figure myself out’. But for me, I feel different, because I have this connection with these people because they share the same faith. So, for me, it makes me understand that I’ve been on this earth, but so have my ancestors and they’ve been telling these stories and I have to tell these stories because this is my connection to this small time I have on earth. I think it is something I hold personally to myself. It gives me a sense of being…It gives me a sense of identity and security in this world. I feel like I can connect it to these stories and this religion. It makes me a person that has meaning versus trying to create meaning out of nothing.”
Her ambition is to develop and become a resource for future generations in her community.
“I have all this information, I’m just adding on to it and passing it on. I think it’s very important. It’s important I know this now, so I can give this to my next generation as a gift, so they don’t’ have to wander the streets of Houston, Texas wondering what, ‘where did I come from?’”
Manahil’s motivations extend beyond her family and her Muslim community. She expresses indignation towards people who generalise, making false claims about her faith.
“I work in a prison! How are you going to tell me my religion oppresses me when I work with men, talk to men? I’m in a setting where I’m very vulnerable. I’m working with criminals. How dare you tell me my religion says I can’t do this?! I’ve gotten educated. I’ve gotten licensed. So, don’t say my religion is not okay with me working, because it’s perfectly fine. I hate that. Just being a woman, not only being Muslim but being a female Muslim in America. Just being that double minority. Not only are you a minority, you’re also female. So, it’s like a double downer.”
Here, she pinpoints one of the varied challenges that Muslim women face in America, this being one of the main topics of discussion amongst different groups of people who highlight deep-seated patriarchy. These misconceptions are what she perceives as one of the biggest challenges for American Muslims, the way the media portrays people of her faith, ignorant, violent, and oppressed.
“I hate stereotypes. I hate people thinking that I have no rights. That Muslims are violent. I don’t like that one bit. Yea, especially the violent part, because anything that happens in the media…if it’s Muslim or someone of Islam and their own interpretation, it’s just magnified.”
Manahil aims to use the knowledge she gains to counter the negative stereotypes in her community. She wants to be an advocate, providing clarity to issues that are often misinterpreted while also developing confidence in being Muslim.
“Being so young, I didn’t feel comfortable saying no you shouldn’t do that…I didn’t want to be that one person. So sometimes I would be insecure about that. But after going to this Rihla, just being more confident in what I’m giving. Giving backup hadiths, you know, like the Prophet (peace be upon him) would never say this. So just be confident with getting information, but also spread that information whenever it’s appropriate. Don’t be the haram police, but just you know…this is us.”
This ‘us’ refers to American Muslims. Manahil explains what she sees is the role of the youth. “The young people who are seeking this knowledge are the ones who are saving this religion. It’s as simple as that. If not, it would be the people in the mountains.”
This piece is part of a series of ethnographic portraits from interviews I conducted during my doctoral research from 2013–2014 on four Muslim retreats, ALIM, RIS, Bayyinah-Dream, and Rihla, exploring the role of knowledge and the multidimensional nature of authority in the education of American Muslims.