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.

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Location: Fairfax County, VA, United States

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

“Why do you wear those earrings?”, “welcome back!”, and feeling like Paris Hilton

Let me first address the third and last part of this entry’s title. I tend to regard Paris Hilton as someone who is famous for no reason at all. She is not a movie star, or a successful singer or musician, or an inventor, or author, etc.; yet she is famous, and people read about her exploits on the internet and hear about them on television. That is kind of how I feel. I am not a movie star, or a singer or musician, or an inventor, or author, and have not done anything particularly worthy of note in my life, yet people want to meet me and talk to me and read this blog. I am honestly kind of baffled. I did not think that my experience would be so interesting to other people, and did not consider it so odd or unusual that it would garner such attention. Yet it has. I shared a meal with a group of people (a friend, and friends of hers) on Sunday, and one of the women indicated to me that several women she knows in Arizona have been reading my blog (Hello!) and were excited to learn that she had met me. That really boggled my mind – I consider myself a nice person, a good friend, an interesting individual, but not someone that people are excited to know someone has met. Additionally, it seems that I, and others like myself, have caught the attention of people the world over. Although I have gotten universally positive feedback from Muslims I have met during the past weeks, my endeavor is apparently offensive to others (see http://www.sunnisisters.com/?p=1949#comments). This was never my goal, and I have tried to be clear on that point, and took measures to ensure that my efforts would not be construed that way. I simply believe that the best way to learn is by doing, and what better way to try to understand someone else than to “walk a mile in their shoes”? I never believed I would garner anything remotely approaching ‘more than a surface understanding of “what it’s like” to be one of us’. And I do not consider my actions to be ‘play acting and dressing up for the cameras or the blogosphere, recounting their experiences being “just like” one of the Others’. I never felt that I was play acting, I was completely sincere in all of my efforts during the month of Ramadan; and I never sought attention for my undertaking, unless it was to explain what I was doing and why. I know that I have much, much, much still to learn, and that my month uncovered for me barely the tip of the iceberg that is Islam. Honestly, I am okay with people not liking what I did and not understanding it or my motivation either. What really made me emotional were the comments posted by two of my new friends who came to my defense. Their support is what makes me tear up, not the comments of someone who has never met me. I am sorry that I offended her, but my goal was to build understanding on my part, and I am regretful that it was not taken that way. Additionally, I am kind of glad for this occurrence, it was a refreshing change to have someone not like me! (That sounded really egotistical, but is the best way I can describe how I feel.)

On to the second part of the title: Numerous colleagues have welcomed me back, as if I had been gone on a long trip, or as if I had been a different person during the month of Ramadan. I must say this perplexes me a little bit. Just as I was completely sincere in all my efforts during the month of Ramadan (praying, fasting, etc.), I was also completely myself. While some of my behaviors changed (not hanging out with friends if they would be drinking alcohol), who I am deep down never did. Although, at least one of the “welcome back”s was because I had not attended a happy hour activity in a while, and this person was, I believe, happy to see me. I must confess, though, that this past month did change me somewhat. While I have attended happy hours with colleagues semi-regularly in the past, 99% of the time I drink ice water, and leave before anyone becomes inebriated (not my idea of a good time), I believe I will attend even fewer of them in the future. This past week we went bowling, which I enjoy doing. But for some people, the activity and friends seems simply an excuse to consume alcohol, and that does not appeal to me at all. I do not begrudge people from choosing to consume liquor, provided they are adults and do so in a responsible manner, but for that to be the raison d’etre of the event is something with which I am not at ease. I want to hang out with friends to do just that, and I do not need lubrication to do so, and would like to believe that they do not need to be drinking to hang out with me. Additionally, that evening was the first time in more than a month that I went home with clothes and hair smelling like cigarette smoke, something I had not missed during Ramadan.

After some consideration, I would probably define myself as somewhat of an agnostic. I believe in a higher power, but do not identify myself with any one faith or belief system or scripture or method of worship. However, I met a gentleman this weekend who told me a shortened version of his own journey to Islam, sparked by the question at the beginning of this blog entry. You can read the account here: http://www.reflectonthis.com/blog/2005/11/the_answer.html. I was very moved and inspired by his experience. It is wonderful that he found Islam, which filled a place in him and was a perfect fit. I have yet to find that fit, and am okay with that. While the prayers five times a day was a novel and thought provoking method of worship for me, the most attractive and enduring part of my experience was the people that I met. If being swayed into joining a religion was based solely on the community that one finds within it, I would be Muslim yesterday. The people I have been blessed to be introduced to, and the openness with which they accepted me and my attempts at understanding, and the resulting discussions about faith and religion and practice have been a very important part of my education during this experience. And one analogy that I will hark back to numerous times in the future is the idea that Islam, or any new experience or idea or faith, is like a pizza. When the delivery person comes to your door, you accept the entire pizza, even if you are only going to consume a slice or two right away. In this sense, Islam is the pizza – it is impossible to know all that it contains or means immediately or to eat it all in one sitting, but the faith should be accepted as a whole and studied and learned/understood over a lifetime. Which I intend to continue doing. I have contemplated making my Ramadan experience an annual event, and will continue to think on that as time passes, but I would like comments on that notion. Would making it a yearly thing eventually become offensive – would it become the play acting that I have been accused of? Does it matter, at that point, what my intentions are, or would outward appearance be more important? Obviously, I have not settled on an answer yet, which is why I would appreciate input.

As previously mentioned, I will continue to maintain this space as I keep reading and learning and reflecting. Thank you to all who joined me, directly or vicariously, on my journey, and I hope you enjoyed it, although it would be impossible to enjoy it nearly as much as I did!

5 Comments:

Blogger bushraaa said...

It's a small world- I was in VA this past week visiting my sister and met your friends' friend (my friends and I in AZ/ NM have enjoyed reading your blog!).

5:30 PM  
Anonymous Neelma said...

Hi Ms. Watt,
Looking from here: I think you have done more than being a muslim for a month. For a month, you have put yourself in someone else's position, have learned a religion & traditions different from yours, have done something others would be afraid to do! You are truly amazing to me for trying this journey!

7:47 PM  
Anonymous hamza yusuf said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:48 PM  
Anonymous almiskeenah said...

PEACE! and thank you for sharing this experience. God Willing your next blog will be called Muslim for Life:)!! You remind me of a dear friend who some years ago went through a similar "journey". After her mind controlling her for one year and posing all sorts of questions she said she let her heart have a say! And then was embraced by this all encompassing Islam! I feel contemplating about next Ramadhan at this stage may be premature, and only God knows best, wait to see what eventuates closer to the time.
And again PEACE! May your heart enjoy further studies.

9:32 PM  
Blogger Hannah said...

I agree that you've been on an important personal journey and have also contributed meaningfully to the larger contemporary discussion in America about Islam. I'm a Muslim and I appreciate what you've done. I read Umm Zaid's post and I think that her criticism is relevant to certain people, but not, I think, to you. I suppose it's that element of sincerity and receptivity and willingness to be challenged that makes the difference. One thing I got from her post is that to be a Muslim is to experience the reality of faith and the centrality of one's relationship with God. Of course, no matter how you pray or fast or wear hijab, if you don't experience faith you have not experienced life as a Muslim. She's correct in making that critique, but that shouldn't be taken or applied as a criticism, especially since faith is a grace from God, and not an entirely independent choice.

2:17 PM  

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