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Excerpt: The Writings on the Wall
by Maytha Alhassen

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The following is an excerpt from I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim. Copyright © 2011, Maria M. Ebrahimji and Zahra T. Suratwala. Reprinted with permission from White Cloud Press.

i speak for myself

Verily He Who ordained the Qur’an for you, will bring you back to the Place of Return.
Say: My Lord knows best who it is that brings true guidance, and who is in manifest error.

—Surat al-Qasas, 28:851

In certain Arab Muslim cultures, travelers write this verse from Surat al-Qasas on a wall of their home before departing on a trip. This ritual is practiced to ensure the safe return of the traveler. This was the case in my home: regardless of the distance, every single time we took a flight anywhere, my mother insisted my five siblings and I all adhere to this tradition, even those who had not yet learned to write (for them, she held their hands over the pencil as she wrote out the five-line verse).

This visual image stands out for me as a ritual part of my life—and one I refused to practice during the period in my life when I overtly disavowed my Islam. My conscious outward objection reflected the inward wrestling of faith I had been experiencing as I entered college—a year before 9/11.

It was in post-9/11 New York—a space and place still crippled by the attacks, so clearly framed in terms of “Muslim fundamentalism”—that I rediscovered Islam. I was not looking for a counterculture rebellion banner to wave, nor was I recruited to bring down the “immoral West.” I did not pack political beliefs in my knapsack as I journeyed on this road of self-discovery through winding, circuitous religious trails. In a time of loneliness, 3,000 miles away from my family, I felt a void and turned to my desire for God-consciousness as my spiritual compass. And, in the midst of the journey, I found the beauty and spirituality of Islam through signs in the heavens, in Malcolm X’s diaries, in the eyes and words of believers, and from the writing on the wall. As a traveler, I had to return home to know where my future would take me.

In college, even before 9/11, I had begun straying from Islam, not necessarily in my actions or intentions but more in my identity. As “one of them”—someone America considered “suspect” based on religious or ethno-nationalist identifications—I could go in one of three directions: hold onto my religious beliefs and operate under the radar; take a strong, almost militant affirmation of my religious or nationalist identity; or engage in an all-out assault on my own identity. The problem is I embody two of the sectors America most fears: I am Arab and Muslim. In America, this combination is not a unique phenomenon, but it definitely represents a minority.

On the day the towers were struck, my father adopted the under-the-radar approach. I told him he had nothing to worry about with regards to me, because “I don’t look Arab. Everybody here thinks I am Mexican.” I thought to myself, “I’m lucky no one thinks I look Arab.” In the middle of that thought, I experienced a dramatic shift: “Lucky?! I should not have to hide my Arabness! Who cares what anyone thinks about me. I am ARAB!”

It was at that moment that I affirmed my ethno-nationalist identity with real conviction. Yet even as I rediscovered my Arab identity, I turned my back on Islam, hoping the shadow of religion would fade away as I ascended an Arab hill. Dismissing the traditional practices of both my nuclear and extended family, I protested against Islam in an effort to make sense of my post-9/11 identity in a college environment. I alienated myself from my family, separating from them not only physically but in a more profound, spiritual sense as well.

I stopped praying; refused to fast during Ramadan (the first time since I had begun the practice in fourth grade, never having missed a day); avoided Islamic functions and Muslim-dominant spaces; and refused to cover my head as we recited chapters from the Qur’an during visits to my grandmother’s grave. In an act of cultural rebellion, I stopped writing the eighty-fifth verse of Surat al-Qasas on my wall before traveling. It was important for me to communicate to my parents, family, and society very clearly where I stood, lest they be confused about my belief system. I was no believer. My outward resistance, I insisted, had to be articulated cogently in an explicit, unambiguous rejection of religious practices.

As this transition took place, I found myself in an environment more culturally diverse than my high school setting. I was introduced to multifarious ideas and cultures that were actually tolerant of the Arabness I had grown accustomed to hiding. Yet even with this tolerance, I adopted an either/or attitude towards the construction of my identity.

Religion was visibly under attack in the elitist circles of the ivory tower. The Western philosophy of Sartre, Nietzsche, and Feuerbach functioned as my sword of choice as I attacked monotheistic, Abrahamic religious traditions. I tried to forge modern science into a shield, a bulletproof armor to protect me from invasive religious thoughts. I vehemently believed a path of scientific existentialism was the only way to understand my vulnerable human condition. I wavered back and forth between labels, even calling myself an agnostic or an atheist at different times. I considered joining the Atheist Association of America before adding yet another identifier into the mix: “Cultural Muslim.”

I imagined I had a new understanding of “God.” I laughed at the way my family and relatives surrendered to and worshiped what I envisioned as a Greek god of days gone by. I asked myself, how could they believe in and turn to a God who created the universe, when science had all the explanations and required a much more rigorous process for proving truth?

I didn’t understand then that I didn’t understand the complexity of belief, faith, and the ideational complexion of God. I was the intellectual plebian, assuming this “God” was to most believers an anthropomorphic Godhead fixed in the billowy clouds of the heavens that they bowed their heads to in prayer and worship. I underestimated people’s spiritual and intellectual depth while at the same time overestimating my own intellectual aptitude.

During this phase of skepticism, I critically analyzed religion, phenomenology, metaphysics, and anything that appeared to have a tinge of what academia likes to categorize as “pseudo-science.” I now know this phase was necessary for me to arrive at what Ibn Arabi calls “double vision.” It was then, alone and far from my family, that I opened myself up to explore my heart’s pain, begotten from separation. And it was then, with an accepting heart, that I was open enough to see the signs I received. My school and work projects became points of intersection centering around Islam, unconsciously stirred in that direction. The internal and external positioning of this verse spoke volumes to me: “We put our signs into the horizons and into ourselves” (41:35). Malcolm X said, “Allah always gives you signs, when you are with Him, that He is with you.”

Around this time, my master’s thesis led me to begin meeting with Arab students on campus. These gatherings eventually turned into a series of Muslim talks and events all over the city of New York.

My intent was clear: “I am exploring my Arab identity, not Islam. Islam had its chance to save me from persecution when I was a child. What could it possibly do for me now—after 9/11?” In my attempt to swim upstream, to wade back to shore, the currents continued to pull me this way and that—always back towards Islam. Why? I thought I was done with it—I thought I had cut it out of my life and placed it in a box of school photos and track medals, hidden away nostalgia. Islam was not finished with me, however. I had never really allowed myself to freely swim in its waters.

I came to understand this “current” more coherently during a visit home from NYC, when I unintentionally pulled back the plush velvet drapes a little too far and saw the writing on the wall. I traced my fingers over my mother’s familiar Arabic script. I couldn’t get this image out of my head or the surge of emotion out of my heart. Even though I didn’t believe, my mother still did—both for me and in me.

A few years back, I was asked to contribute a piece exploring my perception of God for an interfaith art exhibit organized by a fellow Muslim student at Columbia University. (This was, as it became clear later, yet another testament to the abundance of God’s signs.) What, to me, best represented God? What did God mean in my life? Thinking about this haunting image, this writing on the wall and my years of religious wandering, the notion of faith in a safe return home emerged. For the artwork, I took an overexposed photograph of the vertically striped wallpaper smeared with Arabic pencil marks. After developing the picture, I painted “al-Qasas” in Arabic script across the photograph. After I explained to visitors the story behind the artwork, an interesting reaction emerged. In the responses of other people, strangers even, I understood something about myself that had been beyond my consciousness at the moment I was producing the piece of artwork. The significance of that moment and stroke of the paintbrush cannot be overemphasized or understood deeply enough. In that moment, I felt I reclaimed my Islam. Although I had started identifying myself as Muslim again, this was the first time I had felt it. It was a completely new perception: the statement was turning inward and planting its seedling in the gardens of my soul. My mother, back in Southern California, was not present to see the final version of the piece or its placement in the exhibit. I had written Surat al-Qasas back on the wall and into my life.

Not only did this verse—used as a supplication to bring a safe return from travel—literally bring me back home to West Covina, California, but it also metaphorically “returned” me to my religious point of departure—and ultimately to my spiritual destination, to my creator.

O Soul made peaceful
Return to your Lord accepted and accepting

—Surat al-Fajr, 89:27–282

As I retell the story of my relationship to Islam, I feel strange speaking of “going back.” This somehow misrepresents the nature of my journey with faith. How can I “go back” if I never truly left? In retrospect, my bouts with questioning God’s existence were part of my understanding of faith. My faith was strengthened by the depths of doubt and disbelief excavated from this world’s soil, where I discovered “hidden treasures that love to be known.” As Ibn Arabi says, God is not just “being” or “existence,” but something that must be found.

I had to understand “there is no god” to fully apprehend the simple complexity of the testimony of faith, the profession that “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his messenger.” There was no “god” because this was the “god” Nietzsche had proclaimed “dead,” the one Feuerbach had argued was man “self-alienated,” and the one Sartre had claimed stifled a human’s progress towards creating his or her essence, because this “god” is human-made, a societal “god.” Living my life by the rule of this human-made, societal god had led to my dissatisfaction with religion and my overall unhappiness.

In retrospect, I realized I had to live fully in that space of disbelief in “god” to lay the foundation for authentically accepting and preparing my soul to receive the true God. The profession of faith, which stands as the first pillar of Islam, radically asserts, “There is no ‘god,’ but God, and Muhammad is his messenger.” Such a simple phrase took me a quarter of a century to begin to comprehend.

1. Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an (Beltsville, Maryland: Amana Publications, 2002).
2. Michael Sells, translator, Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations (White Cloud Press, 1999), p. 80.

Maytha Alhassen has dedicated herself to bridging her worlds of community organizing, social justice activism, academic research, and artistic expression. She earned a bachelor of arts in political science and Arabic and Islamic studies from UCLA as well as a master’s in anthropology from Columbia University. Maytha is currently a doctoral student in American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California, where she works as a program assistant in the Middle Eastern Studies Program. While at Columbia, she conducted research for the Malcolm X Project and worked with arts-based social justice organization Blackout Arts Collective. As a member of the collective, Maytha facilitated creative literacy workshops with incarcerated youth at Rikers Island, helped organize the Hip Hop Film Festival at the prison’s high school, and wrote an introduction for One Mic, an anthology of the students’ art and poetry. Maytha also works as a performer and organizer for play productions of Hijabi Monologues, co-hosts Arab-American–themed TV variety show What’s Happening, and writes for the blog Kabobfest. She has participated as a member of the Arab Complete Count Committee of Los Angeles and was the Los Angeles coordinator of the Arab Film Festival.

I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim (edited by Maria M. Ebrahimji and Zahra T. Suratwala, White Cloud Press, May 2011) is a collection of 40 personal essays written by American Muslim women under the age of 40, all of whom were born and raised in the US. It is a showcase of the true diversity found in American Islam. www.ispeakformyself.com

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