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A Muslim Woman Calls on her Buddhist Cousins in FaithBy Sofia Ali-Khan
The last time I had worn a hijab, a headscarf, on the street was 11 years ago, when I was a practicing public interest attorney in Philadelphia. I’ve worn it for prayers since then, but this time I wore it to go to the grocery store near the small town on the Delaware River where I am raising my two young children. It was several days after our country elected Donald Trump, and I wanted to reassure myself that my world was still full of goodness and light. I wanted to watch others see past what I was wearing on my head. And because my local Trader Joe’s is in true-blue New Jersey, I got what I came for. It’s been important to remember that people are still mostly good and kind.
As with practices in every faith tradition, wearing hijab is meant to clear the excess away, to allow for some surrender of the stuff of this world, and to re-center the essential being-ness that abides in each of us. I have to admit, practice has been difficult for me of late. It’s been hard to find my way to the prayer mat. Everything feels a little off-kilter, and my priorities are not an exception. So while I am far more balanced when I am observing the ritual of prayer for a few minutes five times each day, it’s not been easy to rid myself of the mind chatter or to pull my focus away from the news cycle that always seems more pressing.
But practice is more important than ever. It’s in practice that we, from each of our faith traditions, learn to recognize ourselves in the other and to nourish our own capacities for discernment. And in this era of fake news and a president-elect who contradicts himself with alarming regularity, discernment is critical.
I am an American Muslim, born to Pakistani immigrants. During my childhood, my parents practiced Islam the way that fish swim in water. It was as unstudied as the air they breathed. But I grew up in conflict with the mix of religion and culture that they offered. In time, though, I found the element I had been missing in Sufi Muslim spirituality. I would only later learn that Sufism figured deeply in the original Islamic tradition of my family for generations, as it has for many millions of Muslims around the world. While Sufism is popularly understood to be a mystic branch of Islam, in truth it is not a branch but the very heart of Islam. It is that kernel of light at the heart of faith; the breath of wisdom and understanding without which practice feels empty. It looks like the spinning of the whirling dervish or the sound of zikr (chanting the names of the Divine), but for a devotee, it is ultimately the polishing of the inner self, the spirit.
And so, it is through practice that I am finding a way to both see and survive the ongoing drama of this presidential election. Sometimes, that practice is with the zikr circle to which my family belongs; sometimes it is in the constant test of patience that is parenting my two young children; sometimes it is in the act of prostrating in prayer. And I can see that this spiritual maintenance will be essential in the coming months and years. Before even taking office, Donald Trump has shaped public discourse in America so that it is now acceptable to publicly assert the malevolence of Muslims and the illegitimacy of Islam as a faith.
I once comforted myself that anti-Muslim bigotry was on the margins of our society, along with anti-Semitism and overt racism and misogyny. Both President Barack Obama and President George W. Bush were careful to draw a distinction between the tiny minority of violent extremists who claim Islam as their own and Islam’s 1.6 billion peaceful adherents around the world. I, along with the vast majority of American Muslims, found shelter in the space they created to acknowledge us and our faith.
But that space has narrowed painfully, and American Muslims now ironically find themselves having to defend their humanity and their goodness in a country that was founded on the ideal of religious freedom….