I wrote a post way back in the first month or two of this blog, called To Give a Smile Away. I was looking through old posts to share again, and I lighted on that one; it was super short, just a thought I was having at the time, but the beautiful memory of that day when the girl so sincerely smiled at me in the mosque came flooding back to me so vividly when I re-read that post, that I thought I would not only re-share it, but actually re-write it to dig a little deeper into what exactly the situation was in my life at that time.
I then remembered another post I had written, on exactly the same topic, but a bit more long-form. This one never actually got shared with the world, it has been sitting as on Open Office document on my hard drive since August.
So I thought, with a little editing and updating, I would share it with you today. I know this is a theme that has been somewhat recurring in my writing lately (you can spot it here, here, and in some articles I’ve shared here), but for some reason it is something that is just present in my mind a lot lately:
I was living in the north-west of London, and the London Central Mosque was basically on my doorstep. I remember the first night I went there, the beautiful lantern hanging from the entryway, the spacious courtyard, and the huge copper dome you could see from the park. If this is how beautiful the space is, I thought, what must the people here be like? I had never seen a mosque that looked like a mosque before, and just being in such a beautiful space with people that were my brothers and sisters in faith was exhilarating.
I was so excited to be part of a bigger community than the one I had had in California. How I wish I still had that naivete.
As the iqama was called I begin to join the other women in line. Ready to pray, I didn’t think much of the older woman shuffling up next to me, until she began tugging on my dress and starting to mumble, half to herself, “Don’t you have anything longer? You HAVE to cover your feet. This doesn’t work…inappropriate….” The prayer had already begun, so I didn’t respond and instead tried to concentrate on the imam’s recitation. But my mind could only hear the words of the old lady.
After prayer, I hid in a corner to finish praying my sunnah, terrified of what others might say to me, and rushed out of the mosque as soon as I was finished. Visibly agitated, I kept my head down as I manoeuvred through the post-maghrib rush of Muslim men to get to my bus.
And that was just my first time there.
A couple weeks later I tried again, dressed in loose trousers and a long cardigan. As I finished praying the two greeting rakat, a woman came up to me a threw a floor length khimar over my head. “Well, I just couldn’t let you pray like that,” she explained, as she sidled off back to her spot next to a woman in skinny jeans and a tight t-shirt.
I spent my entire isha prayer trying not to strangle myself whenever I moved my arms in her over-perfumed sea of fabric.
A few weeks later, I stopped by the bookstore before Friday prayers to buy a new mushaf as a gift for my husband. When I got into the prayer hall I carefully wrapped it up in a bag, placed it on the little ledge in front of me so that it won’t be on the floor, and rested my purse against it so that it couldn’t be jostled off the ledge by the many women bustling about the room.
“Excuse me sister, what is in that bag?” I could feel what must be coming next, so I tried to stammer out that it is a gift for my husband.
“Is that a mushaf?” I couldn’t lie, I told her yes.
“Oh you can’t do that. You need to be more respectful. Here, let me take it.” And she put it in the exact same position, except behind her own designer handbag.
A few weeks later, another Friday prayer. I finished reading Surah al-Kahf and placed my English translation carefully on the ledge in front of me, this time on top of my purse so that nothing is resting on it. I had my feet covered with thick socks and I wore a black abaya that is a size too big. No one could possibly have anything to criticize today could they?
No, they didn’t.
But halfway through the khutba a woman next to me took my Qur’an and again laid it behind her own (plentifull) Oxford Street shopping bags. No explanation, no comment. She just took my Qur’an. This time I couldn’t hold back, and the tears started flowing. Through the khutba and the prayer and the sunnah, I cried. As soon as I had finished praying I wrenched my Qur’an back from behind her bags, hugged it to my chest, and ran as fast as I could out of that mosque.
And this time I didn’t go back.
I was so tired of not knowing how I would be treated, so tired of never being good enough, not even worthy to have a mushaf in front of me. Because to a convert, that’s what it is. Every day I was battling thoughts that I am not a real Muslim, I am less-than, I will never be seen as a proper Muslim, and now I’m so impure that my Qur’an could only rest in front of a “real” born Muslim.
Every time I prayed in that mosque, I considered giving up. If I wasn’t blessed with the strong iman that I have, alhamdulillah, I would have taken my hijab off and maybe even left Islam after the first two or three times. I know sisters who have left because of a lot less. Because what is the point when you fight every day for your faith and no one believes you are a Muslim anyhow?
It had been around a year since I stopped attending the mosque, so you can imagine my dismay when I had to stop in at the East London Mosque to pray asr one day.
As I walked through the long hall to the sisters’ section I broke out into a sweat all over, and my heart rate rose dramatically. Up the stairs, one at a time, gathering my courage as I walked towards the door. And then my worst nightmare: a woman was coming out the same door I was going in! Eyes on the floor, I prepared for the worst as she opened the door…
But she broke into a huge smile and told me, “salaam alaikum, sister!”
Just like that, I could feel the tension leaving my body, and I broke into the most genuine smile that has crossed my face in a long time. “Wa alaikum salaam!” I told her enthusiastically, holding the door open for her.
And that was all it took.
She will never know that before this day I was terrified of walking into a prayer space in this huge city because of the treatment I had received at the hands of the community, and that her kindness has restored my faith in people and my joy in visiting the masjid. She will never know that I used to pray in weird places and take dodgy side roads just to avoid the gazes of the Muslims around me, and that because of her some of my courage to walk proudly has returned.
This story, in its many iterations, has always been an example to me of how Muslims need to educate themselves and change their treatment towards new Muslims. I have stories by the dozens told by sisters from all over the place, repeating these same themes over and over again: either you want to hear my story, tell me “ma shaa Allah,” then walk away and never think of me again, or you want to mould me into exactly the type of Muslim that you are, cultural practice and all.
And it’s true, this is an issue in our community that I still think is really important, and the idea that you never know what someone is going through and what a kind word or smile can do for a random stranger (especially your sister in Islam) is something that I try my best to put into action.
But re-reading this post that I wrote so many months ago in a slightly low place in my life, I find myself taking a whole new lesson from it. And this one is for me, first and foremost.
Yes, these women treated me awfully, on a consistent basis. And yeah, that is a bit degrading to anyone’s self-esteem. I was really feeling the lack of community and lack of even basic friendship on a deep level in my life.
But all my life, no matter what I have been doing, I as a person have always been confident in myself. And being a Muslim shouldn’t change that. In fact, I should let my faith reinforce that self-confidence.
What’s more, is in all my previous endeavours, I was working for and by myself. In my imagination, I graduated high school with a 4.1 all by myself, I was getting a bachelor’s degree all by myself, I lost weight all by my own will-power. But now that I am a Muslim I know that I have Allah swt in my metaphorical corner.
And who can protect me better than Allah swt? Whose opinion of me is more important than His? As long as I am secure in my relationship with Him, my relationship with people who are just looking to nitpick flaws should not matter to me in the slightest.
Someone left a comment on my guest post on the same topic recently that I think sums it up perfectly: the mosque is the house of my Rabb (lord, master), not people. I am going there for Him, and it doesn’t matter what they think.
Smile politely, be kind to people, and then keep on moving and ignore their judgements and un-constructive criticisms!