I’ve often heard my parents tell stories about the houses they shared with their cousins in their village, from the day they started walking to their school buildings to the day my mother agreed to leave hers for another. A south Asian history woven through a Muslim culture instilled a lifestyle strong enough in my parents to carry with them as they left everything they knew to give the children they had yet to know opportunities to pursue life, liberty, and, above all, happiness.
For the first 14 years of my life, I was raised knowing to differentiate between two parts of myself: Najifa the Bengali-Muslim and Najifa the Asian-American. As I grew older, I learned that there were certain ways to dress, go about social events, upkeep healthy surroundings, and worship that were expected of me. Through another perspective, or as I used to see it, the other side of my life, I learned that there are wrong and right mannerisms, ways to educate yourself, and work ethics. Both parts of me shaped me into who I am and what I believe, but it wasn’t long before some of the ideals from the two different cultures opposed each other.
My parents raised me to be independent; nothing in my childhood was, or is, forced, and I’m free to seek all of the knowledge and pursue anything morally sound that I can. Everything has always been this way, but it didn’t feel like it around the time I got into high school. In trying to become an admired person in every aspect I could, I was losing sight of myself. I was losing sight of the spiritual peace I had within me all those years prior, I was losing sight of the ideals my parents and I built for myself in terms of knowing gratitude, and ego, and I was losing sight of the remembrance I maintained in reading my book of guidance. My parents, though their encouragement is more than just a gentle nudge, noticed sadly how I was neglecting to nurture the strongest part of myself; the part they built. And, to be completely truthful, I knew this was all happening, and I was fine with it. I consciously began to lean towards the side of my culture that I knew I had to strive for less to obtain, and it took me a few years to realize that this mentality isn’t something either my nationality or religion has taught me. Luckily for me, all of this changed with one Ramadan a few years ago.
My family decided to be more involved with our slowly growing community masjid around two summers ago; I went with them as a result of strong encouragement. At this point, I was detached from the intrinsically beautiful benefits of Islam, even though I still kept up with what I was told to keep up with. Without intention, I soon figured out, practice is meaningless. The minute I stepped foot in that masjid, however, I came back almost every single day for the rest of the month. That day, from babies to grandmothers, I met new people that I’m still grateful to know now. The conversations we started about getting to know each other that night at iftar are still being carried to this day, and the spark of meeting so many new Muslims still has not gone out. Today, I pray with sincerity. Today, I‘m learning Arabic more than just to read its alphabet. Today, I know that the two separate sides of me were never separate at all; they are the same. They are American. They are Muslim. They are me.
The open society the United States provides for us has made practicing my religion much easier than it would’ve been to practice it in Bangladesh. The fact that we’re all free to live how we want as we pursue what we want makes being a Muslim that much easier (yes, there are downsides; there are those who are afraid and unaccepting of what I believe in, but the love completely, wholeheartedly overrides the hate). To know the best way to practice what I need to, I turn to our original book of guidance and sunnah; in Bangladesh, I would’ve asked my cousin, who’s heard from one of his teachers who’s heard something somewhat pertaining to the answer to my question enough so that they can make an assumption about what is right. I quickly came to realize the rejection of the stereotype that western Muslims are too laid back; they are, in fact, the most sincere, practicing, devoted group of Muslims I’ve personally seen. They abandon their cultural backgrounds for the purity of their religion, and they don’t muddle truth with tradition. This, in turn, is how I helped myself navigate through my own life as an American Muslim living in a secular society.
Once I broke the barrier between the two “sides” of myself, I focused on nurturing the whole. I understood that, yes, there are things we experience in western, capitalist, individualistic culture that hinders the moral and knowledge-seeking compass Islam abides by, but we ultimately decide what we want to partake in and how we go about it. We have the guidance we need, and we know where to find it; I know where to find it. What reason is there, then, for a Muslim to lose sight of oneself in western society? The only thing that could divert me is the choices I make for myself, and this is the beauty of it all. In Bangladesh, I might’ve been Muslim because my parents were, but in the United States, I’m Muslim because I believe in the oneness of my creator and agree on moral and logical grounds the lifestyle choices we are guided to make. My freedom is my strength, and my inalienable rights are my influence. I navigate this society with my spirituality as strong as ever.