Nayab Khan: Wearing Islam

With the rise of modern technology, appearance has become an increasingly important registry through which Muslims practice and understand their religiosity. Though clothing in particular has always been a staple of pious Muslim sensibilities, social media and the tension between Euro-American culture and traditional Islamic norms have made navigating appearances ever more difficult. Growing up, I thought of my identity as quite simple: Muslim. For the longest time I believed that “Muslim” was a function of how I looked – a modestly dressing brown person. It was not until my first year competing in collegiate Mock Trial that I began to realize that my understanding of my own Muslim identity was at best incomplete – and in fact would always remain incomplete. Iman in Allah, I came to learn, was less a state of being than a process.

The truth is, I never truly confronted the fact that outsiders were not aware of how strictly I followed Islam. Because I do not wear a headscarf, there is no clear reason to jump to any religious conclusions about me. Observing a halal-conscious diet, praying throughout the day, and reading the Quran daily were things that held so much importance in my life by the end of high school that I subconsciously assumed others would just know that about me as well. This is part of why I was dumbfounded when I was asked by a judge at a Mock Trial tournament about my attire: “Why aren’t you wearing a skirt? Female attorneys wear skirts.”

I looked down at my pantsuit, which I had meticulously ensured was as conservative as a professional women’s suit could be. I looked back at the judge, wondering why they had asked that knowing that I was Muslim. I mean, my last name is Khan, after all. I responded, “Uh, for religious reasons?” I received blank stares. Upon reflection, of course, I realized that the glaring issue with the question was that it was directed towards a woman not wearing a more traditional, feminine suit. But I recall instantly being offended that the judge did not just assume it was because I was Muslim – did I not look Muslim? The question troubled me and made me question the way I practiced my faith – was I doing something wrong?

My exchange with this judge animated the much more reflective approach to Islam that I have tried to commit myself to ever since. It was not until after that exchange in Mock Trial – and several more like it during competition season – that I realized so much of the comfort in my Muslim identity was my understanding that I looked Muslim. I had, at some point, internally racialized being Muslim. In hindsight, I can see how that resulted from being raised in an incredibly racialized society and a neighborhood where race and ethnicity meant so much about one’s identity. At the same time, however, I see the problem with associating the Muslim identity with a particular outward appearance.

It is not as though the way one carries oneself does not matter – it certainly does. But my mistake was associating the brunt of my Muslim identity on my appearance. Recently, I have adopted an approach to Islam that involves the use of rational thought and logic in configuring my Muslim identity and iman. Reading the works of Muslim thinkers like Khaled Abou El Fadl and Saba Mahmood has challenged me to look more critically at the challenges in my life through an Islamic lens. I am now less concerned with maintaining a racialized Muslim identity and more interested in building an identity that connects critical thought processes to my iman.