Zuhair is a recipient of the 2018-2019 MALA Scholarship Program. In accordance with MALA’s mission, this program awards scholarships to individuals demonstrate ambition, integrity, and leadership through the art of storytelling. To learn more about MALA’s Scholarship Opportunities, click here.
After my brothers and I were tired of being chased by waves crashing on the beach, we headed back to our family blanket. We spent the afternoon digging our toes into the sand and snacking on chips.
“Alright kids, it’s time to pray.”
My Dad’s casual comment led us to put the food down. Islamic tradition instructs Muslims to pray at five specific times throughout the day; each prayer serves as a reflection period for individuals to monitor their progress towards life goals. My family and I stood shoulder to shoulder on the blanket. Before my Dad began, I looked around the populated beach. In the distance I saw children playing soccer, parents lounging in beach chairs, couples walking along the water, nonetheless people were everywhere.
The scenario seemed familiar; suddenly, my mind recalls traumatizing news headlines of Muslims being harassed in public. My imagination sprung into existence, hypothesizing the worst possible scenarios that could happen. What if someone approaches us? What if someone yells at us? Do these people even care? The thoughts sprinted through my mind, but I reminded myself that I was with my Dad, and nothing went wrong with him by my side. My family continued this practice for years in public parks, empty parking lots, and shopping plazas.
Years later, I excitedly joined my high school’s Muslim Student Association (MSA). Once a week, MSA clubs nationwide host Friday Prayer. Salat ul Jummah, or Friday prayer, is an Islamic tradition comprised of a sermon (khutbah) and prayer (salah) where Muslim communities reflect and rejoice before the upcoming week. But unfortunately, my school’s MSA did not do this. I pleaded with the club’s officers to implement lunch prayers, but was unfortunately shut down with excuses: the meeting time was too short, the walk to the classroom was too far, and our membership was too low.
I came to realize that these superficial obstacles masked a deeper fear: being different. Identifying as a Muslim-American, I often feel torn between two worlds. Reading the news, I see Muslim-owned businesses being targets of hate crimes, students bullying Muslim peers, and far-right protesting in front of mosques. These attacks suggest my Islamic principles stain our nation’s fabric. On the contrary, America, though supposedly deemed “the land of the free,” symbolizes the freedom to celebrate one’s uniqueness. Even so, the fear of sensitive questions from teachers and awkward glances from classmates have been enough to discourage some members from practicing.
I refused to let uncomfortable officers prevent me from serving my community. I reached out to a local religious leader to learn how to deliver khutbahs and lead salahs. I prepared short speeches on relevant principles, the first being the value of education in Islam. After several explanations, providing my qualifications, and discussions with officers, they offered me an opportunity. During the first meeting in my sophomore year, I stood up, announcing that next week would be our first Salat ul Jummah.
The day came and before I began I took a look around the room. I saw Muslim students uncomfortable because they had never prayed at school, meanwhile, non-Muslim students and teachers curiously spectating. Everyone’s eyes were on me; this was not the same peace I normally felt during worship. My community needed to know being Muslim and American are two identities that work together in harmony. For those reasons, I masked my own fears with the courage to provide the same comfort that my Dad gifted me and led the prayer.
Freedom means to epitomize the unstoppable liberties of being American, meanwhile being grounded in Islam’s rich principles. Since my MSA experiences, I have unapologetically been a Muslim-American in every sense. As a lifeguard for my local water park I made multiple water rescue attempts. I took this job to practice the Qur’anic principle that saving one life is equivalent to saving all of humanity.
As an advocate for increased teacher pay, I exemplify our Islamic responsibility towards social justice. As Student Board Member on my city’s Board of Education, I have become made tangible impacts on educational policies from comprehensive health education to science course pathways. Although I represented 35,000 students during busy board and committee meetings, I valued the underlying purpose and blessing of even serving in that position. For those reasons, I temporarily left busy meetings during prayer times to fulfill my daily obligation to God.
Although I am still discovering myself as a Muslim, I believe the United States of America is the best place for me to grow. I embrace the strength and solace found in Islamic values, and will continue to use them to fuel my drive for improving society.