Center for American Progress

Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam

Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam

An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam




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ALLAHABAD, INDIA-One hot winter afternoon, I was lost in India on the banks of the Ganges, a river holy to Hindus. I was meandering with an American Jewish friend on a road called Shankacharaya Marg. By chance, my path intersected with the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, the Dalai Lama, inside an ashram, and he set me off on my holy pilgrimage to the heart of Islam.

It was January 2001, and I was, quite fittingly, in the city of Allahabad, "the city of Allah," the name by which my Muslim identity taught me to beckon God. In Islam, Allah is our Arabic word for God. Born about a thousand miles westward along the Indian coastline in Bombay, India, I had evoked God with this name from my earliest days.

Although a Buddhist, the Dalai Lama, like millions of Hindu pilgrims, was in a dusty tent village erected outside Allahabad to make a holy pilgrimage to the waters there for the Maha Kumbha Mela, an auspicious Hindu festival. He joined the chanting of a circle of devotees dressed all in white. When they had ?nished, I followed the Dalai Lama to a press conference in a building surrounded by Indian commandos and his own bodyguards. Religious fundamentalism and fanaticism are wreaking havoc throughout the world, and in India they are rede?ning Hindu and Muslim communities that used to coexist peacefully. The demolition of a sixteenth-century mosque called Babri Masjid sparked one of India’s worst outbreaks of nationwide religious rioting between Hindus and the Muslim minority; two thousand people, mostly Muslims, were killed. The cycle of hatred continued until that day when the general secretary of the sectarian World Hindu Council, Ashok Singhal, called Islam "an aggressive religion." At the press conference an Indian journalist raised his hand. "Are Muslims violent?" he asked.

My stomach tightened. This question re?ected a stereotype of the people of my religion, but, alas, the national ?ag of Saudi Arabia, the country that considered itself the guardian of Islam’s holiest cities-two historical sites called Mecca and Medina-includes the sword.

The Dalai Lama smiled. "We are all violent as religions," he said. After pausing, he added, "Even Buddhists."

We all smiled.

"We must stop looking at the past," he continued, "and look at the present and the future."

I sat near the back, my usual spot at press conferences, and pondered his words. I had spent a lot of my life trying to understand my past. My mother and father, Sajida and Zafar Nomani, were children of India when it was still under British colonial rule. I was born in Bombay in 1965, after the country had won liberation. My parents left for America when I was two so my father could earn his PhD at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. My brother, Mustafa, my only sibling, and I stayed with my fa-ther’s parents until we boarded a TWA jet in 1969 to JFK Airport in New York to be reunited with our parents. I became a journalist, landing my ?rst job at the age of twenty-three with the Wall Street Journal. Despite my apparent success, I had dif?culty expressing my voice. I wanted to raise my hand, but even though I had been a successful staff reporter for one of the most powerful newspapers in the world for over a decade, I could barely muster the courage to ask questions at press conferences. To justify my fears, I accepted the rationale passed on to me once by a senior journalist at the Wall Street Journal: "Don’t ask any questions at press conferences," she had told me over the phone as I reported from the scene of a United Airlines plane crash. "That way, nobody will know what you’re thinking."

Inviting and beaming, the Dalai Lama triggered something. All of a sudden, I wanted to let others know what I was thinking. I realized I had a responsibility to speak up. As long as I called myself a Muslim, I had to try to bridge the schism between my religion and others. I tentatively raised my hand. To my surprise, the Dalai Lama gestured eagerly at me. I began to speak my thoughts, marking a turning point in my life as I did so.

"Through personal meditation we can transcend ego and power in our own lives," I said. "What is it that our leaders can do to transcend the issues of power that make them turn the people of different religions against each other?"

He looked at me intently and said: "There are three things we must do.

Read the scholars of each other’s religions. Talk to the enlightened beings in each other’s religions. Finally, do the pilgrimages of each other’s religions."
I nodded my head in understanding. I, a daughter of Islam, was in the midst of the Hindu pilgrimage. I had grown up with a mocking understanding of the deities to which Hindus bow their heads, but sitting in a retreat colony amid simple devotees like an elderly Indian Hindu woman named Mrs. Jain, I understood that the spiritual intention of a polytheist is no different from that of a monotheist who prays in a synagogue, church, or mosque.

Just months earlier, I had climbed into the Himalayas at India’s border with China and joined about twenty thousand Buddhists in a pilgrimage led by the Dalai Lama. On the last day I had tried to resuscitate an elderly Nepali Sherpa who had gotten caught in a stampede by pilgrims rushing to witness a holy religious sand creation called a mandala. He literally died resting in my hands, and I knew at that moment the universal phenomenon of faith that de?nes all religions. I had just spent two years speaking to the scholars of the faiths and reading their texts. I had read the teachings of the Buddha. I had read the Bible. I had sat at the feet of a pandit, a Hindu scholar who comes from the upper Brahmin caste of Hinduism. As a woman, I was trying to grasp the role of women in the faiths. I learned that sacred goddesses were integral to early civilizations, such as the Indus civilization from which India sprang.

These societies honored matriarchy and emphasized the power rooted in women. But they mostly evolved into patriarchal cultures in which men are considered more important than women. Most of the principles of goddess worship have disappeared from modern society.

I had not been able to understand my role as a woman in my religion of Islam. When I was a child of seven or eight in Piscataway, New Jersey, I asked my Islamic Sunday school teacher, a kind Egyptian man by the name of Dr. Mahmood Taher, "Why aren’t there any women prophets?"

He smiled. "There were," he explained, "great women." His lesson to me wasn’t in the words that he spoke, but in the kind and open-minded way in which he received my question. He didn’t tell me the question was inappropriate. He didn’t rebuke me. He took me seriously. With his honest and gentle effort at an answer, he set me on a path of inquiry that I followed into adulthood. In Allahabad, I was still walking that path, eager to ?nd my spiritual home as a woman born into Islam.

I emerged from my thoughts to the sound of journalists pushing back chairs as they got up at the end of the press conference. I jumped to my feet too and slipped to the front to ask the Dalai Lama another question as he left. He paused in front of me. I started to ask him my question. He didn’t seem to understand, but it didn’t matter. He giggled and lifted my chin with his right hand. It was a gentle and affectionate touch. It felt like a blessing, like a transmission of spiritual power in the greatest tradition of the masters passing their teachings on to students.

I dashed outside to jump into the back of a truck that was following the Dalai Lama’s path. It took us to the Ganges River, where I plunged knee-deep into the water as the Dalai Lama, barefoot and laughing, lit candles in a Hindu ritual. He sprinkled himself with water from the Ganges for a centuries-old ritual that Hindus believe washes away their sins so that they can avoid reincarnation. "I’m very happy to be here," the Dalai Lama said, but when asked if he would join the pilgrims bathing in the icy water, he replied, "I don’t think so. It’s too cold." This attitude re?ected a deeper philosophy of the Dalai Lama that I was starting to appreciate. At the press conference, he said, "I always believe it’s safer and better and reasonable to keep one’s own tradition or belief." It was dark around me- the day was slipping into night-but at that moment a light went on inside of me. I understood what the Dalai Lama’s words meant to me. I had done the Buddhist pilgrimage. I was doing the Hindu pilgrimage. I had never done my own pilgrimage-the pilgrimage to Mecca called the hajj. I formed an intention, at that moment, to do my pilgrimage.

Mecca is like the Vatican for Catholics or Jerusalem for Jews. It is the center of our religion. It sits in a vast space of desert called Arabia between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. The Qur’an is the Bible of Islam, literally meaning "recitation," and the Qur’an says that it was near Mecca where Adam and Eve-revered in Islam as they are in the other world religions-were reunited after they descended to earth from the heavens. It is where Islam says Abraham, considered the father of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, abandoned a woman named Hajar to live with their son Ishmael. In the Bible and in Jewish history, she is known as Hagar. Mecca is where the Islamic historians say Ishmael married a bride from a tribe called Jurhum; from it sprang the tribe of Quraysh. Centuries later a man named Muhammad was born in Mecca into the tribe of Quraysh in the seventh century A.D. He became the prophet for the religion that is Islam. In Mecca, he started hearing revelations from God that became the Qur’an, making the city the birthplace of Islam.

The Qur’an says that it is the duty of all able-bodied Muslims to do the pilgrimage to Mecca, but I had never even thought about going. In fact, it’s a pilgrimage that most Muslims can never take. The hajj is no simple journey. It is an arduous spiritual and physical rite that lasts only ?ve days during a month on the lunar Muslim calendar called Dhul Hijjah, or "the month of the hajj," in Arabic= The hajj is meant to be a time to absorb the central messages of Islam: that Islam means having a special relationship with God based on surrendering to divine will and praying to and revering God; that there is a kinship among people that expresses itself through sacri?ce for the bene?t of others; that life is about struggle-a battle to secure a livelihood and ensure that good triumphs over evil.

For women, the hajj is given the value of struggle, or jihad. The concept is daunting. Jihad is normally associated with military combat, but its deeper meaning is a struggle within our souls to live by the highest spiritual principles we can embrace.

It’s said that the prophet Muhammad’s wife Aisha asked him, "Do women have to make jihad?"

The prophet replied, "Yes, the hajj and umrah." Umrah is an off-season pilgrimage that happens anytime other than the ?ve designated days of hajj.

I knew that this jihad beckoned me, and the idea of journey felt familiar to me. My family had been early pilgrims of another sort when my family migrated to America. In Arabic, migrants are called muhajir, a word that coincidentally sounds like hajj. From my earliest days, I had been a person on pilgrimage.

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