Growing up, I distinctly remember that I rarely saw a face in my neighborhood that looked like mine. When Christmas came around every year, I would see beautiful trees adorned with unique ornaments from our neighbors’ windows. Large presents lined their floors, and iridescent lights glowed from within their living rooms.
Our house was always the only one on the block without an ounce of decoration during the holiday season. As the neighborhood celebrated, my parents and I sat mindlessly throughout the day. Sometimes when I was young, we played a CD of nasheeds, songs performed according to Islamic tradition, to pass the time. I sat on the floor; despite not understanding anything, I sang along.
Homogeneity characterized my childhood. Among a sea of white and Christian students, there were only a handful of other students that looked like me in my classes. I made my first Muslim friend when I was six. She was one of four other Muslims in that school, and the only one remotely close to my age. Back then, neither one of us really knew what it meant to be Muslim, but just knowing that we shared something was enough for me. Two years later, I moved to a different school, and I didn’t make another Muslim friend until I was 14.
My parents wanted me to assimilate more than anything else. As immigrants, their priority was making sure that I didn’t experience the ostracism they did when they first arrived in the U.S. When it came down to enrolling me in a Sunday school, they decided that playing sports or learning an instrument, activities that other kids around me pursued, were probably more valuable ways to use my time.
Aside from a very occasional trip to the masjid, place of worship for Muslims, or being forced to pray with my grandmother or a family member, I had no concept of what it meant to be a Muslim. According to my family’s beliefs, I ate zabiha meat, slaughtered in accordance with Islamic guidelines, but didn’t completely know how to pray and read the Quran. I didn’t know much about Islamic history or various traditions either, and I successfully got away with being a Muslim who didn’t actually know anything about Islam.
My extended family was always religious. While they pushed my parents to enroll me in Sunday school from an early age like their own children, my parents assured them that if I wanted, I could enroll myself in Islamic school much later in life and faithfully adhere to the Five Pillars of Islam.
After years of spending time around my grandmother, aunts, uncles or cousins, I started to become curious about Islam and wanted to learn more about the religion. At dinner tables, I’d hear pieces of conversations, stories about the power of prayer; others who had gotten into medical school, been hired for their dream job, beat cancer or even something as simple as receiving a nice decoration for their house. I watched my grandmother read the Quran every morning without fail, providing structure to her day and allowing her to feel confident in herself despite suffering from chronic illness. Faith in a higher power gave her the reassurance that everything was going to be alright, and that fascinated me.
When I was 11, I remember finding a tiny booklet at the masjid about how to perform salah, the five daily prayers required of a Muslim. With the help of my family members and the internet, I embarked on a journey to learning more about Islam. Don’t get me wrong. It took a long time to get it right. I would learn over the years that I had tiny bits of my prayer wrong because I was self-taught, but I picked up the pieces and improved.
When I entered 9th grade, my school was more diverse, and I wasn’t the only Muslim in the room anymore. I began to form close relationships with some of my Muslim peers, and to my surprise, learned that our experiences growing up weren’t as different as I anticipated. Inspired by their experiences, I asked my parents to enroll me in online Islamic school, so I could overcome the last obstacle left in my journey to becoming a better Muslim. After discussing the matter with my parents and assuring them that I would take the process seriously, I began the lessons and worked through the material twice a week.
Learning Arabic was very difficult at first. Even though Islamic school teachers don’t teach you how to understand the words of the Quran, familiarizing myself with a new alphabet and a language that read right to left was a challenge in itself. However, I continued to learn more about Islam and began to feel closer to the religion as I invested myself more in the process. Another challenge that I faced was the embarrassment I experienced as I learned material Muslim children cover as elementary school students. When other Muslims in my high school would discuss things I didn’t understand, I sat idly, pretending that I knew what they were talking about.
Coming into college, I knew that I wanted to be a part of the Muslim Student Association. Joining the organization meant entering a robust community composed of hundreds of devout Muslims. While others around me discussed Islamic values and traditions, I stood clueless, slowly starting to feel as though I didn’t actually know anything about the religion.
I also faced judgment from other Muslims around me for the first time. From glances at my clothes to jokes about how much I knew about Islam made me question whether I’d ever feel welcomed as a Muslim. As I began to voice my frustrations to my family, their reinforcement in my journey allowed me to ignore the negative voices around me and continue to grow.
As I went about my first year of college combating homesickness, isolation and anxiety, I found myself feeling completely overwhelmed. But I continued to pray, knowing that this practice would ground me and allow me to overcome any challenges I was facing.
In my first year of college, I became the most spiritual perhaps in my entire life. If I didn’t pray one day, I didn’t feel secure. Knowing that I had Islam to help me adjust to college, I matured as a person and started to become more comfortable with the feelings and experiences that moving away from home had given me over the past year.
In spite of all this growth, I have not opened up to anyone outside of my family and two or three close friends about going to Islamic school later in life. I’m still finding my path in Islam, learning who to trust and both what qualities I aspire to have as a young Muslim but also what qualities I admire in other Muslims around me.
It’s been a difficult journey learning to fill gaps in my knowledge and become closer to a faith I was loosely raised in. In spite of that, Islam has helped me achieve goals that seemed impossible, mature incredibly over the past few years and learn to become more kind and grateful for what I’ve been given in life. I know religion hasn’t had the same effect on everyone, but I hope my journey inspires you to reconnect with your faith, become more spiritual or consider grounding yourself in a religion that aligns with your values. It’s never too late.
Sara Khan (23C) is from Fairfax, Virginia.