MY STORY: HOW I BECAME A MUSLIM REFORMER
My story starts with my parents. My Afghan father and Pakistani mother were living in Kabul during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. My father, Mohammad, was strong and stoic with a poor temper. He came home one night and told my mom she had two hours to pack and get on a plane to Pakistan. He was to follow. My mom – the total opposite of my father – complied. That evening, with fake Ariana Airline I.D. cards presenting her as a flight attendant, she was smuggled out of Afghanistan.
My parents settled in Karachi, Pakistan, and soon had my brother and I. Childhood in Pakistan was boring. I sensed the discrimination from my extended family, mostly from my grandmother. My mom’s family, her mother, brother and his wife and three children, and my two free-spirited uncles who later moved to the States, all lived under the same roof, in an estate two streets down from our apartment. We’d spend almost all our free time there, but it was a cold and unwelcoming place and I knew I didn’t belong there.
It’s a strange feeling to be somewhere often and know it’s alien to you, that you don’t belong and are seen as less than. If we’d spend the night, we’d all sleep in my grandmother’s room, which had the square footage of a small home. My cousin, a year older than me, would share my grandmother’s sizable bed and I’d sleep on the floor. I remember one night I’d forgotten to take off my gold ring and place it on the bedside table, following some rule about not wearing jewelry at night. Having already laid on the floor at the foot of the bed, I felt immense dread in getting up again and drawing attention to myself. I didn’t know what would “get me,” the ghost I felt lurking in the long sad hallways, or my grandmother. Either way, I wasn’t risking it. I put the ring in my mouth and went to sleep.
Another time, I remember my eldest uncle asking me to bring him a cup of tea. He had the air of a retired army general, except he’d never been in the army. He demanded impeccable presentation and wanted to be called “Sir.” I brought him tea with a saucer, walking on some imaginary tight rope, the tinkling of the tea cup teasing a spill with every step forward as a circle of guests watched to see if I could make it. I’m sure they thought it was cute. I thought it was dreadful. The only saving grace in that household was the annual mango party where we’d gorge on the most delicious mangoes with hedonistic fervor. For one evening there was a wildness and the smell of rich mangoes perfumed the air.
That was Pakistan.
I felt the tension in people as they lived day to day life. Something just didn’t fit. Nobody was really comfortable. At five, you don’t make sense of things the same way as you would an adult. You just sense things. I sensed something was not happy about Pakistan.
I wasn’t a fan of too many people at school either. I loved learning but I was bored with my school, zoning out to observe a battalion of thick black ants marching by the teacher’s foot, who was going on about the same lesson as before at a painfully dull pace. I remember thinking the other students were wild animals who couldn’t be left on their own, and that I could be learning a lot more than I was. I also hated the pointless school rules – so I’d break them often in whatever way I could, thinking, “What can they really do about it?” Shimmery glass bangles or a dozen clips in my hair – things that distracted from the uniform were frowned upon. But they were part of my uniform.
And I wanted to be a witch. I wasn’t quite sure what witches did, but that’s what I wanted to be when I grew up. I was about four when I decided upon it. I had a frock of silver with silver leggings and shoes to match, and I thought, “You know what’s missing? A wand with a big silver star at the end.” And that’s when it was decided. In a room full of people at yet another society dinner party, I became a witch.
It was probably a pretty spot-on thing to be. Witches are outsiders – classic outliers – and I in no way felt connected to my community. Little did I know that I was going to spend the next 25 years being an outsider because I would need to learn to become an outlier. But first we needed to leave Pakistan.
My mother was drained by the lack of economic or social mobility Pakistan offered in the 1980s:
“It was a plastic society. If you didn’t have money, you were nothing. And we were poor. I was ignored by society, and my own family. When you kids were born, my mom told me to bring you to her house to present you to society. She didn’t want her friends to know how we lived. She didn’t want them to know we were poor.”
There’s resentment in her voice and hurt and anger on her face. And if you ever saw her speaking to my grandmother, you’d think a small child was speaking to its parent. Deeper issues and past grievances aren’t discussed – and there are a lot of grievances that have stunted older generations. Stories are sometimes recounted as if you’d been through “the war.” There’s deep trauma and it’s carried with them no matter where they immigrate.
So my mom tried really hard to make sure we had the best clothes, and were always clean and presentable. It was important to her that people didn’t look down on her children or think less of them because of our status in society. The money she earned from teaching, she spent on our wardrobes with clothes from London and Canada. What she couldn’t afford to buy, she would sew herself.
In Afghanistan, my father had been a wealthy jeweler working for King Zahir Shah and a trusted close confidant in Kabul’s high society. They had a grand home, he was highly respected, and they had considerable freedom. In Pakistan, he was a tailor and we lived in a two bedroom flat above his shop, with cement walls that were often scaled by lizards. There was no hot running water – or even a shower stall. Water had to be heated up and as children we stood in a bucket to bathe. Neither parent was happy, and it was particularly hard for my dad who was a proud man. So we left when I was five years old.
We made our way to Iran, where my dad had some family. We ended up staying there for several months, maybe longer. The Iranian Revolution had already happened but things were still relatively normal – mostly. Women started covering their hair in public. There was talk of religious crackdowns. Women would drive around and pop out of the car if they saw another woman wearing lipstick. They spotted my mom and offered her a napkin to wipe her lips; the napkin was filled with broken glass.
At five, I was sheltered from that Iran. Iran was beautiful and other worldly – and I was shown tremendous love by my aunt and her family. To this day I’m overwhelmed by how much love they have and how freely they share it – something that is very common among Afghans. I was happy with them in Iran in a way that I never could be in Pakistan. But soon we left Iran too.
We made our way across to Germany, stopping in Turkey briefly. We visited Topkapi Palace and some other ancient places. What I loved most was the hotel basement bar. It was a dark little hideaway where a freakishly tall waiter dressed in an all-white suit maintained a steady supply of strawberry jam and cheese while I listened to the bar play Baltimora’s Tarzan Boy on repeat. The West was looking pretty good.
From Turkey we headed to Germany, to a small little town outside in Springe, called Eldagsen. It was about as picturesque as the south of France, with farmland extending beyond the horizon and a dreamlike haze sheltering the town from the outside world. We’d draw pictures, slip them in bottles and send them down the creek. We’d walk a mile to school every day, even in three feet of snow. I found a best friend. And I fell in love with Pippi Longstocking.
Germans were very welcoming once the pastor and my best friend’s family befriended us. My mom also made it a point that I visit the local church; she said it was important to know how other people worshiped. Life in Germany was pretty idyllic. We assimilated quickly, speaking fluent German in three months and embracing the culture. That takes a mindset, but it also takes a community. My best friend’s mom, Karin, and the pastor were generous with their time, finding ways to help us settle into a new country, gently guiding my mom in adapting to a German way of life. And then we had to leave. Two years in, there were still some issues getting past a refugee status that would allow my dad to work more typically.
We moved to America, the land where children appeared on milk cartons. It was a jarring environment and I struggled with it. While adapting to American culture was incredibly hard compared to Europe, the stories of the American Revolution and the promise that is America stoked a profound respect for freedom. I was born in a culture that struggled to see the individual, and here Americans had individuality fought for two centuries ago – something that they now seemed to yawn at. It took me 10 years to adjust to the States and another 10 years to feel comfortable living here.
I don’t think my dad was ever quite happy here. In a way, like many other first generation refugees of war, he’d never left Kabul. He lost his spark and eventually gave up and passed away in 2006. And over the years, my mom had rediscovered Islam. It’s what happens with many immigrants from secular Muslim societies as they try to maintain an identity in a new country: they find religion.
When I was 13 years old, she tried to get me to attend an Islamic school, start learning the Quran in Arabic, and offer daily prayers. She eventually gave up trying. My sister wasn’t quite so lucky, and spent several miserable years at one of the first Islamic schools in Southern California – where they were trying to figure out how to blend a Muslim identity with an American one, and likely still might be. At age 4, my sister looked like she was Khan of a Mongol tribe. Needless to say, she didn’t fit in either and led wars against the boys during recess, pretending she was Xena, Warrior Princess. Meanwhile, my brother joined the Marines, which gave him the confidence that he’d never found shuffling from country to country during his formative years.
And I did what any other good Muslim girl did. I went to school, made socially acceptable friends, didn’t cross the street without permission; didn’t really do much of anything except a lot of homework. I graduated from university and started law school, checking off all the right boxes in life. Hindsight being 20/20, I was losing my spark fast. Maybe because we had a lot more family around us, and a larger ethnic community, we didn’t adapt and integrate with an outside community the way we had in Germany. There was no Karin Aunty in the States – but there was an Aunty Sarah, who married my mom’s brother. She’d moved from England to the States, but she might as well have been Mary Poppins, cascading down with an umbrella and unsettling and rearranging things the way they needed unsettling.
She was just one person though. Here we didn’t have the same larger grounded sense of community like we had in a small German town. It was easy to get lost in America. Everything was already so spread out and disconnected. I just sort of disconnected too.
And then – in the most impossible way – I met Stephen. From the North of England with a thick accent and a cheeky wit, he had a gravitational field that just pulled people in. He was magic. We had endless conversations, some setting the groundwork for who I was to become. He’d recommend a book and I’d start reading; 8 hours later I’d have read the whole thing to him over the phone and he’d just listen. It was like that. It was an effortless free-fall without labels or expectations. There was deep trust, total honesty, and an unshakeable bond. He was the landscape I wandered in for 7 years. Nothing would make me happier than the sound of his laugh. He was, and still is, completely sacred.
He was a force of nature and he birthed me. From one of our many talks, I realized that I wasn’t comfortable with Islam or my understanding of it. “Muslim” was a label that held no real value or meaning to me. Like most other Muslims, it was badge we wore and a dutiful allegiance we pledged – but we didn’t know much of it. We couldn’t have a deeper conversation on Islam in a way that mattered or explored boundaries. It was the first time I was curious about Islam.
Stephen pointed to a door that only I could open, and I opened it. There was no going back.
Those were an uncomfortable few years as I tried to reconcile my upbringing with the questions that began surfacing after 9-11. I didn’t struggle with identity because as a transient early on, the idea of a pegged concrete identity was smashed. You adapted to new ideas and they became a part of you. My family wasn’t so flexible, perhaps because they weren’t as young when we started immigrating. They’d already formed an identity. For me, a set identity is a prison. To say I am just one thing or another would be like walking into a cage. There are markers I’d picked up along the way that would act as guides, but I wasn’t confined by them either. Sufism was one of those markers.
In seeking answers, I stumbled across Sufism – and I knew I’d found home. Considering a third of all Pakistanis are Sufi, and that Afghanistan has its own diverse tradition of shamanism and Sufism, it’s tragic that it took so long to be aware of a rich cultural heritage that housed Islam’s mystical branch.
Sufism holds a tradition of master and disciple and I realized I had one already – Stephen. He was Shams Tabrizi. He was V from Vendetta. He was Herman Hesse’s Demian. And the total devotion and unconditional love disciples have for their teacher, I had – and have – for him.
Stephen cracked the egg and I think he knew exactly what was inside, what he was awakening. Years of almost daily conversations with him laid the foundation for a new path in my mind, unknotting barriers and reworking pathways. Breaking old thought patterns and making room to let new ones form.
During that time, I started digging into faith. I threw myself into independent studies in Islam, Christianity, Kabbalah, Hinduism, Hermetics, Paganism – I threw myself into the rabbit hole. I went to Bible studies, on spiritual retreats with new age Hindus, and met with as many diverse groups of Muslims as I could get my hands on. I explored and experimented. I studied people and I learned to read between the lines. That side of faith and discovery never ends; you have to keep prodding.
Stephen unlocked potential. He showed me how holy humanity is what we’re capable of once we destroy old systems. The next natural step was reform, but I still wasn’t a reformer. That was still years away as experience after experience continued to nurture an awareness to hear the call.
WHAT COMES FIRST, THE PATH OR THE PERSON?
There are only so many times something is a coincidence before it’s a synchronicity. Life itself has been one big synchronicity. And there have been dreams with very clear messages, some that wouldn’t make sense in words, others that haunt me. And there have been experiences that connect you to things that are unseen but can still be experienced. This is deeply personal but it’s part of the story. It first started when I was five years old. It stopped for a while, and then it started again in my mid-twenties. It comes and goes.
When you’re younger, it can be difficult to make sense what’s happening to you. You can try to force your way through the marshes of life, and it doesn’t always work out how you plan. Everyone knows that. I’m at a point now where I can look back at the labyrinth from a different perspective – not just in it, but above it as well. I see how walls and obstacles led me to be where I am today. And I see His guiding hand.
When I was 4, I thought God was a pirate. My understanding of God was nebulous and as my experiences grew, so did my understanding of Him. I see divinity as an intelligence, as the highest consciousness. And we’re nowhere near understanding God’s true form yet. We’re collectively still apes staring at a monolith in awe. But we’re getting there. And as I move forward, I have total faith and complete trust. I know I’m on the path I was born to be on. And I know that path will always challenge me to become a more skilled spiritual warrior.
The question is what came first, the path or the person? Or do they form each other in union, the path paved through the person and the person forged by the path?
I’ve moved from country to country to a very young age – it might as well have been from Mars to Earth. I’ve been bullied for it enough times. I’ve been shown incredible friendship and kindness as well. And from it, I’m able to understand people.
I’ve been raised by a very traditional Muslim family who supported academics but didn’t know the first thing about teaching me to know myself. I was encouraged to speak up but never encouraged to have a voice. It took ages and probably too many mistakes to figure out how to have a voice. And I wouldn’t change that either. I can now connect with other women who still need to be lifted up. And I don’t mean the stroppy, leading with blind attitude, over-confident sense of self that’s become common; the sort of pseudo feminism that lacks grace, patience, and silence enough to listen as well as speak. I mean something far deeper and grounded, that something that helps you see reality as a kaleidoscope.
I’d also thrown myself into a poorly suited marriage with someone who still really has no idea who I am. Despite being a secular South Asian girl blessed with a mom who didn’t force marriage, it was I who forced my own hand.
Culture has deep roots, very deep roots and it’s more powerful than religion. My marriage experiment stemmed from a culmination of prior experiences resulting from deep cultural indoctrination, paired with still having a lot of lessons left to learn. And so I spent five years in a mausoleum with a stone-hearted effigy while suffocating into a slow death myself. I lost myself and I felt destroyed. And then eventually that forged me too. It killed off any lingering romanticism that was holding me back from being stronger, and totally emotionally independent, free of any need for validation or recognition.
It was another death. The fifth one in the 35 years of life so far.
THE FIVE DEATHS
The first death was the death illusion and success that I chased initially, throwing away law school to take on reform work and relative poverty in the early years. When revolution means everything to you because you know what comes after a revolution, you’re going to do whatever it takes to make that happen, including selling your jewelry so you can fund yourself. It’s a well-known immigrant code that you do not ever sell your jewels: it’s the only security you have left after waves of movement and uncertainty.
While certainty is important, so is your soul’s work.
If you could save a life by selling your jewelry, would you do it?
If you could help save a world of people by selling your jewelry, would you do it?
I think almost everyone would.
The principle doesn’t change because it’s a theory or because you can’t see these people or even ever know them. It’s about faith in your soul’s work. You know this is what you’re working toward and it’s something you can’t ever ignore or give up on. So you can choose to hang on to your ‘precious’ and put that ring on your finger, knowing you snuffed a piece of your soul’s work to wear that. And if that’s the case, the rock doesn’t quite shine so bright anymore, anyway. In all fairness, having moved 19 times in 35 years helps you not get attached to things. It makes it easier to lose what’s not important.
The second was the death of attachment through the rough exile I faced when I took on reform work. My newfound interest in faith, in a family that didn’t ever study the Quran or question it, didn’t go over very well. It was not easy. There was a lot of conflict. I was clumsy. There was no set path, no conversation or social media the way we have access to dialogue and resources now.
It was 2003 and I was just reaching out in the dark, trusting at some point I’d be able to see. Yet, you can’t even really see yourself yet. You’re not done evolving. Like a child, you challenge everything. You’re riotous, insensitive, inconsiderate, and somewhat self-destructive. You’re brimming with emotion and ideas but have no clue how to steady yourself and channel your focus. And all that is made more complicated when you’re an empath, especially if you’re still 10 years away from realizing you’re one.
That’s how it started. Some people who started on a similar path around the same time are still stuck in that state of mind. Some have evolved. Others have regressed, their humility suffering under the burden of their ego.
There’s no specific start or end. The beginning of a journey is sometimes set at different points along the way. Whether you start within your family, online or some other way, you become a powerful disruptor challenging millennia-old thinking that doesn’t realize how damaging decrepit elements of Islamic culture and faith are. There’s that saying, if you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you. But if you take on ancient gods of culture and tradition, of unquestioned belief, the dark comes for you.
It’s not easy taking on the abuser in an abusive relationship, especially when the abuser is an idea or a system. And you wake up from it by slowly but radically deconstructing everything you think defines you. And you build yourself back up. The transitions were slower ten years ago, but with social media, more voices for humanity, and new coalitions, it’s quickening.
The third death was losing Stephen. That loss brought the death of passivity and reservation. He’s shown what the future can look like, what’s possible, and what’s at stake – and so you burn to make it happen once he’s gone. And a years later you see what he saw in you, what he worked so hard to awaken. And you wake up. You rise. And you never stop missing him. That unbearable ache from having your daemon stripped from you, that’s what it’s like to have lost him. It doesn’t go away, it doesn’t lessen. But it does drive you to honor him through your work.
The fourth is the death of ego. Cancer is pretty good at killing off your ego. My thyroid cancer diagnosis did a lot of things, but most importantly it put a budding ego in check. God must have really wanted me to take a step back, because the next year he placed an autism diagnosis on my plate. Dealing with just those two back to back was a tremendous challenge, but also necessary. My two year old’s autism spectrum diagnosis meant that my focus was totally on him for a year. People see autism as some sort of disorder or burden – and sure, it’s exhausting – but it’s a tremendous gift. Working with him got me to lose my Tiger Mom persona and truly respect him and his reality. It forces you to fully and completely step outside of yourself, because that’s what needs to happen on an almost daily basis. It makes you become a better outlier.
Making sure Reagan got what he needed kept me away from the reform work directly, and made me an outside observer once again – which let me really think about things differently, and without influence or indulgent fanfare. It was a necessary incubation period.
Autism and working in addiction and mental health the following year fostered deeper compassion for human suffering. And you can’t be doing reform work if you don’t understand people’s experience or respect their vulnerabilities. It was another layer added onto the human dignity my mom taught me to respect at an early age. Kindness is – or should be – at the heart of this work. This is a work of love and will be successful only if it’s out of love.
When you’ve died so many times, in so many ways, you reach a point where you can’t be killed off anymore. Absolutely nothing can touch you. When you learn to catch weakness in yourself and others, and address them, you have an identity that is fluid and can evolve and adapt as needed. When every setback has been leveraged as a strength, you begin wielding a sort of defiant resilience. That doesn’t mean you won’t suffer more loss, more pain, or more setbacks. What it means is that there’s not a damn thing on earth that will stop you. That’s what it means to be a Muslim reformer.
Steel is forged in fire and you need to be steel to shift a 1400 year old faith and a culture that’s much older than that.You’re going to need to go through fire.
There are many Muslim reformers and voices for humanity who understand we need to take on the theology to defeat radical Islam and Islamism. People have their own reasons for why they engage in this work. For me, it’s about divine purpose – not just my purpose in answering the call, but working to help usher humanity toward the next phase of consciousness. To do that, we need as many disruptors as possible within Islamic faith and culture; we need to harness every opportunity to activate change agents. We need to find and awaken others, and set them free.
Because to get to the next phase of human evolution, we need to destroy the Goliath that’s draining our resources and diverting our attention. Because the next stage in human evolution will need everyone on board; it will need the very people we see as enemies today.