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Learning to Breathe


These days I’m unsettled.  I feel like we are on the cusp of a major change.  By ‘we’ I mean The World, The United States, Society as a Whole, Islam, My Family, Me.

My wise friend, Heather, tells us to breathe through the change but I’m scared of change.  I know it is inevitable, but the unknown is scary.  It is unsettling.  It is dumping everything in the cake pan and hoping it all turns out alright without following the recipe.

Breathing through the change is like trusting.  It is praying and it is letting go.

I’m not good with the letting go part.  When I get scared, I want more control.  Not less.

Last year, my family decided that we would attend the Friday night Varsity football games at Mr. Fox’s highschool.  We went to every home game last year, and we’ve gone once this year already.  We are not football fans.  I don’t know most of the rules.  I have only ever watched two football games each year my entire adult life.  I only watch them so that I can talk about it when everyone else who is a football fan is talking about them.  To me, its a cultural event.  Like Halloween, or Thanksgiving.

On September 4, we lined up to get our tickets at the season opening home game.  Directly in front of us was a man wearing this shirt.

My immediate reaction, was FEAR.  I looked at my people.  We all look like we blend in.  We are, for all intents and purposes, a suburban, white family.  Nothing we were wearing was overtly identifying.

I was SCARED.  Mr. Fox was annoyed.  Kate grabbed my hand a little tighter.  Pea gave the man’s back a dirty look.  I looked around and there were no less than 5 police officers on duty.  No one else looked scared.  I didn’t know what I should do.

On one hand, the man has his First Amendment rights.  But we are on school property.  This is an event for children.  We are at a school with a significant number of Muslim students who are actively involved in sports as well as other activities.

I took the man’s photo without his consent.  I wanted to document this event because I couldn’t sort out if my reaction was warranted.  Was I overreacting?  Is it just a shirt?

Then the man sat down the bleachers in front of us and I took another photo of his shirt from where we were sitting.  During the first quarter of the game I counted no less than 8 Muslim students in the stands from where I was sitting.  3 were wearing hijab.

So, I shared the photo.  I didn’t offer any explanation at first.  Just the photo and “as seen at tonight’s game.”

These were some of the first comments:

Unlike · Reply · 2 · September 4 at 7:13pm
Unlike · Reply · 1 · September 4 at 7:14pm
Oh, fantastic. Ugh.
Unlike · Reply · 1 · September 4 at 7:17pm

Wow. What school is this

Like · Reply · September 4 at 7:20pm

Kristina ElSayed It’s his right to wear it, but it’s just really unsettling.
Like · Reply · 1 · September 4 at 7:22pm

The discussion went on from there, most people understood my outrage and fear.  A few did not.  I don’t love these friends any less, but it is clear that they don’t understand the fear that comes from this type of racism.  They didn’t want me to presume what this man thought about Islam, Muslims and what the word ‘kafir’ and ‘infidel.’  They wanted me to give this man the benefit of the doubt.  But I know.  We had just been discussing these shirts and the meaning of them a few weeks before.  I was educating people about these shirts.  I KNOW.

I waited a week and then made contact with the school.  The response has been less than stellar.  I received a cursory email from the Assistant Principal, and I’ve not heard back despite my follow up.  What do I want from the school?  I want to know if spectators to events on school property are to abide by the district dress code.  I want to know if I have a right to complain about this when it shows up at a school event.  What are my choices?

Then the news of Ahmed Mohamed being arrested.  It is clear to everyone that his detainment has nothing to do with his invention and everything to do with the fact that he is Muslim and Black.  My network was talking about it all day long.  I waited and spoke with the children a little when they got home.  Did they hear about his arrest?  What were people saying at school?

Kate cried.  She is scared that she could get arrested just because of her religion.

Can you even remotely begin to hear that?

She is afraid of being arrested because of the way she prays.

Today is the Day of Arafat.  It is one of the holiest days of the Islamic year.  It is the day that marks the remembrance of The Prophet Muhammed’s final sermon.  When all of the pilgrims are praying at Arafat, Muslims all over the world are fasting.  My children are fasting today at school.

Will they be okay?

Tomorrow is the Eid ul Adha. The Feast of the Sacrifice.  All of the Muslims in my city and the surrounding area will gather in one place.  One Huge Celebration.  We will gather, we will hear a sermon and we will all pray together.  Then we will eat together and share in the celebration that 2 million Muslims have completed their Hajj.  There will be security at all the entrances, but will we be safe to pray and celebrate this day?

When radical men in sheep’s clothing enter churches to kill people because of the color of their skin, how are we to feel safe that the same won’t happen to us?

On the day that Abraham trusted his Lord to sacrifice his son, I will breathe, I will pray, and I will hand it over to God. I am not in control of the unknown.

Links on some of the research I did concerning this topic:

Reader Response: My Muslim Boyfriend Broke Up with Me


Happy Monday friends!  This morning when I settled in at my computer to get some work done, I found this letter from a reader.

Hey, I recently came across your website and was hoping I could get your opinion or view on some of the stuff that I have going on. My boyfriend of almost 2 years just broke up with me out of no where, he said something about we can never be anything more than we are right now because he is Muslim and I am not. He was born and raised in Canada and I’d consider him to be very westernized, he drinks parties, dates all that stuff. We have talked about the future before and have always worked things out but suddenly he doesn’t think it will work anymore. I believe that some of it has to do with pressures from his family because ideally they would like him to be with a Muslim however they didn’t dislike me at all and they have told him that they will love and accept him no matter what. I know that he still loves me and cares about me but is trying to shut me out and forget his feelings for me. Do you see him changing his mind and doing what makes him happy instead of what he feels is the right thing?

I sent M this response and asked permission to get your opinion.

I’m so glad you’ve reached out. I’m sorry you are hurting right now. After spending 2 years of your life with a man it is very hard when they decide they need to make a change.

In my experience, most Muslim men who come from pretty strict families are rebellious in their younger years and then as they age, they return to following the sunnah more closely. It sounds to me like your boyfriend has come to a crossroads. His family may have upped the ante on the pressure for him to marry a Muslim woman. Even though they like you, and it is perfectly permissible to marry a Christian woman, if he is dependent on them, that could be extremely difficult. While he still loves you, he may be in the position of choosing between you and his family.

My advise to you is to let him go. Grieve your loss. I know it can be messy but this will be the kindest way for YOU. If he is still calling you, tell him you would like to remain friends (if you do) but that you need some time away from him to grieve your ending relationship and the loss of the future you thought you had with him. Give him a time period in which he cannot contact you. This will help you mourn and it will help him come to terms with his decision. You, in turn, don’t contact him. Do what you need to do to mourn this ending relationship.

For me, grieving has always been about watching a lot of movies and reading a lot of books. Talking to a counselor and then connecting with some friends. Do something cathartic. Allow yourself to heal. Then, after the time has passed, you can reach out to him and see how he is doing. You will always love him in some way, but it may hurt a little less.tulip stamen

Re-Post: The Side Entrance of Religion


This piece was published on July15 as part of The Hopscotch Hijabi’s 2015 Interfaith Ramadan Series.

I am un-mosqued. Every mosque I’ve ever been in feels like a side entrance. It doesn’t matter if we walk through the same door as the men, or sit directly across the latticework barrier from them. To the non-Muslim parent of Muslim children, the mosque feels unwelcome.
To be fair, I am also un-churched. Every church I’ve been in since entering my interfaith marriage has left me feeling unwelcome. Even when the church is progressive and open and welcoming to people of all walks of life, they don’t recognize Islam as a credible religion. To the Christian mother of Muslim children, the church feels unwelcome.
What do we do when we enter interfaith relationships and build a life with someone who has a different belief system than your own? You could convert. Your spouse could convert. You could recognize both religions, educate and celebrate them equally with your children. You could ignore your religion in an effort to raise your children with once centralized religious practice.
In my life, I chose to have my children grow up with once central religion. I have learned about Islam formally for many years, and continue to learn on my own. But Islam has never called me. I am filled with a strong spiritual connection, but I have no place to worship that fits my life. I have no community with whom I can worship.
For the first 10 years of my life attending the Mosque, I would sit aside trying to decipher the Arabish that was coming through the speakers. Sometimes I would listen from the hallway, and other times I would listen from the balcony. Most of the words were in heavily accented English, with random Arabic words thrown in for clarity to the majority. If you are like me, once an Arabic word is thrown into the lecture, I’m stuck because my brain goes off trying to recall the meaning, or I’m lost because I don’t know the meaning. The lecture looses focus and I never regain the message.
During this time when I was actively searching for Islamic knowledge and guidance, trying to listen and understand if I was being called to become Muslim. I would listen to the Khutbah Kast from the Islamic Center at New York University. Imam Khalid Latif became my Imam. He spoke American English and he grew up in New Jersey. Imam Latif used Quranic scripture and connected it to everyday life in a way that I was used to hearing from attending church and listening to sermons. I learned how Islam could grow and adapt and help the American Muslim community. Then the podcasts ended in favor of YouTube videos I don’t have time to sit and watch.
These days, the mosque I attend has an English Jummah every Friday. When we attend this service, we are allowed to enter the same door that the men use, and we sit at the back of the main prayer hall. Most of the leaders are high school boys who are born American English speakers, Muslim scholars in the making. I am often the only woman there, sitting in the back with my daughters. I can see the speaker and I can sit in the same room as my family. It isn’t ideal but its fine. It’s progress.
In my struggle to discover a religious practice that fits my life, I have studied the major World Religions. I have read about Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity. While Christianity does not have all of the answers, it does have characteristics that marry well with my Islamic life. There are denominations and churches that recognize that God’s message doesn’t end with Jesus.
Discovering that Unitarianism sees the logic and wisdom of every religious practice has been a revelation and a relief. Through my search, I found The Dublin Unitarian Church Podcast. After listening to the Reverend Bridget Spain talk so eloquently about a central topic and incorporate lessons from Christianity, Islam and Judaism in a single sermon made my heart full. Finally, I found a source of spiritual growth.
I am still un-churched. My approach to my religious practice often feels like I’m going around the side entrance of the restaurant to get the scraps and piece together a meal. Now at least my soul is being fed on a regular basis.
(I edited this post for spelling errors.)

Repost: Uninvited


This post was first published on July 8th as a part of Hindtrospective’s 2015 My Mosque, My Story: A Side Entrance Ramadan

If there was ever a time I felt completely at a disadvantage while parenting Muslim children, it is during Ramadan. I am so often embarrassed when we go to the Mosque during Ramadan that I would rather just not go.

Kristina uninvited2I am the only non-Muslim that attends Jummah on a regular basis at our Mosque. We go every Friday because I take my children and I sit with the ladies and we listen. I cover my hair and wear a prayer skirt out of respect for my family and because it is what is appropriate. I’m not out-of-place there because people are used to me. They know I sit there where I can see the speaker. I listen to the khutba and my girls are dressed appropriately. We are attentive participants. We don’t talk when the speaker is talking. We Listen. Once the sermon is finished and the prayer begins, I move to the side and wait until everyone is finished praying. Everyone who is a regular knows this. They know me. We say ‘Hi’ to each other. People ask me to watch their babies while they pray.

But during Ramadan, people come out of the woodwork to attend Jummah Services. It’s the same at churches, during Christmas and Easter, there are members who only show up on holidays. The Arabic Jummah is packed with people trying to reestablish their place as a member of the mosque. The English Jummah is also filling up because people are just learning about it or they are holiday Muslims.

People who don’t know me are showing up, taking my spot on the carpet, and eyeballing me when I’m not praying, judging what they do not understand. Watching us like we are the strangers there, not them.

Because I am the regular, and because I’m so used to new people being welcomed at church, I introduce myself to anyone to appears not to know anyone. I approach them. I say hello. I welcome them to the mosque so they don’t feel out-of-place. I have mentioned before to my husband and friends that I would love for there to be a welcoming committee so that there is at least one person at every prayer to be on the lookout for new people. Or the regulars should have name tags. That way you would know at a glance if someone is just at a new service or is new to the mosque.

Kristina uninvitedI approach them, welcome them and ask if they have been to this mosque before. Or, sometimes I remember meeting them someplace before and I mention that and draw the connection for them. I want the new person to know that they are important and its good that they are there. I want them to feel welcome. After I do all of those things, the first thing they say to me that isn’t a response to my welcome is, “are you fasting? – Do you fast?”

That question shoots me back to that place where I am the odd one out all over again. Invariably I am stunned into silence. I can’t believe that they are so rude to ask. Everything that I plan in my head to respond to their rude behavior flies out of my mind because now I feel like everyone is looking. The spotlight is on me and then I tell them no. I confirm their suspicions that I don’t belong there. They belong and I do not. I’m not part of the club and I can’t masquerade as though I am. I don’t know why I’ve bothered.

I know that the girls are watching though. They see me do this thing, this welcoming. I’m hoping that when they grow older, they will do the same as what I’ve done. If they do, it will be worth all of my embarrassment because the difference will be, when they approach the new person; they will be ambassadors from inside the clubhouse. I will have made a difference here. The mosque will be more welcoming.

Repost: What I Contribute to Ramadan

This piece was published on June 24 as part of The Hopscotch Hijabi’s 2015 Interfaith Ramadan Series.
In 1998, I married a Muslim man. That December I tried to fast Ramadan. I wanted to do that solidarity thing that married people do. I wanted to show Khaled that I was his family.
I don’t remember what was happening that day other than it was a Sunday. We might have worked, for some reason we hadn’t spent the majority of the day together. I remember Khaled coming into the apartment tired, but happy to see me. The first thing he said was that I needed to eat something.
I argued. I was fine; I wanted to be supportive, I explained. He looked at me very carefully and told me that the best way I could support him was to take care of myself. If I didn’t take care of myself, I wouldn’t be able to help him.
That was the first of many times over the last 17 years I’ve tried to fast. I don’t understand how I cannot fast. In college I used to work two jobs and go to school while surviving on diet cokes and water for 12 hours at a time! Some years, I would try to give up caffeine. Other years I would try to only drink and not eat any solid food. I usually would last until 1:00 and then I would start to get sick. Every year Khaled tells me the same thing. “It doesn’t make sense for you to fast Ramadan. It makes you sick, and you are not required to fast. Take care of yourself so you can take care of us.”
So, that’s what I do now. I am the support staff, the keeper of schedules and maker of meals.
I eat when my family is sleeping or in anther room. I keep a cup of tea on the counter to take sips from. I don’t want to make their fasting any more difficult so I don’t eat anything that smells, or that I have to cook. I have a yogurt, or maybe almond butter and fruit, leftovers from suhoor, nuts and seeds, hardboiled eggs and many cups of tea.
I am asked about my faith more often during Ramadan than any other time of the year. Muslims stop me at the grocery store, the library and the mosque and question me if I’ve converted and why I haven’t. They ask me if I fast with my children.
I used to over explain. Responding with my story and then having them respond that I’m just not trying hard enough. Several years ago I stopped answering their questions. When they ask if I’m fasting, I respond, “I’m doing the best I can,” and I leave it at that. Most often, that is enough.

Inside an Eid Prayer Service


Last Friday was the Eid Prayer.  As you remember, we’ve been attending our little mosque’s Eid Prayer for several years and each year it the attendance keeps getting larger and larger.  Why?  Well, I think that the community likes to pray behind our Imam.  I also think that they like to pray outside.  I think that our youth group does a really great job of organizing the event, from parking attendants to entertainment and the food.

This is from where I was sitting before the prayer started. Men up front, women in the back on prayer rugs they brought. This field is usually used for indoor soccer.

This year, the youth, in cooperation with the Imams of 5 of our mosques, organized 1 huge Unified Prayer Event.  It was a beautiful thing to be able to pray with all of our friends.  The khutba was in English first and Arabic second.  There was more than enough room for everyone.  We had a parking shuttle, a photo booth and food trucks!  I took many pictures, and even a video of the prayer so I could show you.  I’m having a difficult time uploading it though, since it is 8 minutes long.  If anyone has advise on how to upload a video that size, please share.

I wanted to share with you the range of people as they are dressed. Some in abaya, some in skirts and short sleeves, some in skirts and jean jackets.

There were large crescent shaped balloons and children all over the place.

We we got closer to the prayer, the room really filled up! There was still a lot of place to pray. Those people who cannot sit on the ground are using chairs. The can pray sitting in the chairs.

I love all the colorful scarves on Eid.

I also love to see all of the different styles of hijab being worn. Some completely covering the torso, some just over the hair. Some covering the neck and some exposing the neck and earrings.

Re-post: Fasting for Faith


This piece was published on June 23 as part of The Hopscotch Hijabi’s 2015 Interfaith Ramadan Series.

Fasting For Faith

I’ve been thinking a lot about fasting for faith these last few months. The seed was planted last year when my daughters began to get excited about Ramadan approaching. I had never understood it before, this anticipation. To me, Ramadan was all about hardship. Fasting. Feeling sick and tired. Pushing yourself to the limits. Giving up and giving away.
But then the seed began to sprout and I came to realize that they were excited about Ramadan because aside from all of the difficulties, it was a time for focusing on God. It was a month long retreat into the glory and power of God’s grace. Absorbing as much of what God’s lessons were teaching us. Focusing on internalizing Gods words so you could put them into action in your life. Realizing the joy of prayer, and how meditative it is when you are not distracted by daily life revives your focus.
Once I started seeing this truth about the gift of Ramadan, my focus began to change. The way I supported my family during their fasting shifted from begrudgingly to joyfully serving. I care for them so they don’t have to think of anything except for praying and focusing on the word of God. My work becomes meditative and the mindfulness feels like prayer.
Since last Ramadan, I’ve been searching for a way to bring that meditative focus into my life. As a non-Muslim, non-practicing Christian, I don’t have a spiritual family to turn to as a guide. I find inspiration from different sources and incorporate them into my daily communion with God.
Last April, as the Christian world prepared for Lent. Two things entered into my world almost simultaneously. I learned about the 40 Days of Faith, and I learned about the Muslims 4 Lent movement. I had known of Christian and Jewish faith leaders participating in Ramadan fasting because of being active in interfaith circles on Twitter, but I had never heard about Muslims reaching across to their Christian friends in a show of solidarity.
Just like I had never really understood the spiritual focus of Ramadan, I also never really understood why Christians fasted during Lent. My religious education never afforded me this detailed insight. Lent was always about giving up something in penance. So, when I learned about the 40 Days of Faith, I thought I would give it a try. Maybe praying in such a focused way would help me experience that meditative focus that I’ve been searching for in my spiritual practice.
So, March 2015, when Ash Wednesday came around and I was reminded of the Lenten Fasting, I decided to participate in Muslims 4 Lent by praying. The 40 Days of Faith has a handbook and a user’s guide and a whole community because it is church centered. But my life isn’t church centered. It’s just me. So, I didn’t follow all of the components. I didn’t attend church. I also didn’t engage with a Daily Bible Guide. I didn’t participate in a special website. I did, however, pray every day. I was able to deeply connect in communion with God during my 40 Days and I talked about it with the woman who introduced me to the 40 Days.
During those 40 days my spirituality flowered into something that I hadn’t witnessed before. The after effects have continued on and are renewed each day in my prayers. I now feel like there is a glow and silken pleasure to every day. Even with the distractions and irritations, things just seem to flow better. I have reached a new bend in my journey and that path is not a deserted wasteland anymore but a field of beautiful blossoms that are blooming and reseeding to multiply and flourish.
During the 30 Days of Ramadan I am choosing to embody agape. I am choosing to bow deeply in prayer in the presence of God and be thankful for my life. I am choosing to pray specifically for the people who are named in my meditative practice, I am choosing to joyfully serve my fasting family and celebrate their renewed spiritual strength and focus. Insha’allah.

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