Attending Sunday school at my local masjid (mosque) was a prominent part of my childhood. My family is not particularly religious, so my Islamic foundation depended on Sunday school. I also met some of my closest friends there.
However, the masjid introduced me to many judgmental adults that I hoped would inspire others rather than degrade them. Ultimately, this behavior turned people away from Islam. Even as a five year old, I felt anxious around people at the masjid because I never knew if I was doing something wrong. My friends decided to give a name to Muslims who gossip about and shame other Muslims: The Haram Police.
Over the years, my fellow Muslims and I heard many humiliating comments from our own masjids that attack our personal levels of faith. Anything that didn’t fit the ideal Islamic lifestyle is criticized.
As young Muslims, we are expected to fit a certain mold. Everything else is labeled as haram, or forbidden, by the majority of our community.
We’ve been condemned for mentioning “taboo” topics, such as relationships, mental health, or feminine hygiene.
We’ve been attacked for showing our shoulders and knees during the summer, even though our brothers do the same.
We’ve been criticized for going out with our friends instead of staying home and praying. And if we are trying to act religiously, we are shamed for accidentally revealing hair through our hijabs or incorrectly reading surahs.
One of my close friends said to me recently, “Saman, do I even count as a Muslim anymore?”
This broke my heart, especially coming from a boy who passionately speaks about his religion despite not fitting the traditional Islamic model. Although there are many aspects of being a Muslim, our beliefs are the foundation. And Islamically, if you take the shahadah, then you are a Muslim. If that is Allah’s (swt) requirement for being a Muslim, then who can say anything otherwise?
Some Muslims wear revealing clothes. Some drink and get sleeves of tattoos. Some dye their hair crazy colors or pierce every part of their body. Some Muslims date, or wear faces full of makeup, or dance all night long. No one’s lifestyle choices make them any less Muslim if that is how they identify themselves.
Think about famous Muslim celebrities. They are always insulted by Islamic communities for living extravagant or modern lifestyles not centered around religion.
“How dare they call themselves Muslim? They aren’t truly Muslim.”
What gives you the right to judge other people? None of us are perfect Muslims, and we cannot assume that we are more holy than other people around us. We cannot look into each other’s souls, and that is where true spirituality lies.
Instead of demeaning Muslims in pop culture, why don’t we praise the fact that they call themselves Muslim at all? That they identify with their religion, no matter how religious they are? Growing up, I hardly had any Muslim role models in the media. Nowadays, there are more and more Muslims in the media working in all career fields. They speak about issues that truly matter. Why don’t we celebrate their existence, which can help the world understand and normalize Islam, instead of tearing them down?
Sure, maybe Bella Hadid works as a model, wears revealing clothing, and dates (all which is acceptable in my opinion but certainly untraditional in Muslim communities). However she is “proud to be a Muslim.” She uses her celebrity status to talk about political problems such as the travel ban that focused on Muslim majority countries, the crimes against Palestine, and refugee crises (speaking from her father’s experience as a Palestinian refugee). She also spends time at protests among hundreds of thousands of other Americans.
I personally am proud to have a person like Bella Hadid representing Muslims. I hope even conservative Muslims can feel the same way. People should focus on her identity and character over her lifestyle choices.
Fortunately, the Islamic community is becoming more accepting over time. However, constant disapproval from my masjid group actually ended up ruining my personal faith. I started to feel as though I couldn’t connect with Islam as a whole because of my relationship with my local Muslim community. Around this crowd, I constantly felt like I was being watched and judged. My own increase in self-confidence and support from my open-minded friends managed to help me overcome the anxiety that the community gave me. Unfortunately, many young Muslims are not able to deal with these feelings. They feel ashamed for having non-traditional lifestyles, and they start to detach from their religion. They begin to feel that they don’t belong. The judgment from the masjid communities can bring down a Muslim’s iman, or faith, along with their self-esteem.
There are 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, and there are 1.8 billion ways to practice Islam. No two people view Islam entirely the same, so it is impossible to judge which version is “correct.”
While it is acceptable to guide our fellow Muslims, no one has the right to tell you that you are haram, or that you are not a correct Muslim. Don’t allow the Haram Police to dictate your life – there’s a higher presence that has that role.
Do you identify as a Muslim? Do you want to be a Muslim?
Cool, then in my opinion you are one — and no one can take that away from you.