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Live and Let Live: How My Religiously Diverse Parents Made Me a Good Human Being

Live and Let Live: How My Religiously Diverse Parents Made Me a Good Human Being

If you’re one of those people who thinks couples with differing religious points of view are incapable of maintaining successful relationships — or worse, that the religious-minded are inherently misguided — then let me tell you why you’re probably wrong. My own parents were married for a little more than 20 years and — had Papa Khan not suddenly passed away — would continue to be happily married. Both born and raised in Pakistan, my parents grew up with vastly different experiences and opinions about life, yet they found a kindred spirit in each other and were able to set aside their differences to create a lasting marriage.

They lived a perfectly peaceful life with Mama Khan praying, fasting and being as good a Muslim as she could be while Papa Khan drank, smoked and enjoyed talking to people about why he didn’t like the idea of religion.

Papa Khan spent his youth finding reasons to escape his traditional, religious motherland, eschewing both its traditions and religion at the same time. Mama Khan spent her youth being the dutiful eldest daughter, but maintaining enough of her natural-born feminist spunk to be able to avoid getting married until the spinster-ish age of 22 (as my grandmother truly believes) when she backed out of her arranged marriage to wed my father.

I often wonder whether my parents’ attraction to each other was a simple case of opposites attracting or something more complicated than that. I never got a chance to ask my dad what it was about my mum that he liked enough to want to put a ring on it, and my mum is sometimes almost embarrassed to admit to having romantic affection for my dad. All I do know is that they were vastly different, yet at the core there was a notable similarity in them that I’m eternally grateful for: Tolerance of differences.

Mama Khan has been a practicing Muslim for as long as I can remember and Papa Khan probably hadn’t uttered a surah since his wedding. Yet, they never, ever argued about religion. Ever. In fact, I don’t remember my parents even talking about religion. They lived a perfectly peaceful life with Mama Khan praying, fasting and being as good a Muslim as she could be while Papa Khan drank, smoked and enjoyed talking to people about why he didn’t like the idea of religion.

My brother and I were raised knowing the basics of Islam. Our nightly routine was a healthy alternation between bedtime stories from my dad and lessons in memorizing surahs and kalmay from my mum. We both learned how to prepare ourselves for and perform prayer. We learned the basics: one God and one final Prophet, Muhammad. But when we rushed to share our newfound knowledge with Papa Khan, he listened patiently and challenged us with a simple question: “But how do you know for sure?” Well, that just blew our minds. And so began the start of a lifelong triumph in learning how to think for ourselves as opposed to blindly agreeing with what has been taught. It was also a lesson in tolerance, and that’s a lesson we’ve continued to see examples of from both of our parents our whole lives.

I am more sure than not that should I live to see my golden years, they will find me a practicing Muslim despite my continued indulgence in body art, hard liquor and sex.

Though I was the “good one” in my youth, I’ve developed into someone my mother disapproves of but whom she still supports — not only because I’m her daughter, but also because she will support anyone’s right to be happy with themselves. It’s for this reason that despite believing in creationism, she continues to teach her students all about science and evolution; it’s for this reason that despite the fact that Islamic culture raised her to believe that homosexuality is a sin, she continues to maintain a close circle of homo- and heterosexual friends and enthusiastically attends the pride parade each year. It’s for this reason that she supports me in all my endeavors even though she knows I’m tattooed, not a virgin, and enjoy hard liquor, drugs and cigarettes.

In high school, I considered converting to another religion because I thought Islam was too suffocating. I began researching and comparing my options in religion until I discovered that much of what I found oppressive within Islam wasn’t necessarily the fault of the religion, but the fault of culture. I didn’t hide these newfound opinions and ideas from my parents, but they neither approved nor disapproved of my choices, nor did they try to “set me straight” about why one was better than the other. They simply lent their support and gave me the best answers they could, leaving me to explore my options and trusting me to come to my own conclusions. I maintained an agnostic point of view into university. When my dad passed away in my second year, I suddenly was convinced that there was a God and to this day believe that to be true (my definition of God is a topic for another essay, though). I am more sure than not that should I live to see my golden years, they will find me a practicing Muslim despite my continued indulgence in body art, hard liquor and sex.

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I’ve watched Papa Khan live a contented life without faith in some almighty deity and I’ve seen Mama Khan live an equally contented life with unmoving faith in one Almighty deity. I’ve watched my brother live a contented life free from thoughts of any religion at all and I see myself continuing to live a life in which I find comfort in the idea of some omnipotent higher power. The most important thing my parents taught me was to live and let live: that religion isn’t a social event, but a highly private one — that being religious doesn’t automatically mean you’re a good or bad person; that religion is actually very little more than seeking and finding a form of personal peace.

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Written by Sarah Khan

Image from Wikimedia Commons

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  • Love this. Very important—especially because both of your parents were from an Islamic background. Many people think that only “inter-faith” marriages can be like this; that’s not necessarily true. Both parents can be Muslim by birth, but the way they practice their faith, or lack thereof, throughout your childhood and adulthood is something everyone should really appreciate and learn from.

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