Author Umm Zakiyyah Speaks to Muslimah Source
Muslimah Source interviewed Umm Zakiyyah early in 2009 on her experience as a Muslim woman in America, writing, and her take on issues facing Muslim women.
Tell us about growing up in America as an American Muslimah. How did your experiences define your Muslim identity and your identity as a Muslim woman in particular?
My parents accepted Islam shortly before I was born, so I was born into a Muslim family. However, due to my parents’ backgrounds, most of my family are Christian, including some of my older brothers and sisters who at the time were grown and had lives of their own. Thus, my entire childhood Muslim experience was drastically different from those born into Muslims families that emigrated from predominately Muslim countries. I was very conscious of being “different,” even when I was in the company of my extended family.
However, my being different was most evident at school, where I experienced daily taunting from classmates for the headscarf that I wore and where I even had an elementary school teacher who removed my scarf each day and put it in her drawer saying, “You don’t need this.” She’d then return it to my head at the end of the day (before I went home to my parents).
These experiences, though often painful, had a profound impact on my identity as a Muslim. From these experiences, I knew that Allah had chosen a path for me that was to be drastically different from the great majority of people in the world, and this was a heavy burden for me to carry, especially as a child. However, I didn’t resent that I was different; I actually felt blessed to be Muslim. This was due primarily to my parents’ daily lessons they gave us after Fajr prayer and, of course, the mercy of Allah.
Growing up, I actually felt sorry for those who were not Muslim, particularly my female schoolmates, who were disrespected by the boys they dated and exploited by society through television, movies, and magazines. There were many times I actually could not sleep for the pain I felt for these young women. I wished they had Islam to liberate them from this oppression. However, gender remained a non-issue to me personally until I went to college and was shocked to learn that non-Muslims actually felt sorry for me as a Muslim woman. This was when I began to learn of the misconceptions concerning my religion and how those in the greatest need of liberation saw the means to this liberty—Islam—as the source of oppression itself. I was confounded.
What influenced you to become a writer?
As is true for most writers, writing for me was less a decision than it was a hobby that I’ve always enjoyed. When I was young, I wrote because I was inspired to put my thoughts on paper. I didn’t think much about whether or not I would become a writer, because to me I already was. There was for me but one question: How will you use your skills as a writer?
I remember one day when my father was talking to us all after Fajr, as he did each day, and he read aloud from Baqarah, the second chapter of the Qur’an, where Allah describes the believers as those “…who spend out of what We have provided for them.” This part really touched me, and although I was young, I was certain that the message to me from Allah was this: I have provided you with the gift of the pen, so it is your duty to spend of this gift in My cause.
In hoping to fulfill this amaanah—this trust from Allah—I write Islamic fiction today.
What is the motivation for your books? Are they based on fact or fiction alone, and how do you know so much about the American Muslim demographic?
There is a saying amongst writers that “every stroke of the pen is a confession,” and to a certain extent, I think this is true. However, I do not write autobiographical or biographical accounts because in Islam a Muslim is instructed to protect the privacy and faults of herself and others. Unfortunately, in today’s society, it is commonplace to “tell all” in memoirs, biographies, and interviews, and my prayer is that my writing steers clear of this tendency. At the same time, the spiritual lessons that are incorporated into each of my stories are very autobiographical, though the circumstances surrounding those lessons are purely fiction. I also draw on the spiritual lessons that I learned from my parents, my family, my friends, and the believers Allah has blessed me to meet in my life thus far.
From a practical perspective, my books are all inspired by a desire to clarify the truth of Islam to non-Muslims, and to serve as an inspiration to Muslims.
I don’t view myself as knowing a great deal about the American Muslim demographic; there is so much more I hope to learn. However, the little I do know is taken from my experiences in college, my friendships in multiethnic social circles, my travels to Muslim countries, and my having been both an integral part of a multicultural Muslim community and a teacher at an Islamic school in America.
What are some problems, in your opinion, that Muslim women are facing in today’s world, and what do you think we can do to solve them?
As we know from what Allah has said in the Qur’an and from what His Messenger, sallallaahu’alayhi wa sallam, has said in the Sunnah, all of our problems as Muslims, whether we are male or female, stem for our leaving aspects of the Qur’an and Sunnah according due to our ignorance or desires. Thus, in general, the great majority of the problems that Muslim women are facing are not due to their being innocent victims of an oppressive world, society, or home, although there are definitely those amongst us who are suffering in these unjust conditions.
Nevertheless, the greatest problem Muslim women are facing is that we are suffering from our—and our Muslim brothers’—abandonment of making Islam the central priority in our lives. We too as American women are suffering tremendously from an ideology that has taught us that we are “equal” to men, whereas, in truth, no two humans are equal in the absolute sense. Rather, each human is equal in his or her obligation to fulfill the rights due to their Creator. Our not understanding this simple truth, from the depths of our very hearts and souls, is the greatest point of suffering of Muslim women in the West, I believe— because this suffering is self-inflicted and poses the greatest danger anyone can face—that of sullying the soul.
The only way for us to solve these problems is for us to dedicate our lives to Islam by refocusing our lives and desires to that which is outlined for us in the Qur’an and Sunnah. We must begin by educating ourselves on who Allah is and what He wants from us, while making our five daily prayers the pillars of day; this means we pray every prayer on time (everyday) and with humble concentration as the meaning of each word we recite permeates our very being. In this way, we can change the Muslim ummah, one person at a time.
Who represents Muslimah American converts / reverts? What are some things that the Muslim community can do to help out? Do you have any advice for these sisters?
I don’t know if there is anyone we can point to as the representation of Muslim women converts to Islam, but there are many things we can do to support them. Concerning the Muslim community’s role in this regard, the best insight I’ve heard on this topic was given by Na’ima B. Robert, the author of From My Sisters’ Lips, when she mentioned in an interview that one of the greatest ways we can help Muslim converts is by seeing their reciting of the shahaadah (their testimony of official entry into Islam) as a beginning for them as opposed to an ends for us. So many of us view their conversion to Islam as a time to celebrate, give hugs, and go home. But for these women, it’s just the beginning, and a terrifying one. They are now embarking on one of the greatest trials in life. Many of them will face unsupportive family. They may be kicked out of their homes. We are their only support, so we must fulfill our responsibility before Allah in being there for them—after all the hugs, tears, and congratulations.
Unfortunately, so many well-meaning Muslims rush to marry off these new sisters without taking time to encourage these new sisters to “find themselves.” Our duty is to make sure these sisters, firstly, have their practical needs met, such as a home (if they are no longer welcomed by family) and financial means to remain an active part of a Muslim community. Secondly, we have to make sure their spiritual needs are met—not by giving them the endless list of what is forbidden, but by offering classes that allow them to thoroughly learn the two most important things they will need as Muslims: Tawheed (the Oneness of Allah) and Salaat (the Islamic prayer).
If we make our new sisters’ practical and spiritual needs our priority, we would have given them a wealth of opportunity to capitalize on any personal goals they wish to meet in the future, even marriage one day, with the help of Allah.
My advice to my new Muslim sisters is to hold on to your faith, no matter what, and focus on two things: Tawheed and Salaat. And know yourself and your religion before you allow anyone to define either of these for you.
Tell us more about your books; what audience the books are geared towards and why they are important.
My books are Islamic novels, fiction stories that are based on real-life situations faced by American Muslims. However, they are, in the practical sense, merely novels, making them accessible to avid readers of all religions. Many of my books are used in colleges and universities for study of multicultural literature, and I regularly receive positive feedback from both Muslim and non-Muslims. The most heartwarming feedback is when I hear of someone accepting Islam after reading the books.
In terms of the books’ importance, I do not view my books in particular as important but the genre of Islamic fiction, which is in great need of more writers. It is my prayer that I have been a pioneer in this area and have inspired budding Muslim writers to use their pens to touch the hearts of readers. It is also my prayer that my writing will be a benefit for me and my readers, in this life and the Hereafter.
Umm Zakiyyah is an internationally acclaimed author whose books are a window into the lives of American Muslims. For more information on her and her work, visit www.al-walaa.com
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