Spiritual Jihad


Journey of an Empowered Islamic Woman
Author: Asra Q. Nomani

MORGANTOWN, W.V. – In the early summer of 1984, I piled eagerly into my father’s Subaru station wagon, a buoyant 19-year-old about to make an unorthodox pilgrimage that radically departed from the traditional Muslim ancestry into which I had been born in India. With my professor father – the patriarch of my immigrant family – blessing my journey from behind the wheel of our family Subaru, I headed to the Mecca of media and power – New York City –to follow my dream to become a journalist and intern at Harper’s Magazine.

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Spiritual Jihad

Little did I know back then the legacy that pilgrimage would have on my life. Allowing me to live on my own for the first time ever, even though it meant walking quite literally into Hell’s Kitchen, a dodgy Manhattan neighborhood, to get to my working women’s dorm, my parents empowered me to be resourceful, think independently and live courageously, perhaps physically standing alone but always spiritually embraced by their gift of unconditional love. They set me on a path in which, over the next two decades, I unwittingly acquired the skills, gumption and fortitude to confidently fight for women’s rights and progressive interpretations of religion in our modern day Muslim world in a spiritual jihad.

Like so many young women, I had given up on faith when I took my seat beside my father in our Subaru to make our journey to the Big Apple. In puberty, I confronted the interpretations of Islam that confined women to second class citizens in too much of Muslim society. One night, in my journal, I had written about a Muslim dinner I had attended with my family, my brother and father enjoying their samosas and curry in a sprawling lounge with the rest of the men and boys while my mother and I hyperventilated in an efficiency apartment crammed with the women and girls. “It stunk!” I wrote. “...it was if we were in jail!”

"Women had had a rightful place from the mosque to the public square, as equals to men, at the birth of Islam"

Through my 20s and 30s, I checked out of my faith, privately practicing it, but never daring to enter into a mosque because I had gotten the message loud and clear: women were not welcome in our places of worship. I didn’t feel as if there was a place for me in my faith. But I found success in America. At 23, I became a staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal, breaking stories about how airlines secretly signaled each other in their air fare databases, resulting in a multimillion dollar class action settlement against airlines, and tailing a surprised Wall Street executive Robert Rubin into the men’s room of a ritzy Washington hotel for an interview.

My wakeup call came after Sept. 11, 2001, when my dear friend and Wall Street Journal colleague Daniel Pearl was kidnapped from a supposed interview while visiting a home I was renting in Karachi, Pakistan. That day, I couldn’t listen to the messages that I had gotten from my community, such as “Silence is golden.” I became the hard-charging reporter I had been trained to be, all to find my friend Danny.

Spiritual Jihad

When we learned that Danny had been murdered in the name of Islam, I was devastated. But decades of challenging conventional wisdom made me pause. I called the scholars. I read the books.

Equipped with the power of knowledge, I walked through the front door of my local mosque in Morgantown and into the main hall, challenging a rule that women enter through a separate door and sit silently in a separate area. The men at my mosque put me on trial to be banished. They circled me to drive me out of the mosque. “You must leave,” they barked at me. I knew my rights. “I will not go,” I responded. In mosque after mosque, from New York City to Los Angeles, the knowledge I had been skilled to acquire gave me power and strength.

I learned about the right of a woman to lead women and men in prayer as an imam, and I organized a prayer in New York City where, for the first time in my life, I stood in the front row in the middle of a mixed-gender congregation. Our prayer changed the face of the preacher in the Muslim world, and from Libyan leader Moammar Qadafi to jihadi websites we faced condemnation. But there was nothing that could shake what decades of experience as a seasoned investigative journalist had taught me: the best protection is the truth.

In our mosque in Morgantown, as I suspected, the ideology that wanted to keep women out of the main hall, was preached to us from the pulpit in other troubling forms: “Do not be friends with the Jews and the Christians,” we were told. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, one woman among a sea of men, I knew what I had to do: I took out a piece of paper, and I started taking notes. My contemporaneous notes helped remove the preacher from the pulpit. And my reporting skills allowed me to discover a comical and frightening truth.

"Intolerant sermons preached at my mosque were downloaded from a website based in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, and home to the most puritanical brand of Islam practiced in the world, Wahhabism"

Decades of my empowerment as a woman in society had emboldened me to be strong as a woman in my Muslim world. My story is testimony to the potential for all women to become empowered, spiritually, intellectually and emotionally, no matter what the life script and religious dogma we inherit. We can all live free of the ideological tyranny that has been preached from pulpits as divine law but is most often just manmade rules meant to assert power and control over people – and most often, women.

I believe that society is better served by redefining its boundaries in the spirit of social justice, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance and love that all religions teach. I am convinced I am a better person as well for having redefined the boundaries that I thought I had to inherit. I feel that I am richer and stronger for all that I have gone through. I have suffered, and I have seen suffering. I have endured betrayal, shame and hostility. But I have not surrendered, and in my survival and triumph, I am happy. And I am at peace.

What I have realized is that the core values of all religions and cultures are the ones that serve us best: truth, knowledge, love and courage. [quote]Our world will be better served if we courageously challenge ideologies of injustice and intolerance through knowledge and truth, asserted effectively through the skills that make us successful in the rest of the world. This is a challenge for women and men of all faiths.

In our mosque, when I entered into the main space, my father sat right by me, as he had done years earlier in our family Subaru. And my mother’s knees gently touched mine as we sat cross-legged in submission to only one thing: the divine force of this world that makes all human beings equal.

Asra Q. Nomani, a veteran journalist, has penned articles for the Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, NY Times, Washington Post, Slate and Salon.com, and is the author of 2 books, Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam, and, Tantrika: Traveling the Road of Divine Love. Currently, she is leading the Pearl Project at Georgetown University.

Related Multimedia:

Asra Nomani Speaks about Asra Nomani Speaks about "The Mosque in Morgantown" Documentary
WV Public TV interview with Asra Nomani prior to the first public showing of "The Mosque in Morgantown."....

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How does one effectively challenge one’s religion and yet still remain committed to it?

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