Picture of Aisha
Aisha A. Arshad

I still remember that look.  She was sizing me up.  She looked at me up and down, and then turned away in disdain.  It took me a moment to figure out what I was doing wrong. 

I had listened to an amazing lecture by a kind, older convert.  Her love of Islam and her gentle, inspiring manner touched my heart.  Afterwards, I rushed up to her to tell her how much I enjoyed it.  I was so excited.  That is when I got the look.

At first I couldn’t understand her dismissal.  I genuinely enjoyed her talk and couldn’t think of anything about my demeanor that said otherwise.  I saw myself as someone who loved my faith and craved every opportunity I could find to learn more about it.  But then I realized what she saw.  I didn’t wear hijab.  

For the first time I felt like an outsider to my own faith.  Her response didn’t make me angry – I respected her far too much for that – but it did make me feel small. A part of me felt like I deserved it.  And another part of me wanted to say, “But I love Islam!  You just can’t see it!”  

But I said nothing.  And nothing changed.  Until about ten years later.

It was 2006 and I had quit my job as a Business Analyst in the corporate IT department of a large healthcare company in Richmond, Virginia to move halfway across the world to Doha, Qatar with my husband and two small children.  As soon as we moved we were introduced to some distant relatives who lived there, who then introduced us to all their friends by inviting us to their home for dinner.

When we arrived, I noticed that all the ladies wore not only hijab, but abayas and niqabs as well.  But they never once made me feel small.  They were so warm and welcoming. And even though they were all much older than me, I enjoyed their company.  At one point in the conversation one of them mentioned an Islamic center where they all attended classes.  I immediately asked where it was and said I wanted to come too.  

Less than two weeks after moving to Doha, I was in my first Islamic class in years.  Within a few weeks, at the age of 31, I started praying regularly for the first time in my life, and a few months after that, on my third attempt, I finally started wearing hijab.  

These changes were huge for me.  It was as if a door that I had tried to push through for so long was finally opened for me.  It happened so easily.  And it was deeply satisfying.  Even though it was a new experience it was like I was coming home to myself.  Rather than feeling  awkward, it felt right.  

Fast forward to 2013.  We had moved to Dubai and had been living there for several years.  I had recently completed my Masters in Educational Technology and subsequently quit my job as an IT Coordinator to stay home and homeschool my kids.  It had been years now since I first started taking Islamic classes.  In Dubai I found several wonderful centers like the ones in Doha.  The teachers were so knowledge and kind and I loved every minute.  But I got to a point in my learning where I longed for something more.  

Rather than the piecemeal approach, I wanted to understand Islam holistically, from the ground up.  I had looked at a few options but nothing seemed like it would work, so one day I prayed for guidance, and by the end of that day I had enrolled as a Bridge to Master’s student in Islamic Studies at Islamic Online University.

A few months later when classes started, I received an email from the university asking all of the students to form a volunteer committee to spread the word about the university and do community service projects together.  Without hesitation, and even though I was new, I decided to run for the Head position.  I won the election and here I was, leading the national student committee for the UAE.  All the sisters who studied and volunteered with were far more conservative than I was, but they respected me for my enthusiasm and leadership in bringing everyone together for a noble cause.  The brothers were supposed to form their own committee but they never did.  So when it came time for us to host our first event, I enlisted their help, and much to my surprise, they came through.  I was surprised because, again, this was a conservative group.  Gender separation was taken seriously.  And yet, while maintaining all the proper boundaries, we found a way to work together.  Later as I resigned, ready to move back to the US, the brothers told me that they respected me as their leader and were sad to see me go.  This meant a lot to me and it proved that even while maintaining the highest standards of Islamic etiquette and observing proper boundaries, that men and women can in fact work together in Islamic institutions – even conservative ones – and that men can even respect the leadership of a woman when the relationship is based on mutual respect.  

Even though I was the head of this committee of Islamic students, I was the only one who did not wear abaya.  The only one.

Fast forward a few months and I was attending my daughters’ little league softball practice (yes Dubai has a little league). I was sitting with a friend who was also a Muslim American like me, and she was wearing abaya, like always.  She wasn’t someone I saw as super conservative and yet she was so casual about wearing it.  The barrier no longer seemed so high.  I no longer felt like I had to be this super religious person in order to do it.  Soon after, I decided to wear it too.  She never once told me I should, but it was her easy manner about it that made it seem accessible, even for me.   

When it came time to move back to the US I was a little worried about whether I would still be able to do it.  Abayas stand out here as opposed to Dubai where you blend in amid a sea of elegant black.  I decided I would save the black ones for Jummah and bought a whole bunch of colored abayas for everyday use.  

Alhamdulillah it’s been almost six years and it has worked out fine.   

I know that many women who wear hijabs and/or abayas deal with micro-aggressions, discrimination, or even worse.  So it is not lost on me that I have been blessed.  I must add though, that it never once occurred to me that people would treat me differently.  I always expected to be treated with respect no matter where I went.  It helped that I was moving to a city with a lot of Muslims and a friendly culture.  But I do think that the way we carry ourselves influences how others treat us.  

After moving back to the US in 2015, I had one more year before completing by Bridge to Master’s program.  Alhamdulillah since it was all online the move didn’t stop me, and in 2016 after completing a whole range of courses in Fiqh, Tafseer, Hadith, Seerah, Aqeedah, Comparative Religion, and Arabic, I finally graduated with a Bridge to Master’s – aka Higher Diploma – in Islamic Studies.  The plan was to go straight into the Master’s program.  But I decided to pause for two reasons.

First, now that I was back in the US, I wanted to study Islam through a Muslim American instiutition.  My studies at IOU were great but they were tailored for people who lived in the Muslim world.  I needed a program with a more contemporary focus, one which had a more nuanced approach given our unique challenges living in the West. 

The other reason I paused was that I wanted to start sharing some of what I had learned.  Teaching helps us digest what we learn.  It is also the necessary sadaqah of knowledge – to impart what you have learned in order to share in the benefit you received.

But my decision to begin sharing my knowledge came from a more personal experience as well.

For years I was watching all the challenges of atheism, extremism, and Islamophobia unfold all around me.  But one day all these abstract notions hit home when a distant relative of ours went on a radio show and publicly declared that he had left Islam and become an atheist.  One of my family members heard his voice on the radio and couldn’t believe it was him until she googled the show and saw his name and picture.  When I heard and saw it for myself, I was sad and shocked.  At the time I didn’t have much knowledge so the thought that I might be able to do something didn’t even cross my mind.  But the helplessness was etched in me forever.  

Now that I had finished the first leg of my studies I knew I couldn’t keep the knowledge to myself and stay in a bubble learning more and more while people around me were struggling with their faith to the point of leaving it.  This was no longer a theoretical problem that existed out there – it was a real and present danger that could happen to anyone.

As I brainstormed possible topics to teach and write on, I finally setted on the one which, intellectually, made the most sense, and that was the fundamental principles of three key Islamic sciences, specifically, Fiqh (Islamic law), Tafseer (Quranic exegesis), and Hadith (Prophetic tradition).  I thought that if I could condense what I had learned so that people could get a holistic understanding of Islam in a systematic way, they could appreciate the soundness of its teachings as I had.  So I started writing a book, and even hired a Muslim business coach to guide me so that it would end up being something that would get read.  I worked on it for a while and with her guidance got clear on my audience and my central message, and even made quirky chapter titles in order to keep it interesting. 

But as I learned more and more about the day to day challenges that fellow Muslims were facing, I realized this book was too cerebral and detached from the immediate problem.  So after getting well into the first draft, I abandoned the idea and started doing in person workshops instead.  I wanted to meet people where they were at and find out exactly what they needed in order to develop a strong and sustainable Muslim identity despite how hard it was to be Muslim, especially since Trump had been elected and was creating an increasingly poisonous environment for Muslims and other minorities. (Relieved he’s no longer in office, but sadly the toxic environment he fueled seems here to stay.)

My first workshop was at a place called Third Space which attracted a mix of converts as well as those who were drifting away from Islam.  I can’t remember the title I gave it, something like “how to be confident as a Muslim in the age of Trump”.  But the organizer changed it to “Unapologetically Muslim”.  Anyway a small group showed up and they loved it.  The feedback gave me confidence to keep going.   

Later I did the same workshop at my local masjid with a group of young Muslim girls, and they loved it too.  A few months after that I was invited to Cornell, by the Muslim students, to give a talk about Muslim identity at their annual Eid banquet, and again received glowing feedback.

Since then I’ve spoken at several other universities including University of Michigan Ann Arbor as well as U-M Dearborn.  I also became the Academics Head for Qabeelah Ittihad, the Michigan chapter of Al Maghrib, where I co-teach a weekly online halaqa.  And I became a certified speaker with ING MidWest, where I deliver educational presentations and cultural diversity training about Islam and Muslims in schools, colleges and other community organizations.

Then the pandemic hit.  With all in person events getting cancelled, and along with it, my speaking engagements, I decided to use the time to  pause and reflect.  Eventually I decided to return to my original plan of writing a book.  It had been almost two years since that first Unapologetically Muslim workshop.  Since then, I had developed lots of great content, but it was all separate, disconnected.  I wanted to bring it together in a way that would be accessible to anyone who wanted it.  And so this book was born.

  • excerpt from my upcoming book “How To Be Unapologetically Muslim And Live Your Best Life: The 5 C’s of Personal Growth For Muslims” coming soon iA

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