How Muslim are you?Posted: August 1, 2012
Are you Muslim? …How Muslim are you? …No but, really…how Muslim are you?
I get asked these questions, without fail, every time I perform my autobiographical one-woman show, All Atheists Are Muslim, a “boy meets girl” story about how I moved in with my whitey-white, atheist, infidel boyfriend, Duncan, and chose to tell my parents about it.
And, no, I wasn’t disowned, forced into an arranged marriage or stoned in a ditch in my parents’ backyard.
Perhaps it is the lack of stoning and disowning that makes some people wonder how Muslim I really am?
My parents and I certainly argued over it. It was an epic three-hour verbal boxing match between my father and I, throwing punches at each other that sounded like Abrahamic scripture versus feminist theory.
My mother entered into the argument only to point out how stubborn we both were. Livid with my father and I, she warned us that our fighting and pride would break us apart. She cursed us for making her cry and left us in the living room, our battleground that evening.
An hour later, I was storming out the front door, trying to fathom a life without my family in it, when my father yelled, “Stop! Wait. We’ll think of something. We’re talking. You don’t leave when someone is talking.”
We continued our battle in the living room, but this time it was to find a compromise.
When the answer came to my father, he called me at midnight as though he’d been feverishly studying with religious scholars since the day before. He wanted Duncan and me to take “temporary marriage” vows, or—as he referred to them—“pre-engagement” vows. He explained to me that there was indeed a tradition: a “pre-pre-marriage” ritual called seghe-ye Mahramiat that is a common Shia Muslim practice. It gives couples the ability to court for without scandal, giving them time to decide if they want to follow through with an actual engagement ceremony.
I refused. In order for the vows to be Islamic, Duncan, a staunch atheist, would have to convert and that would be a lie. Duncan and I work as a couple, atheist and Muslim together, because of our utmost respect for each other’s differing beliefs—or as Duncan prefers to call them, our differing “perspectives.”
I explained to my father that it would not be a healthy start to a pre-pre-marriage if I’d asked my pre-pre-husband to bury his convictions and take the Shahedeh—the verses one reads in order to formally convert to Islam. As Iranians, my family and I are all too familiar with the repercussions of forcing religion down people’s throats. It would be inauthentic, and authenticity was a value my father and I both prided ourselves in, above the veneer of piety.
“Compelling arguments,” my father concurred, “but what the hell is an atheist? “
I suddenly felt the weight my father was carrying in this precarious balancing act. He had made incredible leaps to come to my side and accept that Duncan and I would be living together. How could I lay this extra brick, Duncan’s atheism, on him along with everything else: family, religion, and tradition.
I treaded carefully, but nothing could make up for the words I was about to utter: ”Duncan does not believe in God.”
There was a long silence over the phone, until my dad calmly said, “Well, the word ‘Muslim’ just means one who believes in a force greater than himself. Does Duncan believe in a force greater than himself?”
“No,” I said. “He’s not spiritual, dad. He believes that when you die all your parts die with you. He believes that the ‘soul’ is a term invented by a business called religion to frighten people into tithing. He believes God is a superstition we wouldn’t need if we had a better economic infrastructure. He believes—”
“Oh come on, Zahra!” he cut me off, “Does he believe in physics? Does he believe in gravity?”
I was dumbstruck. “Yes, of course,” I said.
“Gravity is a force greater than Duncan! He cannot change it! He surrenders to that force. He’s Muslim!” he said.
When I posed the question to Duncan, there was no denying it. He is a lover of gravity and all things grounding. He’s Muslim.
Was gravity a loophole, a prerequisite, or a definition of Muslim-ness? I don’t know. The gesture itself was greater than its parts.
Duncan and I have now been together for eight years and recently became engaged. I’m Muslim. He’s atheist. And our biggest argument to date is whether or not our someday children will celebrate Christmas.
The battle continues, but we’re on the same team.
Zahra Noorbakhsh is a writer, actor and stand-up comedian, whose one-woman shows All Atheists Are Muslim and Hijab and Hammerpants have appeared at the New York International Fringe Theater Festival, San Francisco Theater Festival, and Solo Performance Workshop Festival, with widespread critical acclaim. She is a graduate of the UC Berkeley in Theatre & Performance Studies. Though she began as a stand-up comic, her love of storytelling drew her into the world of theater and ultimately the art of short story writing.