How Muslim are you?

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, Dylan, 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 Dylan 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, Dylan, a staunch atheist, would have to convert and that would be a lie. Dylan and I work as a couple, atheist and Muslim together, because of our utmost respect for each other’s differing beliefs—or as Dylan 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 Dylan and I would be living together.  How could I lay this extra brick, Dylan’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:  “Dylan 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 Dylan 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 Dylan!  He cannot change it!  He surrenders to that force.  He’s Muslim!” he said.

When I posed the question to Dylan, 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.

Dylan 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.


11 Comments on “How Muslim are you?”

  1. am says:

    very interesting!

  2. Aysha Abdullah says:

    It’s one thing to be a sinner, but to flaunt your sins to the world is something else entirely. Why is she wasting her time pretending to be a Muslim woman?

    The truth is that the reason she hasn’t publicly renounced the Muslim faith is that she doesn’t want to upset her family. But in her heart she probably renounced it long ago. Just be honest woman! Embrace your true beliefs. Just tell your pappy you don’t believe in all that Koran and Sharia business. If you really valued honesty as much as you pretend you do, then you would have just said “Daddy I am not a Muslim. I reject the religion my parents gave to me. I am an atheist, living in sin with another atheist. Accept me as I am, or lose me for ever.”

    “How Muslim are you?” We all know the answer Zahra. Time for you to say it out loud.

    • R says:

      I agree with Aysha. The answer is very clear about “how Muslim are you”. Don’t make a fool of yourself publicly. Just say to yourself what you already believe in your heart and mind.

    • J says:

      Um, isn’t that a little presumptuous? You don’t even give reasons. Her relationship with Allah is her business and her prerogative, so telling her that such a relationship isn’t real because it doesn’t match your conception of a Muslim… Isn’t that sort of, well, rude?

  3. Human says:

    Every time I read/hear about Muslims loving/marrying non-Muslims (men and women), I can’t help but feel for them. I always thought that true love lasts forever, meaning that I want to be with the one I love, in Jannah. How do Muslims who marry non-Muslims reconcile these feelings? Do you convince yourself that your spouse will accompany you? Do you resort to believing that relationships are only an Earthly thing?

    For those wondering, I am a 23 year old (unmarried, virgin) Muslim man.

  4. krh says:

    Sounds to me like you’re in denial.

    It’s the first pillar in Islam that you recognize the existence of God, Muhammad as his messenger, and God’s angels, oneness, and powers.

    Belief in gravity – a force proven to exist using mathematical evidence and scientific reasoning, mind you – is NOT the same as recognizing the existence of a divine leader, the illiterate messenger of this divine leader, and the powers of this divine leader.

    And, for the record, you often misuse “I” and “me.” You might want to look into that.

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  6. sapphire says:

    I don’t think we can take such matters of belief so lightly as Muslims. Where would you draw the line in the end? What’s the point in your belief in God (as a Muslim) if you view yourself as an equal to a non-believer… Calling it differening perspectives?

    Having said that, I do like your writing. I think you’re funny and I laughed out loud at the humour in your story in Love, Inshallah (book).

  7. Tired of feeling alone says:

    Assalamu-alaikum Sister, I wanted to thank you for your story. And I don’t think that anyone, at all, has the right to judge you. Or to tell you that “you are not a Muslim because…” Your relationship to Allah is yours, and yours alone. How you connect to Allah is with you and you only.

  8. Shereen says:

    I don’t think I could ever find a Muslim who has the same kind of connection or way of relating to God, and understanding God, that I do. With anyone, there would be disparities in our spiritual experience and things over which we disagree, and there would still exist an inability to share the whole experience with my partner—a struggle to share our Islam(s) but which would likely not be reconciled. But someone who is agnostic (understanding that this designation is different than atheist, however)—neither affirming nor rejecting my faith, but at least appreciating the reality of my experience—could at least share the other parts of life with me, and although I cannot “share” this connection to God with him, in a sense, I wouldn’t find myself troubled by the tendency to try to make our perspectives converge on the matter. If his values align with my own—aside from belief itself, the resulting values and virtues are hardly Muslim-specific—then I do not see how being with a non-Muslim makes a Muslim woman any less Muslim, or in any way weakens her relationship to God.

    In the case of Zahra, perhaps being with an atheist and having her beliefs *challenged* (maybe not often or explicitly, but implicitly) could actually strengthen her faith through the process of reaffirming it. If her partner is a good man—and him not believing in God in no way takes away from his character—and Zahra is able to live her values, there is no problem here. Things are a little more complicated if they choose to have children, but (1) in no way are they obligated to do so (2) having one atheist parent does not preclude a children from growing up Muslim.

    In sum, there are many ways to be Muslim and how one lives and reinforces their faith is about the individual experience of the Muslim in question—and loving a non-Muslim, just like loving the world’s majority non-Muslim humanity, does not necessarily take away from one’s love of God.