From a very early age, I was not satisfied with the way Islam was presented to me. In Islamic Sunday school it was spoken about
in very concrete terms. Permissible/Forbidden. Wrong/Right.
This black-and-white way of approaching the religion was also coupled with stories from the tradition. The Qur’an -the literal word of God- seemed to be only for reciting. I’ll run out of fingers if I think about how many times I was told that I couldn’t possibly understand the Qur’an, that I shouldn’t even bother.
What we spoke about was mostly hadith-historical reports of what the Prophet Muhammad said and did. The conversations
never applied to my daily life as an American Muslim teenager. And I felt a little bit insulted. Here I was looking for the Truth, the core of the religion, and all I was hearing was that because marshmallows contain gelatin, they are forbidden. And that the Qur’an forbade monetary interest.
This did not appeal or make sense to me, and I struck out on my own. I finished a translation of the Qur’an, and read quite a bit of a translation of one volume of Bukhari’s hadith collection.
At the age of 16, I joined the Progressive Muslim listserv, headed at the time by Iranian-Canadian activist, Pedram Moallemian, and attended my first progressive Muslim conference, the “Islamic Hinterland.”
There I was introduced to Farid Esack, Amina Wadud, and Shabbir Akhtar, among others. After the conference I began reading their works as well as other prominent scholars (e.g. Fatima Mernissi) seeking to view Islam in different lights. Though they all approached not just the Qur’an, but tradition, and Islamic Law.
During college, I majored in Psychology, Middle Eastern Studies and took a few Women’s studies classes. I read Ahmed Ali’s translation of the Qur’an, and took courses with titles like, “Historical Construction of Sexuality in the Middle East, with Dr. Sima Fahid. I was also introduced to works of Basim Musallam, Khaled Abou El Fadl, Fazlur Rahman, Muhammad
Abduh, and Shi’i thought as well. I also lived in Egypt around this time. My reading and experience traveling abroad gave me a pretty good idea of the spectrum of opinions and beliefs out there.
Throughout all of this time, my relationship with a more ‘traditional Islam’ was relatively non-existent except through arguments and debates with Muslims on-line. Though I couldn’t exactly define my own islam, I never bought the ideas I kept hearing in mainstream, Sunni mosques and Muslim Students’ Association events.
The approach to religion is my meager attempt at explaining what I believe.