Chapter One: Because I Was Born Muslim

He it is Who shapes you in the wombs as He wills.
There is no deity save Him, the Almighty, the Truly Wise.”
Qur’an 3:6

“When forty-two nights have passed over the drop,
God sends an angel to it, who shapes it and makes it ears, eyes, skin, flesh and bones.
Then he says, ‘O Lord, is it male or female?’
And your Lord decides what he wishes.”
Hadith (Saying) attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, from the Hadith collection of Salih Muslim

In the late thirteenth century, the descendants of the Mongolian warrior Genghis Khan traveled just off the Silk Route from their Central Asian home to an area in what is now called Afghanistan. The grass was long and high. Tigers and lions roamed freely then. The Mongolians wore long, parka-like coats with fur collars and cuffs to stay warm in the winters. They had fair skin but dark hair and Oriental-looking eyes that were narrow and smooth. They were Muslims who had invaded. They were the Khans. Their people would live in the shadow of the Himalayas for centuries.

Hundreds of years later, in 1970, Seeme Khan, who belonged to the family branch that had moved to India and then Pakistan, married a man from a different ancestry – the Aryan tribe of India, descended from migratory Europeans – who took her to America, where she gave birth to me in Chicago. I was born a Muslim and on the small of my baby back was the blue blemish all Mongolian babies are born with and which eventually fades away in infancy. Called the Mongolian spot, it is found among direct descendants of Genghis Khan.

My mother wanted to name me Scheherazade after the narrator-character of The Arabian Nights. My grandmother wanted to name me Asma (ahh-si-muh), after her sister who died young and whom she never knew. My mother found the choice a little macabre and said, “We’ll let her father decide.” When my father came to visit me at the hospital the day after I was born, he said, “I love my mother-in-law so much, she can have whatever she wants.” So my father, much to my mother’s shock, named me after her late aunt.

“Asma” means “high” or “exalted” in Arabic. “Asma” is derived from the Arabic and Persian word “asmaan,” which means sky. Although my dad is a doctor, he didn’t realize that people would forever be calling me “Asthma” – just like the bronchial tube breathing disease. Throughout my school days and until only recently, boys would mockingly breathe heavily in front of me, simulating an asthma attack, each one thinking he was being quite original. The latest assault on my name comes courtesy of Microsoft Word’s AutoCorrect feature, which automatically corrects my name, ASMA, to ASTHMA. Once a law school professor of mine wrote an e-mail to me reading, “Dear Asthma, I know your name is Asthma and not Asthma, but my Microsoft Outlook e-mail is automatically changing Asthma to Asthma. Sorry!”

Asma Saves Islam
My aunt Asma had been named after one of Islam’s bravest women: Asma bint Abu Bakr (which roughly translates as “Asma born of Abu Bakr”). Abu Bakr was one of the Prophet Muhammad’s closest advisors and led the Muslim community after the Prophet’s death. Asma was one of the first converts to Islam. In 622 C.E., Muhammad found news of an assassination plot against him. His fellow Meccans, fed up with his talk of this new and just religion, were going to finish him off before he could gain more converts. Unlike the rest of the early Muslim community, Asma had not yet escaped Mecca for Medina. The Muslim community had been invited to re-settle there by the locals in exchange for Muhammad’s services as a negotiator between Medina’s factions. Now, Muhammad was going to make the journey to Medina, not just to re-settle but to flee from the attempts on his life.

In the dark, desert night, and with his nephew Ali sleeping in his bed, Muhammad sneaked out of Mecca, en route to Medina. Abu Bakr accompanied him. They took no provisions. Just in case someone did recognize them in the dark, they didn’t want them to realize that Muhammad was in the midst of an escape. They knew they would be camping out in the Arabian Desert for a few days to let the murder plot unravel. They hid in a cave with a small opening.

The next day, Asma set out for the cave, a spot that had been chosen beforehand. She had bags of food and water hidden on her body that she was going to sneak to her father and Muhammad. She had to be extremely careful. Everyone was looking for Muhammad now as the deception of Ali sleeping in his bed was revealed. A bounty was put on Muhammad’s head: anyone bringing him to the ruling elite of Mecca dead or alive would be handsomely rewarded. But Muhammad might have ended up dying of starvation and thirst first. He would dry up in the desert cave before any bounty hunter could find him. Asma made sure he did not.

For several days, she brought them food surreptitiously, and not one of the ruthless Meccans found Muhammad. She was pregnant at the time too and soon herself escaped to Medina where she gave birth to her son Abdullah just outside the city limits. The early Muslims considered Abdullah’s birth a blessing. He was the first Muslim to be born to the now free Medina Muslim community. Asma had lived up to the meaning of her name: sky. Like the sky, she sheltered Muhammad and her father, securing Islam’s growth and success for the next twelve years, when her father’s leadership of the community ended with his death in 634 C.E.

Asma Reads
When I was a baby, my grandmother told me the story of Asma bint Abu Bakr and her own sister Asma. She spoke to me in Urdu, the language of her home country, Pakistan, while I dozed in and out of naps as a baby does. As a child, my parents spoke to me in the tongue of their youth: British-Pakistani English. But when they wanted to tell each other secrets, they spoke in Urdu, not realizing that I had already dreamt in that language as a baby. I grew up in Pueblo, Colorado, where the locals spoke to me in Spanish, though I knew hardly a word. When my mom talked to her siblings on the phone, she sometimes spoke in Punjabi, a secondary language of Pakistan. I spoke American English, the language taught in school.

With all these languages in my head, I guess I could not keep them straight. In first grade, my teacher told my mother that I was “retarded.” My mental disability, she said, meant I would never learn to read or write English without special help. I sat quietly, watching my teacher tell my mother that I was retarded. I had a disease, my first-grade self thought. I accepted it. I knew that all the other kids in the class knew the alphabet better than me. It took a lot longer for them to say it than for me: A B C K L V Z was my alphabet roughly.

My mother was defiant at my diagnosis. She said to the teacher: “My daughter can read. You just don’t know how to teach her.”

That day, before we had dinner, my mom called me downstairs to the playroom in our basement. “Sit down here,” she pointed to a spot next to her on the couch. She had a book of the alphabet in her lap. I began learning British English from my mother, every day, after school for an infinitely long hour. English had, until then, been a haze to me, a blur of black and white letters and pages, out of focus and flashing by me.

“Make the sounds,” my mother would tell me. “C sounds like cuh, cuh.”

“Cuh,” I said breathily one afternoon. “Ah-tuh. Cuh-ah-tuh.” Recognition shook my entire, little body. I knew what this was!

“CAT!” I squealed proudly. The blur of the letters had started to come into focus just a little bit. I was so excited.

“That’s right,” said my mom.

When the Prophet Muhammad received the first Qur’anic revelation, he had been meditating alone in a cave, as was common in that time. He was a religious man without a religion. He had heard of Christians and Jews and wondered why his people did not have a movement like those. Out of nowhere, an apparition appeared before him – it was not a person but it looked like one. The apparition squeezed him, hard. Muhammad felt like he couldn’t breathe.

“READ!” the apparition commanded him. It was the angel Gabriel. The Arabic term for “read” is “Iqra.”

Muhammad, now practically suffocating, knew very well he couldn’t read. He was illiterate. Having been born an orphan into a poor family, he was not educated.

“I can’t!” he must have thought, pleadingly.

The angel insisted again, “READ!” IQRA!

Muhammad wasn’t sure if he was going mad or not, but he felt the angel right there in front of him, squeezing the life out of him.

“READ in the name of thy Lord who created you,” Gabriel insisted.

Caught in this furious embrace, he felt the words rise up out of him. Something had taken hold of him, and the angel’s grip kept him from fighting it. His mouth began moving with the most amazing words:

“Oh, the sudden calamity!
How awesome the sudden calamity!
And what could make thee conceive what that sudden calamity will be?
[It will occur] on the Day when men will be
like moths swarming in confusion,
and the mountains will be like fluffy tufts of wool . . .
(Qur’an 101:1-5).

Muhammad received the first revelation of the Qur’an. Islam was born. It would change the life of Muhammad, his wife Khadijah, and, eventually the lives of over a billion people, including me.

Muhammad, despite receiving revelations till his death twenty-two years later, never learned to read. Reading was a luxury in pre-Islamic Arabia. In fact, most of the Islamic world, even today, is illiterate. The Qur’an that Gabriel exhorted Muhammad to READ cannot be read by most of the world’s Muslims, unfortunately. I would not have this problem. I was lucky enough to be born to a mother who could read and who taught me British English. The homework my mother sent me off to school with would read: “colour” instead of “color,” “theatre” instead of “theater.” I would return home with the homework, which my teacher had marked as incorrect with these spellings.

“No wonder she thought you couldn’t read,” my mother said. “She can’t even spell!”

By the end of the year, I was the strongest reader in my class – in any kind of English. Not bad for a “retarded” Mongolian.

Growing Up Muslim in Pueblo
I grew up in a dusty, mini-metropolis about 100 miles south of Denver: Pueblo, Colorado. Our house was a Mediterranean style stucco with a red-tile roof. We were the sole Muslim and Pakistani family for years and, even with a few additions, the Muslim and Pakistani population was never high. Pueblo was the gateway to the Southern Colorado community and the Southwest. It had a large Latino and Chicano population, of which I became an honorary member because of my dark hair, eyes, and complexion. Native Spanish speakers would solicit me in conversation.

“Como esta?” an older Latino man would say to my sister and me while we waited for my mom to pay for her groceries.
“Oh, we don’t speak Spanish,” my sister would say authoritatively, taking her role as the older sister very seriously.

“Bah, you kids don’t care about your culture no more,” the man would gruff and then stomp out of the store. Spanish speakers would become very irate when we wouldn’t respond “en Espanol.” But, as we would later tell mom at home, we weren’t Latino.

“Yes, you are!” My mother replied.

“Mom, how can we be?” My sister asserted the way that an eleven-year-old girl does with her mother.

“Your ancestors were the Moors,” my mom said, “who conquered Spain.”

“But mom, I thought we were Mongolian,” I whined, confused.

“Your mother claims to be related to everyone!” My father’s phantom voice piped in from the background.

About the time my sister had to learn a second language at school, my father laid the down the law. Our school offered German or Spanish, but, according to my father, we needed to learn to speak Spanish.

“German is useless in America,” my father said. “Everyone here speaks Spanish,” my father continued. “I’m too old to learn, but you all will,” He commanded. “I want to see straight A’s on your report card in Spanish and everything else!”

I quietly nodded, hoping dad would forget about his straight A’s edict. Except for English, my highest grades were B’s. I wanted to learn Spanish, but I couldn’t guarantee I could do as well as he wanted me to. Maybe I could remind him, when my report card came, what my first grade teacher said. I didn’t know why my father felt so strongly. At the time I didn’t realize that he had scores of only Spanish-speaking patients, who would go on and on in Spanish about their “dolor” (which is Spanish for “pain”) and point to their lower back, then their head. They would talk for what seemed like minutes, pointing to other body parts, but their translators would turn to my dad and say only: “His back hurts.”

“What do you mean ‘his back hurts’? What did he just talk about for ten minutes?”

“I told you. His back hurts.”

Frustrated, my dad willed that his own children would not experience this same frustration. “If everyone here speaks Spanish, you should too!” he told us.

For most of my Spanish classes, we spoke only in Spanish. My ears soon began to adapt to the sound of Spanish, much as they had to Urdu. In high school, I began dreaming in Spanish. I would close my eyes and see pages of Spanish words in front of me in black and white, just flashing before my eyes, sharp and clear. My mom was right. My DNA already knew Spanish. My ancestors did include the great Muslim warrior Tariq Ibn Ziyad, who liberated Spain from the Visigoths and brought about 300 years of a peaceful, multi-faith reign.

Fitra: To Be Born Muslim
I was born a Muslim. When you are born Muslim, you are born with the history of Islam behind you. The birth of each Muslim continues the epics of Islamic history. My Islamic ancestors were great scholars, conquerors, and philosophers. They invented Algebra and modern navigation. They fought the Crusades, and they brought peace to Arabia, Spain, and India. Islam is more than a religion. Islam has been one of the world’s greatest and most successful movements ever. The famous Pakistani poet, Iqbal, wrote of the cycle of Islamic history that “Islam is re-born after every Karbala.” Referencing the Karbala massacre, where Muslim factions fought each other, killing the Prophet’s grandson Husain in the process, Iqbal reminds us that the story of Islam is one of both disappointments and triumphs. The poem continues by saying that for every time, for every group of Muslims, they must face their own version of a Karbala before they can move into the next phase. Just like the Moorish Muslims spoke Spanish in Cordoba, this South Asian Muslim girl spoke Spanish in Pueblo.

Islam teaches that we are all born Muslim, actually, a concept called fitra. Then, over time, we lose touch with the religion of our birth. Many are assimilated into another religious tradition, either because the family the child is born into is not Muslim or the child’s surroundings and environment don’t facilitate spiritual growth. Fitra should not be misunderstood though. When Islam says that we are all born Muslim, Islam is saying that we are born wanting to submit to God’s will, that we are all born innocent and able to recognize right from wrong. The word “Muslim” means a person who follows Islam. “Islam” means submission. The implied object of this submission is God. A Muslim is one who submits to God and God alone. Fitra is the idea that we are born ready and able to submit, inherently capable of doing right instead of wrong:

“And so, set thy face steadfastly towards the one ever-true faith, turning away from all that is false, in accordance with the natural disposition [fitra in Arabic] which God has instilled into man: [for,] not to allow any changes to corrupt what God has thus created – this is the [purpose of the one] ever-true faith; but most people know it not” (30:30).

Muslims believe that God, as the Creator, created all humans and that he meant for us to be diverse. Our diversity is also a part of our collective fitra. As a Muslim, I am part of a world community of over a billion people. The Qur’an says: “And among His wonders is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your tongues and your colors: for in this, behold, there are messages indeed for all who are possessed of knowledge” (30:22).

A Muslim meets other Muslims almost daily. A baggage handler at Denver International Airport my mother recently met told her about his escape from Ethiopia. Like Muhammad and Abu Bakr, he had escaped Ethiopia in the middle of the night, fleeing to a refugee camp. Once he received refugee status, he was granted asylum in the United States. When they met and realized the other was Muslim, they gave each other the Islamic greeting that all Muslims are taught, from when they can first talk, to give each other. Even Busta Rhymes – the hip hop artist known for his animated presence – returned my Islamic greeting when I saw him once at a hotel.

“Assalamulaykum,” is the greeting Muslims give to each other: “Peace be with you.” “Walaykumasalaam” is the response: “And also with you.” From Busta to the DIA baggage handler, the fitra manifests itself. When I meet another Muslim I automatically know I am meeting someone who understands my heritage, who believes in one God. This recognition between Muslims is part of the fitra of all Muslims. We are over a billion brothers and sisters, living all over the world and yet sharing core beliefs. At any moment, somewhere in the world, a Muslim is performing one of the five, daily, Islamic prayers. A Muslim takes pride and comfort from this unity and acknowledges it with our special greeting when we see each other. We understand each other at a level so intimate it could almost be subconscious. This connection is spiritually powerful.

The Fitra of Adam and Eve
When God made Adam and Eve (called Hawaa in Islamic tradition), he made them independently of each other. He made them because he wanted one of His creations to represent him, to exemplify the knowledge he had but that his other creations – the angels and animals – lacked. When they both used their curiosity to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree, God had to punish them. He expelled them from Eden to Earth where according to Islamic legend they were separated from each other. Although God forgave them, He wanted them, in Islam, to find each other first.

For years, according to the legend (which is described in Kanan Makiya’s lyrical novel The Rock), Adam and Eve wandered Earth alone. They were constantly moving and searching but not knowing what they would find or even what they were looking for. Their memories of Eden were distant. When they finally ran into each other at Mount Arafat in today’s Mecca, the recognition was immediate. Remembering their idyllic past, Adam must have asked, “Is that you?”

“Who else could I be?” Eve might have said in response. It was fitra for them to recognize each other – they were predisposed to being the other’s mate. God had made them that way. It is fitra for me to be a Muslim. When Adam first laid his eyes on Eve, his connection to her was intuitive. For Muslims, the connection to God is intuitive – like when Muhammad finally began to read as Gabriel squeezed the breath out of him or when I first realized I could read the word CAT. I was born to be Muslim and made by God to be a Muslim.

The Asma al Husna
Every day in grade school at John Neumann Catholic School, when my classmates would have religion class, I would go to the principal’s office. Between his office and the large administrative office was a small room, almost like a hallway, where students would sit when they were in trouble and waiting to see the principal. (Or, in my case, when you were excused from a class.) The room had a few wooden desks, the kind where the writing area comes out from the side like the desk has an arm. They were hard, and different students had chiseled their name or a phrase into their dark-brown wood.

“I WAS HERE,” one marking said. So was Jesus. A small likeness of him hung above the doorway on a small crucifix. I would drag my fingers along the grooves of the desk face, feeling the gaps and indents where students had marked their territory. I was sent here to read books on Islam my mother had bought in Pakistan. My mother had struck a deal with the school: Asma did not have to attend the religion class as long as she studied her own religion. Although, by that time, the nuns had made sure I knew all the Catholic prayers. I liked “The Apostle’s Creed” the best. It had a lyrical quality:

“I believe in God, the Father almighty . . .
I believe in Jesus Christ . . .
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, died, and was buried . . .
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.”

Once, the principal was en route to his own office. Walking through the little room, he caught me reading an Archie comic book. He had long-ish, brown hair and a beard, and I always thought he purposely tried to look like Jesus with his beard and hair. He even told us once he had played Jesus in a church event enacting the Stations of the Cross.

He picked up the Islam book I had brought with me but was ignoring. He opened it to the bookmark and set it on the desk in front of me. Holding the book open with his hand, he stood in front of my seated self.

“READ,” he commanded. He then marched off into his office. He was normally a very gentle person. This was the most aggressive I had ever seen him.

I looked at the page he had opened to. It was headed “The Asma al Husna.” What was this, I said to myself. Is this my name? I had never seen it in print before! I was so excited. My name was here on the page in front of me: A S M A. I immediately started reading. God is described in the Qur’an as having many attributes, like mercy and power. God has several names – each one describing one of these attributes – 99 names in all. The concept of the Asma al Husna is that God is present everywhere and in all ways. The Asma al Husna is a way for us, as Muslims, to acknowledge this belief. Some Muslims recite the various names using prayer beads throughout the day. It’s not uncommon to see a Muslim sitting off in the corner, holding a chain of beads and fingering them one by one, quietly saying each name to himself or herself.

The Qur’an says, “The most beautiful names belong to God: so call on him by them” (7:180). One of the names is Al Khaliq, The Creator, for God created us. He created us as Muslims. The Asma al Husna is called so because “Asma” means high or elevated. These 99 names are the names of the God, who is the most high and most elevated of all: the Asma al Husna. I was so thrilled at this find. My name – which had been the source of jokes mainly until now – really stood for something neat, something very special.

I told my Aunt Tofi about the Asma al Husna that weekend when we visited her in Aurora, a suburb of Denver, where she lived. I told her like she had never heard of it before, which, of course, she had. “Can you believe, all those names, are called Asma?” I asked exuberantly. “Well, that’s a better title than ‘Asma the Great,'” she said, referencing the nickname I had made up for myself. (I had been learning about Alexander the Great in school when I came up with it. I figured if Alexander had the title, why couldn’t I?) “Oh yeah,” I said. “Well, I don’t think I’ll change it,” I laughed. “Asma al Husna is for God!” I chided her.

Years later, my aunt Shazi told her husband, my uncle Imran, “I want to name our baby Sara, after Abraham’s wife.”

“Okay,” my uncle said in his accommodating way.

“Why Sara?” everyone asked my aunt. We were Muslims, and why wouldn’t her child have an Arabic name like the rest of us?

“The name Sara is a part of Islamic tradition,” Shazi told me when I saw her after the baby’s birth. “And, I don’t want Sara to have all the problems you have had with your name.” I suddenly regretted all the complaints I had made about my name, how no one pronounces it right, how everyone makes fun of it, how awkward it is spelling it all the time. Even though Sara is as much an Islamic name as Asma, I felt bad that I had made the name “Asma” seem like such a burden. It is a burden, but it is also a blessing. It is who I am. I would never change it.

“Well, good. She won’t be harassed all the time like Asma was,” my sister Aliya blurted out, joining our conversation. I looked at the baby – she had fair, almost pink skin, and a wealth of black hair sprouting from her head. With a few exceptions all the babies in our family tend to look identical at that age; they’re always large and healthy with the Mongolian spot. The few exceptions, like me, are born premature and small as a result. I forgot to ask Shazi if Sara had the blue blemish on the small of her back like Aliya and I did.

“She has eyes like my sister’s,” my grandmother said. Her sister, Pino, is Shazi’s mother. But Shazi did not inherit Pino’s special eyes. Sara and her maternal grandmother have what my family calls the “Mongolian eyes,” with narrow eyelids and a smooth space under each eyebrow. The eyes are another vestige of the long line of Islamic people we come from – another aspect that ties us to a history, a tradition, a global community, and a way of life. I am a Muslim for many reasons, but one of them is that I was born Muslim. I can’t imagine being anything else.