Writer Brings Muslim Faith to the People

Religion News Service

When she was in kindergarten, Asma Gull Hasan was sent to the principal’s office at her Catholic school for telling the class that Jesus was not the son of God. Muslims, she explained, believe that Jesus was a prophet, but not a divine being.

After that episode, Hasan kept her religious beliefs under wraps, but she recalls now that she enjoyed knowing that she had her own identity and views different from her classmates.

“I kind of felt like it was a little secret I had to myself,” she said.

Today, however, Hasan cannot keep her secret any longer. The 29-year-old daughter of Pakistani immigrants has just published her second book designed to educate non-Muslims about Islam and present the religion in a way that clarifies the basics and provokes discussion about the world’s second-largest religion.

The book, “Why I am a Muslim: An American Odyssey” (Thorsons Element) is a followup to her 2002 volume, “American Muslims: The New Generation” (Continuum).

In sharing her faith through her writing and public speaking engagements, Hasan articulates the experience of many young American Muslims, who are working out their religious identities within the context of American culture.

Hasan considers herself completely American, referring to “we” when she talks about American policies and positions in the world. Her identity as a Muslim is strong — but not mutually exclusive with being an American.

She has dubbed herself a “Muslim cowgirl feminist,” a moniker that fits her background of a religious Muslim upbringing — in “cowgirl” country in Colorado — and her later education at Wellesley college, which Hasan describes as a “hotbed” of feminism.

Her parents immigrated from Pakistan as a young married couple in the early 1970s. Hasan was born in Chicago, and after a brief stint in Kentucky, where the family was “mystified by Southern culture,” the Hasans settled in Pueblo, Colo.

Educated in a private Catholic school at an early age, Hasan later went to the Groton School, a prestigious Episcopalian boarding school in Massachusetts. She was always a minority in her classes, but it wasn’t until college that she began to feel the need to speak out about her faith.

“I felt this was one of my jobs in life, to talk about Islam to people who aren’t Muslim,” said Hasan from her home in San Francisco.

Hasan, who is a lawyer at a securities litigation firm, took on her writing as a second job, working 10-hour days at the firm before spending her evenings and weekends writing.

Particularly after Sept. 11, 2001, when many Americans expressed a desire to learn about Islam, it became not only an ability, but a duty, Hasan says, for Muslims to educate others.

“It’s important for me to share it. If we don’t, then the terrorists are going to tell us what they think Islam stands for, and that’s not true Islam,” she said.

Hasan admits that it can get tiring to constantly be presenting the basics of her religion.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m explaining my religion all the time,” she said, but added that “there is no foundation, there is no background” of knowledge about Islam among most Americans.

“People aren’t even ready to talk about `young Muslims’ yet,” she said, “They need to learn, what is Islam.”

Hasan cites the Muslim concept of “dawah” when she talks about her writing — the idea that when someone asks a question about Islam, a Muslim is religiously obligated to answer.

A positive development since Sept. 11 is that Americans are genuinely interested in learning about Islam.

“They realize they have a knowledge gap about Islam, and they really want to fill that gap,” she said, “I really have to give Americans credit, we really make an effort to learn more.”

Hasan is not only speaking to non-Muslims in her writing, but also writes for members of her own community.

“The message that young American Muslims should take away is that Islam is between you and God,” she said. “Islam does not belong to the mullahs or al-Qaida or the imam at your local mosque. You have to take control of your own Islam.”

At the same time, though, Hasan argues American culture is a viable lens through which her readers should consider their interpretations of Islam.

“For every Muslim out there, there is a culture they use to interpret Islam,” Hasan said, “I think of myself as a product of American culture,” even though her upbringing included traditional Pakistani teachings, like a prohibition against slumber parties because a child’s free time should be spent with his or her family.

When it comes to the controversial arena of women’s roles in Islam, Hasan says her views are shaped by both the strong female role models in her family and her exposure to American feminist thought in college.

“It is demeaning for a Muslim American woman who everywhere else is treated equally” to face things like women’s prayer areas in local mosques that are nowhere as nice as the men’s areas, she said.

“As an American woman, you have full rights, you have equal rights,” she added, so in mosques, “the areas for women should be as nice as the areas for men, if not nicer.”

Hasan has achieved some notoriety and recognition among her peers in the American Muslim community, but her views also open her up to scrutiny.

“Her attempt was to make Islam something a lot more accessible for ordinary Americans,” said Ayesha Ahmad, a young, traditional Muslim woman who is a reporter for a community newspaper in Prince George’s County, Md.

However, Ahmad, who reviewed Hasan’s first book for the Web site IslamOnline.net, was disappointed at Hasan’s dismissal of such traditional Muslim practices as wearing a headscarf, or “hijab.”

“My approach to my faith is different from hers,” said Ahmad, who does wear a headscarf.

“I think she is speaking predominantly for young Muslim women,” said Ahmad, “Just no young Muslim women that I know.”

But despite this, Hasan’s writing is a useful beacon for American Muslims who may be struggling to articulate their identities as both Americans and Muslims.

“She’s one of the few people among our age group and among our generation who is putting her voice out there,” she said.