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The adolescent dread of humiliating, nonconforming differences has fueled books and movies for decades and, as a Muslim teenager in Southern California in the late 1970s, I personified nonconformity. For years I cringed whenever I recalled a high school telephone conversation which terminated shortly after the young man on the other end demanded, “What do you mean you can’t come to the prom because of your religion?!”

My adolescent life never marched in rhythm with those of my non-Muslim friends. Balancing Muslim practices successfully with teenage life in Los Angeles was no easy feat. As a Muslim girl, I never dated and could not be alone with boys. I rarely attended parties and never attended dances, so I never learned to dance when all my peers did–seventh grade?–and even now the lurking prospect of encountering dancing at parties or corporate functions, even with my husband, never fails to incite, deep within my soul, the irrepressible urge to flee.

Leaving my non-Muslim friends in order to perform my prayers several times a day was an uncomfortable thing. Abstaining from food and water during the fasting month of Ramadan evoked frankly incredulous stares. Those of my Muslim acquaintances who wore a head scarf, a hijab, wore daily visible evidence of their differences. Even for those of us not wearing a hijab, the common showers after gym class did not exactly facilitate adherence to the Muslim strictures on modesty. And those regulation bloomers we had to wear–! Well.

Although South-Asian Muslims populate many elementary schools in America now, this was not the case three decades ago. I was usually the only one in my school until my second year of law school. Until then, only once did I ever encounter another ethnically South-Asian Muslim student in my school, and he was a lower life form as far as my fifteen-year-old self was concerned. Throughout my childhood, my parents endeavored to meet other Muslim families, and so I did come to have some Muslim friends near my age, but they all lived over thirty miles away.

My Muslim friends and I continually struggled to maintain both the traditionally Muslim and the traditionally American aspects of our lives. But because it was difficult, some of my Muslim acquaintances simply began leaning toward one culture or the other, either totally assimilating into the Southern California scene and forgetting they were Muslim, or retreating from California teenage life and socializing with only other Muslims. The retreat from California teenage culture did not constitute a rejection of American society–we were all American Muslims–but the perpetual tension involved in balancing the Indian Muslim identity with the American identity was exhausting. Some of my Muslim acquaintances simply found it easier to socialize with people like themselves, those who did not continually misunderstand them and their Muslim lifestyle and did not regard them as quite so freaky.

Islam is a religion of orthopraxy, practice-oriented rather than doctrine-oriented. The practice of Islam, therefore, cannot be kept totally secret, much to adolescent dismay. Islam is often called a way of life rather than a religion. The Qur’an hardly differentiates between practical life and spiritual life, and Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, himself led his community practically as well as spiritually.

The five basic tenets of Islam are the guidelines for how Muslims conduct their daily lives. These tenets, called the “five pillars” of Islam, are common in some form to many religions:

  • The declaration of faith
  • Prayer
  • Fasting
  • Pilgrimage
  • Donation to charity

The only requirement for becoming a Muslim is the first pillar: the declaration of faith, or shahada. To declare faith in Islam, the words, “There is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God” must be recited and wholeheartedly believed. That is all that is necessary to become a Muslim: pronouncement of and belief in this one statement. The remaining pillars have more to do with being a good Muslim once faith has been declared.

The practices of Islam, mostly exemplified in the five pillars, may at first seem stranger than they actually are. (They certainly seemed strange to my junior high school peers.) But, Islamic practices are simply slightly different manifestations of the same basic tenets that frame many religions.

For example, nearly all religions require or advocate prayer in some form, as evidenced by churches, temples, synagogues, and other places of worship. Fasting in some form exists in both Judaism and Christianity, as well as other religions: Jews fast for Yom Kippur, and Catholics fast for Lent. Pilgrimage to a holy place should be a familiar concept, too, as thousands of people annually flock to Jerusalem, a city holy to Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. The outward appearances between Islam and other religions may seem different, but the basic values are very similar.

"Now what would you do," asked my Sunday School teacher at the mosque, "if you were working and it was time to pray? Would you pray in your office or forego your prayers?"

We squirmed silently, not because we had no opinions, but because we were terrified of our teacher.

"What you would do," he continued austerely, "is pray when it was time to pray. I pray in my office, and if any of my colleagues come in, they see that I am praying and come back later."

We dubiously returned his severe regard. As students in junior high school, we lived in trepidation of exposing ourselves to ridicule, and prayer in Islam is not exactly inconspicuous. It involves bowing, kneeling, standing upright, and reciting to oneself in Arabic. Interpreting something different as “bad” seems to be a universal human failing, and that is without even taking into account the mysterious thought processes of junior high school students.