An Inspiring Account of One Woman's Journey to Reclaim Her Spiritual and Cultural Identity
For Asma Hasan, being a Muslim is not merely a matter of birth, but a matter of choice and faith. Hasan's personal relationship with her religion was, and continues to be, a defining element of her life, and through her writing she inspires a new understanding and appreciation of a frequently misunderstood tradition. This is her American story.
He it is Who shapes you in the wombs as He wills. There is no deity save Him, the Almighty, the Truly Wise.
"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 Sahih Muslim
I grew up in a rural, minimetropolis about one hundred miles south of Denver: Pueblo, Colorado. Our house was 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 is 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 está?" 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 español." 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.
As my mother had told me many times, she once again related our history: In the late thirteenth century, the descendants of the Mongolian warrior Genghis Khan traveled just off the Silk Road from their Central Asian home to an area in what is now called Afghanistan. The grass was high. Tigers and lions roamed freely then. The Mongolians wore long, parkalike 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. 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." 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!"
My great-aunt Asma, and as a result I, 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, Muhammad heard 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 resettle there by the locals in exchange for Muhammad's services as an arbitrator between Medina's factions. Now Muhammad was going to make the journey to Medina, not just to resettle but to flee from the attempts on his life.
In the dark, desert night, and with his cousin 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.