05 December 2011
The Importance of Understanding Faith
“Ignorance is the death of living.” –Rumi
Luluah Mustafa is Palestinian-American. Born and raised in Palestine, on the West Bank, she has lived in the United States for almost twelve years. Her father was the principle of the high school in their town, and her mother worked with a federal association where they try and find jobs for people with lower income. Today only one of her sisters still lives in Palestine. Her other siblings live in California, Jordan, and Abu Dhabi, while her mother lives between Jordan and Palestine. Luluah has a Palestinian husband and two children here in the United States. Both she and her husband are practicing Sunni Muslims.
As a child, religion begins as culture; you see your parents praying, and you fast with them. This is how Luluah and her siblings – three brothers and three sisters – learned to practice their faith: At home. But it was in school that they received formal teaching about Islam. There are no Islamic schools where she grew up but, beginning in the first grade, public schools in Palestine have a class called religion. You have religion class until you finish high school, even in college. In areas like the one where she grew up that are predominantly Muslim, that class teaches Islam specifically. If there are many Christians in the student body as well, the student chooses which religion class they are going to take. So she learned about Islam from school, mostly from books.
Luluah acknowledges now that it helped to see her parents practicing at home, but she wishes her parents had been better at educating them about those traditions. They would say, no, you can’t do this, you can’t do that – but they wouldn’t explain why. They never explained to her why she had to wear the hijab. They never sat down and told her and her siblings, for example, these are your pillars of faith, or, this is what you need to do. Luluah and her siblings don’t remember lessons from their parents. They just remember practicing, by nature maybe, as they saw their parents practicing each day and during Ramadan.
“Culture has a big influence on you when you are there,” Luluah says, speaking of Palestine. Unlike her father and brothers she did not attend mosque in Palestine, because it was just for men. When she wore her hijab it was culture too, until she grew up and started learning about it on her own. She knew the basic explanations: It’s obligatory, and you have to do it to please God. But mainly she wore it because everyone was wearing it, and if she didn’t then she would be different, the odd one out. It was not until later in her life, and especially after marriage, that she gained a fuller understanding of her customs.
In Palestine when you enter tenth grade, you have to choose which high school you want to go to. You choose between a high school for literature and languages, and a school for science and mathematics. Her father was the principle of the literature high school, which she attended for her first year before changing to the science and mathematics-focused high school. “It was a very tough year, by the way, when you study with your dad,” she explains. “You can’t do anything!” She used to commute because the math and science high school was in another town.
In addition to taking religion class, Luluah and her siblings also took English beginning in fifth grade. Arabic was their native language, and English was taken not so much as a second language, but for academic purposes. After high school Luluah attended An-Najah University in the city of Nablus. Her major was computer science, so all her classes were in English too, the tests, everything. Students were taught reading and listening because it was just used on exams, and because most of the science nowadays is in English, but they were not taught speaking. She learned to speak English in the U.S.
Luluah’s siblings also received higher education and have good jobs. Several of her siblings also studied computer science: Her brother living in California went on to obtain his masters of business administration, and her sister in Palestine who studied computer science teaches math. One sister studied accounting and has her own consulting firm in Jordan. Her brother in Jordan is a carpenter, and the one in Abu Dhabi a mechanic.
On December 21, 1999 Luluah moved with her husband from Palestine to Kansas City, in the United States. Six months later her husband got a new job and they moved to Boston, this time with their 33 day old newborn, where they currently reside. She is a professor at Boston University, and her husband is currently an IBM computer engineer.
Culture and tradition prevent women from going to mosque in Palestine, but it is not a rule of Islam. So Luluah started going to Mosque when she and her husband came to the United States. They knew that if they wanted to know people when they came here they needed to go to Mosque, for the social aspect. They do not go every day, but they do go for holidays. Their mosque has two floors, one for women and one for men, and prayer is led by an Imam. Not a specific one, she clarifies; it usually rotates between a few men. Her children go with her to mosque also: All ages and gender are welcome in mosque and are treated equally.
Luluah particularly enjoys going during Muslim holidays. Back home, she explains, the feeling of their holiday is everywhere, like Christmas in the United States. You start preparing for it. You go downtown, to the mall; everywhere makes you feel as though it is Christmas time. But Muslim holidays in the U.S. are not institutionalized like Christian holidays are; that cultural aspect is not taken care of. “Because you don’t see it, if you want to really feel that you have your own holiday then you need to go to mosque.” It is there that they do traditional things.
Both Luluah and her husband have had time in their lives when they prayed, and when they stopped, because they prayed from seeing their parents pray but without really knowing why. It was only after learning for themselves about their practices as they grew older that Luluah and her husband became more absolute in their faith. When they married, and especially when they can to the U.S., she and her husband decided they needed to be either practicing Muslims, or non-practicing Muslims, because that would determine how their children would grow up, and be. It would be confusing to their children to see more than one thing. So they help each other.
Today, Luluah is firm in her thought that there is no use fluctuating in your belief. If you do not always pray, then you do not know why you pray. Because she now understands her five daily prayers, when she misses one she feels so bad, and doesn’t know how: “It’s like missing a meal, and feeling so hungry when it’s not time to eat. It’s something mental. You feel so bad about yourself, it’s like you’re really committing sin.” Muslims feel that prayer is meeting with God, so if you miss a meeting it means God is not important to you.
It is difficult, Luluah admits, to fit all five prayers in a busy day, on time. Her prayer time is often very short, and sometimes she combines two prayers together. It is not the perfect way to do it, but it is better than missing it. She keeps her prayer rug in her office and prays there most of the time.
Luluah’s children, an eleven-year-old son and an 8-year-old daughter, are bilingual, but English was their first language. They speak colloquial Arabic, or amiyya, at home, but they sit down for religion and language classes every Sunday and study fusha then. (In addition to teaching Arabic at Boston University, for eight years Luluah taught full time in an Islamic school in the US.) Her children used to attend Islamic schools but now go to public schools. To supplement that, in addition to teaching religion at home she also encourages them to practice. When she and her husband pray, they call them over to pray as well. Even if they don’t know exactly how to do it, they are at least getting used to it. At Ramadan they even fasted a couple of days.
Luluah is encouraging her daughter to wear a hijab also, but explains that it is ultimately her daughter’s decision. If her daughter is not convinced of it, the decision is up to her. In Luluah’s religion, you cannot force anyone to do anything if they do not believe in it. This, perhaps, is why understanding is so important to her. Luluah’s duty is to teach her children, to tell them what she believes in, what is right and what is wrong, but they have the responsibility to choose. Even if her children decide not to pray, she cannot force them. She gives her friend as an example, who is also covered. This friend has four children, one in college, two in high school and one in elementary school, and none of them wear the hijab. Yet even her son, if they are expecting somebody and he sees her without her scarf, he is alarmed: “Mom! You’re not wearing your hijab!” Because he is used to it.
On another note, even in the U.S. wearing the hijab can just be cultural. If a person is covered, that does not mean they are practicing. Praying is more important than whether or not you wear a head scarf, Luluah explains.
Luluah has not taken a pilgrimage, but she, like every Muslim, wishes to do so at least once in her life. Her husband went once, but she did not go because her children were too young. Even now, she will wait until they are older. She prefers to remain constant in their lives, knowing that she and her husband are the most important people in their children’s Islamic education. It is their duty to help their children pursue the ideal of fully understanding their religion.
Mustafa, Luluah. Personal Interview. 28 November 2011.
Mustafa, Luluah. Personal Interview. 02 December 2011.
Mustafa, Luluah. Personal Interview. 04 December 2011.