This is a true story, so (some) names have been changed.
I have an exceptional memory for everything I don’t need to remember, and everything I want to forget. I notice and memorize facial expressions–I read people, the spark in their eyes, the curve of their lips–to the degree that it exhausts me. I despise West Hollywood purely because of its plethora of humans. It’s an information processing overload: thousands of people, crowded, emotions brought to overwhelmingly vibrant life in a symphony of discord. It’s suffocating.
Earlier today, I sifted through memories, desperate to write about something. This compelling need to write strikes like the triple-negative breast cancer my mother has spent years seeking a cure for, pouring homegrown amino acids into test tubes. When we lived in Atlanta, I followed her around in her lab at Emory University. Sometimes I’d spend all of Saturday there as I watched her boss manipulate the genomes of baby zebra fish. Eventually even this bored my seven-year-old self, so I spent my excess time memorizing the spelling of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious and attempting to impress PhD students by pompously reciting the names of all 50 states in alphabetical order.
On Sundays, however, I was dragged away from the laboratory to attend classes at weekend school. I was in early elementary, so my classes were not sex-segregated. I still remember the children in my year. Maryam and Layla, two Indonesian sisters with the longest, darkest, most beautiful hair I’d ever seen, hair that fell to their knees unencumbered by scarves. Sara and Haris, the painfully well-behaved brother-sister pair who put the rest of us to abject shame. Saba, who conducted “science experiments” with me. And Aminah, who never did anything interesting.
Sunday School taught me stories, fact conflated with whimsical fiction. Our first-period class was Quranic Studies. I despised it. Although I’d been reading English fluently since the age of four, Arabic evaded me. One day, instead of reading, I decided to draw pictures.
Sister Asha was quite shocked. She stalked over to my desk and seized my wide-ruled notebook. (It was yellow, I believe.) “Beti,” she chastised, “Astaghfirullah! What do you think you’re doing, drawing pictures of living beings?”
I stared at her in confusion. “I didn’t know what you’re–”
She ignored my pleas. “Child, when you arrive before Allah on the Day of Judgement, He will ask you about this drawing. You will be questioned about your attempt to copy the creation of Allah. It is forbidden!”
She went on, oblivious to my questions. “On the day of Qiyamah, Allah will inform you that only He has the power to create life! And he will ask you whether you have power to give life to the dead. He will ask you, ‘Can you give life to this picture?’ So I ask–can you?”
I was thoroughly perplexed. Wide-eyed, I gazed at my “artwork.” It was a crude rendition of a child with a pleated skirt, bobbed hair and long lashes–not bad for an eight-year-old artist, but terrifying nonetheless: the sort of cartoon that haunts the nightmares of little girls.
In my imagination, I supposed I did have the power to bring it to life. But I found the prospect disturbing.
“Um,” I said uncomfortably. “No. No, I can’t bring it to life.”
I don’t remember what happened after that. Presumably, the picture was confiscated, and I went back to reading Quran like the scholars commanded us: lips moving silently (because God forbid we girls should recite aloud–there were men around, for heaven’s sake, and the cadence of a woman’s voice causes fitnah), whispering in a language we didn’t understand (because Arabic is the mothertongue of Jannah, apparently).
As I scanned the twirling calligraphy, uncomprehending, I contemplated the possibility of ending up in Hellfire because of my drawings. Surely God would not send a third grader to His Lake of Fire simply because she had an affinity for charcoal and sketch pencils. Surely He was Merciful.
But if I had been able to understand the Quran I was reading, I would have noticed that it does not prohibit the visual arts, and even mentions that the notably righteous King Solomon owned jinn who created decorative statues for him (34:13).
Sunday School’s prohibitions on music and art were, however, only part of the picture. There were several classes that I actually liked. One of them was Sister Talia’s seerah class.
Sister Talia was around twenty years old. She was sweet and pretty, softspoken, and all the kids liked her (probably due to her inability to maintain discipline among her students). Her stories were captivating. We learned about Dajjal (the Antichrist) and about the tribes of Gog and Magog, and about the wondrous Mahdi, who would come to save us from them all. We learned about the forty signs of the Day of Judgement. We learned about how squirrels avoid graveyards because they can hear the screams of the dead, who are being punished six feet under. We learned about how young children can see angels. And best of all–we learned about the night of Isra and Mi’raj, during which Muhammad (sws) ascended to the highest heavens on the back of a beautiful pegasus-unicorn-creature, Buraq. (Hence my ardent belief that unicorns exist.)
Sister Talia’s stories were, doubtless, of highly questionable origin and authenticity. But we lapped them up like teacup Pomeranians. If nothing else, her class provided us with an excellent dose of weekly entertainment.
I loved Sister Talia and still love her. Nevertheless, I have never ceased to wonder whether she truly believed the stories she told us. Was she really that naïve? Perhaps she was. Perhaps, since the ink of a scholar is holier than the blood of a martyr, she believed the words of scholars to be nearly infallible–as most Muslims mistakenly do.
Now it’s my siblings’ turn to go to Islamic weekend school. I’m a little concerned about what they will be taught there, but I hope that one day, they’ll be endowed with enough ‘aql to distinguish truth from falsehood.
I long for the establishment of classes in which children learn to understand the Quran through its own lens, where they learn expression and humanity instead of repression.
I was lucky. I was never physically hit as punishment for making mistakes in Quranic recitation, although there was plenty of chastisement involved (“You are changing the word of God! This borders on shirk!”). I was also never subjected to wholesale indoctrination. Said indoctrination often occurs in madrasas overseas. Young boys are taught to recite the Quran with perfect tajweed while simultaneously learning about the evils of free thinking and scientific inquiry.
I ask for education, not indoctrination. I ask for rational thought. I ask for peace.
Here are some gems from the books I read on Islam as a child (ages 8-9). Notice how women are forbidden from reciting the Quran (aloud), children can be beaten for refusing to pray (“no compulsion in religion much?!”), and Bukhari collected over 300,000 ahadith but only considered seven thousand to be acceptable for publication!
Also, keep in mind that these are intended as children’s Islamic literature. When I was slightly older, around 10-11, I read the books on Hanafi fiqh owned by my parents. I was quite horrified.