With How to Be a Muslim: An American Story, Haroon Moghul has written a spiritual coming of age story uniquely suited to modern America. Thrust into the spotlight after 9/11, becoming an undergraduate leader at New York University’s Islamic Center, Moghul became a prominent voice for American Muslims even as he struggled with his relationship to Islam. In high school, he was barely a believer and convinced he was going to Hell. He sometimes drank. He didn’t pray regularly. All he wanted was a girlfriend.
How to Be a Muslim is the story of the second-generation immigrant, of what it’s like to lose yourself between cultures, and how to pick up the pieces. Amid depression and bipolar disorder, Moghul struggled to understand his intellectual heritage and the sometimes-debilitating stress of being Muslim in a country where Muslims are often considered suspect. How to Be a Muslim reaches across religions and cultures and into the heart of what it means to be an American.
Moghul is a Fellow in Jewish-Muslim Relations at Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. He is the author of The Order of Light (Penguin 2005), and has written for the Washington Post, the Guardian, Time, Foreign Policy, Haaretz, and CNN.com.
We spoke in September.
The Rumpus: How to be a Muslim: An American Story is a rich, intersectional, and complex memoir. The story begins with the narrator on a bridge contemplating suicide when his cell phone starts to vibrate miraculously. He’s prevented from carrying the act out. As the story unfolds, we begin to understand how he came to be in that scary position.
How do you see the combination of medical issues, along with culture clash inherent in being second generation American, Muslim, and of Pakistani heritage, working together?
Haroon Moghul: I think growing up, we always try to make sense of who we are, what we go through, and I grew up in a very religious household. I interpreted what was wrong with me through religious language and I concluded, probably because of a combination of forces around me, that there was something in me that God didn’t like or was unhappy with. Since these problems were in large part congenital, that meant that I was doomed from the beginning. I didn’t have a chance.
When the bipolar diagnosis came along, it hit me in very much the same way. It was a little bit like I went back to where I was as a child and felt myself in the exact same position all over again, condemned before I even had a chance to make a case for myself.
Rumpus: This book is, in part, the universal story of one young man contending with his lineage within the context of late 20th century America. It’s a microcosm of what America itself began grappling with following 9/11. Tell me about that day. You were at New York University when it happened.
Moghul: I remember when we left our classroom, a group of us met up in Washington Square Park and we were looking up at the sky, facing south. There were columns of smoke where the towers had been visible. I remember asking one of my friends what we do now. He looked at me very seriously and said, “You tell us. You’re in charge of the Islamic Center.” It occurred to me that whether I wanted to or not, due to my position, I had a special obligation to wider American society. Unusually for a Muslim student at the time, I was probably better read in Islamic history and Middle Eastern politics than many of my peers.
This was a position, in a way, that I felt forced to take on. I’m a different person now than I was sixteen years ago, but it’s still very much the case that we can get boxed into this Muslim identity. It’s not just wider American society that does that. I think a lot of Muslims do that to themselves, and grapple with the questions we ask ourselves.
That’s where the title comes from, How to Be a Muslim. What does it mean to be a Muslim in the modern world? What are the challenges that confront us? What are the implications of our beliefs? There are very few Muslim answers to those questions that I find compelling or relevant.
Rumpus: You write: “I might’ve hoped that after 9/11 we would go back to normal, that no one could do anything as senseless and supercilious as invade Iraq on no grounds whatsoever, but that’s what happened. America could plunge herself into a permanent, escalating emergency, trapped by Islam. Just like I was. I’d never wake up from September.” Have you awakened these sixteen years later?
Moghul: There were three phases in my life after September 11. The first was feeling obligated to respond, and allow other people to set the terms of the conversation. There was this ritualistic condemnation of terrorism. I’m not saying that that’s unimportant, but it became the case that the Muslim people in the United States or in other parts of the world were inclusively taking on responsibility for things that they had nothing to do with. Of course, it’s very important that a community define its moral boundaries. A community also must acknowledge what it can and cannot control.
The second phase was this sense of burnout and wanting to get away from it all. I think that’s very much what my time in Dubai was about. No matter how much energy or effort I put into it, the rock, so to speak, just got bigger.
The third phase, the one that I think is the most interesting, is where I realized that the questions we were asking were silly. The question we should be asking is not, “Do you condemn terrorism?” It’s, “What kind of world, what kind of society do you want to live in?” Getting stuck in the ‘let’s respond to the worst people in the world mode’ doesn’t get us anywhere because it never imagines anything.
There is a dearth of imagination and I think that’s an understatement in a modern Muslim world. There is very little willingness to imagine different modes of existence and difference types of societies. On the American front, a lot of Muslims often ask me, how do we respond to Islamophobia? What I often say is, when you love someone or you love something, you put that thing or that person ahead of yourself. If you love America, then you put America ahead of yourself and you answer the question about Islamophobia, not in terms of how it affects you as a minority, but how it affects America at large.
For Muslims, it’s especially unsettling because if you are an American Muslim, you live in a community that is really struggling to get its feet off the ground. We’re a very young community, so to speak, institutionally and otherwise. The way in which we’re portrayed it’s like we’re the empire from Star Wars and the truth is that we’d be lucky to be the Rebel Alliance.
Rumpus: When you were in Cairo, you broke down: “Who was I to have thought I can fix Muslims or repair Islam when I could not even overhaul myself? I wasn’t going to save the Muslim world through my pathetic efforts at NYU. I was the Muslim world, afraid, frozen, I could not move forward.”
Can you speak about the narrator’s comparison of himself with the Muslim world?
Moghul: When I say the Muslim world, I meant Muslim communities around the world. I don’t think we punch at our weight. If there are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, then the fact that we are defined by a slim minority tells you how ineffectual we are.
One of the foundational stories of Islam is Abraham abandons Hagar and their infant son Ishmael in the desert, and our belief in what becomes Mecca as a result. There’s nothing there in that rock desert. Abraham gets on his mount and rides away. Hagar says, “What are you doing, are you crazy? Did God order you to leave us here?” When she realizes that’s the case, she accepts that her husband is leaving her in the middle of nowhere.
Another foundational story in Islam is Gabriel appears to Mary and tells her that she’s going to have a child. She’s astonished and says, “But I’ve never been with a man, how can I have a child?” Gabriel basically says, “Well, God decided and you don’t really have a say in the matter.” The Quran very visibly describes what it’s like for her to go into labor in a society where single women were not expected to have children. Even the prophet Muhammad, when he received his first revelation, the person he goes to is his wife and his wife believes him before he believes himself.
These are three stories that are foundational to the Islamic narrative in which women, and in two of the three cases, single women, are not just part of the story. They’re at the very center of the story. Yet, that is not something that you would imagine to be true if you survey the Muslim world from the outside or from the inside. Part of the reason is that we don’t really take our text seriously. We don’t take our stories seriously. We’re almost afraid of thinking complicated thoughts.
One of the reasons I wrote the book is because I think that every individual is a microcosm of the culture that they’re born into. They reflect the anxieties, insecurities, and strengths of that culture. I’m also American and I reflect on what it’s like to be an American in the 21st century.
I reflect what it’s like to be a Muslim in the 21st century. Mine is a very personal story. I’m not claiming to speak on behalf of 1.5 billion people. Nevertheless, my experiences do reflect what a lot of Muslims and a lot of American Muslims, and maybe just a lot of people of faith or people of multicultural origin or reality, go through and struggle with.
I work for the Shalom Hartman Institute and I was teaching a class last summer in Jerusalem. Two group of rabbis and we were studying different passages from the Quran. One of the passages I’ve included in my syllabus was about Mary and Jesus. One of the rabbis looked deeply puzzled and confused and he raised his hand. He said, “What are Mary and Jesus doing in the Quran?” I did not laugh because I was the teacher so I’m not allowed to laugh at students. Many people in America may be taken by surprise that Islam is one more interpretation of the stories that the Bible, the Jewish and the Christian texts, descend from.
Rumpus: Islam recognizes the People of the Book, the Torah, and the Christian Gospels. From the Islamic perspective, the Quran is a continuation. The problem is that we have three different versions of the same story.
Moghul: God is like Hollywood. He is making the same movie over and over again, but he changes some of the details. It’s just like there’s fifteen Spiderman movies.
Rumpus: The stories all just come in the wrappings of a different culture and history, or context, correct?
Moghul: Maybe that’s why we fight so much because we’re all arguing over the same thing.
Rumpus: This is a spiritual coming of age story as much as it is an American story and we have so many stories in America, many of them unheard. How do we tell the greater American story, one that is inclusive, that reflects all the diversity that we are?
Moghul: One of the ways to tell the American story as it is and not as some people believe it should be is by starting in the grocery store. When you go to the grocery store, you have aisle upon aisle of food and then you have the ethnic food section and somehow that’s not actually food. There’s real or normal food and then there is strange brown people food. We still do that. We don’t realize that the dominant narrative is a perspective and then we say things like “this story is only for certain kinds of people, or well, it’s a Pakistani American story.”
Most of the stories only apply to the main food aisles, and one of the things I wanted to do, and I hope that I’ve done, is tell a story that is addressed in a Muslim language. The body of which, the essence of which, is fundamentally human. I did toy with calling the book How to Be a Human.
Rumpus: But you had to call it How to Be a Muslim: An American Story because that very specificity is so important to the story. I also see it as more of a spiritual story versus a religious one.
Moghul: Yeah. You use the words “religious” and “spiritual.” We know we live in an age when we have people of every religious worldview and that’s impacted the worldview. Fundamentally, you draw from all these different ways of being human, rather than divide the world into belief and non-belief, or religion and non-religion. It’s better to say what are the different ways that people try to be human? Some of those ways are odious and some of those ways are remarkable. They are all ways. Trying to do that takes away some of the foreignness from narratives we don’t often hear and that eludes some of the power of the dominant narratives that we may only hear.
Rumpus: The narrator grows up in a second-generation American Pakistani family who are also Muslim, in a predominantly white American milieu of a New England town. In terms of narratives, there’s an American immigrant story of assimilation. Is that a story that needs to change? Is it changing?
Moghul: It’s very much about coming to terms with a way of integrating the different parts of you. When I was younger, I inhabited this universe where I saw disjunctions as I’m either, well, somewhat American, but either Pakistani or American. There’s this moment in the story where I’m tempted to become Christian and I’m very interested in Catholicism specifically. Then I end up in Medina in one of Islam’s sacred cities where the Prophet Muhammad is buried. I’m facing his tomb. I realized that if I were to become a Christian, then I have no room in that tradition for Muhammad.
If I stay Muslim, I can have Jesus in my life. I don’t think I realized what I was doing in that moment. I understood the choice I was making, but what was underlying it in some ways that’s so much more interesting is that, instead of saying either this or that, I can say this and that. Especially right now in American society, we are increasingly confronted by a loud and empowered minority that sees things as you’re either this or that. It’s happening across the West and many other places in the world.
What I want to do, and I would like to see more of—and I think this speaks to immigrants—is talk about how you bring those different parts of yourself together. I’m Pakistani in many ways. I am obviously American. I care about being a Muslim. I’m also a Star Trek fan and I wish Lord of the Rings was real, and how do I bring those different parts of myself together? That, to me, is where we should be going in this conversation.
Rumpus: How do we get to a multiplicity of voices where we’re not making everything either/or, black and white, this or that? How to Be a Muslim: An American Story investigates that.
Moghul: Books are a great vehicle for that because we get to live inside someone’s imagination or someone’s story and really inhabit it. That’s something we’re losing in this moment with social media. I think the deeper issue is that this consumption of the immediate and the sensational destroys our ability to have specific conversations. That is the story that we’ve yet to tell, which is how these technologies might be hurting us and taking away from the richness of our culture.
Rumpus: Social media reflects the polarization and division, and then adds to it.
Moghul: Yeah. There are companies like Facebook that wield tremendous power over how Americans understand the world. Do they have a social responsibility now? That’s the question we’re only beginning to ask. Literature still has this power to do things that other forms of media don’t have. The process of reading and writing and having arguments about ideas is valuable. I’m afraid it’s something we’re losing.
Maybe where we come up with a better narrative for America is where we tell ourselves a story that says, “Hey, there’s good and bad here. There’s complexity here. There are people who’ve been left out. There are people who have been privileged.” We can try to make sense of that because our story doesn’t have to be this simplistic mythic narrative.
Rumpus: Another significant theme in How to Be a Muslim is the narrator’s struggle from middle and high school years with how to deal with girls. You wrote, “I didn’t even know Muslims would like talking to girls.” How do religious and cultural attitudes at home towards intimacy and sex clash with the larger culture?
Moghul: It was probably very normal across the human experience in attraction, desire, and love and yet, I was raised to believe those things are abnormal. What happens is you start to think that you’re abnormal.
Part of that is sometimes we’re raised to believe that there are parts of ourselves that are bad or shameful and, therefore, we are bad or shameful and so we deserve to be treated badly. Sexuality is one of the ways in which that’s done to people, intentionally or not.
I think that my life would have been different if I had a healthier view of human sexuality and intimacy. I thought of myself as a freak or a pervert because I wanted to talk to girls. It’s like the most normal thing in the planet. Otherwise, there would be no human beings.
That shapes so much of the story and many of the problems with relationships because the model I had was you get married when someone finds you a spouse, and once you’re married you stay married. You won’t have problems and if you do have problems, it doesn’t matter, you just stay married. That’s remarkably unhealthy and irrelevant to modern American life and yet, that’s the only model I had. That’s the one, at first, I unconsciously reproduced and then for a long time struggled to displace.
Rumpus: You came from a legacy that “reached all the way back to Islam’s founding generation.” To 656, in fact.
Moghul: That was when Ali moved the caliphate from Medina to Southern Iraq.
This is my mom’s family. I don’t really know that much about my father’s family history. I do know that grandfathers on both sides fought in World War II. One in the Asian theatre, one in the European theatre. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims fought for the French and British armies against the Nazis and the Japanese while they themselves were colonial subjects. They were second class; they weren’t even citizens. They were just second class subjects of these dying empires and yet they saved Europe from barbarism. And not a few generations later, their descendants are being accused of being insufficiently enlightened. We have short historical memories.
The reason that’s important to me is because I came from a family that had a very rich history and sometimes people have this narrative that it was only when the West showed up that people became cultured and sophisticated or that nothing interesting happened in the world outside of Western Europe. This history was something my mom and our family are proud of and we have this thing called a shajarah, which just means a tree as in a family tree. My maternal grandfather would tell me and his other children and grandchildren about this family heritage. Of course, at times, I experienced this as incredibly onerous and overwhelming but it was also really liberating because I saw that I came from a very rich family tradition. We had writers in our family for a very, very long time.
Rumpus: Your ancestors on your mother’s side were educated multilingual Muslim yogis. Their books and contributions to Islam can be found at Columbia’s Butler Library.
Moghul: Yeah, my mom was one of seven sisters. My grandfather only had daughters. They were born in the thirties, forties, and they were all educated and incredibly strong and outspoken women.
I fully acknowledge and see that there is a lot patriarchy and misogyny in Muslim communities and language, but I also saw growing up these incredibly strong women. My mom was a radiation oncologist and I knew, just even in the Muslim community I grew up in, that there were a lot of these remarkable women who accomplished tremendous things coming to another part of the world, rebuilding their lives, and reinventing themselves, no small feat for anyone. They grew up in a very different time and place.
I can see the ways in which that heritage was not necessarily healthy for me, but I can also see ways in which it gave me a lot of confidence myself.
Rumpus: You write that, during your junior year of high school, you were frustrated as you sat at the dinner table and heard Muslim elders and family talk. At that time, hundreds of thousands of European Muslims being slaughtered, raped, exiled, the genocide of Srebrenica, the siege of Sarajevo, Kosovo, simply for being Muslim. You write, “But I wanted to scream I am alone right here sitting in front of you as a young, almost-man who feels things that can only remain latent for so long. People die abroad because they are Muslim, but a person is dying inside because he is Muslim.”
Moghul: It was this confusing moment. I was raised with this consciousness of being part of this global Muslim community. At the same time, I didn’t even know if I wanted to be Muslim. It was this incredibly complicated moment: I just needed to balance these two things where you care about people on some deep level who are my co-religion and are being killed because of their religion. Then, at the same time, I’m like ah, I don’t really know if I want this.
I had no space in which to express that. I certainly couldn’t say it in the mosque. I couldn’t say it around my parents or their colleagues because questioning religion was not really something anyone did. Even now, one of the common critiques I get of the book is that I shouldn’t have talked about certain things because it’s religiously problematic, shall we say, to share the fullness of your human experience. It’s better to suppress or deny what people’s actual lives are like. It took me a long time to get to a point where I was willing to come out and talk about it publicly.
Rumpus: The beautiful thing about the book is that resolution and profound spiritual experience in Abu Dhabi. You came to terms with some of that conflict, and you are today a practicing Muslim.
Moghul: I learned in the process of this that religion is very important to me, but the way in which I was going to get it was very different. When I was younger, I was not actually religious in my personal life. I had almost nothing about me that was traditionally Muslim and yet, I had this very judgmental view of Islam and especially other Muslims because I had internalized other people’s religious language, which meant I hated myself and I hated a lot of other people.
I was in New York, in an “Introduction to Islam” class, a secular university class that was experiential. We did a mosque visit. Let’s go see how Muslims worship and meet a community. The imam, the head of the congregation, was speaking. I remember condemning him as the wrong kind of Muslim or insufficiently Muslim and thinking the whole thing was so ridiculous. Fast forward almost twenty years and I go to that exact mosque.
That’s the first place where I met people who showed me how to be a Muslim in a way that made sense for me.
Rumpus: I got that one of the ways Islam did that for you, and it’s very profound, was the message about how important it is to love yourself.
Moghul: I realized a lot of the language that I had considered to be authentically Muslim was just a pathological self-hate.
When we go through a crisis we beat ourselves up and we say and think that we deserve it and suddenly we lose all sense of moral agency. That’s what I was doing religiously rather than something that made me more connected to God and less concerned with rules and expectations that were imposed on me. It was like put yourself in a box. That’s where my religious heritage helped because, when I looked back and studied the lives of people from the culture I came from, I realized that was not how many Muslims were—not just in the present but in the past.
Rumpus: What you would say to young people in America who struggle with similar issues? How might they best navigate the tension between community and culture?
Moghul: I’d say two things. One is, if we go back to the stories I mentioned earlier about Mary and Hagar and the Prophet Muhammad’s wife, what’s remarkable about these stories is that, in many ways, they describe outliers. Mary is a single mom, Hagar is a single mom, and there’s still a lot of stigma associated with single motherhood in modern America—never mind what it was like in tribal societies thousands of years ago. Yet, those are the people through whom God chose to not just act but to set in motion some of the most fundamental religious journeys in the human story.
Even the Prophet Muhammad’s wife was unusual because she was much older than him and she proposed marriage to him and not the other way around, which is unusual even in our time. There was a lot of subversion of assumed roles and, at times, it can be really, really frustrating to feel like an outsider. But there are blessings in that. One is that you can see the world in ways that you never could if you allowed yourself to get lost in a dominant narrative and you could only see the world in one way. That’s why people in power don’t stay in power, because when you don’t have to understand or experience other points of view, over time you lose your edge, your sophistication, and your creativity.
In a lot of ways, what this book is really about is how my life fell apart, how I had conflated religion with suburban respectability, and how I had been raised with these twin tracks—I have to be religious in this way and I have to be successful in this way.
I’d say be very careful about investing too much into what other people think you should be. Not just because it limits you, but because things don’t always work out even if you do the right thing. They don’t have to work out and when they don’t, how are you going to pick yourself back up again? You can’t let other people define what counts and what doesn’t count.
Rumpus: You have value outside of what is being defined for you. From whatever direction, right?
I still have my dark moments. Just to be fully honest, I mean, it’s been nineteen days since I’ve had a suicidal impulse. I’m keeping track because it’s been a good run, and when I’m in that moment, one of the things that pulls me back is I think to myself, and as a Muslim, I believe that God created everything and intended everything and here we are in this unbelievably vast universe that’s billions of years old and perhaps there are multiple dimensions and multiple universes and the scale absolutely boggles the mind. And yet, here I am, an individual human being, in a little corner of the galaxy and planet that is remarkable in some ways and unremarkable in others. All I wish is to say that He meant for every single person who’s ever lived to live. I don’t necessarily understand why but that was His choice and here I am.
Author photograph © Rick Bern.