Now at Karbala

Today is 9th Muharram. Tomorrow is 10th Muharram, known as Ashura. I came from the Sunni traditions of Islam. For Sunnis, Ashura has significance on two accounts. One is what you may know it for: it was the day that the oppressor Yazid’s armies slaughtered 72 members of the family of Muhammad, including his grandson, Imam al Husayn, at Karbala, in Iraq.

The other significance is a story you probably know; maybe you didn’t know there was an Islamic context for it.  There is a hadith, found in Muslim and Bukhari, narrated by ibn Abbas that when Muhammad arrived in Madina, he found the Jewish people there fasting on the day of Ashura. They said that it was a day of great importance, when God delivered Musa and his people, and drowed Firaun and his people. Musa then fasted in gratitude, and so did the Jewish people after him.  Muhammad thus observed the fast of Ashura, saying that Muslims had a better right to the day and told his followers to do so also.

[sub-blogging: If this blog post was my face, you would see me rolling my eyes at the part when Muhammad said that Muslims had a better right to Ashura – or Yom Kippur – than the Jewish people. Of course I understand the perspective – that the Muslims were the inheritors or revivers of a more authentic monotheism, but so much with religion is this need to oneup the other ones.]

So on the one hand, you have the story of a small group of people rising up against oppression and facing brutality, and in a way, being defeated by it. It wasn’t just that they were murdered.  Their bodies were mutilated. Yazid’s people took Imam al Husayn’s head to him on display. The women of the family, including Zaynab, the daughter of Fatima and Ali, were taken captive and marched to Damascus, where they were held for years.


And on the other hand, you the story of a small group of people rising up against oppression and facing brutality, and in a way, triumphing over it. They escape slavery. They escape Egypt, they’re on their way to a promised land.

But there is more to both of these stories, isn’t there?

Imam al Husayn and many of the people of Ahl al Bayt had their lives ended that day in Karbala, but not all of them did. Zaynab lived on. And Zaynab saved Ali ibn Husayn, also known as Zayn al Abidin, said to be an ornament of Islam and from him the bloodline of Muhammad continued. The events of Ashura were not consigned to the dustbin of historical amnesia, but have been recalled, around the world, by millions upon millions of people, year after year.  It is true that for many people, the day of Ashura is symbolic of the split and enmity between the Sunni and Shi’a people. but it is also true that if you can get past that first story, if you dig through history, that there was a love of Ahl al Bayt among the Sunnis too. Ashura gave the Muslims a story of standing up against oppression, even when – especially when – victory isn’t guaranteed. Imam al Husayn and his companions could have chosen to live quiet lives in Madinah. They could have decided to wait and see if they could outlive Yazid and his corruption.  But they didn’t.


And the people of Musa? There they were, free from the slavery and oppression of Firaun, and on their way home, but they wandered for forty years. They became distracted, divided. Musa was like a harassed father, constantly bringing his people back to the path, so to speak. They were free, but their liberation was not at hand. It was something they had to work for.

So tomorrow is Ashura, a day of fasting, sorrow, lamentations, storytelling and prayer for Muslims around the world.

And me?

I was a Muslim. And then I wasn’t. And now I’m something in between.

The meanings of Ashura are universal. Freedom. Standing up for your conscience. Biding your time in the wilderness. Looking at your past and building a future. Holding on to your dignity and courage in the face of tragedy and brutality.


I was Muslim for over half of my life. I was not a secular or liberal or cultural Muslim. Being a Muslim didn’t just inform my world view, it shaped how I did everything – from eating to sitting, to the structure of days. I was a sincere believer in an omniscient and omnipotent deity, and I was a sincere believer that this deity sent prophets to humanity, culminating in a man named Muhammad.

My iman split like the Red Sea split for Musa. It was abrupt and strange. Where there was a sea containing unknown depths and worlds, there was now the earth, laid bare. I did not have a long, dark night of the soul when it came to the actual tawheed. I believed it, and then the sea parted, and I did not. I had a much harder time leaving the deen due to the way I’d been socialized. I didn’t believe in any gods, but I believed that Islam was the closest to ideal that we could get. I believed that a positive way forward was laid out for humanity – if only they’d chosen to follow it. Be generous, be kind, have people in authority over you to monitor your behavior and prevent the destruction of society. That was part of it, anyway.

The other part of it was knowing what happens when a person leaves Islam. It was my life, my family, my friends, everything.  Muslims don’t stay friends with people who leave the deen. Relatives don’t continue welcoming you into their home when you leave the deen. In many cases, you are lucky if you leave unbruised – or alive at all. It was not easy to take something that I had had since I was a child and set it aside as an adult.

The thing I wanted most when I made that decision was that I wanted to be a mainstream person. I wanted to be a middle of the road American. I would see these people out at the mall or the park, and I wanted to be like them.  They didn’t know the world beyond their nightly news. Their concerns were the things going on in their backyards, their towns, in Washington DC. I wanted to melt into that, become one of many.

I was not very successful. I think that people who come out of religious backgrounds and enter the secular culture have a hard time explaining their lives to people. There were – and are – things I don’t understand.  Experiences I didn’t share and cannot use to bond over with my neighbors. And more and more, I realized that they could not or would not understand me.

As a religious Muslim, and possibly particularly as a Sunni Muslim in an age of salafism and wahabism, I had a particular definition of what makes a Muslim. A Muslim is one who submits their will to the one god, period end of story. “Cultural Muslims,” the term for people who are Muslim in name only, were people that were to be sneered at. They were decried from the minbar, by the ustadhs, in books, in halaqahs. They were, we were told, equally as responsible for the state of affairs in the Muslim world as the terrorists and extremists. Maybe more so. When I left Islam, the idea of being a cultural Muslim didn’t even occur to me. I don’t believe in a god at all, let alone submit my will and being to one.

I also had a lot of animosity towards the deen when I first left.  The veil I called iman dropped so suddenly I was reeling. Things that I had counted on as solid foundations of my life were revealed as nothingness. I lost many family members and friends.  I lost my job. I was threatened.

I had a lot of anger and regret over opportunities I missed because of the deen and the way I was “supposed” to be. I was angry with my community for what I believed to be the slippery, evasive way they dealt with extremism in the West. I wanted to never be associated with what I considered to be the contemptible leadership and their double talk. I hated the bigotry and racism, the ignorance and hate, the classism and sexism of the community and was so relieved to be in a place in my life where I didn’t have to be surrounded by it constantly. I was relieved to be away from people who professed to hate all of these faults in our community but who failed time and again to do anything about it.

On the 10th of Muharram, all those centuries ago, a small group of people went head to head against a larger, wealthier, more powerful group of people in the desert of Iraq. They were murdered, imprisoned, mocked, tortured. Today, in Iraq, and throughout the world, those who go against the established orthodoxies of Islam, whether that’s apostasy, being LGBT, being progressive or whatever, experience the same treatment.

For those of us who are supposedly outside of the circle of Islam, we’ve had to fight to rebuild a life. Many of us have fought for our own personal freedoms to live, love, and work as we choose. We’ve rebuilt families of choice in new places. I don’t have very much now, but everything I have I’ve fought for: every piece of second hand furniture, every stitch of clothes, every dollar that goes to pay for a doctor’s visit. I’ve fought for the community that I’ve built. I’ve fought for the freedom to be up at 1 am writing a blog that no one will ever read.  It’s taken my years to get here.

And now we – Muslims, ex-Muslims, kinda-Muslims, cultural-Muslims, secular-Muslims, agnostic-Muslims, LGBT-Muslims – face a bigger fight – a real incarnation of Yazid. In the end DT’s supporters don’t care if we don’t wear hijabs and beards, or if we have beer in our fridge, or if the book on our shelf is a Quran or Richard Dawkins. They care about our names, and what they sound like. They care about the countries of our birth or our parents’ births.  When I apostatized, I faced threats and harassment from Muslims, and Islamophobia or overbearing nosiness from never-Muslims, but I’ve never listened to a politician speak and genuinely wonder if we might not end up behind barbed wire or with special armbands. I do now.  If this Yazid comes to meet us on the plains, his people will not care if we’ve had bacon for breakfast.  We are indistinguishable from the ones who go to the masjid five times a day.

If this Yazid comes, we need to be ready.




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