By Emma Green
31 December 2018
Being young and Muslim in the U.S. means navigating multiple identities. Nothing shows that more than falling in love.
Taz Ahmed is 38, single, Muslim, and Bengali. She describes herself as spiritual, but not particularly religious. When she was growing up, her immigrant parents hoped she would marry an I.T. worker they found for her in Oklahoma. “I’m like, ‘I don’t even know who this person is, what do you even know about him?’” Ahmed recently told me. “They’re like, ‘You’re asking too many questions. You don’t need to know this much information.’”
Like other U.S. Muslims of her generation, Ahmed has spent a lifetime toggling between various aspects of her identity. She got to prom night by promising her mother she’d go with a gay guy. She swapped marriage in her 20s for a master’s degree. She even followed a band as it toured the country—a coming-of-age story straight out of Hollywood, except that it was a Muslim punk group called the Kominas.
“It would have been so much easier if I would have just gotten an arranged marriage,” she said. “But my parents were really half-hearted about it.”
Certain big life moments tend to force a reckoning with cultural identities. And there’s nothing that invites more questions about identity and values than figuring out who to date and marry.
American culture often presents two opposing paths for young Muslims. On one side are people like President Donald Trump, who retweets unverified videos purporting to show Muslim violence; says things like “I think Islam hate us”; and claims there’s “no real assimilation” among even second- and third-generation Muslims in the U.S. On the other are movies like The Big Sick, which depicts the autobiographical love story of Kumail Nanjiani, a Muslim comedian who rejects religion and falls in love with a white woman, devastating his immigrant family.
In reality, most Muslims are somewhere in between. U.S. Muslims—roughly 60 percent of whom are under 40—are going through a process that’s quintessentially American: finding new, diverse, self-constructed identities in their faith, ranging from fully secular to deeply pious. The contours may be particular to Islam, but the story is one shared by Catholics, Jews, and even the Puritans. Muslims are creating distinctively American forms of their religion.
As a group, Muslims are extremely diverse, and their experiences reflect that diversity. Some young Muslims care deeply about their religious and cultural identities, but choose to prioritize other parts of life. Others self-define new, non-traditional ways of engaging with their faith. Immigrants understand the country differently than people who have been in the U.S. for generations; black Muslims encounter distinctive kinds of discrimination and have particular communal needs. Converts face questions from family members who might not understand their new religion, and have to navigate the sometimes-unfamiliar cultures of new friends and partners. And some Muslims don’t feel accepted by their own community, for reasons of race, gender, or sexuality.
As in other American religious groups, a tiny minority of young Muslims take their religion to an extreme, including in the context of love. Jaelyn Young and Muhammad Dakhlalla offer one such story—two Mississippi college students convicted in 2016 of conspiring to join the Islamic State. According to the Centre on National Security at Fordham University’s School of Law, young Muslim converts are particularly common among those involved in ISIS-related cases in the U.S.
But for the vast majority of Muslim parents, teachers, and imams, the worry is the opposite: that the young will drift away from their faith. “The people [who] are anxious about [assimilation] are the people who are white-knuckling it, holding onto tradition, worried that they’re going to lose it,” said Zareena Grewal, an associate professor at Yale University. Imams will often compare young Muslims and Jews, she added, wondering whether their religious organizations will also be hurt by widespread disaffiliation. “They’re like, ‘Oh, the rabbis are panicking, so we should also be panicking.’”
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Sana Khan, 27, and Yusuf Siddiquee, 29, both grew up in households they describe as rigid, “where you have to be Muslim and there’s no questioning it,” Khan said. She didn’t attend an Islamic school or worship at a mosque; Islam was just part of the environment in her diverse neighbourhood in Queens. For Siddiquee, living in the Midwest meant his parents emphasized being Muslim—and being different. “If I had to re-write that, I would probably de-emphasize it, but that’s the reality,” he said.
The two found each other through mutual friends—she had been working in public health in Philly, while he was in non-profits in New York City. Khan said she cares a lot about certain Muslim traditions, like fasting on Ramadan, but she’s not that observant during the rest of the year. She hoped she’d end up with someone Muslim anyways. “For me, it was more thinking ahead about integrating my partner into my family,” she said. “Also just future planning: What kind of household I want; the holidays I want to celebrate.” Siddiquee felt similarly: Even though he doesn’t really practice anymore, he said, “for someone to really understand me, they’re going to need to have some level of knowledge and comfort when it comes to these religious issues.”
In the lead up to their wedding this fall, the two had only minor friction with their families over religion, even though both sets of parents are more observant than they are. Although there was some disagreement about how the couple planned their Nikah, or Islamic marriage ceremony, they mostly avoided conflict by not really talking about Islam. “It’s difficult for my parents to address head-on a lack of religion,” Siddiquee said. “They don’t have some false pretence that I’m going to Jummah,” the traditional Friday afternoon prayer, “or I’m going to mosque or I even pray myself. I’m pretty sure they know that’s been a steadily declining thing for a long time.”
The pair hope they’ll eventually find a religious community that fits them—something more “progressive” and “flexible” than how they grew up. Islam is “a part of me,” Khan said, “but it’s not the main part.”
In some ways, this is a very Millennial story. Like others in their generation, Khan and Siddiquee have gravitated away from religious institutions and regular practice. Abdullah Antepli, an imam who teaches at Duke Divinity School, often sees similar patterns among the undergraduates he works with. “There is an incredible difference between the students and the parents in how they’re thinking about American Muslim identity,” he said. “The parents want to invest on the Muslim side of that hyphenated identity—they are really worried for certain aspects of that identity to be preserved.” Most students, however, “are negotiating and brainstorming on the American side.” There’s some evidence behind the anxiety: Less than half of Muslims under 40 visit a mosque each week, according to Pew Research Centre, and only one-third of Muslims under 30 pray five times a day in keeping with traditional Islamic practice.
But “relative to other Millennials, Muslims are way more religious,” said Grewal, who contributed to a recent Pew Research Centre study on American Muslim demographics. About two-thirds of Muslims under 40 say religion is very important in their lives, according to Pew, compared to roughly four-in-10 American Millennials.
Those numbers underscore the point that American and Muslim identities aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, many of the young Muslims I spoke with seem to be exploring their faith in distinctively American ways. MobashraTazamal, a 28-year-old Muslim living in Northern Virginia, told me that Islam “is something I think about every day of my life.” She prays daily, although not necessarily at a mosque or with a group. Her parents don’t know what to make of her, exactly. “It’s nothing, I think, that they’re fearful or anxious about,” she said. “They’re just confused in a neutral way.”
Growing up, she said, her parents were “quite, quite religious” and fairly conservative: They prayed five times a day, and her mom read the Koran every morning. While “there wasn’t really room for questioning” religion in her household, Tazamal said, she was always that kid who had a million questions about everything. And that has continued into adulthood.
“The term ‘religious’ isn’t something that I really like,” she told me. “Too often, the connotation of ‘religious’ is someone who is very strict and focused on acts. I would say I’m very spiritual, and I have a very strong faith.”
Tazamal’s new husband, Fahd, is also deeply engaged with Islam. The couple daydream about building a home and family with faith at the centre. “We want to make Eid, which is one of the biggest holidays, something that is a really big celebration,” Tazamal said. Most importantly, “If our kids have questions about stuff, we won’t say, ‘No, that’s wrong.’”
Even young Muslims with fairly traditional religious lives have to toggle between identities. Touba Shah is a 21-year-old in the Ahmadiyya community, a sect of Islam founded in the 19th century whose followers believe the messiah prophesied by Muhammad has already returned. One of her professors was shocked when she told him she found her fiancé through family—her grandfather and his grandmother are siblings. “I’m a born and raised Californian, you can go ahead and put a sticker on my forehead with that,” she told the professor. “‘It’s not very often that you see children like you, born and raised in the West, adhering to Eastern practices,’” he replied.
But experiences like hers are actually fairly common. “For many Muslims, religion does play some kind of role in their marriage experience,” said Amal Killawi, a doctoral student at Rutgers University who studies health and relationships among Muslims. “It’s a time for reflection on what’s important … your identity, how Muslim do you want to be visibly in society, what kind of home you want to build.”
Even though some Americans might recoil at the term “arranged marriage,” which can call to mind stereotypes of child brides and forced partnerships, versions in the U.S. tend to be much more low-key, Killawi said. Potential brides and grooms almost always lead the way, but parents might be more involved in selecting a partner than they would in other American households. Muslims often form an “almost collectivist community. ... Marriage is not a completely individualistic, independent journey that you take alone with your partner,” she said. “You’re embarking on this journey with your family.”
Debates about assimilation often focus on immigrants, but they overlook the experiences of Muslims who have long been settled in the U.S. While 58 percent of adult Muslims were born outside of the U.S., according to Pew, that means 42 percent of American Muslims were born in the country. More than half of those who have been here for three generations or more are black. “By virtue of being black, and then being black and Muslim, I don’t think there’s any room for assimilation,” said Ikhlas Kaleem, a 28-year-old Muslim woman who grew up in Atlanta. “It’s very hard to assimilate to a white paradigm.”
Kaleem met her husband, Joshua, through what she called “a modern-day arranged marriage”—a friend of the family gave him her mom’s number. Before Kaleem met Joshua, she tried dating all kinds of people, including non-Muslims. “At the time, I didn’t think it was such a big deal,” she said. “As I’ve gotten older, priorities have changed for me. How I envision my life and my family was different. I want my family to celebrate Ramadan together. I want to go to the masjid,” or mosque, “together. That’s kind of hard to do when your spouse isn’t Muslim.”
But dating as a black Muslim presented its own challenges. Roughly one-fifth of American Muslims are black—according to Pew, a little less than one-third are Asian or South Asian, and roughly 41 percent are white or Arab. There’s a Muslim-dating-app scene, but when Kaleem tried one, “the whole app was flooded with South Asian men, who typically aren’t interested in black women,” she said. “That was tough to navigate.” She didn’t feel strongly about marrying another black person, but some of her friends do, which can be hard. “In our day to day, we don’t naturally encounter black Muslim men,” Kaleem said. “I don’t see black Muslim men in my workplace. I don’t see them while commuting. When I was going on Friday for Jummah, I didn’t see them.”
As it turned out, Joshua was also black and Muslim. As they were getting to know each other, they went through a whole list of questions about their future life together: how they’d want to practice Islam in their home, whether they’d want their kids to go to religious school, what kind of emphasis they’d put on memorizing the Koran. It’s not like they don’t have big questions about religion, culture, and identity—but ‘how to be American’ just isn’t a live issue. “I think younger Muslims tend to reject the idea of assimilation,” Ikhlas said. “That’s just a Millennial thing … We stand out, and we’re proud to be who we are.” Ikhlas now hosts a podcast with a fellow black Muslim woman named Makkah Ali, and they often discuss the particular challenges of marriage and relationships.
The question of assimilation is also less relevant for converts, who account for roughly 21 percent of all U.S. Muslims, according to Pew, and 44 percent of Muslims born in America. Charles Turner grew up in a small town in Virginia, the white son of a nominally Catholic father. When he got to Virginia Commonwealth University, he started hanging out with members of the Muslim Students Association. That’s where he met Tayyaba Syed.
As the two bonded over religion, work, and school, “it was not something that we really shared with too many people,” Syed said. “There’s a little bit of a taboo about more than just business between males and females.”
Although Turner had converted to Islam when he was 19, it took a long time for Syed’s parents to accept their relationship. “Their first reaction was [that] I’m a young teenager, and I’m just making stupid decisions,” said Syed. They questioned whether the pair would be able to navigate their different backgrounds. “‘We are not of the same culture, so how will anything in the future work out?’” Syed remembered them asking. “‘How will we navigate family life?’”
Turner’s relatives also had questions about the alien world he had chosen for himself. “I’ve had family members maybe talk about and show a bit of concern, but not to me,” he said. “It’s not hostility. It’s more curiosity. And I guess you could say a bit of apprehension, as well.”
After Syed completed dental school, her parents relented and agreed to let them marry. At their wedding last year, the pair skipped a big Pakistani-style celebration for a simple ceremony. They added a few twists to fit their relationship, including groomsmen and bridesmaids, which aren’t traditional in Pakistani culture. And Turner walked in to the tune of an Irish jig.
The newlyweds recently moved to Mormon-heavy Utah, which fits them surprisingly well. “I don’t think there’s a more family-friendly place than Salt Lake City,” Turner said. They’ve found that “the LDS Church is actually very, very welcoming and very supportive of the Muslim community.” They’re looking forward to teaching their future sons and daughters about their religion. “We want them to feel like that’s something normal,” Turner said. The only stipulation in the couple’s Islamic marriage contract was that their kids would take a hyphenated name: Syed-Turner.
For all of these couples, the experience of navigating Muslim identity is made infinitely easier by being straight. A recent Pew study suggests that American Muslims have become significantly more open toward homosexuality in recent years: Just more than half say it should be accepted by society, compared to barely more than a quarter who said the same thing a decade ago. Even so, this percentage is lower than that of the general American public, 63 percent of whom approve of homosexuality. LGBT Muslims may feel their own kind of dual pressure to assimilate into mainstream American culture while also meeting traditional, heterosexual standards of what it means to be a “good” Muslim.
“As a Muslim artist, I felt isolated. I was the only one—all my friends were becoming doctors,” said Saba Taj, a 31-year-old queer Muslim living in Durham, North Carolina. “I was disappointing my family. … There were a lot of disconnects between what they wanted from me … and the things I was doing.”
When she met Laila Nur, a 30-year-old musician who was living in nearby Greensboro at the time, “I felt like, ‘How on earth has there been someone living an hour away who is a Muslim artist?’” The two connected over the shared themes in their art: Taj often paints women in hijab and deals with themes of Islamophobia, while one of Nur’s songs was titled in Arabic.
Nur was raised in a black Muslim home in New York. Her parents converted when they were in high school, and many of her extended family members are Christians. “Coming out as queer definitely did not vibe in my house—‘that shit shalt not pop in this house,’” she said. “For the folks I was raised around, there was a shared disgust for me coming out, at that point, as a lesbian. It wasn’t specific to my Muslim household.”
For a long time, that experience made it difficult for Nur to connect with religion. “When I left my house around 18, I denounced Islam,” Nur told me. “I would say I was formerly Muslim, that I was raised Muslim, that I still had certain practices, but I am not Muslim.”
After she met Taj, that started to change. “Even though I knew that queer Muslims exist, it was still this unicorn thing,” Nur said. “I didn’t feel like it was actually real. You couldn’t exist with both identities.” Over the last year or so, Nur has started to rethink her faith. “Meeting Saba … started to stir up a lot of my conflicts with identity in being queer and also Muslim,” she said, things “I had very intentionally repressed and left unmoved for a very long time.”
Taj and Nur decided to get married in January, right before President Trump was inaugurated. Despite the 2015 Supreme Court decision in Obergefell that legalized same-sex marriage in America, they were worried about losing their rights under the Trump administration. As the political atmosphere has become overtly hostile to Muslims, both Taj and Nur have felt that it’s important to claim their identities—all of them. “It felt really empowering, really beautiful, and like this strong political stance to claim like, ‘Yes, actually, I am queer, and hands down I am Muslim,’” Nur said.
Despite their familial conflicts, Taj said her mother “has just been so graceful in ways that I never could have imagined.” Nur recently started talking with her little sister after many years of silence, and hopes that she and Taj might one day have a wedding ceremony with all of their family present. Even as they were being interviewed for this article, Taj and Nur were anxious to make sure their story isn’t told in a simplistic way. As much as it’s been hard for them to come out as queer and Muslim, they’re fiercely defensive of their families and American Muslims as a group, wary of stereotypes that “[paint] Islam in this monolithic way as: ‘All Muslims are homophobic,’” as Nur put it. Like the other young Muslim couples I interviewed, theirs is not a linear story of assimilation or rejection of American culture. The adjectives they collectively used to describe themselves included “artist,” “black,” “queer,” “Southerner,” “musician,” “gender-non-conforming,” “human”—and, of course, “Muslim.”
This, more than anything, seems to be the through-line of Muslim love, and life, in America. It’s almost always an experience of multipleness, identity mixing, and navigating a lot of different expectations and desires from family members or the culture writ large. That itself is a deeply American experience, a form of assimilation to a country built on ambiguous, mixed identities. “It is this kind of attempt to find a middle ground, almost, of reconciling their own cultural and traditional values, religious values, and American values,” said Killawi. It’s natural that this would be part of the marriage process, she added. “For many Muslims who grew up here, this became almost second nature. Over time, you had to engage in this process to survive.”
“American” is not a default standard against which Muslims, or any group, can objectively be measured. The country is too complex, and Muslims are far too diverse. Just like any marriage process, a lot of negotiation is necessarily involved. As Grewal put it: “Two families coming together is a lot more complicated than, ‘Hey, old people from another country and another world. Get with the program here.’”