Shadia: Your heart and actions matter, not your appearance

A group of people once brought a drunk man to the Prophet Muhammad, thinking that because alcohol is forbidden he would react harshly.

Instead, the prophet questioned their judgmental behavior and criticism, telling them that he knew the man loved him and God.

I'm telling you this because a few weeks ago I had a conversation with a local imam on what determines faith.

I told him that I believe Islam teaches that faith is between one person and God, that a person's appearance to outsiders doesn't determine his or her level of devotion.

I told him that not covering my hair, for example, doesn't make me less Muslim.

His response was that I should reconsider my position on the hijab, that, basically, my credibility and social standing are likely to be elevated if I start covering my hair.

I'm pretty sure I was rolling my eyes.

Here we go again, I thought.

My Uncle Beautiful first got me to cover my hair when I was about 6 years old. He couldn't get my strong-willed mom, Shadia, to do it. And so my sister and I walked fully covered in public next to our mom, while her hair flowed freely.

I despised the hijab and fought hard against wearing it.

I lost that battle.

But I got to choose for myself when I came to America.

My mom now covers her hair — her choice.

My sister, Marwa, and I don't — our choice.

Things between me and Uncle Beautiful are now fine, though it wasn't easy to get here. I'm comfortable with my choice of not covering.

But over time, and honestly because I'm probably more sensitive to the hijab, I've grown frustrated with many in my community who have collectively created this perception that somehow you're better, more faithful and more pious if you cover your locks.

That, I believe, is what led my uncle to make sure I covered. He believed then (as he does now) that a Muslim woman is commanded by God to cover her hair and dress modestly, but he mainly worried about the perception people would have had of me.

This is why he fought with my mom over it — not out of cruelty, but out of love, strange as it might sound.

Imam Yassir Fazaga, religious leader of the Orange County Islamic Foundation in Mission Viejo, said there is a difference between religious mandates and the value a society places on public expressions of those mandates.

Covering is one of the few visual expressions for Islamic women, Fazaga said. The same goes for faithful Muslim men, who often have beards.

These displays in Islam are similar to wearing crosses in Christianity, Fazaga said.

People in our culture have attached the hijab or beards to certain meanings: that the person is more pious or faithful.

But, ultimately, what you do on the surface shouldn't determine your faith or lack thereof, Fazaga said.

It is about what's in your heart.

You might think I'm being too critical of my community, but it is because I love my community that I challenge some of its members' unwillingness to sometimes see beyond the surface — hence, the imam who thinks simply covering my hair will get people to think highly of me.

It is because I love my uncle that I challenge him to accept that it's fine to disagree on the routes, even though we're seeking the same destination.

I believe wholeheartedly that Islam forbids people from judging others from the surface, and it is because of examples like the one about the drunk man I mentioned earlier.

The prophet also once said that God "does not look at your appearance or wealth, but rather He looks at your hearts and actions."

It dawns on me that the tendency to judge people based on their appearance or path in life isn't specific to Muslims.

We all do it and, in turn, we are all responsible for the rift it has created in our society, from the day-to-day pressures we place on women's appearances to religious groups that argue they're better than their counterparts or that ultimately their path to God is the only correct one.

If God is capable of giving you a unique mind, look and heart, is He not capable of understanding that uniqueness?

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

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