It has been a long journey to finally get to a place where I can say I love who I am, I respect myself and I am happy to be me. For most of my life, I felt unworthy and suffered from low self-esteem because of the hurt and pain I had suffered as a child.
Growing up in the 60’s with a White mother and a Black father in the heart of Harlem, paved the road to my low self-esteem. The kids in the neighbourhood were cruel – I was called names, pushed, shoved and spat on, simply because I was biracial. The racial divide in the country fuelled the hatred, and there were those who were taking back their rights in the form of Black Power. So a biracial child in an all black neighbourhood had no place, especially when her skin was light.
I did my best to try to blend into the woodwork, so no one would notice me. I learned to read people and became quite adept at saying exactly what they wanted to hear, in order to avoid getting into a fight. I didn’t raise my hand in school, even if I knew the answer to the teacher’s question, because I didn’t want to add “teacher’s pet” or “smarty pants” to the names that I was called.
Needless to say, I didn’t have many friends, and the ones I made were conditional. As long as I gave them some of my lunch, they would sit next to me in the lunchroom, or if I offered to be a steady ender at recess (the person who turned the rope, without taking a turn to jump), they might let me play. The rest of the time, I played with my little sisters or spent time in the library with my closest friends – books. I would go to the Fairy Tale and Folklore section of the library and select a copy of “Grimm’s Fairy Tales”, turn to the story of Rumpelstiltskin and read it over and over again. I am not sure why that story was so significant for me. Perhaps I liked to see the little imp get his comeuppance at the end.
I started to enjoy being alone. I would lock myself in my room to curl up with a book and pretend that I was best friends with some of my favourite characters; my storybook friends didn’t judge me or call me names. I was finally able to be myself and found that I had more confidence. I no longer felt as if I had to say what people wanted to hear – I began to question everything, including my religious beliefs.
As a devout Catholic, I looked forward to going to Confession every Saturday. When I entered the church, I dipped my hand in the holy water, made the sign of the cross and knelt in front of the statue of Jesus. At that moment, I felt that something wasn’t right. I thought about the Ten Commandments, and in particular, the Commandment that said:
“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”
When I entered the confession booth, instead of telling Father Burke my sins for that week, I asked him why we pray to the statue of Jesus, when the Bible says we shouldn’t.
Father Burke cleared his throat and began to explain to me that we are not praying to the actual statue; the statue is only a representation of the embodiment of the spirit of Jesus and that we ask that spirit to intercede for us with God. Why do I have to ask a spirit in a statue to pray for me? Why can’t I just ask God Himself for forgiveness? I didn’t know it then, but it was at this moment that Allah (SWT) began to guide me to Him and to the path of self-love. I began to question everything I had believed and started searching for the truth. I was no longer the person who faded into the woodwork and who tried not to upset the status quo. My search for the truth allowed me to disregard what other people thought of me. I decided that if no one wanted to accept me for who I am, then so be it. The kids in school still teased me, but for the first time, I didn’t care.
By the time I was an adult, I was still searching for the truth. I began to ask questions of myself: Where did I belong? Who am I? What do I believe? One day, my husband-to-be gave me a Qur’an as a gift. He wasn’t Muslim, but he worked with Muslims who often discussed Islam. He became interested in the religion but wasn’t ready to commit to it. He gave me the Qur’an so that I could read it and decide if it was the truth I was seeking. When I read Surah Maryam, I knew I had found what I was looking for – the truth.
[Jesus] said, “Indeed, I am the servant of Allah. He has given me the Scripture and made me a prophet. And He has made me blessed wherever I am and has enjoined upon me prayer and zakah as long as I remain alive And [made me] dutiful to my mother, and He has not made me a wretched tyrant. And peace is on me the day I was born and the day I will die and the day I am raised alive. That is Jesus, the son of Mary – the word of truth about which they are in dispute. It is not [befitting] for Allah to take a son; exalted is He! When He decrees an affair, He only says to it, “Be,” and it is. [Jesus said], “And indeed, Allah is my Lord and your Lord, so worship Him. That is a straight path.” (Maryam:30–36)
These verses explained everything that I had believed about Jesus. I wanted to know more about Islam, so my husband introduced me to a few of the Muslims he worked with. Three years later, my husband and I went to a Mosque in Brooklyn and met one of the brothers who had introduced my husband to Islam. I had never been to a Mosque before, but as I entered, I felt an overwhelming sense of ease. The brother took us to the office and sat behind a desk that had a large wooden bookcase towering behind it. He spoke to us about the Oneness of Allah (SWT) and the religious obligations of every Muslim. He then pointed to the books behind him and said, “You can spend your entire life reading and learning about Islam and will not exhaust all of the knowledge that it contains.” I felt humbled by those words and was ready, now more than ever, to take my shahadah. He spoke to us for over an hour and then left the room. I looked at my husband who was in silent contemplation, and I wondered if he felt as anxious as I did to become Muslim.
The brother returned with two other brothers and guided us through our Shahadah. As soon as we finished, the brothers hugged my husband. I sat in the chair with my head down, trying to control my feeling of joy. It rose up from my breast and spread out to my limbs, and when it reached my head, there was a wave of peace. For the first time in my life, I felt as if I belonged. I was finally happy to be me; more importantly, I was someone worthy of guidance by Allah (SWT).
“The foolish among the people will say, ‘What has turned them away from their qiblah, which they used to face?’ Say, ‘To Allah belongs the east and the west. He guides whom He wills to a straight path.’” (Baqarah:142)
I looked at my husband and saw him smiling from ear to ear. I always thought that we were made for each other, now I was certain. I couldn’t wait to pray our first prayer together and fast in Ramadhan. Now, thirty-one years later, we still pray and fast together and have raised our five children to do the same. They, in turn, are teaching our grandchildren to love and respect themselves by being obedient to Allah (SWT).
I am more content now than I have ever been. I see myself as a person who is truly blessed, and I have grown into a woman who is respected and honoured by her family. Every morning, before I go to work, I put on my hijab, make du’a and walk out of the door with my head held high. When I start to feel that insecure little girl begin to surface, after voicing a controversial opinion or explaining to a man why I can’t shake his hand, I remind myself that I am someone who Allah (SWT) chose to bless with Islam, and for that, I truly love myself as I am.
Tahira Bryant Naeem is a children’s writer and essayist who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with her family. When she is not at the library searching for a children’s book to read, she is putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Tahira says putting the pieces together helps her focus her mind before working on a new writing project. You can visit her online at tahirathewriter.com.