Cultural Crossroads

Every morning Nabihah Maqbool puts on her right shoe first, then her left. She draws a thin line of dark blue eyeliner — a shade that matches the tips of her fingernails and complements her pants — on her right eye and then her left. When the weather is cold, it’s right glove first, left second. When she wears earrings, the right stud goes in first. At mealtime, she cuts her food with a knife in her right hand, and then picks up a fork with her right hand to eat.

Maqbool’s routine is in part a reflection of her precise personality. Her syntax is exact, as is her vocabulary. She’s rarely late, but never early, arriving for appointments exactly on time. Yet her habit of favoring of her right side is more a function of her Muslim faith than it is her persona.

The tradition of right-side favoritism stems from the final movement of a Muslim’s prayer and from the Prophet Muhammad’s example. When Maqbool’s prayer is complete, from a kneeling position, she looks right.

Assalam alaikum,” she whispers to her right shoulder.

Then she looks left.

Assalam alaikum,” she whispers again.

If Maqbool is praying in a group, as she would at a mosque, each greeting acknowledges the women kneeling beside her. It’s a gesture of solidarity and community. The greeting also holds significance beyond the physical world. Maqbool is acknowledging the angels that sit on each shoulder. In Islam, angels comprise one of the six articles of faith. The angel on the right shoulder records good deeds and thoughts, and the angel on the left records the bad. They act as constant reminders to live modestly, do good and follow the example set by Muhammad.

Precise Practicality
Maqbool is precise in her words, her punctuality and her dress. She owns many headscarves — she buys most of them at Target — and they always complement her outfit. The scarves may be somewhat of a fashion statement, but they are meant to be more practical than aesthetically pleasing.

As the former co-director of the Muslim Speakers’ Bureau of Columbia, Maqbool gave Islam 101 talks and led tours of the Islamic Center of Central Missouri, which houses the only mosque in Columbia. She also volunteers at the mosque’s annual open house, where anyone who has questions about Islam or wants to sample traditional Islamic food is welcome. When she was a University of Missouri student, Maqbool was also a board member of the Muslim Students Organization.

On an overcast spring morning, Maqbool is scheduled to give an Islam 101 lesson to a Hickman High School history class, which starts at 10:30 a.m. At 10:28 a.m., she walks in the front doors as if it were her own home and scribbles out a few visitors’ tags. She heads to the classroom with a small entourage in tow — a visitor and trainee Adam Mavrakas, who will help her give the talk.

“First, it’s important to understand that Islam is the religion, and a Muslim is an adherent to the faith,” she tells students in the classroom. “Many people get that confused.”

She clicks through the PowerPoint slides that she’s run through countless times:

  • The Five Pillars of Islam (profession of faith, daily prayers, charity for the poor, self-purification through fasting, a pilgrimage to Mecca)
  • The Islamic greeting assalam alaikum (God’s peace be upon you) and response walaikum assalam(and God’s peace be upon you)
  • The breakdown of the Muslim population in the world (1.5 billion worldwide, 70 million in America, about 1,000 in Columbia )
  • The two sources that guide Muslims in faith (the Quran, the Muslim holy book, and Sunnah, the traditions of Muhammad)

… and so on.

She emphasizes that Muslims are not all the same, that there are varying degrees of practice. In Maqbool’s extended family, for example, some go to a mosque every day. Her mother prays more than five times a day and fasts twice a week. Other family members consider themselves Muslims, but don’t attend a mosque as frequently, and most of the women in her family do not wear headscarves.

“My oldest brother rocks a pretty fat beard because he wants to follow in the tradition set by the Prophet Muhammad,” she tells the class. “But my other two brothers don’t.”

Maqbool is dressed for her presentation in a long-sleeved red dress with little black hearts, black pants and shoes. Her red, pink and black headscarf perfectly complements her outfit as always. The 26-year-old speaks quickly and clearly with a practiced pace. Her affinity for public speaking comes from years spent on the high school debate team.

“Are there any questions?” she asks the Hickman students frequently. “I want to make sure you all understand.”

Her warm smile and lax demeanor prompt a roomful of normally reserved if not ambivalent high school students to raise their hands.

“Why do Muslims say ‘peace be upon him’ after they mention a prophet?”

“Do Muslims believe Muhammad did miracles like Christians believe of Jesus?”

“Do both Sunni and Shia Muslims worship at the Islamic Center of Central Missouri?”

“Are Muslim women forced to cover their hair?”

She answers each question with grace, never hesitating as she has armed herself with a seemingly voluminous comprehension of scholarly interpretation of the Quran and hadith, the narrated examples set by Muhammad, similar to Jesus’ parables for Christians.

An Internal Debate
Maqbool’s scarf identifies her as a Muslim. In a town and on a campus with a minority Muslim population — even in Middle Eastern countries such as Pakistan or India where Islam is a much more popular religion — Muslim women stick out. They become ambassadors for the faith, says her mother, Ghazala. The decision to wear a headscarf is not one to be taken lightly. For Nabihah Maqbool, the decision came only after much internal dialogue.

At Chesterfield’s Parkway Central High School, a 17-year-old Nabihah was arrogant, even snobbish, she admits. Taking cues from her parents, both voracious readers, she read immersed herself in the written word — books on literature and philosophy, memoirs, biographies, comic books, graphic novels, science fiction and mystery. She read about politics and foreign policy. She read the Quran, Islam’s holy book, and interpretations of the Quran.

While other teenagers were scheming to buy beer or smoke pot on Friday nights, she was geeking out over Noam Chomsky’s opinions on the U.S. empirical state. Her peers obsessed about infatuations and prom dates, but Maqbool was glued to discussions about the Patriot Act, CIA rendition sites and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court decisions. She was so deeply absorbed in intellectual debate and existential philosophy that niceties such as a passing “what’s up?” were too much for her to handle. Her resting “stink-face” usually repelled any unwanted acquaintances or questions about her day, but the individual unfortunate enough to smile and inquire would usually receive a terse “fine,” if an answer came at all.

“I wouldn’t even ask them how their day was back,” she says, shaking her head. “I looked mean, and I was mean. Even my friends — the people I was nice to — said I was mean.”

For a teenager already struggling to maintain a low profile, a headscarf would only attract more attention. Maqbool was aware of her condescending attitude throughout her teenage years; she put off the decision to wear a headscarf. She didn’t want her supercilious attitude to be a person’s only impression of a Muslim.

“So there’s this complex,” she says. “You don’t necessarily want to be a representation of all Muslims, but at the same time, for people, you are a slice of that, and what you do does represent the group that you belong to.”

At 20, it happened. The summer between her sophomore and junior years at the University of Missouri found Maqbool driving a car full of women back from Potosi. They were returning from a spiritual retreat that focused on proper state of mind for the five daily prayers, understanding the Quran, and gaining discipline and quietude for internal thoughts. During the weeklong retreat, every woman wore a headscarf; Maqbool wore one as well.

“And then, I just didn’t take it off,” she says. “And the next day I left the house, and I didn’t take it off. So at that point, I was like ‘oh I guess I’m wearing a headscarf.’ I didn’t have any plans about it, and I didn’t tell anybody.”

The transition wasn’t easy. On the first day of her junior year of college, she felt stares and judgment as she walked through MU’s Lowry Mall; some were real and some were simply projections of her own self-consciousness. Suddenly, on the campus where she had attended school for the past two years, she felt as if she didn’t belong — like an outsider, like a foreigner — and definitely not like the feisty and intelligent American Muslim woman she used to be. Whether or not it was also true for the people around her, the headscarf began to define her.

During the first week of class in her junior year, Maqbool needed Post-it notes, so she went to Office Depot and asked an employee for help.

“Excuse me,” she said.

The woman didn’t respond.

“Excuse me,” Maqbool said again.

Still nothing.

“Can you tell me where the Post-it notes are?”

“Can’t you see I’m helping a customer?” the woman replied.

She approached another sales clerk who overhead the interaction, but before she could ask about the Post-its, her self-consciousness took over again.

“Just because I look different doesn’t mean you have to treat me badly,” she said amid sobs.

The salesman reassured her that his co-worker meant nothing by it.

“That’s her normal tone of voice,” he said. “She talks like that to everyone.”

She never got the Post-it notes. Crying and vulnerable, she left Office Depot, opting for sanity rather than obsession.

“I was so insecure that I was pinning every interaction on the way that I looked,” she says. “So I walked out of Office Depot crying, and then I was like, ‘this is no way to live your life. If you think everyone is staring at you, if you think everything is mediated by the fact that you have one piece of cloth on your head, you’re going to lose your mind.’ ”

Along with that revelation came liberation. She let go of any concern for what other people think of her. Maqbool says she realized that other people’s opinions no longer mattered; wearing a headscarf meant doing it for the right reasons. She didn’t start wearing it for her parents or because her friends wore them. She didn’t do it for a celebration (some girls throw a party when they decide to wear one) or to show the world she’s a Muslim. She did it, she says, because she finally realized the headscarf’s significance, and she did it for herself — to bring herself closer to God. Nothing else matters.

Badge Of Faith
Since making her decision, Maqbool is much more aware of her behavior.

“That’s something that wearing a headscarf really forces you to do,” she says. “I have to keep my temper in check. I can’t honk or scream at people in traffic. I can’t flip people off. It forces you to have self-control and discipline and patience.”

Maqbool’s scarf is a symbol of modesty in dress and behavior — a cornerstone of the Islamic faith — and a part of her identity as a Muslim woman. But for those who don’t understand Islam, the headscarf hangs a mysterious cloud over her.

When Maqbool meets people for the first time, her headscarf often leads to guesses about her character: She’s shy or quiet. Or maybe her family forces her to wear it. Or perhaps she has no agency and can’t think for herself, just accepting what she is told.

All of those assumptions are wrong.

She’s not shy or quiet. As her brother, Maaz, can attest, if ever the family can’t agree on where to go out to eat, his sister makes her preferences known.

“She usually convinces us,” he says.

Maqbool was captain of her high school debate team that made it to the national debate competition her senior year. She spent hours researching for debates, her mother recalls. She filled multiple Rubbermaid storage tubs with articles and other reference materials in preparation.

“You weren’t allowed to use computers,” Maqbool says. “So you had to print everything out. So we would walk in with four or five tubs full of material. One of the tubs was filled with high heels and Pop Tarts, but it still gave a nice threatening image.”

Maqbool says she is not a robot who blindly obeys orders and accepts everything she is told. Her parents — Sohail and Ghazala — are from northern India, but she is a New Jersey native who grew up on Staten Island in New York before moving to Columbia as a sixth-grader. Her parents worked at University Hospital as radiologists. Maqbool spent three years at Jefferson Junior High, and then her family moved again to the St. Louis area. She returned to Columbia in 2006 to attend MU where she worked as a lab assistant in the microphysiology lab and was a teaching assistant for a class in genetics and society. Maqbool was also active in the Interactive Theatre Troupe on campus, teaching people about cross-cultural issues through interactive performances based on the Ford Foundation Difficult Dialogues program. She holds a B.S. in biology and a B.A. in political science, and recently earned a master of public health degree. She hopes to work with a public health agency such as the World Health Organization as a grant writer or in health assessments.

Maqbool is part of a new generation of Muslims — children of immigrants but born and raised in America — and she must balance Islamic traditions and beliefs with an American culture that can be dominated by a xenophobic attitude toward Islam.

One Islamic tradition that garners skepticism from Maqbool is the “fix-up.” According to Islam, men and women who are not of the same family and not married should not be alone together. Dating is not common in Islam. Rather, many Muslim children assume their parents have their best interests in mind and will pick a good match for them.

“I’m a little weary of that system,” Maqbool says. “Part of me is turned off by the idea because usually people have an idea of the kind of person they want to marry. They want someone of a certain status or a girl they think is pretty. I’m like, ‘Dude, did you guys ask each other about personality and hobbies and what you like to do for fun?’ ”

It’s not that she never wants to marry and have children. It’s just not on her radar right now. She can work up more excitement about her travel plans to Turkey at summer’s end than she can for marriage.

Striking A Balance
Maqbool balances her life amid two cultures. True, her headscarf is part of her identity, a glaring physical indicator of a Muslim woman and still a novelty in Western culture. Her faith also comprises a large part of her identity, but Islam is not her entire identity — not even close.

This educated woman considers herself a feminist. Modern Western habits punctuate her day. She gets most of her news from Twitter. She takes her coffee black, and she likes to run for exercise. She’s generous with her time, and dedicated to her work. She can be patient, but she’s not afraid to speak her mind. She likes indie rock (The Harlem Shakes and the Shins) and hip-hop (Jay-Z, Common, Nas, A Tribe Called Quest). Batman is her favorite superhero; she especially fancies the comic book series by Frank Miller, The Dark Knight Returns, released in 1986.

Comic books, of course, are not her only literary vice. Maqbool is evidence that reading makes you smarter. When she was in fourth grade, her teacher promised a prize to any student who read 25 books throughout the year. The teacher ran out of prizes when Maqbool read 96, and she hasn’t slowed down since. Her favorite novel is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Demons.

“In all his books, Dostoevsky sets up characters that represent ideologies that I think he tends to struggle with,” she says. “In Demons, there’s this liberal traditionalist who has an epiphany about God toward the end, there’s a complete nihilist, and there’s the believers. So he explores the ideologies by pitting the characters against each other in the way they interact. That’s why I like his books a ton.”

The app on her phone tells Maqbool it’s almost time for the final prayer of the day. Leaving her critique of Dostoevsky’s dichotomy for another time, she exits to make ready for this most basic practice of her faith. She walks out into the night, a symbol of her generation, deftly blending the old and the new into the identity of Nabihah Maqbool.

Questions? Nabihah Has Answers

Why do Muslims say ‘peace be upon him’ after they mention a prophet?
It’s a sign of respect for their most important prophet.

Do Muslims believe Muhammad did miracles like Christians believe of Jesus?
Muslims believe his miracle was revealing the Quran.

Do both Sunni and Shia Muslims worship at the Islamic Center of Central Missouri?
Yes, in fact it’s impossible to tell the difference between the two unless you ask or are intimately familiar with subtle nuances in each division.

Are Muslim women forced to cover their hair?
No, it is a personal choice, and Muslim women have different reasons for wearing a headscarf.

The Five Pillars Of Islam
Islam requires five primary obligations, or pillars of faith, from its adherents. Each Muslim must fulfill in his or her lifetime:

    1. Shahadah, profession of faith in the oneness of God and finality of Muhammad as his messenger
    2. Salah, prayer offered five times a day while facing Mecca — at dawn, noon, midafternoon, sunset and evening
    3. Zakat, or almsgiving, exhibiting compassion for the poor
    4. Sawm, self-purification through fasting
    5. Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, for those who are able

Islam’s Six Articles Of Faith

Allah (or God)
Divine scriptures (such as the Quran)
Judgment day