So here I am sitting next to this person who's dressed funny and is incredibly calm, and it almost made me nervous because every attempt to prompt him into chatting didn't work. But then, once I started to accept that this guy wasn't going to talk about the weather, his calm started to have an effect on me and I started to give in to it. It was almost like he was putting out his own force field. When I stopped fighting it, I started feeling some of his calm.
Then he gave his talk, and when he was speaking he had so much energy. If he didn't have the podium in front of him he would have flown over it into the audience. Later on, a young Muslim woman who was in the audience was asking me questions. Her questions were not unfair, but she was basically yelling at me. The Sufi sheikh was sitting next to me and this woman was just berating me. Nothing I could say was letting her get some resolution. Finally the Sufi looked up at her and said, "You've told her your opinion. You're welcome to write your own book. And that should be the end of it."
Afterward, I reread a lot of what I had read about Sufism in college, and I saw it in a new perspective. This Sufi sheikh embodied several Sufi principles, including not letting your emotions control you. The Sufi philosophy is, "Don't give in to those emotions because it will hurt you in a spiritual way--and you need to be spiritually open because you want to be able to experience things."
Sufis believe that the Prophet Muhammad was spiritually open, that he had an open heart. He was always an optimist. And that's how he was able to receive the revelation of the Qur'an. Had he been negative and closed, he wouldn't have heard the revelations. I think Sufi principles come down to a "go with the flow" philosophy.
Would you call yourself primarily a Sufi?
I say that I am a Sunni Muslim and I have a lot of Sufi beliefs. I don't say that I am a Sufi Muslim because it's a loaded term in the community.
I imagine you'd be attacked by your own community on that issue and the fact that you call Islam the "total woman's religion." Which issue--Sufism or feminism--makes traditionalist Muslims maddest?
I asked my sister for her opinion about the book, and she said, "Why don't you take the Sufism part out? People are going to be critical of that." Even people who are moderate Muslims sometimes have issues with Sufis, because Sufis go to shrines, the graves of former famous Sufis, and pray. They feel that when they're praying at the shrines and praying to a person they consider a saint, they're not making that person into a god, but that they're praying to the divinity in that person. They believe that person became a Sufi saint because they were able to strip away all the layers of baggage that humans put on ourselves, and get in touch with their inner divinity, reaching a sort of reunion with God. But to non-Sufi Muslims, that's blasphemy because the Qur'an says there's no God but God, and God has no partners. Even moderate Muslims who otherwise don't have a problem with a lot of things find Sufi Muslims strange.
Could you recount the story of how you came to be born in Chicago after your family's long history in Asia?
My ancestors, who were descendants of Ghengis Khan, moved off the silk route into what is now South Asia--actually Afghanistan--and then at a certain point, one branch of the family moved to Pakistan and stopped talking to the Afghan branch. On my mom's side, we're Mongolians. All the descendants of Ghengis Khan have a blue spot on their lower back or just above their bottom when they're born. Including me. That ties me into a history and culture--it's a way of identifying that this baby belongs to us.
My mom and dad were married in an arranged marriage in Pakistan in the early 70s and had my sister about a year after the wedding. By then, my father had already moved to the United States. He was a neurologist, and at the time there were not enough neurologists in the United States. So he was actually invited to immigrate. And so we ended up moving to Chicago, where he did his residency. I was born in 1974 in Chicago.
What is the main reason you're a Muslim? You list a number of them in your book.
I would say the most important is because I was born Muslim. At first I thought, well, you can't say that--you can't say the reason you're Muslim is because you were born Muslim, but the Qur'an says we're all born Muslim. I don't mean that we are all born Sunni Muslim. I mean we're all born with the ability to do right and the ability to do wrong and to know the difference and choose between them.
I wanted to say that actually being born Muslim and born into a Muslim family is important, because even if I converted to another religion there would still be parts of me that are Muslim. As a Muslim you grow up learning about Islamic history and the great Islamic warriors. Every Muslim child learns about the scientific achievements that Muslims have been behind. Paper wasn't created by Muslims, but the technology of paper was created by Muslims. And the number zero was invented by Arabs.