animated illustration of woman and mother with muslim and pride imagery

Illustration by LeeAndra Cianci

How my Muslim upbringing guides the way I treat others

For writer Samra Habib, acts of generosity are inspired by Islam

It’s 2:30 in the afternoon, just after the lunch rush at an Indian restaurant in downtown Toronto where I’m meeting my mother for lunch.

“You can’t hug Mom on Skype,” she had texted a few days earlier after I suggested that’s how we catch up. (One of the many things that remain a mystery to me about my mother is that she has become accustomed to talking about herself in the third person.)

So, lunch.

My mom and I have had a complicated relationship, largely due to my rejection of the traditions she grew up with—wearing the hijab and arranged marriage, for example. I grew up in Canada; I ended an arranged marriage at 17, stopped wearing a headscarf at 19 and soon chopped off all my hair, a symbolic way for me to forge an identity that wasn’t dictated by my parents’ wishes.

But after all these years, we have managed to find some common ground. She is one of the most selfless people I know, and I admire her for it.

For the past few years, I have been traveling around the world photographing queer Muslims who feel rejected by their communities and families because of their identity. One of the many reasons I am interested in talking to my subjects is because for the longest time, I have been trying to figure out my place in Islam as a queer person. We are not accepted in mainstream mosques and in many countries around the world, queer Muslims face the possibility of imprisonment and death simply for daring to be themselves.

Here’s where things get really complicated: although many don’t feel safe or welcome in traditional spaces, rituals and traditions that are tied to the religion are deeply entrenched in our sense of belonging.

And although I’m aware of the discrimination many queer Muslims experience and the lack of resources that are available to them to feel safe and to realize their full potential, I am also aware of the ways in which my Muslim upbringing has guided the way I treat others.

Sometimes it feels like my mother is Queen Latifah in a burka; everyone loves her and wants to be around her”

Zakat, or charity, is one of the five pillars of Islam and it has inspired me to give to others in any way I can. My mother led by example, funding younger relatives’ education in Pakistan and buying groceries for newcomers to Canada. Even during times when I haven’t been able to give financially, I have tried to help others in ways accessible to me: by giving my time, by sharing resources and even a quick, “You will be okay” when the occasion calls for it.

My faith still guides my conscious, even if I’ve left my hijab-wearing days far behind. Whenever I am angered by someone who has harmed me and temporarily wish ill upon them, I am reminded of the slogan stenciled by the entrance of the Mosque I attended as child: Love for all, hatred for none.

For me, faith has truly served as a guide on how to be in this world. It has taught me that hate is one of the most futile emotions there is. It distracts us from our ability to gain perspective and see things as they are.

The people I am the closest to are also spiritually-minded. Their moral compass is usually guided by spirituality and being taught to help others.

Abi, one of the people in my “chosen family,” says a giving principle in Judaism called tzedakah, which means a “good thing to do,” guides her moral compass. It is a religious obligation, regardless of means. One of the basic tenets is that one should give without expecting anything in return—the mitzvah, or charitable act, is the giving without any strings. In fact, expecting something in return for a charitable gift negates the goodness in the act of giving.

For Abi, the act of giving and the very notion of generosity are very much tied to that belief.

“I recognize how giving can support the health and growth of a community—from being a credit-card activist to giving space to someone, to educating around issues that need work,” she explains.

Working toward a healthy community is something my mother always instilled in me. As the waiter clears our lunch plates, I stare at my mother, her body cloaked in a loose linen coat even in the sweltering heat and her hair carefully concealed under a hijab. We are so different; yet being around her always helps me find my way back to myself. I think about all the sacrifices she has made in her life in order for those around her to be comfortable: waiting to eat dinner until everyone’s had a second serving, leaving a comfortable life in Pakistan behind so that her daughters could have better opportunities. She radiates positive energy, which I imagine is why everyone—including strangers—flock to her. Sometimes it feels like she is Queen Latifah in a burka; everyone loves her and wants to be around her.

I tell her about my photo project and show her some of the pictures and interviews from the work.

“I see what you are doing, you are trying to make others feel welcome and accepted,” she says as she signs the credit card receipt for lunch. “That’s very Muslim of you.”