Blogging Our Way to Understanding

Published December 20, 2011

By Dr. Suzy Ismail

Plowing the Land

Growing up Muslim in America entailed quite the ensemble of “different” experiences.  I stood out in elementary school for the ethnic foods packed lovingly by ‘Ummi in neatly stacked Tupperware. While my public school classmates unwrapped tidy, triangularly cut sandwiches of peanut butter and jelly, I was left awkwardly gripping my soggy fava-bean stuffed pita bread or stabbing my fork into some saucy meat and rice mixture. 

As I progressed to middle school, my choice to wear hijab early on was as clear of an indicator of my “differentness” as if I had a big red distinguisher on my forehead identifying me as the one who didn’t belong.  Moving into high school, the differences continued to create a separate zone for me to function in.  I didn’t need to make excuses for not attending parties or the prom since it was already known that I was… well… “Different.”

The label of “different” suited me just fine.  I had no qualms about standing out in my public school as the token Muslim girl or at least as one of the few openly-identifiable Muslim girls

In the time that defined my childhood and teen years, the label of “different” suited me just fine.  I had no qualms about standing out in my public school as the token Muslim girl or at least as one of the few openly-identifiable Muslim girls.  My parents had gone to great lengths to ensure that my sisters and I had a strong network of Muslim friends outside of school.  Hours were spent every weekend driving us to a not-so-nearby neighborhood so that we could attend a Muslim youth program and participate in other activities that helped connect us to a larger Muslim community.  At home, ‘Ummi worked hard to create a social atmosphere with friends and family that fostered love and pride for our Islamic identities.

It was easy to accept and even welcome the feeling of “being different” in school with such a supportive home, family, and community.  The hadith from Abu Hurayrah from the Prophet (peace be upon him) served to strengthen my embrace of dissimilarities:  “Islam began as something strange and will revert to being strange as it began, so give glad tidings to the strangers.”  And I was definitely glad to be “strange” during those formative years.

Upon entering college I was suddenly introduced to a whole new world of “sameness.”  I was no longer the only “hijabi” around.  Everywhere I looked, there were Muslims —  praying together, breaking the fast together, studying together.  I fell in love with the college atmosphere and with the ease of having access to an ummah of like-minded individuals at any given time.

Amidst all this sameness, my communal walls slowly were built up around me. I reveled in the similarities I could share with my expanding circle of like-minded friends.  It was easy now to ignore the rest of the world as I moved among other Muslims.  All I needed was my close-knit community, my extended family, and my childhood friends.  I felt comfortable and confident in my “sameness” with this population and shifted the title of “different” to all those who didn’t share my Muslim beliefs.

The label of “different” suited me just fine.  I had no qualms about standing out in my public school as the token Muslim girl or at least as one of the few openly-identifiable Muslim girls

Tilling the Soil

I graduated college and kept my new relations intact. After marrying, my husband and I continued to move towards solidifying our Muslim community. We worked hard to create social gatherings for our children and to maintain a strong collectivist feel between Muslim friends, neighbors, relatives, and so many others in our social circles that shared our beliefs. The striking ayah of Surat Aal-e-Imran that prescribes the importance of establishing the ummah was always foremost in our minds, “Hold on firmly together to the Rope of Allah, and be not divided among yourselves; remember (with gratitude) the favors Allah bestowed on you, when you were one another’s foe and He reconciled your hearts, and you turned into brethren through His grace. You were then on the brink of the pit of fire, and He saved you from it. In this way Allah makes His signs clear to you, so that you may find the right path” (Qur’an, 3:103).

Even as we attended work and school, we kept our interactions with non-Muslims minimal and avoided any true engagement or open dialogue.  We were so focused on allowing our children to experience the sense of “belonging” that we had never experienced in our own public school years that we didn’t realize what they were losing by being sheltered in a safe cocoon of  a purely homogeneous culture. We only had to look to the next ayah of Surat Aal-e-Imran to realize what we were missing in our single-minded sameness:  “Let there be a body of people among you, who invite others to all that is good, and enjoin what is right, and forbid what is wrong. They are those who will be successful.” (Qur’an, 3:1043)

SubhanAllah!  In the very same surah that speaks of strengthening the ummah comes the concept of dawah.  By secluding ourselves with only same-faith, like-minded individuals, we had unwittingly cut ourselves off from interacting with those people who we could “invite to all that is good,” from engaging in any form of relationship that would allow for sincere and open dialogue and discourse about faith. 

We had unwittingly cut ourselves off from interacting with those people who we could “invite to all that is good”

Planting the Seedlings

Somewhere in between the time of my marriage and delivering my first child, my latent interest in writing was suddenly rekindled.  Still singularly focused on creating “a world of similarities” for my children, I wrote and published my first book “The BFF Sisters” (Amana Books, 2001). My intention was to write characters into the world that my future daughters could eventually identify with. Again, it was the focus on sameness that fueled my interest in writing and that drove my desire to write strictly for a Muslim audience.

Once the book came out, I focused on circulating it to Muslim children who I thought would be interested in the “sameness” quotient.  The reaction was good, but not strong enough to sustain my publisher’s interest in continuing with the intended series.  I put thoughts of writing aside and decided to move on.  It wasn’t until nearly a decade later that a student of mine at the university mentioned that he had purchased a copy of my book and had read it to his daughter who loved learning about the Muslim characters.  I was floored by this revelation.  Never had it occurred to me that my writing could reach out to someone who wasn’t Muslim and that an audience other than that intended for the book would find my words “interesting.”  During this discussion in class, other students began to ask about obtaining copies of my book so that they could read it to their children as well. Feedback began to roll in on different characteristics of the characters’ lives and engaging talks ensued.  And just like that, the wall of sameness that I had carefully constructed so many years before slowly began to crumble. This was dawah!

Somehow, my writing had paved the way for a whole new dialogue in class. Something I had written was spurring conversations and the exploration of questions and issues with an unintended audience.  Encouraged by our discussions, I began to think about writing again and even more so about writing for a wider audience — essentially writing outside of my safe haven and reaching out to engage the unfamiliar “difference” of those on the other side of a line I myself had drawn around me and my family.

Sunshine, Water, and Air

For the first time in many years, I felt encouraged to join a writing organization — a mainstream national writing group that attracts thousands of members from all different walks of life, ethnicities, and religions. I had focused for so long on staying behind the line I had drawn that I was a little hesitant to step into that unknown territory and re-experience being “strange.” 

In preparation for a local conference, the writing organization assigned members to various groups and asked us to converse online with the other critique group members.  Anticipating that I would feel out of place and awkward,  I waited anxiously to see who in my assigned group would be first to send out an introductory email. And then, there it was, soon after the groups were assigned… an email from Suzi Ryan — a devout Christian woman with three children and a love of coffee and chocolate that rivaled my own. From that very first email, I found myself stepping out of my comfort zone and into the bright light of camaraderie.  Our emails unfolded rapidly as our discussions moved from writing to work to family.  Then our talk inevitably turned to the faith that played such a large role in each of our lives. Through the course of our discussions, I truly began to understand the ayah that states: ““O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other. Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well-acquainted (Qur’an, 49:13).

The lines I had drawn and then the walls I had built to encircle and protect the “sameness,” had been all too effective in keeping out the differences that Allah (SWT) has clearly spoken of in the Qur’an.  In each of our emails we found ourselves wishing that we could somehow share our exchange of information with others.

Taking Root and Growing

After emailing each other for many long months, Suzi and I decided to begin a blog together. We chose the name “A Tale of Two Suzies” because we wanted to share our views without the pressure of conforming to a set topic or idea.  Our tagline read: “Suzi and Suzy are two aspiring MG/YA (middle grade/young adult) authors, mothers of three children each, and avid coffee drinkers. Oh yeah, and one of us is a Christian and one of us is a Muslim… and we haven’t killed each other yet.”

We decided to share our thoughts on whatever was important to us on any particular day.  We don’t proselytize or solely stick to religious issues.  For example, Suzi is an avid reader and often chooses to write book reviews on the blog with ratings about how appropriate the subject matter is. I, on the other hand, often feel the urge to write about current events or life musings from my perspective.  We don’t argue about religion or try to convert others on the blog. Our aim is to be open, to share, and to plant seeds of understanding.  Clearly the Qur’an underscores this: “And argue not with the People of the Scripture unless it be in (a way) that is better, save with such of them as do wrong; and say: We believe in that which hath been revealed unto us and revealed unto you; our God and your God is One, and unto Him we surrender” (Qur’an 29: 46).

Without stepping on each other’s toes, Suzi and I have been able to learn quite a bit about our respective viewpoints. For me, my faith and Muslim identity are certainly strengthened  by being surrounded  by those who share my beliefs; but, as I have come to understand with some age and maturity, it is also enhanced by experiencing the differences that abound.  Suzi’s first blog post captured the initial sentiment of surprise that we both had upon highlighting our similarities. “When I started writing again, desperate to remember who I was before I became a mommy, I prayed.  I prayed for someone, a friend, a confidante, a fellow writer, someone I could talk shop with about writing, someone who would understand the drive to create a story and have it read by someone else.  Such was my prayer. Never, ever let it be said God doesn’t have a sense of humor.  Because God did in fact answer my Christian prayer — he sent me a Muslim.” (S. Ryan)

With the prevalence of online publications, almost anyone today can record their thoughts for the world to read.  The downfall of blogging is that one could become so enamored of his own words that arrogance is bred and recklessness in writing might rear its ugly head.  Recognizing that what you write is there for anyone to read bears with it great responsibility. Yet, in the trek towards finding the middle road between acknowledging differences and highlighting similarities with all human beings, the opportunity of using blog writing to get one step closer to interfaith understanding is a creative journey worth taking. 

While the seeds of our blog may not go much further than our own backyards, if a few stray seeds mystically drift away and land in someone else’s garden, then that’s one more opportunity for understanding that might take root and potentially grow and flourish.

Interested in taking a peek?  Visit

Dr. Suzy IsmailAuthor Dr. Suzy Ismail is a speaker, consultant and author of “When Muslim Marriage Fails: Divorce Chronicles and Commentaries”.

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