The Red Couch: Threading My Prayer Rug Discussion

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Red Couch -Threading My Prayer Rug- Discussion

After graduating from college, I traveled to Kathmandu, Nepal to experience a new culture while seeing if teaching was a good fit for my future. I spent my mornings teaching English to Nepali middle school students and my afternoons and evenings exploring the city with my team, which consisted of mostly non-religious folks. In fact, I was the only seriously practicing Christian.

Partway into my three months, I started really missing church and Christian community, so I ventured into the suburbs, through unmarked winding streets, until I finally found a Catholic church. The service was in Nepali, there were no pews, just cushions on the floor, and the iconography was distinctly Nepali. I went with my Catholic roommate who could interpret the liturgy and rhythm of the service. I only went once or twice but it was a much-needed reminder that worship is both culturally unique and spiritually common. While I didn’t know the language, I did know the intention and it was enough to sustain me during that time without church.

In Threading My Prayer Rug: One Woman’s Journey from Pakistani Muslim to American Muslim, Sabeeha Rehman grapples with a similar realization. Raised in Muslim-majority Pakistan, faith and culture were seamlessly intertwined. Calls to prayer rang through the city; Ramadan fasts were supported and expected; interpretations of Qur’anic laws and guidelines were seen through a Pakistani lens.

After moving to New York City in the early-1970’s as a new bride, Rehman is hit with the realization that much of her faith was experienced culturally, rather than personally. Once immersed in a non-Muslim society, she began making choices—what would her faith really look like? How would she practice Islam and embrace her new country? It’s a process that became more imperative after she had children and realized they will be raised without the cultural support she experienced in Pakistan. Becoming what she phrases, a “born-again Muslim,” Rehman and her husband gather community, build the first Mosque on Staten Island, create a vibrant Muslim community, and grapple with the reality of living out their faith as minorities.

Rehman, her husband, and their community start from scratch—they raise funds for a Mosque and must decide which language the children’s service will be taught, after realizing that Arabic, Urdu, Albanian, and English are all spoken by their children. They navigate their way around Christmas and Eid. They learn to navigate raising teenagers in American culture.

Rehman’s honesty and vulnerability in questioning perceived norms of Islam, like the separation of men and women during worship or the practice of arranged marriages, helped me realize that anyone who takes her faith seriously is going to question the seemingly understood rules. Sometimes her conclusions are in line with Islam’s cultural expectations; other times she pushes back, often meeting with resistance. She is honest with her lessons and feedback. Sometimes it seems like she’s championing feminism within Islam, like the time she decided to run for executive board member of the mosque; at other times she says, Sorry feminists. I agree on this one, like the time she decided that lowering her gaze to a man felt appropriate.

Whatever the outcome, Rehman learns that as a religious minority, every part of her faith must be inspected. She is put into the role of apologist, even as coworkers ask simple questions about her practice. It is not enough for her to respond with, Because the Qur’an says so. She purchases commentaries, reads different translations, and asks her Imam question after question as she sorts out her faith for herself. She distinguishes between ancient cultural practice that may or may not make sense in today’s world. She wonders what draws her closer to God and how to best worship from that space.

Threading My Prayer Rug reminded me, as a Christian and a religious-majority in America, the value of stopping to examine and question my faith. Rehman’s questions didn’t lead her away from Islam, rather her questions gave her a stronger faith and a more authentic worship practice.

Her story also reminded me to stop and analyze the differences between faith and culture. Rehman readily admits that faith and culture are intertwined—something that I was always taught was a negative in my Evangelical church. Growing up, we were admonished to not be one with the culture around us; to keep our faith above the culture. But Rehman extends grace to this area, recognizing that culture enhances our faith and that faith reflects cultural ideas. It’s a both-and, not an either-or distinction.

Ultimately, Threading My Prayer Rug reminded me of the importance of learning from each other. Rehman sought out Jewish neighbors—another minority religion—for advice on raising her Muslim sons. She started an inter-faith book club to learn from different perspectives. Even though my religion is the majority right now, I can learn from the stories and experiences of my neighbors and that their faith will strengthen my own faith.

Questions for Reflection:

  • What was your biggest takeaway from Threading My Prayer Rug?
  • Have you ever experienced your faith as a minority?
  • How do you reconcile your faith culturally and spiritually?
  • If you live in a country where your faith is a majority-religion, how do you balance personal practice with cultural norms?

We have exciting news! I’ll be interviewing Sabeeha Rehman at the beginning of August! Join our Facebook group to post any questions you’d like me to include and to watch the video.

Disclosure: Amazon Affiliate links included in this post.  If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site.

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Annie Rim
Annie lives in Colorado where she plays with her daughters, hikes with her husband, and writes about life & faith. She has taught in the classroom, at an art museum, and now in the playroom. You can connect with her on Twitter @annie_rim or on her blog: annierim.wordpress.com.
Annie Rim
  • Must add this to my list of reads! Thank you, Annie!

    • Awesome! Let me know when you read it!! 🙂

  • Sandy Hay

    I am in the middle of reading this wonderful book but with the craziness here this month it will take me a while to get to the end. I love it!!!! Sabeeha is just a few years younger than I am so I can put myself in her life fairly easily as far as the times go. But I can’t imagine going to an entirely new culture and acclimating as she did. Her thinking was advanced compared to American women of her generation. Plus her family’s support and the love and care of her husband are so different…and wonderful. I wanted to be independent from all. Now I have created with my own kids and grandkids just the opposite… the interdependence of the generations.

    • I was struck by her parents’ progressiveness, too. For a traditional Pakistani couple, I wanted to know more about their own point-of-view. Especially her dad’s….

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  • Lisa Sands Scandrette

    I finished the book a while ago, because it came quickly from the library and I had a good window of time then…I am simultaneously interested in Sabeeha’s personal experience acclimating to a new culture and owning and wrestling with her religion in that context, and with the commonalities I feel with her in that experience. Annie, I grew up hearing the same sorts of things about being separate from culture with our faith. Now I don’t think that is even possible. The culture we grow up surrounded by effects how we think about God and the deeper things of life. Even if we are setting ourselves apart from our culture, it is the culture we are reacting to and that particular reaction shapes our way of seeing. Faith cannot be divorced from the eyes of the culture we see through. For me, this has shaped much of the growth of my faith and wrestling with new ways of seeing things. As experiences in our own culture, and in cultures that are less familiar to us, bump up against our beliefs about God and the world, we need to examine where the rub is, see things in a new light, adjust, and move forward differently. We can see Sabeeha doing this–sometimes, like when she covers herself more for a while, she tries something and then readjusts because it just doesn’t quite work with everything that she is working with. I think this is the nature of growth–we reach a “rub”, we think and try something new, and then we re-adjust as needed. Most often, I see that the way of Jesus is not the natural way of my culture and make choices to engage in a new way. But I can also honor the image of God where I find it in the culture around me–for example, when we first moved to San Francisco I was humbled. In the States, San Francisco has a reputation for being a “godless” place where anything goes. However, I found people here, who though they did not claim to follow Jesus or any other religion, were examples of the acceptance and care of those on the margin in ways the churches I had been part of had not shown me. This city has had much to teach me. God is here and at work. Sabeeha, like many women I admire, keeps opening herself to learning, wrestling and growing deeper even when the way forward is bumpy, clumsy or unclear.

    • Lisa, this is so true! I love finding God in the most unexpected places and people. When I see “nonChristians” fighting for justice, loving their neighbors, working toward peace, I am reminded that God is so much bigger than culture and religion. That God is present in so much of our world. I think that’s what I loved about Sabeeha’s reminder – that we are continually learning and finding God outside our natural comfort zones.

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