The Red Couch: Threading My Prayer Rug Discussion


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.

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