Maryam Amirebrahimi received her masters in education from UCLA, where her research focused on the effects of mentorship rooted in Critical Race Theory for urban high school students of color. She holds a bachelors in Child and Adolescent Development from San Jose State University, where she served as the president of the Muslim Student Association for two consecutive years. Currently, she is pursuing a second bachelors degree in Islamic Studies through Al Azhar University. Maryam spent a year studying the Arabic language and Quran in Cairo, Egypt and has memorized the Quran. She has been presented the Student of the Year award by former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and holds a second degree black belt in Ta Kwon Do. Maryam frequently travels to work with different communities and address a variety of social issues and writes about topics related to social realities, women’s studies, and spiritual connections on www.virtualmosque.com.
| 1. Tell us about your background.
My parents were raised more secular than religious, so they were not really familiar with Islam. When they were in college they both had devout Christian roommates who were very good people. Through their influence, my parents started going to church, reading the Bible, and eventually started to research other world religions. Through this research, they started reading the Quran. It was around the same time that Cat Stevens became Muslim, who my mother loved. Thus, my mom and dad became conscientious Muslims in college. They were in two different states, two different schools and in different years, but subhan Allah, they had very similar stories of discovering Islam.
By the time they had gotten married and had me, they were living lifestyles, which included Islam in their day-to-day schedules and life decisions. However, growing up, I wasn’t into that. I wore hijab for a summer to impress my visiting cousins who were older and cooler and also wore it, but as soon as they left and I was back in public school, I didn’t want to wear it. I was hated my identity and I questioned Islam being true.
Then, when I was fourteen, the summer after my freshman year of high school, we went for Umrah. Seeing the Ka’ba changed my life; it was the first time I experienced God’s presence. I started to bawl and realized I had wasted so many years of my life; I knew I needed to change.
So, when I went back to high school and started sophomore year, I had recognized that something changed internally. Instead of watching hours of TV a day, I started reading the Quran. I had Quran lessons as a child, so I know how to read it, but I was painfully slow since I had not practiced reading it for years. I am not Arab, didn’t know any Arabic, and I didn’t understand what I was reading.
I made my goal reading five pages a day, and I realized it was really hard. I was just way too slow and it would take forever. One day, my mom suggested that I read it in English. I took up her advice and it was then that I finally began to understand the interpretation of the meaning of the Qur’an and the powerful message of God. The more I read it, the more I transformed. I fell in love with the Qur’an and I slowly began to focus my life on living its message as best I could.
A powerful message of the Qur’an is the importance of social justice, of women’s narrative and empowerment, and of love. This message is what drives much of my work. Additionally, I’ve been incredibly blessed with an extremely diverse family; we span many ethnic backgrounds and religions and simply being blessed with this family has shaped the way I see the world.
| 2. How long have you been public speaking?
I have always been outspoken. I was conducting plays during family reunions and giving speeches to my stuffed animals when I was a kid lol. But really, during high school I was involved with a student leadership group sponsored by our city and I was later the student body president and president of MSA; these experiences all helped me to hone my public speaking skills. As student body president, I was asked to speak at different student leadership initiatives by non-profit organizations in the district. As president of MSA, I was organizing speaking on Islamic topics, even though I was fresh in my knowledge of Islam. In college, I was also MSA president for two years and was speaking to larger audiences. I guess it was through word of mouth that I started to get more and more speaking requests for university MSAs, mosques and larger-scale conferences. Unfortunately, many organizations have difficulty finding Muslim women who are willing to speak to a mixed-gender audience (even though there are a number of qualified women out there and it simply requires more networking), so I was contacted more and more often. It was at one of those events that someone recorded and put up on YouTube a session that was shared internationally and people began contacting me nationally and from different countries.
As I continued reading the Qur’an in the English translation, I knew I needed to begin reading it in its actual Arabic to fully understand its depth and intricacy. I also knew I needed to know Arabic to pursue Islamic scholarship, a dream which quickly became a goal I passionately wanted to achieve.
I kept asking my parents to let me study Arabic overseas and making duaa that God would make it happen. Finally, as I was graduating from my bachelor’s, my parents gave the green light for me to go to Cairo. At the time, there were a number of Americans from our own community studying in Arabic centers there or in Al-Azhar University.
I learned Arabic at Al Diwan Arabic Center for foreign students. Learning Arabic provided a gateway for me to begin to access the research and literature on Muslim women in Arabic and this allowed for me to learn of powerful examples of female warriors and scholars in our rich Islamic tradition. It also helped me begin to understand in a completely different way.
Before Egypt, Islam was taught in a very black and white way to me by some of my well-meaning but perhaps more culturally or specific-opinion influenced mentors, and I had no way to be critical about what I was being taught because I couldn’t even understand the references they shared with me. However, with Arabic, I could finally begin to read on my own, ask others, find new teachers who only spoke Arabic but were oceans of knowledge and understanding. Access to Arabic changed my life, helped me find my voice as a Muslim woman within an empowering Islamic context, and continues to be a resource through which I am so humbled to learn sacred sciences, by God’s incredibly mercy.
| 4. Comparing Egypt to the US, what differences did you see in Islam and Muslim women?
I think the biggest difference I noticed is one related to the concept of identity, and this applies to both men and women. In America, particularly because we are a minority, if we associate with being Muslim, it is often an assertion of a chosen identity. In my experience, many Egyptian men and women I know, as well as those from Muslim majority countries other than Egypt, truly found their Islamic identity here in America. The same can be said of those who convert to Islam in a Muslim minority country or those who discover Islam even when born and raised in a Muslim minority country. The point is that in the absence of living amongst a Muslim majority, people are able to differentiate culture and religion, making a conscious decision in which Islam is a way of life and the core of their identities.
Additionally, I saw so much zest in the women of Egypt. Whether they worked full time as teachers or business owners or apartment keepers or were full time mothers or daughters who took care of their families- they had so much personality! So much vibrancy in the colors of their clothing. It was incredible to see such diversity amongst women’s outer practice of Islam [from niqab, to khimar, to hijab, to not covering their hair at all] and the way they carried themselves. They all seemed to be assertive, proud, and willing to sacrifice everything for a greater cause. And they were so normal in their interactions with men. It wasn’t weird or awkward, it was just life.
I would definitely say Muslim American women are also all of the above. But here, we see it in pockets at the masjid or MSA. You may see a great gathering of Muslims at a major conference, but even then- maybe that’s a few thousand people? Imagine that multiplied by 30 million in Cairo alone! It was such an empowering experience to be surrounded by women who seemed so busy living productive lives, and who seemed to be so proud of who they are. Of course, these are generalizations that do not encompass every single woman and they are observations from an outsider, so forgive me if you’re Egyptian and disagree! These were simply the reflections I took from my time there.
| 5. So we need to talk about this second degree black belt. It is so Khawla bint Al Azwar!
I come from a family that has many degreed black belts. My mom, brother, and many of my aunts and uncles all have a first or second degree black belt or higher. I’ve always been into sports but nothing invigorates me like tae kwon do. Basketball is a close second, but tae kwon do trumps. I worked with my mom and aunt at a women’s karate studio they established for some time, but college and living overseas and then doing my master’s got really hectic. Now, I just maintain personal training. I guess what I could really tell you is simply, don’t mess with me. 😉
| 6. It is awesome that you write for SuhaibWebb.com (now known as VirtualMosque.com). How did you get started with that? Do you come up with your own topics?
Many years ago, it was Imam Suhaib’s personal blog; I submitted an article to be published, and that’s how I started. Over the years, the blog transformed into a website with many regular authors and a managing team.
I do come up with my own topics, yes. I try to address both spiritual and social issues relevant to the Muslim community, such as Quran, dawah, women’s studies, racism, getting married, marriage stories, inspirational stories of others or life reflections, amongst many.
| 7. You do a lot of work with youth. What do you think is the biggest issue among young Muslims in America today?
In my experiences, I would say identity (and all that encompasses) and doubts in faith. It is important for us as a community to not simply blame and shame youth for the mistakes they will inevitably make. We can’t yell at them to swim, expect sayng the word ‘swim’ will somehow by osmosis mean they’ll know how to do it, put them in the ocean, and when they find themselves drowning, scream at them for not swimming. So how can we expect our youth to just ‘get it’ when we don’t provide the mentorship, resources and support they need to come out victorious?
The Prophet (peace be upon him) was not a shamer or a blamer, he was a trainer. He trained and developed people into the incredible giants they became, and yet even then, they sometimes still made mistakes. We, too, need to focus on developing programming that works to support youth through their growth and the inevitable mistakes and help them be prepared to find who they are and what that means when considering their relationship with Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala.
| 8. What are your favorite topics to speak about and why do you feel that they are important?
Connecting with God and Quran, the life and community of the Prophet [sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam] and contextualizing it to how it relates to our reality, social justice, racism, identity, women’s issues, social issues like our personal and community struggles.
Social justice is a very important topic to me; I’ve done work with communities of color who are generally not Muslim and the sheer ignorance I have heard from some Muslims who come from Muslim-majority countries, and even first generation American Muslims is incredibly disheartening at times. Racism exists in our community, even towards other Muslims. We need to reform ourselves and be at the forefront of creating change and upholding social justice in society.
The Quran is so clear on this: O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm in justice, witnesses for Allah , even if it be against yourselves or parents and relatives. Whether one is rich or poor, Allah is more worthy of both. So follow not [personal] inclination, lest you not be just. And if you distort [your testimony] or refuse [to give it], then indeed Allah is ever, with what you do, Acquainted. (Qur’an, 4:135)
We have a direct injunction from God to uphold social justice. It’s up to us to follow through with His command- even against our own selves- even against the racism [or any other injustice] in our own families and communities.
| 9. What is your definition of a Muslim woman?
I’m going to answer this by referring readers to an article I wrote which I think may shed light on some of the struggles we face as women who are striving to be close to God but are judged and often isolated based on the two community ‘M’s- modesty and marriage: http://www.virtualmosque.com/islam-studies/hot-topics/how-i-lost-my-identity-5-tips-when-studying-women-in-islam/
| 10. What is next for Maryam?
Before embarking on the journey of scholarship, I was concerned with what I would do after I had finished my Azhar degree and completed the beginning step of my studies. Of course, seeking knowledge is life-long. But there comes a point that it’s time to teach it and help others learn as well. But for women, what are those opportunities? Possibly teaching a halaqa at the local masjid. Some women teach Islamic studies in an Islamic elementary or middle school after pursuing an Islamic degree. But what about women who learned to teach adults full time? How many opportunities do we have? I spoke to Shaykha Muslema Purmul about this at that point in my life, and she eloquently expressed an important perspective which focuses on women creating spaces for women to come.
What we need in our spaces are positions for women who are qualified to be educational directors or leaders for the Muslim community. Islamically, it is permissible for women to be scholars (Shaykhas) and Muftiyas (heard of Mufti? A Muftiyah is a female Mufti)- not Imams who lead the prayer, but those who are there as figures to be consulted for rulings, who teach classes, who work with the greater community on vision and spiritual training.
What we need is for our communities to start hiring women of knowledge to work with the Imam or other resident male scholar to also fulfill the great need for Muslim women in knowledge roles. Our community sorely needs this; we have communities growing in their numbers of Muslim women attendees, and yet many of our mosques do not cater to this huge portion of our population. Sometimes, Imams are difficult to access and with barriers between the prayer rooms, it is sometimes physically intimidating to figure out who the Imam is and how to ask our questions. We need to carve a path for Muslim women to be able to address women, and also even men. Men and women can benefit from women’s scholarly perspectives. And even if communities are only comfortable with women learning from women- even that would be an incredible step forward for the majority of our learning centers.
It is my hope to help contribute to creating these types of spaces for women in our community inshaAllah. I’ve started working with some organizations who have the same vision and it is my hope that inshaAllah the future generation of men and women simply find it normal to have a plethora of access to women of knowledge for guidance.
| 11. Do you have anything else to add?
So many in our communities are struggling. Whether it’s with families, depression, self harm or suicidal thoughts or even attempted suicides, with abuse, addictions, racism, classism, debt, doubts in faith and in identity and so much more. And Allah is the most welcoming. A conversation with Him is a safe conversation. Salah, prayer, is a safe space. I know that many of you have felt judged, isolated, cast aside, unwelcome, by members of the community or by a certain narrative in the community. I know you deeply want to heal but are not finding the community, are not finding the Houses of God Almighty a place of healing sometimes. But that’s not a reflection on God. He loves those who seek Him, He rushes towards anyone who takes a step towards Him. Focus on building that relationship with Him, know that He chose you to be a part of this ummah because of something He seeks in you that you may not even seen in yourself. Talk to Him. And if you aren’t ready to talk to Him, whisper to Him in your heart. He already knows, and you are worthy of His love.