As I wrapped up my trip through Buddhism, I started to get nervous. I knew the time to explore Islam was fast approaching. Unlike the places of worship of the previous religions that had allowed me to tailor my explorations to ease into a particular faith by degrees, theological variations among Muslims are less apparent. Perhaps this is especially true in the United States, where congregants who gather under one roof may hail from a range of countries and represent a spectrum of belief. In all likelihood, I would have no way of readily identifying the individuals whose convictions put them at the extremes of Muslim faith.
Back at home, I gave the matter more thought. My tiny town serves as home to a surprisingly diverse Islamic community, many of them young men and women from countries across Northern Africa and the Middle East who earn degrees from the university. The absence of a busy urban environment seems to render them more conspicuous here and I watch with interest. One day I witnessed a man and his two young sons pause to offer afternoon prayers at the local mall. They knelt on small rugs facing a Bath and Body Works, their backs to the walkway. I wondered about the trust it took to assume such a vulnerable position in public. Their faith was as enveloping as the sweet fragrance from the store.
Phil and I encountered a group of Muslims at a remote county park. Ours was the only car in the lot when we arrived but after our hike we encountered two picnicking groups. One was a cluster of men sitting and eating. Several hundred yards away, several women were stretched out together on a blanket in the grass laughing and relaxing. We knew they were Muslim because of the scarfs fastened securely at their chins. So unexpected was this sight that I felt Phil and I had entered the forest in rural Washington state, but had emerged somewhere on the other side of the planet.
I was forced to consider what seemed like an irony: Islamic female garb may be worn to conceal, yet it never fails to identify. This might not be the case in places where the population is predominantly Muslim, but in countries where this is not the case, Muslim women stick out. Often, if it weren’t for the women, the Muslims in my midst would have gone unnoticed. A guy in the pasta aisle at Safeway was just a regular dude until I spotted his wife in a hijab draped from ear to ear; she had a bare band around her eyes like the opposite of a masquerade ball. Her face may have been hidden, but the collective identity to which she belonged was on display. I wondered what it must be like to bear the brunt of public scrutiny, to have your presence function as a symbol. I once walked behind a woman wearing a full burka that rendered the woman inside as invisible as a ghost. The fabric of her garment rolled and snapped so wildly that it appeared to contain its own weather pattern. Outside a breeze blew gently; underneath, a storm raged.