Aisha Sharif, 34, has always known otherness, even inside her own family.
Her name is Arab, her toffee skin is African-American and she prays five times a day to Allah.
Her two sisters have what she calls “regular” names — Kim and Amber Speight. They were born before her Episcopalian father and Catholic mother converted to Islam in the late 1970s.
“Are y’all really sisters?” she heard again and again, growing up in Memphis, Tenn.
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Sharif says her father was always interested in different faiths. She explains: “As an adult, he became attracted to Islam’s simplicity, its focus on God as one and its view of Jesus being a prophet rather than part of the trinity.”
In her experience, Sharif says her name provokes more curiosity than her hijab.
Because she wraps her hijab tightly around her head, rather than draping it around her neck and shoulders, many people assume it is a display of African, rather than Islamic, culture.
Sharif, who lives in Shawnee and teaches English at Longview Community College in Lee’s Summit, addresses the confusing-to-others mash-up of her blackness and Muslim-ness in a poem titled, “Why I Can Dance Down a Soul-Train Line in Public and Still be Muslim.”
In a section about her hijab, she writes:
“No, I don’t have cancer. No,
I’m not a nun. No, I don’t take showers
with my scarf on. No, I’m not
going to hell cuz I haven’t accepted
Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior ...”
Sharif has also written a poem about whether her 2-year-old daughter, Aria Muhammad, will wear hijab.
The short answer: If she wants to.
“My parents never forced me to wear it, but I am glad they introduced it to me,” she says.
Sharif says her mother’s staunch Catholic parents were very surprised and conflicted when her mother converted, but the bonds of family endured.
Today, Sharif says, “We have a strong mutual respect for each other’s faiths.”
Sharif’s favorite thing about her Islamic faith is the reflection afforded through daily prayers.
“That time where you check out from daily tasks in order to pray and reflect on your connection with God — and you can do it anywhere — that direct connection with God is what I appreciate most,” she says.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Sharif noticed a change in how non-Muslims around her viewed Islam.
“I think there was a shift in people wanting to blame a religion for the actions of individuals,” she says.
The silver lining, she says, was that people were more interested in talking and asking about Islam.
As a woman, the misconception that stings most sharply is the idea that Islam is misogynistic. Oppression of women in some countries comes from their corrupt governments and not from Islam, she says.
“Our holy prophet Muhammad was actually asked by an older woman to marry him and he accepted,” she says.
Under Islam, Sharif says, women are respected and allowed to work and to own their own businesses, continue to hold property they owned before marriage and keep their maiden name when they marry, as she did.
Students are always curious about their teachers, and Sharif says she welcomes their questions about her religion. Oftentimes she is the first Muslim they’ve ever encountered, and she is happy to be able to be an in-the-flesh embodiment of Islam for them.
Sharif’s husband, David Muhammad, who is also Muslim, pushes her to be even more open with her students.
“He says, ‘When are they ever going to encounter another African-American female Muslim?’ ” she says, laughing.
Let alone one who can dance down a “Soul Train” line in public.
Poetry by Aisha Sharif on the Web
To Muslims Who Do Not Say Salaam, sapelosquare.com/2015/12/08/to-muslims-who-do-not-say-salaam
Why I Can Dance Down a Soul Train Line in Public and Still Be Muslim, www.rattle.com/why-i-can-dance-down-a-soul-train-line-in-public-and-still-be-muslim-by-aisha-sharif