Proud: My Fight for an Unlikely American Dream

by Ibtihaj Muhammad

Clock Icon 11 minute read


Come on, Ibtihaj,” my best friend, Amy, pleaded. She wanted me to come to her sleepover birthday party, but I knew the chances I would be able to go were slim to none. There was just no way it was going to happen. The rules were pretty clear in our house. No sleepovers. My father had already ruled them out before I even knew what sleepovers were. But I really wanted to go to Amy’s party. She was my best friend. Plus, all the girls at school were having slumber parties now, and I was convinced I was the only third grader at Seth Boyden Elementary School who wasn’t allowed to sleep over at someone else’s house. Usually, on Monday mornings when all the girls were talking about how much fun they’d had together at a party over the weekend, I’d be stuck standing on the sidelines with nothing to add to the conversation.

“Can’t you ask your dad? Maybe he’ll say yes this time,” Amy prodded as we sat on the picnic table bench in her backyard, resting after playing jump rope and riding bikes. Amy always had the best ideas and was so clever.

“You know my dad,” I said, sighing. “But I’ll ask him anyway.”

“Just try to butter him up,” Amy suggested. “Give him a hug.”

I knew I would find my dad in his room getting ready to go to his evening shift at the precinct. He had gotten promoted to detective at work, so he didn’t have to wear his regular police uniform like he used to. But he was still a cop through and through, and the strict expectations he had at work for his officers were the same ones he had for his children at home. He ran our household with military precision. We knew not to question his authority or bend the rules. But I still held out hope that I’d change Abu’s mind, because I really wanted to go to Amy’s birthday party. I knocked on the door. “Abu,” I called out quietly. “Can I come in?”

I opened the door to my parents’ room and found Abu sitting on the bed pulling on his socks. I put a big smile on my face to get him in the right mood. Remembering Amy’s advice, I walked right over and gave him a big hug, wrapping my skinny arms around his compact frame and taking care to avoid the prickly whiskers in his thick beard.

“Abu,” I said, pulling away to look into his eyes. “My best friend, Amy, across the street is having a sleepover party for her birthday and wants to know if I can go. Can I?” I rushed out the words like I’d been holding my breath.

Abu didn’t even pause before answering. “Ibtihaj, you know the rules. No sleepovers. You won’t be sleeping at anyone’s house except this one. It’s not safe.”

“But you let me sleep at Auntie and Uncle Bernard’s house,” I reasoned.

“That’s different. They’re family,” he insisted, walking past me to head out the bedroom door.

I followed him down the carpeted steps to the living room. My mom was there putting my little sister, Faizah, to sleep on her lap. She still had on her hijab and her work clothes, dark, long, loose pants and a brown cotton tunic top. As a special-education teacher, Mom often found herself having to get on the floor with her students for certain activities.

“What’s going on?” Mom asked, noting the frustrated look on my face. She saw that I was fast on Abu’s trail, my face a mask of determination.

“Amy wants me to sleep over at her house for her birthday, but Abu said no,” I whined, willing my mother to make my father change his mind.

She glanced up at my father and took in what was going on between us. The stoic look on Abu’s face made it clear he wasn’t going to change his mind. Even I could tell that.

“You know the rules, Ibtihaj,” my mother said, echoing my father’s words from just a moment earlier. My feelings of hope deflated. Sometimes she could help make Abu see things differently, like the time she convinced him to let us keep a stray cat that we had found in the garage, even though Abu claimed he didn’t like pets. The cat ran away after only a few days, but after Abu saw how well we took care of it, he surprised us and brought home a beautiful umbrella cockatoo named Koocah that he rescued while on duty from a group of kids who were abusing her. And even though he still pretended to hate Koocah, she was now a real member of our family. So I knew there was room for my dad to change his mind, and I had inherited his stubbornness.

“Abu, the kids who are coming to the party are just the girls from my class,” I said. “There won’t be any boys there.”

My father was shuffling around the carpeted living room in his socks, collecting his keys, his wallet, and his glasses like he did every time he left the house. He stopped moving and turned to face me. “Ibtihaj, no sleepovers means no sleepovers,” he said with firmness in his voice to signal to me that the discussion was over.

The tears started to form in my eyes, and my dad walked over to me. “Ibtihaj, you don’t need to cry about this,” Abu said, smoothing down the stray hairs that had escaped from my braids.

I was frustrated. We had a lot of rules in our house. There were things we couldn’t do, like watch television during the week or listen to music on the radio; things we had to do, like wear our hijabs to school twice a week and pray five times a day; and things we were supposed to do, like get good grades and respect our parents. Some of the rules, I knew, came from the Quran, but some, like the sleepover rule, were simply because Abu was a protective father. He was a cop, and he saw bad things happen to good people every day. And some of the rules we followed in our house were because of where Abu and Mommy came from, which was where they didn’t want any of their kids to end up.

My parents were both born and raised in Newark, New Jersey. In 1967, when my parents were teens, the Newark riots broke out, and the city burned with rage. Newark’s Black residents were protesting the racism and relentless police brutality endemic to the city. The riots ran unabated for four days straight, and when it was all over, twenty-six people were dead, more than seven hundred injured, and more than a thousand people had been arrested. Most of the victims caught in the crossfire were Black. In the aftermath of the riots, most business owners on Springfield Avenue, the key commercial thoroughfare, didn’t bother to rebuild and left their stores abandoned and boarded up. Most of the white people who had the means to do so fled the city, fearing more riots. A lot of people gave up on Newark, and the city became synonymous with urban decay, unemployment, and poverty. Drug abuse and crime were pervasive. When federal dollars poured into Newark to rebuild it in the 1970s, most of that financial capital went to the downtown business districts and did nothing to help the Black residents who still lived in Newark’s residential areas. In other words, even after the riots, Newark remained burdened by the dark shadow of its past.

My mother, Denise, watched Newark burn, and it only strengthened her resolve to break free. The violence she witnessed frightened her, but it wasn’t wholly unexpected. Violence was something my mother acknowledged as part of the landscape of her neighborhood. But she had a plan. Like her sister, Diana, who was eleven years older and had a good job and lived in New York City, my mom knew she had to do well in school and get out of Newark. She planned to follow in her sister’s footsteps.

Mom said her friends and family always called her a prude because she refused to party with them. They said she was too serious. But my mother wasn’t a prude; she was just afraid of what would happen if she let herself run loose, even for a day. She watched her own mother try to fight her demons with alcohol and lose the battle every time. She didn’t want that life. She was determined to do things differently. She didn’t want to get stuck like so many of the women she saw on porch steps and street corners looking like they’d been through a war of their own making. Rather than find out what temptation tasted like, my mother sought stability. When she felt the need to hang out, she’d walk just a few blocks to visit her cousin, Sharon.

Sharon was a cousin from her mother’s side of the family. She was only a few years older than my mom, but she was living a life my mother admired. Sharon lived with her husband, Karim, and they had a marriage that wasn’t punctuated by violent fights and lonely tears like the relationships she witnessed growing up. Inside their small apartment, it felt like an oasis from the chaos in the streets, and it was one of the only places my mother felt really safe. For one thing, Karim was always home by six p.m. Sharon never paced the living room wondering where he was, whom he was with, or when he’d be home. Karim had a good job as a mechanic, and Sharon said he didn’t drink or smoke or hang in the streets.

Sharon felt like a big sister to my mom. They’d just watch TV and talk. One night, while hanging out in the kitchen, she asked Sharon how she found a guy like Karim who was not caught up in the streets.

“Girl, Karim is a Muslim,” Sharon said. “You have to find yourself a Muslim man to marry. They will always do right by you.”

“Karim’s a Muslim?” Mom asked. “Like he’s part of the Nation of Islam?”

“No, he’s Muslim. Karim says those Nation brothas are trippin’. He says they’re more interested in starting a revolution than getting right with God.”

“Are you going to become a Muslim?” Mom asked.

Sharon shrugged. “I’m thinking about it. Karim wants me to, especially before we have children.”

Mom considered the way Karim treated Sharon, with such obvious respect and care, so unlike the way her own father treated her mother, and told her cousin, “Girl, you should think about it, considering what a good man Karim is. That has to mean something.”

And it was at that moment that the seed of Islam was planted in my mother’s brain. Was converting to another religion a possibility for her, too? She began to study the men and women around the neighborhood whom she knew were Muslim. The men who belonged to the Nation were easy to recognize, standing in front of their storefront mosques with their bow ties and bean pies. The women, too, wearing long dresses and head coverings. They all seemed so sure of themselves, so proud. The Nation of Islam is a religious organization based on Muslim principles, but it is also deeply rooted in Black nationalism. My mom wasn’t looking to be political; she was searching for religion.

She started to visit Sharon and Karim more often to talk about Islam. They kept a Quran on their coffee table, and every time she visited, Mom liked to flip through the pages, searching for a message. At the time, she didn’t understand much of the Quran’s writings; the poetic language went over her head, but still there were enough verses that jumped off the page and spoke to her:

“Islam is the religion of mercy.”

“And whoever holds firmly to Allah has [indeed] been guided a straight path.”

“Allah does not burden a soul beyond that it can bear.”

These simple lines filled my mother’s spirit. She fell in love with Islam and the peaceful guidance that it offered. She started thinking about God as Allah. She put her short skirts away and started rethinking what she wore. By wearing long pants and long skirts she was in control of how her body would be perceived. By the time my mom started college at Rutgers University, she knew enough about the religion to know she had found her salvation. She was reinventing her life, rewriting her story. She knew that she wanted Islam in her future and all the honor and beauty it brought. It lifted her soul and gave her more to believe in than what was in front of her. She liked the idea that there was more in the world than the eye could see, that Allah had put us here with purpose, and she was devoted to honoring her newfound relationship with Him. Her soul, her heart, her life was now Muslim.

Unlike my mother, my father, Eugene, discovered Islam from his family members. He didn’t have to seek out a new religion on his own; he simply had to follow in his brothers’ footsteps. One of twelve children raised by a single mother, my father was the third eldest of the eight boys. All of his older brothers had joined the Nation of Islam before my father hit his teen years. The Nation of Islam appealed to many Black men in Newark because it offered spiritual guidance in the midst of all the city’s recklessness, and it came gift-wrapped in a Black nationalist agenda that uplifted Black men in a world determined to break their spirits. But as Abu matured, he found himself attracted not to the nationalist rhetoric used by certain factions of the Nation of Islam, but by the spiritual guidance and the irrefutable guidelines on how to live a God-conscious life.

Because Abu’s parents separated when he was five, my father was attracted to Islam’s emphasis on the family and the important role of the father in the family hierarchy. So, along with a group of other friends, Abu founded a new mosque in East Orange, New Jersey, where traditional Islamic precepts would be observed. It was there that he first saw my mother, who coincidentally had come to my father’s mosque to officially take her shahaadah, or declaration of faith. She seemed so earnest in her love of the religion and so dedicated to learning everything she could in the class for new converts, my father was immediately attracted to her. Sometimes he would peek into the classroom where she was studying and he would just watch her studying as she pored over the verses from the Quran, her glasses sliding down her nose.

My father acted quickly, as he knew a woman as beautiful as my mom with such a naked love of the faith wouldn’t be on the market for long. He asked some of his friends to find out all they could about this new convert, and he soon found out her name was Denise, but she had chosen the name Inayah when she converted. Following Muslim tradition, members of the mosque formally introduced my parents, and they went on only a handful of dates to see if they made a good match. They did, on both sides. My mother liked my father’s quiet sense of humor and that he had an entrepreneurial spirit. In addition to running the mosque, he also owned two small restaurants in Newark. Complementary to her understated beauty, my father fell in love with my mother’s enthusiasm for life and her love of children. She was an obvious nurturer and immediately made my father feel comfortable in his own skin. My father didn’t hesitate to make his intentions known, first to my mother’s parents and then to her. They were married a short time later, first signing their Islamic marriage contract in a traditional nikah ceremony, and then later they celebrated with a more formal occasion.

As part of their new life, my parents now went by their chosen names Inayah and Shamsiddin. Their new names symbolized their dedication to Allah, and that dedication extended to all aspects of their lives. They were not going to be Muslims in name only. In contrast to the way they were raised, my parents mutually agreed to raise their children following Muslim traditions. It was their gift to us. All meals would be halal, prayer would be observed five times a day, and hijab would be observed for the girls when they came of age. No matter what, family and faith would always come first. My mother vowed her children would never end up victims of the streets. My father vowed his children would always have a father in their lives. And so they found a spacious second-floor apartment in a quiet residential section of Newark and a private Islamic academy for the children to attend. Even though it was a struggle to send three children to a private school, my parents were both willing to sacrifice for their children’s spiritual education. Both of my parents wanted more for their children than what Newark—a city still licking the wounds from its past—would be able to provide, more than what Newark had given to them. So they started saving their money, and in just a few years they had saved enough to buy a cozy four-bedroom home in Maplewood, New Jersey.

Related Reads