On Being Muslim and Not Belonging Anywhere

By Mikel Aki’lah

After greeting me, or sometimes before, fellow Muslims usually ask: Where are you from? My response is always, here. That response must not be what they are looking for because they are always left confused or uninterested in further conversation. I guess there is a wrong answer to that question, Where are you from?

When I am in the masjid and hear people refer to “back home” I sit there blankly. Sure, I’m West Indian, but that identity does not seem to give me any standing in those settings. Unlike others, my relationship to the island of my family is not, in my mind, fundamentally tied to my Islam. I began to feel that I was missing out on a part of being Muslim because I didn’t have a “home” in the way other Muslims spoke of home. For them, home provided them with legitimacy, authority, and community. My “back home,” if I had one, did not have the same kind of power.  

This feeling of homelessness has upset me ever since I was a child. My sense of belonging felt deeply threatened. I would ask myself, Why is it that I don’t have this “home” everyone talks about? What did I do wrong to be denied a home? Every Muslim community I found myself in was a house without a home for me. Each one was so reliant on this idea of “back home.” My sense of being foreign and somehow less worthy in those spaces was something I could not bear. So I distanced myself because I knew when they spoke, they weren’t talking to me or about me. Rather, they spoke in a way that only those with a shared home could relate to. In their minds– and increasingly in mine– their closest thing to home was Islam, and I wondered if I could compete with that kind of “authentic” connection to religion. Around Eid especially I felt incredibly alone, watching from Facebook the fuller Muslims celebrate Eid with their large families and communities, all of whom shared the same “back home.”

For some people, they find Islam through their “homes.” They have a place to go back to, and a language for that place, that is familiar; but for those of us who don’t have this, we don’t know where to go when trying to revive our Iman or when trying to get back in touch with our practice. The masjids I enter don’t seem like they belong to me, and “community” events make me feel even more excluded. I’ll admit that sometimes there’s a blessing in this because I get to experience Islam organically. There’s no particular opinion dictating my experience besides my own, and there’s room to explore. But there are moments when you want to share these discoveries, I see people talk about words like “community,” “sisterhood,” and “ummah” but they all seem so foreign, like another part of Islam or even the world I can’t access without having the proper home. When I would explain this feeling of loneliness, people would tell me to go to mosques or certain programs but it didn’t work. Those spaces only accentuated my feeling of otherness.

I didn’t have much community support when I started wearing hijab because no one saw me in them, there was no language or background to connect us besides the fact that we were both Muslim. My personal evolution felt less valuable, less weighty than others’. I’m not saying forget about your home for the convenience of those of us who don’t have one, but be sensitive towards us. We exist and a lot of us are hurting. For some of us, Islam is all we have, and this feeling of homelessness doesn’t help us in our faith or in our social development as Muslims.

maxresdefaultMikel Aki’lah Jones (Twitter: @kindofmeem | Instagram: @meemlah) is a poet from Brooklyn, NY. She has been writing since the age of eight and uses her work as a way to share her story as a Black Muslim woman in the west. She has been published in the Poet Linc Youth Anthology 2-12-2014 created by the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts as part of their annual Target Thursdays. Aki’lah has shared her work at the Nuyorican Poets Café, Lincoln Center, and the Brooklyn Public Library. She is a foodie, bibliophile and is currently living and studying in Lyon, France.

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  • Thank you sister Mikel Aki’lah. Your spoken word was a revelation of sorts for me. I didn’t know……It’s strong women like you that suffer and bear the brunt of the ignorance and insensitivity of others in our Muslim and non-Muslim communities. Your struggles, and those of your peers will not go in vein. Allah swt says in Al-Furqan v 20 “…..And We have made some of you as a trial for others: will you have patience? And your Lord is Ever All-Seer (of everything)”. You’re in good hands. Catalyst for change. May Allah bless you

  • Sending love & prayers to you my sister –M

  • Subhanallah, beautifully written!

  • Salaam, i really loved reading this and i can relate to some degree – my only advice is to keep going to those community events and try to be social, find sisters to talk to and keep going to one mosque until it feels like your own mosque. I agree that “sisterhood” talk sometimes feels very distant and im praying inshallah that you’ll find your true “home”.

    – Kauthar

  • I love this! Relate to this experience even though I am Arab-American. Even when other Egyptians claimed me as one of their own, I knew so little about my culture/language that I could never accept the idea that I was part of their “community” or “ummah.”

    Thank you for sharing this article and your poetry!

  • Dear Sister, as someone who was raised in the west and had to “move back home” in my later years, I hope it might be of comfort to you that many of us who are from culturally Muslim backgrounds end up discovering that we ourselves don’t belong in the places we call “home”. Being Muslim in the 21st century is challenging and I learned to find that my home and my identity is in being Muslim, and there are many of us out there, feeling like we don’t belong. We are here, with open arms, and in each other we find home 🙂

  • it was a beautiful speech and post. I also have trouble fitting in. I am glad you shared your thoughts and your struggles. May Allah grant you a successful life of happiness and joy.

  • From my personal experience, immigrants Muslims set up large masjids and then live a short distance from the masjid. Also in the early centuries of Islam, the masjid had many roles in a society. So, immigrants use the masjid as a cultural center which is naturally occurring; it just happens. Furthermore, it is not through Islam that a person feels like an outsider during the “where are you from moment”, that is a cultural mode if the theme of the gathering is purely about back home. Moreover, when Islam is the foundation of the culture as during the expansion of Islam, the gathering takes on a tone that is more welcoming because Islamic beliefs, norms, roles, and values are present to make people feel at home around Muslims. In other words, a good Muslim identity is very capable of including people especially our brothers and sisters from different places.

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