Christina Aguilera has a song entitled, “Beautiful,” and very few other songs have shot straight through to my heart. The song brings to the forefront the struggles of being a Muslim in America, especially one who has been born and raised American. Like I said before, ever since I first stepped foot on the school bus at the age of five, I faced dislike for my skin color. The first time I boarded the bus and sat next to another child, he frowned. I had never met him before. Another time, two girls said in unison, “I don’t want to sit next to Hesham!” Yet another time in the first grade – and this I will never forget – one of my schoolmates pushed me, with red-blooded hatred in his voice and eyes, and screamed “Go back to your country!” This is my country.
As I grew older, this hatred persisted, although it did die down as I entered high school. Yet, the sneers about my skin color were replaced with ridicule for my religious beliefs. I tried to stay true to the teachings of Islam: I did not date; I did not drink or do drugs; I did not go to parties or clubs. As a result, I stuck out like a sore thumb. The fact that I did not date was the source of much of that ridicule. I remember being surrounded by my classmates – with astonishment in their eyes – and being questioned about why I had not had sex yet. I was waiting for marriage, like my Lord and my Prophet told me. These childhood experiences, I speculate, are very similar to those of a good number, perhaps a majority, of Muslims born and raised in America. They contributed to a process of alienation from the greater American society, which was truly unfortunate, because Muslims need to be actively and inextricably engaged in their country’s affairs.
Since the attacks of September 11, I had to endure more pain: seeing Islam demonized by pundits and “experts”; having my loyalty and patriotism questioned solely because of my faith; witnessing an horrific act of mass murder in the name of the faith I love and cherish dearly. This is why the song strikes such a nerve for me. The chorus goes: ” I am beautiful/No matter what they say/Words can’t bring me down/I am beautiful/In every single way/Words can’t bring me down.” I wish I had this song growing up … words can’t bring me down. Words such as “camel jockey,” “sand ni**er,” “towel head,” “brownie” can not and should not bring me down. Yet, the song has more meaning than just comforting an ego bruised by silly suburban children.
It is very hard being a Muslim, especially nowadays. Every day, there is more bad news associating Muslims and violence. More terrorist attacks, more be-headings with the shahadah tacked up on the wall, more videos and threats by Al Qaida in the name of Islam. On top of this, there are near constant attacks on Islam from members of the right wing in this country. Islam is “evil,” “violent,” the Qur’an espouses “violence against non-Muslims.” Whenever we try to explain that this is not the case, we are accused of lying, trying to “whitewash” the true dark nature of our faith. I know what they say is not true, but it gets tiring to defend against the same charges over, and over, and over again.
Enter in Aguilera’s lyrics, especially the first stanza, which embodies how I feel: “Every day is so wonderful/Then suddenly, it’s hard to breathe/Now and then, I get insecure/From all the pain, I’m so ashamed.” Every day, it’s “so wonderful” to be Muslim: to follow the faith of Abraham and the Prophets; to worship the One God and serve Him; to pray, fast, and give charity for His sake. I am so blessed and grateful to have had the opportunity to visit His Holy House in pilgrimage. Then comes the bad news about Muslims, and, unfortunately, there is a lot of bad news to report. Every time a terror alert is issued, my stomach hurts. Not just because I do not want more innocent Americans killed in a senseless act of terror, but because American Muslims will have to contend with an unfair backlash from their American neighbors. I hear the lyrics “I am beautiful, no matter what they say” and I am strengthened.
I remember that God has blessed me by making me a Muslim. I remember that, in the end, God will be there for me. I am reminded not to worry about the charges of others, as the Qur’an also told me. The chorus reminds me to keep going on the path, God will be there at the end, welcoming me into His fold, as he told me: “(To the righteous soul will be said:) ‘O (thou) soul, in (complete) rest and satisfaction! Come back thou to thy Lord,- well pleased (thyself), and well-pleasing unto Him! Enter thou, then, among My devotees! Yea, enter thou My Heaven!’” (89:27-30). All I have to do is strive to stay straight on His path.
When I think about these issues I am reminded of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). The Prophet is dear to my heart. I never tire from reading about and listening to his life story. Every time I study his biography, a new aspect of his gentle and wonderful nature, his wisdom, his forward thinking, his sheer beauty, is revealed to me. He suffered so much to bring the message of Islam to me; He suffered so much because he cared about me, even though he would never see or get to know me in his lifetime. Thus, when I hear him called by the most demeaning words I get upset. I know that these are words of hate and human sickness that does the greatest injustice to one of the most beloved by God and sent as a mercy to the worlds.
The lyrics of the song are, “You are beautiful, no matter what they say. Words can’t bring you down.” I am reminded that he is beautiful, no matter what they say. The Prophet was called worse things by the Meccans during his lifetime, yet this did not take away from his power and beauty. Even his worst enemies could not speak ill of him when pressed to be honest about him. Even some of his worst enemies, Umar (R) and Abu Sufyan (R), eventually became his followers. “Words can’t bring you down,” O Messenger of God.
The song continues to uplift: “No matter what we do/No matter what we say/ We’re the song inside the tune/Full of beautiful mistakes/And everywhere we go/The sun will always shine/But tomorrow we might awake/On the other side.” God will always be with us, as long as we stay true to Him. He will help us and He will come to our aid, because He loves us. We just have to have hope and keep the faith. Just as God has reminded us in His Holy Book.
Some may object that I find such solace from the song of an American female singer. They may say that the only sources of solace should be God’s Word and the Prophet’s hadith. Of course this is true. God’s word and His Prophet’s wisdom is supreme. But the Prophet has also taught us that “Wisdom is the ‘lost animal’ of the believer. Wherever it may be, the believer belongs to it.” This means that we must find the wisdom to live our lives in accordance with God’s will wherever it may reside. And I found such wisdom in a song by Christina Aguilera.
Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and writer. He is the co-author of “The Beliefnet Guide to Islam,” published by Doubleday in 2006. His blog is at godfaithpen.com.