(Don’t) Ask A Muslim

I’m a big, giant fan of communication. However, many today have seemingly confused “dialogue” with “utter contempt for decorum or manners.” In light of this, today I’m going to go over the top five things you need not ask a Muslim. Also, for the sake of symmetry, the top five things you need not feel awkward about asking Muslims. Because I get it, certain aspects of the religion might seem mysterious if you’ve only grown up around Christians or agnostics. Treading the ground of a brand new set of rules may feel tricky, but never fear, gentile reader, for I will be your guide. First off:

Five Things You Should Never Say

So, how do you feel about the war in Iraq/ Osama’s death/ oil prices?
Let’s start with the basics of why these questions are problematic. For one, asking someone to explain their views to you because you’re assuming, based on their ethnic or religious background, they might hold a different opinion is, well, kind of rude. In certain settings, conversation like this is encouraged and even debated. So if you’re hellbent on wondering what one Muslim’s opinion on Shariah is, go find that place and engage. But asking your new Iranian-Canadian study mate on Ahmadinejad’s possible Jewish ancestry will probably come off as both pushy and awkward.

In addition it would be foolish to think that this person must have a particularly well-versed opinion simply because they are Muslim. Plenty of Muslims are poorly informed on Iraq, U.S. foreign policy, and a myriad of other issues. Muslims are not a monolithic group and their opinions should not be treated as sacrosanct because one prays towards Mekkah. Like Christians, there is a spectrum of Muslim liberality with some being in favor of a worldwide caliphate and others preferring you pass the ham. Which brings us to number deux!

Um, aren’t you not supposed to be drinking that gin/wine/participating in that keg-stand?
Ugh, what are you, my Imam? Fine. It is widely accepted that Muslims are not supposed to drink. Plenty of Muslims adhere to that and go about having completely normal, fantastic lives. But plenty of Muslims (and yes they are still real Muslims) prefer bordeaux to rosé and whiskey to gin.

The whole verse and history of alcohol being banned or not by the Qur’an is actually somewhat varied and slightly foggy. At first, the Prophet Mohammad actually stated that people ought to drink only in moderation. Only to change that later to say that people should probably not drink at all. However, there is also a well-known story of the Prophet that has him siding with the town drunk over the town nag who is trying to punish the drunk for his sinful, dirty ways. In it Mohammad basically tells the guy to, “Chill baby, justice is not yours to mete out.” Add to that the Qur’anic verse that there is no compulsion in religion and you have plenty of Muslims that are happy disregard that particular rule. Sort of like how plenty of perfectly real Christians disregard the religious rule of no sex before marriage. Which, naturally, takes us to number three…

You aren’t a virgin/enjoy sex?
Yeah. it happens. A lot. More than you might realize. Don’t infantalize Muslims by treating them like they never made out behind the bleachers. Plenty of individual adherents to Islam will decide, privately, how far they are willing to go and with whom. Just like agnostics, atheists, and Jews, there is a wide area of variation for each individual. In addition, plenty of Muslim women (even those who currently live in conservative Muslim nations) actually did have sex with their current spouse before marriage. It usually occurs somewhere along the time they started planning the wedding. Sometimes, even quite a while before that happens. Cars in dark garages and heavily shrubbed parks see a lot of action in Islamic police states. Believe.

So do you believe you’ll get 72 virgins/ want to institute Shariah law in Tennessee/ have you met a terrorist?
Bullshit, racist Palin-esque talking points are something you’ll want to shut the fuck up about. Do I even have to explain further? No? Mmkay then.

So do you guys, like, pray East or what?
Anything that you can quickly Google that will get you a clear consensus on is not something you need to bother an individual with. Muslims pray towards Mekkah, they are to pray five times a day. Prayer is called salam. Giving is called zakat. There are five pillars in the religion, and so forth. Muslims do not exist to educate you on the basics of their spirituality. If you find a nice, patient person they might happily oblige you, but if you’re looking for an education, go ask an Imam (really, that’s what they are there for and they don’t bite) or just fucking Google.

Five Things You Should Feel Free to Ask

Do you want me to leave you alone while you pray?
Prayer for many in the Western world is a touchy, sort of awkward thing to be around. But for many Muslims, prayer is nothing to be ashamed of. It happens five times a day, for goodness’ sake, you do build up a certain level of ambivalence about it. So if you hear the call to prayer go off (most likely on a digitized clock in their room), feel free to ask if they want some privacy. No big deal.

In addition, you might walk into a room and see your friend suddenly engaged in their daily salat. Your options are to leave quietly, or sit down quietly. But chances are, you’re not going to make them uncomfortable. Just don’t stand in front of them or chit-chat with them. Basic, right?

I love your hijab!
Muslims like compliments on their clothes too! Especially women who take time matching and coordinating their hijab to their outfits. Feel free to casually throw it out there when you see a headscarf you really find stunning. Some men, if they feel like complimenting a woman’s hijab might want to be aware that heaps of praise will come off as creepy (as they would if he were overly complimentory to a Christan woman’s blouse). But in general, a quick casual compliment will be welcomed. And in case you’re wondering, hijab is pronounced “˜hee-jaab’.

Do you mind if this food has _____ in it/ Do you require Halal food?
Think of Halal the same way as you would think of Kosher (it is fairly similar anyway). The food has to be fed and slaughtered in a certain way and cannot be touched by wine or pork. If you have a Muslim guest, don’t be shy to ask about their dietary habits. It’s simply polite! And as discussed above, many Muslims vary when it comes to what they will or will not eat so to make sure you don’t accidentally give them something that might ruin their night.

Do you go to a mosque?
Sometimes even just asking basics may seem like you are getting too personal. But mosques are public spaces and if your friend goes to one, they are likely not particularly ashamed about it. If they don’t, then don’t worry about what that means. All it probably means is that they found the Imam or the the local mosque didn’t really fit their needs. Or they aren’t religious enough to spare the time to drive to the place. That happens too. A lot.

What sect do you belong to?
Some Muslims are Shia, some are Sunni, some follow more mystical Sufi paths. Feel free to ask! As long as you don’t bring up sectarian violence in Iraq or Central Asia there’s no reason that this question would offend someone. After all, they will probably just be shocked if you know the difference between the two major sects, Sunni and Shia. And no, I am not going to tell you what they are. You can Google that for yourself.

By Olivia Marudan

Cad. Boondoggler. Swindler. Ass. Plagiarist. Hutcher. A movable feast in the subtle culinary art of shit talking.

7 replies on “(Don’t) Ask A Muslim”

How timely. When I was registering for classes, a woman in the registrar’s office had on a beautiful hijab, but wasn’t sure if complimenting her on it was appropriate or not, so I didn’t say anything.

On a different note, is it OK to ask (if you know the person fairly well) about their religious history (personal, not the overall religion since as you said, that can be googled)? I’m assuming that just like Catholics, Christians, Buddhists, etc. every person has their own way of practicing their religion and I like to hear that from my friends because it gives me insight into things like whether they drink, what foods they eat, what days/times of day I shouldn’t bother them, etc.

Thanks for this! Your advice applies to discussions with people about most types of religions, really. Treat the person as an individual who has preferences that are OK to ask about, and avoid assumptions or controversial topics. When in doubt, keep quiet and Google! It seems like it should be common sense, right? But American culture is a big mix of confusion, animosity, wariness, overcompensation for animosity… Its a recipe for social awkwardness.

One thing that seems to be getting easier is discussion about food-based restrictions. Now that there are so many common dietary lifestyles, it’s easier to handle gracefully. I have friends who are strict vegans, lax vegetarians, some who keep kosher, some who will eat everything but fish, some who only eat orange on Wednesdays, etc. etc. These days, if I’m throwing a dinner party, I either ask everyone ahead of time, or label the dishes.

I love this! Thank you for reminding us of the variety found within each faith!
I know that I’ve wondered at times if it’s okay to compliment a friend’s hijab, or if she even considered it an accessory exactly… which is so ridiculous… she always has the most gorgeous ones too! I will remember to let her know the next time we hang out.
is it okay to ask to learn how to wear a hijab properly if one is not Muslim?
will you be writing more in the future? I’d love to read some more from you!

Hey! Sorry this reply is so late, but yes, it’s totally okay to learn how to wear a proper hijab if you’re not a Muslim.
However, do expect confused looks if you wear it out in public, get people telling you Salam Alaykum, and you respond that you are not Muslim. But hijabs are fun. Numerous Youtube videos are out there to teach the many, many different ways you can pin one on.

And you can always click on my name on the sidebar, if you like, and read the other pieces I have written here. Some talk about hijab specifically, others cover Muslim or regional issues. Take care!

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