by Becca Buse
As a woman who has traveled around the globe, Shehla Mushtaq identifies not only as a citizen of Minnesota, but as a citizen of humanity. During our hour-long conversation, I was able to learn more about how Shehla views her identity as a Muslim woman in Minnesota. She is among the many Muslim women who choose not to wear a Hijab (head scarf). Her global experiences of other world religions such as Buddhism, and values from her Catholic school education combine to make her who she is today. She told me: “No religion is greater than humanity,”* which beautifully sums up Shehla’s character and the way she moves in life, to care for others in her community and in the world.
When asked if she has ever had a turning point in her faith, Shehla shared that every time she goes into a sacred space she feels “a sense of peace and connection to humanity.” She specifically shared the story of going to Pax Christi Catholic Community, where she has helped organize Thanksgiving Interfaith celebrations since 2005 with Interfaith Circle, an interfaith group in Eden Prairie, MN. While there will not be a celebration this year, we at MnMN look forward to joining her in the years to come in celebration of world faith traditions.
As a young girl, Shehla learned from Islam the Power of Blessing, to welcome any stranger that comes to your door as a gift from God. In her words, “by sharing you receive more, and it multiplies.” Today she enjoys making Pakistani cuisine, including daal in large portions and sharing it with her neighbors. After our conversation I asked Shehla to share her daal recipe with me. I gave it a try and shared it with my housemates and partner. It was a delicious meal, and I could feel the Power of Blessing that Shehla described. Sharing leads to more blessings and kindness in the world. This was a beautiful lesson to be reminded of in a time where people are not able to share space together during a pandemic—we can share recipes and kindness nevertheless.
As a Muslim woman in Minnesota, Shehla shared that religion is personal and individual. She does not represent the entirety of Islam, she is simply one woman practicing the Islamic faith. In fact, she reminded me that Islam is practied by over 2 billion people in 57 countries. This reminder is important for this blog series as well. We must remember that when asking people questions about their faith, they convey personal and not a monolithic experience. Each person has a different religious experience and cannot represent the entire religion.
When asking people questions about their faith, they convey personal and not a monolithic experience.
My favorite part of our conversation was a story she shared about a young Muslim girl in her neighborhood who asked her questions one afternoon. Shehla was on her way to play tennis and saw her Somali neighbors taking a walk. She greeted the family with the traditional Arabic phrase, “As-Salaam-Alaikum,” Peace be unto you. The young Somali girl was taken aback to hear Shehla, a woman not wearing a hijab, saying this greeting. The little girl asked Shehla, “Are you Muslim?” Shehla replied, “Yes I am!” Then the young girl continued to ask Shehla questions about how she practices Islam such as, “Do you read the Quran?” Shehla once again replied, “As a matter of fact, I read it every day!” This stopped the young girl. She tried another question “Do you fast in Ramadan?” Shehla answered “Yes and weren’t those fasts long this year?” The girl needed a moment to take in the new information given to her. Her perception of Islam had been specific to her family and now was expanding to include Shehla’s practice of Islam. This was a lovely opportunity for both Shehla and the young girl to accept different versions of Islam. It is a reminder once again that religion can be practiced on the individual level, while sharing common values of charity, kindness, and compassion. Shehla told me that she practices “Islam 2.0,” a version where she is accepting of the LGBTQ commmunity as well all others, in a changing world.
Her perception of Islam had been specific to her family and now was expanding to include Shehla’s practice of Islam.
On a final note, Shehla reminds us that we always carry our own perspective and lens as we view the world. Therefore, when learning about other cultures and religions we must be mindful of how our perspective views minority religions in the U.S. like Islam. Shehla has a beautifully complex lens developed over her childhood, adolescence, and to the present day. She was raised in Pakistan where 99% of the population practiced Islam and only 1% practiced Christianity or Hinduism. Nonetheless, she went to a Catholic school, and cherishes the time she spent there, recognizing the importance of values she learned. At the age of 19 she arrived in Texas to study at a university. She was struck by the individualism she saw here in the U.S. in comparison to the strong family and community values in Pakistan. Additionally, she has spent time working in the UK, Mexico, Argentina and Venezuela, that has contributed to her growth as a citizen of humanity. She has lived in the U.S. for 30 years and 3 years ago entered into a business partnership called Collectivity. It is a consulting organization that helps nonprofits and social impact organizations maximize their impact. Shehla is also a founding member of Interfaith Circle in Eden Prairie.
*This quote is from Abdul Sattar Edhi, who was a Pakistani philanthropist and humanitarian. He is also founder of the Edhi Foundation, the largest volunteer ambulance network globally, along with providing homeless shelters, animal shelters, rehabilitation centres, and orphanages across Pakistan.