Humaira Ghilzai: A Secular Muslim in Mecca

Humaira is the co-founder of Afghan Friends Network (AFN). She was the cultural consultant for stage productions of the Kite Runner, BLOOD AND GIFTS, and other theatrical and Hollywood media. Humaira blogs about Afghan culture and cuisine on her widely popular site—Afghan Culture Unveiled. Previously, Humaira was director of International Marketing at Sun Microsystems and Oracle Corporation.


My Islamic education came to an abrupt end when I was nine-years-old.

I was raised in a secular home in Afghanistan with Islam as a backdrop for special occasions that required some semblance of order—funerals, weddings and naming of babies. My father was a diplomat who studied all religions with a slight preference for Islam. My mother wasn’t a devout Muslim either but feared God’s wrath; so once a week, she sent my little brother Tamim and me for formal religious instruction at the local mosque.

During one of the Quran lessons the mullah singled Tamim and I out, declaring our mother was a sinner in the eyes of Allah because she wore skirts, and showed her legs. This was 1977, long before the Taliban. I corrected the mullah, noting that Islam gave women the right to wear what they want and, he was a big liar for condemning my mother to hell.

The mullah landed a slap on my seven-year-old brother’s face, to punish me for my disobedience. As a protective big sister—I grabbed my brother’s hand and ran out of the mosque as I called the mullah several names that should not be repeated here.

Our hearts thumping, we leapt over the shoes piled neatly at the mosque’s entrance and plunged into the deep Kabul winter snow in our bare feet, running away as fast as we could. We weren’t followed. Shivering and scared, Tamim with the red handprint on his cheek wanted to go home, but I wanted my boots and revenge. We snuck back to the mosque, grabbed our boots and, as a last act of defiance, filled all the remaining shoes at the mosque’s door with snow.

Don’t worry dear reader; we were not scarred for life by this experience.

Living in San Francisco, far from the Afghan community in the Bay Area, I only see the inside of a mosque when there is a funeral. My husband, Jim, is an agnostic and our children go to a Quaker school. We celebrate the Muslim holidays of Eid, American holiday of Thanksgiving and Christmas. Somehow Easter didn’t take off in our house.

To add to our religious expansionist attitude, every spring I visit a Benedictine monastery to visit my contemplative monk brothers, all 30 of them. You may read about my connection to the monastery on my blog. Even though I’m not Catholic or remotely religious, the brothers unconditionally accept me as part of their extended community.

You can imagine everyone’s surprise when I announced my decision to make the minor pilgrimage of Umrah to Mecca. Friends and family stared at me blankly, asked if I was “OK”, and wondered loudly if I’m having a mid-life crisis.

For those of you who are not familiar with Islam, Umrah is a pilgrimage to Mecca performed by Muslims at any time of the year. In contrast, the Hajj draws millions of people to Mecca during a five-day period in the last month of the Islamic year. Hajj fulfills one of the five pillars of Islam that all able-bodied Muslims must complete before their death.

It was about two years ago when I started fantasizing about a trip to Mecca and Medina—to experience the power of Islam’s holiest sites. The opportunity to make the pilgrimage came sooner than I expected when I found out my favorite aunt was making the pilgrimage with a group of Afghan-Americans elders. I decided to tag along; after all, it’s not everyday I will find someone who wants to go on a pilgrimage.

When I arrived in Mecca to perform Umrah, I did not have a specific spiritual agenda or expectation, but I was excited about seeing the Kaaba, the holiest and most cherished site for Muslims around the world. I grew up seeing pictures Kaaba on people’s walls, coffee tables and even computer screens. I always wondered how it would feel to stand in front of it, touch it and circle it like millions of Muslims do every year.

After arriving in Mecca and checking into our hotel, we wasted no time to make our way to Kaaba to perform our Umrah ritual to make our pilgrimage official. I was advised to close my eyes as experienced pilgrims led me through the hallways of Masjid Al Haram, the mosque surrounding Kaaba. My heart beat fast and my legs grew weak from excitement. Tradition says one’s first sight of Kaaba is the most potent time for getting wishes fulfilled. I wracked my brain thinking of my worthiest wish as the Kaaba grew closer and the pressure mounted for when I could open my eyes and see the holy Kaaba for the first time.

After many twists, turns and stumbles along the rough walkway, we stopped, and I finally got to open my eyes. There was the Kaaba of my dreams, right in front of me but much smaller. A wave of disappointment shook me as I stared, feeling no spiritual connection or any stirring of happiness in my heart. The other women in my group were hugging and wailing— I stood alone, feeling like an underwhelmed child on Christmas day.

I questioned my faith, my spirituality and my capacity to wonder. After reflecting, I blamed my lack of spiritual connection to the crowds, to seven hours of travel to Mecca and perhaps … to my own unwarranted expectation for spiritual movement.

Then there was my friend Sonia Sekandar who I call my Umrah mentor. Her genuine love of Islam, the prophet and this pilgrimage was inspiring. She dispensed information without judgment, she provided support when I needed it and she encouraged individual thinking when many were set on mindlessly following the Umrah rites.

Sonia is deeply immersed in her love of Islam and I could see she drew energy from her 8th visit to the holy sites. I envy her unconditional love and acceptance of everyone she meets and her acceptance of me, a novice pilgrim. She could see that I was in a different stage of my spiritual quest and went out of her way to validate my journey.

In my two-week journey I met pilgrims who were dogmatically going through the motions and others who were busy finding mistakes in what others were doing and going out of their way to educate everyone on the “right way” of being a Muslim.

I feel blessed to have visited the land where one of world’s most influential and successful religious and political leaders, Prophet Muhammad PBUH was born. Sharing a prayer rug with an African, Arab and a Pakistani pilgrim, I experienced the strength of spirituality in creating bonds between people of different races and backgrounds. However, I didn’t come away with a major religious epiphany, and I was not inspired to become a more devout Muslim.

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