Suraiya Rahman: Celebrate & Include Cultural Muslims

Suraiya Rahman was born in Bangladesh, raised in the UAE, attended medical school in Pakistan, and came to the US to train as a Pediatrician. In this narrative, she shares her faith journey and explains that despite no longer practicing Islam in a theological sense she remains culturally Muslim. Muslim communities, she argues, should be inclusive of cultural Muslims.


For many years I was what you might call a “liberal Muslim”: praying sometimes, fasting when appropriate, and even doing Umrah once. I was basically conforming to the Muslim identity I had been born into and never thought to question.

All that would change in September of my second year in the US. I lived in New York City at the time – and I love that city deeply for its familiarity and its (then) warm welcome to visitors.

I remember the World Trade Center towers intimately. The labyrinth of escalators below was where I first stood watching in awe as hundreds of people poured into the building my first morning there. The top floor of one of the towers was where I celebrated a birthday, gently swaying as the stiff winds of November whipped the building.

The 9/11 attacks made me question everything. How could this attack have been carried out in my name? My confusion prompted me go back to the Quran for answers and read more widely. It forced me to take seriously my religion, which I had followed passively simply because it was my birthright. Islam for me had been a kind of minor inconvenience, like a conservative relative who occasionally visits for holiday meals.

Looking inward at my religion prompted a lot of changes: I took up the hijab for a year, got married, and moved to the Midwest. I was searching for answers, and I tried to hide my shame from my beloved city. She has never been the same since the attacks.

Ultimately though I questioned my way out of faith in Allah. Nonetheless, I don’t believe Muslim identity is about just faith in one god. 1.6 billion Muslims don’t, and never have, had a monolithic concept of religion. Monolithic Muslim identity is simply impossible, especially if you consider the sectarian division embedded in Islam’s history and Islam’s vast conquest of communities from Senegal to Indonesia to Bosnia to China.

You might wonder: Why would a lapsed Muslim still want to be identified as a Muslim?

Quite simply, I lost my personal faith, but not my heritage. Being a Muslim is more than just the god you pray to. It is identity, ritual, history, and culture.  I have not lost any of those things. I still love the music of the call to prayer, the breaking of the fast, and most notably my still-Muslim family and friends.

To truly be diverse and inclusive, Muslim communities should not to exclude people of Muslim heritage who are not believers. To lose faith is a personal decision, one that is never taken lightly. I had my reasons, bound up with the trauma of seeing my faith invoked to destroy a world I loved dearly. But I did not set out to sever the deep bonds to my culture, my roots, and my relatives and friends who still identify with the faith.

Apostasy should be countered with inclusion. Muslims in open societies around the world should broaden the definition of “Muslim” to include those who may not believe in core tenets of the faith yet still identify as culturally Muslim.

Islam is more than just a religion – and to truly transcend that definition our communities must include back into the fold those who lapsed yet remain culturally Muslim.

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