Yasmin Mogahed had a big year. The Egyptian American writer and lecturer delivered stirring faith-building lectures and presentations to audiences in America, Asia and Europe.
She also hosts her own online radio program Serenity on One Legacy Radio and recently published the book Reclaim Your Heart; a collection of recently published articles. In the first of a two part interview, Mogahed describes the beginnings of her spiritual journey in American Muslim youth camps and discovering the writing bug.
It seems that each year you are getting busier and busier.
Alhamdulillah, yes the calendar is filling up and I am reaching out to a lot of new people and communities. But honestly, it doesn’t feel too busy Alhamdulillah and that is from Allah SWT.
Are you happy with how fast things are going? A few years ago you were not out there in the public and now, mashaAllah, thousands of people read and listen to your words both online and in public events.
I feel that things are growing at a faster pace than I would have expected. Honestly, I didn’t have much expectations. I feel that Allah SWT opens up doors for me and then I enter that door and that takes me somewhere else versus I have something in mind and I am planning it out. That’s not really how it works out. That’s why I didn’t have any expectations. Even my own website, I actually didn’t intend to say ‘now, I am going to start my website.’ Someone came up to me and said ‘do you want a website? I can set one up for you.’ So SubhanAllah I said ‘okay, you, know, Alhamdulillah,’ and that is how the website got started.
In your writings you speak about the spiritual life as a journey full of ups and downs, when did yours begin?
I would trace it back probably when I was 14 years old. That was when I started to change myself. My plan was not trying to change other people, I was trying to change myself and that remains a continuous life-long struggle. I was born in Egypt and came to the United States when I was about a year old. So I grew up in the United States, I went to public school all my life. I didn’t go to Islamic or private schools and so there comes a point I think, in every one’s life, where they have to choose for themselves which path they are going to take. When I was 14 I decided that the identity of being a Muslim and taking that path was something that I was going to internalise. It wasn’t going to be something that would be handed down to me necessarily from my parents or from my society, it was something that I would take ownership off. So I started to read, learn and change myself and better myself.
Was that change triggered by a specific event?
Yes, I would say so. Around that time I was attending these programs in middle school – they probably have them in Muslim communities all over the world – and they were Muslim youth camps. The Muslim Youth of North America would have these camps where Muslim youth would come together, listen to lectures and basically meet other people your age who are also Muslims and growing up in the same culture and country.
Any lectures or speakers that stood out during those camps?
Interestingly enough, it wasn’t a lecture I heard. It was strange, it was a spark that happened that Allah SWT placed internally. I think it goes back to the intention that I had. And that is something that we can all learn from, that inal a’maal bil niyat and that is all action is by intention. I really had this deep intention before I went there that I wanted to change. So I went to that camp with my intention very subconsciously that I wanted this to be my changing point. And Alhamdulillah, this is why I strongly believe that Allah gives you what you intend if you are truthful with Allah SWT. I left that camp taking a different focus.
How did you start implementing the lessons learned from those camps?
After that I still went to the public school system. I started wearing hijab the next school year and started praying regularly. Before I guess I was like a lot of kids, parents told us to pray and I used to not pray or pray when we were told to. But at that point I made a promise to Allah SWT and myself that I wouldn’t miss another prayer and that is something that I would be committed to. So that’s why the salah (prayer) is something that I emphasise a lot in each speech because that is really our guidance and our protection. I then started reading and studying. Alhamdulillah Allah SWT sent me a lot of people in my life like teachers who guided me and taught me. Also I would do a lot of self study throughout high school and college.
Did your new outlook result in any sacrifices socially?
The sacrifice had to do mostly with gender relations. That is a sort of sacrifice a lot of people have trouble making and that can become a struggle for a lot of people especially in high school and college.
You went to university studying to be a doctor but then then went on to pursue a degree in journalism.
Basically I decided that I wanted to take a different path. I felt the need in our community was not for another doctor because Alhamdulillah we have so many doctors and so many people pursue medicine and engineering and there are a lot of fields that are not being pursued in the Muslim community. So I ended up doing my degree in psychology and then after I finished the bachelor I did some teaching and I ended coming back to do my masters in journalism.
Did family and friends view your academic choices as odd?
As Arabs we are concentrated in engineering and medicine and there are lot of fields that are being concentrated by other groups that we haven’t penetrated. The liberal arts and humanities and political science, writing and psychology, for a long time there was not a Muslim presence in those fields.
Because we were told such jobs don’t pay the bills.
That can definitely be argued, it’s not the field you go into to get rich. You see that’s the thing where inal a’maal bil niyat, actions are by intentions. Honestly what we need to do is put our focus and our intention for Allah SWT so we can then ask Allah to guide us to what is best. I really feel that sometimes we think we know what path is best for us and we get stuck on it and it is not necessarily what is best for us. The best thing to do is to really be sincere and asking Allah to just put us where it would be best and most pleasing to Him.
Did you view journalism as a path to employment or the chance to learn another skill?
I thought of it as a means and a tool that I was gaining. I didn’t know what to do with it yet. I didn’t exactly know where Allah SWT was going to put me. For a long time I enjoyed writing. I published my first article probably when I was 17 in an Islamic magazine based in Madison (North America). So writing was something I didn’t do for a living but enjoyed. I was also considering English but I guess I thought journalism was a practical application of that writing passion.
When did you discover the writing bug?
It stems back to the same point when I was fourteen at that same camp. I met a sister who would later become my best friend in high school and much of college and she lived in a different state. At that time we didn’t have text messages or emails, we actually wrote proper letters with envelopes. I was writing to her every day and that writing to her was like writing in my journal. So that began this thing where I would constantly put my thoughts and ideas in words and because someone was reading it there was proper punctuations, with capitals and periods and stuff.
And without Spell-check, that is impressive.
I am a horrible speller. That is one thing people don’t know about me is that I can’t spell. When I took spelling tests in elementary school I never took it seriously so alhamdulillah for spell-check!
Your earlier articles spoke about issues facing Muslims in North America before moving on to internal spiritual issues. What triggered that change?
There was a time where a lot of writing was political and then I did change my focus to the internal. That doesn’t mean we should move away from the external but I always look at it from the internal and spiritual lens. Because I believe that every issue that we have externally has an internal root.
Growing up in North America, was it difficult to attain Islamic knowledge?
I didn’t have access to an institution because I lived in a place where that wasn’t available nor was the online opportunities that we now have. But Alhamdulillah,Allah has provided me with some great role models and knowledgeable people that I could look up to and learn from on a personal basis.
Your situation shows the importance of seeking out teachers. Is that something that you recommend?
What I recommend, and I emphasise this a lot, is focus your heart on Allah SWT. Turn to Allah and ask Him, seek help from Him. When we do that and we are sincere with Allah and we say ‘we want to learn and practice your deen and we want to become better,’ Allah will make a way for you. Yes, do seek but ask for help from Allah because sometimes we may go around by ourselves and end up in a place where we don’t want to be and is harmful for us.
And this task of focusing the heart on Allah SWT, does it come with practice?
It does require patience and you have to continually keep turning back to him because the heart doesn’t stay focused without refocusing it. We have to renew our intentions, reorienting the heart and make tawbah (repentance) and tawbah literally means to return. We keep walking in different directions and it may not be in the right path, so we have to keep coming back.
Yasmin Mogahed is coming to Australia, appearing at the following dates:
April 19: Returning Home with Yasmin Mogahed. Grand Royal, 51-61 South Street, Granville. For details click on http://www.ymtsydney.com.au
April 20: Dinner with Yasmin (as part of the nurturing Mind, Body and Soul Conference,), Laila Receptions, 451 Sydney Rd, Brunswick. For details click here.
April 21: The 1000 Woman Project fundraising dinner at the Renaissance – The Piano Room, 3 New Street, Lidcombe, Sydney. For details click on http://www.ymtsydney.com.au
For more information on Yasmin Mogahed go to http://www.yasminmogahed.com
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