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Mohja Kahf’s The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf: From Traditional to Progressive: Khadra’s Quest for the Truth

Updated on June 9, 2013
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A Bit of Background on Islam

In America, people often view Islam as a religion without differences. Muslims are often stereotyped as ultra-conservative, oppressive people. However, there are many differences between different ways of practicing Islam. One of these differences is that between the Progressive Muslims and the Sunni Muslims.

Sunni Islam is the belief system practiced by eighty percent of the world’s Muslims (“Patheos.”). Sunni Muslims are more traditional. They focus on what the Islamic Law says for many aspects of life, which include marriage, divorce, commerce, ect (“Patheos”). Their faith is deeply rooted in tradition and they believe that the only way to get to heaven is by following the laws by the letter.

Progressive Muslims are different from Sunni Muslims in a few major ways. As their name suggests, they are focused on more integrating more liberal beliefs into the Muslim community. Progressive Muslims primarily focus on working towards gender equality, pluralism, and social justice. On the website that serves as a resource for Progressive Muslims lists a constitution which states that everyone is entitled to any religion they see fit, men and women are given equal rights, and people should not be discriminated against for any reason among other things (“Sample Constitution.”).

Khadra's Struggle in the Novel

Mohja Kahf’s novel, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, follows the life of Khadra Shamy. She is the daughter of Muslim missionaries who immigrate to Indianapolis and start a center for the Muslims in the area. Khadra is raised to be a conservative Sunni Muslim. However, as the novel progresses, Khadra questions her beliefs and searches for the truth. By showing Khadra struggle with her beliefs, Kahf accurately depicts the relationship Sunni Muslims have with Progressive Muslims in the United States. She faces difficulties when dealing with pluralism, gender equality, traditional Sunni practices, and her view of God. Khadra’s Sunni roots and her eventual transformation into a more progressive Muslim express the relationships Sunnis have with Progressive Muslims.

Khadra’s struggle to understand her religion is the primary source of conflict in the novel. When the reader first gets to know Khadra she has been raised to know only the Sunni side of Islam. Her parents are traditional in their beliefs, women should wear hijabs, good Muslims pray five times a day, only halal foods should be consumed, ect. In fact, they believe that the only way to practice Islam perfectly is to practice the Sunni way. In one scene, Khadra’s mother asks a woman to “perfect her Islam” by choosing to wear a hijab at all times (Kahf, 42.). In another scene, Khadra informs the reader that all Sunni Muslims know that Shia Muslims are wrong but they are too polite to talk about it (Kahf, 34). Khadra’s rejection of other religious practices even ruins her friendship with her Christian friend, Livvy. In, what Kahf calls, the “Hellfire Showdown,” Khadra and Livvy cannot accept the other’s religion and refuse to acknowledge that there is a possibility for the other to enter heaven (Kahf, 127.). It is through this scene that Kahf illustrates the way Sunnis believe that there is only one way to heaven, their way.

However, as the novel progresses, Khadra becomes more open to the idea of other religions. On a trip to Joy’s house, Khadra interacts with a Christian woman, as well as assimilated Muslims. It is here that she questioned why her Sunni beliefs insisted on her “separateness and specialness” (Kahf, 189.). She decides that the rejection of other relgions is a “waste” and finds herself extremely confused (Kahf, 189.). Years late, when Khadra is in college, she makes friends with a Jewish woman. They discover that the laws they follow are quite similar (Kahf, 316.). Khadra thinks of the Jewish woman as one of her best friends. In this way, Kahf has shown the reader the Progressive Muslim’s goal of pluralism. Khadra’s transition from traditionally Sunni to more progressive on this point highlights the differences between the two belief systems.

In addition to Khadra’s initial fear, then acceptance of pluralism, she, like many other Sunni immigrants, is very worried about becoming too American. On Haj, she frequently reminds her cousin’s friends that she is “…not really American. [She is] an Arab” (Kahf, 174.). This is a characteristic that many Sunni immigrants share (Moussa, 1.). Many first generation Sunnis are concerned with keeping their ethnic identity and traditional religious beliefs (Moussa, 1). However, second and third-generation Muslims are said to be less concerned with keeping their traditions (Moussa, 2.). Khadra is afraid of becoming just an “assimilated Muslim, plain and simple” (Kahf, 185.). She looks down upon assimilated Muslim-Americans as “McMuslims” or those who participate in the “typical American lifestyle of self-indulgence, waste, and global oppression” (Kahf, 186.). This is a typical Sunni response to Progressive Islam. The new ideas just seem lazy and wrong. Unfortunately, much to Khadra’s dismay, her family becomes American citizens out of necessity. In response to this, Khadra begins to crave traditional Islam.

Mohja Kahf; the author
Mohja Kahf; the author | Source

Kahf’s depiction of Khadra’s “black scarf days” comes off as a near hyperbole of Sunni extremism. She wears only dark clothes, eats only dates, and reads traditional literature (Kahf, 149-155). During this time, Khadra looks down on those who do not share her extreme views. This is typical of the many Sunni Muslims in America at this time. Progressive Muslims have what are considered more typically American beliefs. When Khadra is experiencing her shift towards radical Islam the relationship between Muslim-American values and Euro-American values were diverging (Mazrui, 795.). During this time, sex, drugs, and alcohol were becoming more accepted in society (Mazrui, 795.). In addition, Western women were gaining more rights but Sunni Muslims treat women with more dignity than Westeners (Mazrui, 797.).

However, Khadra’s desire for more rights is what prompts her to switch from a traditional, Sunni view of Islam to a more progressive outlook on her religion. This is also very typical of American-Sunni Muslims. Muslim women are increasingly challenging the traditions that limit their independence (Moussa, 2.). While many women still wear the hijab out of religious conviction, there are also women who reject the hijab (Moussa, 2.).

Kahf marks Khadra’s transition from fitting into her traditional gender role to taking a more progressive stance in a few pivotal ways. Khadra first experiences sexism in America when she makes a tape for the tajwid competition and is rejected because the contest does not allow women to enter (Kahf, 199.). It is in this way that Kahf opens Khadra’s eyes, and the eyes of the readers’, to the strict rules women have to follow in Sunni Islam. The second occurrence of sexism that occurs is far more taxing on Khadra and her beliefs. When she marries Juma, he turns out to be far more conservative than Khadra originally thought. He even forbids Khadra from riding a bicycle because it is un-Islamic (Kahf, 230.). After this occurs, Khadra says, “something inside her rusted a little…” (Kahf, 230.).

Khadra’s shift to a more progressive view on gender roles occurs when she decides to get an abortion. Islam allows abortion before the ensoulment of the fetus which is supposed to occur somewhere between forty days to one hundred twenty days after conception (Hessini, 76.). However, there are four main stances that Sunni Muslims take on the issue of abortion (Hessini, 76.). These are; abortion is allowed, abortion is allowed in certain circumstances, abortion is disapproved of, and abortion is not allowed (Hessini, 76.). While abortions were generally accessible before the nineteenth century, European laws were integrated into Islamic law, which made it more difficult to get an abortion (Hessini, 77.).

Khadra’s parents and friends disapprove of Khadra’s abortion. In fact, they make this clear to Khadra by refusing to accompany her to the doctor (Kahf, 246.). However, Khadra’s assimilated “McMuslim” friend Joy does go with her to see the doctor (Kahf, 246.). It is in this moment that Khadra realizes that the Progressive Muslims she knows are the ones that stay by her side.

Finally, Khadra’s biggest step towards a more progressive gender role is her view of her hijab. Initially, she wears it because she has to. Her mother wears it, her Aunts wear it, and her Muslim friends wear it. It is expected of her to wear the hijab. However, while Khadra is in Syria she begins to question why she wears the veil. It is here that she runs into the character of the poet. The poet tells her that her “…body is loved by God… veiled or unveiled” (Kahf, 302.). This forces Khadra to think about why she wears her hijab. It is here that she learns to embrace both wearing the hijab and going out without her hijab (Kahf, 312). She understands that wearing the hijab gives her modesty without trying and going without a hijab forces Khadra to show modesty in the way she acts and moves (Kaf, 302.). It is through this epiphany that Kahf shows that reader how the traditional Sunni view of hijab relates to the progressive view of hijab.

Khadra’s final transition from traditional Sunni Islam to Progressive Islam is her understanding of God’s role in her life. At the beginning of the novel, Khadra follows all of the traditions practiced by her family. She believes that this is the only way to be a Muslim. However, after her divorce from Juma, Khadra hits rock bottom (Kahf, 264.). Here she finds fault with the strict enforcement of the rules. She can not see God as someone who just ticks off prayers on a bean counter (Kahf, 263.). She can no longer see God as someone who simply watches for every little mistake that makes and decides she can’t go to heaven because of she forgot to do a prayer or failed to make ablutions.

Instead, Khadra transitions to a more love-based view of Islam. Again, this idea is presented to her by the poet it Syria. He says to her, “Real religion’s in here, baby,” and puts his hand over her heart (Kahf, 302-303.). Khadra is opened to the idea of looking inside her heart for the true meaning of God. This is typical of many Progressive Muslims. They think that Sunni Muslims are not true Muslims because they focus on the traditions and regulations of their religion rather than God’s love for them. Sunnis, however, view this progressive take on Islam as a fake version of their belief system. This is highlighted when Khadra speaks to her mother upon her return to Indianapolis. Her mother says “[she is] not practicing proper Islam anymore. [She’s] watering it down” (Kahf, 384.). She goes on to say that there are rules to Islam and Khadra does not follow those rules and does not get to “taste” the real Islam (Kahf, 384.). This is Kahf’s final, and perfect, example of Sunni Muslims’ views of Progressive Muslims. At this point, Khadra’s outlook on life is primarily progressive while her parents are still rooted in the traditional, Sunni view of Islam. Sunnis think that breaking from tradition is not the true way to practice Islam while Progressive Muslims think that there is a better way to get close to God than through rules.

Mohja Kahf’s novel, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, gives readers a brilliant look at the relationship between Sunni Muslims and Progressive Muslims. She does this by following Khadra on her journey from traditional Sunni beliefs to a more progressive view of Islam. Khadra goes from a girl who is focused on following the Islamic law to the letter to someone who challenges gender roles, tradtitional practices, and pluralism. The novel is able to give someone who had no idea of the schisms between Islamic belief systems a clear depiction of the tension between Sunni Muslims and Progressive Muslims.

Works Cited

Hessini, Leila. "Abortion and Islam: Policies and Practice in the Middle East and North Africa." Reproductive Health Matters, 15.29 (2007): 75-84.

Kahf, Mohja. The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf. 1st ed, New York, NY: Carrol & Graff Publishers, 2006. 1-442. Print.

Mazrui, Ali. "Islam and the United States: Streams of Convergence, Strands of Divergence." Third World Quarterly, 25.5 (2004): 793-820.

Moussa, Mohamed Ben. "Islam in Urban America: Sunni Muslims in Chicago." Westminster Papers in Communication & Culture, 4.3 (2007): 127-129.

Sample Constitution. “Progessive Muslims. N.p., 2003. Web. 14 May 2011. <http://www.progressivemuslims.org/constitution.htm.>.

“Sunni Islam.” Patheos. Avalon Consulting, LLC, 2011. Web. 14 May 2011. <http://www.patheos.com/Library/Sunni-Islam.html>.

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