BY DUR-E-MAKNOON AHMED ’20
Author Haroon Moghul delivered a keynote speech and signed copies of his new book “How to Be Muslim: An American Story,” on the Sept. 15 Eid Celebration in Chapin auditorium. Moghul was received by a vibrant gathering of students from all of the five colleges. The Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, this time in collaboration with the Odyssey Bookshop, annually hosts a dinner and keynote speaker to mark the Muslim holiday Eid-al-Adha, which fell on Sept. 1 this year.
Mount Holyoke’s Muslim Chaplain Liza Lozovaya took the stage to welcome Moghul. She commented on how Eid united everyone in the auditorium, and said that in light of the belief in Eid’s blessings, everyone present for the event would be rewarded by Moghul’s speech.
Moghul thanked the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life for welcoming him. However, he quickly shifted to an authentic, relatable style for his main remarks, making jokes about the South-Asian experience and the practice of Islam, while also expressing reverence for the religion. Tehreem Mela ’20 said that, “the fact that the audience was able to laugh and be inspired was proof that [Moghul’s] talk was much more poignant than most speakers’ talks.”
Moghul opened up about the experiences that led to writing his book. He revealed the struggles he faced as a Pakistani-American who was pressured to have a “real job” by his family. He also reflected on how the Yale admissions office rejected him once — and then on their offer to him, 15 years later, to write a textbook about American Islam. This offer came to him at a hopeless time in his life, and as “a proof that God existed,” he half-joked.
Moghul’s struggle, however, did not end with the painstaking completion of his work. It was rejected by Yale on the grounds that it was a work too divided between textbook and memoir, and Moghul should decide what he wanted it to be. Despite the struggles in his life, Moghul chose the authenticity of writing a memoir, to include the stories of the Muslim experience, instead of the job security and career that a textbook would bring him.
Moghul’s speech itself was a preview of what the book will have to offer. He was president of the Muslim Students Association at NYU when the horror of 9/11 unfolded. He was forced to explain to everyone around him what Islam meant, and to defend Muslims from bigotry. The years during which he wrote his book were perhaps the hardest. He noted that his Pakistani father expressed disappointment that “he didn’t ‘just get done with the book in six months.’” The struggles he faced in life shaped his relationship with his religion, and the book talks about this personal evolution, as well as great knowledge about the history and modern practice of Islam. It is a blend of authentic, personal stories of a Muslim, with the knowledge and insight of an academic.
The author’s keynote offered more than just what the book contains. He also narrated an unexpected incident in his life that restored his faith in an instant, which he did not include in the book. On the Dubai-Oman border, Moghul reminisced about how funny the officials found his passport photo, which was from a time when he was fat. The official, a man employed in one of Dubai’s most coveted, secure and peaceful jobs, asked an unemployed, depressed Moghul with great longing, “How did you lose so much weight?” Instead of revealing that it was “because my life fell apart,” Moghul made do with an Islamic expression of praise for Allah, “Alhumdulillah.” The men joined him, and all three were silent in reflection of the greatness of God. He expressed that it was beautiful to have an unexpected communion with the divine, and how they were all united by this experience, which only God could make possible.
Moghul has an authentic, knowledgeable voice, and he is unafraid of criticizing himself, his culture and the practice of Islam. Students such as Eeman Abbasi ’19 appreciated that he “made religion sound simple and not complex,” a welcome relief from “the way it is usually explained and understood these days.”
Even amidst sharing spiritual and painful personal details, Moghul left the stage in the same easy-going spirit that he had throughout his speech. He wished everyone success in life, but did not leave without quipping, “and if you don’t succeed [in life], you can always write a book.”