Psychology and Religion Collide in the Journey of an American Muslim by Stephanie Arel

After the horrific events of September 11, 2001, Haroon Moghul, the undergraduate leader at New York University’s Islamic Center, was called upon to be a representative voice for Muslims in America even as he negotiated his own relationship with Islam. He recounts his religious journey, alongside personal encounters with suicide and bipolar disorder, in his recently published memoir: How to be a Muslim: An American Story. Recognized by Ausuma Zehanat Khan in The Washington Post as “an extraordinary gift,” the memoir offers, what Khan calls, “an authentic portrait of a vastly misunderstood American community.”

The vulnerability and honesty exemplified in Moghul’s writing actualizes a pathway for understanding his experience of Muslim life in the United States post 9/11. His personal perspective and sensitivity foster an empathic response. Emma Green of The Atlantic recognizes his focus on a more intimate encounter with religion, pinpointing how Moghul’s narrative represents “writing about Islam that’s not about terrorism or war.”

How to Be a MuslimMoghul reveals a story about the truths of a developing young man who struggles with his religion, his own self-compassion, and his place in an unstable world related to both. His text therefore places self-development –as an analytical concept – within the frame of religion.

Moghul’s Islamic religious heritage surges to the foreground during and after 9/11 creating a sense of urgency in his position as a leader at the NYU Islamic Center. His situation testifies to the internal conflict that emerges when contemporary American society meets traditional religious (here Islamic) thought. The tension between these, and Moghul’s attempt to make sense of them, materializes when his quest for self-care through psychological treatment and his religious heritage converge.

Moghul seeks counseling and hospitalization for his depression. One specialist he sees – a woman who suffered blindness after giving birth – tells him that he will never have the strength to combat his desire to self-destruct unless he loves himself, even one thing about himself. Moghul responds at first calling this suggestion “self-indulgent post-Christian nonsense” (181). He shares his response as a Muslim, “I must’ve grimaced; the suggestion offended me. We are supposed to obey God, not love ourselves, and even if we did not worship God, at least we were not compounding infidelity with egomania. ‘I don’t.’ I can’t. I won’t” (181).  Moghul perceives the tenets of his religion and the concept of self-care as oppositional. He is conflicted internally but obstinate. His experience highlights a critical issue: belief systems are complex and always in the process of being interpreted, even by those living within the system itself.

Moghul’s persistence to understand his relationship to Islam – and the place of self-care within it – continues. His internal struggle assumes a different meaning when the message from the therapist converges with a similar message from a religious leader in the Muslim community, elucidating that self-care might be intrinsic to Islam instead of contrary to it. Moghul meets with a shaykh in Abu Dhabi. He conveys his struggles as a Muslim to the shaykh, who tells Moghul “Talk to God, Haroon…If even for five minutes a day” (190). The conversation ends. While walking away and retreating to his private home, the shaykh turns to Moghul and says, “You have to love yourself” (190).

Struck, Moghul responds in thought: “You have to find something to love about yourself, she’d said. It sounded so meretricious. But he’d said it too, the shaykh: love yourself. Love your neighbor as yourself – Jesus. None of you is a believer until he wants for his brother what he wants for himself – Muhammad” (194). At this point in the text, psychoanalysis, the predominately Christian domain of Moghul’s Connecticut childhood, and his roots in Islam converge.

A few pages later he interprets the message “to love oneself” according to his own, more deeply held religious beliefs. “Islamic tradition describes sin as a kind of self-oppression, as acting in ways unbefitting the actor, as insufficient selfishness. And who oppresses himself except the one who doesn’t care for himself, who doesn’t love himself, who doesn’t believe he matters?” (194).

The story of a young man, unrelenting in his quest to understand himself and his religion, told alongside personal and communal tragedy actualizes a pathway for understanding Islam and Muslim life in the United States post 9/11. It is an honest and open approach. Moghul portrays courage in this this text, showing that amidst fear, vulnerability, and uncertainty, personal and religious growth can prevail.


Stephanie N. Arel is an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow at the September 11 Memorial and Museum and a visiting researcher at New York University. She is the author of Affect Theory, Shame and Christian Formation (Palgrave Macmillan 2016) and co-editor of Post-Traumatic Public Theology (Palgrave Macmillan 2016). Her work revolves around the interplay of psychology and religion to inform an evaluation of trauma and its impact on human dignity.

Categories: Identity Construction, Islam, religion

Tags: , , ,

3 replies

  1. It seems like such a sensible act – to love one’s self. And yet….I still struggle sometimes to be as kind to me as I am to others. Where is the root of this thorny bramble?


    • Barbara, I just saw something yesterday – I wish I remembered which media outlet, about practicing self-compassion instead of working on self-esteem. I think that this might be a place to start – performing actions that show compassion to self (or parts of self) that we might hold harshly.


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