Aneelah Afzali meets me at the Muslim Association of Puget Sound’s mosque, which is tucked away in a small industrial center in Redmond. Afzali rushes up to greet me. She wears a bright green abaya, a style of Muslim dress, a bright smile adorns her face, and her bubbly and energetic personality leads me into the entryway.
We enter, and Afzali shows me how to wrap a scarf around my head, observing the modest tradition. While wearing a hijab is not required in the mosque, it is recommended as a sign of respect.
As we continue through the mosque, with its marble floors and crisp white architecture, she guides me on a tour. The mosque features a large prayer hall, a daycare center, a basketball court that turns into an event hall, a women’s-only gym, and classrooms and conference rooms.
The prayer room is divided by gender, with separate entrances for men and women, and as we walk past, the mosque’s imam is leading a class. The teachings are broadcast over a speaker so you can hear the lesson throughout the building.
The pursuit of knowledge is a requirement on all Muslims, Afzali explains, as I join her for a class she is coordinating on the Bible through a Muslim lens. Afzali greets people walking in, including several Christians who seem to be regulars at these interfaith classes. She directs us to light refreshments, including her mother’s homemade roht, a sweet Afghan bread.
Afzali is active in this mosque, but she wasn’t always so involved with her faith. Growing up, her family did not go to the mosque. While her mom was a devout Muslim who would pray five times a day, the rest of her family observed their faith mainly during the holy month of Ramadan.
Today, Afzali strives to learn and teach others about the faith that changed the course of her life.
Afzali was born in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1977, two years before the country started to get torn apart by war with the Soviet Union.
Her mother had been a teacher in Afghanistan, and her father was in the army and operated several stores. They had what Afzali described as a “stable, normal life,” before uprooting everything.
She tears up as she tells the story of her father finding a way for their family of seven to escape the country in 1979. “My parents gave up everything, carrying only what they could with them as refugees,” Afzali said.
The Afzalis lived in Germany for three years until they could immigrate to California in 1982, once again starting their lives from scratch.
The Afzalis were “very proud people, and wouldn’t just accept handouts.”
“My dad firmly believed that if someone was going to give him money, he needed to work for it —even offering to mow the lawn at the refugee office in Germany because he refused to just accept the money without working for it,” Afzali said.
The family lived in California for five years before moving to Portland, Oregon.
“There was a large Afghan community in California, and there were lots of social gatherings and events,” she said. “But this bustling Afghan social scene prevented us from focusing on our education, which was important to my parents.”
In Portland, the family opened a couple video stores. Afzali has memories of working at her family businesses starting at age twelve, just like each of her siblings. “We all worked hard, especially my parents and older siblings, to help pay the bills and make ends meet,” she said. She even has memories of her youngest brother, Quais, running around with a feather duster as a small child cleaning.
Six years later, Afzali became the first in her family to attend college.
“My parents were big on education but at the same time there were a lot of cultural and social taboos against a single, Afghan woman going away to college,” she said.
Afzali earned a Presidential Scholarship to attend the University of Oregon.
“I was very blessed and lucky to receive that scholarship, because that was my ticket to college. Without that scholarship, I would not have been able to afford college,” she said.
Becoming Muslim by choice
While at University of Oregon, Afzali examined Islam and other faith traditions in a comparative religions class. As she explored facets of her identity — her race, gender, and socioeconomic status — Afzali decided that Islam was a revolutionary faith.
“That’s when I decided I was Muslim by choice, after exploring religion on my own. I accepted Islam as the right path. But the college scene distracted me from actually practicing religion, except during Ramadan or times of need,” she said. “Islam had entered my mind, but not actually my heart.”
She got a law degree from Harvard Law School several years later, with an interest in international human rights. Law made sense for Afzali. She was the main interpreter of legal documents for her family’s businesses; she helped her older sister navigate through a divorce; she loved mock trials and logic games; and she has a strong sense of justice.
When she was in seventh grade, she tried to defend her father in a courtroom for a speeding ticket. Her father believed it was falsely given on the basis of his race.
“If that was the case [that he was wrongly ticketed], I thought, ‘We have to stand up for this’, as I had very much accepted the dream of justice in America.” “The judge asked me if I was a lawyer and when I replied no, he told me to sit down,” she remembers.
After law school she worked for several law firms and then became general counsel of Edifecs, a healthcare technology company in Bellevue.
It wasn’t until then that Afzali, for the first time, completed the Quran cover to cover. And the book resonated with her and shook her to the core.
“I realized that everything I had asked for and pursued in life, I had gotten. I felt like a horribly ungrateful person because God blessed me in so many ways and I just now finished his message to us. I was embarrassed by how negligent I had been. The more I learned about the Quran, the more I appreciated it, and the firmer I became in my faith,” she said.
She slowly incorporated the obligatory prayers in her daily life.
“I realized how crazy my life was, and the more prayers I did, the more at peace I felt in my heart,” she said.
Her brother Quais, four years her junior, surprisingly became one of her strongest supporters. Quais was an atheist for most of his adult life. Aneelah discussed her spiritual awakening with him while on a juice cleanse trip to Costa Rica in 2013.
“I was at first very closed minded to it all, very arrogant,” Quais said. “We had a lot of philosophical debates about our beliefs, and her perspective interested me. The ‘blown away’ moment for me was after researching Islam myself, and realizing the miraculous things that it involves.” He thereafter reverted back to Islam.
Now their relationship is closer than ever.
“It’s been a huge blessing for me to have him join me on this path,” Aneelah said. “It has solidified my faith and helped me stay strong, particularly as it is a struggle to be a good practicing Muslim in our society. We’ve had to make a lot of changes in our lifestyles, and he’s been my right hand man. We’re both very strong seekers of truth, and he’s someone I can always turn to when I come across something cool in the Quran – or in politics or health issues or any other topic, as I know he’ll be just as excited as I am.”
Afzali and her parents went on a hajj together to Mecca in 2013.
“Words can’t describe that experience, being in harmony with God and yourself in the midst of chaos, with that sense of unity and equality with humanity,” she said. She came back transformed.
“It was like I was wearing a pair of dirty glasses my whole life and I finally had them cleaned, and I can see the whole world out of them.”
Since then, Afzali has wholeheartedly embraced Islam. But the choice to do so doesn’t come without difficulties. To meet the five daily prayer times, Afzali — who travels frequently — has had to publicly pray in airports, subways, restaurants, malls, dirt roads, and throughout an African safari.
She has received strange looks and comments, but also experienced positive interactions with caring individuals that keep her inspired. But her mother is concerned for her daughter’s safety and has even begged her not to publicly pray given the increasing Islamophobia that has plagued American society since 9/11.
With respect to the hijab, Afzali recently began wearing it regularly. “I was a believer that while modesty is a mandate in Islam, the hijab is not. But I reached a point where I thought ‘I’m proud to be Muslim’ and it’s my strongest and most important identity now. Why not show it and stand in solidarity to challenge the negative representations and stereotypes of Muslim women? Plus, when I wear hijab, it’s a reminder of God with me all the time.”
Afzali is currently taking a sabbatical and focusing on her faith and family. She considered opening a nonprofit organization in Afghanistan working with orphans, and is learning Arabic.
“I spent my whole life trying to make things right in my life. I’m researching and exploring ways that I can make the most difference. My education in Islam is going to take a lifetime, and I couldn’t be more excited.”