Zayn Malik And The Songs That Bring Us To Prayer

On the importance of watching a Muslim pop star follow his own path

I am sensitive about the way my name fits into the mouths of strangers, sometimes to an unreasonable degree. Hanif means “believer,” or, with more context, “he who believes in the oneness of God.” Before I even set foot in an elementary school, I worked with my mother at our kitchen table, learning how to write in Arabic. How to write my name, her name, the names of my brothers and sisters. I learned how to pronounce words in Arabic at 5 years old, how the language begins as a thick caterpillar in the back of your throat and floats off of your tongue as a butterfly. The time I spent learning how to speak the Arabic names of people I love was also how I learned to be patient, both when asking about names and being asked about my own. I tell people who I am building relationships with, “You pronounce it Han-eef. Just imagine two e's instead of the i.”

In suburban Connecticut, though, a barista whom I will probably never see again asks me for the name to call out in this crowded coffee shop when my hot apple cider is ready. In these situations, I always briefly consider the time I have to engage in what is a very simple detail for most other people. Some days, I just make up a simple, more palatable name. Today, I say, “Uhhh … Hanif.” The barista looks away from the empty white cup, looks at me, and says, “I’m taking an Arabic class right now. That’s a cool name.”

Islam is, by nature, a musical religion. The Adhan, the call to prayer, is by itself both sweet and mesmerizing. Even men who are not singers make the call to prayer, and their voices become light, melodic instruments. If you walk into a Christian church, you may see a full band onstage, powering through contemporary worship songs. This, without question, must also be powerful to many. In Islam, though, the subtle call to prayer is both a concert and a cleansing. There are no drums and guitars, there is no stage. There is just the single voice, pulling everyone close. Hayya'alas-ṣalāh, Hayya ʿalal-falāḥ. (Hasten to prayer, hasten to success.) When Muslim babies are born, the father holds them close and sings the Adhan into their right ear; the first thing heard is a song from our fathers.

I was born Muslim in the 1980s, and I am still alive. This means that I have lived two different realities in America over the course of my life. It means that I know what it is to go from invisible to threatening and to wish for invisibility again.

In the years before all of the rhetoric and the violence it created started to hit their current peak in America, I was a boy — a Muslim teenager, born to parents who had never been outside of the country. I had a proximity to American popular culture that some of the other Muslim teenagers I knew didn’t have. My parents, reluctantly, allowed me and my siblings to listen to rap. We could have name-brand sneakers. I could walk into the mosque for Friday prayer and show off basketball cards or talk about television shows. Or I could do the thing that pulled the most excitement out of my peers: I could bring my hand-me-down Sony Discman, put in the latest rap or pop CD, press play, and pass my headphones around, giving everyone a taste of another world.

In what has turned out to be a very fitting name selection, “Zayn” translates to “beauty, adornment, grace, excellence.” I pronounce the name in the way I learned to let Arabic arrive in my mouth: “Z-i-een,” as opposed to “Zane.” I imagine this to be a small courtesy for a person I know so little about.

My friend Charlotte is the only vocal One Direction fan that I actually know in real life. She is one of those people who has a radiating passion for her interests — someone who passes joy from their body to yours, just by standing close. The only Zayn-era One Direction songs I know are off of his final album with the group, 2014’s Four. I listened to that album because Charlotte urged me to on the week of its release. I found it to be a sweet, simple pop album that felt like the pop albums I kept hidden from the cooler, more popular kids I wanted to impress in high school. I played it in my car for a week, but always with the windows up. Always turning the volume down slightly at stoplights.

My consumption of the album, the manner in which I gorged myself on it while no one was watching, felt right. In my life — and, from what I can see, for many young Muslims now — being a Muslim teenager in America sometimes meant indulging in guilty pleasures, frowned upon in the home. Things that are Haram, or prohibited by faith. The small, sometimes regrettable sins that you imagine will make you more welcome in the world. Eating the slice of pizza with pepperoni on it instead of picking the pepperoni off. Calling the time and weather phone line and having a romantic interest dial in on the other line so that you can switch over, undetected by caller ID, under the watchful eye of your parents.

It is a line to walk, balancing your otherness with living in spaces that either fear it or, if you’re lucky, are merely confused by it.

Zayn Malik was already one of the biggest pop stars in the world. He is poised to become even bigger with the release of his first solo album, Mind of Mine, later this month. I have always found Zayn interesting because of the way he stood out in One Direction, how he seemed different, tokenized, sometimes uneasy. The way his pop-star status didn’t save him from death threats; the Huffington Post using his picture next to a headline about ISIS, Bill Maher jokingly comparing him to Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. No one asks for this. Zayn Malik has never set out to be the Muslim pop star — the one who does the “big, important work” of proving a hateful world wrong about Muslims, about his family.

The work Zayn does, as I see it, is more in service to the young Muslims reveling in the pleasures of their non-Muslim peers, and the guilt that can come with that. Zayn is an unmistakable sex symbol, covered in tattoos, who sings about love and intimacy. There is a video of him smoking weed, one that I watched and that made me laugh, knowing what it is to be young and reckless, despite the faith you were born into. I root for Zayn to be himself, because I know that he is still a Muslim, standing in the face of all of these things the world does not associate with Muslims. This, too, is powerful. It isn’t an erasing or muting of his identity. It's a stretching of what that identity can represent in the minds of people like him.

Maybe there is no saving the world from the violence and hatred it feels toward Muslims. We pretend as if that hate has just arrived, as if it will go away soon, once the election cycle ends. We think of it as an American problem, and not a world problem. Rather, it is the machine that has always been at a low hum, incrementally growing louder each month, day, hour. Eventually, we will be able to hear nothing else. For Muslim teenagers who are like I was, looking for a temporary salve, the existence of Zayn Malik is enough. Representation can be simply the ability to imagine a shared experience with someone who is larger than life. Knowing that Zayn Malik perhaps also once answered a call to prayer while a red sun crawled underneath the horizon, like I once did, is enough. He's a complicated, layered pop star who follows Islam, who is, still, only defined by it when a joke or a threat can be made. There is nothing more American than this — the identity that hangs over us most closely, the one that can still get us killed.

I do not remember the last time I prayed, spoke Arabic, or actively practiced Islam. Yet I did a reading in Montreal last month at which a poet read one of the opening poems entirely in Arabic. I focused during the poem, and I could see the words in my head again. I could make out so much of the beautiful language I had been away from for so long. I could see 100 butterflies flying from the mouth of this poet, hovering above the stage long after he was done. There are things from which we can’t untether ourselves, things that stay with us even when we have become so much else without them. What an incredible blessing, to be so many different things at once but still have a home inside you that is always eager for your return, a song that was placed in your ear once and has never left. Alhamdulillah.

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