We sat in her hospital room, just my granny and me, as she told me about her solar technology patent. The topic transported her mind from her blue gown lit by fluorescent lighting to her classroom at Virginia Tech. A well-prepared lecture evolved out of her weak speech as my visitor’s chair turned into a desk. Like a song from her childhood, she rhythmically told me about sputtering techniques and thin film solar converters. Upon forgetting just one colleague’s name, she looked at me and laughed at her “old mind.” On Jan. 8, 2017, my brilliant granny passed away after a lifetime of teaching. Her greatest lesson to me will be how to be an outstanding citizen and an amazing Muslim.
Lubna Razia Ijaz was born in 1936 in Lahore, Pakistan. By the time she began studying at Government College in Lahore, she had already skipped multiple grades. I remember her telling me stories of being one of the few girls in her class. Once, a male classmate asked her why she didn’t wear the Islamic headscarf, to which she responded, “Are you a girl? Why do you care?” That classmate would go on to marry my granny and become my grandfather.
The two lovebirds moved to Florida in 1960 to pursue higher education. I cannot begin to imagine the possible instances of prejudice they must have faced coming into America’s civil rights era as people of color. Perhaps this is because she never told her grandchildren stories of prejudice. She only depicted the America that welcomed her with grace and respect. Her hallmark story from the Florida days is how she and my grandfather presented a Quran to the president of Florida State University, Gordon Blackwell.
In 1965 the two moved to Virginia. But it wasn’t just Virginia — it was Blacksburg, Virginia, a town neighbored by Christiansburg and Lynchburg. Take a second to imagine the mindsets of my grandparents’ townspeople. Their presence was so revolutionary that a local newspaper photographed my grandparents with the title, “These are Moslems.”
However, rather than being discouraged by the apparent obstacles to inclusion, they were excited to be involved in the community and the culture. Coming from the villages of the Punjab, my grandparents had a deep love of the land, which was a central part of the Virginian lifestyle. As a result, every visit to Virginia is filled with fingers pointing from the car windows at the acres and acres of land my grandparents developed.
While she was cultivating both her family and the Virginian landscape, my granny pursued her Ph.D. in solar physics and education from Virginia Tech. It makes me so optimistic to know that she earned her doctoral degree at a time when less than 5 percent of all Ph.D.s in physics were awarded to women. She fervently believed in the Islamic principles of education for everyone, not just males, and led by example in the American education scene.
Her dedication to her faith was evident when she took office as president of the women’s auxiliary of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA from 1969 to 1971. The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community is America’s oldest Muslim community, established in 1920. Three of the first 313 adherents to the Ahmadiyyat were my granny’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather. They were some of the first members of a revolutionary social movement, founded by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian, India, championing “Love for all, hatred for none.” It’s inspiring that she took her deeply rooted spirituality and put it to practical use in order to help empower women in the early ’70s.
In addition to her work with the women’s auxiliary, she was constantly looking for opportunities to develop the American Muslim community. In 1983, my grandparents sought to build a mosque for Muslims in the surrounding states. An newspaper titled “Islam in Virginia” says the mosque was being established in “the heart of the ‘Bible belt,’ ” underscoring the adversity of its construction. Due to financial issues the mosque project was never fully completed, but her disregard for possible cultural roadblocks inspires me to this day.
Practicing Islam was never an inhibitor to her acceptance into society. In today’s political rhetoric, Muslims are often made out to seem incompatible to the American way of life. During the second presidential debate in October 2016, President Trump called for an extreme vetting of Muslims. The goal of this kind of rhetoric is to say Muslims and Americans don’t, can’t and won’t mix. But my granny is clear evidence that the only thing “extreme” is the extreme lack of conflict between being Muslim and being American.
For example, I would often imagine what it was like being in my granny’s classroom. What was it like learning from her with her South Asian accent and Pakistani saris? Apparently, it was great! In 1976, Lubna Ijaz was awarded a Woman of the Year award in education by Montgomery County, Va. Her breakthrough teaching styles emphasized the practical applications of physics and reduced the stress on examinations for students. My uncle often tells me that she would pass out physics exams with the answers attached, tell her students her assessment was of concepts, not equations. In 1996 she established a Virginia Tech scholarship in her name to annually award a student who “has shown great commitment to the science of physics.”
It was no surprise that students loved socializing with my granny. One photograph shows my granny, wearing traditional shalwar kameez, standing in the family apple orchard surrounded by her students, all adorned in high-waisted bell-bottoms.
I love that photograph. It shows me that cultures and religions are not obstacles to unity. Cultural differences and religious diversity are necessary for a society to progress and prosper. That single photograph shows me that being an American Muslim is not an oxymoron, but a beautiful indicator of society moving towards a bright future. More than anything, that photograph shows me that my granny was an American Muslim woman, unafraid of any obstacles to unity, ready to break glass ceilings and win over the hearts of her fellow Virginians.