As long as I can remember I’ve had a curiosity about religion and about God. I was always sure that there was something I was connected to and supposed to be reaching out to. I didn’t come from a particularly religious family, but they still made sure we went to Sunday school and vacation bible school and youth group meetings and church camps up until my teen years. My grandmother taught me how to sing Jesus loves me, I answered altar calls and cried my eyes out, I gave myself to God kneeling on ice in the woods behind my friend Cayla’s house in the 6th grade, I memorized bible verses, and I vowed chastity on a youth retreat long before I ever understood what chastity meant.
There was never a time in my life that I questioned God or my beliefs about him until I was about 13 and made the decision to be baptized. I took classes and learned what I was supposed to learn and scheduled my baptism to take place in front of the entire church congregation. The night before it took place I remember asking my youth group leader a few questions that he didn’t have the answers for…or answers that didn’t make sense to me…so I did what he told me to do and just “had faith”. I took the plunge the next day in my Speedo one-piece that my mother paid way too much money for because I had to have it because Cayla had one, and although that was meant to be the beginning of my journey as Christian, it was, in reality, the end. The questions never stopped nagging me and they never received straight forward answers. My mother moved us to another state and I remember my aunt and my grandmother telling me over the phone that I had to find a church to attend in our new town. I told myself I would do no such thing and that was the end of that.
Several years later after surviving my teen years and thinking I was grown up enough to live on my own, I moved again. This time it was to be closer to my father. It was the city where I was to meet The Mr.
I was busy doing things that most 20 year old girls are doing–work, parties, friends–and religion was definitely the very last thing on my mind the first night I went home with him. It wasn’t until a few weeks into our relationship that the topic came up. We were watching TV on my futon in the living room of my one bedroom apartment when he asked me what I believed about Jesus. I thought it was a weird question, because obviously, everyone knows who Jesus is and what to believe about him. I remember telling him that I just didn’t believe that he was God, because why would God pray to God and 3 =/= 1, and that I had been thinking about finding a church, but I was stuck on this one issue. No offence, I told him. But he wasn’t offended, obviously, because he was a Muslim and Muslims didn’t believe Jesus was God either. And so began my love affair with Islam.
I was floored. Of course I knew that there were other religions out there, buy my parents had always told me that it takes all kinds, and that there is truth to be found on many different paths, so I never bothered myself with actually learning about those different faiths. But I had found something that apparently matched exactly what I had believed all along…that there was a God and that there have been prophets, or people somehow specially connected to this God, and that there is life, or something, after death…it all matched up. At least on the surface. So I spent the next two years quietly learning about Islam via Yahoo chat, Ahmed Deedat VHS tapes, and dusty library books, while simultaneously trying to unlearn my Christianity.
I eventually told my parents about my desire to convert and my parents assumed, like any parents would, that I was just going through a phase which would quickly end as soon as my relationship with The Mr. ended. Things for them got serious when I named my daughter with a Muslim name and even more so when I started wearing hijab. But despite a few freak outs along the way, my parents and family were ever supportive of my personal choices. A girl couldn’t ask for a better deal than that.
I learned about the basics. The five pillars, things to do and not to do, what to eat and not eat, what to say and not say,what foot to enter the bathroom with and how I should stop celebrating certain holidays. I tried to stop singing hymns in my head all the time and replaced them with memorized quran verses. I stopped listening to music, which had been a huge part of my life up until that point. I learned to pray, and did so faithfully 5 times a day. I dropped most of my friends and made new ones. I fiercely defended Islam against anyone who had anything bad to say about it.
But then I did something that even the 13 year old me was smart enough and secure enough not to do. When I found things that I didn’t agree with, when I didn’t believe what the mainstream believed, when I questioned things, I buried it. I didn’t question anything. The same sense of questioning and exploration that was welcomed and embraced by other Muslims when I was considering joining the faith was looked down upon once I had announced myself as a Muslim.
At times I felt like Islam was a one-size-fits-all sweater that didn’t quite fit me–one that I couldn’t return once I wore it, so I was just stuck having to adjust the hell out of it or starving myself trying to fit into it, feeling awkward and uncomfortable all the while.
If you question, if you don’t believe, if something like polygny doesn’t sit well with you, it must be because you have weak iman–weak faith. It’s a deficiency in you, not the religion. You’ll get used to it all, you’ll adjust, your mind will eventually get with the program, I was assured. There were times that I was outright told I couldn’t be a Muslim and believe/not believe certain things. There was always a reason, an excuse, an explanation to make me question my own sanity before the validity of what I was questioning. Something the Muslims do better than the Christians is to always have an explanation. So I just kept on believing, clinging to the basics that interested me to begin with, and avoided all the rest.
So then I moved to Saudi Arabia. The birthplace of Islam. In my mind (and in the minds of many others) it was going to be an Islamic paradise. I would never have to explain myself to others, I could hear the call to prayer, I would make Muslim friends easily, and I thought I’d be surrounded and embraced by a community of people who believed the same things that I did. And to be fair, I did find those things in small doses.
But there were other things that I witnessed and experienced that overshadowed the good. Racism, prejudice, rudeness, laziness, corruption, and of course the restrictions and injustices faced by women here. Those things brought back to mind all of the unanswered questions and concerns I’d had from the beginning. I ignored those things as a good Muslim should and made excuses for them. Don’t judge Islam by what the Muslims are doing, right? So that’s the motto I lived by for the following several years. A couple of cross-continental moves, through my struggles with my marriage, my flip-flopping on hijab, my efforts to try to stomach the things that made me uncomfortable, I slowly fell out of love with this religion and wanted to toss that sweater into the closest Goodwill bin in the middle of the night and forget I ever owned it.
When I was maybe 5 or 6 years old, my sister and I went to a home based daycare that was run by a neighbor. I don’t remember much about my time there other than the woman force feeding my sister celery while I watched and cried, silently begging my sister to just eat her celery so that we could go have our nap. I don’t remember if my sister ever actually finished the celery, but I do remember lying on the floor at nap time with the blanket over my head, crying and wishing I could save my little sister. We told our parents and they eventually stopped taking us there, but until this day I would rather starve to death than eat raw celery. Even the smell on my hands after chopping it is enough to make me gag sometimes.
Saudi Arabia has ruined Islam the way that the babysitter ruined celery for me. In this place, a single and very strict version of Islam is shoved down the throats of Muslims, and those who don’t prefer the taste of that version aren’t given much chance to refuse it. There is no room for discussion, there is no freedom to question or come to conclusions for yourself. Celery is the only thing that is served, gag it down if you have to. I feel like now that I’ve seen how Islam is practiced here, I can no longer stomach it for myself. Just like the idea of crunching down on a raw piece of celery sends shivers down my spine, so does talk of religion.
In the same way that the early development of my relationship with The Mr. encouraged my acceptance of Islam, the decline of our relationship has given me a safe place to question what it is that I really believe. Unlike the brand new convert who had all the answers, I find myself having very few. I still know that there is something out there that connects us all, something that I still reach out and connect to daily, but I no longer know what to call it.
I told a friend once, in the beginning of my life as a Muslim, that if Islam didn’t work out for me that I wouldn’t know what “to be,” that I couldn’t be an athiest, because I knew there was something divine, but that I couldn’t settle my doubts with Christianity enough to want to return to it, and that I wouldn’t have the desire to learn about a new religion again. I’m in that space now…the limbo we talked about but never thought we’d see. She’s still a strong Muslim and here I am flailing about as usual. Maybe it’s religion in general that I’m disillusioned with. The tendency for the ideas of men to mix with what might have been divine wisdom at some point in time…no system of belief has been immune from that. Maybe I don’t need a set of rules and regulations to help me with the ultimate purpose of connecting with something bigger than myself.
I still see the beauty of Islam. The ritual prayer and fasting are still practices I indulge in at will when I feel the need to connect or reach out to God on a deeper level. I still find the principles of charity, community, kindness, and humility to be inspiring. But there are so many other areas of contention…of grey…of uncertainty that I can’t settle in my head, and just like the 13 year old me did with Christianity, I want to walk away sometimes.
This isn’t something I feel comfortable talking about with others, especially other Muslims. Uncertainty often equals the undesirable label of weak faith. It’s hard for me to share it here because a lot of my Muslim friends read my blog and 99% of them don’t know about my struggles and how I feel as a result of them. But there has to be other people out there who feel the same way I do, so I ‘m going to take the chance and share anyhow.
If this blog has taught me anything, it’s that we are never alone on our journeys and that there is always, always someone out there who is traveling along a similar path. So I’m reaching out to you now, readers. Have you been on a similar journey? Have you struggled with faith? Have you experienced similar feelings?