My life’s been full of awkward moments, and my journey with my faith has been a rollercoaster ride. I grew up a practicing young Muslimah, the apple of my parents’ eye, with all the adults nodding and smiling with approval at my headscarved young head. As I grew older, the restrictions that came with my religion started to feel like a burden, especially as I reached my teenage years. Don’t be friends with boys, and don’t stay out late. Don’t forget to pray five times a day no matter what else you’re doing, and don’t ever be disrespectful to your parents. (On that last bit, c’mon, what teenager isn’t disrespectful to their parents at some point or the other?) It started to just seem stifling, and like many in similar situations, I started to drift from the path of obedience I had followed till that point. Religion became something associated with my parents. They wanted me to follow it, and I didn’t want to follow what they were saying, because when you’re 15, let’s be frank: parents are just uncool. They are annoying and somehow always around when you don’t want them to be, and they think they can just run your life. (Fun fact: a few years later, I realized that they totally just could, and I was actually glad that they had strong-armed their way into everything I ever did – I’m looking at you, Mom.)
So from practicing young Muslimah, I entered Stage 2: ‘Reluctant Muslim’. This was the part where I secretly read Teen Vogue, and pretended not to have any friends that were boys, and constantly whined about how tortured I was because my parents just didn’t understand. At the same time, Mom dragged me to religious lectures, and I would make a big show of every time I prayed, to get them off my back.
Stage 3: ‘Self-Important Sinner’ kicked in towards the end of high school. Reluctant Muslim has a tendency to fade into: “Hi, I am Muslim, and you know it and I know it, but prayer and other things like that are my business and you have no right to judge me.” It became that thing that no one talked about – the elephant that everyone just refused to see. It wasn’t taboo to say you weren’t religious, and it was very easily sidestepped by “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” (I never really knew what people meant by that, to be honest.) It was okay to brazenly eat lunch during Ramadan when everyone else was fasting, and to openly date the love of your life (and subsequent loves of your life). Everyone understood why a girl might have a secret cellphone, and of course friends had to help each other sneak out and meet their boyfriends.
At one point, it even became very cool to declare yourself an atheist. It was just so easy to say that you didn’t believe in the God your entire society so openly recognized, the one your parents and relatives and literally everyone in this 99% Muslim population you were raised in acknowledged. Because if you don’t believe in God, you don’t have to deal with any real questions. Purpose of existence? Bah. Hell if you don’t pray? Bah. You’re a bad person if you treat others like crap? Not even relevant. The world is a scientific explosion thingy away from not existing and all of us are useless flecks of skin and muscle. Go with the flow, bro – and pass the weed, please.
Let me please clarify here that I respect everyone’s religious beliefs – if you identify with being a Muslim, an Athiest, or anything else that you choose to believe, I respect the decision as yours and have no intention of mocking it or implying anything negative towards your life choice. What I am describing is the way I saw things when I was younger, with a group of friends, colleagues, and students who hadn’t done their research, hadn’t deep-dived into their religious fad of choice for more than a few hours and were still in transition – not yet clear on who they were and who they wanted to be.
For those a little more faint of heart, agnosticism served as a popular option as well. This way you could believe in God, or some higher power like him (this proved very convenient), but not any formal structure of worshiping him/it/her.
I didn’t know what either word truly meant; beyond superficial definitions and a chance at relinquishing the bonds that held me back, I wasn’t really interested in what they meant, and years later, when speaking with a group of old friends, I learned that they hadn’t been either.
Then college happened, and like many undergrads, I seemed to have found my calling. I discovered what I felt passionate about, people I felt passionately about, and like every life-enthused young person, went through great emotional ups and downs. College was all about finding out who I was. Mom and dad loosened the reigns just enough to let me breathe, and I was all positivity and potential. So it seemed only natural when I found myself looking around for God when I hit a low point. Hello God, it’s me, Zainab. Remember? And I found him.
And then I lost him.
And then I needed him.
And then I wanted him.
And then I couldn’t find him.
And then I realized he had always been there.
In between all of this, I did my research. I went to classes. I interacted with people who believed and people who didn’t believe. And I learned the most important thing: believing is my choice. I can or I can choose not to, and no one else has anything to do with that. That in itself was incredibly freeing. I can pretend to be a believer so I don’t get judged and persecuted. I can pretend to be “liberal” and not believe, so I don’t get judged and persecuted. But the world will always be around, and some people somewhere will always judge and persecute. And the world will see what you want to show it. What you show and whether or not you truly believe – very separate things. This may seem like common sense, but it took me a fair bit of time to work it out.
And I realized that I do believe. I’m not a great Muslim by many standards. I still break a bunch of rules even when I am trying not to. I am not nearly as educated in religious knowledge as I wish I was and if we started a debate on philosophy and individualism and feminism and equality, chances are I would not be able to defend my religion. I’d probably find myself agreeing with you on some bits and feeling confused. But one thing I’ve never stopped feeling is that God’s around, just chilling while I figure my stuff out, and always ready to pitch in when I need him. My faith is by no means strong – it is a fragile, simple thing. I try to protect it, strengthen it, and let’s be honest – sometimes I completely ignore it because I am focusing on my career. But it’s there. I am proud of it. I am happy about it. I would like my guardian angels to please stick around.
It gives me strength. It gives me hope. That’s what it is to me, at the end of the day. Because whether you’re praying to Allah, or Jesus, or another deity that you choose to worship, your faith is hope. Your faith is you willing to take a chance on something magical. It’s you willing to see what other people won’t. To work towards a goals other can’t or won’t envision. And all great people have faith in something or the other – themselves, science, the fact that their goals are possible. Nobody can definitively prove without a doubt that God exists. No one can prove that he doesn’t. I choose to believe in him. I choose to see faith. I choose to pray.
Call me brainwashed. Call me delusional. Call me inspired. Whatever. It’s my choice. I will always try to be good and kind to people around me and to never create any negative situations for anyone, or harm anyone. So this is my choice. And maybe this is just a random bout of religiosity and two months or two years or two weeks from now I will be a pretty substandard Muslim or I will have lost all faith or something else of that sort. But that will be part of my journey, part of my life and part of my personal development. I hope in the future I am happy with who I have become, and that I keep growing and seeking to be as awesome a person as I ever can be.
I choose to believe.
In human potential.