Belief is not a choice

April 15, 2010 at 10:06 pm (gender issues, Islam, moral issues, personal, religious experiences)

I was sorting through our possessions and I came across a few photos that reminded me, in a very immediate, emotional way, of wanting to be a Muslim. Here is one of them; one which doesn’t identify the people. It is of one of my husband’s lifelong friends, with his Scottish convert wife and their newborn first child in a pushchair.

I don’t know if I can even explain what it makes me feel. It just looks like a family I would want to be in.

It’s probably partly the traditional gender roles that her dress implies. The idea of being protected and provided for, materially and/or in other ways. Also, it seems to invoke a mental picture of a secure family based on moral commitment and not selfish whim; maybe it is also a feeling of a shared spirituality and a common purpose. Much the same feeling that drew me to Christianity. It feels healthy and wholesome. Maybe it’s partly that I just fell in love with Islam because it is a part of my husband. All of this is totally subjective, of course, and may not reflect reality, but I so rarely write about how I feel or even remember the subjective emotional factors that led me into my journey, and it hit me when I looked at the photos.

Sometimes you have conflicting wants. I wanted religiosity but I also wanted freedom of thought. I wanted peace of mind but I didn’t want simplistic answers. I wanted belonging but I also wanted personal integrity and an honest search for truth. In the end I had to realise that – at least for me – these wants are not compatible, and by the time you realise that, there is no longer any honest choice to be made. I hope the clarity and the relief of dropping the need for certainty will be worth the consequences, but even if it isn’t, it couldn’t have been any other way. You can’t choose to believe something you don’t believe.

I turn on the TV and I see a 13-year-old girl in A&E (or the ER) with severe alcohol poisoning, constantly throwing up. And for a moment, I wonder if I could happily raise Muslim children after all. But then I think of how I couldn’t even perform the pillars without cognitive dissonance over rules that didn’t make sense, how I could never honestly tell my family to hide the ham because we’re coming over or to hold the presents until Christmas is well over, how I could never feel any shame if a man saw my hair, and how frightened I would be that my children might learn to hate those who are not like them.

You can’t choose to believe in something you don’t believe in.

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Being married to a Muslim

April 5, 2010 at 11:58 pm (Islam, personal)

“Blessed are those who yearn for deepening more than escape; who can renounce smugness and be shaken in conscience; who are not afraid to grow in spirit.” (From chapter 8 by John A. Buehrens in “A Chosen Faith”)

His Islam is all tied up with his culture and his identity. It is part of his happy picture of what has made him who he is. What I have lately been inclined to see as literally false and dangerous, he sees as metaphorical, enriching and comfortingly solid.

Maybe I need to start listening to what he is really saying through his language which he calls “Islam”. It is not at all the same thing that I heard when I read the Quran.

But to be perfectly honest, I am tired of being the only one able to do any listening.

And I resent the rigidity in his religio-cultural system. I resent the fact that he could hope I would change, yet couldn’t consider changing himself. I know it’s not his fault, it’s the nature of his religio-culture, but that doesn’t make me feel any better.

I resent the fact that our kids would not be allowed to receive Christmas presents and would have to eat halal. I resent the fact that the happy mixed-marriage picture of taking a little from this and a little from that just never applies when Islam is involved. I resent the fact that so many of us have to put ourselves through painful wrestling to accept the rigid religion of our Muslim men.

And if we don’t have kids, I might end up resenting that too.

But if this means separating out our entwined lives, saying goodbye to half of myself, severing the connection to someone who has become family… if this is the upshot of this situation, this resentment… then I need to at least look for an alternative to resentment, before I can walk that difficult path.

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Struggling towards the light: a backwards glance

February 27, 2010 at 12:45 pm (is religion good or bad for you?, Islam, personal, reflections on my journey)

I always find it interesting to look back over my shoulder every now and then. If we don’t understand or remember how we got to where we are, how can we learn anything?

A few years back I was not really very happy. I hadn’t yet come to terms with the fact that me and work are never going to get along like a house on fire and I am never going to afford a good standard of living (relative to my society’s norms). I felt like a victim and I thought faith was the answer.

I had crashed out of my religious idealism some years before with angry disappointment, and felt unable to surrender to God. The guilt kept me frozen in all this negativity, unable to progress.

It seems I still viewed faith and surrender as a state I needed to get back to. I saw that as still being the ideal. Similarly I saw a career and material success as something that I needed. I was far away from both, but I couldn’t really question either of them. Pressure!

Where did Islam come in? I do remember as early as 2005 I was defending Islam on message boards. So clearly I had warmed up to it a lot even then. It was only a flirtation though – I wasn’t really prepared to let myself question my prior beliefs just yet.

I think it was through blogs that I started to learn more about Islam, and I must have been a lot closer to it by 2008. I went to the mosque exhibition, and a photo of a young woman bundled up in a white garment praying with her husband really touched me. It seemed to portray the wholesome, positive, spiritual life I wanted. I tried fasting Ramadan that year and made it through not even one day, and to make matters worse, watched “Dispatches: Undercover Mosque” that evening and was so horrified I didn’t want to fast any more. I continued learning through blogs, though, and we went to my husband’s home country over Christmas-New Year, during which I was more bothered by seeing certain aspects of Islam than I had ever been before. I guess that shows that I was wanting to convert but finding it hard to deal with certain things.

By a year ago, I had already learnt enough to be very discouraged. I had forgotten that. It’s funny to realise how my journey into Islam was more like going round in circles. Obviously I wasn’t going to let it go without investigating it more fully, and that last lap round the track was done through this blog over 2009.

So what was it that was drawing me in? I guess it was just that I saw faith as a state I needed to get back to. More particularly, the rules in Islam attracted me because I was a wounded soul looking for a system that would protect me. It seemed it would give me the dignity I had not had before when self-sacrifice was my ideal. Also, the cleaner theology appealed to me.

I started this blog with the intention of making a concerted effort to sort out my spiritual life and work out the truth as best I could. The beauty of it is, I have worked through a lot of the stuff I was stuck on for years. I have come to terms with my loss of certainty. I have stopped burying my head in the sand and started being honest with myself. I have opened the curtain and let the light of day shine into my life, banishing all those fears that thrive in darkness. For that alone, this process has been immensely worthwhile.

And so if you ever wonder why I am intent on questioning religion to the point that I risk destroying it, know this: religion has wreaked a lot of havoc in my life. I am much better off where I am today. The truth really has set me free. In the past, when I wrote questioning posts, I got comments that said things like “I hope you find what you need in your life”. The irony is that questioning and doubting were exactly what I needed. Some people may still look at me as needing enlightenment… and I may look right back at them the same way.

Faith did not cure my victim mentality in the end; time did. Humans are naturally resilient and if you are prepared to ask searching questions, a lot of ills do sort themselves out.

The need for faith as well as the need for material success – the two things I thought I needed before I started out on this journey – are now up for question. Am I doing myself a disservice by thinking that I need to believe in God, or that the world is good, or that there is a purpose to life? Am I just clinging to faith like a mother’s apron-strings? What am I still looking for?

I think my searching and reading is now motivated purely by interest. I certainly haven’t arrived at any particular belief, so there is plenty I could think about. I am startled, though, by how frantic it is. I want to learn more and more, I want to read the holy books of all religions, I want to immerse myself in their wisdom… it’s like the whole world has opened up and I can’t wait to see all of it!

I think, as well, that a year of intense learning and trying to come to a belief has formed a habit. I think I will try to ease off the pace a little bit. 😉

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Angst: the aftermath

January 8, 2010 at 6:20 pm (is religion good or bad for you?, personal, reflections on my journey)

This blog – which is almost a year old, if you include the few posts I imported at the start – has done exactly what it said on the tin: wrestled with religion. I can say it has been a very angst-ridden year. But I really, truly feel that that is behind me now.

I feel the most at peace that I ever have, since… since I started going to church in 1998. More than 10 years of wrestling, although most of it was spent with the worries pushed to the back of my mind. Until this year.

I think it’s partly that I’d never gotten over the guilt of having slipped away from church. I still viewed being committedly religious as my default state that I should try to return to. I didn’t – and don’t – want that brand of religion again, though. I was drawn to Islam as potentially a way of getting back to that religious state, but with less of the ungrounded hype and zeal, and with more support structures in terms of rules that would prevent me hurting myself. I gave it a try, I thoroughly explored it and I’m glad I did. It’s been worthwhile.

My anxiety only grew bigger the further I got into Islam, and it seems to me now that I was putting a lot of pressure on myself. I guess I didn’t want to come so far and then turn away. There were personal incentives for me to convert but I don’t think that was what was driving me. Less than a year ago I set out with a very open mind. I’d been married 5 years without a thought of conversion.

I think I was just every bit as infatuated with religion and the religious lifestyle as I had been at 18. I wanted to justify having that for myself. And I wanted to belong; I wanted to be able to say “this is what I am”.

Even very recently I have looked at more faiths and denominations and briefly wondered if perhaps they could be the way for me – and I feel those butterflies in my stomach, that excitement, anticipating finding my way and calling myself a [insert label here].

Maybe there will always be this tension in me between wanting submission and needing intellectual/moral integrity. Or maybe I will find a path that satisfies both.

Either way, I am far less driven right now. In the process of wrestling with Islam, I have somehow extricated myself from guilt over my journey. I have confronted difficult questions that have sent my anxiety through the roof but which have ultimately been liberating. I finally have the courage to accept that I just don’t know anything much about God, and that religion is largely a human thing. And that that’s okay.

I feel like I should feel foolish for this year’s events, but I really don’t. This is my journey, this is who I am and this is what I had to go through to be where I am now. People may not agree with my approach or my outcome, but frankly I don’t care. 😀

What’s next? Renaming the blog? Maybe. I don’t see being conventionally religious as my default state any more, and it’s strange that I ever did considering I was only highly religious for like 1/10 of my life. But I have always had religious tendencies, and I don’t think I will ever stop seeking the deeper meaning of life. I have no idea what I will become but I know I will not stay the same for long. 😉

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Taking stock – and a break

November 29, 2009 at 12:10 am (Islam, personal, reflections on my journey)

This time last year I had got quite interested in blogs. I was also seriously thinking about Islam. I’m not sure whether one of these things caused the other, or how it all happened, but I remember going through a phase of almost obsessively seeking out new blogs written by Muslims. One blog leads to many others through blogrolls and comments, and so I traversed the blogosphere looking for… looking for what? I suppose I was looking for role models.

I had been assimilating information about Islam for years, but somehow I began to seriously think about it on a personal level. And I used blogs to vicariously “taste” Islam through other people’s writing. It took me a long time to find bloggers whose approach to religion I really resonated with, and who were also open to discussing religion with me. It was worth the wait. Some are Muslim, some are/were just investigating it like me, but all are thoughtful and honest and have inspired me. I am so grateful to them for sharing their thoughts and giving me a chance to do the same, however much of a headache my questions must have given them. I doubt I would have come this far towards religion without them.

It wasn’t enough, though, to find religious role models and simply copy them. It felt intellectually dishonest to be picking and choosing which kind of Muslim I thought I might want to be. Ultimately I have had to investigate the religion, in as unbiased a way as I can, and work out what I thought it was really all about. As I have done this, the picture of Islam that has emerged is actually surprisingly different from the “textbook Islam” impression I had at the start. I’ve found reason to believe that what Islam is is something quite beautiful.

I must have always thought it was beautiful, or I wouldn’t have investigated it so much. Interestingly I think the “rules” were one of the things that pulled me in initially, along with the easy and natural spirituality that seemed to be at the core of a Muslim’s life. The rules and rituals seemed so helpful and sensible. But when people take them to rigid extremes and nit-pick over them, they lose a lot of their appeal. It turns out I don’t think they are even a core part of the religion for the most part, but a traditional practice, that is nevertheless useful and worthwhile. This is a subtle but significant distinction.

I know this puts me outside of the mainstream, and so far it’s non-Muslims that have needed this explaining more often. Who’d have thought I’d have non-Muslims telling me what Islam is? Since I never believed Muslims on what Islam is, and had to investigate it myself, I’m certainly not going to believe non-Muslims.

Anyway, so where has it brought me? There are always more issues to investigate, more questions to find answers to, and this is increasingly pushing me to research areas in which I am not qualified to do the job properly. I just cannot dig that deep. Where does it end? Is this even worthwhile past a certain point? Am I looking for definitive proof? Is that available? Probably not.

When and how will convictions turn into confident commitment? When and how will I be convinced to put my eggs in a basket and place a bet for my afterlife?

It is just my nature to be full of fear and doubt. And maybe what I’ve learnt about conquering other fears is relevant here. When you are afraid of flying, the wrong way to try to get rid of the fear is by trying to convince yourself that the plane is not going to crash. You look for reassurance, going deeper and deeper into flight mechanics and safety regulations, and there is no reassurance to be had, because there are just no guarantees that your plane is not going to crash. The right way to overcome the fear is to become comfortable with the UNCERTAINTY. You take sensible precautions like only booking with reputable airlines and paying attention to the safety instructions, and leave it at that. Relax and enjoy your flight and focus on the purpose of your travel.

My worrying over making a wrong choice has reached almost pathological levels. It’s funny how I can look at religious people and feel sure they’ve got nothing to worry about. To the person who’s afraid of flying, when someone else is taking a flight, it seems perfectly safe.

So I’m going to stop worrying and concentrate on the purpose of my travel – the kind of person I want to become. I will trust God to guide me, and get comfortable with doubt and uncertainty and not wish them away.

And I’ve noticed that my blog has become primarily a place for me to indulge my worries, so I need to take a little break from it. I think I will try to stay away for the whole month of December. Long enough to break the habit. I will miss it terribly, I’m sure! But a break seems to be the best thing.

So a Merry Christmas when the time comes, to those who celebrate… and I’ll see you in the New Year inshaAllah 😛

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Doubt

November 13, 2009 at 12:51 am (God, personal)

Do you ever have days where you don’t know if you believe in God?

Perhaps I am an emotional decision-maker after all, because when doubts come knocking, intellectual convictions aren’t enough to prop me up. Or maybe I am just suffering severe anxiety and the clouding of the rational mind that comes with that.

I am beginning to worry that questioning and digging deeper only destroys religious belief. I’ve already knocked out one faith through questioning and applying reason. Maybe there just isn’t a faith out there that can prove itself beyond all reasonable doubt to be just what it says on the tin.

But I can’t turn my back on my convictions, nothing makes sense otherwise. And part of my convictions is that religions are the result of God communicating with us and showing himself. So maybe I will just have to swallow the bitter pill of uncertainty.

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Worry

November 12, 2009 at 5:55 pm (Islam, personal, why I didn't convert to Islam)

“Great article. I found the tips on how to manage worry to be quite helpful. My favorite is letting go of needing to know and learn to be comfortable with uncertainty.”

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=why-we-worry

There are many things I could worry about. But it’s always religion that gets it.

This just seems to happen episodically. It happened about 3 weeks ago, and I see that it happened a month before that too.

When it happens, I feel as if I am about to have to abandon all my beliefs, however rational and deep the convictions, over a little issue that throws it all into question. Like now it’s Muhammad’s marriage to Zainab, and last month it was the fact that the Quran appears mostly addressed to men. I forget what it was the month before that.

These little issues just cast an enormous shadow of doubt over everything else that I’ve become convinced about, and send me into a spiral of anxiety. Maybe this is a totally inordinate response. Maybe I need to learn to let go of needing to know everything, and be comfortable with the uncertainty.

I want to go and buy that issue of SciAm Mind so I can find out what causes this. Either it means something is seriously wrong with my approach to religion, or this is a personal trait of mine (or perhaps a particular way that I respond to the general uncertainty in my life). I don’t think I ever doubted this severely in the past, but then, back at age 18-21 I was a lot more courageous and flexible and not so worried about a lot of things.

Maybe what this means is that I still haven’t established an emotional conclusion about the question of religion. The emotions only come in when I worry and doubt, and I can’t calm them with the experience of better emotions. I am not getting an emotional conviction, just an intellectual one.

The negative emotions pass and then the urgency to seek an answer to the question dissolves as well. Because when I break out of the spiral and calm down, it doesn’t seem such a threatening thing. It would be easier to force myself out of the spiral if I had previously arrived at a conclusion that I was determined to hold onto. But I am still in a mentality of making my mind up. I don’t want to cast any questions out of my mind. I think all questions are valid. I even question whether there is ever a reason to feel sure of anything, or to commit to a belief or a way of thinking.

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At this point in my life

October 31, 2009 at 11:52 pm (personal)

Done so many things wrong
I don’t know if I can do right
Done so many things wrong
I don’t know if I can do right

At this point in my life
I’ve done so many things wrong
I don’t know if I can do right
If you put your trust in me
I hope I won’t let you down
If you give me a chance
I’ll try

You see it’s been a hard road, the road I’m traveling on
And if I take your hand I might lead you down the path to ruin
I’ve had a hard life, I’m just saying it so you’ll understand
That right now, right now, I’m doing the best I can
At this point in my life

At this point in my life
Although I’ve mostly walked in the shadows
I’m still searching for the light
Won’t you put your faith in me
We both know that’s what matters
If you give me a chance
I’ll try

You see I’ve been climbing stairs but mostly stumbling down
I’ve been reaching high, always losing ground
You see I’ve conquered hills, but I still have mountains to climb
And right now, right now, I’m doing the best I can
At this point in my life

Before we take a step
Before we walk down that path
Before I make any promises
Before you have regrets
Before we talk commitment
Let me tell you of my past
All I’ve seen and all I’ve done
The things I’d like to forget
At this point in my life

At this point in my life
I’d like to live as if only love mattered
As if redemption was in sight
As if the search to live honestly
Is all that anyone needs
No matter if you find it

You see when I’ve touched the sky
The earth’s gravity has pulled me down
But now I’ve reconciled that in this world
Birds and angels get the wings to fly

If you can believe in this heart of mine
If you can give it a try
Then I’ll reach inside and find and give you
All the sweetness that I have
At this point in my life
At this point in my life

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Giving thanks

October 25, 2009 at 11:35 am (moral issues, personal, religious practices)

I sometimes think my attraction to religion is an attraction to an alternative me that I want to be. A me that gets up at the crack of dawn to pray, is calmly spiritual, devotedly faithful, peacefully mature. The real me has always fallen far away from that. The real me is stricken with worry, lurching from one crisis of faith to another, getting overwhelmed and losing all resolve. I am kidding myself if I think that I’m going to arrive at faith, make a commitment, and then it’ll be plain sailing. (Bear with me, there’s a positive coming 😉 )

This week for example, I don’t even know what’s happened, but after making strides with establishing a prayer routine, and even stepping out in hijab last weekend, it somehow became a real struggle. It might have something to do with other big stresses this week. I lost confidence, I lost patience. I guess I have been back at where I was when I stopped going to church – feeling like a victim and wondering why God doesn’t care. Astaghfirullah!

I need to drop any expectations of a quick fix. I am not going to get a personality transplant by starting to pray. I am not going to instantly have a deep knowledge of God. These things take practice. I really should stop thinking in black and white, stop pressuring myself, stop hating what I am. Otherwise I will be right back to resenting all religious obligations.

This is exactly applicable to other aspects of my life too. I resent work obligations, for example. I am just someone who worries about getting it right, and secretly strives and agonises, to the point of exhaustion and loss of hope and loss of care.

I DON’T WANT TO BE A NEGATIVE PERSON.

I DON’T WANT TO BE A DRAMA QUEEN.

I DON’T WANT TO BE PERPETUALLY UNHAPPY.

I know how I want to be, what the right way to be is. But perhaps I can only move towards it by first accepting what I am now.

The best idea I had yesterday was to begin by “counting my blessings” as the saying goes. It just dawned on me that by being negative and unhappy and always wanting things to change, I am being really ungrateful for the good things in my life, of which there are many. How sad would it be to get everything I wanted and then realise that I still didn’t know how to appreciate it. Life is short, too short to wait to enjoy it. Giving thanks might be the best way to connect with God and foster humility. Rather than trying to force myself to not care about the things of this life, I will work on mentally connecting them with their Source.

Just a small step to take, but small steps are probably all I can manage. I am interested to see where it may take me.

Likewise, there would seem to be many positive things about me in my work that I am completely sabotaging by being so negative. I have enslaved myself to “perfection”, disrespecting the natural characteristics God has made me with because of my fear of man’s judgment. I will try and start to remind myself of my strengths and attribute everything to God.

Any advice is appreciated… and don’t mince your words… sometimes I need a verbal slap 😉

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Feeling far from God

October 22, 2009 at 12:14 pm (personal)

I’m not sure how it can be that after so much thinking about God, I feel not very close to God. I feel like I don’t really know God… don’t have a clear picture of God… it has all been academic so far and not very personal… and so I don’t feel much towards God.

I mean, I know God is infinite mercy, and I should feel grateful to God for life and the chance to avail myself of that mercy… but I don’t. I know I should want to surrender myself to God, but I just don’t really understand what that means. I can think of lifestyles that are not surrendered to God, and I know I don’t want that, but mainly because I see it as bad for a person. I don’t see my choice of lifestyle as being an act of worship, or even much related to God. I suppose I should at least thank God that I’ve been guided away from some badness. I just find it hard to see God in it.

I know I can not be perfect, but I think I’m not very aware of my sin. So I don’t have much of a sense of needing to let go of things in surrender to God. One thing I am aware of is that I am fairly attached to the dunya (world), I worry about money and housing and children and even my retirement. Maybe I need to let go of that. Very hard though… I don’t entirely have faith that things will be “okay”, I don’t entirely trust God, and I certainly don’t trust myself to cope and remain faithful if things go “wrong”. This is a long-standing problem of mine.

Maybe this is what surrendering to God is about, then. Maybe I need to deepen my faith and knowledge of God to get there. It’s interesting that praying has brought me to these thoughts – maybe it is starting to work after all.

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