Belief 17 June 2008Posted by Ayesha Mattu in BARAKA, Spirituality.
I’ve known “Axx” since 1991, he was one of the first people I met at college. I had just been introduced to him when he asked if I too, like all the other desi women, was studying for a BM. When I inquired as to what that meant, he explained it was a Bachelor’s degree in Marriage.
At the tender age of 18, Axx had already mastered the art of putting his foot in his mouth and choking on the knee.
We became friends in spite of awkward beginnings and polar opposite views on the creation of Pakistan – a topic which can prevent people from becoming friends in the first place and has the potential to drive them apart once they are. Somehow over the years, we’ve found our way through even the most fierce disagreements.
Until I became practicing again.
Initially, this drove a wedge between us as Axx has very strong anti-all-religions views, much of it based on what his family experienced during Partition, and also on his experiences with those who mouth religious platitudes and then behave atrociously toward others.
I asked him at the time if my becoming practicing had made me a worse person and he admitted that it hadn’t. I told him that I believed it could only make me a better person, and that if that ever changed he should let me know.
I thought we had established a truce on the topic but while having lunch with him this past week it came up and he had a strong negative reaction again. It was the tail end of the meal and since he had to get back to law school he merely said, “People only believe in God out of fear of punishment or hellfire” before leaving.
When I was growing up, instead of focusing on the phrase Bismillah Ar-Rahman, Ar-Raheem (In the Name of God, the Most Merciful, the Compassionate) which precedes almost every sura (chapter) in the Qur’an – Islam was synonymous with “No” and left mercy unmentioned. Instead of a philosophy to adorn my life like living, growing, luminescent pearls full of depth, it was diminished to hard pellets with which to shoot all thoughts, questions, and desires down.
In my girls’ school we regaled each other with stories of punishment born of overheard tidbits, sheer nonsense, and the adolescent desire to scare the living daylights out of one’s peers:
If you have even one stray hair showing you’ll be hung from your breasts over an eternal hellfire. If you don’t wash out your menstrual pads now, your mouth will be stuffed with them then. If your husband doesn’t want you to wear a hijab you have to obey him or you’ll go straight to hell.
Each of the statements ended with the reassurance: I’m telling you, it’s totally true, yaar. Hell seemed a destination difficult to avoid as daily life was full of pitfalls dropping one straight into the Fire.
Islamiat class was mandatory in school, and, I’m sorry to say, the most boring subject offered, with Pakistan Studies a close second. It was almost as if the teachers purposely dug up the driest material possible in the hopes of alienating students from faith or patriotism completely. We rutofied (rote memorized) Qur’anic ayats and hadiths to regurgitate for tests but were neither asked questions nor encouraged to ask questions about the material. I remember absolutely no content of value from the five years I spent studying these subjects.
Until I was 19, I prayed, fasted, and followed the outward forms of Islam. I did so because my parents taught and encouraged me to by example. Most of my friends did too. I had an emotional attachment to Islam but no real understanding of it. Inside, I followed it unthinkingly and because I was desperately afraid of going to hell.
That all changed when I left Pakistan for college in the US. There followed years of distance from religion and God. I threw all that I had been brought up with into the air to see what stuck. Little did. I decided I didn’t believe. I chose to be happy instead of good and consistently took the easy path in any given situation.
Looking back, those were the darkest times of my life, spent groping for Light and believing I had found it when I came upon the sputtering torches of the world – even as they gave out, one by one.
My return to belief didn’t happen in any dramatic or philosophical way. In 1995, I was sitting on a porch in a post-industrial town in Massachusetts during one of the New England summers that I love. The breeze was blowing through a beautiful tree nearby. I closed my eyes and felt the warmth of the sun and wind, the sound of the tree and its leaves swishing, every sense alert, caressed, relaxed.
And suddenly I just knew He existed through every part of my spiritual, mental, and physical being. And I realized that there must be more to everything around me.
Perhaps my journey back started with my first step away, if that makes any sense. As Tariq Ramadan says in Western Muslims & the Future of Islam: ‘Someday we are bound to come back to the beginning. Even the most distant pathways always lead us inward, completely inward, into intimacy, solitude between our self and our self—in the place where there is no longer anyone but God and our self.
Go, travel the world, watch, look for truth and the secret of life—every road will lead you to this sense of initiation: the light, the secret, are hidden in the place from which you set out. You are on your way not toward the end of the road but toward its beginning; to go is to return; to find is to rediscover. Go! ….You will return.’
It hasn’t been a smooth journey back (or forward?). After my epiphany I meandered along, vacillating between practice and non-practice. Ten years on, I still feel as if I am at the beginning of the road and often at the roadside. I struggled with becoming more practicing with the nuanced, responsible, self-reflective, and conscientiousness living I believe it calls for, against the forks in the road where one must make the choice between ‘what is easy, and what is right’. As much as we are creatures that yearn for stimulation, we also battle change when it comes without our bidding, undermining our illusion of control and setting us on paths that challenge us to be our best selves consistently.
My relationship with Axx is sometimes that of deep friendship, and sometimes an uneasy truce. I value the fact that he pushes me to think about things I take for granted. His statement made me reflect deeply on why I believe. Although threats of punishment and unquestioning faith kept me in line during childhood, they weren’t enough to nourish me and keep me engaged as an adult.
I pray now, but I haven’t stopped thinking or asking this time. I simply don’t believe that is what we are called to do. The outward forms of Islam are in place, and, for the first time, there is an inner dimension too.
Axx, I do not believe because I fear hell.
I believe because, for me, creation resounds of Him. Everywhere I look I see signs of His beauty, mercy, and infinite variety – in the crescendo of waterfalls, the fragrance of jasmine, the brightness of parrot wings, the sweet tartness of pomegranates, and the softness of violets. I am overwhelmed by Him in the people I meet and the experiences I have, both good and bad have much to teach. I am graced by Him through my husband, family, friends, and community. He suffuses and surrounds me at every turn.
Simply, I want to know this Creator – this Fashioner of beauty, the Maker of this intricate universe, the Bringer of light and meaning to the world and to my life. I am intrigued by and curious about Him and have chosen a path, Islam, to try and learn more, to come closer. And the more I reflect on His signs all around us, the more I learn, read, think, and experience – the more I desire Him.
Looking back on the days when I was distant from belief I know that nothing and no one could have convinced me otherwise then. I feel the same way now. Faith is a funny thing and we all have it, whether we term ourselves believers or not. We are unshakable in our faith in God, science, nature, the free market – whatever it is that we hold onto to give meaning to our lives or to make sense of the universe around us.
I’ve seen the same burning fervor in the eyes of those at a Deen Intensive as I have in a roomful of Wharton students – both listening to those whom they believe hold the truth that will transform their lives (or afterlives). Beyond a certain point, faith is inexplicable.
Shaykh Hamza Yusuf said in one of his lectures that an atheist and a believer can never convince each other of their point of view because everything they see around them confirms their individual beliefs of the nonexistence or existence of God. When I speak with Axx and reflect on the way we each see the world I feel that this is true. It doesn’t preclude mutually respectful or thought-provoking conversations but it does mean that there is a line beyond which we do not understand each other.
And that’s okay, for as humans we are ultimately alone. We can never fully reveal ourselves to or fully know another. If satiation was possible in this world it would quench the restlessness that keeps us questioning, seeking and striving, that keeps us engaged in the lifelong search for the ultimate Unity.
Why do you believe in what you do?
Originally published in Rickshaw Diaries, November 2005.