I’m a Muslim in a Western society.
At this point of my life, I don’t wear the hijab, and I listen to all sorts of music. I swear occasionally, I swim competitively, and I celebrate my birthday. I don’t fast regularly during Ramadan, and I don’t pray five times a day.
So… am I a Muslim living in a Western society?
Or am I merely a Canadian, who has grown up as a cultural Muslim?
I’m so grateful for the many privileges I have. I live in Vancouver, B.C., which is an incredibly expensive and considerably affluent place. I have access to education, and the freedom to walk around in a tee-shirt and jeans. I’m allowed to be controversial, and I don’t rationally fear that I will be killed for my expression; whether it be music, writing, or speaking, I know that if I was attacked, I would be able to be resilient.
However, along with this privilege of freedom, comes the struggles of freedom as well. Morally and religiously, I have been taught to live a certain way. The instructions are given, not always clearly, in the Quran. To truly connect with God and to be a good Muslim, I apparently need to cover my head. I need to pray five times a day, read the Quran in Arabic, and devote myself to Allah in that context, as well as in other areas of my life. Islam, after all, means to submit to God. Freedom only goes so far.
The problem lies in the fact, however, that I cannot bear to do all of this.
The lifestyle that chases me conflicts with the lifestyle ingrained inside of me. Living with music, competitive swimming, and many other things that would traditionally be frowned upon in Islam, has shaped me and made me authentically myself. I know that to abstain from everything and everyone that I’ve grown to love, would destroy my life. Personally, just thinking about following through with Ramadan fasting, scheduled prayer, and every rule that comes with the label of “Muslim” exhausts me. I cannot continue trying to shape myself into this mold. Because of this, I haven’t felt hopeful, or lifted, or loved; I’ve numbed my emotions, and my connection to religion has felt lost.
Up until a few days ago, I’d seemingly lost the Muslim in me. I had no will to read the Arabic without understanding a word of it, and to be quite honest, I hadn’t felt a connection to God in years. The five pillars of Islam, although obligatory, were not a priority to me at all. I was tired, and sad.
I had lost faith.
That is, until I went to church.
I don’t usually open up to the people around me about my religious struggles, mostly because I didn't want to deal with responses that could be insensitive. I guess people can surprise you, though. I was at a low point in my life, and talked to a friend who then invited me to a youth worship session. I was hesitant at first, but after doing a bit too much research, I accepted that attending an Evangelical Christian worship event wasn’t a betrayal towards my religion, or towards God. The intention behind participating in this event was important, and for me, the intention was to find my God again.
Naturally, I felt like an absolute outlier at first. I was the only brown person in the room, and I think that the feeling of being an outcast was warranted. However, when the session was about to begin, people began to ask me to sit with them. Everybody was so nice and happy; they didn’t look tense at all. The atmosphere was contagious, and as we continued to sing, I started to feel more comfortable. People gave empowering testimonies, and said prayers.
As we neared the end of the music session, I felt genuinely happy for the first time in quite a while. I felt a force that was bigger than me. Singing with youth who believed in their faith passionately made me realize what I was missing; the genuine love of God. All of the people surrounding me truly loved their God, and knew that He loved them. I had never truly had that connection before with Allah. Worship was always a chore to me, and God had always been an abstract concept, with no real emphasis on the impact He was supposed to have on our lives. With these people, God loved them; with me, God would love me too, as long as I covered my head, ate halal food, prayed to him at specific times in the day, fasted for a month, and didn’t celebrate my birthday.
In that church, music connected me to God. It made me realize that as a possessor of certain freedoms in a Western world, the traditions of Islam were not going to help me keep my personal faith. I could read every single word of Arabic in the Quran and ultimately decide not to attempt to comprehend it. I could pray at 3:25am with the sole intention of doing it as fast as possible, in order to get back into bed right away. This would not only hinder my connection with God, but also discourage me from practicing the religion. It wouldn’t empower me, and it wouldn’t give me the strength I had forever been searching for.
In my humble and somewhat controversial opinion, religion shouldn’t be about following the rules. It shouldn’t be about feeling God’s wrath if you cannot do what is expected of you. Religion is about faith, and connection to something that has the ability to lift you. I personally could not connect to Allah as a devout follower of the Quran, and there shouldn’t be any shame associated with that (although I’ll still potentially experience family backlash towards this piece). To connect with Allah moving forward, I plan to read the English translations of the Quran. I plan to pray with my heart, and really speak to Allah; the compassionate, and the merciful. I plan to worship God in a way that truly allows me to communicate with Him. I want to love Allah.
So what does that make me? Am I a Muslim in a Western society?
Or am I a member of a Western society, who grew up as a cultural Muslim?
Is my plan to find Allah a sin in and of itself?
Maybe the real question we should all be asking ourselves, is why we insist on labelling and categorizing our journeys, when they are all unmistakably unique.