I thought twice about discussing this. Sometimes, people seem offended when I talk about my faith, as though I might try to spring a conversion talk on them at any moment. Some people are apatheists or anti-theists and view all faith talk as unnecessary at best and dangerous at worst. This post is not for them. (In fact, none of these posts are for them – I’m writing all of these posts for myself.)
Some Muslims believe that all babies are born Muslims and that some of them merely change faiths as they grow older. I am not one of these people. However, long before I had a name for God, I felt a larger presence in the universe – something bigger than me, something watchful, something kind. I did not have a name for it – indeed, I did not have names for many things yet – but I knew it was there. When I was a bit older and my parents told me that presence was called God and He created the universe, it was as though I was being told something I already knew. It was old news.
To be a Muslim means many things to many people. I cannot speak to their experiences, only mine. I cannot tell you what it means to be a Muslim in Riyadh or a Muslim in Kuala Lumpur or a Muslim in Islamabad. I can’t even tell you what it means to be a Muslim in Townsville, Queensland, Australia, unless the Muslim in question is me. There are very few concepts and beliefs that are universal to all Muslims – as a group, we are scattered, diverse, often at war with each other just as much as we are at war with the outside.
But I will start with the universal concepts. “Islam” is an Arabic word that means “peaceful surrender to Allah”; a “Muslim” is one who has surrendered. From this basic starting point we extrapolate an entire faith, one that has many faces, many voices. One thing we all believe: that there is one God, and that Muhammad was His messenger (though I object to the use of “He” for Allah, who is always rendered gender-neutrally in Arabic). “Allah” is not the name of our god but rather an Arabic word meaning “the one God” – the same God worshipped by Christians, by Jews and by others who prefer to eschew labels.
Broadly speaking, I am a kind of Muslim called a Sunni, and more specifically a member of the Hanafi school like my parents. Hanafis believe in reason over precedent, in logic over the judgements of dead scholars. That said, I doubt many Hanafis would rush to claim me as one of their own; indeed, my own family hesitates to do so sometimes, so radical are some of my views. There are people who would call me a heretic, even a blasphemer, for my acceptance of other faiths as valid pathways to eternal peace and happiness. I would question whether those people read the same Qur’an I did, where Allah explicitly stated that non-Muslims would be granted entrance into Heaven and that it was not the place of any Muslim to judge who did and did not deserve admittance. But I digress.
There was a time in my life when I thought I would not remain a Muslim. As a teenager, frustrated by the doctrinaire approach to faith I saw practiced by many around me, I felt distanced from Islam, a relative stranger to it. I wondered if there was a place in Islam for someone like me, someone who thought the spirit of the law was more important than the letter, someone who wondered about things like inheritance laws and how they could be re-interpreted in the 21st century. My teenage years were a crossroads – I found myself questioning what I’d been taught, wondering why people were so insistent on me believing what they told me to believe without thinking about it.
I did the only thing that made sense – I decided to turn to God, the presence I had always felt in my life, for answers.
I read the Qur’an in English, re-read parts of it. Then I read it in Arabic. Then I read my father’s books on religious instruction that he’d been insisting that I pick up in place of the fantasy novels I tended to favour. I read and I read and I read, and I came to my own conclusions. And mostly, what I concluded was that a lot of what I’d been taught was bullshit.
Islam wasn’t about restricting the freedoms of women – it was about protecting them, and it was a lot more permissive than I’d ever been led to believe. Islam wasn’t about doctrine and dogma – it was about living freely and happily, about willingly giving one’s life in service to God. Islam wasn’t about hatred of outsiders, but rather about accepting that God loved us all equally, in ways that transcended our understanding of the word “love”, and it was up to us to accept that love into our lives. Islam wasn’t about judgement – it was about forgiveness, leniency, mercy. The more I read, the more I found examples of our Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) judging others lightly and preaching forgiveness over punishment. I found that God hadn’t commanded me to live joylessly, but to live a life of love and compassion, to reach out to others and live God’s love through my actions.
My father made something of a judgemental error by commanding me to study my faith. By doing so, he hoped I would find things to reinforce what I had been taught all of my life, things that would make me a more obedient daughter, a meeker Muslim. What happened couldn’t have been further from what he planned. In Islam, I found freedom from preaching, from dogma, from rules designed to keep me quiet and subservient and unquestioning. I found a voice and a purpose, I realised that I was here, in this place, at this time, to do as much good as I could for as many people as I could, in whatever way I could – even if those ways weren’t the ways others had envisioned for me.
Islam freed me. It made me more confident in myself and my abilities. It gave me a sense of my own worth and my place in the world that I’d never had when my life consisted of following other people’s rules.
I love God, as the commandment goes, with all my heart, and all my soul, and all my mind. I live that love every day in my interactions with my fellow human beings. That is the great gift Islam has given me – through my surrender to God, I have found love and peace and happiness.
There are many ways in which I disagree with traditional Islamic teachings. At a later date, I might talk about some of them and why I believe the Qur’an supports the way I live my life as well as the way other people choose to live theirs. But that is another talk, for another time.
I am Jay, a Muslim. I believe that there is no God but God, and that Muhammad is God’s messenger. Islam has freed me and helped me become the person I am today. I am eternally grateful.