Gender & Identity, Life

I shopped religion as if I were in a grocery store

I spent years unsatisfied with how Islam was being taught to me.

So I turned to Christianity – and then Judaism – to see if they were any better.

I went to mosque every single weekday until I was in high school. I prayed as many of the five prayers a day that I could. I wore a hijab to school.

I relished the fact that my mom and aunties would praise me for my religiosity at such a tender age. The pride that I would see in my traditional father’s eyes fueled my religious fervor. Everything I could do to be a better Muslim, everything I could learn about Islam was an opportunity to better myself as a Muslim.

But then I rebelled.

As I became a hardcore, punk rock fanatic, I started pushing away anything that required me to conform to the standards, whatever they may be. It was at this moment when everything that I didn’t like (or didn’t understand) about Islam came to the forefront, I rebelled against viciously.

I stopped praying. Even though the mosque was down the street from our house, I refused to go. My hijab was a forgotten memory. Ultimately, this helped me to realize that although I was performing the actions of being a Muslim, I wasn’t spiritually connected — and hadn’t been for a long time.

[bctt tweet=”The unanswered questions I grappled pushed me to hang up my prayer rug and hijab.”]

The unanswered questions I grappled with also aided in my hanging up my prayer rug and hijab. I had been taught that every non-Muslim was going to go to hell, and I didn’t understand because my best friends who were Christian were good people that didn’t deserve eternal hellfire. I confused cultural practices of treating boys differently from girls with religion, and the seeds of feminism that had started growing within me blamed Islam for it.

I didn’t like — or understand — certain prohibitions, so I did the best thing I could do for a mind that was barely at the teenager age: I gave up my religion.

But I didn’t give up on God.

Since I could remember, I always relentlessly showered my mom with theological questions. My mom says that at the tender age of five, I was already asking questions about God and life after death. I always believed in a higher power. So when I gave up on Islam, it meant that I needed to find a religion that worked for me the way that I wanted it to.

I had it in my mind that there was only one Absolute Truth, and I needed to find it.

I started by going to church.

My friend Heather, who was part of the youth church, was more than welcoming and introduced me to the other kids and made sure to pick me up every Wednesday night so we could attend the weekly youth meeting. I went on and off for a year or so, and every Wednesday night, I found a familiar confusion gripping my mind… one that felt oddly similar to the one that I felt when I finally had given up on Islam.

One particular night during the youth meeting, we were given an example that I could never forget.

Within the example, the pastor told us about how to choose our friends. The example was simple: a good student decided to befriend some “bad boys” and eventually fell off the track – basically he ended up a partying pothead or something. On the other hand, a “bad boy” decided to befriend some good students and ended up taking the place of the former studious boy in a scholarship run — and won it. This example, in turn, leads to a lesson about how friends will either lead you to heaven… or hell – and the takeaway was that only good, Christian friends could lead you to Jesus.

This sounded oddly similar to the “everyone who is not Muslim will end up hell”-bit I had heard an infinite amount of times.

Later came the gender barriers.

And then, finally, came the realization that I could never accept a former living human being as God or the son of God.

Afterwards, I wore the spiritual but not religious label for years before I came across someone who was a practicing Jew — someone who got me hooked on it.

[bctt tweet=”As I began the conversion process, three things made me realize I could never be Jewish.”]

Judaism, oddly enough, was extremely similar to Islam. and I look back and wonder if that was why I felt at home with it. Everything that I was taught about Judaism, I soaked up like a sponge. I was in college by this time, and I joined the Hillel and Israeli club and made tons of Jewish friends.

Most of them were highly accepting of my interest in conversion and encouraged me in my journey.

By then, I had declared religious studies as my second major and I took many classes that taught me about the different aspects of Judaism. I started celebrating the holidays. I went to synagogues around the area to get a better idea of what the community was like.

As I began the conversion process, there were three things happened simultaneously that made me realize that, try as I might, I could never be Jewish.

First, I started being attacked online and offline for being a former Muslim who wanted to become Jewish.

While one group of attackers would attack Islam and tell me that I was making the right choice by turning away from the murderous tradition, another group told me that there’s no such thing as a convert Jew. Since my mother was not Jewish, I could never be either, they said, and ultimately, I would always be a terrorist Muslim no matter how hard I tried not to be.

Second, I realized that the idea of covenant was ignoring my constant struggle to answer the question of what happens to good people who aren’t part of the “right” religion. If anything, it was further perpetuating the elevation of one group of people over the other for their faith – something I could not bear to believe.

Last, but not least, I started learning about Israel and the atrocities that the state has committed against the Palestinian people. When I spoke up against Israel’s actions, I was told that this was the reason why I could never be a real Jew.

After those experiences, I went back to my spiritual but not religious identity. I still had belief in God and a higher power, but I had given up in trying to find a religion that helped me bring myself closer to God. It was at this time that I learned about the concept of perennial philosophy and started believing that there wasn’t an Absolute Truth after all – that there were different avenues and paths to God for everyone.

I just hadn’t found mine yet.

[bctt tweet=”I started noticing how people looked at my mom in her shalwar kameez.”]

Then Islamophobia started to take hold — or rather, I finally started noticing it.

I started seeing it everywhere from posts on Facebook to graffiti in D.C. telling Muslims to go home. I overheard people in a restaurant, talking about Obama, his “Muslimness,” and what the Qur’an supposedly says about killing people.

I saw the glares people shot at a random hijab-wearing college student on the Metro.

I started noticing the way people looked at my mom in her shalwar kameez and dupatta draped over her head when we would go on our random shopping escapades.

Instead of letting it be — instead of not caring because I had rejected Islam so long ago — I started defending Islam.

I started extensively studying Islam, even studying it at the graduate level at Harvard Divinity School, to throw facts at the ignorant Islamophobes. With works from scholars Leila Ahmed to Omid Safi, I was armed to the teeth with books and facts to argue until I was blue in the face. I took classes to dissect the Qur’an and Islamic beliefs, to prove that Islam isn’t a religion of terrorism.

I changed the course of my career and set my goal of eventually attaining a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies.

The more I did this, the more the questions and ill feelings that I had grappled with long ago were being answered or put at ease. The more I read, the more I started to fall in love with Islam. The more I studied, the more spiritually fulfilled I became.

The more knowledge I acquired, the more I realized just how right Islam had been for me all along.

The more I read the Qur’an and the Hadith, the more I realized that Islam could totally fit the idea of perennial philosophy, as seen so clearly in the concept of the People of the Book.

I finally found the religious tradition that worked for me. Ironically, it had been the one I had been born into all along.

At first, I defended Islam, because it was the religion of my family and loved ones – and so many other innocent people. Then, I started defending Islam, because I wanted to prove Islamophobes wrong.

Today, I defend Islam, because it is my religious belief.