Tuesday, May 24, 2011

I Cannot be a Muslim and Not Think

As salaam alaikum,

So, I don't think I really talked about this at all, but as you know, the followers of the ministry Family Radio were expecting to experience "rapture" this weekend--and it didn't happen. The head of Family Radio, Harold Camping, told a San Francisco newspaper that he was "flabbergasted." In the meantime, hundreds of his followers prepared to ascend to Heaven, selling their worldly belongings, including their homes, removing their children from school, spending their life's savings on billboards and subway posters warning non-believers of Judgment Day--May 21, 2011.

By May 22, 2011, no one was raptured. Some Family Radio congregants say that it's a test from God, and that the world will still end on October 21 this year. Others are very disillusioned because they didn't have a schema for this not being real. My mother listens to "Coast to Coast" radio that broadcasts from LA, and I heard this heartbreaking story about a young man who had been Atheist and started reading the Bible, converted to Christianity and later became a follower of Harold Camping. On the show, he was perfect in his loyalty to Camping and believed in his prophecy without question.

When the host asked this young man what he would do if he weren't raptured the next day, the man said he had no answer, because it didn't fit with his beliefs.

It was heartbreaking only as a believer in God to see someone actively seeking God and yet still falling astray, bound to be disillusioned.

I didn't joke about Judgment Day just because I don't think Judgment Day, death or either side of the Afterlife is anything to joke about. I could be joking about Judgment Day, choke on a pretzel, then die and then it's my Judgment Day...

...okay, so I don't joke about it, but a little bit of sarcasm and dark humor may manifest itself.

But in all seriousness, the last day for any of us can come really at any time. I'm aware of this every day. I sit in a house (I'm at my parents house right now) that uses gas for heating and cooking. There could be a sudden gas leak and I could explode as I'm writing this, along with all of my family's earthly possessions, and that could be it. Of course, I pray not! I pray for God to deliver me through each day and if I ever forget to pray, Allah (swt) has a plan greater than my own and He has preserved me, alhamdulillah!

So May 21 could have been my last day, so I didn't joke about it. Especially if...if we humans were to know God's plan and know the time and the hour as this Family Radio dude claimed to, even if we had time to prepare, how many of us would be ready?

I used to, even more than I do now, live every day of my life like it were my last. I strived toward Allah (swt) and His straight path so hard, with all of my might, with as much speed and haste as I could just so I could be ready, because I felt so far from ready. Every day, I wasn't good enough. Every day, I lamented not memorizing more suwar in the Qur'an, not speaking Arabic, not doing more supraregulatory prayers, not praying more in jamaah...

But I was doing it all alone, so it didn't work. And now I'm here, as I am now, not quite like I was before I became a practicing Muslimah, but not like I was at the height of my fervor.

And thinking back to those times when I strived toward Allah (swt) like every day was my last and as if, if I decelerated, I would surely go to Hell...I see how the followers of Harold Camping could believe as much as they did in the May 21 Judgment Day, and I really feel for their disillusion.

I'm not saying that I was wrong in trying to live my life the way that I did. No. It was a very pure time in my life, and I was probably better for it. I just think that--a lot of us (human beings) want so hard to find the straight way, to find the truth of things, and we can put our faith in a lot of places, some misguided, some prudent, some wise, and we can just run and run toward that place and lose foresight and peripheral vision and end up in a place we don't want to be, that is actually not helping us serve or approach God the way we envisioned, and then we end up lost in disillusion for a while.

Who knows what's going on with the young man who used to be Atheist who is now disillusioned because he was not raptured?

My mother stopped listening to one stream of her radio show because an Atheist had gotten on and was talking about his book about why people believe in everything from ghosts to God. She doesn't listen to anything that goes counter to her faith in God and Islam. And I just thought about it, and to some people, I'm as crazy as the Family Radio followers, the Heaven's Gate congregants, the people who preach on the streets. To them, I'm a fool to follow a text that is more than 1400 years old, to follow a god that I can't see, when really life is a cosmic accident. Life is a bitch and then you die, and I call myself an educated person, in medical school, going to be someone's doctor, and I believe in ancient, Middle Eastern fairy tales, fables and legends.

Or, as my mother has summed up the sentiment, this life is an accident, "and by the way, you came from a monkey."

I love a lot from the Qur'an. A lot of what I love from the Qur'an I learned from my mother, who has read the Qur'an (albeit in English) more times than anyone I know. When I was a kid, she used to be able to quote suwar for each situation, and she used to read things to my brother and I. My brother still remembers the song she made up for disbelievers--singing and dancing in a conga line, singing, "Ain't no fire," or rather, "Ain't no fi-YAH!" Man, that stuck in my head so much that to this day, I was just at a party with friends and we formed a spontaneous conga line and my heart stopped a little, because I likened dancing in a conga line to being a disbeliever.

Anyway, as an adolescent and adult, one of the suwar my mother reminded me of was one about Satan. After Satan was cast down by Allah (swt) and He gave Satan a respite, Satan, upset, resolved the following:

"He said: 'Because thou hast thrown me out of the way, lo! I will lie in wait for them on thy stright way: Then I will assault them from before them and behind them, from their right and their left: Nor wilt though find, in most of them, gratitude (for they mercies)." (7:16-17).
Satan comes from all directions. I think I've cited this before, but I like it a lot. Some of us err on the sides of extremes. Those of us who believe in God sometimes err on the side of religious conservatism in an effort to make sure that we are doing the right thing, pleasing to God, whatever constructs our theologies outline. Others of us err on the side of religious liberalism or atheism, rejecting what seems rigorous, nonsensical or unjust, believing deep down that life has to be about more than ritual and banking on a merciful God or cosmic grace.

I believe both approaches approach belief and God in too simplistic a manner and we miss out on meaningful nuance and, more importantly, place ourselves in a precarious position with regards to Satan. He's there on the left, and he's there on the right. The sins of a fundamentalist are no better or worse than the sins of a non-believer. One who kills someone in the name of God is no better than the gangster who kills someone in the name of all mighty dollar.

The middle path is not easy, because I don't believe there to be a single middle path, just the same as I don't believe there to be a singular right way to approach God. Of course, I wouldn't be Muslim if I didn't believe that Islam were the right way, but I argue that I wouldn't be a good Muslim if I didn't recognize that not all of those who call themselves Muslims are actually following Islam, the form above human interpretation, as it is intended to be followed, and there are some non-Muslims who are closer to Islam than some of them will ever know.

Why wouldn't I be a good Muslim if I didn't know this to be true? Because then I wouldn't be thinking, and in this life, we are told by God, there are messages for people who think. I can't be a Muslim and not think.

I cannot be a Muslim and not think. This phrase goes so far. Throughout the Qur'an, God talks about messages for those who think. And beyond the specific examples given in the Qur'an, life deals us so many messages such that if we just thought, we'd arrive at the answer.

I cannot be a Muslim in the United States and not think. I have to be on my toes, sorting out the halal and haram and improvising in a society where even native Muslims seem immigrant and Islam is alien. I have to think and challenge for myself the challenge to my faith that I encounter almost on a daily basis, from people throwing ahadith in my face to atheists smearing my religion to Muslim being made synonymous with terrorist in the media. If I did not think, surely I would have been led away from Islam to the vapid nature of the secular masses.

I cannot be a Muslim woman and not think. Women are subjugated in my society and women are subjugated in some Muslim societies. On either extreme encouraged to be skin tight, all bearing ornaments and or we're covered and hidden as if our existence is shameful. Neither extreme is right, and Satan is before and behind us. I have to think hard about what I wear every single day, and what it means in my society, as a Muslim woman, as God's creation: am I respecting myself, am I honoring the woman that God made me? Or am I answering to men, mankind, other women included, and what they expect of me? If I didn't think, I would surely dress differently depending on who was around me, every day.

I cannot be an black Muslim and not think. I read the last sermon of the Prophet (saw), I read those suwar of the Qur'an that talk about how we were made different people so we could learn from each other, and that is why I came into Islam. I was a child, but this was a sign for me because I thought, and I though, wow, a religion that speaks to troubles of our times, even though these things were spoken so long ago, it resonates now. Language of black and white, like now. This was a message for us, in the United States with our racial fixation. This is a religion that transcends race. And if I didn't think when I was a child, and if I didn't think now, I would have abandoned Islam long ago because of the way that some Muslims practice it, or rather the way that they exclude based on race and ethnicity, the way that they discriminate based on race and ethnicity, because I would be discouraged that this beautiful religion that my mother raised me in didn't really exist.

But I think, therefore I am. Muslim. I cannot be an Igbo Nigerian Muslim and not think because if I did not think, I would convert to Christianity because my people are Christians and the Muslims of the north had once been our enemy. I cannot be a Muslim scientist and not think because no one teaches science in the name of God, so there are a lot of truths and theories that I reconcile with my faith whenever I face them. I cannot be a Muslim physician and not think or else I would not be humbled by my practice and I'd fall into a fatal god complex that would do neither me or my patients any good.

I cannot be a Muslim and not think, or else I would start disbelieving a little bit every day until there was nothing left.

Islam is being demonized, and though it's painful to see non-Muslims and Muslims alike crapping on my faith, it is only meant to fortify us. For those of us who think, who reason and this is how we arrived at Islam as our way of life, the naysaying voices and forces that come from all directions, bombard us every day are small challenges that get us to the other side of the day with our faith strengthened for the next blow, and the next, until insha'Allah we'll approach God with a faith so strong that when the distraction of this world is removed, we'll be closer to Him than we imagined we could attain!

No, I don't know the day or the hour, and any of ours could be at any time. But though we should defend Islam and believers, in this spiritually turbulent time that we're living, instead of predicting the end of times because things seem so bad and because Islam is demonized or anything, let's focus on how we respond to blows to faith. Maybe that blow knocks us back on a more moderate path, back onto the straight way...maybe that blow knocks us back to the ground, humility. Maybe that blow knocks us away from Satan. Maybe they're not blows but little pinches, reminders, so we can answer with our heads high not with pride, but in reverence of the Creator...
This is our time, no less meaningful because we may not be at the end of times. Challenges abound, but if our way is true, facing these challenges to our faith is purposeful, meant to make us stronger.

So I don't disagree with the Family Radio followers who think their faith is being tested by God. You're probably right, dudes. Search long and deep, and maybe you'll find the answer, and live every day approaching God, seeking refuge in his grace and mercy like it's the last instead of banking on knowing the day.

I pray that God leads me the straight way, and that I do not misrepresent my faith. After all, I cannot be a Muslim and not pray, either.

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