Wednesday, 1 February 2012

It began at 14! ...

Yesterday marked a full 15 years since my reversion to Islam! Its hard to believe, and feels somehow significant. 15 years, that is, since the day I read my shahada, formally! In truth, I probably accepted the faith a long time before this date, and the day itself was a sort-of inadvertent formality! Talking to Reza about it, I realised that though I’ve posted allot about changing faith, I’ve not referred much to this day; and perhaps not even reflected enough on the years that have followed! These 15 years feel significant because, whatever is to come in my life ahead I doubt it will contain the colour, the fast pace, the energy, passion and diversity of these 15 years; the older you get, the less you want chaos, the more you strive for some degree of certainty. Things that mattered to me in my younger days, seem to matter less now, and things I never thought I’d crave for, suddenly swell in their importance! A failed marriage, career changes, homelessness, ill health, trauma, faith (or lack there of), questions, crisis, happiness, sadness, love and tears, all have filled this space, the absurdity not unlike the day itself! A group of girls, who had welcomed me at radio Ramadhan, invited me to their home for dinner! I remember travelling from my home in white suburbia to their inner city apartment, coloured by excitement and trepidation. I climbed to the 4th floor of their building, passing Chinese women who sat outside their apartments peeling potatoes, and 2 African boys who were trying to ride their bikes down spiral stairs! The house, with a carved wooden ‘Allah sign on the door, greeted me formally. An old woman measured me from a great visual distance. As I drank tea in her kitchen, chatting about Islam and Hindi films in equal measure, I’m sure I was more of a curiosity for them than the redemption job they were doubtless seeking. I have always followed my intuition about life, so am not very eloquent when it comes to justifying my actions, plus, who has that level of eloquence at 14 to even begin articulating spiritual questions! All I knew was that Islam clicked; and made the most sense to me! That was good enough for me, and to this day, I don’t understand why people seek out so much more! There is only so far you can take faith reasoning in any case, after that point, you either believe, or you don’t! as we ate pizza in their front room, the questions grew, and so did the audience around me! I had no sense of anything unfolding, I didn’t even make connections when gifts of jewellery and headscarf’s were given to me! The girls asked me several times if I planned to accept Islam, which I did, maybe I already had, but ceremony was what they wanted, and after teaching me the ritual allusion, I was called before their father to recite the shahada, and pronounced a Muslim by the 20 strong contingent of women who fought each other to hug and congratulate me! I felt happy and bewildered, in the way you might do if you wake up too late and suddenly register that today is your birthday! I remember the group were attending a bangra protest that evening (back in the day the fundamentalists didn’t bomb each other, they objected to daytime bangra parties, as though eradicating Punjabi music from the streets of Glasgow might change the world!), and when I sample some of the modern offerings in that department, I wonder if they might have had a point! So, new headscarf ironed and safely pinned, I held up a ban the bangra banner, praying that no one from the Asian Radio Station where I worked happened to see me on such a 2-faced mission! I came, I converted, and I went home, not at all prepared or supported for the aftermath of protest I’d face at home! Had I known, I might have got more in line with the anti-bangra brigade! You might detect a degree of cynicism from the above lines, and that’s not my intension at all! This is my life after all, my journey, my story, the paths I chose and those which were pre-destined for me and me alone. Whether filled with laughter or drowned in tears, I don’t regret any of them, but reflection is an interesting thing, because for all we claim reluctance to say ‘If Only, the truth is that so many things could have been different in my case. 15 years on, I realise that I am the last in a dying breed; of men and women who came to Islam in groups and made it all alone, if we made it at all! So many quit their faith in the old days due to lack of support and a sense of belonging! We have more defined support structures now and, in theory, more of a revert community for the new and the lost to cling to, yet I wonder if you were to carry out a benefit analysis of the current system, just how much real change you’d be able to quantify. We have the theory, yet not the practise, we have huge numbers of reverts, yet they still cannot get married, cannot belong and more often than not, find more companionship in loneliness than in community! At 14, the community I craved acceptance in, taught me to fight, for a place to belong, for equality as a blind woman and from those who tried to separate me from my non-Muslim family. My parents taught me to fight too; for my faith; and for a sense of self which was from them, though not of them. Reconciling these 2 worlds is something I’ve never been able to do to this day, my life remains fragmented and disjointed, so that many of my relationships feel empty and insincere, because speaking Urdu doesn’t make you Pakistani, and having Scottish parents doesn’t make you a gori (at least according to the stereotypical notions of what a gori might be). I think its easy to become obsessed with puerile questions like; how many Muslims have both the qur’an and a Krishna statue in their house? how many people have ziyerats along with pink Floyd on their Mp3 players? And if these indirect confessions make me a hypocrite, then perhaps that is just another label for me to possess, either with pride, or indifference! I am grateful for the fact that in these 15 years I took my faith from its intuitive beginnings and translated it to something all my own. I lost it along the way, sometimes to myself and many times to my community, yet I never lost it completely. I don’t claim to be the best Muslim in the world, by any standards, but I do strive to be the best that I can be, and only I know what that means, or how that might evolve. Contrary to what I used to believe, I do know how to fake it, very well in fact! When I look at some blogs and twitter feeds I wonder if some people over play religion; ‘the convert doth protest too much! for stating popularly acknowledged facts/professions of faith can sometimes generate rank. It can also instil a sense of pride and assumed knowledge from both the revert and the admirer! ‘is he religious? …, obviously! Look at his twitter feed! In some ways its sad that something as uniquely personal and profound as faith is reduced to this, yet we have each played a part in generating it; and whether justified or not, I do take pride in the fact I can admit when I don’t know at least 30 rulings on the permissibility of joining prayers; or the fact that I still seek guidance when calculating zakat on jewellery, mortgages and the like. I don’t know how many Muslims there really are behind the books and the lectures, but behind every sincere, seeking heart there is surely a purified soul. If anyone had told me 15 years ago that I’d be where I am today, or that I’d hold even a fraction of the views I do, I’d never have believed you! Hailing from a closed extremist Christian/middle class upbringing, I had to struggle against Muslim extremists on the other side before I could find my own spiritual home, and that has taken some doing! I now look for questions to explore, rather than answers as I once did. The next 15 years look set to hold a completely new set of challenges; marriage, children, nest building. My feelings about these fluctuate between joy and imprisonment, happiness and foreboding. Anyone who knows me well, knows the context behind these remarks. I chose well when it came to marriage; and Allah (SWT) blessed me with more than I could have imagined! But Islamic culture is riddled with communities of people who believe that motherhood, femininity and domesticity are things that come naturally to women, a patronising belief with which I take issue! Women and converts are not homogenous! And my challenges are great! I will, Insha Allah, pass on a great many things to my children, and I can only pray they are positive for the most part! That said, I rejected faith when it was marketed to me, and I’m not sure I want to go for a generic sales pitch to my kids! I want to equip them with an understanding of faith as a necessity, as something elemental and pivotal to their existence, so that they can objectively explore how it manifests in other people; through churches, temples, mosques, music and meditation! If/when they return to Islam, I pray it is because they genuinely see its light, they choose to be there because it is the way, their only way; their path of choice and tranquillity! This looks a bit flowery and ethereal written down, but its one of the few things I am absolutely certain about! Inherited faith freaks me out! Too often it feels stale, like a well rehearsed family tree or a family fable held on to for far too long, with significant loss of context over the years! I know this might sound like a dig at born Muslims; its not meant that way! and I know that all families of faith do the best they can, but somewhere in the middle of these 15 years, I found myself, in between the support and the lack of support and the groups and the books and the solitude, all of it played a part! Preserving faith feels like it will be more of a challenge in the years to come than it was for me growing up. If ever you needed justification for not believing, not carrying on, it is now! Human nature is for the most part unrecognisable, and all manner of people from activists to terrorists and the silent majority try to give Islam their own stamp of truth as they see it. Preserving faith in this context, forces the believer inward, to a place of sanctity that doesn’t appear to exist in community any more! Its not for me to state whether this is good or bad, it is only for me; and for all of us to look ahead, carrying with us whatever feels light enough and sensible enough to take forward in to the future.
Last night marked another turning point; the end of our mourning, a conclusion upon Muharram and Safar for yet another year. As we prepare to enter a joyous, celebratory, spring type period within the Islamic calendar, we wonder if it is realistic to stop mourning? Will a time really come where we can stop crying? Where tears have no resonance or purpose in marking the tragedy of Karbala? I used to believe this was impossible, that to cry for all eternity was not enough, could never be enough, now my views somewhat vary. Tears have their place, but the challenge for contemporary shias is to know where the tears end and the work starts! Sayeda Zeynab (A.S) cried, but she also spoke out in the court of Yazeed! She began the legacy of azadari, but she maintained a family life when she returned to Medina! She cried, but worked for the Imam of her time, and she (A.S) marked the eid and the festivities, while never forgetting what she had witnessed! By my own admission, I have hidden behind these tears, as I have hidden behind the past. What is familiar is often easier to tolerate! There has to come a point where we evaluate and prioritise, and this post only scratches the surface of what that means! We wait; and we wait for Imam-E-Zaman (the imam of our time!), that is our time, not that of our parents, or that of our children! My challenges will differ from those of my parents before me, and my children ahead of me. Living in the present isn’t easy, it’s a balancing act between baggage from the past and priorities for the future! My years as a Muslim lay splayed out before me, sparkling ahead of those I spent in childhood and in searching, the needle is sharp, waiting to thread new strands of grey and gold through this tapestry of life. I’m here on the edge, almost ready, to jump!