(inspired after finding Dr. Lang’s book hidden behind a stack of Foucault — and just some musings flying in-between meetings and the commute home)
When I was an impressionable, young convert I wore my Islam on my sleeve. Before hijab, I’d openly play with my “Allah” necklace and pepper my conversations with recognisable “Muslim” catchphrases in the hopes that I’d be questioned about my faith, just so I could tell others about the awesomeness of Islam.
Then when I became a hijabi, I became a quiet activist working with the Muslim Student Association organising events to bring “Muslims on the margins” into the religious fold. I spoke passionately about my conversion at lectures, worked at establishing interfaith dialogue, and helped promote Islam by handing out easily digestible pamphlets on “Women in Islam,” “Science in Islam,” and “Misconceptions in Islam” every Islamic Awareness Week.
Believing that conversion magically imbued me with education in religious matters (something that came much later with years of actual study, and really, is ongoing), people turned to me for religious advice – seeking my knowledge on shaking hands with unrelated men, fasting for repentance, how to date a Muslim the “halal way,” or the permissibility of saying “Merry Christmas” to non-Muslims. I’d do my research online or delve into pamphlet Islam to find quick and easy answers – never once thinking to question sources or actively try to understand the impact that my advice would have on people. Why would I? These sources are sound – from pious, well-meaning Muslims who know better than me.
There was no problem telling people to avert their gaze from the opposite sex, that “hell is hotter” when struggling with the requirements of hijab, and that sex segregation made perfect sense in God’s grand scheme of maintaining chastity and encouraging the sexes to fulfill their “natural” duties and talents. I was more than happy to say that Islam guarantees the rights of women, JUST because the Prophet gave more rights to 7th century women (thousands of years before Western women got the right to vote! Because that comparison means something tangible?). Those who subjugate women today are just not following Islam and aren’t real Muslims. End of story.
No one was being hurt. No one (of any real importance) was being excluded. Those who wanted to be among the faithful all followed the same mentality — Muslims were a highly religious, homogenous group and I was high on faith that God was giving me the strength to do what was necessary to fulfill the Divine will. Life was awesome! My faith and love of Islam soared.
Until two things happened.
The first was waking up to the fact that I was one of two sisters who actively participated at the mosque on campus. When I first converted we were a huge cohesive group of students, men and women, Sunni and Shi’a, all sharing the same space – worshiping, learning and celebrating together. But over the course of a year, a more conservative feel (*shudder* I dislike using a term filled with baggage, but I don’t know what else to call it) entered the Muslim Student Association and a barrier was erected for prayer, sex segregation for events was imposed on the non-Muslims who attended, a Shi’a/Sunni scandal erupted when a collection of turbah prayer stones were thrown out and then women were slowly shut out of any real decision making. In fact: decisions like erecting the barrier for the purposes of maintaining our feminine chastity were made without our consultation.
But there I was, with one other sister, sitting behind a barrier during Ramadan – listening to the 50+ brothers on the other side shouting and laughing and enjoying a real community, enjoying the talk given by a special guest and praying together in solidarity. The two of us were silenced. Barely speaking to each other over the boisterous men, and completely unable to ask questions during the special talk.
The “Muslims on the margins” were no longer welcome and I began to scrutinize the reasoning behind every fatwa and pamphlet on which I had built my Islamic knowledge – shaking my head in shame at some of the ridiculousness I allowed myself to believe.
The second was when two mentors gave me conflicting advice. One told me to study at an American Islamic Seminary and get a degree in chaplaincy. It would keep my faith pure – and academia would kill it. The other told me to enter Islamic Studies in an academic setting. Academia needed more vocal Muslimahs studying the history and the religion. It would open my eyes to the larger picture.
In the end my faith was shaken and I went the academic route. And yes, it killed a part my faith – the part that was preventing me from recognising cultural or political rhetoric masquerading as religion. And for a while, at the expense of opening my eyes, I felt very far from God.
I don’t know how others do it. How do you survive and keep your imaan strong and your love for God renewed when everything you read or learn about Islam is a constant disappointment? Scholar A justifies the beating of women and is well received around the world. Scholar B illustrates how a Qur’anic verse has been wrongly used to subjugate others, but is ignored by the majority of scholars and slandered by being called, “Progressive.” Scholar C is BRILLIANT and ignored because she’s a woman.
How do you renew your faith when you can no longer ignore the misogyny and patriarchy in your religion’s implementation?
When I first converted I gobbled up Jeffrey Lang’s personal conversion account Struggling to Surrender. It described exactly what I was feeling: an immense love for my religion and a disconnect between my western culture and Islamic cultures — the requirement for converts to become Arabized. It praised Islam for spiritual equality, women’s rights and human rights. His personal account was exactly where I was “at” during my first year converting.
Then somewhere along the line, Dr. Lang recognised that too many people were contacting him saying that they were disconnected with Islam because they felt excluded from the mosque. And he stated in his book, Losing My Religion: a cry for help that the biggest challenge Muslims face today is that “the perceived ill-treatment of Muslim women is the most common starting point of home-grown disillusionment.” Now instead of simply chronicling Islam in America – he’s actively campaigning to change and make things better for women at the mosque.
What I like about Dr. Lang is that while his tune has changed, his faith seems to be just as strong. Just like so many other public converts, such as Yusuf Islam and Jordan Richter – who gave up their careers believing them to be haraam according to Islam, only to later return after realising the contrary.
He was one of the first people I heard saying that it’s not our struggles in “the West;” it’s not the horrible parking situation at Jummah prayer; it’s not music, hockey or beer nights at the pub; it’s not “women dressing scandalously;” it’s not the fact that we have too many mosques to support and must be held hostage every Taraweeh for fund raising; it’s not the people who make sure the “lines are straight” and your “feet touch” during prayer; it’s not even the people checking for beard length and proper hijab that is the main problem with North American Muslim faith and spirituality.
It’s the exclusion of women.
And that was a big thing for me.
I know one’s faith goes up and down depending on where you are in life. You can engage in more dhikr, prayer, community work, mosque involvement, reading the Qur’an, fasting or whatever it takes to get back that sweetness of faith. For me, I need a strong community (WHERE ARE YOU??), more dhikr and validation that as a Muslimwoman my voice will be heard.
What do you do to increase faith?