First in our series of guest posts is the ineffable Rawiya. A brilliant on-again, off-again blogger who really should be writing full time, Rawiya spends most of her days as an academic and moonlights as an artist. Please join me in welcoming her as she shares her thoughts on finding faith and recognising serendipity in the most unlikely places.
You can read more by Rawiya here.
And We have created mankind and We know what his soul whispers to him, and We are nearer to him than his jugular vein. (Qur’an 50:16)
I opened the fridge door, on the hunt for some breakfast. I felt a little bit like an intruder in an unfamiliar apartment, having driven the previous day from the States to Canada, where I was about to start some research. My gracious hosts had gone to work. I had slept in after my ten-hour drive, and was ravenous. I padded my way to the kitchen, pulled on the handle of the fridge, and locked my eyes onto a sight I hadn’t seen in years.
“Oh yeah. They have milk in a bag here!” I laughed and said aloud to myself, recalling the six years I had lived in Canada during my university education. But in that moment, my hunger dissipated and I closed the fridge door, my eyes filling with tears.
How silly I felt, to have this familiar foreign thing, this stupid Canadian milk-in-a-bag, provoke me so much. Why was I crying? What the hell was going on?
In that moment, eyes locked on that plastic pitcher, I had one of those “life-flashing-before-your-eyes” moments. I played out those six years of my life, and fast-forwarded through the following five years, which involved moving to a new city, working in the nonprofit world for a stint, and then starting a doctoral program. But during these important life changes, something else was going on in the background. Over the course of those five years since I left Canada, I had been living through a crisis of faith.
I grew up quietly religious, a Muslim in spirit (even if not always the most “by the book” practitioner), who came to a more institution-based and academic understanding of my religion during my time in university. God was always very important to me, and I clung tightly to the belief that everything happened for a reason, that there was wisdom in tradition, and that while S/He wasn’t always that responsive, God always heard my prayers. My time in Canada always stood out in my mind as a period in my life where I was strongest in my faith, at peace with my world, and aware of my creator.
But over the last five years, I struggled with certain events and relationships in my life that put my faith in question, and watched certain parts of my life unfold in slow-motion, namely, the gradual distancing of myself from my faith. For the most part, I stopped praying, stopped going to Jummah, stopped making du`a, apart from the occasional fitful and angry questions of why, despite what I felt were my best efforts, I was struggling with my faith. I began to see myself in the Biblical descriptions of Pharaoh, in the Qur’anic description of those whose hearts are hardened by God. I felt layer upon layer of sadness, disappointment, fear, and anger, each attached to various situations in my life, clinging onto my heart, dulling it, deadening it. I grew into a deep depression, and became severed from my previous conceptions of self.
In some senses, it was liberating to shed myself of my previous identity. My hardened heart had grown apathetic, toughened up. I still believed in God, still called myself a Muslim. But I told myself that I was fine disassociating myself from my former community, and rooted myself in my new communities: secular academia and the arts. I shed my overtly “religious” self like an old, translucent skin, and donned the garment of academic/artist. I treated my depression with medication and therapy, and lived every day trying to convince myself that this is who I now was.
And then I returned to Canada. My research took me there, but I was looking forward to reconnecting with my old friends in a city that I loved.
Fast forward to milk-in-a-bag, eyes-welling-with-tears, emotional-breakdown. Here I was, in front of the fridge, seeing in that plastic jug ghosts of my past, shadows of my former self. I had forgotten all about this thing that had been entrenched, ingrained as part of my everyday life for six years. Six years. How could I have forgotten that? My first day in Toronto, my hunt for breakfast had produced nothing short of an identity crisis. That moment shook me out of my apathetic denial and forced me to look back at my life and remember the person I once was, the reality in which I once lived. These lives that I’ve lived, these fragments of self, could I hold them together and see them as part of a coherent picture?
We all live multiple lives, play multiple parts, foreground different elements of ourselves at different times. But at this moment, I realized that I didn’t like who I had become, and that I needed help finding my way back to a part of my life that I had lost, a part of myself that meant so much to me before. I was ready to fight for myself. I can’t explain why I had to go through what I went through to get to that moment, my depression, suicidal thoughts, alienation from faith and friends. But as my eyes welled with tears, I felt the first layer of rock that hardened my heart begin to chip off. And every day that I spend here, I see an image, encounter an old friend, meet a new one, hear a song, or read a passage that chisels away yet another layer. I’m beginning to think, maybe those angry, tearful du`a that I had made, begging for help, begging to be saved, didn’t go unheard.
These days, I’m consumed by thoughts about serendipity, about guidance, about grace. Somehow, the past three months have witnessed my return to prayer, to Jummah, and, most meaningful of all to me, to talking to and trusting in the will of God. I don’t write this post as a moralizing tale of progression and redemption, but as a chronicle of wonder. Every day something shows me that right now, I am meant to be here. I am just where I need to be, and therefore, I have to believe that even in my darkest times, I was right where I should have been.
The Qur’an repeatedly talks about God’s signs, and that a believer is one who attends to these signs in nature, in the heavens, in books. I realized that those ritual elements of my faith that I had been ignoring are, amongst other things, tools that help us hunt for these signs. They sharpen our senses, our awareness, and fine-tune our sleuthing skills. We are sign-hunters. And these past few months, I realized that it is possible to see signs not only in the grandiose, the cosmic, and the earth-shattering, but in the most mundane things. We can witness the divine in the sun and the moon. But God is also in my cup of chai, in a friend’s embrace, in a forgotten memory remembered, in a melody, on the subway, in a home cooked meal, in a stranger’s smile.
And yes, in a bag of milk.