Note: I wrote this about a year ago, but I think it remains relevant.
Someone recently asked me to provide my definition of “Muslim/Islam”
To be honest, I don’t yet know. I am currently reading the book This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost by Carolyn S. Briggs (adapted for the movie, Higher Ground, which is a must-see). This a memoir about a woman’s faith journey that included many years in a fundamentalist, evangelical type hippie Christian church. I am fascinated that so many Muslims share the same belief language as evangelical Christians! (Just substitute “Bible” for “Quran” or “Hadith” and “Jesus” for “Allah” or “Mohammed.”) What a revelation! It made it even more apparent to me that religious rhetoric is not so much about personal authenticity and deep faith, but more about adopting rituals and symbolic language that make us appear more spiritual to observers.
Of course, this rhetoric may provide comfort and meaning to those who adopt the language . It offers a compass in which to understand the world and I do not mean to belittle those who find great solace in neatly confined religious institutions.
Yet, what I dub as “fundamentalist thought” has nothing to do with internal spirituality and that deep connection to something larger. I believe the author of This Dark World makes that point in a deeply personal and eloquent way.
This is evidence to me that I have no place in traditional religious institutions and my own intuitive, esoteric nature begs for me to find my Islamic identity outside of the normal strictures and languages.
And that is completely OK. Sometimes, being “lost” on the path is really an opening.
I’ve been on the evangelical side of life. I was once a door knocker for Jesus. I didn’t feel right about it. Even as a child, I intuitively felt spirituality was a private, internal journey.
A former Salafi-Wahhabi-turned-Sufi recently said to me that the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) demands personal authenticity as key to worship. What does this mean? It suggests that we cannot fully stand before God or our creator unless we are honest about our faults and feelings. We must have permission to question, to rant, to vent, to our God without feeling guilt or shame. (Why is it that faith has to be associated with guilt and shame? What kind of fucked up logic is that? Isn’t spirituality supposed to empower and liberate rather than constrict?).
This means that it is OK to be a less-than-perfect Muslim as long as one does no harm to others and upholds decent ethical values. One can still stand before Allah (swt) as a work in progress and let go of not being “perfect” to external observers.
To break to down even more, one doesn’t have to dress in the Islamic team uniform, or observe every prayer and supplication, or bend to every little ruling of this-or-that to be an authentic Muslim. There is value in prayer; surely, there is meaning in adhering to the rituals. But every person is on a spiritual journey at their own pace and no one should judge anyone for where they stop along the way.
For me, being a Muslim is acknowledging Tawheed — the Oneness of Allah (swt). This means I see Allah (swt) reverberate through the universe in profound and magical ways. I believe in One Creator as the source of a million different truths and paths, and I find Qu’ranic wisdom often in the most “non-Muslim” of places.
Sadly, I sometimes find that Muslims do the greatest injustices to Islam.
But, most importantly, I believe that being a Muslim in full essence is about compassion: compassion for the Self and for all of humanity. Compassion is what makes us fully human. For me, uplifting others, being compassionate and kind, being soft with the world is my Islam. There is not a day that goes by where I do not think of Allah (swt), even if my prayers remain unobserved. Real observance is being authentic with the world as an honor to Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) and Allah (swt) in hopes that my own light will benefit humanity, even in the smallest of ways.
Islamic scholar, Omid Safi, recently posted something beautiful and I want to share as I feel it sums up what my Islam should look like:
Ideally, religion is a path that leads humanity to God. (Thus all the references in Islam to “the trodden path,” “the beaten path,” for Shari’a, Tariqa, etc.) But there are times when religion (be it Islam or Christianity or whatever) feels to some less like a path and more like a door shut in people’s face. I am not a fan of “spiritual but not religious” definitions, but mindful of how for religion to serve as a path, it has to be rooted in an “opening” rather than a closing.
We have to be concerned less with whether we need “less religion” or more religion, and instead need to focus on what kind of religion, whether it leads to uniting humanity and leading us to God, or justifying a hierarchy of a few over the many, legitimizing sexism, racism, dogmatism, ethnic chauvinism, etc
While I am still redefining my Islam, this is where I start: It is an Opening (such as the first ayah in the Qu’ran) rather than a closing. It makes me accessible to humanity, compassion, and kindness. Being a Muslim places upon me the duty for righteous acts and justice, but not in a way that is demeaning and judgmental to others. This compassion extends to my own being — learning to still feel that I am worthy and OK even in prayers missed or in those ever frequent moments that I fall short of God’s glory.
It is OK to be messy and incomplete. We all are exactly that and no less human because of it.
It is the way of the Sufi Jedi. May the Force be with us all.
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