A few seconds ago I deleted the original title of this article, “Why I’m Still a Muslim,” and replaced it with “Why I haven’t Left Islam.” I realized that’s the best place to start talking about this question.
So, what’s the difference?
Islam is the philosophy, the ethics and even the system of belief. “Muslim” is much more personal; it’s about the individual.
I was born and raised in the ethics and culture that Islam, in part, birthed. As a young adult full of questions in a post-9/11 era, I wandered in the labyrinth of Islam as a philosophy. Islam offers a structure, a spiritual home for me.
The home isn’t the problem. The problem is what’s been done to it over time — the same as a person, you could say. In Islam we don’t condemn the person, we condemn the behavior. Like other faith traditions, we believe in redemption.
I don’t condemn the structure, just like I wouldn’t condemn the person. I look at what created the problem and work to undo the knots that turned something that had potential and promise into something that was manipulated and, at times, deformed. I call this a difference between “God’s Islam” and “man’s Islam.”
You might be asking, what does that mean exactly? It means this: If you love something, you don’t abandon it. I’m not going to abandon what I come from. Nor can I abandon the history, the billions of people attached to the faith, its destiny overtime, the millions today and the future that will be shaped by who we decide to be with the lives we’ve been gifted to lead.
If I love something, I don’t give up on it. It’s really that simple. But you do have the power to change your relationship to a thing.
When I first started asking questions about Islam, I had a really hard time still believing in the faith. That doesn’t stem from a lack of faith, but a lack of knowledge about the faith. All that was really available on the market to understand our identity were the usual skeptical works paired with personal narratives. I needed to delve deeper into the heart of faith, while continuing to develop my relationship to myself. How could I possibly understand what Islam was when I was barely at the threshold of understanding who I was?
At the same time as I was struggling with the mainstream representation of (Sunni) Islam, I discovered another Islam: Sufism. Sufism represents about a third of Pakistani Muslims. I lived my whole life not knowing that a country I come from has one of the richest traditions of Sufism — a tradition carried through much of the Middle East and South Asia before it unfurled in the hearts of many more believers. Sufism was kept from me. What else was kept from me, I wondered?
Sufism believes in experiencing a sublime state of awareness, a direct connection with the Divine, while also honoring the legacy of master and disciple. A ninth century Sufi mystic Al-Nuri offers the best summary of Sufism, and in my opinion, of the spirit of Islam before it started derailing through the centuries:
“Sufism is not rituals and forms and is not bodies of knowledge, not doctrines, not ideas, not theories. But it is impeccable manner, the manner of the lover in the presence of the Beloved.”
Faith is a direct relationship with the Divine, with a Great Intelligence. That relationship is perfected through a mastery of the self (a constant pursuit), through perfection in relationships, through all the senses, and through experience with life animate or inanimate. It is immersion — and that is submission perfected.
Faith is a state of being. It is not the structure. It is not the cloth nor the concrete that separates us from the natural world; it is not the bars on the windows, the locks on the doors that keep us in an eternal state of containment, so that we never step beyond the prison of rigid and often manufactured identities.
Naturally, Al-Nuri was also declared a heretic.
Today’s heretics are those of us who reject Islamist socialism, the politicalization of faith, and the prostitution of identity to secure a Muslim supremacist agenda.
Some days I’m hanging on to Islam by a thread. But it’s not about Islam. It’s about what’s being done to it, what’s being done to what it means to be Muslim.
Through my life experience, a natural state of playful exploration and inquiry, the people I’ve met, the ideas that have shaped me — and most importantly because of the constant Islamist exploitation of the label Muslim as a political tool — I would love to push beyond the label Muslim.
I would love to get to a point where I don’t have to step into the “Muslim” box before I step onto a growing platform. I am still a daughter of Islam, but I have long outgrown the label Muslim just like I have long shed the versions of myself that I was taught to be before I discovered who I am.
Stitching the label onto the fabric of our being is part of the problem. It’s a barrier against immersion and total belonging. The label, especially as it has become obsessively rattled in the public sphere, is an impediment to faith.
Faith is a private conversation between you and the Divine, between you and the seasons of your life. Who you are as a person is a dream in form, a constant state of wonder, an organic unfolding, a creative potential.
What if we changed the question from why are you still a Muslim to what could Islam be if we changed how Muslims saw themselves?