<%-- Page Title--%> Perceptions <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 131 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

November 21, 2003

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Questioning Myself

Aliya Khan-Munir

Religion is a word in the English vocabulary, which can carry many meanings. For some it is a way of life, for others it is a word that they have come across as they were growing up and for many it is their entire core of existence.

It is a word, which encases controversies, hatred, love, fear, and disbelief--always bringing out some form of emotion. A small English word yet bearing the burden of defining who we are. For it is 'religion' that over the period of history has made man conquer other's worlds in order to introduce their religion; wage wars to defend their own religious beliefs and it is religion that has segmented man into different communities other than countries and races. The irony however, lies in the fact that mankind has always wanted to believe in a Power that they can't comprehend. We, however, despite our denials or our differences have one thing in common -- the need to pray, to bow, to search within ourselves and to question science.

For me, religion has meant the religions that I have heard about--Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism. All different in their own rights and yet all teach the common themes of love, tolerance, charity and good will.

I was raised in a very religious home. As far as my memory goes back, I have seen my parents prostrating towards the West, fasting during Ramadan, giving Zakat, performing Haj and trying to abide by the rules of Islam. As I grew older phrases such as 'we are forbidden to do so by Islam' or 'Allah punishes those who do so and so'--were common phrases I heard whenever my parents wished to scare me or imprint a warning in my head. I am sure all children and youth hear similar reprimands.

During my younger days I would pray out of fear and out
of respect to my parents, but I think it was mostly because I wanted something. All kinds of deals were struck with Allah 'Two extra rakats of namaz if I score a 50 on my test' and so on and so forth. I think by the end of my teens, praying, fasting and trying to follow the path of Islam were pretty much ingrained within me. I liked to call myself a modern Muslim girl, without much thought to all I had been taught, without questioning what I was being taught. I was too caught up in trying to study, trying to discover who I was; seeking my happiness.

However, I must admit that there were times when I would enter my Nana's room and hear him recite from the Quran. The sweet tinkle of his voice would make the hairs on my shoulder stand up. I would rub myself and sit beside him basking in tranquillity that I did not understand. Still later I would find myself sitting behind my mother who would say her prayers and after finishing blow on my chest. I would leave the room with a sense of having attained super human powers, for I clung to the belief that with mum's doa no one could harm me. When I would do something wrong and my parents would say to me that Allah would not be happy with something I had done, I would in my child's eye imagine a stern old face with a beard and worry that he would hurt me. I would then spend the rest of the day in hiding from the 'all seeing eye.' As I grew older the face of the old bearded man ceased to exist, as I realised that Allah had no faces and instead I banked on the voice I heard within.

My time abroad was a door opener into the realm of a different world and a different religion. For the first time I was able to witness closely the practices of Christianity. I admired the Westerners, sense of searching for their spirit, for wanting to reach out and help others. I observed the manner in which the churches would help the less unfortunate and the manner in which it was felt that their religion should be taught to others. It made me take a step back and question Islam, and I realised that there were a lot of things about my religion that I did not know. I was often asked about Islam and I realised I had no answer to many of their questions.

My desire to learn stemmed from the fact that I felt that there was emptiness within myself spiritually. I pondered many times on the issues of life and death and wondered what my role as a human was? The most probing question, I found asking myself was, how could I live like this--eating, purchasing, wasting and living in comfort when just stepping out of my car I am hounded by poverty. I run away from it and close my eyes to it. What kind of Muslim does it make me?

I feel better when I give the poor something but I know that is not enough and we can only pray that someday this gap will cease to exist. There are countless little gestures that I see my mother performing, which makes me think that there are still people who are compassionate towards others. I don't think one becomes a good Muslim just by saying their prayers. One becomes a good Muslim with their daily actions. I realise, truly 'kind' are those, who wish never to take credit for their acts of charity or goodwill. I wish I did more little acts of kindness, for in that case I would be a good Muslim, for Islam is about leading everyday in a state of peace, benevolence and spreading good will to others.

I also realised that in this day and age when we are plagued with terrorism and the lack of respect for human lives; compassion is also something that needs to be emphasised. We are quick to point out what we are doing wrong and yet we are not willing to search within ourselves. Islam is about learning and yet there are many who follow only a part of Islam and do not learn about their religion. Sadly, it is a flaw that exists also within me, for I too only follow those parts of Islam, which I feel, is convenient for me.

My mother once explained to me that the voice I have within that talks to me, was my soul. I wondered in that case why it was that I heard two voices, one, which seemed to tell me all about the negatives and the other which always reminds me of what I have been taught. When I used to ask ammu (mother) what would happen to me once I died, for it is a question all children fear, she would promptly reply, 'Your soul will always live on even when your body ceases to exist. So you have to be very good to your soul. You have to make it worthy of reaching its final destination --Heaven'. I would immediately feel better, kiss my mum and go hopping out to play. I was safe; I would always live on.

Throughout my journey, there has been occasions when I felt angry towards my Creator. I have wondered why things have gone wrong. At those times, I have tried to bank on the small voice, which I feel is my conscience and which I think is Allah's way of helping me do the right thing.

For those moments when I have questioned Allah, I have been able to look back sometimes, realise that things did not go the way I wanted it, because it was not meant for me, or simply because I was meant to learn something from it. However, there are times I have questioned why Allah, being the all powerful, did not stop a cruel man from taking the life of an innocent or stop a dishonest person from rising to the top? I am troubled by such thoughts, and I console myself by saying that we have been given a choice. When something terrible happens, we as humans exercise our choice to hurt another and in doing so we banish ourselves from being a human to an entity that has no place; not here and certainly not in Heaven.

The other day I heard a story from Hadith and it goes something like this 'If you control your anger then Allah too will hold back his anger when He sees you.' A simple story and I found myself thinking about it when I wanted to yell at the waiter who had given me bad service. When I hear the vain boastings of people with expensive things, I remind myself that our Prophet (PBUH) was a pious man with no desire for worldly possessions. Perhaps these simple stories with their basic morals are common, we have heard them before and yet these very stories make me stop and take a moment and question myself. If not for anything else, at least for a fraction of my life I will question my actions and try and be a better human being.

I realise with a new sense of awe that we as human beings have been given a mind, a soul and a life in this world. We will always, as long as we are alive, seek for spiritual fulfilment, some of us will search for it in religion, some of us in this material world and yet many of us in other forms--but the search will always be there. Different people seek for different things, some of us want to be wealthy, some of us want to be beautiful, some of us want to be successful--whatever it is, our wants will always push us forward. We will forever feel the need to pursue our goals. The irony remains however in the fact that no matter what we attain we can never be happy, for our fulfilment remains in the simple understanding and appreciation of the One whom we always feel we can elude.

I admire poets for they have realised the beauty of God and they have tried to capture an essence of that in their words. I, as a humble Muslim cannot even attempt to do so. But, I can end this with a quote from Emily Dickinson who states that we never wonder if we wear a beautiful face in the eyes of God. Hence, I remain in fear, in appreciation and in hope that I will be able to lead a life, which will perhaps make me a better Muslim--a better human.


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