An Open Letter on Faith March 25, 2019 – Posted in: Guest Post – Tags: Nonfiction, Open Letter, The Muslimah Who Fell to Earth
A few moments ago, I put down my laptop and went to wash. Then I spread my prayer mat on the floor and performed the ritual early afternoon prayer.
And then it came to me, what I’ve been labouring over while trying to write this post. When I pray, I look for peace. And the more I empty my heart of the clutter of the day and leave myself an open vessel, the more often it comes stealing in.
Soon I’ll leave for my evening clinic. Many patients, especially younger ones, are anxious and sad. They’re floundering and looking for meaning. Some are students, staggering under the weight of student loans and unsure if they’ll find a way to survive in a material world. Many are lonely. Many have no community.
And so they come looking for answers in the doctor’s office. Most just need a listening ear to remind them that they’re worthy. Some self- medicate their pain with substances while others harm themselves by cutting or binging. They can’t see any reason to go on.
On my bad days, I agree with them. My life often seems futile. And then it’s hard to mouth the professional words of comfort. Sure, we can offer the usual platitudes like rest, exercise, and connection with friends and family. But none of these really address the essential question. What does life mean? What is my place in the world? Is this all there is? Is this brief interlude of pain, pleasure and fleeting joy the brief light we see before we’re snuffed out like flickering candles?
I grew up in a religious household. But no one ever told me to pray or fast. I watched what my parents did. They are imperfect and made many mistakes. In my early twenties, I confided to my dad that I was having doubts about God and Islam. He listened to me and reassured me that my doubts were natural and the sign of a maturing mind looking for its own answers. His emphasis was on rational inquiry and an enlightened belief. He’s devout, but he constantly reads alternate philosophies and competing viewpoints. I think that’s why his faith is so strong. It’s an examined faith.
When my children were young, I finally became “unmosqued,” not because I lost my faith, but because I found no place where honest inquiry and logic was welcome. So I decided to teach them myself. We read Islamic history, translations and exegesis of the Quran. We had lively discussions on social issues like divorce, inheritance, the roles of the sexes and on evil. And we delved fearlessly into the nature of God himself.
Let’s be honest. Admitting to faith in a deity in the modern world invites both pity and scorn by mainstream society and its secular institutions. Scientists like Richard Dawkins and strident “ex -Muslims” like Ayaan Hirsi Ali scoff at credulous weak- minded people like myself who cling to outdated notions of supernatural forces in a scientific world.
A few years ago, my daughter told me that she no longer believed in God. I was disappointed but glad that she could confide in me. Lately she’s been reading an English translation of the Quran. She’s reading slowly, taking the time to think through and ponder what she reads. I pray that she finds the answers she’s looking for.
But back to peace. We look frantically for a panacea that will sate our thirsting souls. A perfect body sculpted by hours in the gym will ultimately die and decay. A perfect face sculpted by anti aging injections and miracle creams still ages into decrepitude. Nothing will halt the inexorable march to death and the oblivion that awaits us all. We are mortal from the day of our birth.
Our society prizes self sufficiency and applauds independence. Because of our fixation on autonomy, we’re caught in a cruel double bind. Scientific advances bolster the idea that the human race is unstoppable, invulnerable and almost omnipotent. But the sobering reality is that we are vulnerable. We can’t stop time. We haven’t tamed the darkest impulses of human nature, nor harnessed the hidden energy of the universe. And that tension between our need for control and the essentially unbridled nature of the world is what’s driving us to distraction.
The older I get the better I appreciate this illusion of control. In our collective hubris we try to shape life and rein in death yet so much is at the mercy of a malign universe.
I’ve given up the comforting fiction that I wield more than cursory power. I try to cure my patients and sometimes I will. I can scheme and plot for a life of joy and achievement but there’s no guarantee that I’ll succeed. I can set sail for that winking light set on a remote pier in the darkness. But inside I know that the moon will spy my tossing raft as it’s borne aloft by raging waters beyond my control.
This realization is tremendously freeing. It means that I can shrug off the weight of being not only perfect, but perfectible. It means that I’m free to be my fallible self.
In most faith traditions, letting go of the self is the first step toward freedom. When I pray, I literally prostrate to a supernatural being that I believe is closer to me than any person or force. When I bow before God, I joyfully confess my impotence before the glory of His power. I can ask for comfort and for help. I don’t have to pretend that I can do it all. I can let go of my ego.
To my children, I would say this: think deeply about the world. Don’t blindly accept what others tell you, whether it’s me, the imam, the larger world which derides faith, or any other learned institution.
Do your own thinking and feeling. Look at the natural world. Study the night skies and ponder the big questions, though your brain will reel and you will fall down exhausted. Read the writings of philosophers and thinkers, of prophets and saints from all traditions, including those that eschew faith.
Then consider life, with its brevity and its banality, its terrors, its fears, its tragedies and its overwhelming tedium.
Ask yourself what brings you joy; what gives you hope.
Don’t be afraid to question or to feel. Embrace your vulnerability. Admit your need to connect with others and with something larger than yourself.
I cannot imagine navigating life without my faith in God. Maybe that makes me weak. I think it makes me strong. When I remember each day that only my effort matters, the pressure slips off me. When I fail, as I do again and again, remembering my good intentions brings me solace. When I can sink to my knees and beg for divine help, my tossing heart grows still. In humbling myself, I gain strength.
When I see you lost and looking for answers, I’ll ask you to remember my words. It takes courage to admit what we don’t know. Follow the great thinkers from history whose humility allowed them to cry out to the Lord in all their sadness and their despair. As you gain the freedom to think, feel and question, your hearts will open and expand. And as you empty your soul of ego, it will be replenished by a deep and abiding peace.