During a recent visit to a family member, the oft-repeated and dreaded comment came up: “I miss the old you.” I always take offense when I hear the disappointment in their voice. An element of sympathy mixed with a hint that the current ‘me’ is someone undesirable; someone who rebelled against being the person I’m ‘supposed’ to be by now. And there I was thinking I’m a new improved version of ‘me’! Times like these force me to reflect on the spiritual journey I’ve been on; and today I’ve decided to embrace my journey – all of it. The good, the bad, and the ugly.
I frequently get into conversations with various people, particularly converts to Islam; and after mentioning I was born into a Muslim family, I’m often told how lucky I am to be born Muslim and to have Muslim family members. That I’m privileged and fortunate enough not to go through the struggles and challenges that come with choosing a lifestyle or religion different from my family. A compliment is always intended, but sometimes, just sometimes, I have to force myself not to blurt out that being Muslim was an identity imposed on me at birth; that I didn’t have the opportunity to research what being a Muslim was all about to see if I was ‘down’ with it. Despite being born Muslim, I still had to live in the same world as everyone else. I, too, loved going out with my friends, fashion, make-up, R‘n’B, and Chinese food. I also went through teenage life and peer pressure, and all the normal things society expects of a young, law-abiding citizen.
Being British with West African heritage, I was expected to get at least an undergraduate degree, purchase my own property, and start a family before turning 30. My family were not the conservative type; we were ‘posh Muslims’. Posh because we came from a prominent, educated family which automatically earned us a middle class, progressive status in our home country. I was constantly reminded to educate myself from at least a London University, Oxford or Cambridge, and pursue a medical, legal, or financial career that would elevate my status.
Although we were Muslims, I had a liberal upbringing. This consisted of having a Muslim name, fasting in Ramadan, attending the Eid prayer, and – if I wanted to go the extra mile – pray 5 times a day. Growing up in the UK made it easier to adhere to the desired progressive, modern way of life. Religion took a back seat in my life; being too religious was discouraged for fear of it interfering in academic success. Living a ‘strict’ Islamic lifestyle was frowned upon and labelled as backward, and someone like me had no business living like that. For years I accepted and conformed to these views and happily cruised through life in this manner.
As a born Muslim, I believed in Islam and no other religion. Islam was something inherited because my parents were Muslims, thus it was a given for me. In my mind, being born into a Muslim family secured my Islamic status, so it was enough for me to call myself a Muslim whether I practiced the religion or not.
In my warped reality, I always felt more privileged than people who converted to Islam, as I was an authentic Muslim since birth. Regardless of my lack of religiosity, I would’ve verbally attacked anyone who dared to question my Islamic identity. A common defence when asked why I wasn’t conforming to an Islamic lifestyle was ‘my heart is pure and clean, I don’t hurt anyone and I am a good person.” Except for close friends who had observed I don’t eat pork and take a day off school for Eid, most people didn’t know I was a Muslim. There were frequent occasions when someone would surprisingly ask me, “When did you become Muslim?” I would reply, irritated, “I was born Muslim!” In my world, because I said I was a Muslim, then I was – it was that simple.
A clean, morally correct heart that seeks to be good and kind to people was my definition of purity. My criteria for good and bad was led by the masses – the majority opinion. Whatever was acceptable in the society I was living in at the time was my guide, and of course, my African upbringing. Eating pork was equivalent to taking me out of the fold of Islam. Halal meat? What was that? As long as it wasn’t pork, what was the problem? I knew my five pillars of Islam and a few surahs, especially the ones for protection which I whipped out in times of extreme need or near death experiences – how ironic! I never felt it necessary to seek an Islamic opinion for anything I did. My religion was in my heart – between me and God – and as far as I was concerned, no one had the right to comment because ‘only God can judge me.’
My parents sent me to Islamic studies class every Saturday at the mosque as a way of teaching me Islamic values. Did I enjoy it? No! It was such a chore, a bore, and a place where you were reminded how bad a Muslim you are. There were other ways I would’ve preferred to spend my precious Saturday. There were enough religious activities to fulfil my Islamic obligations, I thought. I boasted to those who dared question my Islamic identity that I even went to Islamic studies class as proof that I was going that extra mile in my religion. I didn’t allow myself to feel guilty for neglecting my religion outside of that class.
Although I was a born Muslim, my journey to Allah didn’t start when I was born. The truth is: I treated Islam – the religion I believed was the right way – as a hobby; something I did as and when it suited me. I have no dramatic story about where my journey began except that I was on holiday in the Caribbean with friends having a blast. A conversation with a non-Muslim friend provoked so much thought about my claims of being a Muslim, it left me confused and annoyed. To cut a long story short, I returned from my holiday determined to learn about my religion and to stop paying lip service to it.
After the religious debate on my holiday, angered and frustrated, I opened a page in the book I treated as a trophy, and it was as if the verses I read were directed at me only. These verses were a pivotal turning point for me and I knew I could no longer put off paying attention to Islam. It was time to take action; a radical change was in order.
I knew I wanted to be a ‘proper Muslim’, I just didn’t know how. I didn’t even know what a ‘proper Muslim’ was, but I didn’t feel like one. I wanted to be more devoted and try harder in my religion. Yes, I knew I had to pray five times a day, but there was a sense of urgency hanging over me. I was plagued with guilt for all the time I’d wasted making everything but my religion a priority in my life. I’d been too busy living life to the fullest, and wanted to make up for being neglectful. The time had finally come to invest and commit to the religion I defended so easily. Fuelled with passion for my transformation, I was ready to upgrade from ‘born Muslim’ status to ‘devoted Muslimah’.