Pride is my greatest sin, and hypocrisy is the sin I fear the most. It is a trap within itself, because I often criticize people for the very act of being hypocritical, so by doing that it is a sin within the frame of a sin. And I’m incredibly selfish: I want to be loved. Even though I don’t give enough. I don’t think most people are loved as much as they deserve. And I waste all I have, spending time alone instead of with other people. I guess I don’t really believe love can be wasted, but the effects of love can be wasted. And I only turn what I have into the daydreaming in my own mind and projecting onto beautiful imaginary strangers.
“What if you die and God doesn’t exist?” someone asked, “Then you would have been good your whole life for nothing. It’s all a waste…” But I stopped listening after the question, because at that moment I had really imagined what that would be like. And what I felt wasn’t resentment at compelling myself to be good and acquiring nothing from it, what I felt wasn’t my life had been wasted like the questioner had attempted to indicate…
What I felt was heartbreak. Pure, shattering, piercingly painful heartbreak. And a longing deeper than I could bear. Despair. Like I had lost a lover, One with Whom I communicated every day, Who heard my prayers and knew me more than I could know myself, loved me through my darkest thoughts and bitterest, most selfish actions. Perhaps I am a perpetually selfish worshipper, or perhaps not, but at least in that lingering moment I didn’t just love God for desire of the rewards of Heaven or avoidance of the punishments of Hell. For a few minutes real, true unconditional love stormed my heart.
Let me tell you something about Islam. Sometimes I am very convinced that there are moments at which it saved my life. Even when I was very small and the stunning silence of it, the intrinsic inquiry, and the piercing clarity were absent, even when I was very small and it was something that frightened me terribly, it enveloped me in safety. But I despised the droning hours of regular Islamic studies with something more than just a child dreading her lessons. I despised them because I despised this kind of Islam, the one taught to me. Sometimes I forget the trivia on which Muslims seem to gleefully quiz each other (even in elaborate contests) as though it shows how knowledgeable they are, “What was the name of the Prophet’s uncle! What year is it on the lunar calendar!” As much as Islam will always be a part of me, I have an inexplicable sense of remoteness from members of my spiritual community, which is why I particularly resented pretentious, righteous, utterly unsupported lectures at the masjid regarding people of which faith should or shouldn’t be my best friends. (One of my closet friends is a Jehovah’s Witness who’s convinced I’m damned to Hell, and I love her to death.) And part of this distance is because growing up, everyone was cramming historical facts and memorizing the Qur’an while actively telling me I’m less than a person. And the rest of it is because I’ve always been a displaced sort of person. I have been very lucky to develop close personal relationships with two other Muslim women who are very far away. That is the thing about this site for which I am most grateful.
I don’t always hear the Qur’an and think it is beautiful. I am still recovering from the impulse to cringe whenever I hear it recited in a man’s voice–a man whom I know likely has a certain and unfavorable view of most things. This troubles me deeply. This gut reaction is the result of trauma, I understand, but if it is the Word of God, why should it matter? What kind of person would I have to be that the Word of God makes my stomach churn? (The Word of God is said to repel the devil; what does it say when it repels me?) And what would other Muslims think of me, if they knew!
To attempt to locate and eliminate any integral patriarchal slant is finding myself at the edge of something very steep, so that I look over my shoulder and wonder in heartbreak if I’ve left it. But I can’t leave Islam… because it is everywhere. I’ll find it still, I’m sure, at the bottom of that abyss. There is something that resonates with me (even though I’m so inelegant with it), something serene and ferocious and innate, and a goodness that pierces from the existence of it… or of me… sometimes I truly cannot distinguish. I wasn’t born into this religion. I chose it. I don’t know when. I don’t even know if I’ve chosen it yet. But the destiny of my soul has chosen it, somewhere on a supreme timeline, in the past or future if such terms even exist, and all its beauty and impartiality and sense of the eternal. Even if it turns out that it’s not the Truth (an idea I am not supposed to entertain), I can know it belongs to me.
I want to be good. I want so desperately to feel genuine altruism. I burn for it; it’s an ardent longing that haunts me almost constantly. I can be alarming in my pursuit of idealistic epitomes of love and impartiality. But only in the pursuit. Because I am neither relentlessly loving nor impartial. That is the difference. I disagree with the common philosophical proposal that every act is a selfish one, because I believe that there are people who don’t even think about how something bad would hurt themselves before refraining from it to hurt others. They simply aren’t capable of thinking bad things. But I’m not one of them.
Instead I selfishly strive to satisfy a vision I’ve built of myself and my own internal realm, obsessed with the idea of being good while never achieving goodness. I could say that I wish I were nothing but good… but I’m afraid that even that might not be true! Imagine the enormity of such a thing, of being so very dangerous, because of how people could react to you. As long as you existed, there will always be conflict, because there are people who want… to see goodness destroyed. That power, I’m not pure enough to be responsible with it. How would I handle such a thing?
Once we understand the subjectifiation of our respective experiences, nothing is ever really what we imagine it to be. People don’t exist in the way we think they do. Sometimes, but often not. I’m always paranoid when I encounter someone terrible that I’m actually the terrible person and they are merely responding to it.
One day everything—all this … superficial goodness—I’ve tried so hard to build will crumble, and it will confirm my own suspicions about myself. That I’m not really good, it’s just something I want desperately. I want it so desperately, so urgently, that it makes me want to cry even now. And when all I’ve built with mere attempts crumbles, it will finally be such a relief.
6 thoughts on “what you should know.”
I really feel the pain in your writing, and also the grit that comes with change.
What does ‘good’ mean for you? What does that look like?
I am imagining you holding on to the edge of a precipice with only your fingertips..
Even your pain is beautiful, lovely woman. Don’t forget that.
What a sad but beautifully written post. Ahh, memories of childhood with the dreaded formal Islamic lessons: rote learning of suras and the stultifyingly dull Islamic lessons with a bored (but also boring!) and uninspiring teacher.
Unless they were discussions with my grandfather….now that was fun. He was funny, willing to talk about anything and most of all unfazed by my wild comments and opinions and my deliberate designed to provoke stances.
When I was 9 and stated that I felt sorry for God as people worshipped him and out of fear of hell or because they wanted to go to heaven my amused grandfather related the story about Rabia of Basra (which I love to this day) and opened up my interest in Sufism, women in Islam and best of all nurtured and cultivated my early youthful love for God and that has been a huge source of comfort and a constant in all the ups and downs of life.
Now I am a parent and wonder if I can make Islam as magical, wonderful and appealing as my grandfather did with me and encourage her to view God as her best friend. As she too goes through the dreaded formal lessons….
when you described how you would feel if God didn’t exist…that was beautiful
I agree. That was my favorite part.
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