I wrote this (lightly edited) piece as an email to my mother, shortly after I had my epiphany that lead me to a deeper understanding of my faith. At the time, I didn’t have a space to place this. I had an old religious blog, but I didn’t divulge personal information there and feared being judged by those who did not know the details of my personal life. So I created this space that will be safer than my last blog to dig deep into the realities of the deen (faith) for this African American woman living in the US.
I wanted to write this somewhere, but I also wanted to share it. There was no better person to share it with than you.
This year marks my 14th Ramadan fasting. My first imperfect fast was in the fall of my freshman year in college, in 2003. I definitely started fast too late on a couple of days and accidentally ate a piece of candy on another. It was my first foray into the world of being a practicing Muslim.
By the next year, I was attending the Muslim Student Association meetings, praying in jammah [group] and buying scarves for the occasion. I started relearning salat [prayer] in Arabic.
My third year, finally with a room of my own, I started praying some of the five daily prayers, trying to get to most of them especially during Ramadan but woefully missing many a fajr [dawn prayer]. A few months later, I would begin to don hijab and struggle through it’s first test in a land where it didn’t make sense–the Dominican Republic.
My fourth year, in my own apartment, I made my own prayers and got through the Qur’an all the way through for the first time during Ramadan.
And on it went. I could characterize each year. I remember each one. I remember setting my intention at the beginning of the month, like New Year’s resolutions, all of the degrees with which I wanted to be a better Muslim.
In those early years, I was very concerned about appearances. I didn’t want to go out and pray and make a mistake. I didn’t want to pray with other Muslim sisters lest they ask me to lead prayer and discover that my pronunciation did not exactly follow tajweed [Qur’an pronunciation rules]. As a black Muslimah and sudden hijabi, I was always assumed a convert at best, or non-Muslim at worst. I didn’t want to confirm these assumptions. I spent a lot of energy appearing like the always-Muslim I considered myself to be, the while lamenting that I still was only sporadically making my prayers.
Enter medical school. I shed the scarf and blended in with my young, gifted and black colleagues at medical school while building my first Muslim community with Harvard Longwood Muslims. I went to the club with one group of friends, avoiding the booze for the dance floor and I went to Muslim game night with the other group of friends. Boston was the Muslim community I didn’t think I would find. The mosque was welcoming and the community was diverse. I was accepted without question. While for years I had been trying to get to the bay area because I had heard about the Ta’leef collective
and thought that this was the type of community I’d like to belong to, the best community I would have to date in Boston. I interacted with other Muslims who, for example, loved music and didn’t seek scholars to tell them it was haram
[forbidden], who struggled to find ways to fit salat
into their day. We couldn’t quite speak frankly about everything, but we were all on the same page.
When I moved to the Pacific Northwest, Ramadan became difficult. The days were longer as the lunar calendar had drifted into the Gregorian summer. I am always the only person I know who is fasting. And my faith began to falter. I felt barely Muslim. Some would argue that I was barely Muslim.
At my lowest points, I could not bring myself to my prayer rug. It seemed hypocritical to me. How could I come before God in salat while knowingly being in a sexual relationship with a man I was not married to? Throughout my years of “striving,” as I used to call it, salat was always a priority, but I didn’t know how to incorporate it into my life. As a medical student and resident, it was impossible to make prayers in various situations. You could not steal away during rounds or teaching at prayer time, or scrub out of a case to perform wu’du [ablution] and salat. As a resident, blocks of time would go by when I couldn’t eat or drink, let alone break for prayer. So instead of making the prayers I could, I eventually made no prayers, and eventually made no effort to make them.
Ramadan would come along, and I would again crack open my Qur’an, dust off my prayer rug and make a go for it again. But at the base of it all, I couldn’t make myself believe that I needed to pray.
Again, when my faith was at my lowest, I felt that I couldn’t come to God. I felt guilty and in spiritual limbo. It was a difficult feeling. Life felt more precarious, like, if God were to take me then, I may be among the hypocrites or disbelievers.
I remembered my despair as a depressed teenager and how I used to believe that maybe I was one who God’s heart had hardened, one that God had destined for the fire, even though I didn’t want to be. That was the narrative of my depressed mind.
I wasn’t necessarily depressed at the depths of my faith, but I began to wonder if this was how my damnation would manifest. Maybe I was depressed with reason as a teenager. Maybe my soul was foreseeing my death in a state of sin.
It was easier to feel like “still a Muslim” when I was younger. Even though I wase missing prayer often, I was also not committing other major sins–no boyfriend, no threat of having sex outside of marriage, no intoxicants, no gambling, etc. And honestly, I was single for so many years because of the dance I did between looking for a Muslim spouse I could marry without sex before marriage and dating with my partner’s expectation of a sexual relationship.
When I started dating who is now my husband, I realized that being a good Muslim and not dating and waiting to get Muslim married and, indeed, submitting to the will of God, may mean never getting married. My never marrying and not having children may have been the will of God. Even though God wants this for most of us, as I understood my religion, maybe God didn’t want it for me. And if I were truly a good Muslim, then I would be content with that and continue to strive in the way of God, knowing that for the believer, there is many a lonely road, but also life abundant, as the Qur’an said [4:100].
I followed that path for a while, and I was miserable. As non-Muslim friends around me married easier because they did not have to wait for Muslim men, and as they began their first pregnancies, I decided that I no longer wanted to be a good Muslim, if that meant maybe staying single for the rest of my life. I held fast to Islam for the importance it put on marriage as half of one’s religion, and sexuality as a form of worship. I did not want my Islam to be the reason I was perpetually single.
My faith faltered, but I didn’t fret too much. I still prayed daily, informally, before I drove, before I entered patient rooms, before procedures, before I ate. Here and there, I made furtive attempts to make salat. I thought about it daily, every time I passed by the room where lay the prayer rug that I’d finally bought after 10 years of praying on blankets. I thought about it at every prayer time of which my Muslim Pro app reminded me.
When [my husband] and I married, I thought afterwards I’d experience grand catharsis and would commence to some grand repentance ritual. This was the lawful place for sex. But as our relationship carried on very much the same way it had before we married, I didn’t feel the urge to self-flagellate. And I still could not return to the rug.
Throughout these various phases of life, of which there have been many in the last 14 years of my religious practice, throughout various circumstances, I struggled with the same thing–how to believe that I needed to pray five times a day. Every time I read the Qur’an, I saw proof of God wanting this for us. Sunnah [the traditions of the Prophet, peace be upon him] and hadith [collection of traditions of the Prophet, pbuh] backed it up. It was a pillar. How could I deny it? This was the mark of Muslims, to the point that some people have the mark on their head from bowing in sajdah [bowing position in prayer].
I struggled with the notion of it being fard [obligatory]. Obligatory or what? I’ll go to hell? How can that be, when people of the book who are not Muslim and therefore do not do the five daily prayers can go to heaven? Of course, there are Muslims who don’t believe non-Muslims can go to heaven for various arguable reasons, but that was my hangup. If I’m a good person, if the very nature of my employment is charity, if I believe in God, fast Ramadan, but don’t make all of my prayers all of the time, will I really go to hell? Is obligatory more a juristic nomenclature that got translated into spiritual practice? Could these five prayers be just recommended, like God says often in the Qur’an, it is better for us, if we but knew?
As Ramadan approached this year, I knew I wanted to reincorporate some prayer into my month. After a couple of Ramadans where I missed many days and struggled throughout, I wanted to take this one easy. To fast and read the Qur’an would my primary intentions. Getting back to prayer was secondary.
In spite of what should have been my better logic, I took to the Internet to answer my questions about salat. I was hoping to find an article penned by a progressive Muslim writer that explored the history of the juristic nature of the religious practice and maybe trace the time that religion became law. I think I have a book to that effect that I did not finish reading. I was hoping that would give me a paradigm to better understand and be able to palate salat…
…because honestly, it was distasteful to me that I had to do something, or else. Then, salat felt like a chore, it felt like something I had to do or else taste the burn of the fire. It was bereft of joy and felt like prison. Faith felt like prison. Especially if believers of other faiths who believe and do good deeds go to heaven–they get to go to heaven, but I have to pray five times a day, or else I won’t?
So, instead of finding that progressive Muslim in academia, I just found a lot of fatwa banks. Man, I hadn’t read one of those for years. Some of the scholars decreed that one was not Muslim if they did not pray five times a day, because how could they claim to believe in God and in Muhammad (pbuh) as the Apostle if they did not take God’s words to heart and pray five times a day? These people were hypocrites at best, kafir [unbelievers] more likely. One person (likely not a scholar) cited a hadith in which it said that the Muslim that did not keep their prayers would at least be temporarily in hell, and would be thrown into hell fire 70,000 times.
After reading a few more entries like these, I closed my Surface and cried. [My husband] was sitting across from me and asked me what was wrong. I told him to give me a minute to process. I was looking for inspiration for me to resume prayers during Ramadan, not looking for condemnation to 70,000 throws into hell fire. I cried for a split second, wondering if I had ever been really Muslim at all, and once I thought better of the situation, I cried about the smug violence of the fatwa banks. About the alienating nature of their decrees, about the embodied violence of Muslims who believe such things. No wonder the “ummah” [community] is in the state it is. If a Muslim believes his Muslim brother who is imperfect with prayer is going to be thrown into the fire 70,000 times, believes that his Shi’a brothers and sisters and all other believers of other faiths will fuel this fire…
“I almost don’t want to call myself Muslim to be included with people like this,” I told [my husband] once I was able to put it into words. Again, I began to wonder, am I Muslim? Should I believe like these scholars as a prerequisite to be Muslim? Then, I began to beat myself up for being silly enough to look for any answers in the online fatwa bank. That’s the same place that used to depress me all those years ago as a college student.
“I have a feeling that what you’re really upset about is whether people will think you are Muslim or not,” [My husband] said, finally. No, that wasn’t it. That used to be it, but that wasn’t the issue anymore. The issue was more personal now. Did I want to be Muslim anymore? Yes, no…yes? Yes! How can I be anything else? But am I not really Muslim and haven’t been all this time? No… “You can call yourself whatever you want. You can call yourself Muslim without being all of the things that people say you need to be in order to be Muslim. That’s between you and God.”
He was right about that part. “That’s not what it’s about anymore. I don’t need to be called Muslim. I don’t need people to think I’m Muslim. I could practice the same and call myself something else,” I said.
“Like what?” he asked.
I thought about it. “I could call myself a Submitter.”
“A submitter. That is what Muslim means. One who submits.”
And that was it.
That was the moment I decided, once I performed ghusl [ritual bath] after my period would end the next day, to pray five times a day and not look back. Since then, I have made all five prayers during this Ramadan. I reinstalled Muslim Pro on my phone and even bought the $5 version, because being graced with ads five times a day is annoying. I bought a new prayer rug for work and say zhuhr [midday prayer] before I see patients in the afternoon and ‘asr [afternoon prayer] right after, in a corner of one of my exam rooms, facing qibla [toward the Kabba].
I pray at work precisely because I can. I have a nice quiet, private space before patients start filing in, more than I had during medical school and residency. Then, I come home to my prayer room, already set up.
Recently, during OB call, I said all four of my day prayers in a call room in the IMCU, two floors above where my patient labored. I forgot my work rug at work, so I prayed on a blanket on the floor in this private call room overlooking the street.
I pray with joy, and I look forward to the prayers. I look forward to prayer being a part of my life for the rest of life. I knew I wanted to return to prayer, especially on the eve of beginning a family, because I know I will need prayer even more once the lives of children come into play.
Why did I decide in that moment to pray again, and why has this worked more than anything I’ve considered or read or thought or tried or prayed over the years? I don’t know, but in that moment, when I broke down what it meant to be Muslim, to submit, I realized that after 14 years, I just needed to submit. I thought I was “striving” in the way of God but I was also spending a fair amount of time fighting.
I used to conceive of hijab as a physical manifestation of my submission. It may have been more like a replacement for my actual submission.
A while ago, I realized that all the hard stops in life, all of the destinations, all of the milestones were barely that at all and just the beginning of something even greater. Graduation was not so much an end or a hard stop as it was the bursting forth of many opportunities. Marriage is less an end than it is the blossoming of life abundant to come. Insha’Allah, [my husband] and I have only just begun, and our lives will morph into many things as we plan our family.
Islam, similarly, is not something to be arrived at, I have discovered. One is not just Muslim and that’s it. One does not arrive at optimum Muslimness and then striving is just about getting as close to perfect as one can get. And all of our paths are individual, and our struggles are private. I do not know how many other Muslims struggle with the idea or the execution of five daily prayers because we either are “not noising about evil” or we’re ashamed. It may be a common problem. I don’t know.
But this was my journey. This was my 14 year journey, maybe even longer if you count my teenage years in which I tussled briefly with identity, whether to identify as the Muslim I felt I was or as Christian, because my father was and it was “easier” and more mainstream. Once I vocalized that a Muslim is one who submits, I realized that’s what I needed to do. Submit.
And what a range of emotions I went through after that. There was a tinge of sadness for a bit, and resignation as it felt like a surrender of sorts, surrender in the bad way. It felt at first like I was giving up and resigning myself to believe that I needed to pray the five prayers a day, or else.
But I don’t believe that, if that makes any sense. I don’t believe the “or else” part.
When you first told me[, Mom] about salat as connection, that resonated with me, but I still couldn’t bring myself to connect five times a day. When I did one of the Oprah/Deepak Chopra global monthly meditations and found them asking me to chant to myself Sanskrit mantras, I abandoned it soon, realizing that whatever energy they were hoping to harness with those mantras paled in comparison to reciting the words of my Creator precisely as they were revealed to Muhammad (saws) [pbuh] while praying, connecting with God. But I still was not returning to the rug.
I submit to the fact that praying at these specific five times a day in a state of ceremonial cleanliness, full of intention, is better for me than I’ll ever be able to understand. God told us to do it, and I should. I can’t know the full benefits, and our science is just discovering the benefits of mediation and prayer. Different than my usual daily, informal prayers in the course of the day, salat is both prayer and meditation. Mindfulness. Connection. That connection I was afraid to forge for so long.
And then…came relief. A weight was lifted off of my chest. I didn’t realize how long I was fighting, and how easy submitting would be. I’ve thought about submitting in various ways over the last several years, but I think it was the combination of all of the things I’ve already mentioned and my experience with prayers answered over the years that got me back like I haven’t been for years.
May I never leave, insha’Allah.
Submitting feels how my muscles felt after I got a massage at the spa in San Diego after a conference. Releasing those muscles hurt like a dog, but as I walked out of the spa, I was loose like a noodle.
I am free.
[My husband] is the man I fell in love with who was unfazed by my making up my Ramadan fast on our second date. We were out walking on the pier in Seattle and I asked him if we could eat after 8pm. I had to make up the fast before Ramadan the next month. He acquiesced, too easily, I thought, without too many questions. As we stood out, looking at the sound, he embraced me in a way I thought was too familiar, too soon. Did he like me that much already? I wouldn’t know for a few more dates that he was culturally Muslim and grew up around Muslims and understood.
In a similar way, he takes in stride my 10 minute absences in the course of the day. He’s always given me space to be exactly the Muslim I feel I am or need to be at any time, and this is no exception. And of the Muslims and non-Muslims that I talked to or dated, he is the only one who let me be. And that is why I dated him, and that is one of the reasons I married him.
Of the things that I read on the night before Ramadan, in the fatwa banks, was a hadith about a bedouin man who came to the Prophet (saws) and asked him if the five pillars was all he needed to be a good Muslim, including praying five times a day. When the Prophet (saws) answered him yes, he then said, I shall do nothing more and nothing less than this, then walked away. The Prophet (saws) then declared that there is no man better than this man, or some other laudatory statement.
But that also resonated with me. That’s all I need. I already had 3/5 pillars, and I do plan to make hajj [Pilgrimage to Mecca] one day, insha’Allah. This was the last one. I don’t have to do any more or any less. I have no aspirations for making taraweeh prayers this Ramadan and may not be able to future Ramadans. I don’t strive to do sunnah/supraregulatory prayers. I don’t aspire for scholarship.
I submit. I understand that submitting like this at other times of my life would have looked different. God knew. This was my time. And insha’Allah, I’m not looking back.