For years, I held fast to my faith while struggling with and against some of its major tenants. I teetered between being outwardly practicing to being the nebulous “spiritual, but not religious,” always keeping my shahadah (declaration of faith) close at hand. I have never been agnostic and I’ve always been “Muslim,” because I believed that there is no god but God, and Muhammad (saw) was God’s messenger. Or, in the first translation I ever heard of the shahadah from my mother, “That Muhammad is His servant and apostle.”
When I was younger, I took for granted the Prophet (saw) being a servant of God because of this translation. It made sense to me. The prophets were positioned on earth for the express purpose of spreading the Truth. As I got a little older and came to understand that I, too, was a servant to God–this, this became harder to understand. The standard Muslim answer, that the purpose of my life was to serve God, left more questions than answers. What did it mean to serve God? Perform the five pillars.
To which my response was, that’s it? God, who reminds us in the Qur’an that God does not need our worship, but we stand in need of God, created us to worship God? (This sentence may seem cumbersome, but I do not use male pronouns for God.) We were created to need God, in other words?
There had to be more to it than that.
I struggled with the slave/servant imagery for several reasons:
(1) The legacy of slavery in the US: As a black American in this time, my imaginings of slavery are inextricably linked to images of slavery in the US. In spite of myself, imagining myself as a slave to God, while not calling to mind the beating, raping, breeding, family separation and selling that came with US African slavery…it’s hard not to imagine myself as that kind of slave, the single most miserable existence in human life. A slave was someone whose rights and entire being were violated in the name of profit and pleasure. Slavery is now internationally illegal (although still very much rampant) and to call one a servant has a negative connotation. They are hired staff. One may say, “Well, who would you rather be slave to than God?” Which leads me to my second point.
(2) The individualism of present society: Who would I rather be a slave to? No one. I’d rather have my freedom. I have not grown up in a society where slavery (or even servitude) are the norm. When I hear someone talking about servants, I think about either someone else’s culture’s royalty, trafficked people in the US, or a historical time where such class designations were the norm. It sounds like the height of arrogance to say that you don’t want to be a slave to God, but I am saying it. No. That thought paradigm does not work for me the way it may have to Arabs at the time of the Prophet (saw). That doesn’t mean I change my mind. That means I find a paradigm that works. For me, it’s surrender, that concept that I intend to continue to work through in the life of this blog. As a free individual, as God created me, I have chosen to surrender myself to God’s intent to me. I am not a slave, but I serve in the sense that I strive to serve my purpose, and all that may entail.
(3) What else is there?: The purpose of life is to serve God, who does not need us. I like an analogy that a Muslim thinker used for this. If we think about a watch, a watch “lives” out its existence to serve the purpose of its creator, the watch maker–to tell time. Every created thing has a purpose that its creator had in mind for it as they created it. Of note, not every created thing lives out its purpose at all times. For example, a single family home created to house a family could later become a drug house. A knife created for cooking could become a weapon. A drug created for seizures could help those with nerve pain (to give a less negative example, hehe). Similarly, God created us with a purpose. A lot of Muslims say that it is to worship God and stop there. Others expand on what it means to worship, and all that entails.
So now, for me, given all of this, what does it mean to me to be a servant? I do not live in a time or space where I am exposed to royalty and opulence, with a servant class waiting on folks hands and feet, bowing to their master. That still exists in many places, so I know that analogy resonates with people still. Surrender is a much more meaningful analogy for me. Maybe it’s because I live in a society so rooted in war, that every stage of my life, for example, my country is involved in war, somewhere. Maybe in an age of feminism (to which, yes, I ascribe), submission and surrender are loaded concepts in the context of gender relations. I am a partner with my husband. What may seem like my submission is my negotiation, my assuring that both of our needs are amply met. I submit to no one but God.
I surrender to God, to live out my life’s purpose, the path of which God is guiding me. I don’t think that worship is just our purpose–I think it’s how we arrive at it.
In establishing a deep connection with our Source, through prayer and fasting (and pilgrimage), through serving our fellow humankind through charity in its many forms, we avail ourself to what some call the superconscious, the Universal Language, the God space, and find out exactly what we are supposed to be doing in this life.
I surrender. I will live in the way that will most avail me to that divine guidance.