[In the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful]
Some people may object to my embrace of Islam. "Oh, Islam is such a difficult and demanding religion" they will say "It's too difficult to be a Muslim, especially in the West". I wholeheartedly disagree.
Islam is not difficult at all, unless you allow it to be. Submission to Allah (سُبْحَانَهُ وَ تَعَالَى) is the natural state that humans were created for, so I have not found it terribly difficult at all thus far and even if it was, that doesn't mean that it's not worth pursuing (actually, challenges are good for us because they force us to persevere and grow in the process of overcoming). Religion and faith are not toys to be played with and put away on a shelf until the next time that you have a job interview, wind up in jail, or face an illness- Religion and faith are aspects of the human experience that should fundamentally change us as people, and always for the better.
This is the difference between a fulfilling life and a life of constant desire for the cheap thrills of this world (which never satisfy), religion is the difference between heaven & hell; as Allah (سُبْحَانَهُ وَ تَعَالَى) sees all we do + his judgment of us will ultimately come down to how perfectly we submitted, how closely we followed his commands, and the weight of our sins of both commission & omission in this life (sins of omission would be neglecting salah, charity, or treatment of his creation, etc).
I honestly never thought I was going to be able to embrace Islam. There are enough posts on SC where I sound apprehensive and lean in that direction. What I have noticed is that within the past week, I have thrown myself into developing my practice of Islam with a much greater sense of mindfulness than I ever did with my Christianity. I believe that this is because in Christianity, we expect God/Jesus/Holy Spirit to "work within us" and change us without having to put in much effort ourselves besides reading the bible and praying daily. If we expect someone else, even our concept of God, to do this work for us it will likely not be done. We have to put forth the effort to change ourselves and develop our religion and Insha'Allah, we will become better, more complete human beings. In just a week, I have gone from near-total ignorance of the Quran, inability to pray without reading off a sheet, and praying "when I remembered" to keeping salah, memorizing the process of offering my five daily prayers, and setting five alarms on my phone (complete with an adhan for added immersion). I've even been able to commit short surahs to memory (in Arabic nonetheless!) so that I can offer my prayers properly as they were modeled by the Prophet Muhammad (صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم). I never in my wildest dreams even two weeks ago, imagined that I would be capable of doing this, so I am both excited and at the same time, feeling a sense of serenity- that this really is "it" and that I have found the path that I belong on in order to develop as a person.
Today, I received my misbaha (dhikr beads) and have begun to offer dhikr, starting with the tasbih of Fatima (صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم) this afternoon. I have also ordered a modest prayer rug. Now I find myself wondering what my next steps are to improve my practice of Islam; namely what other parts of my religion can I begin to practice and what parts of myself I can work on improving. Although I am just a "baby Muslim", I truly feel as if I am changing for the better and that perhaps I should give myself just a bit more credit than I do for how far I have personally come in such a short period of time.
However, as easy as practicing Islam has been for me + as natural as it feels, I realize that my experience is just that- my experience. Brothers and sisters all across the planet, many in this nation of mine (America), may not have such an easy time adhering to their faith. For some (Uyghurs in China, Bosnians), the practice of Islam comes with the very real risk of persecution & death from the unjust & tyrannical, but nonetheless they keep the faith without probably ever making blog posts like this one. I believe that all of us, including the People of the Book (Christians and Jews) can learn something about fidelity, devotion, perseverance and not least of all courage, from these brave brothers and sisters in these countries that are much more hostile to Islam.
How do you think I can improve my religious practice from here on out?
How can you improve yours?
About this blog
This blog is an attempt to catalogue the motives & thoughts that landed me here on ShiaChat, as well as to better understand myself and why I am so interested in and find Islam (specifically Shia Islam) so intriguing.
Some of the topics that will be addressed:
-Personal & family history
-Mental & physical health (potentially triggering, will be marked)
-American culture & alienation
-Hopes & fears about the future
-Barriers & obstacles to my embracing Islam
-Contradictions within my own faith tradition (Eastern Rite Catholicism)
-My concept of self & identity
Occasionally I may also post poetry or my artwork (Always 'G' rated).
Thank you for reading
Entries in this blog
[In the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful]
There has been a lot of talk about confessing of sins in my life experience so far. I'm not going to do that here since we aren't supposed to, but allow me to give a little background on my specific situation in regard to confession. Coming from the Christian tradition, the idea of not confessing ones' sins sounds very alien & almost as some sort of a cop-out to not have to face up to the wrong you have done. Whether it is the Catholic form of confession to a priest (either face to face or hidden behind a curtain) or the protestant scene's insistence that we confess to as many members of our local church as possible-- We who were raised in Christianity had the idea of confession pounded into our heads like a post into dry, hard earth since at least the earliest we can remember. Our every moral failing, character flaw, and vice must be shared with the wider Christian community for the purposes of "accountability"-- the idea being that by talking about our sins, we will feel shame and not commit them anymore (Catholic) & that confessing these negative thoughts/behaviors can help other Christians to encourage us in our spiritual journey. Normally, this doesn't work out this way and you as the individual Christian become the object of gossip in your congregation... which we understand to be sinful in and of itself. The idea of "covering up" your sins is treated as if you were voluntarily refusing to use the toilet to eliminate waste from your body.
While I do see some value in confessing sins, I do not now and have never seen much value in confessing them to more than your parish priest/congregational pastor & any parties who might have been directly wronged by your actions; and certainly see no benefit to confessing to the entire church. People have their own vices, failings, and flaws; thus they usually aren't in a great position to counsel others on modifying their behavior and perfecting their spiritual practice. Of course, this has been argued to me by many a well-meaning church lady as "Think of it that you aren't confessing for your own benefit, but for the benefit of others who have their own sins that they need to repent of, but feel too much fear of judgment to do so". As referenced above, this normally doesn't work out in that way. My general rule now is that if you absolutely must "come clean" about sins, that the better practice would be to confess this to your spiritual mentor/religious leader (ideally one you have a close relationship with).
Initially, I had assumed that this Christian practice of reconciliation would also apply to Islam, so at the risk of sounding like a hypocrite, I will "confess" that I have done this prior to being clued-in as to why Islam doesn't have a reconciliation ritual practice. However, the logic was something that took me a little while to make sense of, as it has to do with "honor culture". "Honor culture" is something that we do not really have as American cultural Christians. Bearing that in mind and my continuing to work through the Christian dogma of original sin, I have to remind myself frequently on SC to NOT approach others as an "open book". Think of it in the same way as oversharing on social media: not everyone needs to (or even wants to) know about my sins & failures.
This is not for my benefit, as I do not have a concept of "honor" aside from keeping my word to others (we are taught that the actions of others have no bearing on us as individuals). I have chosen to modify the Christian motivation of "responsibility to the church" that would encourage confession, to a view that does NOT encourage it for the sake of sparing others discomfort-- to not break a taboo that may make my brothers and sisters feel awkward or "put them on the spot" with a false, pharisaic piety that may make them feel lead to open up about shameful things from their own life, as well as not propagating the concept that "sin is OK provided you confess publicly". I am a guest here and I am no longer among my own culture, after all. To borrow a term from the Gospels, I don't want to place a "stumbling block" in the path of my brothers and sisters.
It's much better to not speak of my sins to anyone aside from Allah (سُبْحَانَهُ وَ تَعَالَى) , as he is the ONLY one who can forgive our sins.
I'll admit that having to completely relearn everything I was so certain of in regard to faith & spirituality can, like any training or exercising of mind or muscle, be uncomfortable at the outset. However, we take these journeys and diverge from the walk of our native culture and our parents because the peace that comes with finding truth wherever it objectively lies is greater than providing ourselves a momentary balm for our troubled souls that something that is not necessarily beneficial can bring (like using a substance when we are emotionally hurting).
Insha'allah, this week and from here on, I will work extra hard to remain mindful and not overshare, offer forth Too Much Information, and thus protect both my honor and that of my brothers and sisters who have lived this deen from birth or at least prior to my pursuit of universal truth & perfect submission to my awesome and all-powerful creator.
Have you ever been fascinated by something? I mean truly fascinated-- wherein you find yourself pondering, daydreaming, and even neglecting your hobbies to research the topic in question?
I attended three separate high schools from 1421-1425 (2000-2004 CE), so one might think that Islam would have been very topical during this period. I'll be the first to admit that my high school didn't cover Islam at all. We had no units on Islam or Muslims in World History nor did we speak of Islam in any sort of current events units in social studies (my schools didn't even offer World Religions as an elective). Although we had Muslim students, the only information we ever received on Islam was from an Evangelical Christian Language Arts teacher that I will refer to as Mrs. B. Mrs. B did not take a very favorable view of Islam at all & would semi-regularly sneak in mean-spirited verbal barbs about the faith itself. These usually were ignored by everyone or written off as “Oh, there Mrs. B goes again!” while we pondered whether what her proclamations regarding her specific flavor of Christianity somehow violated the prohibition on public school employees promoting their religious views. We also knew nothing of Islam except what the American media (usually through right-wing pundits) was trying to pound into our heads. That is, until an incredibly well spoken and gifted classmate came along: Massomeh.
Massomeh's came from a Muslim family and they had moved to the US from Tehran a few years prior to our sophomore year. She was a straight-A student who played on the girl's soccer team, never was so much as “shushed” by a teacher, and did her best to fit in socially while maintaining a level of integrity in her faith that not even the Southern Baptist students (who would act up outside of school), as vocal and virtue-signaling as they were, could hope to maintain during this period of American history, when the moral sentiments of previous generations began to “circle the drain”. Massey (how she preferred to be addressed by classmates) was the student that a lot of us wished we could be... until Mrs. B and a few other teachers began making their broad generalizations and giving false information about Islam, Iran, and Muslims in the wake of the attacks on New York City. As the idiom goes: “Sista don't play dat”, and we watched in awe as this peer of ours respectfully and concisely refuted, contradicted, and dismantled every claim that these faculty members made about Islam & Muslims (and occasionally Iran). She ended up becoming so popular with the students after these statements that she was voted as the head of our Student government (and also because her skill at persuading adults got us the few concessions in the cafeteria that we had wanted from the day the brand new high school opened its doors).
Massey's mini-lectures on Islam had a major impact on me. I was already well into almost an obsessive interest in religions by that point, and it was refreshing to be able to hear one of my peers deliver expertise on something aside from school gossip, gangster rap, or football. I heard her elaborate on what Islam was, what Islam taught (remember that she was not an Islamic scholar), and subjects like the Hajj & what it entailed. When she inevitably gave a presentation on Islam during a current events segment of social studies, she had prepared a PowerPoint presentation complete with graphics; and that's where I saw a picture of a structure that would come to dominate my imagination and interest to this very day: a large black cube in the middle of the city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
The Kaaba. The “House of God”.
After the presentation in which she explained to the puzzled students that this grand, black cube structure was built by the patriarch Abraham (the root from which monotheism was reestablished) & it was believed to be the first house of worship ever constructed; I began to search out whatever pictures and information about this fascinating structure that I could. Of course, I was (nominally) Christian, so it made no sense to me why I was so enamored with this ancient structure when my own (nominal) religion had sacred sites and holy places of its own. My family didn't understand, and my teachers were uneasy with this fascination for whatever reason (likely politically motivated, as this was during the first presidential term of George W. Bush). I didn't look into Islam as a religion at this time, all I knew was that there was something about this large, black granite cube that captured my attention. Whether it was the shape, the Masjid al-Haram that surrounded it, or the ritual of the Hajj itself has been forgotten to me over the years; but I began daydreaming about its significance and even put a photo of it as the wallpaper on my 1998 IBM Aptiva PC (which troubled my mom and got me in a bit of trouble, as I was clearly “only doing this to rebel & get attention”). I had even printed a picture of It and glued it to the inside of my creative writing binder. This made no sense to anyone, least of all me: After all, I was the video-gaming, Magic: the Gathering-playing, anti-authoritarian punk rocker teen who was bored in school & had no plans on going to university or college after I escaped what amounted to little more than a government funded indoctrination daycamp. Why was I so star struck by this sacred structure, particularly as I was going through a period of doubting the existence of God and a general belief that “all religions have gotten it wrong”?
Fast forward to the present day (1441). As my life changes in so many ways, I am more fascinated than ever before with this amazing, beautiful geometric house of God. However, I still cannot give a good explanation of exactly what it is that piques my interest to the point where I dream of and draw pictures of this monument, I tear through the internet for any articles, scholarly or otherwise, that I can find (and access) that will reveal the history, purpose, and significance of the Kaaba to me. The argument will likely be made that this is another case of the “white man fetishizing a non-white culture”, but such a limited hand-wave of my interest in the Kaaba betrays a painfully ignorant view of Islam and Muslims that is almost ironic in its naivety, as Islam is a religion and a way of life (deen) for all people of earth, regardless of their native language, skin color, or national origin. After all, it was upon making the pilgrimage to this most sacred place that one of my heroes, Malcolm X, repented of his Black Supremacist views and left the Nation of Islam (which is “Islamic” in the way that White Supremacist hate groups in America claim they are “Christian”). Furthermore, the Prophet Muhammad ((عليه السلام).) repudiated the idea of race in his farewell sermon:
“O people, your Lord is One, and your father is one: all of you are from Adam, and Adam was from the ground. The noblest of you in Allah’s sight is the most godfearing: Arab has no merit over non-Arab other than godfearingness.” (from the report of Al-Jahiz (translated), forgive me if I have made an error)
I wonder if the Kaaba and my obsessive interest in it was what drew me into pursuing Islam, or more appropriately (and truthfully), if this was the “introduction” to the Islamic way of life that Allah (سُبْحَانَهُ وَ تَعَالَى) used to begin to undo my ignorance in regard to the perfect path that he has ordained for ALL mankind through His final prophet & messenger Muhammad ((عليه السلام).), to draw me away from the imperfect, tainted “cultural Christianity” that I was born into & subsequently was my sole religious exposure until that fateful day in class. Since this period of my life began, I have moved closer and closer to Islam like a comet being drawn toward the sun. I do not know what the future holds for me, nor can I pretend to & doing so would be both absurd & presumptuous on my part; but what I DO know is that Allah (سُبْحَانَهُ وَ تَعَالَى) has created me for both his pleasure and to fulfill a specific destiny, no matter how insignificant it may seem to me & the world I occupy.
Allah (سُبْحَانَهُ وَ تَعَالَى) is THE BEST of planners & Inshallah, I will eventually be able to live a proper and functional Muslim life. It's just a matter of arriving at that point.
Why do I chase Islam?
This isn't a rhetorical question, I really would like to understand the pathology of my continual fascination with a religion, worldview, and life path that I have no familial, ethnic, or historical connection to. I simply do not understand what it is about Islam that intrigues me so, and furthermore, I do not understand exactly why I cannot leave it alone. So the point of making this blog was essentially to let out my feelings in a way where others don't feel like the "owe" me a response. Let me dive a little bit into my own history.
I am a third generation Ukrainian American. I was born and baptized into the Catholic church (Eastern Rite, Ukrainian specifically). I can remember plenty of Sunday mornings of going to church with my entire family (Yes, dad was still around at that point) & at a young age, it didn't mean much to me in that I didn't understand exactly why we had to get up early, get dressed in business casual clothing and drive about a half hour out to another county, wherein we would go sit in a little old white building for an hour or so-- standing up, sitting down, repeating words in a call and response style, kneeling down, standing up again & the older kids and adults would file out into a line and the old grandpa of a man who led this activity would one by one, use a golden spoon to place a little bit of bread into their mouths before they took a sip of something called "wine" out of the most expensive looking cup I had ever seen (ornate with gold and silver)-- then we would just turn around and go home, and life would continue as normal.
When I turned seven years old, that's when things began to change for me. I had gone to Sunday School and become familiar with the elementary stories of the Garden, Noah, and the star of our specific show, a man named Jesus, but I hadn't seen what my part in all of this was, as I was quite literally along for the ride. Then I was told that I would be training to be able to participate in the ritual of bread and wine, what those in the know called "communion". I had to go into a little booth with a screen and tell the kindly old grandpa (whom we called "Father") about all of the bad things I had done, they called them "sins", and I had to say that I was sorry for them which, when I heard myself saying things like "I was mean to my baby sister/I disobeyed my father/I said rude words/etc" I legitimately felt for the first time that I wasn't a very good person & then I was assigned a few prayers to say not as punishment, but to show Jesus that I really was sorry for doing these bad things. This was called "reconciliation" and it had to take place before I could participate in communion. You were supposed to do this as often as you needed to, but ideally once a week. However, this being the early 1990s, nobody really did aside from the few older people in our rural corner of post-industrial upstate New York.
After I made communion for the first time, with all of the pomp and circumstance involved in any Eastern Catholic milestone, I began to feel more and more of a connection to what was happening on Sunday mornings. I still didn't understand the words that were being spoken by the priest very well, or why they never changed from week to week, but I felt a very deep connection to the physicality of the church itself. I was enamored by the darkness of the interior: the dark wood paneling, the deep red carpet, the large wooden pews, the absolutely gorgeous stained glass windows, the scent of frankincense and candle wax, the opulence of the sacramental implements of our small rural congregation in all of their splendor... something about the aesthetic of the place made me feel safe despite this being a public place where I had to behave myself and “act my age” (to quote my parents). I didn't feel threatened or exposed here, I felt a sense of immense comfort as the rays of sun poured through the multi colored stained glass windows. It was like stepping out of the time and space that I occupied in Harpursville, NY and being swaddled in some sort of otherworldly space.
Bringing it back to where I am now: In light of this, why do I chase Islam? What is it about the religion of my parents that isn't “enough” for me, particularly when the research that I have done thus far has shown to me that the path of Islam is so much more demanding than any branch of Christianity that I have dabbled in since I left the confines of the church to go out and live the typical suburban small town American teenage life with all of its vices, distractions, and ennui? Furthermore, with all of the time I have spent making peace with my conception of Jesus-as-personal-lord-and-savior, all of the wrestling with the Old and New Testaments, all of the going out and coming back again when a new church would inevitably be missing that “something special”...
...Why am I so curious about, fascinated by, and attracted to Islam, to impress a girl? (there isn't one who would be impressed, and you can't even meet women or date as a Muslim. I don't have parents to arrange a marriage for me, so choosing a Muslim life would invariably be a lonely and celibate one).
...is it to shock my parents? (My father hasn't talked to me in years and denies me and my sister as his children now that he's gotten his marriage to my mother annulled by that same religion that I took so much comfort in throughout my life whereas my mother is a rather live and let live person, but seems to look at Islam and the Qur'an with a nervous apprehension)
...Am I trying to be a non-conformist and stick my finger in the eye of American society? (Not at all, America is no longer a “Christian nation” and likely never truly was when you look into what happened across America's short history thus far & Islam is certainly not a religion for people who do not wish to conform to social norms)
...Am I seeking approval from others? (Absolutely not, I don;t know enough people to do something like that and even if I was super well known and liked in this area, there would be no pressure to convert to Islam at all as most people are quite irreligious & have not even a cursory understanding of Islam)
...Is this an attempt to be “unique” and build an identity? (I am already too “unique” for my own good and this has had a detrimental effect on finding work, making friends, meeting a wife, even finding a church where I fit in. Besides, I already have a concept of identity when it comes to asserting oneself as a unique individual with dignity).
None of these potential excuses feel remotely legitimate at all. At this point in time I don't even have an answer aside from “Every time I try to write-off Islam, I can't walk away but for a few months” and in addition to that, my periods of putting Islam into the back of my mind usually end up stressful and riddled with tragic news & painful life transitions. I wouldn't even be able to be a “good Muslim” due to my autism spectrum related fascination with music, my inability to speak, write, read, or comprehend another language without translating its meaning back into English in my own head (I did this a lot when Ukrainian was being spoken at church), my distaste for being around other men + their painfully desperate attempts to not look remotely sensitive or warm & my tendency to have female friends who I am closer to.
At the end of the day, I wouldn't even know where to start if I chose to dive head-first into Islam and make a commitment to radically reorganizing my life, forgetting everything about who I thought I was & what I knew, to become someone completely different... all the while dealing with a mental illness that makes even the most ridiculous conspiracy theories seem like objective reality.
Writing this blog wasn't a request for assistance from the forum members of ShiaChat. It's more an attempt to organize and catalog my thoughts, and figure out exactly what's taking place inside of my head that's got me so fascinated and intrigued with this specific religion that by all intents and purposes, asks its adherents to live as the polar opposite of the identity I have already crafted for myself since the tender age of sixteen.
Inshallah, I will discover the source.
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