I have been the sceptic and the believer, the enraged and the forgiving

“The fact that any sentiment, religious or otherwise, could wipe out our humanity and empathy for anyone, anywhere was too much for me.”

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“The fact that any sentiment, religious or otherwise, could wipe out our humanity and empathy for anyone, anywhere was too much for me.”

So when I saw Konya for the first time from a distance, I did what I always did – I greeted its Saints. But something unusual happened next. Instead of greeting me back and offering their blessings, as they always did, the Saints remained as silent as broken tombstones. I saluted them again, more loudly and assertively this time, in case they had not heard me. But once again, there followed a silence. I realized that the Saints had heard me, alright. They just weren’t giving me their blessing.

“Tell me what’s wrong,” I asked the wind so that it would carry my voice to the Saints far and wide.

In a while, the wind returned with an answer, “Oh Dervish, in this city you’ll find only two extremes and nothing in between. Either pure love or pure hatred. We are warning you. Enter at your own risk.” – Elif Shafak, The Forty Rules of Love

I have been struggling for years to connect with God and the Quran. Don’t get me wrong; I love my religion and I understand that there is a lot of beauty in it. But I have always felt there to be a barrier, a kind of unfinished business, unresolved feelings, perhaps anger, all which has been, and still is, preventing me from truly loving it and practising it. It was only recently that I have been able to identify what it is. I was only a child when 9/11 happened, yet I still remember the reaction of people around me. We were at an airport in Pakistan and the news was popping up on the TV screens. When people here saw images of the planes crashing into towers filled with people who could not defend themselves, their reaction was one that I cannot forget. It wasn’t empathy. It was almost a kind of savage bitterness, with some proclaiming God was taking his revenge from ‘the West.’ I watched and listened silently. I think I felt the same way an amateur artist would feel about a badly drawn painting; they can see something is wrong but they cant really point out what it is or correct it.

It is only now, many years later, that I realized my frustration against religion and religious people can be explained by one question: why did no one cry out, “Oh My God! What a terrible thing to happen!” Why did no one care about the human lives lost? Why was it that the images of falling people and dead bodies only brought feelings of retribution? This worsened further when I came across heated justifications such as 9/11 being a 24/7 for countries like Palestine and Syria. The fact that any sentiment, religious or otherwise, could wipe out our humanity and empathy for anyone, anywhere was too much for me. I think a part of me decided that day, no matter how young I was, that there must be something wrong with religion.

And this is why it was hard for me for so many years to truly believe in the Mercy of God, that He isn’t someone who is out to get us and punish us for everything that goes wrong in our lives.

I am only just beginning to recover. My recovery has a lot to do with the fact that I am lucky enough to be part of an educated family where I was encouraged to think and question. But it also has to do with listening to a lot of Scholars from the West who try to examine the spirit of the Quran without bias, uninhibited by any school of thought or culture. These include people like Yasmin Mogahed, Maryam Amir, Omar Suleiman and Nouman Ali Khan.

By now you may already have concluded that I, being biased, am writing this in support of Nouman Ali Khan and to please view the entire context of allegations on his personal life with an open mind. But I am not, because I know that may be impossible. In this day and age, nothing generates emotion more than religion or anyone associated with it. It is the spark waiting to be ignited, it is a haunting memory we carry around with us that may either be attributed to images of two planes crashing into a tower or the cries of helpless victims over the roar of machine guns. It is the Angel and the Devil. To view it as something in between has become impossible. Much like the city of Konya in Elif Shafak’s novel ‘The Forty Rules of Love’, we oscillate between love and hate and ‘nothing in between.’

But that is why I am sharing this with you. I have seen both sides. I have been the skeptic and the believer, the enraged and the forgiving. Years ago, there lived a side of me that would have delighted in these allegations because they would have provided validation to my sceptic side that was dominant then, the side that would have laughed triumphantly and exclaimed, “This is what happens to people who believe in God,” or “Religion does nothing but make you a blind fool!” The side that was less dominant would have implored, almost pityingly, to let go of all my anger because it brought nothing but pain.

I have learnt much from those years and I exist now in harmony with both those sides. Yes, I love my religion, now seeing it only through the eyes of a seeker who is tired of all the negativity and wants to pursue truth. The eyes of someone who can find beauty in the imagery that is in the Quran, the book that encourages us to find God not just within the walls of holy mosques but in the sky and on the earth, amidst the greenery of the mountains and the blueness of the deep oceans, amongst the chirping of the birds and the song of the whales. A book that echoes with steps of a woman who ran seven times between two hills, a book that narrates the cries of a woman in pain of childbirth but who had the strength to carry herself through the storm of loneliness and slander. A book that depicts the humanness of a man who gave up and was almost drowned and swallowed by a whale but called out to God even amongst that darkness. A book that dwells on the horror of a child thrown into a well by his own brothers and then rescued. A book that has recorded the cries of a woman who came to the Prophet (peace be upon him), finally tired of abuse by her husband. A book the depicts unimaginable pain but also unconditional love.

These are no fairy tales to me. If we can read without prejudice, without the pain of our memories and without the bitterness of the heated debates and inner frustrations we fling on each other in person or on social media, then they can become a living breathing reality for us. I ask only this: identify the cause of your bitterness because without it, we can never be truly happy and we will continue to spiral into negativity. Each of us has been left scarred by history and by current events. We all have unfinished business. It will not die with us, rather it will multiply and continue through generations.

Identify it, face it and when you are ready, let it go.

by Butool Hisam