A couple of years ago, August 1st, 2011, I had started my first fast for the month of Ramadan. I had embraced Islam a few days before, and was very enthusiastic about taking part in one of the most significant annual customs in the year for Muslims. Going into this month, I had many questions, particularly around my transition from Christian understanding to one more expanded and appreciative of Islam. How was I going to adjust? How I would face many of the struggles with changing my faith personally, living in the Western, post 9/11 world? More importantly, how do I know that this is not just a phase, one where I embrace this new version of faith out of a desire to take part in something meaningful and exciting, but then abandon it once I feel like I’ve got a grasp on it, or that I’ve grown unchallenged by the beliefs and way of life?
This self exploration led me to thinking about the general relationship that Muslims maintain with their faith, their lives, and God (Allah). Islam has been steadily increasing in followers across the world, and it doesn’t seem like those who embrace the faith have slowed or stalled at all. One of my best friends since high school was born a Muslim. He is a very studious and well learned young man, his journey of confirmation lead him to different sects within the religion (namely, the African American focused Nation of Islam, and Sufi Islam. He was born into orthodox Sunni Islam). He did study the differences between Shia and Sunni Islam, and has always been open to hearing different Imams and scholars speak on the “deen.” I’ve come to see his journey, and even my own as a necessary part of finding one’s identity within religion, even if the religion is one that they are born into. In America, many young men and women find themselves learning to question their own customs and practices, as they’re exposed to so many different walks of life that teach us to see broader than the worlds we come from. With the increased level of multiculturalism in the world, this is a blessing that many have come to know.
This however can lead to the denouncing or leaving of one’s own tradition or culture for another that seems to speak more to the identity of one’s sense of self. This definitely was the case for me with Christianity. I needed to find answers to many of the questions I had regarding some of the teachings within the faith, specifically with the way Jesus Christ (Peace be upon him) was regarded, and how the sacrifice of “The Lamb” removed my sins, and purified all my behaviors (even the ones I hadn’t committed yet).
Upon learning that Islam regarded Jesus as a prophet of God, who is esteemed in the same light as Abraham, Moses, Noah, and Muhammad (Peace be upon them all), I felt that the religion was one I definitely needed to learn more about. Through my understanding of the pillars of Islam (The importance of belief in only One God, keeping up with prayer, alms giving, fasting, and making the holy pilgrimage to Mecca if possible) I started to see the religion as a way for me to make a stronger, more lasting relationship with God. A relationship where I wouldn’t be as distracted by questions as I was before.
I’ve spoken with different Muslims, and many young members do have a fairly good grasp of the history and teachings. Many even have the entire Qur’an memorized. My friend and I had a dialogue about several different questions that can lead to having a hard time staying true to Islam. We explored a particularly difficult question that often leads to challenges in one’s faith that can be very hard to overcome. That question is the challenge posed by skeptics, and often comes up in college conversations: Why keep faith in a world that is so full of misery?
This kind of conversation has lead to many people having issue with the notion of God’s very existence. There is a need to comprehend our misery in the world, and to have a map or compass to steer ourselves through many of the issues that we find ourselves having to stumble through in our daily lives. But where do these struggles come from? Does it come from God, or does human action cause some of these issues that we deal with today? When it comes to direct conflicts between people (i.e., wars, poverty, domestic problems, etc.) it can seem like misery in the world comes from people for the most part. Even in some cases of natural disasters, we can say that some of this can be the effect of our own doing (Global warming leading to increased incidents of storms, deregulation of climate, as well as other ecological effects that lead to more devastating weather response).
But what about the innocent victims of many of these situations, who suffer tirelessly all the while seeking the assistance of God? How could The Protector allow for such suffering to exist on a level for so many who rely on Him? This is a difficult challenge to speak to, as we in our limited knowledge can never understand the processes or thinking of God. I realized in exploring this conversation with my friend that the need for answers to ALL questions may lead us to doubtful conclusions, as we can not prove everything we believe (the notion of Resurrection, or an Afterlife).
Many of our questions can also come from the perspective of someone trying to level God, which can never be accomplished, in my opinion. We will never understand everything, so how do you maintain a strong sense of direction and faith through all the questions? It is a strenuous discourse, facing questions regarding faith or freedom from religion. But what I find holding me is the question “What if there is a life after death?”
Who is in a position in this life to confirm/deny anything about what happens next? And to make decisions based on conjecture can lead to dangerous, unethical, and selfish behaviors, which in turn contribute in ways we may not always directly link to worldly ills (Over consumption of goods leading to problems with world resources, causing the suffering of populations in poor countries, etc.), but play a part in the current state of the world as is.
I guess through looking at this question, what I really wanted to know was this: how will my own faith carry me through the struggles posed by the questions of time? My journey is going to lead me to many different challenges, but through it all, I must choose faith. Our freedom to decide is due to God’s being benevolent to us all. Should we keep our focus on the message of the reminders (The Prophets, peace be upon them all), we will always be mindful of the signs that keep us affirmed in our faith. That is what makes a believer, and also what keeps one. The striving is a continuous act, and a self made decision to persevere. The reward is only gained after we’ve spent our lives striving.