By Abigail Maryam
Throughout our lives, we hear all kinds of religious beliefs from well-meaning people. While the diversity of opinions can be a good thing, sincere truth-seekers may feel overwhelmed and wonder how to filter all their information to decide what to choose. Many beliefs can prove unhelpful or misleading. In this piece, I intend to share my story and insights on the process of believing, as well as advice on dealing with family repercussions.
My life has been a spiritual odyssey; I have travelled from place to place and encountered all manner of people to find my way home. By the time I was nearly finishing university, I believed in many things that I had taken from many different faiths. I used to think they could fit together harmoniously, but I realized that I could not cross the sea while standing on two boats. Inspiration came to me from the Qur’an, the first religious text I read that asks its audience questions. For the first time, I decided to re-evaluate everything I knew (or thought I knew).
What I discovered was that many beliefs I had long held were adopted mainly for their emotional appeal. Indeed, this is the default mode of human psychology. I unquestioningly believed ideas that were attractive, convenient or already embraced by people I respected. It did not matter whether they made sense or could be proven, as long as they made me feel good. But in the long haul, I did not derive much use from them. Logic and benefit became my new criteria for deciding what to keep and what to discard.
This de-cluttering process liberated me from the weight of my conflicting beliefs and empowered me to make conscious choices for my spirituality. If there was one thing I was sure of, it was believing in the one Abrahamic God. Adding associates to Him had only complicated matters for me. My beliefs were now in line with Islamic thought. Discovering the religion and the Qur’an’s scientifically demonstrable facts made me feel like I was finally ashore in my country. Accepting Islam may have appeared to be an abrupt volte-face, but for me, it was the natural thing to do.
As one would expect, my choice did not suit many people. The effects on my surroundings were initially dramatic. I often wondered how I could make my family happy without losing a part of me. At first, I attempted to address and allay their fears. Reassuring them that I did not mean to hurt anyone’s feelings, or intend to marry a terrorist in Syria, or wish all Christians dead did not seem to allay their fears. For them, my religion had to be out of the picture as a requisite for any healthy discussion. On my end, I longed for unconditional acceptance as a person. None of our expectations were feasible, however. What remained was for me to simply devise a coping strategy.
During those difficult times, I found refuge in the Qur’an. The first piece of advice I found, second only to keep up my five daily prayers, was to be kind to my parents. I prayed for them, did small acts of kindness, and hoped that the situation would mitigate over time. I avoided talking about religion, where possible. There were many ups and downs in our relationship, and when things got rough, I did my best to drop arguments and leave whenever I felt disrespected. I also practised empathy and patience. Often, it is necessary to try to look past someone’s poor behaviour and see how powerless and insecure they must be feeling. When the other side can’t see an issue in their conduct, we cannot change them, but we can pray and forgive. Gradually, things did improve. Whatever I faced, I carried on with my journey while holding onto the rope of God…
It was not long before I experienced another problem: the growing presence of radical sects in Europe. Although, as a new Muslim, I finally arrived in my homeland, I was still looking for my hometown. The many splits and cracks in the community left me confused as to which road to take. While I do have the Qur’an and life of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) to look up to, there is a vast array of interpretations. I met many who looked at me as a recruitment opportunity for their groups. Four years’ worth of dialogues and learning made me want to tidy things up again in my own mind, if for no other reason than to protect myself against the machinations of ideologies. The question, this time, was whom to believe.
My second revision taught me that the heart, as well as reason, has a place in belief. Listening to the feelings induced in me by a claim or person allowed me to give my intuition its due voice. As a result, I dispensed with any teachings that incite fear-based emotions, pigeonholing and an “us and them” mentality. I walked away from anyone who somehow made me feel uncomfortable. Subsequently, I no longer felt the need to search for the “right” denomination. We are all like the parable of the blind men and the elephant and need to take what is valid from each other’s belief systems. I now only welcome ideas that make me feel at peace with myself, the world, and God. The heart can be a garden of bliss, once we weed out the negativity.
Alhamdulillah. Home hasn’t been in a place all along. It has been within.
About the author
Abigail Maryam is an American of Polish origin, and a revert since 2014. She holds an M.D. from Jagiellonian University Medical College. She resides in the UK with her lovely daughter.