By Abigail Maryam
Be like a tree and let the dead leaves drop.
There was a mosque I used to go to. It housed a tight community of people who knew one another well. No one was left out, and they enthusiastically invited all newcomers to attend their classes. They were deeply religious and posed no threat. When I first came there, all was well at the beginning. They were generous, kind, and hospitable. But as the weeks and months went by, there was a growing discomfort within me. Something just did not feel right.
Fear was in the air. The community had its own publications about the “correct belief” that stood alongside the Qur’an and hadith as required reading, as though the latter were insufficient. Their creed was like truth carved into stone, and they made sure everyone upheld it. No one could dare water it down through independent thinking. To that end, they drilled the same phrases into our heads every day, like a door to a house. The mind could not then welcome new ideas.
Sometimes, tears were brought to my eyes. The sisters tasked themselves with “course correcting” others if they perceived mistakes. I could not go to the women’s prayer area without hearing comments, being told my already modest attire was inadequate, or my prayer being graded like an exam paper. While they did not walk in front me praying, their observations felt like an encroachment upon my spiritual space. The constant criticism and unsolicited advice offered in the name of “helping” me made me fear remarks for walking, or even breathing, incorrectly.
Communicating my pain did not yield the results I hoped for. They told me it was “Shaytan” and must be overcome. All members of the community stood in solidarity and defended one another, rarely addressing my issues. They liked to maintain their good opinions of each other. While talking about a problem we had, a sister told me, “It was your fault.” They made me feel bad, although I knew I did nothing wrong to deserve that feeling.
Conversing with them was like crossing minefields. They drew a thin line between being a Muslim and a kaafir. Almost every day, that word was thrown around. They saw it as a religious duty, advocated judging others by appearance, and did not hesitate to tell me I (allegedly) left Islam. Those words were a tremendous blow to me. They told me not to pray behind an imam who did not espouse their creed – even in Makkah – or I would become a kaafir. Clearly, they demanded unconditional loyalty to them, not to Islam.
The imam’s speeches became annoying after a while. He frequently attacked scholars and certain groups of people. On one occasion, he stated something so appalling that I can’t even say it. I would not have understood it had an honest, Arabic-speaking friend of mine not translated it for me. I raised my concerns and said I was leaving. They employed the “blinding FOG – Fear, Obligation, and Guilt” described by Susan Forward in her book, Emotional Blackmail. I responded with my best salaams and prayers for them.
The guilt took time to wear off. I learned that feeling guilty does not necessarily mean we have something to feel guilty about. Psychotherapist, life coach and author Michelle Bersell teaches that the gift of guilt is to redefine ourselves. We feel guilty because we engage in self-doubt and second-guess our actions. We are pulled in different directions by our ego and soul; the former being concerned with our image and consequences, and the latter with our truth and best interests. If we feel bad stepping out of line, then we need to consider whether that line is even good for us.
Whenever others attempt to influence us, it is usually not because of a problem we have, but a problem they have. People become part of an elite, privileged few to bolster their low self-esteem. They want to make sure their black-and-white world is safe and predictable by making everyone think alike. But people are not projects. Who you are is more than enough, and don’t listen to those who want you to believe otherwise.
Releasing oneself from the fetters of toxic relationships is more than just cutting ties or setting appropriate boundaries. It is about growing beyond the person we were who attracted them in the first place. No one would have tried to brainwash us if they did not think it would be easy. Manipulators can sense weaknesses and capitalize on them, such as low self-worth, fear of being unloved, or lack of confidence.
We need to ask ourselves how their attitude towards us reflect our attitude towards ourselves. Because honestly, were the negative self-talk not present, we would not have lasted five minutes with them. Our responsibility lies in the fact that we allowed these people into our lives. We settle for less because we don’t believe we will get anything better. We fear to be alone once we leave them because we are not yet at home with ourselves. But to have what we truly deserve in life, we must release everything that is not love.
Psychotherapist Katherine Woodward Thomas writes in her book, Calling in “The One:” “If you are operating under the illusion that you can continue to hold on to people who you know are not good for you, and still create an extraordinary life filled with love and fulfillment, then you are fooling yourself. Toxic ties cost us and they cost us big time. If you are feeling stuck in your life, look to see who or what it is that you are stuck to.”
The people who have our best interests at heart are not those who tell us what to believe, but who empower us to think critically and live in alignment with our truth and values. Real love never uses fear, obligation, or guilt, but makes our hearts feel safe and at peace. It respects and accepts us as we are, and feeds on our imperfections. Let us cultivate this kind of love towards ourselves while seeking God’s help.
“It is He who sent down tranquillity into the hearts of the believers that they would increase in faith along with their [present] faith. And to Allah belong the hosts of the heavens and the earth, and ever is Allah Knowing and Wise.” ( The Qur’aan, Surah al-Fath 4)
About the author:
Abigail Maryam is Polish-American, and a revert sister since 2014. She is passionate about reading, writing, and traveling. For more of her posts, visit https://abigailmaryam.home.blog and her Facebook page.