Why I Wrote Pain. From the Journal of Umm Zakiyyah
“Well,” I said, a bit exhausted from all the back and forth, “we all have to do what we believe will earn us Paradise.” It was my final attempt at a resolution. I was visiting a friend I’d known since childhood and whom I hadn’t seen for several years, and just like old times, we were disagreeing on how to handle a modern day American Muslim dilemma.
In the past, my friend and I would speak on the phone for hours, talking about everything from whether or not a home mortgage or credit card involved riba (usury), whether or not it was better to raise your children in a predominately Muslim country, and the practical and spiritual implications of identifying with only one Muslim group or sheikh. And I’d enjoyed these conversations immensely. One of the reasons that she and I had cliqued so well was that I was a researcher at heart, and she was a questioner by nature. I’d share with her something I’d learned, and she’d ask just enough questions to ascertain whether or not my conclusion met the desired goal: to do what Allah required or permitted in that circumstance.
But today felt different, and I couldn’t pinpoint why, as we seemed to be talking in circles. She’d gone through some significant life changes recently, I pondered. Maybe this was what was shifting the atmosphere between us. But I too had recently gone though similar changes. So in my mind, this was just one more thing she and I had in common.
“What does Paradise have to do with this conversation?” she snapped, narrowing her eyes as she regarded me.
We had been talking for hours by then. At some points in the conversation, I’d sat completely silent, listening intently to her points as I tried to grasp where she was coming from. But it had been to no avail. Nothing seemed to make sense. But when she uttered this singular question, I had a jolting epiphany. To her, this topic is completely unrelated to our souls and attaining salvation in the Hereafter.
At the realization, I was deeply confounded. I grew quiet, as I really didn’t know what to say to that.
The “Crime” of Faith
Long after the disagreement with my friend, I found myself thinking, What happened? Part of me wanted to chalk up her question to her fleeting irritation with me at the moment. But our dozens of phone calls, emails, and texts following that conversation kept circling right back to the same point: Leave Paradise out of it, she insisted, and let’s talk about what’s really right and wrong.
But how could a practicing Muslim truly believe that God and Paradise were irrelevant in any situation?
I’ve been keeping a personal journal since I was thirteen, and during my mid-twenties, there is a noticeable shift in my writing. When I was in my early teens, so much of my writing was about different circumstances I’d faced in public high school and my perplexity about the injustices of the outside world. Reading between the lines, I could see that I was a community activist in the making. I wanted to make America (and the rest of the world) a better place by speaking out against racism and the vices of abandoning God as the center of our lives.
However, in my mid-twenties, a shift began to happen in my writing. Though I didn’t fully comprehend it at the time, I was in a lot of emotional pain, and many of my journal entries reflected that internal turmoil. Ironically, despite everything I was going through, self-blame was the consistent underlying theme. Hence the reflection I shared in Pain. From the Journal of Umm Zakiyyah about losing a child in utero and believing I was a “bad Muslim” because I was sad and confused.
I know now that I’d only believed I was a “bad Muslim” because of the constant verbal and emotional abuse I was experiencing from close friends and community elders I’d loved and respected since childhood.
To them, the evidence of my crime was displayed in my wearing the hijab of “foreign Muslims,” of not listening to music, and of no longer celebrating non-Muslim holidays. When I’d made the decision to wear niqaab (the face veil), they were completely convinced that I’d lost my mind, and they made private and public pronouncements saying I was crazy and even Shaytaan (the Devil) himself.
However, ironically, to them my gravest crime was believing that Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him—not their favored imam—was the ultimate human authority regarding what we should believe about our Islamic faith.
Once, when I was speaking to one of the community imams, I mentioned that my ultimate goal in life was to earn Paradise. He’d scoffed at me and spoke as if it was the most ridiculous thing he’d ever heard. He then proudly declared that he doesn’t spend even one second of his life worrying about the Hereafter. “I’m too busy focusing on my life in this world,” he boasted. “Our ultimate goal in this life isn’t to go to Paradise.” He’d spat the last word, as if even speaking about the concept was deplorable to him.
And years later, during a discussion with a close friend who was part of this community, I was asked, “What does Paradise have to do with this conversation?”
“It Will Be Tainted”
In a hadith collected by Bukhari and Muslim, the Companion Hudhaifa bin Al-Yaman (may Allah be pleased with him) narrated:
‘The people used to ask Allah’s Messenger about the good, but I used to ask him about the evil, lest I should be overtaken by it. So I said, “O Messenger of Allah! We were living in ignorance and in an [extremely] corrupt atmosphere, then Allah brought to us this good (i.e. Islam). Will there be any evil after this good?” He said, “Yes.”
‘I said, “Will there be any good after that evil?” He replied, “Yes, but it will be tainted (i.e. not pure).” I asked, “What will be its taint?” He replied, “[There will be] some people who will guide others not according to my tradition. You will approve of some of their deeds and disapprove of some others.”
‘I asked, “Will there be any evil after that good?” He replied, “Yes. [There will be] some people calling at the gates of the Fire, and whoever will respond to their call, will be thrown by them into the Fire.”
‘I said, “O Messenger of Allah! Will you describe them to us?” He said, ”They will be from our own people and will speak our language.” I said, “What do you order me to do if such a state should take place in my life?” He said, “Stick to the jamaa’ah (group of Muslims) and their Imam (ruler).”
‘I said, “[What should I do] if there is neither a jamaa’ah nor an Imam (ruler)?” He said, “Then turn away from all those sects, even if you were to bite (i.e. eat) the roots of a tree till death overtakes you while you are in that state.”
In Search of a Muslim Ummah
Upon realizing that my childhood community was toxic to my emotional and spiritual well-being, I spent many years searching for a Muslim community that was loving, supportive, and understanding of all believers striving for Paradise.
Till today, I’ve yet to find it.
Nearly every community I’ve encountered held as inflexible Islamic requirements issues in which Islam itself permitted varying points of view—or even issues that had no roots in Islam at all—and thereby justified mistreating and disregarding fellow Muslims.
Some communities viewed Muslims who listened to music as effective heathens for whom love of Allah or Qur’an was a spiritual impossibility. Others treated Muslims who favored the face veil and the prohibition of music as extremists akin to the media-hyped “terrorists” wreaking havoc on earth. Some demanded that I view my African-Americans roots as a sign of spiritual superiority over all humankind. Others were so deeply involved in various political and anti-racism movements that narcissistic emotionalism had replaced Islam itself as the grounds for commanding the good and forbidding the evil. Still others had no foundational Islamic beliefs at all, except whatever differed from “traditional” Islam and the moral teachings of the Qur’an and Sunnah. And most popular were communities like the one I’d experienced in youth, those that required complete religious allegiance to a human being other than Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.
Year after year, as I studied Islam and traveled the world, my consistent question to these communities has been, “Are you saying that such-and-such is a requirement to enter Paradise?” Often they’d look at me as if I’d offended them. Despite the various responses I’ve received, most seemed to be saying what I’d heard over and over before: “What does Paradise have to do with anything?”
Thus, I remained in emotional and spiritual turmoil for many years. In my search for emotional peace and spiritual direction, I penned much of my pain in my personal journal, as I had so many times before. Hence the birth of the deeply personal reflections I share in Pain. From the Journal of Umm Zakiyyah.
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