I don’t know where to begin from. Mainly because God throughout my life was already present. In little moments I may have realized it, but never really grasped it till a bit later. Without those small moments that seemed unimportant, I probably wouldn’t have come to know much of what I know now.
I was born a Muslim, in a Muslim family, among a Muslim majority country. I was taught to believe what I was told and to never question much about it, which would be scandalous if I’d ever dared to question God. I also had never gotten the chance to learn much about my prior religion Islam because I’d moved to USA early in my life. Even there, I never encountered a Christian, or knew anything about the religion. I had come across many, but they were only namely inherited because their parents were. Fortunately that didn’t stop me from thinking or coming across those small moments that would shape the next few years of my life.
I remember asking my mother about God. I heard a lot about the creator who spoke everything into existence, and how glorious and powerful he was, but never did I hear that he loved us. All I knew was that he was unseen, too great to be seen by us. He was unknowable, so far as claiming that from what I understood, distant. I loved to ask why he was like that, but I didn’t get a satisfying answer, sometimes no answer at all.
Another question I approached my mother with was, “Why aren’t we able to talk with God?” She replied saying that only the prophets had the ability to do that or that they were given it. I felt very envious of them. I had many questions after: why only them? How are we supposed to follow or listen to him if we can’t even hear him? If I were to be able to talk with him, what would he sound like? What would it feel like? Was I even supposed to imagine this?
Whenever I’d ask deep questions, I’d get replies from my family in this manner: “Just obey God, so that you don’t go to hell.” My mother would at times go far as to joke about hell with me, saying that the people who go there would be burnt like grilling a fish. I understood that she meant no harm, but the ideas I had about God, were frightening. I felt like he was scary and hated people who wouldn’t do as he said; even questioning him was a big no.
My family wasn’t entirely religious, there are many Islamic sects—most of which aren’t along the doctrines of Islam—but the majority were mainly nominal and picking and choosing their views. Even the most religious in my family, wasn’t considered to be an accurate representation of the religions commands. However the most common view within my family was living by good works, that the good works would outweigh the bad, and eventually if the good are more, then heaven. My family would talk to me, without factual evidence, about how Islam was the glory of the Middle East, that it was a peaceful religion, or even as so far as to call it the easiest religion. They would talk about their prophet as being an amazing person that everyone needs to follow. So many ideas and views, although they mainly derived from secondary sources and further—like from sheikhs/Imams (i.e. alike to pastors but for Islam) and books written about the doctrine itself—but none were true representations. Oddly when my family would speak with zeal and pride in their religion, saying that it’s a blessing for me to have been born a Muslim because its supposedly the last revelation and seal to all past religions, yet never did I have that zeal or so called spiritual trigger for it. All they said seemed like empty words to me. It was scary to not feel anything either, with thoughts likes: am I going to hell because of my dislike or carelessness? Why couldn’t I feel that zeal toward what they’d said? Is something wrong with me? Why wouldn’t I connect with God in the same manner of prophets? If he created us, then why doesn’t he care to show us the love that everyone talked about?
I’m not sure what age I was, but around 6, my older sister came to stay with me and my family for a week. One of the days she stayed, my parents had left to go grocery shopping. While they were out, the time came for prayer. At that time, I had no idea how to pray in an Islamic way or what I was supposed to say or do. I watched my sister as she’d prayed but I did something else of my own. I asked God if I can have money in my plastic purse, back then it had fake dollar bills, and for candy when my parents return from grocery shopping. Without the Islamic rituals or positioning et cetera, I was just on my knees. Afterward, my sister and I went to sleep till my parents had returned. When I first got up and walked outside my room, my mom got something from one of the plastic bags, which was a candy ring. I rushed after to check my hiding spot for my fake purse. (It wasn’t much of a hiding place, basically a cabinet under the TV. I also thought that the corner between two couches in the living room were basically my new house.) However when I grabbed my purse and opened it, there was a few dollar bills in it. To me that was the vastest of miracles that blew my mind at my age. But frankly, it wasn’t related to the Islamic prayer nor did use the name referred to as God in Islam. It was a simple prayer request from a child that knew little about the great love of God. It was a simple act, yet made me rejoice.
When I got older and I started to see the many aspects of Islam (i.e. the 5 pillars: 5 daily prayer, Ramadan fasting et cetera…) I felt like there were so many burdensome rituals. Prayer was mostly recitation, and felt meaningless or ineffective. There was no substance or sincerity to it. So many procedures and ethics to every aspect of the Islamic doctrine, I used to think about why God would make us do all these things all day. Back then I didn’t know that prayers and worship, that wasn’t Islamic, has many ways. A shock that I knew later, that I could have an actual conversation with God. So many Muslims view this as “Haram” basically a forbidden or sinful act, that prayers should only be the recitation of Qur’an verses. Yet when I watched movies that displayed Christians, I would see them praying about everything. Only thing on my mind was that these people must be crazy and no other explanation. Now from a Muslim perspective, I was taught to view all those who die as non-Muslims will go to hell because they haven’t converted. Yet at the same time I was told numerously that the God of Islam is the God of the bible. Why would a God favor certain people over others whom were his also? My mother would tell me this story about a man who was a Christian, and at a point of his life he searched and converted to Islam so this led him to go to heaven. On the other hand, a man who was a Muslim converted and went to hell. Would be lovely for a night time story, but the thought of this now completely breaks my heart because it reveals the amount of deception in the Muslim world. They view it as the perfect religion, one that was final and sent from God to assure the “corruption” that Jews and Christians had made. Yet at the same time Islam assures that of the Christian and Jewish doctrine. They have a conception that these are all religion. They never open to read the doctrine to realize that it’s more than a religion but a relationship, that judies was a law to be fulfilled by the loving Messiah who had come to save the world. I was taught not to question. The bible to me was viewed as something sinful to read. Not all, but many had this spirit of hypocrisy, where people would pray against each other and insult them yet hide the insults and show a façade of mercy and forgiveness toward a person. People especially in the 21st century, go with the motto of Love your friends, hate your enemies, ignore them, fight with them and always end up being right, get your dignity back by showing your pride and value. This was what I learnt.
Deep down I always felt revolted my Islam not knowing why, yet I never dared to think about any other religion. Especially because of the law of apostasy in Islam where those who dare to even think about any other religions can be killed. A love I hadn’t known yet was substituted by fear and terror.
The Hadith, collected by Bukhari (4.52.220) goes as follows:
Allah’s Apostle said, “I have been sent with the shortest expressions bearing the widest meanings, and I have been made victorious with terror (cast in the hearts of the enemy), and while I was sleeping, the keys of the treasures of the world were brought to me and put in my hand.” Abu Huraira added: Allah’s Apostle has left the world and now you, people, are bringing out those treasures (i.e. the Prophet did not benefit by them).
I was fearful with little bits of knowledge. I never learnt the religion fully because I’d spent most of my life in USA; I never learnt Arabic until a while back due to the interest of actually discovering some truths, though my mind was guarded. Thankfully part of God’s plan for me. Another part of the plan was coming across a country with a commandment that claims freedom of religion. Although the one view I saw most common around me, especially family members, was the claim to get religious or covered at the end of their lives. Why do we have to wait that long? Yet this became my common view because I was so revolted by the religion, I decided to keep it till the last parts of my life. In addition to that was the common view of Works>Faith, because there was no faith in my religion. What was there to put faith in? Terror.
Living in a Godless generation, I became prone to societies emotions and cultural views. In addition to a puberty phase, seeing that statistically all teenagers go through common depression and suicidal thoughts. I was surrounded by children with no hope. Schools that claim to be bully free zones, and kids looking for hope in everything but God, because that’s not what they were taught. I felt like I needed to copy them and be like them, depressed, anti-social, suicidal et cetera… I grasped it as my reality and tried to fish for moments in my life where I can back up the negativity with. I’m not saying there weren’t any hardships, but it was useless to live based on them. At age 6, when I would travel to my main country for visits, there was a babysitter who would stay with me while my parents were out. While they were out, she would want to do sexual activities, rape, and as a 6 year old I didn’t understand it. Likewise my cousin would too, and this had psychological effects on my mind, shame every time I remember it. Even when I would travel back, still having been young, I would do likewise experimenting with a neighbor I had, and because I saw this as normal I’d done it to a girl that was even younger than me. Some of which are things I never mentioned to my parents, only little bits of my family and the babysitter to my mother, but because in this culture there are high standards and reputations involved, I had to be silent with what happened. This led me to harbor bitterness, hatred and anger in my heart toward everyone. The common activity kids also experimented with was masturbation, and because of the early activity I encountered—from age 6 I formed an addiction that I couldn’t stop. Out of negative emotions, I learnt to guard my heart, not in a biblical way but with negativity and bitterness toward my family and anyone who disregarded, rejected, or misunderstood my reasons. A vocabulary of hate, revenge, battle, and aggravation was the most common for me. At times I grew tired of it and ask myself why I was like this.
There came a time where I went to school in my main country: Egypt. At my school there was a field trip every semester to another city: from Alexandria to Cairo. There we would stay 2 days and one night. In the first day we would visit historical sites, mosques, churches, and the second day we’d go to an amusement park then travel back to Alexandria. The first time I’d gone, something changed.
We first visited an old mosque. My first impression of it, was how it smelt of dirty socks. Traditionally before entering a mosque, people had to take their shoes off because it was viewed as a holy house, not only smelly but noisy, kids running, people visiting. I saw some of the most annoying things, for example a guy had grabbed a camera and from high up in pathways above he began taking pictures of tourists—without their consent. They call a place holy yet greatly dishonor it. Along with all of this, due to my anxiety attacks and high levels of insecurity, I felt as if they were starting at me. It felt like judgment was penetrating me and exposing my every fear. All I had in mind was the need to run out of the mosque.
Soon we left and afterward I’d felt like I was safe again. I didn’t understand why I felt this way, but I was thankful that we finally left. We continued on a bus ride again for a few minutes.
Now came no car zone area so we got off the bus to visit another place. This time it was a church. St Serguis also known as The Hanging Church (Historical background that I didn’t know then, was that this church was built over the place of which infant Jesus, Mary and Joseph had fled to in Egypt from the threats of King Herod.
Having entered the walk way, there was something I felt inside of me. I wasn’t sure what it was then, but it felt like I was at rest. The more we walked and got closer to the church, the more I forgot the negativity I held. It was like a no car and bitterness zone, left it all at the entrance. Along with rest, I felt like I was being led to something. There were small stores along the way; it was mainly a Christian area so they led the stores. I noticed that I wasn’t insecure around a road full of people (i.e. my greatest fear then.)
The first picture on the left side was a perfect representation of how I viewed the church as I approached it: Radiating with something I never knew I longed for. The closer I got the more calm I was. My life felt like it was being washed off from imperfections, and a feeling I’ve grown tired of. After a path and seemingly long stairway, I entered the church.
Time felt like it suddenly stood still, and I thought that at this moment it meant more than all the circumstances I’ve come across. The invisible breath I held, was let go. I felt like I was indulging on peace and stood absolutely paralyzed. On the right side picture was my view of the church from the inside. Instead of judgment that penetrated me, was that unrecognizable light that calmed me. There were many visitors and I saw an old couple in the back cue’s praying. I had a couple of Christian friends back then that had walked up to the front and began praying. I felt like I wanted to reach out and grab what they had. Their prayers may have even meant more to me than to them.
A few minutes later I had so sit down because I couldn’t handle the serenity. While everyone was checking out and walking around the church, I was sitting and afraid that I’d lose what I felt. It was like staying so still, I almost thought I lost consciousness. Light was the only word perfect enough to describe it. In reality I know now that it was an encounter with Gods presence. Smooth living waters soon had to come to an end, because we had to leave the church and head to the next site. Deep down rose my common Islamic instinct, though soon overshadowed, how can I feel this way? This is wrong, because I’ve been taught that it was—but why haven’t I ever felt this way toward my own religion? I felt like my parents have been selfishly keeping from me this secret for a long time. I was crazy to enjoy any of this, but I couldn’t help it, I loved how relieved I felt. All my walls had been crushed and deep down I saw that there was still a heart beating somewhere. I couldn’t leave but I had to. Though when I left I felt like a voice was telling me that soon I’ll return again, not to the church but to this ‘Light.’
It was just a matter of patience.
To be Continued.