How I Lost My Religion

I was raised as a Muslim. The truth is, despite my projected religiosity, I was never fully committed to Islam. Like many children, I did not understand the full importance of my religion or its rituals. I asked my parents, who did their best to explain it all to me. I memorized the standard explanations, but I didn’t feel it in my heart. I participated because my parents wanted me to. As a child, I was eager to please, and so I learned how to read the Qur’an. I learned how to pray. I fasted for Ramadan. I did not eat pork. And before you ask, no I did not wear a burqa (nor did the majority of other Muslim women in my life).

Once a week, my mother would drive my siblings and I deep into the suburban jungle to an old lady’s house. This old lady, who we called Reading Teacher, taught us how to read the Qur’an. I’d sit there, twisting my mouth in a futile attempt to pronounce a language that felt foreign to me, dragging my finger under the text as the words (barely) escaped my mouth. Learning to read the Qur’an was difficult. But then, it’s supposed to be. The Qur’an is written in Arabic, so before I learned to read the scripture itself, I had to learn the Arabic alphabet. That part’s not so difficult because it’s a relatively short alphabet. But here’s the tricky part. I learned to read English language books before I learned to read the Qur’an. Books written for an English-speaking audience sit on the table with their spines on the left. Pages turn from right to left. Sentences flow from left to right. The Qur’an operates in an opposite manner. It sits on the table, spine on the right. Pages flip from left to right. Sentences flow from right to left. Of course, anything that challenges you to go beyond your immediate experience is positive because sit forces you to develop and realize your potential in ways you never knew were possible. Plenty of Muslim children, Arabic-speaking or not, read and memorize the Qur’an before they even reach puberty. Have I memorized the Qur’an? Nope. Am I embarrassed that my 8-year-old cousin can recite the Qur’an better than I can? Absolutely. But does it keep me up at night, tossing and turning with shame? Fuck no.

Islam itself is not the problem, nor is the Arabic language. As I’ve already mentioned, plenty of children read the Qur’an and excel at it. But for me, reading scripture and praying in a language I didn’t understand gave me that initial, unforgettable feeling of being disconnected.  Could I learn Arabic proper? Of course I could. But did I want to learn Arabic? Not at all. Reading and praying using a language I didn’t understand made me feel disconnected. And once you experience that disconnect at a young age, it creates a feeling of inadequacy that is very difficult to forget. Participating in religious rituals like a robot, lacking the passion, the fever, the spark…it felt inauthentic because it was. I felt inauthentic, because I was. Inadequacy and shame go together like roohafza and rosa. Which brings me to my next paragraph…

Ramadan is a time for humility. Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset in an attempt to appreciate our first world luxuries while empathizing with those who go without food every day. Fasting itself was not difficult. When I was in grade school, we weren’t allowed to outside of recess or lunch breaks anyway, so the opportunity to feel tempted did not exist during those hours. I’d get home in time to begin preparing for iftar, or breaking my fast, which allowed the time to pass quickly. When I was old enough, I was responsible for helping make the iftar dinner. It was easy enough; all I had to do was make the fruit chaat (fruit salad). My older sister would make the cholai (chick peas), and my mom would do the rest. We’d lay everything out on the table, including the roohafza and dates. Now, I really hated roohafza. I know some people love the pink syrupy drink, but I loathed it. I still do. Even when diluted in milk, it still makes my taste buds want to shrivel up and die. And the dates? Muslims around the world break their fasts by eating dates. I always dreaded this part. Let’s just say I like dates as much as I like roohafza and leave it at that. These things might not seem important, but they are part of the ritual. Someone much smarter than me once explained that rituals are both performative and transformative. But what happens when your participation in religious rituals is empty to begin with? When you’re just miming your way through it because your parents made you? What transformation is possible then?

Ramadan culminates in Eid-ul-Fitr. Growing up, there was only one mosque in my entire city. Consequently, it filled up fast. While the keeners performed Namaaz (prayer) in a proper mosque, many families (including my own) drove to the nearest Muslim-owned banquet hall. The hall itself contained a partition dividing it in half. Men prayed in one half, while women (and their crying kids) prayed in the other. Segregation-by-gender functions to prevent men and women from distracting each other during prayer. Very hetero-normative, I know. But that’s an entirely different article, so let’s continue learning how praying in a banquet hall was just another experience that alienated me from my religion. Listening to a disembodied male voice recite prayers through a speaker, performing Namaaz using memorized prayers and positions, and again, praying in a language I didn’t understand only furthered my feelings of disconnect.

And here’s the part no one ever wants to talk about. It’s one of the biggest reasons why I lost my religion. In Islam, blood is on the list of things categorized as napaaq, or impure. The trickiest part of being a woman in Islam, at least for me, is the blood. It’s being taught that my biology, something that I have very little control over, makes me unworthy of touching the Qur’an, of performing Namaaz, of fasting during Ramadan. It makes me unworthy of expressing my Muslim-ness for one week every single month. Some women accept this exclusion and are not offended by it at all. That’s their choice, and they have the right to make it. But for me? There is no greater insult than being denied access to any area of life based on my biology. Let me put this into perspective. A woman can devote her entire life to Islam. She can grow up reciting the holy words of Allah, and teaching children to read those exact words. She can volunteer every waking moment and dollar to her local mosque. She can live her life as the ideal Muslim woman in every way possible. But because of a little bit of blood, she is denied access to the very religion she helps prosper. She has to sit in the back of the mosque, or banquet hall, on Eid because she her religion’s view on biology deems her “impure.” At the same time, she has the great fortune of watching her father, uncles, brothers, and sons participate in every small detail of the exact same religion, if they so desire. Is that the reward for her devotion? It’s not my reward, and it’s the exact thing, that one final, unforgettable thing, that erases any guilt I feel for losing my religion.

A quick recap for those of you who have skimmed through, or even stayed with me this far:

I lost my religion because I felt disconnected.

I lost my religion because I felt like an outsider.

I lost my religion because I felt like a fraud.

I lost my religion because my religion taught me that my biology was a valid basis for exclusion.

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