It's funny. I met a Sufi (to those who don't know, that is a practitioner of one of many forms of Islamic mysticism) not so long ago, and after he got to know me, he told me I struck him as more Muslim than most of the Muslims he knew. I told him I hadn't prayed or fasted in years and I was pretty much never going to do pilgrimage. His reply was: "Muslims do those things to remind themselves they are Muslim. You don't seem to have ever forgotten."
I don't know about that, but it is an interesting introduction.
Losing one's faith, especially when you really, really don't want to lose it an intensely personal and cerebral event, so I'm not sure how well I can put it into words without oversimplifying, but I'll try. It's sort of like having a big, strong bully who wants your toy yank it from your hands no matter what you do. And you know the minute you see them exactly what is going to happen, but you struggle and fight anyway even though it makes no difference.
I teach English as a second language at a community college, and as many things as I am good at like literary analysis, making stealth snipers in FPS games, guessing business's hotspot passwords, and writing really long blog posts, bicultural people (or those in visibly marginalized groups) have at least one ability I simply lack. I would offer up that I'm better now (after fifteen years of being a writer) than I was when I was having a crisis of faith, but still rubbish compared to any one of them.
That is the ability to keep two mutually exclusive ideas within one's head as absolutely true at the same time.
Them: Yeah, I can see how that could work.
Cultural paradox turns out to be common among those who have no choice, but for a white, heterosexual male living in Los Angeles during his early twenties, it was more than I could handle.
The more I understood Islam, the more I couldn't cope with that comprehension. Ideas like marriage equality, women's equality, and democracy crashed against Islam's foundational principles like unrelenting waves. Every day I read something about stoning adulterers, lashing people for premarital sex, or beating women for dressing too revealingly. One moment I particularly remember was reading–ironically, on the exact same day as some breaking research into the biological component of homosexuality–that the punishment for homosexuality should be having a burning house collapsed on them or being thrown off a cliff. But then one of my friends chimed in that it wasn't clear that anything should happen except for the prescribed flogging for pre-marital sex.
Yeah. That was the moderate stance: "You don't have to kill them, just flog them! See, it really is quite reasonable."
Or I would read Chapter 4 of the Quran and then lie in bed at night staring at the ceiling while those deep seated values of equality my parents raised me with fought it out with what I thought then was God's will on the matter. Was God really telling physically stronger people to beat the weaker ones if they showed too much skin? Had He really had made men as the maintainers of women because they were better? Was a man marrying four women okay if women couldn't do the same. Why was men marrying Christians and Jews okay but women couldn't. Why could men have sex with slaves captured during war but women couldn't? Was women getting half the inheritance of men simply by virtue of being women really okay? Was their some inherent fairness in all of this because "women don't ever have to work except on the housekeeping and child rearing" (cause, you know.... that's not *real* work)? Was I missing something?
Some nights I didn't get much sleep.
I took after Islam with the same obsessive intensity with which I take to so many things--a talent I would later apply to reading Sherri S. Tepper books, memorizing MST3K lines, beating real time strategy games on their hardest setting, and player vs. player combat in World of Warcraft. I learned more than most of my Muslim friends in a few months. After only a year I was being invited to give a khutbah (that's the little talk before the Friday prayer) somewhere in the L.A. area almost every week, and I was teaching Sunday school to people who had been Muslim all their lives. And with that knowledge came both the awareness that people really weren't behaving anything like they were supposed to be behaving as well as increased ideological conflicts--conflicts that weren't going to go away by reading yet another tafsir.
This cultural paradox affected me in an intensely pragmatic way as well. It seemed to me like I was never going to get married. My Muslim friends were largely very rich immigrants whose parents had fairly high levels of nationalism, materialism, and culturalism that were anathema to the spirit of Islam. They would wonder about which sub-specialty of medical doctorate prospective husbands had. The very liberal ones would ask "Doctor or Engineer?" I actually had more than one conversation with middle aged men who had bought an ice cream store franchise or a small restaurant for their wives "to have something to do during the day" that went something like this: "Oh, it only generates fifty or sixty thousand dollars a year. Certainly not enough to live on."
Yeah, who could possibly live on so little?
On top of that there was this strange nationalism within the Muslim community. Syrians thought Syrians made the best Muslims and had the best form of Islam. Egyptians thought Egyptians made the best Muslims and had the best form of Islam. Pakistanis thought Pakistanis made the best Muslims. Malaysians: Malaysians. No one came out and said it (well...except the Saudis--they were pretty direct about it), but it was there.
And since I wasn't any of those things, they all liked to share with me what the others did wrong. "They do not care about the zabiha meat!" "They do not care about the hijab!" "They do not care about the ilm." It's not really anything different than any immigrant community experiences when people carry their sense of national pride and their hope that their children marry someone from the old country. (Hopes that are fairly lax with sons but become rather....strident when it comes to daughters.) I still see it today in my E.S.L. classes and it's not a Muslim thing per se. "No no no," they say. "It's not that I think my culture is the best. It's just better than any other culture and no one else will be marrying my little girl...or I'll kill them."
It's just that in the case of Islam there's an actual proscription from God against that sort of thing. One that is pretty cheerfully ignored.
I had left a life of high school dating to be Muslim, assuming that marriage would be something Muslims did as young as possible to protect them from a world of temptations. Not so much, it turns out. Not only did Muslim's marry later even than most other Americans (many waiting until after graduate or med school), but all these immigrant dads wanted to see their daughters hooked up with young men making six figure (minimum) who were from the same country as they were, and in many cases even the same part of the country.
Pretty much the whole community had a big "You're Never Going to Get Married, Chris" stamp on it.
I couldn't deal with all the disparities around me between my thoughts and values, the Muslim community's thoughts and values, and the thoughts and values that seem to be evident within Islam--at least within a dogmatic interpretation. I didn't have the ability to be both, to say "I don't like that part," or to take solace in liberal interpretations of Islam. Most of the people I met thumped the Quran pretty hard about the stuff their culture cared about already, and shrugged when it came to the parts they were clearly ignoring.
I once got asked to lead the Friday prayer for a group of middle aged guys in Lancaster. I quoted them about thirty verses on how rockstar awesome charity was and handful of sayings of Muhammed about how spartan the lifestyles of the leaders of Islam were. I called on them not to live such lives or even give up modern conveniences, but only to reduce the conspicuous consumption among their trappings of gross excess--like trading their Benz or BMW for a Toyota or giving up their half a million dollar homes (in early 90's real estate prices) for something with one less bedroom.
"Brother," one said to me afterward, "we don't really talk about these things."
I wasn't invited back.
To be fair.... Islam has a number of moderate and even liberal interpretations and even a rich history that closed the door on personal interpretation around the 10th century for very political reasons and many Muslims the world over recently been questioning that choice. Further, the Muslim diaspora spans from Morocco to Malaysia with communities all over Earth. I came in contact with a miniscule fraction of a fraction of the Earth's BILLION or so Muslims, so I can only fairly tell you what I experienced, and not how things truly were. It's possible that beyond the L.A. area I could have found legions of lower middle class Muslims engaged wanton miscegenation who had a real keen sense for the paradox of Islamic expression within the U.S. and who could have talked a convert through his crisis of faith.
However, for me, it became increasingly impossible to accept the watered down Islam because how could anyone accept something as the word of God and then proceed to ignore it? That made no sense. Either you believed or you didn't. I thought the people who claimed to be Muslim but substituted a personal morality when it suited them were the worst sort of hypocrites.
And you can probably imagine what a fucking ray of sunshine I must have been back then to be going through this. Any young woman who might have had liberal parents or been willing to butt heads with them about who they would be marrying was not exactly going to be dazzled by my clinical depression and overwrought judgmental bullshit. I became sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy of rejection.
All of this collided in the spring of 1997 along with the divorce of my parents. They were irritated enough with my decisions, but also had their own shit to deal with. I think they just kind of forgot about me in the crossfire. It was pretty clear that I wouldn't be starting up my own family any time soon. (And despite what you may have heard Muslims aren't really big on cuddle parties or puppy piles.) Many of my student friends even went home on weekends and over vacations leaving me alone in our Westwood apartment about half the time (because for me it wasn't parent-supplied student housing--I actually lived there). There were months--entire months--where I literally did not have even the human contact of a hug. [Edit: I now know that this is something clinical called "touch hunger."]
I went a little crazy.
I don't mean that in a cute, hyperbolic way. ("Oh wasn't that just a shit wacky time in Muslimville? Hahahaha.") I mean I genuinely broke. Snapadoodly-doo. There were moments where if I had been put in front of a psychiatrist, I probably would have been "held for evaluation."
It was the only time in my life that I genuinely contemplated self harm for more than a couple of days at a time. Suicide was against Islam, but I started to dream about buying a one way ticket to some middle eastern country with a messed up dictator, grabbing a rock or stick or knife and just running towards the royal palace as fast as I could until someone holding a rifle shot me dead in the street and made me a martyr.
I dreamed about that a lot, actually.
I dreamed about the way I would look up at the sky from a spreading pool of my own blood and smile, and all the self loathing and confusion and rejection and stark horrible loneliness would be over.
I idealized suicide by corrupt regime.
I couldn't honestly tell you what cracked first--my loneliness or my sense of moral dissociation. I remember moments of depression so severe I literally could not get out of bed; I would replay the middle part of Holst's Jupiter song over and over again and wish I could even nod to my roommate asking "Dude, are you okay?" I remember spending my nights at graveyard security walking my patrols while trying not to cry--often failing. I couldn't sleep and when I did I had terrible nightmares about aspects of my faith and personality literally personified as snarling monsters that were fighting each other and me trying to fight Satan with a pen for a weapon.
I couldn't hold an Islam-lite in my head. I couldn't handle the real version. My future prospects were negligible. No one wanted to deal with my "hardcore crap." I was utterly unweddable. I didn't really even have anyone to talk to who wasn't either telling me to "buck up little soldier" or "quit that silly Buddha crap." (I don't want to impugn anyone personally--they were doing their best and I don't think they knew I was actually in need of professional help.) I was praying to be killed basically every day. And the more I tried to double down and be a better Muslim, the more I didn't like the sexist, homophobic, misogynist I saw in the mirror.
And I can't underscore the non-touching thing enough. It wasn't even the celibacy that was killing me; it was the lack of touch. Now understand the psychological effects of a complete lack of oxytocin a little better, but at the time I just thought I was growing to hate everyone and everything. Which of course made me even more disagreeable, and made things worse, which made me more disagreeable. Hope had abandoned me. Both ideologically and logistically my worlds seemed like magnets with the same poles. The harder I tried to press them together the more force with which they would fly apart.
When there is no alternative, folks learn to adapt to cultural paradox. But I had a choice.
Losing my faith was like being caught in a tunnel with a train coming. I could see it a mile away, but there wasn't a thing I could do about it. By the end I was running towards the train so there wouldn't be any chance my faith would be anything but a long red smear along the tracks.
I felt...like an absolute failure--like I had let everyone down. And yet that release was so sweet. So much of who I really was returned to focus. I felt like me again. I could get a hug, relate to people, maybe kiss a girl without being a doctor or an engineer, and value ideals like equality and social justice again.
The worst part about it was that at that time in my life I look back upon as the most intensely spiritual and most beautiful of my life in a lot of ways. One of the reasons I'd fallen in love with Islam in the first place was the regimented spiritual connection. I could pontificate about altered states of consciousness today, but the fact was at the time my perception was that I had a very spiritual connection to a higher power and I had intentionally severed it because I could not hold to the dogma. Having that wilt in my hands was like watching someone die of some wasting disease that I had given them.
I'm not sorry about what happened. It's possible that if I'd gotten married (or just gotten hugged) that my rougher thoughts may have been smoothed over to make way for slightly laxer substitutes that could coexist within Americana culture. Or it's possible that I would have found peace enough to carry on in a kindred spirit of a wife to really open up to about what was going on in my head. It's possible that with my outrageously over-inflamed sense of commitment and loyalty that--had I gotten married--I would have found a way to make two mutually exclusive ideas work.
My life could have taken a very different turn.
However, I would also not be who I am today, and I like that person. I like his blazing sense of social justice--as imperfect as its expression may sometimes be. I like his snarky sense of humor. I like his contrary irreverence. I like that he is skeptical about the fantastic claims of those around him and that he looks critically at evidence whether it be to crystals or major world religions.
But the story didn't end there. I thought it did--for many years. But it turned out that God (for whatever value of "God" one is comfortable inserting into this metaphor) hadn't died at all. Just all the things that I thought about Him died. He turned out to have survived may crisis of faith, and was merely waiting for me.
There was a moment that happened years afterward. In the darkness of my faith and the height of my lament for losing that spiritual connection with Islam when I was reaching around for some sense of spiritual meaning, but intensely unable to deal with dogma, (at a time when I was just beginning to understand that faith and dogma were separate things), I just happened to have gotten my hands on a copy of Babylon 5. A very personal spiritual character arc is defined when a certain character says "I have always been here." (You will either understand this reference perfectly, or explaining it further would be meaningless.) I fell to bits.
I still can't watch that scene without losing it.
|For the love of everything that is holy in the universe do NOT watch season 5.|
My faith wonders about universal souls and science fiction ideas like "the universe trying to figure itself out." It has no proof of these things, so it does not claim them "true" or define them with "belief" but it finds them comforting to think about. Yet even as it's doing this pontificating, it doesn't take on any endeavors as lofty as attempting to define the entirety of ultimate reality. It looks out across the wonders of the universe and thinks to itself "this is dazzling and spectacular and awe inspiring enough without trying to cram it into a single book and tell you what it all means."
My faith delights in the vast open spaces of questions that it cannot answer in its lifetime (but will enjoy trying), and the endless possibilities of a universe that somehow physically stretches out to the dawn of time, where a point of infinite light and energy once contained all consciousnesses that ever was and ever will be....after a fashion. It does not try to explain, but delights in the images of iris pigmentation looking like galaxy cluster filaments. Maybe infinite energy is divine and the progenitor of the material that would form every single atom of our bodies exploding out to form matter and stars and eventually conscious living brains somehow means we really are tiny pieces of something much bigger. Maybe even small shards of something holy.
And maybe I'll go the other way. Maybe my Sufi friend was more right than he ever knew and there is still another chapter to be written. A chapter with a gentle return to Islam and a family and a softer form of the religion I insisted had to be course and difficult. One with spiritual connection and social justice.
And yes, my faith still holds to the possibility that while it's looking out and feeling that wonder, perhaps there is something--something bigger than this tiny fleck of a world and one little mammal crawling around on its surface--that might be looking back.