I'm Not Religious, But Religion is Important

I’m Not Religious, But Religion is Important

I remember the day I told my mum I couldn’t confidently say that I am religious. “I feel like I have failed as a parent,” she sighed. “My dad – your grandpa – told me to do one thing, and I couldn’t even do that.”

She walked away – a woman who had grown up in an Islamic country where religion was rich and a form of solidarity – and the guilt set in.

Despite the image I just painted, my parents nurtured my siblings and me in a very liberal way when we were growing up. We never had to attend any religious ceremonies, because they believed we were too young. When my teenage brothers started getting close with groups of boys who were extremely religious, my parents backed them away. For lunch at school, my mum always packed me salami sandwiches, even though Islam supports abstinence from pork.

But even with my parents’ reassurance, as I kid I grew up in a world where religion was extremely politicised.  I was four when 9/11 happened, and since then, have been surrounded by the constant condemnation of Islam through the media.  Admittedly, that had a huge impact on how I viewed my own sense of religion, and as a result, I was never really able to appreciate its spiritual aspect.

I am now 20, and a few days ago, my dad asked me to go to a prayer service with him. It would be my first, and I was uneasy.

“Do I wear a scarf?”
“What do I say?”
“Why do the men and women have to sit separately?”

I eventually realised my extremely strong views were getting in the way of simple respect, so I shook off my irrelevant angst and decided to go along.

With my cotton on scarf loosely wrapped around my head, I nervously kept on rehearsing my lines, trying to make sure my poor Farsi was somewhat understandable. As I walked into the reception, my dad nodded and made his way to the men’s side, while I went to the female side.

There was something quite beautiful about the sea of shawls or chadars. The women weren’t restricting themselves, but instead had chosen not to bear their skin as a sign of respect. The same was true of the men: no one was in shorts or short sleeves; they were covered and dressed.

As I sat down, I found my cousins, which made me feel a lot more at ease.  I expected complete silence, but I could hear were warm greetings and condolences, whispers of people reading their copies of the Quran under their breath.

Soon enough, everyone sat down. On a single speaker, one of the elders began to recite the Quran. I don’t know Arabic, so I certainly didn’t understand what he was saying, but there was something about the silence and his voice that mesmerised me. I looked up to see a sea of people with their heads down, and my cousins beside me moved their lips in time with him.

For the first time, I saw religion without the chaos.

After the prayer finished, the men made their way to a bag of big blankets and the women walked to the back of the room. I had never seen a prayer in service before. I went to a Christian high school and awkwardly prayed during chapel, but that’s about it. I had seen my mum pray once in my life at home; my dad never.

Shuffling next to my uncle and my cousin, my dad looked happy. The reciting began again, and everyone started to pray.  The movement of their bodies in the space, the ritual – it was all so enchanting to watch. People and families had all come together to respect someone we had lost, to pray to whoever may or may not be there, and grieve to them. It was a moment of shared vulnerability.

At the end of the service, everyone all raised their hands, heads bowed down, praying for peace and unity for people all around the world – Muslim or not, religious or not.

When my dad got up, he looked, smiled and winked at me. He knew I had never seen him like that before, and he also knew how much it meant to me.

That service was a stunning piece of choreography – an element of rich culture and Islam that gets lost in the chaos of the media.  It’s so upsetting that in the current political landscape, religion has become such a significant component, and for all the wrong reasons. Moments of complete spirituality and solidarity are tarnished with the ignorant views of those who have misinterpreted the crux of Islam, and as a result, everyone is stigmatised with an irrational idea upheld only by extremists.

I am still quite adamantly non-religious, but am humbled and awed that I got to be part of something I had never seen: an instant of holiness and unity. But unfortunately, I’m afraid many others will only continue to see Islam through the lens of popular media, and will never get to witness to the shared spirituality of human behaviour.

Cover by Dnan1

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