I grew up with a strict version of Islam where nothing was negotiable. Alongside the regular prohibitions such as not drinking alcohol and eating pork, there were a myriad of rules that I had to live my life in accordance to. From the age of 4, I was sent to classes at the local mosque to learn Arabic, to memorise supplications and study the fundamentals of Islam. I was taught how to pray, how to recite the Qu’ran, and most importantly I was taught about the things that I was forbidden from doing.
Islam was indoctrinated into my skin.
I was not to wear perfume or nail varnish. I was not to expose anything but my hands and face in public. I was not to wear clothes that revealed the shape of my body. I was not to imitate or dress like the opposite sex. I was not to talk to or befriend the opposite sex. I was not to have any physical contact with the opposite sex. I was not to partake in a relationship outside of marriage. I was not to consume haraam meat. I was not to gossip or backbite. I was not to tell lies, I was not to curse. I was not to read horoscopes or believe in fortune-tellers. I was not to draw pictures with eyes. I was not to hang photographs on the walls. I was not to play card or board games. I was not to watch television or listen to music. Upon reaching puberty, I was to fast during Ramadan. I was to pray 5 times a day. I was not to lust after the opposite sex or make eye contact. I was not to partake in any sort of gambling. I was not to visit places that served alcohol. I was not to be tattooed. I was not to get anything but ear piercings. I was not to wear high heels. I was not to thread my eyebrows. I was not to believe in astrology.
I remember being forbidden from sleeping over at my best friend’s house because my father was afraid that there would be alcohol in their home. I remember being told off by my mosque teacher for asking a boy his name, or for being seen on the street without a head covering. I remember my grandfather profusely yelling from across the road because I was wearing a t-shirt which exposed my arms and did not reach my knees. I remember having to double-check that there were no remnants of nail varnish on my fingernails or that I was not wearing my cartoon-printed socks to the mosque. I remember hearing about the atrocities of the Hellfire, about punishments within the grave.
Although my parents did not forbid me from watching television, playing games or listening to music, I still grew up within the margins of these restrictions. By 11, I had read through the Qur’an 3 times and was able to cease my attendance at the mosque. I was now responsible for upholding my beliefs and obeying God. I was old enough to be accountable for my own sins.
School life was the only sovereignty in my life. I had the capacity to do anything that I wanted and it was liberating. I learned to practice the art of sin in secret, and although I would often be devoured by my own guilt, there was something very electrifying about breaking the rules. When I came home at the end of each day, I was still inherently Muslim but I began living two separate lives. Although I always reaffirmed my belief in God, my compliance to Islam ricocheted on each division of the spectrum. As I grew older, religion began to impose more restrictions, it became a burden. I wasn’t able to live my life the way that I wanted to because everything seemed to be forbidden and it was not until the passing of my grandfather that my perspective changed. His death left me devastated. I did not understand how I was supposed to cope or mourn. However, upon witnessing his smiling cadaver, the concept of Islam and grief suddenly made sense. My grandfather had been a good man, he had spent the entirety of his life living by the word of God. Now that he was gone, he looked happy; he was at peace. Religion became simple in that moment; if I obeyed God, I would be content.
I made changes, I tried to be a better Muslim, but upon realising the magnitude of the sinful life that I was living, my body became filled with a rush of cataclysmic anxiety. I thought about everything that I’d done in my life, I thought about the ways in which I would be reprimanded for the atrocities of my sins. I became repulsed by myself, by my reflection, by my own existence. God would never forgive me, not for these things. The descriptions of the Hellfire were engrained into my skin, its scorn, its potency. I was going to rot for eternity. I was petrified. I needed to revoke my mistakes and the only way that I knew how was to wholeheartedly dedicate myself to God. I began to cover my hair and body, I prayed 5 times a day from sunrise to sunset, I read the Qur'an each morning, I attended Islamic lectures, I surrounded myself with Muslims and thought and spoke about nothing but God. I would have done anything to erase my past. I just wanted to forget. I wanted to be forgiven. I wanted to stop being afraid, of Hell, of God. I spent 2 entire years in this state, anxious, terrified. I gave up everything that I knew to obey Him, but I was trapped in a perpetual cycle of self-hatred. I begged and begged for Him to make things better, to make me feel some brand of peace, but nothing changed. He had abandoned me.
I gave up.
I gave up.
I removed my hijab and abaya. I stopped praying, I stopped reading the Qur’an. I ceased everything. I lost my faith and the depression had already apprehended my mind so there was no longer anything keeping me alive. Suicide was prohibited in Islam, it was the only reason that I was still alive, but I was alone now. I was no longer afraid of God, of Hell, because life did not matter. I surrendered because no version of Hell was going to reach the pinnacle of this suffering. I didn't owe God anything and this feeling inevitably led to resentment, which is where I have resided for the past 2 years.
I’d like to think that the anger has subsided but I can still feel it buried within the meridian of my ribcage. Islam is all that I know, I still do things intrinsically like when I utter ‘alhamdulillah’ in a moment of gratitude or when I return a greeting of salaam. They are embedded within the fibre of my skin. However, Islam for me is associated with anxiety and sin and I’m not ready to succumb to its regulations or this heightened version that has been indoctrinated into my being. Islam is not about existing inside boundaries, it’s about trying your best and having the right intentions so I’m disregarding everything and starting over. I need to learn to trust in God again.