What is my Islam?

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Illustrated by Ally Matas.

By Arman Adel.

There is a certain sense of unspoken loneliness that I feel affects a lot of Muslims during the public reaction to incidences of terrorism in the West.

Growing up in Oakville for 16 years I never really noticed any kind of “post-terrorist-attack backlash” because I was surrounded by close friends and family, but now that I’m off on my own and without my community, it’s becoming much more evident.

Originally, I intended to talk about the history of the Islamic people and how ISIS is only a small fraction of it, but every time I sat down to write this article I kept remembering my childhood experience at Islamic Sunday School.

So, I now begrudgingly forgo my chance to sound academic in favour of an embarrassing anecdotal story.

Now, before reading through my experience it is important to note that I’m not very religious. It was never a major part of the household that I grew up in. However, that might be what makes this story relatable. You’re not getting any insight into practices or scripture, just what it’s like to grow up as a Muslim. Anyways, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s begin.

The two most shocking moments from my childhood were when I got Christmas permanently cancelled and when my parents said I had to go to Islamic Sunday School. How I got Christmas cancelled is a good story for another time; for now let’s focus on Sunday school.

Being a 7 year old with all white non-Muslim friends, absolutely no knowledge of my cultural or religious heritage, and having no understanding of the Arabic language, I hated Sunday school. Well, hate may be a bit extreme. I didn’t mind memorizing my prayers and repeating the Arabic alphabet out loud every class. But there was one thing I hated at Sunday school – in fact, I hated this thing more than I hated Sunday school itself.

Omar.

We were like oil and water the second we met. If there was ever a person that my childhood self-loathed passionately it was Omar. Suddenly, Sunday school had become a coliseum and we were poor excuses for Gladiators. Every day, it was a different competition: who could find the coolest thing in the field? Who could climb the play structure faster? Who had the harsher insults? Our friends really didn’t care, but to us, these competitions were the only things preserving the sanctity of our over inflated 7 year old egos.

Eventually though, like all things in childhood, our rivalry reached a boiling point and for whatever reason, I threw a poorly judged punch at Omar’s face on our way to the afternoon prayer on the last day of Sunday School.

Emotions were flying, tears were falling and our tiny little hands were flailing wildly through the air until the headmaster came and broke us up. When he had finally separated the two of us, our tears of anger immediately became tears of terror in anticipation of some terrible punishment or a phone call home to our parents.

We both saw it coming; he was looking right at us, his face red with anger.

He opened his mouth, ready to scold us. It was all over.

Now it was here that something peculiar happened – he laughed.

The headmaster bent down to the level of our little heads and said “You are both the children of Allah, you are brothers, do not fight, now please hug each other and make up.”

And that was that. Me and Omar hugged each other and made our way to the prayer and then went home.

I never went back to Sunday school and I never saw Omar again but the event still stays with me. I never forgave Omar and I have no regrets over what I did but I’m still in awe at the headmaster’s response to our act of violence. This learned man, this scholar of Islam, had all the power in the world to bring the wrath of Allah down upon us stupid children and instead he decided to make us hug. There was no lecture, no retribution, no detention, not even a call home; there wasn’t even a demand for a verbal apology. Just a hug — all he wanted from us was a hug.

It was that moment in which I truly discovered what a devout, fundamental Muslim looked like.

Moving beyond my past and bringing the discussion back to the present – to say that Islam promotes violence, or that radical groups like ISIS are founded on fundamental Islamic values, continues to be a very common narrative in the public sphere and it downright hurts. I know the North American Muslim community has always tried to maintain a face of solidarity in light of these discussions, but deep down, it kills us inside.

To us, being Muslim is much more than a news headline or a religious denomination.

When we enter a mosque we see groups of people from all over the world with very little in common that are willing to stand toe to toe and shoulder to shoulder (in a very literal sense; we have to fill in the gaps between people when praying) without any hesitation.

When we celebrate Ramadan, we see people smiling even though they are hungry and thirsty.

When we celebrate Eid, we hug and sincerely say “Eid Mubarak” to everyone and anyone without any concerns of name, relation, or background.

When I see my parents I see two devout Muslims who never restricted their children and gave them the freedom to be as religious as they wanted to be in North American society. When I see my parents, I feel sad that they always wait a minimum of one hour in secondary processing at the airport even though they have lived here for more than 20 years, but I’m proud that they bear it with as much composure as possible.

Violence is really not in our nature and it is not an advocated part of our teachings. Evil people will always find their way into religion and interpret teachings how they want to. We as a community won’t deny that these groups of people exist. In fact, the extremists harm us even more than they harm you. However, this group is small, and constructive change won’t come from expecting an apology or explanation from the rest of the moderate Muslim majority.

So please, to those of you out there who feel the need to quote small portions of our scripture or make bold and inaccurate statements about our people under the false flag of “discourse”, know that you will never grow up with our experiences.

You will never truly know what fundamental Islam looks like.

You will never truly feel the effects of radicalism.

You will never know what the stigma of being society’s cultural out-group feels like.

Lastly, to any Muslim reading this article: there is no nobility in silence. If ignorance looks you in the face, don’t stare back open mouthed. Be loud, be bold and be brilliant. Share your experiences; open up to the world about your sadness, anger and happiness. Your voices are loud, just let them out for a change.

🍀

Arman Adel is a U of T Biochem and Evolutionary Bio student who is overly passionate about diverse vertebrate mating behaviors. In his spare time, he makes trash basement punk-rock songs with his friends. Find him on Instagram or catch some of his music on Soundcloud.

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2 thoughts on “What is my Islam?

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