It’s Time for Muslims to Bring Islam Into The 21st Century
Growing up in Pakistan, a 98% Muslim majority country, religion permeated every aspect of my life. I was taught to recite the Quran while I learned my ABC’s, and reprimanded when I missed my morning prayer. Our Muslim faith guided every life decision, from choosing when to host a dinner party (around prayer times, of course) to whether to enroll your daughter in a co-ed school (bad idea).
And yet, I struggled to reconcile my identity with the teachings of Islam. There are many things about it that bugged me.
There is no concept of free speech in Islam.
You are not allowed to question anything that you have been told about God; you can only blindly follow. If you question the hegemony of Allah and the Prophet, it’s blasphemous and must be punished. In Pakistan, a charge of blasphemy can get you legally executed.
Muslims have delicate sensibilities and are easily offended. One only needs to look at recent history where cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad have caused violence around the world.
There are only good things and bad things — there is no gray.
Every effort was made to avoid the slightest brush with alcohol or pork; even speaking about it was only in hushed whispers. When I first went abroad to the US, I would bring back chocolates for people during visits home. No one ate them because they assumed they were tarred with alcohol or pig gelatin — because those heathens put it in everything.
I tried to argue — if there is alcohol in food, it’s cooked, processed, and distilled down to having no impact on your senses. You will not get drunk on a hint of sherry in your pasta at an Italian restaurant. But no one listened. Alcohol was haram, and therefore, bad — whether or not it got you drunk.
Muslims that don’t drink believe that drinking alcohol causes one to completely lose control. Even a sip can send you into a tizzy of uncontrolled behavior. Some Muslims say that alcohol leads people to commit assaults. Of course, no one bears any responsibility for their bad behavior — it’s alcohol that’s to blame.
Even in prayer, you had to follow arbitrary rules. I couldn’t pray if I had nail polish on my fingernails. Why? Because my ablutions were incomplete if my nail bed — hidden under the nail polish — hasn’t been washed. And when on my period, I got a free pass because women’s natural body functions are unclean and must not come anywhere close to a prayer mat.
Muslims believe that they will always go to heaven.
They will pay the price for their sins — temporarily — but just by virtue of being followers of Mohammad, they will eventually end up in heaven. It doesn’t matter if they’ve bribed and cheated their way through life, beaten their wives, and generally been an awful person.
On the contrary, non-Muslims belong in hell. It doesn’t matter how virtuous they are; if they don’t believe in Allah and the Prophet Mohammad, they aren’t worthy.
Islam is the best religion; those who don’t follow it are misguided.
A Muslim can only eat at the same table as the follower of a monotheistic religion. If you follow multiple gods, you’re unclean and not worthy of the company of pious Muslims. This one pained me because I had a Hindu girl at my school growing up. No one ever sat with her at the lunch table.
The punishment for bad behavior, no matter how minor, is severe.
I was told many times that I would be hanged by my breasts in hell because I don’t cover my hair in the company of unknown men. Sex before marriage is an unforgivable sin; you can never make up for it. Once you’ve done it, you are forever marred and might as well start decorating your dark corner of hell.
It was this somber, joyless approach to life, and the firmly closed door to any inquiry that drew me away from Islam. I couldn’t stand being told to tamp down my natural curiosity and to stay silent when something felt awry.
In Pakistan, your religion is a defining characteristic. It’s even on your passport. Your religion determines your worth. Atheists don’t exist because it’s inconceivable that you may not have a religion; a person without a religion isn’t a person at all.
Muslims are very proud of the fact that their religion has not changed since it first came into being 1,500 years ago. Muslims say that Islam is a way of life; has our way of life not changed since 632 AD? Are we not replacing our smart phones every few years, using vacuum cleaners and dishwashers to simplify our lives, and taking planes to visit family members living overseas?
When I immigrated to North America and disassociated myself from religion, I became a person.
I learned who I was. And I realized that everything I had been taught about good and bad was utter nonsense.
I was taught to be a good person, but it didn’t matter if I didn’t pray five times a day. I was encouraged to give back to the community, but only to the Muslim community. I was taught to pursue my ambitions, as long as I did not stray outside the bounds of Islamic teachings. Everything was framed in the context of Islam and an angry, punishing God.
My generation has started to question the narratives that were taught to us. We live our lives the way we see fit. But we still feel guilty. We feel guilty that we are ignoring the religious edicts that were drilled into us from the time we could babble.
When you’re raised with guilt, it’s hard to completely disengage.
Even when you know what you were taught was wrong, you still struggle. Your thinking evolves but your gut reaction doesn’t. It’s primal.
We, young Muslims, try to brush the extreme elements of our religion under the rug. We try to ignore the fact that Sharia (Islamic) law instructs men to leave their daughters only half the inheritance they leave their sons, and that a woman’s witness in a court of law is only equal to half of a man’s. We pick and choose what elements of Islam to follow and we feign ignorance of the ones that make us cringe.
I no longer pray or fast. I drink alcohol and wear shorts in the summer. I did not wait until marriage to be intimate with a man. And yet, I still hide all this from my parents. I never drink in front of them. I’ve never introduced them to anyone I was dating until I had accepted a marriage proposal.
I don’t worry about an angry God because I don’t quite belief in the afterlife or judgment day. These things do not scare me. What does scare me is disappointing my parents. I am a guilty, little girl that, in her late 30s, still feels the need to conceal and pretend, to hold back. Childhood conditioning is hard to shake.
I hope that the younger generation of parents can take a different approach.
I hope they focus on substance over form in religion. After all, every religion prescribes peace, tolerance, and generosity towards your fellow man. Why don’t we focus on this? Why don’t we approach religion from the mindset of love instead of punishment?
Religion must evolve with the times if it is to remain relevant. We must stop bestowing lifelong guilt on our children for daring to be human. We must allow them to question what they are told and indulge their curiosity. Because, in the long term, it’s always the carrot and not the stick that yields lasting followers.