Friday, May 4, 2012

The "R" Word

 Considering the era in which we live in today, many topics that were once considered "taboo" are now openly discussed and even satirized via mediums such as film, text, classrooms, and of course, the internet. Things that were once considered "embarrassing" or "shameful" to talk about such as sex/sexuality, personal development, mental health, and so on, now constitute the norm of daily inter-personal discussion (at least in most parts of the West).

 What facscinates me, however, is that despite the apparent "open-mindedness" that has seemed to accompany the modernity and "progress" of the 21st century, there is one topic that puts most people on the edge of their seats. A topic which has those willing to engage in discourse about controversial issues such as teen abstinence or drug-abuse running from the place of discussion.

 And that topic is: RELIGION.
 I had not been aware of how uneasy people felt about (what I will call) the "R" word until I, myself, became a little more educated in the area. After taking a number of religious studies courses, I was surprised at how much I DID NOT KNOW about not only other religions, but my own as well. I saw the number of stereotypes, biases, and misconceptions that I had been holding onto in terms of other relgions as simply unacceptable. However, after listening to and participating in various class discussions, I also found that many, many people held stereotypes, biases, and misconceptions about Islam that, too, were completely unacceptable. I then realized that in order to be able to defend the religion of Islam from unwarranted attacks and judgement, I not only had to educate myself more in it, but I also had to learn about other religions. I mean, how could I stand up for Islam without a) knowing about it myself and b) knowing how to counter arguments that stemmed from religious views other than my own? To me, climbing out of my hole of ignorance made practical sense.

 And so, I embarked on a little journey of studying other religious - even taking up 'religious studies' as my very minor. After learning about Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Sikhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Indigenous religions, and even some miscellaneous beliefs such as Scientology and the Rastafarian movement, I realized that the lens through which I had been viewing the world around me had been extremely blurred. Although I felt guilty for being so utterly ignorant of other people's beliefs, I found that the more I learned about other religions, the more my own beliefs in Islam were becoming confirmed. That is not to say that I had ever doubted Islam, but I suffered from something that most people born into Islam did - which was the inability to justify why I was a Muslim. Looking back, I realized that when I was approached with questions such as "why Islam allow a guy to marry 4 wowan?" or "why don't you eat pork?", I'd brush people away with answers such as "it's my personal choice" or "because it's part of my religion". The scary part was that I'd do it without seeing these type of answers as a problem. I'd almost look down at people - and even become annoyed - at their apparent audacity for questioning MY beliefs. I mean, who were they to do so?

But Alhamdullilah, this line of thinking which I had held for years was finally shattered when started to question myself about my beliefs; Do I have to marry 4 woman? Why, exactly, did I refrain from drinking alcohol or eating pork? Interestingly, questioning myself and finding the answers led me to question why other people of various religious denominations believed the things that they did. I mean to me, Islam made perfect sense - testify that your Lord is One with no partners (whether these "partners" manifest themselves as other deities, statues, people, concepts, ideologies, etc) and testify that the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is His last and final Messenger.

 So, as a mission to reach out and learn more, I took what I learned in the academic world and began to apply it to the real world. I began to ask Christian friends about the historical/textual authenticity of the Bible (I do read sometimes) and Sikhs about why men, and not women, were required to cover their hair. I felt that what I had learned had given me a sort of confidence - the ability to not only answer other people's questions  about Islam, but to ask them questions about the beliefs that they held.

 However, I began to realize that for many people, this engagement in religious discourse made them feel uncomfortable - even threatened! I inferred this from their change in demeanor (specifically, body language) when the subject of religion was brought up. These same people who had, a few seconds ago, been willing to discuss anything from sexual orientation to bodily movements, were now either averting there gaze from my face, coyly looking to the ground, anxiously shifting their weight on their feet, immediately changing the subject, giving me a weird look, or all of the above - and then some.

 couldn't understand why this was - and I still can't. I mean, what is it about the "R" word that makes people so uncomfortable? I have, in my own way, tried to come up with some answers to this question. Reasons may include:

1. Stereotypes/biases against the very idea of religion.

 Through many mediums, especially the media, followers of various religious groups have been portrayed as extreme/fanatic/irrational/etc. Although their may be an inkling of truth to this, it's mainly untrue. I'm sure any Christian/Muslim/Jew/etc will tell you that they're just a normal person trying to live their lives to please their Lord.

2. Ignorance - about one's own views or the views of others.

 Although many people profess faith - and some completely deny it - their understanding as to why/why not they believe or disbelieve may be limited. Therefore, people may shy away from religious dialogue due to general lack of knowledge.

3. Close-mindedness.

 Many people won't admit it, but they do hold implicit/explicit beliefs about religion/worshipers. This may effect their behavior towards religious discourse in a negative fashion and cause them to dampen or avoid discussing the topic all together.

4. Surprise.

 Maybe people are surprised when the topic of religion is brought up because it's something that people, unfortunately, just don't talk about these days. Let's start a movement & begin to question one another about our beliefs (on intellectual and respectful grounds).

 Now, I'm sure there are MANY more reasons, but these are just a few that have crossed my mind.

 So, the question now is: where do we go from here? Most people know religion exists, but they simply don't want to acknowledge it. I say, discard any predisposed biases you may have towards ANY religion and truly open your mind. Further, regardless of which religion you may follow, sincerely study why you believe in what you do so that you may not only feel more confident in engaging in religious dialogue, but you'll also know how to tackle any pressing questions other people may have about your own beliefs.

 Back a go, I was probably the type to shut myself off from discussing the "R" word, because I don't have the knowledge to speak about it, but with education came enlightenment and with enlightenment came the realization of how crucial it is to separate faith from blind faith. I now refuse to believe for the sake of believing and instead, have faith in the religion of Islam because the questions posed by my rational, logical, and practical mind have been answered. Further, part of freeing myself from blind faith has been through engaging in conversations with others and holding much needed inter-faith dialogues. One must remember, however, that there is a right time and place to do so. Also, one must consider who they are speaking to. I have been pretty fortunate enough to have come across some VERY open-minded people, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, but it's not that way all of the time.

 Remember, change can be threatening and thus, having one's beliefs questioned may be the most threatening type of change there is. Regardless, it's time for us to put our guards down a bit and learn about the world around us. It's time for us to realize that there are countless beliefs that exist outside of our own and that it's very important for us to step out of our comfortable bubbles and explore the world beyond these spheres of comfort. 

And Allah knows best,

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