Closer to My Religion
Issue 4, October/November 2021
I’ve never read the Christian Bible. I grew up and still live in a Muslim-majority country — Pakistan — and up until university had never really been exposed to conversations around different faiths. So why did the personal stories of a stranger, quoting their aunt and referring to a religion I knew little about, feel like déjà vu? It felt familiar, too familiar, and not always in a good way.
Emily’s Aunt Tracy might as well have been any of the countless religiously conservative aunties I met at dinner parties growing up, ready to tut and point fingers at the smallest sign of anyone believing in something different. For a country whose story was that it was founded on the basis of religious freedom, there was very little room to question. As Pakistani Muslims, there’s a dominant narrative around religion we’re meant to just accept. Islam is linked closely with the creation of Pakistan, and as the state religion it becomes a part of everyday conversations. Yet no one can question those conversations, turning a multifaceted faith into a monolith.
As a child I was taught religion is sacred, something to be revered and accepted without question or judgement, and that religious knowledge was the purview of a certain group of people whose teachings and rulings we had to accept. Much like Emily, whose response to her aunt’s chastising was, “We should throw Revelation out of the Bible,” I wanted to throw out every cleric or so-called religious authority out of religious discussions. I wasn’t the only one.
In recent years, rising feminist movements in Muslim countries have butted heads with conventional religious leadership. The categorization of Islam as a sacred thing, something to be kept private and apart — yet simultaneously essential to national narratives — has left a gaping hole in the lives of those who want to see religion to be part of their daily lives, but not as an arm of the state.
Islamic countries like Afghanistan or Pakistan justify many of their political or state narratives through Islam. When someone tries to question those narratives, they’re either labeled blasphemous or told that these beliefs have been followed by generations — how can they be questioned now? I remember, as a teenager, being very angry and fuming to my mom that there’s so much emphasis on wrapping the Quran in pretty cloth and keeping it on the highest shelf in the house yet very little on understanding it for ourselves. Power structures built around religious leadership have long sought to alienate everyday citizens from religious understanding because it gives a select few people a sense of control.
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Like Revelation, the Quran relies on metaphor and the original text can be hard to translate literally. English and Urdu translations often lack the nuances of the original Arabic. This adds fuel to the fire when people translate certain verses as justifying men’s right to beat their wives; as making jihad, which means “struggle,” synonymous with “war;” or as limiting women’s financial independence. With not many people around me who wanted to see religion differently, there were times where I felt very alone.
It has been during the last few years, between my time exploring interfaith groups at university and an increased awareness of feminist groups in Pakistan, that I realized how badly I wanted to bring those two parts of my own identity together. An exploration of Revelation’s role in Christianity seems to have little to do with a Pakistani woman’s experience of feminism and social justice halfway across the world, but it became an exploration of why my struggle in reconciling with traditional interpretations of Islam wasn’t a lonely one and reminded me that these mechanisms of control extended far beyond the borders of mosques or churches. Different faiths have been pitted against one another for so long, and the politics of faith leadership often leave individual believers out of their considerations altogether.
That’s why I gravitate towards people who ask questions and why I believe talking about religion is so important, especially for individual believers. Over the last few months I’ve found myself exploring multiple aspects of our lives through a religious lens, whether it be increasing community engagement in climate action through faith-based organizations, challenging patriarchal Islamic scholarship, or looking at how religious structures and leadership can be made more accessible. A lot of the work I’ve done has been for my sake; I write for myself, to find the answers to my questions. I write so that I am then able to answer those questions for other people and so that I can help someone else grow up less confused than I was. Because what does it mean to hold your religion close to your heart but be disillusioned by the people that claim to represent it most loudly?
How can I ignore my responsibility as a Muslim in fighting climate change when one of the Prophet Muhammad’s (s.a.w) most famous sayings is ““Do not waste even if performing ablution on the bank of a fast flowing large river” ? How can I sit back and see religion being used to oppress women physically and financially when Islam’s initial campaign was financed by Hazrat Khadijah (r.a), the Prophet’s wife and the first Muslim after him. But you won’t see these aspects of Islam often discussed, because they give individuals autonomy to find the ways forward without relying on the powers that be.
Unlike the Catholic Church and its Pope, Islam isn’t meant to have a central authority, but even then religious leaders create divides within society by insisting that certain authorities be followed over others. Islam is divided into countless sects. The most prominent divisions are Shia and Sunni, both of which are further divided into multiple other groups; all taught that they are better than the others and that only they will find salvation in the Hereafter. But perhaps our focus on the Hereafter has made us forget about the lives we will live today. The Quran speaks about justice in life after death, but we forget it also speaks about implementing justice in the world. It provides guidance and a way of life beyond prayer. It calls for protection of the oppressed and for equality among all human beings. Yet we seem to forget all that as soon as we end our prayers.
Every time I’ve read the Quran I’ve come away with a different understanding of what it’s saying. I think that happens because each time I read it, I need something different to help me understand the world. But one thing remains clear: I have never seen it as a book to be kept locked away, either literally or figuratively. Religion cannot and should not be fossilized in the same era it started; it needs to be understood in the context of the real lives of the people who interact with it. My understanding of Islam grows with me. In freeing myself from the fears of world-ending doom and the constant fear of being wrong, I’ve found myself closer to my religion than ever.
My mother once told me that every time I get to the end of reciting the Quran, I should turn to the first page and read a few pages so that I never finish reading it. Her words ring in my ears as I write this now. So many of us carry our religious beliefs with us in so many different ways, but the power they hold often lies in the hands of others. Maybe it’s time we take that power into our own hands.
Anmol Irfan is is a Muslim Pakistani feminist and journalist who explores issues around intersectionality, gender and minority cultures. When she isn’t writing she’s usually eating and wishing to travel the world — pre-pandemic, of course.
She tweets @anmolirfan22.
Music critic Brandon Ousley’s funk-driven end-of-days playlist,
“Songs in the Key of Doom.”
A read- and watch-list for disaster fans:
“A Fictional Life Raft for Surviving Whatever Comes Next,” by Katie Goh.