At around the age of twelve, I made the conscious decision to become a Muslim. Maybe, what I should say is that I made the conscious decision to become a practising Muslim. Let me explain.
I come from a society where, when children are born, they generally follow their father’s religion. This is easy to handle when both parents are of the same faith and the kids are naturally brought up to believe in the same things. It seems even easier when the parents are married and live together, as the religious beliefs of the child are not just theoretical then, but also learned and nurtured from watching these parents, if they practise. There are these cases, considered normal, and then there is my case.
I was born to a Christian mother from a family of staunch Catholics, and a Muslim father from a family with strong blood and social ties to one of the sects in the Senegambia region. On the eighth day after my birth, I was named, had all the rituals for a new baby performed and welcomed as one of the Muslim ummah. My parents unmarried, I was raised by my mother and her family who held on to their Catholic faith while making me understand that I could practise my Islam freely.
However, I (and my sister who would be born three years after me), spent our early years in church, following what we saw around us and practically living as Catholics. We became so absorbed in the faith that on days when our Catholic cousins would decide to skip church, we would dress up and join my mother and uncle for Mass. This was the life we knew and had become a part of. We were taught very little about Islam, though my grandmother would always encourage us to perform the five daily prayers. On Muslim feasts, we would also celebrate with my father’s family. We enjoyed the best of both worlds… until I was about twelve years old.
My decision was mainly triggered by a series of embarrassing sessions in Islamic Studies class at my primary school where, looking back now, I was never given the option to choose what religious class I wanted to attend. By virtue of being a Muslim, I found myself in this class that would always reflect my lowest grade, throwing shade at my position as the top student and giving my classmates a chance to throw jibes at my little- almost nonexistent – knowledge of the chapters and verses of the Quran. Even at that young age, there was only so much humiliation I could take among my peers, and I decided to act. With my sister on my side, I found a teacher who would come to our home several times during the week, to teach us Quranic lessons and Arabic. These classes went on for about a year and ended, but by that time, we had learnt enough to perform the mandatory prayers and build up enough confidence to call ourselves Muslims.
For me, it was also a chance at self-discovery. Being curious and an avid reader meant I would go beyond the lessons taught at home and school. I found books I could gain more knowledge from and taught myself new chapters of the Quran and their meanings. I gradually stopped going to church, though I grew up being very tolerant and respectful of all other religions, thanks to my background. In my little research, I did not just become convinced of the religion I wished to practise. I found love and peace in messages that I wasn’t even taught. I discovered the beauty of Islam, devoid of the many interpretations from men, that would sometimes distort the messages in their favour. I was content with learning at my pace and embracing the beauty of the religion in its simplest forms.
Last week, I was on a flight back to Nairobi from Eldoret, where I had been invited to attend the launching of The Girl Generation Africa Project. The discussion with one of my hosts turned to religion and I shared the story of my mixed background and how it has influenced my world view, especially in these times. She paid much attention to the parts about my early life in church, then turned to look at me and ask ‘how could you choose to be Muslim after that?‘ Usually, I would have the perfect answer, ready to defend my religion. This time, I just sat there and thought about the question. In the end, my response was simply ‘I learnt about the religion and fell in love with its message of peace and tolerance‘. When she invited me to Christ, we talked about my love for, and belief in him as a Prophet of God. By the time we landed in Nairobi, we both agreed on the need for respect and tolerance, and explored the possibility of simply believing in a Supreme Being without the conventional attachment to a religion.
This is something I have thought about on several occasions, especially when my faith hits the dust and I’m searching for excuses to justify the dip. Yet, it makes a lot of sense to simply believe and pray to God, without having to subscribe to the many emerging schools of thought with different interpretations on how to worship God. If anything, it could shatter the stereotypes that abound on things that seem foreign to us. When my friend asked about my choice, there were subtle references to the killings and injustices being carried out by Muslims around the world. These exist, just as they exist among people of other faiths, but we rarely use the same brush to paint everyone in the same way as we do Muslims.
I think about Boko Haram, the Taliban, Al Shabab, ISIS and other groups using religion as a justification for their heinous acts and I understand how easy it can be to draw conclusions based on them. However, it would be unfair to the greater majority of Muslims to be seen and treated in the same way, even when they join in the condemnation of these acts that target innocent people. I do not wish to defend anyone today, especially after the recent shootings at the Pakistani school, that claimed the lives of 132 children and 9 teachers.
What I wish for, instead, is healing for this world that has become too chaotic. I look back on my earlier years and even hope that people would take the time to learn more about the different faiths, if only to do away with the misconceptions. In my readings, I have found that we are more alike than different and our beliefs are generally founded on the same principles of good, peace, love, mercy and tolerance. It is sad that the structures intended to guide and keep humanity together are being used to draw us apart.
The truth is that I am tired and drained out by everything happening in the world around us. When I pause and draw myself away, I can’t help wondering what it would mean to have a world where we’re not bound by any structures, but guided only by the desire and will to be and do good. Maybe, it will bring back the essence of humanity and promote peaceful co-existence. Or maybe, I should get down from my cloud and face the harsh reality we live with.
I believe we are one, regardless of what religion we choose to practise. Our relationship with God is sacred, but our relationships with our fellow humans say a lot about the former. After all, we were created in his image… or so I have read.
I don’t know why I wrote this post, but I was at a place where the written word was the only way to express what I truly felt. I hope we can simply endeavour to be and do all the good we can in this world, for humanity and for the love of the God we all share.