Abida (Arabic: عابدہ ) Islamic name meaning one who worships.
The journey to find my own truth has not been an easy one, and has raised many questions along the way. Are children born into a religion? Should we raise children in one’s religious tradition, or is that taking away the right to religious freedom?
Background: the daughter of Muslim immigrants, I grew up as the only ethnic minority child (apart from my brothers) in a tight knit White community.
The story begins: is morality inherent or learned?
As a child, I would often venture into my dad’s study filled with awe at all the books on the shelves spanning many genres from science and maths to geography and history. I noted though the top shelf had a collection of books on one man. I often wondered who the guy in the simple white cloth was.
One day, I had one of my friends over to play. As my friend left, I found that some of my Barbie clothes had gone missing. I immediately ran to my dad, and told him that I was angry that my friend had stole from me. My dad told me to come sit on the sofa and watch one of his favourite films, Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (my dad was born in India, he was a young child during the partition, so this film was extremely poignant for him).
To this very day, there is one scene that I vividly recall. Gandhi was on hunger strike, and a Hindu man comes to him to confess the murder of a Muslim child, which he commits after his own son is murdered. The Hindu man begs for forgiveness, as he’s convinced he’s going to hell. Gandhi advises him to adopt a Muslim child and raise him as a Muslim. The moral was that the true test of redemption was to learn to love his ‘enemy’, and that did not have to mean forsaking his own religion, but to lose his hatred and become an understanding, tolerant Hindu. Wow, although I was young, I was blown away by the powerful message.
During the film, from the corner of my eye, I could see tears falling from my dad’s cheeks. Me: “What’s wrong, daddy?” Him: Beti (daughter), I was born in India and spent some of my childhood there. Being Muslim, we had to abandon our home and make the journey to the newly formed Pakistan. For days, we went without food, there were dead bodies lying along our path. Somehow my parents got separated from my grandparents and I, so I wasn’t sure if they were dead or alive.” He then looks at his finger which was crooked. “Daddy, what happened to your finger?” “I used to climb up trees with my childhood friend who was a Sikh, one day I fell, it just reminds me of him when I look at it.” Gasping for air, he says, “I found out that he was beaten to death by adult Muslims. I was horrified, an innocent young boy, he had no quarrel with anyone. I couldn’t reconcile it in my mind. Innocent men/women/children of all faiths being murdered or suffering, all I wanted was for it to end and to have a home again. I took a departure from my faith, realising that I didn’t need to pray five times a day to be a good Muslim, it was how I lived my life that mattered.”
The scene where Gandhi gets shot brings tears to my eyes. “What did you think of Gandhi, Beti?” “I love him, daddy, he was a good man.” “Me too, he said.” Grabbing my shoulders, he said, “I wanted you to watch the film to learn compassion, tolerance, and forgiveness. You must never have bitterness in your heart. Your friend is sad we must help her.” Me: “But she stole from me, isn’t that wrong?” Him: “We must understand what makes people do things. Her daddy has left.” Me: “Where’s he gone? When’s he coming back?” Him: I don’t think he’s coming back.” So off I went packing things to give to my friend. My dad passes me and asks what I’m doing. “I want to make my friend happy, what’s mine is hers,” I said.
The partition changed my dad’s view of the world. He believed in integration. His philosophy was that you respect the traditions and culture of the country that you live in. We celebrated Christmas and Easter like every other kid. Presents, sending cards, eating traditional Christmas dinner. In fact, my most precious memory was one Christmas when my dad bought me an awesome Barbie house and built it from scratch.
One of our neighbours was a Jehovah’s Witness. She would often come to our house and bring us a copy of a magazine called the watchtower. My dad would make me sit and listen to her. “Dad, she’s trying to convert us,” I said. “Does it matter, Beti? She does a lot of good things for the community, that’s all that matters.”
Learning tolerance & developing your own mind:
As I grew older, I was intrigued to learn more about Gandhi. His writing reflected someone that was unquestionably intellectually gifted, a deep thinker, humble, fair, just. In my eyes, he was nothing short of remarkable.
The early teenage years came, where I often asked “why”?, and I never stopped.
One day, my father called me to come sit with him. I could see the anger in his face. “What’s wrong dad?” “Abida, this is the first time I’ve had to discipline you. I was disappointed to learn that you removed yourself from school morning assembly and prayers. Why?” “Dad, I see no value in it, I only need my Maths & Physics books.” He gets up. “I did not raise you to be disrespectful, go to your room and come out when you realise why I’m angry.”
Astounded by his reaction, I ran to my bedroom and slammed the door. Why am I being punished?, he cannot tell me how to live my life. Then after some alone time I realised I was in the wrong. I came out of my room and approached my father. “I’m sorry,” dad. “Beti, you are being taught in a Christian school, singing and praying doesn’t make you Christian, it does, however, teach us tolerance, we must understand what’s important to others even if it’s not to us. You will apologise to your teachers and go back.”
Then that awkward question came. “Abida, do you believe in God?” I knew what he was alluding to, he was wondering how I identified myself. “Dad, I have my own mind, and cannot accept your truth, because faith must come from the heart, to know mine, I have to look at all truths, otherwise it would be hypocrisy. Where is the evidence for the existence of God?”
“Abida, faith cannot be deduced, it can only be felt. You’re close minded. I love the beauty of Mathematics. I came top in my country, gained a scholarship to the UK, top in my graduation year, hold a PhD, so you’re perplexed why I can accept both science and religious faith, but it needn’t be a contradiction. Whilst it’s true that science provides a set of tools that helps us to understand the many unknowns, there is also more to the world than science can see.
Don’t get me wrong, there have been times in my life (particularly so during the partition) I’ve questioned my faith, which can only be expected, given that faith requires some intangible element. But my open heart and mind still make me believe in allah.”
He puts his hand on my heart. “Abida, if you do not have faith, then you must be guided by your moral compass. You’re never superior to others, never inferior (remember Gandhi & the untouchables), be fair, value your integrity, always help those that are poor. Follow that, while seeking your own truth.”
My moral compass was set.
As a teenager, I had many questions, and was curious to learn what my dad’s opinions were as a Muslim.
This time, I asked my dad to sit on the sofa with me. “Dad, I’m going to be direct with you, answer these questions honestly.”
1. What is your opinion on the hijab?
Me: “When you took me to Pakistan as a child, an elderly man told you I should be wearing one. With the innocence of my youth, naturally I questioned why I had to wear one and neither you or the elderly man did. Your answer was that we had to respect the country we were visiting much like how we respect the traditions back home, which I would understand if we all had to wear one. Therefore, at 11, I felt your answer was incomplete.”
Him: “Abida, I’m indifferent to whether a female wears a headscarf or not. If a woman is religious and identifies the hijab with being a Muslim, and wears one of their own volition, then I see that as no different to how a nun dresses. As a child, you raised a valid point on being singled out for your gender, it isn’t for others to tell you what you should or shouldn’t wear, and if they do, they should follow suit. I’m a Muslim.”
“I hasten to add that in my family, it’s me that is oppressed. Look at this hideous orange jumper your mother knitted, two sizes too small, one arm longer than the other. This is what men do for love.”
2. What is your opinion on forced marriages?
There has been a lot of press on young British teenage girls from Pakistani families being sent back without finishing their education?
Him: “Firstly, forced marriages are forbidden in Islam. This is more a South Asian cultural issue, particularly amongst those from rural villages who are uneducated. You must understand that we view the world and judge others based upon our own perspective. I was brought up in a village, and it was commonplace to marry young, for them it is normal. If you’re alluding to whether I think females are there to just get married and have children, you’re wrong. I have a lot of respect for women, my mother had an exceptional work ethic. I strongly believe in education, and girls should go to university first, work for a bit then marry. As a father, my responsibility is to protect my children. If you married young with no education, and you were subject to domestic abuse, would I want you to stay and suffer? Education allows independence, particularly when women also suffer the stigma of divorce within that culture. Don’t forget who taught you Mathematics from an early age. There should be more women in the physical sciences and engineering. Women can do anything men can do. I’m a Muslim.”
“Abida, it’s important not to be prejudice. No Muslim is the same. Faith is not the enemy. Human beings are responsible for their actions. Without morality there is no religion.”
The first time I stepped into a mosque was for my father’s funeral. I dressed modestly wearing a hijab. As I was approaching, I noticed in the distance teenage boys verbally abusing (chanting go back home) women stepping out of the mosque.
As I entered, I walked passed my brothers. Their eyes bloodshot, faces pale from having to wash our dad’s dead body. I entered the women’s pray room. I saw the coffin at the front, the top was made of glass. I peered down, and all I saw was the shell of a man I didn’t recognise, horrified further by seeing that his tracheotomy tube had not been removed.
I was given a prayer mat, Quran and beads. I kneeled down on the floor. At that point my mother was in her own world next to the coffin, family was at the back of the room. I was right at the front alone.
I had absolutely no idea of what to do. Then came whispering from a group of women who were staring at me. They were speaking in Punjabi. “She doesn’t know what’s she’s doing. She’s very fair, I’m guessing she’s European,” they said. I kept a dignified silence, but inside I wanted to tell them not to judge me, my heart was already broken. I glanced at the closed doors, wishing I wasn’t segregated from my brothers.
The way I saw it was I had two options. Move to the back of the room away from prying eyes, or to sit it out. My moral compass pointed towards persevering, I just focused on copying the actions and words of the woman sat next to me. Then my mother joined in sometime after. At the end, I considered just ignoring those women as I left, but I realised that in life, I will always meet people that will judge me, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re “bad” people, just that they have a different perspective. They would suffer a far greater judgement than me, constantly at the receiving end of islamophobic bigots for the way they dressed, that I believe is wrong. So, I stopped, said, “shukria, khuda hafiz” (translated: thank you, may God be your guardian). Their eyes popped, they weren’t expecting me to speak 🙂 One woman put her hand on my shoulder as I left. “Islam welcomes everyone,” she said.
In complete contrast, my brothers found all the men in their room to be very supportive, teaching them what to do.
I wasn’t allowed to be at the burial, something that didn’t make sense to me. That’s when the realisation hit, only those that understand can be true believers.
A few years later, I find myself at another funeral, this time at a church. After the burial everyone makes their way out, but I stay and sit on a bench. A hand pressed against my shoulder. I look up and it’s the priest with his warm smile and friendly eyes. “You look puzzled,” he said. Me: “I’m trying to make sense of the world.” Him: “you might be there for sometime then.” We both laughed. Him: “Perhaps I can help.” Me: “I’m not religious.” Him: Who says you have to be? come into the church.”
“Father. I’m trying to find my truth. There are questions that I need answers to. One minute you’re here, next minute you’re gone. Why do we go through life experiencing happiness, sadness, anger, disappointment, hate, hurt, only for it to all end with such finality?
The people in my life that I love have their own faith (Islam, Christianity, Hinduism) or none (Atheism). I practice Ramadan because I like the meaning behind it, I love Christmas as a time to be with family & friends, I like the concept of karma and reincarnation.”
The priest: “do you believe in God?” “When I see children suffering, extremism, inequality, immigrants being dehumanised by the media/politicians, racial and religious hatred, my mind says no. Then I look at the mathematical beauty of nature, and my heart says yes. I guess anything is possible in the realm of conjecture.”
Who knows what truth is right? Anyone’s viewpoint is just as valid as anyone else’s viewpoint. We all have our own truth even if we cannot know with exact certainty what that truth is.
Whilst I don’t understand the rituals of religion, for me, it’s the inner voice of conscience “my moral compass” that continues to guide me.
My “teachers” are two men who had beautiful hearts, one Muslim (my dad) and one Hindu (Gandhi), divided by their faith, united by their moral compass. As my life continues to unfold, they keep me on the right path to truth. Perhaps we’re not that different after all…