Staying true to my beliefs in my community– where my family probably made up the entire Muslim population in the area– was tough, to say the least. We actually moved around quite a bit in my childhood, and pretty much every neighborhood we’ve lived in has been predominantly white and Christian. There was seldom a mosque in our area, and so we usually prayed at home. Because of this, I was never exposed to much interaction with other Muslims, or Muslim culture.
My mother was born in Sweden and raised Christian and, even though she has raised Muslim children, celebrates Ramadan and Eid with us and doesn’t eat pork or drink alcohol, she doesn’t exactly identify as Muslim or Christian or as part of any religion, really. My father has been the only real Islamic influence I’ve had throughout my life and, as much as I’ve learned from him, I always felt that it hasn’t been nearly enough. My sisters and I were always told to “look stuff up” when it came to learning more about Islam, because my dad was always at work and seldom had time to teach us himself.
The thing is, you don’t learn how to have faith online, just like you don’t inherit faith. You have to want to learn, you have to be taught, and, most importantly, you have to live it– to immerse yourself in the beauty and principles of your faith. I’ll be the first to admit, my sisters and I didn’t take religion as seriously as we might have wanted to, in part due to this lack of guidance from our own family, and our inability to source guidance from outside of the family as well.
Being the eldest of three siblings didn’t make things any easier, either. I always felt like I had to set an example for my younger sisters, especially since we were all girls and all have a very similar mindset when it comes to religion and culture. I knew that whatever I ended up doing (or not doing), they would most likely follow in my footsteps. When we all entered adolescence, we started to question things that we had mostly been ignorant to our entire lives: like why haven’t we read the entire Qur’an yet? Why are none of us motivated to pray 5 times a day, every day? Why do we drag each other down instead of build each other up and encourage each other to become better Muslims?
None of us really wanted to acknowledge the fact that we would have to start being better about certain things if we wanted to truly call ourselves Muslims. We were the only people we had – with no one else to talk to about Islam. My mother was non-Muslim, my father was busy all the time working late hours and writing grants in his free time, and there no Muslim community in my area.
Thankfully, I caught a break when I went off to college. I specifically requested a Muslim roommate, hoping this would finally be my chance to have a true Muslim interaction with a real Muslim friend. And, lucky for me, I got the most amazing roommate I could have ever hoped for. We roomed together throughout college, had the deepest talks about Islamic spirituality, all the religious things we agree on and all the things we sort of don’t. And we helped remind each other about prayers as much as we could. We even joined the campus MSA together and ended up serving on the board together in our last year.
However it wasn’t the ground-breaking, life-altering experience that I thought I needed. In fact, it made me realize that I honestly never needed a community all along.
And to be quite honest, I think I was a “better” (and by this I simply mean more practicing) Muslim when I was leading my own path. I’ve always been a fairly stubborn person who hasn’t let people sway my mind, but in college, peer pressure got the best of me. My roommate and I grew weaker throughout the years instead of stronger, we gave in to the stresses of college life and convincing ourselves certain things were okay– things that our freshman year selves most certainly wouldn’t have agreed with. It made it worse when I started comparing myself to the few other Muslims on campus – why wasn’t I like them? Why couldn’t I get myself to wear hijab even though I desperately wanted to? Why did I all of a sudden feel extremely inferior to all of them when, two years ago, I was mostly secure in myself and my ways?
The community, though mostly supportive, brought me down and, in turn, put a damper on my faith as well. When I reached this point, the lowest I’d ever been, I turned to others in my new little community for comfort, but realized we were all so different regardless of the fact that we shared the same religion. I was the only one who could pull myself out of that hole, and no sense of community could have done it for me. Everyone experiences religion, and religious growth differently. And, though community can be vital in maintaining tradition and immersing oneself in the culture of Muslims, there is something of internal faith that can never be provided or fulfilled externally. And, slowly, I realized that about myself and others.
This is all just to say that sometimes you have to be your own biggest supporter, motivator, and critique. Relying on, and being extremely involved in, a community may work for some and sometimes still is something I long for, but at the end of the day I’m happy with the person I’ve finally blossomed into after finding my way on my own. Almost everything that I believe in, I taught myself. Almost everything I try to stay true to, I instilled in myself. While I’m sure I would be better off had I been able to visit a mosque frequently and grow up in a majority Muslim area, I think my best qualities come from the struggles I’ve had trying to fit in to every place I didn’t quite belong, only to come to the conclusion that I could become exactly the person I wanted to be without fitting in to any group – whether that be a group of Muslims or a group of non-Muslims. I spent so much time searching for that sense of family and togetherness that my own fairly dysfunctional family couldn’t provide me, that I failed to see just how much I could grow and learn on my own.