In an interview with To the Best of Our Knowledge’s Steve Paulson, Margaret Atwood says that debt is not strictly matter of owing someone money, but something much more profound:
“You open the door for somebody, they go through it. They don’t say thank you. How do you feel? …You’ve paid them a door opening, and they have not repaid you with a thank you, which is what they owe you.”
Debt is rooted deeply in culture and religion. Atwood goes on to explain that a “redeemer” is one who pays your debt for you. She ties this idea to Christianity, in which it is believed that our sins are so great that we could never pay them for ourselves, so Christ was sent to pay our debt on our behalf.
In Islam, we are each responsible for our own actions. Our sins may be great, but our Creator is ever-forgiving and always forbearing. But this Being of limitless mercy has opened a door for me, and I owe Him a “thank you.” He gave me life, and I am in His debt.
It’s a big debt. To hope to repay it, I need to be a better person. I need to treat others with respect and dignity, to praise my Lord and Creator, to appreciate hardships as opportunity, to be considerate and generous, to be always grateful. Fulfilling this debt can be challenging, especially when wearing a head scarf. I notice people watching me, and I find myself walking through life with the constant reminder of what I need to be. I try to be someone who is open and accepting, but firm in her beliefs. I try to be respectful and a good listener, but wise and fair in my advice. I try to be forgiving and forbearing, but hold humankind to a higher standard. I try to be modern and idealistic, without forsaking my commitments or values. I try to walk confidently with my head held high, hoping that my actions speak louder than my words and my faith speaks louder than my head scarf.
But most of the time I fail at being what I should be. When I fail, I don’t just fall short on my debt to God, I fail myself and others. I fail an opportunity to be touched by someone who may change me, who may tenderly shape my weaknesses into strengths, who may help me learn something about myself or what it means to be human. And I fail an opportunity to chip away at some of the misconceptions about Islam. I fail the chance to foster understanding and find common ground despite differences. I fail to show people the reality of what Islam is to me: a faith that is meaningful and fulfilling, and full of peace.
The debt I owe my Creator cannot be escaped. But I accept the burden with gratitude. Inherent within this burden of being, there are deeply satisfying rewards. In the rare moments of success, there is loving support from unexpected friendships, there is a respectful exchange of ideas that broaden my perception of the world, and there is a conversation that touches the core of my humanity.