The Burden of Being

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.

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My Flag Flies Above

The first time I prayed the Islamic prayer, or Salat, I stood in my living room in the silvery morning just moments before dawn. I was self-conscious and unsure of what to do. I had prepared flash cards to help me through the complicated process of standing, sitting and bowing while reciting verses in Arabic. I stood facing Mecca and folded my right hand across my chest. My left hand clutched a flash card that read:

Bismillah ah Rahman ah Raheem

In the name of God, the most gracious, most merciful

Alhamdu lil-ahi rab-bil alamin

All praise be to the Lord, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds

Ah rahman-ah rahim

The most merciful, most gracious

Maliki yawmid-deen

Master of the day of judgement

Iyyaka n’abudu wa-Iyaka nasta-in

You alone do we worship, and to you alone do we turn to for help

Ihdi-nas sira-tal Mustaqim

Show us the straight path

Sira tal-ladhina an-amta alaihim

The path of those who went before us with your grace

Ghair-il Maghdubi ‘Alaihum

Who did not deserve your anger

Wa lad dal-in

Nor went astray

The awkward syllables filled the back of my throat like a swallowed cry as I struggled to make the foreign sounds. But as my mouth worked away at the words, I felt my spirit enter a world that existed outside of the senses, a dimension beyond time and space where the body does not confine the soul. I felt a deep, unending sense of mercy and forgiveness surround me. As the first gentle rays of morning light reached me, I went to my knees, put my forehead to the floor and I cried, “Subhana rabi ya’Ayla” (Glorified is my Lord, the exalted ). Every single atom in the room praised God with me. The chairs and the shadows and the carpet beneath me all sang, “Glorified is our Lord!” The sun and the light prayed with me – their very essence ringing praise for our Creator. In those moments my imperfections and flaws were exposed, but I felt embraced and accepted, forgiven and loved. I found a sense of trust. I knew that the Being who created me knows me and protects me. In that moment I committed my life to that Being.

That commitment is continually evolving. It was a simple beginning, first with prayers any time I was able, fasting during the month of Ramadan and reading a page or two out of the Qur’an every once in a while. Soon I noticed a change in the way that I saw the world. A bird’s chirp would strike me dumb with thankfulness for the gift of hearing. A playful toss of my horse’s head would send my heart singing with praise for the One who created this magnificent creature. The curiosity in the eyes of a child discovering something new reminded me of the gift of knowledge, and made me crave a deeper understanding of Islam. Over time I found myself praying five times each day, memorizing verses of the Qur’an, visiting the local mosque, and making friends with other Muslims.

Eventually I made the decision to wear Hijab, the traditional Islamic head scarf. I chose to cover my head because I believe it that it is a requirement of Islam. Not every Muslim feels this way, and some feel that the simple head covering is not enough. Each Muslim has his or her individual views about Islam, and we each have our own very personal relationship with God. For me, covering is a simple way to express my faith on the inside and out. But Hijab also makes me different. Sometimes I forget how different.

One day I was trying to figure out how to put air in my car tires. A man came up to me and asked me if I’d like some help. “Sure! Thanks,” I said. While my tires were re-inflating he asked me where I was from. “From here, Syracuse,” I said. “Really?” he asked. “But where are you originally from?” He looked confused. “From Syracuse,” I told him. It slowly dawned on him that I was an American. We continued our conversation with pleasant small talk, but the unasked questions hung in the air between us.

I can imagine how perplexed people are by my decision to cover my head. I think that most people see the head scarf as a form of suppression. When my aunt saw me wear it she said, “I can’t believe you want to do that. It’s so submissive! It’s just not like you.” My aunt has known me as a willful, stubborn and independent woman. But to me, Hijab is an expression of pride and dignity. Each morning I practice my own flag-raising. Hand over hand, I carefully work the scarf around my head and I stand tall. I do not shrink into submission. My flag flies above a woman who loves to laugh and discover, who finds bliss at 15 hands and a blazing gallop and who finds peace in worship. I wear Hijab because it’s my choice. I wear it because I respect myself and I respect my religion, and I wear it because I am proud to be a Muslim.

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