I was 12 years old when I got beaten for the first time for the sake of God.
I remember standing on the prayer mat and refusing to pray. I was probably reading on my phone, waiting for the five minutes to pass so I can go back to doing the same thing but on my bed. My mother saw me from the window of my room and came in, startling me, and started shouting so loud that I can still hear it in my heart now.
“How can you stand there and think you are not lying to God; do you not know that you can’t lie to him?”
She proceeded to hit me because of the lying and this hadith (albeit a weak one): “Teach your child to pray when he becomes seven and punish him for not obeying it at age ten.” Maybe some part of me deserved it, I mean it was five minutes and I did go through the whole ordeal of dressing up, doing wudu, and opening up my mat to just sit there and not pray. I look back now and laugh at the ignorance of what I was missing. I also now understand the importance of the lesson she was trying to teach me despite her choice of method.
The truth is, I was bored of salat (prayer), and I feared my parents’ reaction if I said so. We were told to repeat these words that at the time barely made sense to me (I spoke Arabic, but Sudanese Arabic is starkly different from formal Arabic of the Quran and my brain thought in English). So to me, I had to do these actions that were exhausting for no reason. It bored me and I hated being bored, so I would have much rather finished that chapter I was reading on Wattpad than do this boring task. But I went through all the motions because I was terrified of my parents– not God– my parents.
The messages I received about God when I was young were often so confusing to me. Apparently he was this great guy yet if I did anything wrong according to him, he would send me to hell to punish me. If I went out past curfew, I was upsetting my parents and Allah said you must تع والدينك (meaning to respect and be kind to your parents) so to upset my parents was to upset God Almighty. That was pretty scary for a 12-year-old people pleaser to digest, so I rarely broke the rules. I focused on school (shoutout academic validation), didn’t date, wore modest (unfortunately also ugly) clothes, and didn’t go out two days in a row (too much fun consecutively – yktv).
Throughout these experiences, I was mad at God. I was mad that I couldn’t have fun like all my other friends were. I was mad that He gave me strict parents and that I had to have lessons every Saturday with this boring Islamic teacher that did nothing but make me memorize Quran verses that I didn’t understand. I just wanted to be free and Islam felt like a prison that I couldn’t leave if I didn’t want to go to hell or be punished. My whole understanding of Allah was “the great punisher” and yet to Allah belong the best names, and this wasn’t even one of them.
An intake therapist I decided to see during my first year at university saw me before I saw myself. He sat there for an hour listening to me cry and while validating me. Towards the end of the session, as I tried to get myself together to go back and face the world again, he looked at me and said:
“You are coming home to yourself and are looking for the way. It’s not easy but take comfort in knowing you’re on your way.”
I still get shivers thinking about it.
I went about living after that, attended therapy, survived my first year of university, made some amazing friends, joined some dope clubs (shoutout to The Black Association for Student Expression at the University of Waterloo – UWBASE), did all the things I didn’t get to do back home and kept my relationship with God at bay. I didn’t care much about reading, or learning, or healing, or any of the things that I am so passionate about now.
As I reflect on these experiences, I am reminded of this poem from Rumi that says:
The whole of my life
is summed up in these three phrases:
I used to be raw
Then I was cooked
I am on fire.
In December 2018, my heart caught fire. It was at this time that my relationship with religion and God changed.
When I first heard this poem on a podcast (I give thanks for the wisdom of teacher Omid Safi), I starkly remembered that December day. My best friend, who was in Sudan at the time, called me a few nights before and told me that there were rumours of some protests going to happen. When I hung up that phone call, I remember sitting on my balcony and contemplating if my heart was right. Something deep in my spirit knew that the cooking process had begun. Five days later, the Sudanese revolution of 2018-2019 began. Over the next few months, I was glued to my phone. Nothing could tear me away as I watched as thousands of my people came together to call for some beautiful and powerful things – Freedom. Justice. Peace.
For the first time in a long time, something was ignited in me – Hope.
I never quite realized how powerful hope could be. Suddenly I was so hopeful for a Sudan I could return to, the Sudan of my dreams. I was also so hopeful for what this could mean for this ‘freedom movement’ I had been reading about everywhere. The one Malcolm and Martin spoke of. The one my Indigenous professors and Black teachers at university spoke of. Hope was so swelled up inside me that nowhere did the word impossible come up, everything was possible to me.
Don’t get me wrong- I was crying most nights, terrified of losing family and friends to gunshot wounds in Sudan and constantly plaguing myself with live videos of protests, but my hope was so vast, that it all felt worth it. This fight was worth it.
This newfound hope changed my relationship with God for the better. And this relationship was not just about praying more or becoming more decent (even now I still struggle with these aspects of it), but it was a shift in my values. It became a guiding principle and determined my outlook on life, my degree, my relationships, personal and social politics – everything.
It was through this hope that I was reacquainted with my love for reading again. I dived into books and rabbit holes on the internet faster than my mind could keep up. I wanted to understand why this moment of revolutionary action felt so significant. I am privileged and grateful to have come from a brilliant, well-educated mother who would have long conversations with me about Sudanese history, stories of the Prophets and the interconnectedness of it all. I am also so privileged to have incredible friends that are always interested in talking about the happenings in our world without separating it from the spiritual aspect of revolution.
It was my mother and the internet that introduced me to the world of Sufism, Shams, and friendship with Allah. It was because of Sudan that I started befriending God again.
To me, hope wasn’t about taking everything in stride. When June 3rd happened, I mourned for weeks as if each lost soul was my brother or sister. I would sit and cry to God, but I wasn’t asking him why they were taken, but instead how we can keep hope alive after it’s been so brutally crushed.
The answer was a hard one to face but a simple one. It was to learn that hope wasn’t a feeling or an emotion, but a long-term practice. Mariame Kaba talks about this when speaking about abolition. Hope is a discipline and when we contextualize that, the work we are doing is feeding into a larger movement than we know, that we may never even see in our lifetimes, so we become a little more grateful to the small moments of hope and organizing that we contribute to.
Learning to embody the practice of hope was really hard. So again, I turned to God and the teachings in old Sufi books, Asma Allah Alhusna (Allah’s 99 names) and Buddhist Satsang videos. As I became reacquainted with Allah, I introduced myself to his other names. While each of the 99 has its own beauty, these are the ones that echo loudest to me in this moment of time.
Al Salam – The perfection and giver of peace.
Al-Muhaymin – The Guardian, The Witness, The Overseer.
Al-Fattaah – The opener.
Al-Aleem – The All-knowing.
Al-Hakam – The Giver of Justice.
Al-Jabbar – Reformer of the broken.
Al-Ghafoor – The exceedingly forgiving.
Al-Samad – The eternal, satisfier of needs.
Al-Barr – The source of Goodness.
Ar-ra’oof – The most Kind.
Al-Haadi – The Guide.
As-Saboor – The Patient
and my favourite Al-Wadood – The most loving.
Through this learning process, one famous Rumi quote stands out to me:
“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world,
Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”
It was in surrendering myself to all of Allah, in understanding the discipline that hope required, in attempting to create a culture of love for myself that I started reimagining the world. In bell hooks’ beautiful love manifesto “all about love”, she says “a commitment to a spiritual life requires us to do more than read a good book or go on a restful retreat. It requires conscious practice, a willingness to unite the way we think with the way we act.”
So then I ask us:
How would we be if we became conscious participants in our own actions? If we understood love as hooks says: a combination of trust, commitment, care, respect, knowledge, and responsibility? If we strived to uphold only a portion of the names we give Allah to our collective humanity? Who would we be if we were hopeful about an environmentally friendly future, an equitable one even? If instead of prioritizing greed, lust and consumption, we practiced an ethic of love, responsibility and community? What do care and accountability look like? Where could we be ten years from now if we made this commitment to hope?
When my outlook on religion changed from fear to love, when Allah Himself became a beacon of love rather than one of terror, my world shifted on its axis. My commitment to humanity became one of love, learning and radical hope.
“The world is like a mountain. Your Echo depends on you. If you scream good things, the world will give it back. If you scream bad things, the world will give it back. Even if someone says badly about you, speak well of him. Change your heart to change the world” – Shams al Tabrizi.
So, while I scream and practice love, I pray hope echoes back to me.