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On Losing My Community

December 23, 2012

Somewhat rambly, very unstructured. As always, bear with me.

I will bet my hijab collection that anyone who goes into an Reviving the Islamic Spirit (RIS) convention for the first time with an open mind is bound to pick up at least one nugget of truth that illuminates their understanding of Islam.

For the first time.

I attended the convention two years in a row. The first year it made such an impact on me that it inspired me to start writing this blog–something I will always be grateful for. But after attending it the second year in a row and livestreaming it this year, I know that I am growing out of it. And I know I am not the only one. Other RIS veterans like myself are also realizing that they need more. They need more than to be told the messages they not only know, but have internalized. My prowling through tweets related to RIS have also piqued some other concerns. There were entire sessions devoted to how we should act when the Prophet is mocked. (A topic which, I think, has been done to death, especially considering that the RIS audience is not the sort to partake in a violent reaction.) But was there any mention of Malala Yousafzai? About what exactly we do about the oppressors who kill in the name of Islam? Where are the actionable items?

Seeing the gaps results in a muted disappointment like the one that comes with realizing that your parents are not geniuses. But you don’t love your parents any less when realizing this, or think they’ve gotten something terribly wrong. You just realize it’s you who’s changing, and you move on.

There is more, there is a much more personal element to my experience of RIS this year, and there is something insistent in me that compels me to share it here. My feelings about RIS are a reflection of my growing understanding of my own self in relation to–actually, more like my isolation from—the Muslim community.

Things have been this way for as long as I can remember, but it is only now that I am accepting it. Part of it has been always being a loner. Sometimes that aloneness is loneliness; sometimes it’s just alonneess. My Islamic studies teacher in high school once gave me a sympathetic look and said: “Your’e always alone, Sarah.” The lectures I would attend in college, or the events I attend now, I attend alone. I have attempted to nurture friendships with other Muslims, but they never took root.  Then I started writing here, and as a result, almost all of the lively conversations I have had with Muslims take place online.

But I still deeply wanted the personal connection, some way of experiencing the same thing with friends I could see, touch, talk to. Yet, any attempt to recreate this phenomenon IRL has been pitiful. I feel like a guy who has desperately been trying to impress a girl for years, and finally realize that they are wrong for one another.

I feel as though I am in a room full of people having a hundred conversations, and completely isolated. I feel like I am being backed, and backed, and backed into a corner. I back until I’m pressed up against the wall, and I desperately want it to give way, I want to break out of it, carve a hole, go into another room. I have always had those other rooms: rooms with friends from school, from work, from my social life, friends I dine and dance and laugh with. Friends with whom I can never speak to in the language of this blog, but the only people I can truly call friends.

I am not disappointed or bitter now, but there was a time when I was, and I think it’s because I hold Muslims to higher standards. I expect to bump into them in vegan restaurants and begin impromptu conversations about the latest ruckus over wearing the niqab. I expect them to be more than approachable. Considering there’s so many of us, I expect to have people I can call up when a theological puzzle is nibbling away at my mind.

But those people, for whatever reason, aren’t there. I only write this because I now understand that I am not meant to have Muslim friends–friends I can call and talk about my day to. And it may not be the community. It may be me.

When I have tried to communicate this to others in the past, they usually say something along the lines of “Well, I have this one friend, you should give her a call.” But that’s not the point. I am not trying to change anything. I accept. I am no longer bitter.

God, I accept. I accept that I am forever alone, and forever Muslim. If this is the way I am meant to be, if this is the only way I can be me, then I accept it with contentment.

I usually don’t make New Year’s resolutions, but a grand resolution has been forged out of this realization. As far as people are concerned, I will turn towards not what is lacking, but what is. There is, after all, a reason that those who comforted me when I needed it, who listen to me and respect my perspective even when they disagree with it, who accept me as a whole, are more spiritual than religious, or as areligious as they come. So I will focus on them, for it is they who nourish me, who engender in me a love for humanity, who are the ones who help me remember God. The lowercase-m “muslims,” as Murata and Chittick call them in The Vision of Islam, will be my salvation. And with them, through them, I will serve humanity. With or without the banner of Islam.

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20 Comments leave one →
  1. December 24, 2012 2:39 am

    I have not been to the convention, but I feel exactly like you describe in the rest of the post in terms of isolation in the “community.” Except that I still hold some bitterness, sometimes 😛 It comes and goes. The thing is, for me it’s not just the muslim community. It’s all communities, and it’s always been that way (I also get along better online, but we all know that’s not “real life” and is a more tenuous connection). So yeah, I know, it’s not just the community, which I do complain about, it’s also (probably mainly) me. Even when other people sympathize with me about this particular community, I know that I probably wouldn’t “fit” anywhere, as I never have. It seems that some people used to have community acceptance until they converted to Islam, and then found themselves without those connections, but luckly that wasn’t my experience, so I don’t really associate it with Islam per se. If that had happened to me it probably would have been more devastating, but I was already used to it. I did have some hope after I first converted as many people were helpful and friendly as I was a new convert, but soon came to realize that muslims are just like other communities in that they have their cliques and in-groups just the same and they object to differences. Non-convert muslims frequently seem to think the issue is that I would “relate” better to converts (especially, that I should look for a convert husband instead of a husband from another culture). This is not the solution (though when it comes to marrying, I don’t have a preference either way). If anything, historically I relate even worse to my “own” culture, which holds more expectations of how I should behave. At least, those from other cultures have a different set of expectations of some things, so when I don’t meet those expectations, they are not as surprised, and tend to be more accepting. At least, this is a theory as to why most of my ‘in person’ friends have been from cultures other than my own (not necessarily muslim either). In terms of the muslim community, I did again have some renewed hope when moving to an area with a bigger muslim population than I’d ever lived in before. However, this turned out to be more isolating. As you describe being isolated in a crowded room feels even worse than being actually alone. I think to some extent, when I lived in areas with very few muslims, when they did meet me, they were more likely to be friendly and attempt to seek a connection simply because of the novelty of actually running into another muslim in such an area, even if I might not be their idea of ideal company otherwise. However here there are muslims everywhere, and they already have their families and friends and events, so perhaps that’s why they don’t see a need to add one more, especially one like me. I certainly can’t claim that I’m easy to get along with, as a history of dissolved friendships illustrates. In terms of getting married again, I accept now that it may not be in Allah’s plans for me, and if so, I will do the best I can as a single parent, knowing as I do now that it could be a lot worse. But I still hold out some bitter hopes for friendships, at times. If I could be happy living alone miles from anyone on a wooded mountaintop somewhere, I would do so in a heartbeat. But for some annoying reason I seem to need other people and care about them :P.

  2. Leah permalink
    December 24, 2012 5:36 am

    aye, I had the same struggles, but lately I have been so relaxed about the whole situation, that me some five years ago would have been horrified for sure. I think the desire to relate to people who are supposed to be your own people is very painful at times, because people that I want to relate are people who I fondly created in my head, and people who exist in real life are sometimes very different from the picture I have created. That being said, I bet in the time of adversity and struggle the whole community comes as one (that has always been case in the Jewish community), at other times not so much. I have changed my focus though from trying to connect with my own community to trying to connect, and from this “not caring anymore” lots of beautiful things happened. As I hold no expectations, people surprise me, I am more at peace and most importantly so many beautiful friendships happened, that trying to connect with my community moved to the category “things that do not matter”. Not the best solution I admit, but as I said I have made peace with that. Very much so.

    • December 29, 2012 11:54 pm

      I love your point about people you “fondly created in your head.” You couldn’t have said it better. As with many things, I am learning that this is just one way the world as it is is nowhere close to the world in my head.

      I think your whole comment is a testament to why you’re my friend, Leah 🙂 I want to be as happy and loving of life and embracing of all people as you are. That’s why I keep you around!

      • Leah permalink
        January 5, 2013 9:09 pm

        Awwwwww! Thank you, thank you, thank you. I am so blessed to be friends with you.

  3. Bill Ellis permalink
    December 25, 2012 3:41 pm

    So Sarah, you and I are very gently just getting to know each other. So while I was baptised and “Confirmed” in the Anglican church that doesn’t, on one level, make me a Christian forever. Put another way, I cannot change those two facts. But I can change my belief system and I can look for community in other places: Me, Myself and I are a Holy Trinity and can be a very loving little community. (Smile).

    Your second point was that you would also be alone forever, which again, on one level, has nothing at all to do with loneliness. In fact, an Eastern, and much maligned spiritual teacher named Osho once said that Aloneness is a great blessing.and the source of so much learning. And a brilliant English Psychiatrist, Anthony Storr wrote a book years ago about Solitude being the home of genius. I have a copy that needs a new home if you would like it.

    But the reality is that the entity bearing the name of Sarah is never alone. Doesn’t matter whether or not you say God, Allah, Brahman to give a name to the Divine intelligence that created everything, that energy is inside you. Moreover, while at the physical level we live in separate bodies, at the energetic level we are all One with everything that is ~ there is no separation anywhere. But thinking that there is, is one of the causes of pain and suffering.

    And for who knows how many of us, the name we choose to give to that all encompassing life-force is Love. And that is what is coming your way with this message.

    Next, and forgive me for this, but one of the advantages, as I see it, of leaving your Muslim community is that you will be free of the male domination ~ and the other patriarchal religions are equally guilty of this ~ that treats females as inferior beings, or, much worse, as pieces of property. to be treated as they fit.

    So, forgive me again, but I cannot see anything either holy or sacred in wearing a niqab. Maybe Allah personally prescribed it but somehow I don’t think so. Seems to me it might have come about at the same time as someone decided that Muslim men could have three wives because the men were so busy killing each off, that there weren’t enough of them to provide each woman with a husband. Probably made sense at the time, as did women having to be totally covered. But neither, I suggest, makes any sense now.

    Lastly, one thing I can safely do is to wish you a Happy New Year whenever that comes for you. The Mayans are just beginning their next one!! The Christians a little later.

    Be well.

    Love, Light and Laughter.

    Bill.

    • December 25, 2012 6:30 pm

      Thank you for your comment, Bill, I especially love the thought about an entity by the name of Sarah. Beautifully put.

      I do want to clarify, however, that I am not at all literally leaving the Muslim community. I have simply ceased to seek Muslim friends, true friends I in-person interactions with. My online community of Muslims, however, is very much alive and well, and I will always cherish it.

      I’m not sure if you have come across material emphasizing this, but Islam in no way inherently places the woman as less than the man. As explained in The Tao of Islam (here’s an excerpt), the two parts form the Whole.

      I am also unsure if you are aware of this, but there is a difference of opinion as to whether the niqab–or even the hijab–are required in this day and age. Islam has a rich tradition diverse thought. Do Muslim men use dress as a means of oppressing women? Some definitely do. None of the mainstream media thought about the “oppressiveness” of the niqab, however, address the niqabi women who uphold their way of dress purely out of personal choice and a proud affirmation of their beliefs. I hate compulsion in all its forms, but I will always defend a woman’s right to wear a niqab if it is her personal choice.

      I could go and on about this, but at this point I would rather direct you to someone better versed in Muslim feminist thought: woodturtle.wordpress.com.

      I must, however, say this: even the thought that I will in some way benefit from leaving Islam is laughable at best. I love my religion. I love how it provides a path to gnosis both through everyday rituals and a higher understanding of the universe and its Maker. And not having an in-person Muslim family in no way takes away from this. In the grandest scheme of things, only God is great, and only His Love will prevail.

      • January 10, 2013 10:51 pm

        So, my apologies Sarah for my silence since Christmas Day. I thought I had clicked the box that said “Notify me of Follow-up comments ,….” but obviously I hadn’t. And it wasn’t until I got your latest posting that I checked back to see what had happened and found your three replies. I’ll respond later because I need to have some dinner. Haven’t eaten since breakfast time. Blessings. Bill.

      • January 11, 2013 1:48 am

        So I took your advice Sarah and read both Woodturtle’s blog and the Tao of Islam which I would say is a brilliant piece of writing. But I see nothing in either of them that tells me very much about how these female dress codes came into being because as far as i can tell there is no reference to them in the Quran~ hope I spelled that right. In other words they were prescribed by men and have nothing to with God/Allah at all. If I am wrong please tell me. Because it is at the heart of the matter ~ and woodturtle seems eloquently silent on this point.

        Said another way, seems to me that the wearing or not wearing of niqabs etc has nothing to do with feminism but rather with the wearer’s “religious” beliefs that DO NOT reflect gender equity. Put yet another way do the Islamic Holy Scriptures prescribe how men shall dress? If not, we are clearly facing a form of sexual discrimination which is a violation of the rights set out in The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Anyway … the recent Suprme Court decison, as far as i’m concerned, reflects a common belief that the law is an ass. But a very clear indication of the kind of hassles the early Christian Fathers had in deciding what went in the Christian Holy Bible and what didn’t. And, not suprising, the Gospels which did not reflect thier personal belifs at the time got left out. The Gospel of Ihomas is the classic omission

        PS I went down to the local pub for some food ~ too late to do my own cooking~ and came out to be greeted by a snow squall. Hate that white stuff!

  4. Bill Ellis permalink
    December 25, 2012 3:55 pm

    PS The equally brilliant American Jungian psychologists like James Hillman and James Hollis, will tell you that life is so big that we cannot really do it alone. We need each other for support.So please just stay open to receiving it ~ always easier to give than receive!

    • December 25, 2012 7:38 pm

      A critical gem of wisdom. I like to think that I uphold it, but I could certainly do better at doing so. Thank you so much for sharing.

  5. Bill Ellis permalink
    December 25, 2012 5:25 pm

    Dear Goddess, look at what has now happened. As part of preparing material for my web-site I just found the precise James Hillman quote that I put in an Aphrodite inspired newsletter dated June 1998. So that should tell us something about something Sarah:

    …if we have learned anything from the rituals of the new life-form of the past seventy years, it is just this: we cannot go it alone. The opus of the soul needs intimate connection, not only to individuate but simply to live. For this we need relationships of the profoundest kind through which we realize ourselves, where self-revelation is possible …. and where Eros may move freely ~ whether it be in analysis, in marriage and family, or between lovers or friends.

    Four hours to a Christmas dinner! And a Buddhist message for you:

    May you be free of fear. May you be free of suffering. May you be at ease. May you be happy. To which I add “May you love and be loved”

    • December 25, 2012 7:41 pm

      Wonderful, such wonderful thoughts, Bill. Indeed, we cannot go at it alone. I am so grateful that I do have support and feel the flow of Eros in my online interactions.

      I hope you had a wonderful Christmas! I am honoured that you took time on this day to write to me. Indeed, may you love and be loved as well. You certainly have made yourself open to it, given how generous a spirit you seem to be. I am blessed to have you here.
      Warm regards,
      Sarah

      • January 11, 2013 2:00 am

        I had the most wonderful Christmas dinner with friends in many years, Sarah. Sadly, New Year’s turned out to be a mess because I had gone down to a five-day Dance workshop in Olympia, Washington, my second home for the last ten years, with expectations that turned out to have been unrealistic. So came back early.

        Lastly, and on a totally differnt subject, if you would like an advance preview of what is going to be on my web-site check out this blog from which much of the material will come: www,hermesheart.blogspot.com. But don’t know why the pictures seem to have disappeared. And you will notice I haven’t posted anything in years because I also write an email newsletter to my friends.

        Kindest regards. Bill.

  6. December 29, 2012 11:45 pm

    Wow – I was following your tweets on RIS and I could clearly sense your apathy towards it this second time around – reinforced here of course. Though I haven’t been to such a convention (RIS, ISNA, etc), I can see how it becomes repetitive and thus doesn’t uplift your/the audience’s spirit.

    As for the isolation issue – I don’t think it’s quite the same for me, but to an extent, I too feel isolated. I was lamenting on Twitter lol – that I am often more in touch with this online family of mine, yourself included (without regret of course), than I am with my actual blood family. Yet, I find it enjoyable in the sense that there are more like-minded, relate-able people that I am able to interact with or those that I can learn from to a great extent concerning our Faith or other issues that we are facing as a community, both religious and secular ones.

    Additionally, I, myself do wish I had more interaction with real-life Muslims – be it meeting some of the online family (have the intention to do just that in the future), or just having more time to spend time with those in my own local community, which hasn’t happened due to my life/academic circumstances – don’t see that improving to be honest, though I would like it to. Let’s see what happens. Maybe I still have to make that journey that you’ve made already – whether or not it’s heading toward a similar path/result though.

    My heart did feel a bit heavy reading your words, yet I am glad that you are no longer feeling bitter and accepting the situation in a better state of mind (or it seems that way).

    Lastly, just to repeat a little, I too have felt enriched by the online community I’ve made and so far, and I hope that these connections will endure as much as they can, given the limits, for at least the foreseeable future.

    • December 29, 2012 11:50 pm

      I am amazed at how similar our experiences have been. You are the third person to tell me that they have the exact same story (in terms of Muslim online vs. offline communities) as mine. In fact, I’m starting to wonder if the people who are the most active “online Muslims” are those who experience such a lack in their lives.

      Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and further enriching this post. Whatever form it may take, I pray that we all find solace and companionship in a way that brings us closer to Allah.

  7. Aliya permalink
    January 2, 2013 7:16 am

    Assalamu alaikum Sarah,
    Just found your blog today (through Brass Crescent Awards) and Like it. I also understand and have felt similarly from time to time. As a youth coordinator of female Muslim youth in NZ…..I know there is a community out there for you….you just may need to build it or be part of the building of it but you will find it and perhaps you started building.. I’ve seen over 150 female Muslim youth build a community here in less than 4 years and may you find something for yourself soon.

    • February 6, 2013 11:04 pm

      Insh’Allah, I hope that will be the case. Thank you so much for your comment. I wish you the best of success in the great work that you are doing.

  8. February 19, 2013 12:56 pm

    I have started to conclude that the sense of community that others seem to have is actually just the existence of extended family ties: their community revolves around uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents, children. Their social life is in wandering in and out of the houses of those near to them. For various reasons—whether we are converts, students away from home or those who have rediscovered the faith—some of us look on as if outsiders, lamenting that we do not have what they have. Once on my return from the masjid after Isha one evening I remarked, “There is no community if you’re not from the community.” Yes, it is often a lonely path we walk. But, inshaAllah, there are blessings and wisdom in it. Perhaps we can differentiate between the call of faith and the calls of the community.

Trackbacks

  1. Alone and Sometimes Lonely || Inked
  2. This Lady’s One-Person Intrafaith Shop | A Muslimah Writes

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