Finding God in a Godless Man

Sometimes, you find faith in the least expected places.

6 years back, I moved to Malaysia. I remember bawling my eyes out, I was clueless, I was lost, I had no idea how I was supposed to move on with life in a new place. But thinking back, I would not have had my life any other way.

When I first got into secondary school in Malaysia, I was surprised to see that religious studies was a core subject in their syllabus. Back in Singapore, it was something that you could choose to take outside school hours. If you didn’t want to, you didn’t have to. Not in Malaysia though. It is mandatory for every Muslim to take religious studies.

I won’t lie. I shall shamefully state here that back then, I had absolutely no interest in religion. I wouldn’t say I was a practicing Muslim, merely one by name. I believed in God, and that was it. This wasn’t something that people didn’t know either. They knew I was from Singapore, they knew I didn’t take religious studies there, and they knew that I couldn’t care less about it either. Back then, I only saw it as a subject that I needed to pass and nothing more. And when I took my final secondary year test, I was so relieved I did not have to go through that dreaded subject again.

So what did I learn about Islam coming out from school? Oh, the basics… Like you know:

  1. Men can marry 4 women.
  2. All non-Muslims go to Hell when they die.
  3. Anything other than Ahl Sunnah Wal Jamaah is deviant.
  4. A woman’s hair/voice/everything (except hands and face) is aurat.
  5. Homosexuality is a sin and is punishable.
  6. Hudud law and it’s punishments.

And many many more. Did some of the things I learn make me uncomfortable? It definitely did. But I learned to suck it up because I’m a Muslim and I just cannot disagree with God’s decree. While some of these may make me question Islam, the whole time I was also taught that “God is Merciful”. So no matter what how uncomfortable some of these things made me, I just always told myself “It’s okay, I believe my God is kind.” Besides, we say it every day, don’t we? Bismillahirrahmanirrahim, in the name of God the most Gracious and most Merciful.

Most of my friends were already going away to different states to attend college, but because I was a Singaporean, it was slightly harder and more expensive for me to get into an academic institution. So for 2 years, I waited for my Malaysian citizenship. And for 2 years, I had a break. And these 2 years were some of the most meaningful times in my life.

Some time after the first year, I slipped into a depression. I won’t go into details, but you only need to know that it was the worst time of my life. It took me a while to get back on my own two feet, and I had my friends, family and boyfriend to stand by me through it all. Slowly, I stitched my life back together.

Because I spent a lot of time at home, that also meant I spent a lot of time online. Many people would know that I am active on Twitter. So one day, I was scrolling through my newsfeed, and there was a ruckus about Islam being a violent religion. Being a Muslim myself, instinctively I tweeted that Islam was a religion of peace and we do not condone violence. And that was that. Or at least I had hoped so.

A few hours later and I got a notification. For the sake of this story, I will call him Jack.

Jack was an atheist, and judging from his tweets, an Islamophobe too. He told me that Islam is violent, and it’s in our scripture. He was also a feminist, and he told me that Islam oppresses its women. My response? “I’m a woman in Islam and I don’t feel oppressed.” Little did I know that that was a weak comeback. Almost immediately after, he sent me a list of Qur’anic verses that showed Islam was oppressive towards women, and he told me to explain it.

In the beginning I was angry. So enraged at how this man had the cheek to come up to me and tell me this about my faith. I needed to respond. I needed to teach him a lesson. And slowly, I slipped into disappointment. Disappointment in myself. Disappointed in myself because I realised I had no idea how to defend Islam.

I could keep telling people that Islam is a religion of peace, and deny every atrocity that has been committed in the name of it, but the moment someone gives me verses from the Qur’an, there is nothing I could say about it. I could not explain it, I could not tell them why I had a God so cruel.

I wasn’t angry at him anymore. I was angry at myself. What kind of Muslim am I if I don’t even know what is written in the Qur’an? What kind of Muslim am I if I don’t understand what is written in the Qur’an? Immediately, I favourited his tweet for reference, and then replied “I will get back to you on this.”

It was supposed to be a simple research, but little did I know that it ended up shaping my whole life. I wrote down the verses that Jack said is oppressive towards women, and I looked it up, studied it from all sorts of angles, and that was how I ended up with my first article: Does Islam degrade women?

I finished the article a month after that tweet, but by the time I wanted to give it to Jack, I had lost his contact. I think he went off Twitter. But the thought of him never left my mind.

From there, I started learning more about Islam, which slowly branched out into many different categories. Human rights, gender and sexuality, feminism. Next thing I knew, I was learning something new every day. The more I learned about Islam, the more I learned to love it. The more I understood Islam, the more faith I had in God. There was no longer that inner struggle of “I believe this but God says that” in me, because finally, I feel at peace knowing that my God truly is Merciful.

From there, I became an activist, speaking our for the voiceless and for those who have been discriminated against. Is it the safest choice to make? No, not really. But it is a risk I am willing to take. Before this, all my life dreams revolved around earning loads of money, but now I just wish to create a safe environment for people to live in, and help those in need wherever I can.

At the back of my head, I always wondered, how different my life would be if Jack had never sent me that tweet. Would I still know what I know today? Would I still be doing what I do today? I don’t think so.

While I always thanked God for letting us cross paths, I felt like I needed to say my thanks to him as well. And to my joy and relief, in the beginning of this year, someone retweeted him onto my timeline on Twitter and immediately I asked him for his email. He couldn’t recall who I was in the beginning, but after sending him a lengthy email thanking him, he did.

He’s still an atheist, though he told me that he’s lost most of his bitterness towards Islam because had met a lot of amazing Muslims that completely changed his perception.

It’s true when they say that the people you meet in your life are either a blessing or a lesson, and for Jack, he was both. Even though I was already born a Muslim, he made me more comfortable with my identity and he helped me fall in love with what I did not understand.

The things that I have learned on this amazing continuous journey is that Islam is so rich. There is a world out there that a lot of people do not know, which I am still in the midst of discovering, and you are missing out on so much if you refuse to open up your mind to embrace differences. Islam has such an amazing history, and there are so many names to know, stories to read, poetries to indulge in, cultures to see and interpretations to understand. The things I learned in school, I don’t necessarily agree with it anymore either. I also realised that the more you know, the less you actually know. And the less you actually know, the more you learn to put your faith in an all-benevolent God. And putting more faith in God brings more meaning to saying bismillahirrahmanirrahim for the simplest things religiously every day, because now you truly believe He is ar-rahman, ar-rahim, most Gracious and most Merciful.

People can say whatever they want about me, there is nothing new to be heard already. But still, I thank God every day for giving me the opportunities that I have received and for allowing me to meet the people that I know today. And I also thank Jack for the being the starting point of everything that I am doing right now.

And that is the story of how I found God in a Godless man.

Sometimes, you find faith in the least expected places.

(*Jack is not his real name.)

6 December 2014

Shafiqah Othman Hamzah

Shafiqah is a Singapore-born Malaysian who is best known for her advocacy on social and human rights issues. She is notably known for her tweets and for being a columnist on Malay Mail.

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