I was very young when we were gathered at my uncle’s home to mourn the sudden passing of his wife in childbirth. The small apartment was packed, in the manner of South Asian custom, with every family member who had travelled across the country to be there, and the noisy prayers were difficult to follow with so many people crying. My mum was busy in the kitchen and I was left feeling lost and confused. I hadn’t even cried for my aunt of whom I had vague memories – a beautiful, glamorous woman who was kind to me the few times we’d met. But prayer seemed appropriate and I searched for a way to do that, to let my aunt know that I was thinking of her. I found escape from the noise in the garden and picked a buttercup, its bright yellow warmth perhaps reminding me of my aunt’s radiant smile. I said a prayer to God to look after my aunt’s soul and not let her be too sad that she had left her children behind, and I placed the flower in a niche in the stone wall. I told myself that my prayer would be accepted if God took my flower.
A few hours later I dashed back to garden, full of trepidation. The flower was gone. I felt a sense of gladness, and I thanked God for accepting my prayer, believing that my flower had flown up to heaven and joined my aunt. I felt like I had truly spoken to God – and I had been heard. That was my earliest memory of connecting to God.
As the years passed, my connection to God diminished as I was exposed to a dogmatic, rigid and fear-inducing Islam. At my daily madrasa lessons I learned how to read and recite Arabic, but not to understand it, a peculiarity of South Asian culture I was to learn later in life. The imam warned us about the dangers of hellfire and how almost everything in life seemed directed to lead us into that hellfire. I was taught how I must be a good Muslim, with all the rules that entailed. And yet, the examples of the adult Muslims in my life were at stark odds with what I was being taught. My environment was steeped in toxic patriarchy and this became my Islam, where men could physically and mentally abuse the powerless in one moment and in the next breath be extolling the virtues of the Prophet Muhammad as the perfect man and how we must all love him unconditionally. I questioned how perfect this prophet could be if he allowed this type of behaviour. How could he be a messenger of God – unless God also allowed this behaviour? In which case, why would I follow this religion when all it seemed to bring was fear and heartache? And how did I know I was even following the right religion?