When the word ‘religion’ is mentioned, because of some conditioning and what it has come to be defined as, I can’t help but think ‘restrictions.’ My body even reacts to the word; I instantly feel closed up, claustrophobic, I could feel it in my chest; breathing becomes shorter and my jaws tense.
For me, the word kills possibilities, like free travel, wearing what I feel makes me beautiful, enjoying some things, doing what at heart feels right, connecting with others from all walks of life (Women, and *men*. Yup, I don’t like the “religious” idea of avoiding intimate relations with men, save the husband, or having to wait until I get married to have heart-to-heart conversations with a man, share dreams with or travel and spend great time together. In fact, most of the men I met recently and whose company I enjoyed tremendously, who I opened up to, and shared parts of myself with, I know I’d never marry or fall in love with. It’s about connecting. “Islam” as we know it, makes me feel these small pleasures, these connections, can be taken away in the name of “haram” or “self-preservation” or whatever).
The word ‘judgement’ also comes to mind. To be religious, in my experience, was to be judged too, by none other than those people who are/were supposed to be pious and God-fearing. In the name of “‘Amr bel ma’rouf” or “nasee7a” or “taqweem” or even duty. All the same.
And suddenly instead of being a moral code, or a moral compass, perhaps a quest to finding peace and the creator of this world, religion becomes a behavioral checklist of what is deemed right or wrong, more often than not from the perspective of those who practice it. And you can’t do a bigger disservice to religion; self-appointed preachers are probably the number one reason people feel alienated in some religious communities. But hey, it seems I’ve been barking up this very same old tree for quite a while now.
The word ‘religion’ now feels like the antithesis not just of freedom, but of spiritual well-being, living life through the heart, to the fullest; feeling, throwing yourself into the world, and making moments count. The worst about those restrictions associated with religion, especially “Islam” (or more likely the thing that it has morphed into these days in this part of the world) is that they’re distracting at best, and at their worst, they drive one away from experiencing life––the path–– with courage and with every fiber of one’s being. It brings fear, and it turns one away from the very thing one feels one must pursue.
And this is why many have recently broke ranks with religion, not just because of hostile sermons, the wrong examples and bad publicity, but because in their core, these people decided they want to experience life, without people reminding them at every corner of ‘harams‘ and ‘inappropriateness’ that seem to go against what their souls are hungry for.
And that’s also why you find many religious people who are not happy; or who pretend to be happy (or force themselves to be happy, and feel guilty when they can’t, or deny their troubles and live in cocoons, or insist they’re happy in an attempt to make the world believe it so they could believe, or worse defend the very thing that makes them unhappy out of fear, guilt, or habit).
Happiness is a spontaneous, simple feeling that can’t be forced; peace is not a feeling that one can talk him or herself into. When I see my cats, for instance, I feel happy. No one has to talk me into “having to feel happy” since pets “should make me happy.” It’s instant; it’s a feeling comfortable with itself, gentle sometimes, and overwhelming in others. And when it comes, it’s never associated with a need to make others think or do certain things. It’s like being in love. In fact, it is being in love. When you’re in love, every person and everything is beautiful.
If religious people in this part of the world “were in love,” this kind of love, they wouldn’t fight and bicker with others, feel superior by virtue of belonging to this or that faith, they wouldn’t find the need to change anyone; love is sufficient. You feel it, and then you start seeing the world differently.
That’s why it was always easy for mystics and prophets, and the enlightened, to be at ease with people (not rejoicing in their praise, and not taking insult when they hurt them); they were in love. You have no time for pettiness when you’re in love.
Trust me, when your soul wants something, is aching for something, there’s nothing that could be done ––including sermons, ‘nice conversations’ or immersion in holy books–– that can shut that up. Back in the day, when I used to feel that ache, some friends used to dismiss this as ‘waswasa‘; ‘the shaytan who wants you to stray from the path.’ That or
(النفس الأمارة بالسوء). I was asked to intensify the rituals; read Quran more regularly, they said, ponder, or do this or that. And in fact it is pondering that finally showed me that the ‘shaytan‘ (not the fantastical creature, but something very twisted inside me, a mixture of disillusionment, good intentions badly placed, conditioning and guilt) that was the thing keeping me on that path, the one my soul knew it was not for me. I also realized that my ‘nafs‘ was the victim there, not the aggressor. I realized that the light I was looking for was not in ritual, or in books, but it’s inside, perhaps covered by all that.
You can’t shut up the voice of the soul, and you don’t want to, it’s all truth.
I’m not trying to make any arguments here. In fact, I don’t know what I’m doing except sharing what the word ‘religion’ has come to mean for me. “Religion,” as we know it, has become something that makes my soul cringe. But now, I don’t believe it’s my soul I should blame.
In fact, perhaps “religion” owes my soul an apology.