by Marina Rosli
For most of my life, Islam felt like conditional love: I had no right to call myself a Muslim (nor would others call me one) because I hardly prayed, am not too concerned about halal food, constantly challenged longstanding interpretations of the religion and questioned the existence and validity of certain beliefs and rituals.
Raised in a pious, religious household, I grew up following the rituals to a tee. I spent my youth following a creed that I thought was essential to my self-worth, humanity and spirit; but I never felt good enough to be considered a Muslim. Furthermore, society also always seemed to reinforce this feeling of inadequacy, where our prayers are never proper enough for God, where we will never pray enough, nor will we ever be as humble as the prophets.
As I grew older, a sense of uneasiness and conflict grew. I constantly felt punished for doing things I enjoyed that were not harmful or hurtful to me or anyone. I felt as if religious people never seemed to care about women or they “care” too much by wanting to control and have power over us. It slowly got increasingly harder to commit to praying every day. It was not only the tediousness of the rituals but also the contradictions I felt about what I knew the religion to be, and the values I held.
I slowly began to distance myself from the faith. It began as me believing that I will go back and regain my old life as a dedicated Muslim someday. However, I soon realized that I was not someone who was invested in the rituals any longer albeit, I still stayed steadfast to my faith.
I took a more rational approach to my spirituality and faith. I no longer associated any of my mishaps or misfortunes to my lack of rituals. I was no longer ruled by the fear of balak tuhan (God’s punishment). I was finally making decisions and being accountable to my own self. It was liberating! I was free to enjoy a glass of wine with my friends, without the guilt. I was free to go out in clothes that I thought made me look good, without the guilt. I was free to live my authentic life, without any guilt. Although I did not practice all the traditional rituals, I still identified as a Muslim. I fasted every Ramadhan, went for terawih prayers without fail and did my prayers when I felt like it. I balanced the life of sin with some of the rituals I was taught and expected to perform.
Not Muslim enough for him
That was until I met Adil. He seemed progressive, his circle of friends equally so. However, as our relationship progressed, he obsessed about my lack of ritualistic practice. He was convinced my lack of wont to pray made me a ‘deviant’ Muslim and ultimately an immoral person.
Not only he, but also his friends, and family slowly coerced me to work on my “religiosity”. It began with the constant shame couched through encouraging tones of advice, and the passive-aggressive remarks when I did not publicly announce I was going to pray. My choices often drew eye rolls, sighs of disappointment and the condescending line “what is 5 minutes of your time”.
Yes, 5 minutes of my day is nothing. However, the imposition of the task, the patronizing tone, the coercion framed as advice – that is not just “nothing”. These are acts that chip away and slowly disempowers a person’s spirit. I was made to believe that I was not a good Muslim, good friend, good girlfriend and a good person. And I believed it.
Not Muslim enough for the pulpit
Eventually, I succumbed. The burden of having to accept their judgment with a smile (pretending that I appreciated their dakwah) was too much to shoulder, so I did my prayers (to pray that the control would stop).
Whenever we went out, I was careful to dress “appropriately”, because we would often pray together at the mosque. Mosques in Singapore have never felt safe to me; I constantly worried that I would get chided, scolded and humiliated because I was not dressed ‘modestly’. People at the mosque have chided me publicly for wearing torn jeans, a dress, or for the wind blowing through my hair. Once, at Masjid Sultan, thinking my long sleeves and jeans were modest enough, I decided to enter the house of God. Instead, I was stopped and publicly humiliated by their entrance guard. I was told to cover up before entering because my knees were showing through the fashionably and well-placed tears on my jeans… The accumulation of stressful experiences has resulted in me staying away from the house of God.
Not Muslim enough for the community
To placate Adil and also to prove to him and his peers that I was taking steps to ‘improve myself as a Muslim’, I decided to sign up for a religious class. It was a weekly nightmare. The ustaz would insinuate or point out that I was not wearing the hijab every other week. If not me, he would talk about how women who wore the turbans or any fashionable style of hijab were wrong. He would make intensely misogynistic and controversial remarks and no one would bat an eyelid. The older women in the class would accuse me of wanting to attract men’s attention for what I wore. It was always an accusation that I made these men commit sins, without personal accountability demanded from these perverts. I eventually left the class for the sake of my mental health.
Some of Adil’s peers were not helpful in calling him out for his spiritual abuse nor did they recognize how mentally, emotionally and psychologically toxic he was. They repeatedly convinced him that I was “not good enough” for him or kept silent throughout my ordeal. These claims were based on the facts that I was not a ritualistic Muslim. Their assumptions on my character were not based on my values, ethics, or beliefs, rather on what I did or did not do as a “Muslim”. No one saw the imposition of religiosity as spiritual abuse, because to them, being ritualistic was a positive thing that will bring me to heaven – even though they made my life a living hell.
It was an isolating, dehumanizing experience because the community I called myself a part of did not want me. Self-identifying as Muslim, acting on all the Islamic values and virtues (like kindness, compassion, challenging injustices) was not enough. I had to behave in accordance to their perception of a Muslim, which meant following all the suffocating rules. It felt like Islam had no place for me. But I trudged on and tried to work towards being a ‘good’ Muslim.
Things became clearer when I found out Adil was cheating on me with someone who prayed five times a day, never questioned the rituals and religion, and was also cheating on her partner of 8 years. Ha, the hypocrisy of these outwardly religious people! I was shattered not because I was betrayed by the person I thought I loved, but that I had sacrificed a large part of myself to be seen as a ‘good Muslim’ and lost a large part of who I was in the process.
In order to heal, I decided to leave my community and fly halfway across the world. I suspended my beliefs, slowly unlearnt the doctrine and dogmatic structures of what I thought was my religion, and left the faith and community behind. I did not want to be associated with a community that pretends to love me but beats me into submission to conform.
It was when I was in Toronto that I decided to pray at an open mosque, El-Tawhid Juma Circle. As much as the self-righteous religious Muslims had betrayed, disowned, and consistently reminded me that I was not one of them, I still needed to heal spiritually. I wanted to reconcile the steadfast spiritual abuse I had endured and not hate my faith. I did not feel it was healthy to hate something that I saw was an integral part of my identity.
The mosque I chose to pray in prides itself as a gender equal, LGBTQ affirming place of healing and learning. It was in this space where I saw people prioritize interpretations of faith over acts of faith. I felt safe – spiritually and physically. I also found others who were escaping the same spiritual brutalities and coercion that I had gone through. And it dawned on me that I have finally found the types of Muslims I want to be with. They were inclusive, compassionate, did not enforce their understanding of Islam onto others and did not care if I was “Muslim enough” or not.
I finally felt accepted, validated and included.
Perhaps it was because of the isolation, abandonment, shame, enforcement, coercion in those few months that I started to think of Islam differently. My prolonged period of agnosticism turned into a holy act of re-learning my faith and what role I wished for it to play in my life.
With this new perspective comes my own understanding that faith is what you make of it, and everybody has the right to practice it in their own personal ways. My faith transcends rituals. It is a personal act between God and me. Ultimately, my faith is not fragile. The different ways others practice their faith will threaten my own personal beliefs. In some ways, I have never felt more Muslim than I do now. My relationship with God is not one centred on fear and rituals, but on a healthy and spiritual understanding.
I grew up unaware that I had a say in the management of my own religious affairs. However, I am not an anomaly. Many Muslims grow up instructed to live and understand religion and their relationship with God in terms of fear and blind obedience. Unfortunately, it has resulted in an unhealthy perspective of Islam. It has allowed believers to see the religion as a monolith and ultimately cultivated an obsession to perform the ‘purest’ form of Islam. Rituals, which were meant to be personal and an opportunity for self-reflection, devolved into a transaction – an activity you perform to get the points to enter heaven. This monolithic, myopic and narrow understanding of how Islam must be practiced has emboldened people to discriminate and discipline anyone who went beyond the constructed boundary of a ‘good’ Muslim. While those of us who lie beyond that boundary are labelled as ‘illegitimate’.
The exhortation of a single, valid, Islam has reduced the magnanimous nature of the religion and the diversity of its people. It has given believers an arrogant self-satisfaction that one is unlike the other, and the right to demonize others for not falling into the dominant image of what a good Muslim is.
Religious spaces are meant to be sacred and safe. Religious communities are meant to be loving, kind and accepting. If the heart of Islamic teachings are based on compassion, peace and love, then they cannot coexist with abuse or hatred. If we were to pride ourselves as a community of peace, then we cannot condone spiritual coercion, discrimination, rejection or the deliberate exclusion of some of our people on the basis that they are “not Muslim enough”.
Marina Rosli currently works in academia and has found some peace in her life. She is a mother to 1 cat.
Illustration by Ishibashi Chiharu
I’ve had the same troubles as you, maybe I still do have them. There’s always the fear of not being a ‘good’ Muslim when not being religious enough or doing things that Muslims are “not supposed” to. And because of that, I stayed away from the community and all my friends are non-muslims or are not religious for the fear of constantly being judged by others.
I’m saddened by the fact that other Muslims love to judge others on how “Muslim” they are. You’re either too Muslim or not Muslim enough. But the fact stays that we are still Muslim! The way we dress or the number of times we pray a day does not make us a better Muslim. So many Muslims out there are just plain assholes, or indecent. But because they ‘act’ or ‘dress’ Muslim they’re not judged or chided.
Like you, I do not relate my misfortunes to my lack of prayers or the lack of practising the faith and started being accountable for my own actions. And the liberation is real.
Islam should be taught to love others and accept others. Why are they teaching Islam with fear? Will fearing for our Akhirat make us love God more? Why not teach us the beauty of the religion instead of just pointing out the punishments? Why chide us or be patronising instead of reminding or advising politely? The Muslim community needs to learn to spread love and acceptance instead of judgement and hatred.
Don’t even get me started on the misogyny in the Muslim society. Muslim boys can do no wrong, but Muslim girls are constantly, constantly criticised!
Not Muslim enough? Are you a Muslim? If yes then you’re Muslim enough.
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Assalamu alaikum, your article is an interesting read. I believe the widespread judgement in the Muslim community you describe is down to a real lack of focus on the individual. Instead of looking in and improving oneself, people are busy criticizing and judging others. Moreover, these judgements are often not based upon any real knowledge of the religion – Instead, people merely follow the opinions of others. I have written about this on my site – you might find it interesting to take a look at https://iconoclast.online/2018/12/08/the-muslim-headscarf-allahs-religion-or-misogyny/
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I had same concern too. I do feel i’m bad muslim, both for community and Allah. But sometime i didn’t feel to do 5-times prayer. But i do fasting. This last 2-3 years, i didn’t do taraweh regularly. Mostly because i late to go home, i do whenever i want. Even this year i want to “restore” myself since the first day, but mosque with smoke-smell stopped me go to inside. So, this year i even didn’t come to mosque near my home.
Also with religion-politic that came to my country, somehow i despite every muslims who do some dirty tricks, use Islam n Al-Quran for winning the one and despite the other. It’s so disgusting to think i had same iman with them.. I hate them, but i can’t hate my religion because no wrong with Islam.
Suddenly it’s hit me, maybe i’m Islamphobia, not for Islam but for the people in majority community. Or shall we call it Muslimphobia?? I hate their dakwah. I hate how they disgust us who still stupid n learn to be better muslim. I hate they want my country to be more-arabish n more-islamish. I hate them with my all my heart. But i still love Islam.
Somehow i believe, whoever be muslim at minority environment, they’re the true muslim, who know how to be a good human for others human, also to be a good follower to Allah.
Maybe if i get out from this community, maybe this country, i can live my own life. Maybe i can restore my old good muslim.
My issues involve leaving my beloved religion entirely. There are too many reasons to tell you, but I’m glad that i left.
One of those reasons are; ever since I came out, most(if not all) of my Muslim friends aren’t accepting. Even my own best friend( now Ex) stopped talking to me. I was lost and alone. I had suicidal thoughts and would even plan on how i should end my life. I prayed every night so that in the morning i could feel better, but it did not.
Then one day, i had enough. Instead of having to end my life; I decide to get up, open my eyes and use my common sense.
That’s where i realize. Praying does not help. Goals, Hard work and Motivation does.
Now that I’m free, I can do the things that i want. I have found friends that i call them ‘Bros and Sis’. I became open minded and accepting. I have finally achieve most of my goals. I no longer have suicide thoughts and is living my life to the fullest.
I am glad you could finally find peace in yourself, it’s a shame that so many people enforce their beliefs onto others just to make themselves feel like the “better” person. All I see is insecure people shaming others to feel better about themselves. I personally decided to not call myself a muslim as i’d be lying to myself if i were to do so. It simply doesnt work with my personal morals and beliefs, the oppression, restrictions, favoring one gender over the other and making the act of thinking/questioning anything about the religion a sin. For those who believe in any religion, i’ll forever respect them. You do you, and let others be.