DEFINING breath

There is no ‘road to Damascus ‘ moment in my spiritual journey as I was born, raised and continue to be a Muslim. My spiritual journey on the surface may seem uneventful — there being no sudden revelation or profound change of belief — yet I have been given countless opportunities to reflect upon my sense of values and spirituality.

Spirituality can be quite hard to define, which makes it difficult to then talk about the beginning of one’s journey. The origin of the word is from the Latin, spiritus — breath, so could include everything that makes us who we are and sustains us. It is significant therefore that my first breath was taken in a small village in the Punjab, Pakistan, but that I was brought up from the age of two in Manchester, England — an environment that was completely different in every possible way. The contrast in cultures made it almost inevitable that interfaith and diversity would be a major part of my life, sustaining and inspiring me.

My mother has always been very religious and spent many hours reading to us from religious books: I particularly recall her relating a prayer for when we look into a mirror: “make me more beautiful on the inside than I am on the outside”. It is a prayer that has stayed with me, making me conscious of my actions in the world. I have always had an innate curiosity about my faith that found expression from an early age, and one of my earliest memories is of sitting by an old music centre and listening to a song, the chorus of which was a plea to God to show me the glories of heaven. The words and the music stirred something deep within me, feeding my fascination and hunger for connectedness to the Divine. For my ninth birthday, at my request, my father agreed to let me wear my dupatta (A long, multi-purpose scarf that is essential to many South Asian women’s suits), and when I started secondary school a few years later it felt natural for me to wear a scarf tied around my head.

This was possibly the beginning of my quest to define myself, my faith and to also learn about other religions. After watching a television programme showing Sufis in prayer, I felt inspired to ask my father if I could become a Sufi, to which he answered “of course”. The following week, unfortunately, I saw another programme in which all the women appeared to be in the kitchen and only the men were in prayer. Housework being seen as exclusively feminine was an issue for me even then, so I returned to my father and told him I no longer wished to be a Sufi and wanted/needed advice about what type of Muslim I should be. I decided I wanted to be the type of Muslim that did not visit the graves of saints, or ask saints to perform miracles. My father was not sure but he thought that would make me a Wahabi which would be okay because my maternal grandfather was one. Then I discovered that in Saudi Arabia, where Wahabism is practised, women are not allowed to drive because of teachings within that faith. I decided Wahabism was not for me.

Since then, my spiritual journey has shown me that: ‘no religion, Islam included, is a set menu of moral, political and social behaviour: it offers within some varying limits, an á la carte selection varying with sects, time and context, if not from individual to individual’: ( Halliday, Fred, Islam and the myth of confrontation, p144)

This has been brought home to me throughout my life — studying, working and socialising with people from a variety of backgrounds, especially throughout school and university. I have realised that religious labels are no indication of the views and values of an individual and even now, it never fails to amaze me how people from similar backgrounds and religious traditions can have contrasting views. After a number of challenging discussions on issues around religion and culture, I decided to undertake further postgraduate studies at the University of London. The course in Islamic Societies and Cultures opened my eyes, and my mind, to the huge variety of practices and beliefs within the Muslim world. It is through my studies that I also learnt about Sufism, and made contacts that have proved to be invaluable on my spiritual journey — none of the women I have met have been confined to the kitchen, and men always seem willing to serve!

A treasured legacy of these postgraduate studies is spending time with my father discussing what it was like for him during the Independence and Partition of India. I was horrified at some of his experiences, particularly to learn that he had had to run from a group of Muslims, his co-religionists, merely because he had shaved that day.

I chose to focus my MA dissertation on religious minorities in Pakistan. Muslim nationhood had played such a key role in its creation and definition yet Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the first leader, worked hard to ensure that all Pakistanis, of whatever religion, would be treated as equal citizens. At the time I wrote my thesis, however, economic and institutional poverty; the use of ‘Islam’ for political purposes; the lack of democratic processes; and the war in Afghanistan, had all culminated in minorities being treated as second class citizens. It was in 1970 that Pakistan became the only state to officially declare the Ahmadiyya community to be non-Muslims. The 1973 Constitution stated that the President must be a Muslim, and later Zia-ul-Haq enforced a programme aimed at ‘Islamisation’ that included blasphemy laws. These laws have been used by individuals to settle scores of a secular nature, as well as to oppress religious minorities.

My research has enabled me to reflect on the value of religious freedom, and appreciate just how precious my father’s patience of my spiritual search has been. After spending a summer researching the impact of sectarianism in Pakistan, to my horror I completed my thesis on a day that would change our lives forever…11 September 2001.

On 8 August 2004 my father passed away. Death is a fact of life which none of us can escape yet it never fails to shock those left behind. In my case several things helped with that shock: I could reflect on the circle of life and the fact that my father had never had to suffer the pain of the death of a child. The following day was my birthday — I was my father’s first child — and we were able to reflect on the joy that brought him.

The funeral took place on the same day. I recall not wanting to lose sight of my father as we drove to the Muslim Cemetery and being very upset when another car came between us. We arrived at the cemetery but as a woman I was stopped before reaching the grave because of cemetery rules. I could hear and see what was happening, and can remember hearing birdsong and people playing cricket in the field next door: my father would have liked that.

My father’s death made me wonder about the afterlife and I read a lot of scripture, including the Bible. I decided that the next step on my journey would be to work somewhere where I could explore further the multi-faith approach to care of the sick. In November 2004 I started working as a Spiritual and Cultural Care Coordinator with Oxleas NHS Trust. One of my first tasks in the post was to review the ‘Death and Dying’ Policy of the Trust. I looked up the section on what to do in the event of a Muslim dying, and was shocked to learn that it was important that any non-Muslim in contact with the body must wear gloves: shocked, because I had never heard of this as a religious requirement and knowing that it is a strict requirement anyway under NHS regulations. The section relating to the Sikh faith stated that it was important that the dead person looked as peaceful as possible, which I felt should not be confined to that section alone. I rewrote the Trust’s Policy, creating good practice guidelines throughout by combining all those laid down in specific areas. These guidelines were intended to help health care staff, but they were only guidelines and wherever possible the views of the family would be sought to ensure that all people — irrespective of faith — would be accorded the same dignity and respect.

My spiritual search has brought me into contact with St Ethelburga’s Peace and Reconciliation Centre, a Buddhist retreat, training sessions with the Janki Foundation, regular retreats with the Threshold Society and interfaith walks, particularly with South London Interfaith Group. Within the Trust we developed an interfaith service with a multi-faith approach founded on the belief that as human beings we all share a common humanity, and out of that common humanity springs individual spiritual needs related to religious beliefs and practices. It is important that these individual needs be acknowledged.

I am no longer the little girl who pays attention to what I wear on my head but a woman who is spiritually uplifted by daily contact with people of many faiths. I have a sense of the magnitude of God’s compassion each time I recall my father’s teaching that the Mercy of God is beyond all human comprehension.

This article was first published in Faith Initiative Issue 26 March 2012.

“The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond

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