Excerpt: “How I Became a Muslim Reformer”
THE FIRST DEATH:
The first death was the death illusion and success that I chased initially, throwing away law school to take on reform work and relative poverty in the early years. When revolution means everything to you because you know what comes after a revolution, you’re going to do whatever it takes to make that happen, including selling your jewelry so you can fund yourself. It’s a well-known immigrant code that you do not ever sell your jewels: it’s the only security you have left after waves of movement and uncertainty.
While certainty is important, so is your soul’s work.
If you could save a life by selling your jewelry, would you do it?
If you could help save a world of people by selling your jewelry, would you do it?
I think almost everyone would.
The principle doesn’t change because it’s a theory or because you can’t see these people or even ever know them. It’s about faith in your soul’s work. You know this is what you’re working toward and it’s something you can’t ever ignore or give up on. So you can choose to hang on to your ‘precious’ and put that ring on your finger, knowing you snuffed a piece of your soul’s work to wear that. And if that’s the case, the rock doesn’t quite shine so bright anymore, anyway. In all fairness, having moved 19 times in 35 years helps you not get attached to things. It makes it easier to lose what’s not important.
THE SECOND DEATH
The second was the death of attachment through the rough exile I faced when I took on reform work. My newfound interest in faith, in a family that didn’t ever study the Quran or question it, didn’t go over very well. It was not easy. There was a lot of conflict. I was clumsy. There was no set path, no conversation or social media the way we have access to dialogue and resources now.
It was 2003 and I was just reaching out in the dark, trusting at some point I’d be able to see. Yet, you can’t even really see yourself yet. You’re not done evolving. Like a child, you challenge everything. You’re riotous, insensitive, inconsiderate, and somewhat self-destructive. You’re brimming with emotion and ideas but have no clue how to steady yourself and channel your focus. And all that is made more complicated when you’re an empath, especially if you’re still 10 years away from realizing you’re one.
That’s how it started. Some people who started on a similar path around the same time are still stuck in that state of mind. Some have evolved. Others have regressed, their humility suffering under the burden of their ego.
There’s no specific start or end. The beginning of a journey is sometimes set at different points along the way. Whether you start within your family, online or some other way, you become a powerful disruptor challenging millennia-old thinking that doesn’t realize how damaging decrepit elements of Islamic culture and faith are. There’s that saying, if you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you. But if you take on ancient gods of culture and tradition, of unquestioned belief, the dark comes for you.
It’s not easy taking on the abuser in an abusive relationship, especially when the abuser is an idea or a system. And you wake up from it by slowly but radically deconstructing everything you think defines you. And you build yourself back up. The transitions were slower ten years ago, but with social media, more voices for humanity, and new coalitions, it’s quickening.
THE THIRD DEATH
The third death was losing Stephen. That loss brought the death of passivity and reservation. He’s shown what the future can look like, what’s possible, and what’s at stake – and so you burn to make it happen once he’s gone. And a years later you see what he saw in you, what he worked so hard to awaken. And you wake up. You rise. And you never stop missing him. That unbearable ache from having your daemon stripped from you, that’s what it’s like to have lost him. It doesn’t go away, it doesn’t lessen. But it does drive you to honor him through your work.
THE FOURTH DEATH
The fourth is the death of ego. Cancer is pretty good at killing off your ego. My thyroid cancer diagnosis did a lot of things, but most importantly it put a budding ego in check. God must have really wanted me to take a step back, because the next year he placed an autism diagnosis on my plate. Dealing with just those two back to back was a tremendous challenge, but also necessary. My two year old’s autism spectrum diagnosis meant that my focus was totally on him for a year. People see autism as some sort of disorder or burden – and sure, it’s exhausting – but it’s a tremendous gift. Working with him got me to lose my Tiger Mom persona and truly respect him and his reality. It forces you to fully and completely step outside of yourself, because that’s what needs to happen on an almost daily basis. It makes you become a better outlier.
Making sure Reagan got what he needed kept me away from the reform work directly, and made me an outside observer once again – which let me really think about things differently, and without influence or indulgent fanfare. It was a necessary incubation period.
Autism and working in addiction and mental health the following year fostered deeper compassion for human suffering. And you can’t be doing reform work if you don’t understand people’s experience or respect their vulnerabilities. It was another layer added onto the human dignity my mom taught me to respect at an early age. Kindness is – or should be – at the heart of this work. This is a work of love and will be successful only if it’s out of love.
THE FIFTH DEATH
And finally the fifth death: weakness. You don’t really realize how strong you are until you’re treated like you’re nothing.
When you’ve been died so many times, in so many ways, you eventually can’t be killed anymore. Absolutely nothing can touch you. When you learn to catch weakness in yourself and others, and address them, you have an identity that is fluid and can evolve and adapt as needed. When every setback has been leveraged as a strength, you begin wielding a sort of defiant resilience. That doesn’t mean you won’t suffer more loss, more pain, or more setbacks. What it means is that there’s not a damn thing on earth that will stop you. That’s what it means to be a Muslim reformer.
Steel is forged in fire and you need to be steel to shift a 1400 year old faith and a culture that’s much older than that. You’re going to need to go through fire.
Category: LETTERS TO MY SON