Identity: It’s Not About You

This extremely long [long, long, long!] blog post is dedicated to myself; lest I forget who I am, how I came to be and where I hope to go. Been meaning to write this for a long, long, long time, and now was the absolute perfect timing because, you know, it’s exam period and naturally my brain cares more for blogging than physics. [I am so going to regret this when I wake up.] 


“It’s not about you. It’s about God.”
Those words were said very passionately by Imam Afroz Ali in a Seeker’s Circle session last year. The statement seemed obvious enough, easy to understand, simple to apply. I thought I knew exactly what he meant. 
But it’s only recently I’ve been absorbing what those words really mean… 
You know what the absolutely wonderful thing about keeping bits and pieces of your writings here and there is? It’s that you discover things about yourself you never knew were a part of you. Not knowing what you’re made of makes it very difficult to fix your flaws when they appear to be non-existent because no one seems to see them- probably because you’re surrounding yourself with people who have the same thing and thus can’t, or don’t want, to spot it. But I have about 15 Aya-ish genre short stories typed up, and it was inevitable that, with time and honest self-analysis, eventually I would come to learn the truth about myself through their characters.
Here’s an amusing fact– I never feel like I’ve changed at all. (Honestly!) I still have the same identical smile from a photograph of my three-year old self, and my favorite color has not changed since then. I seem to recall the ground being the same distance away from my nose for as long as I can remember; have I really gotten taller since I was five? My favorite pair of jeans from grade 9 still fit me now, a decade later, and my sense of humor from then has barely changed.
Sometimes I think to myself– am I still a 13-year old in an adult’s body or was I a 23-year old in a teenager’s body all along?
Here’s the thing: I don’t know. (I know one thing, though: I know what you’re thinking): 
Aya, you’re making no sense, as usual– where are you going with this? Can you quit blabbering and get to the point?
Just trust me, I’m getting there. 😉
OK, so the other day I chose to procrastinate (regrettably so *sigh*) and opened up the most recent short story I’d typed up a couple of years ago. It was written during exam time then (*Surprise! Past procrastination during exams! History repeats itself*). In 2010 of December, I’d just had this explosively weird plot in my head that absolutely needed to be pulled out of my distracted brain and projected onto a Microsoft Word document at any means possible. I simply was not able to focus on studies with so many characters and names and colors in my mind– so in two days I wrote some really bizarre but comical, humorous Muslim love story that consisted of an alien invasion somewhere in between. (You don’t want to live in my brain, trust me.) 
This was only two years ago; I couldn’t have been a very different person back then. I read it carefully now, surprised at oh-so-subtle things the characters thought and did that I would not think or do now.  But, of course, if the protagonists thought a certain way, it was usually because I did back then, too. I decided to look through some older short stories– ones I’d written back in high school and CEGEP days, before I turned a fifth of a century old– and was almost horrified at what I came across. 
Damn, I thought. I still found the plots hilarious and they still fell into the same genre of Aya-randomness, but something was not right. The most obviously disturbing factor that stood out was this: my so-called “good”,”ideal”, “religious”, “righteous” characters were more like the “religious jerks” I vehemently speak out against quite often these days. For example: the “good” characters tended to get very impatient with those of lesser practicing degree, as though anyone and everyone who did not follow every aspect of the Sunnah was doing it deliberately out of rebellion and not so out of ignorance or forgetfulness. My “open-minded” characters had very little tolerance to new ideas. Alright, granted these “new ideas” tended to be very obvious deviant things, but it wasn’t the content that bothered me, it was they way that they reacted to them– devoid of wisdom. My “good Muslim” characters would put down someone they thought was not working to their potential, and this was done more out of a sense of pride being injured/ conceit/ arrogance, than out of a genuine concern of another’s well-being.
These characters were not proud Muslims because of their belief in God, but rather because it was an integral part of their identity.
An attack on Islamic values thus was seen to be an attack on them. Their pride came from their vain love of themselves and what they represented, not from their unconditional love for God and what represented them. 
There is no denial that these characters are a representation of who I was. It made me pause, and wonder: how did I become that way, and when did I change? 
Here is my theory: Islam is a major theme in all my stories, as it has always been my main driving force for my entire life. I can accurately say that growing up in Canada and attending schools from kindergarten to high school graduation in English sectors where there were very little Muslims (and almost zero Arabs) had a major impact on how I related to Islam. 
You know, before high school, everyone thinks everything is great, regardless of where they’re from and what nationality you are. You can tell someone your name ‘Ayah’ means a ‘verse of the Quran’ (actually, my 7-year old self mistakenly told the entire class it was equivalent to the word ‘Quran’ itself… woops!) and everyone will think you are the most positively unique person ever. You could have zaatar sandwiches every day for lunch and it didn’t matter that your white pita bread had dark green suspicious filling inside– if she says it’s yummy, why wouldn’t it be?
You can tell the world you’re Muslim and Arab
and these things are simply words to innocent children ears,
they mean nothing bad…
Come high school and I find myself the only Muslim, and the only Arab girl in my classes. It was in grade seven that I began really exploring what it was to be a Muslim. I cannot speak for teenager experiences in other parts of the globe, but in the West, identity is the most important thing in a teenager’s life. Everyone wants to establish who they are and feel comfortable in their own skin. For me, this meant embracing not only the values I was raised with but to understand why I was doing what I was doing and to be honest with myself, if I wanted to continue doing them. With me being the one of the youngest (12-years old) attendee of a new halaqa filled mainly of 17 and 18 year old girls, I really began to love my faith. In addition, my extensive research on resourceful (but no longer existing) websites like IslamOnline with all their convert stories, news updates and Ask The Scholar sections, were my essential foundations in my knowledge. I was convinced I was on the right path, I knew more than many people my age, and I was proud to be me.
Did you see what I did there? I was proud to be “ME”. Keep this in mind, because it is going to be a very, very important in a couple of paragraphs…
OK, so I was happy with my identity. How about everyone else at school? Ask any teenager and you’ll find her primary concern is to be accepted– not by God (because barely anyone reaches pure taqwa at the tender age of 12) but by people, friends at the least. I wanted people to embrace me the way I was, all the while ironically expecting to blend in (ha!). However, I soon came to realize, being Arab was something to be wary of or pitied, always associated with newly attacked Iraq… being Muslim was seen as “oh… but I thought you were Italian Christian or Jewish?” (in pre-hijab era) and “you mean your parents didn’t force you to wear it?” (post hijab era). The whole can’t-wear-shorts-to-gym-class, and can’t-go-to-the-school-dance, and sorry-I-can’t-hug-you-because-you’re-a-guy, and can’t-drink-or-smoke-or-attend-your-parties were not the biggest deals as some might assume; I thank God the school environment was generally tolerant and it was pretty multicultural. 
But yet, despite the multiculturalism, I still always somehow found myself being expected to be the spokesperson for entire populations, as though I had any idea what the millions of Muslims in the world experienced or as if there was a one precise “Muslim worldview” set in stone. Do you know what pressure that is for a teenager? I remember taking it on like a champ, but now I come to think of it, how did I accept such a silent challenge so confidently? My goodness, I barely know anything now enough and yet back then, I thought I knew it all. While everyone around me was concerned about what movie to go see with their friends, who they should date, what lip gloss shined the most– I found myself continuously (with the best of intentions on the part of others, though) bracing myself to defend the religion or the Arab population. When a teacher said something ignorant about Muslims or Arabs, heads would automatically sort of turn to me and without a pause, expecting the one hijabi to know all the answers related to anything in the Middle East. Once a well-meaning student who clearly didn’t know what Islam was and clearly did not corrolate my hijab with Islam, spoke to the class about some forward chain email he received stating that verse 9:11 foreshadowed the crumbling of the Twin Towers. Heads swivelled to me and I burst out how preposterous that was, and vowed to bring the real verse 9:11 to the class the next day. (Luckily, it was a verse on forgiveness and mercy. No one dared ever contradict me when I told them their facts were wrong ever since then.) 
It was always me that had to put my foot down and speak out. I got so used to speaking out, so used to “knowing so much”, that somehow my ego convinced me I was the best of the best Muslims there are. When I went to Palestine after 13 years of not visiting, my relatives were pleasantly surprised that my siblings and I could read tajweed Quran, speak Arabic, and knew more about fiqhi issues than a lot of people there. I am ashamed to admit it, but this got to my secretly swollen head. I was convinced I knew so much, and felt obliged to share my knowledge… although I cannot recall if I wanted to share because I cared or simply to show I knew…
You see, I was vainly proud to have found my identity at such a young age and I attributed this to my own digging and soul-searching, instead of acknowledging the fact it was the Lord who opened my heart to it in the first place. “It’s all about me!” It had nothing (alright, it had something, but not completely) to do with God. Yes, I sought Him and yes, I yearned to be with Him, but at the same time, I wanted to let the world know this is who I am. Not this is what I represent! Or why I am! But just simply, this is me because it’s my identity and without my identity I am nobody. So naturally, it was difficult to accept that some people led drastically different lifestyles and could still be “right”, because this challenged the secret notion deep in my chest that I knew better.
Now, after all that thinking, it makes sense to me:
“It’s not about you. It’s about God.”
Imagine standing before your Lord on the day of Judgment… only to receive your Book of deeds in your left hand… because it appears all your deeds were meaningless and only done to soothe your own ego and make you feel good about yourself… it had never been about the deen, about the truth, or about God– it had only been about feeling like you had a place, a presence and an impression in the world.
“It’s not about you. It’s about God.”
It’s really scary to be put in this situation. I tried to not admit this to myself, but if I don’t, how can I get out of it, if I am indeed an arrogant person? I pray every day never to fall back into it. I’m still not sure how deep I I ever was into, but my writings are evidence of a crime I was unconsciously committing against my soul. 
They say college time is the best years of your life. I agree college was a blast– I finally knew what it meant to be a part of an MSA, to see and speak and relate to Muslims who have been through similar experiences; I didn’t have to keep justifying myself and explaining why I can’t eat gelatin or McDonald’s- it was nice to relate, but we were all on the same level, more or less. It was really during my days at McGill, surrounded by people from all over the world, with unique experiences and wisdom, that I was really exposed to vastly different thinking (usually think-outside-the-box-while-keeping-it-halal) and in the beginning, I was intimidated to even approach such great minds; for the first time ever, I felt very ignorant, stupid and clueless. I knew so little in comparison… The more I learned, the less I realized I knew and at this point, I’m not sure where to start seeking knowledge because it seems I know virtually nothing, so where do I start?
But I realized that the more profoundly inspiring that individual was, the more humble (and yet he/she will claim not to be anywhere near humility) they were. I made it my mission to surround myself with people that were better than me in all areas– knowledge, life experiences, virtues, interesting personalities– I wanted to always be among a group of people that inspired me to go beyond what I was and never be satisfied with my limitations.
The ironic thing is, I got less and less selective of who these noble and great people were; the only criteria was that they had to be better than me.
Lately everyone I meet is better than me. I have yet to meet one person who is “below”. For instance, If I have more knowledge, they have more deeds; if I have more deeds, they have more difficult life trials they’ve handled with unbelievable patience; if I have patience, they have wisdom; if I have any wisdom, they have the gift of gratitude that overwhelms; if I am grateful, they are probably the reason I am grateful. It’s an endless cycle that never ends.
God is too good to me. I must never forget that I am blessed. And indeed, I must never forget that who I am is important not because it defines my identity– my identity need not be more than a servant of Allah. It is important because it reminds me of my place in the world, and my life’s purpose.
Remember, Aya: always remember until your last dying breath:
“It’s not about you. It’s about God.”
~ And Allah knows best.

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