I remember those days vividly. It was at the peak of blogging, when sincere friendships were formed across continents and fellow bloggers followed and commented on each other’s post religiously. (This was the glory days before Facebook and Poke-ing and Like-ing and 3000 ‘friends’ that you did not know.) I was 17, enjoying life in school and the friends that I had made through my blog.
A year before, I had decided to don the hijab (head covering) permanently. A Muslim lady is required to wear the hijab after puberty as a sign of purity & devotion to God (Allah). Although I had properly become a ‘lady’ years before that, I knew I would wear the hijab “when I’m older”. For some reason, when I turned 16, I just felt a desire to do so and I did.
I took 3 months as a ‘training period’ for me to not only get used to wearing the hijab, but to figure out this whole new world! For one, I had to invest in clothes that were not tight-fitting, t-shirts that were long-sleeved instead of the short-sleeved ones I had been accustomed to wearing. I had to figure out how to get my hijab to stay on my head during particularly windy days. Where does this pin go? Is this material suitable for the humid climate in Singapore? Would I have a heatstroke if I was covered up so much?
And there were other questions, of course. What would my friends say? Would they now think I’ve become pious and not friend-material anymore? Can I still listen to The Ataris and Goldfinger and Metallica? Is it haram (forbidden) to wear my favourite Vans sneakers that had a skull on it? Why did I want to wear the hijab at 16 again?
For some reason unbeknownst to me, I went through with it and right on my 16th birthday, I had a collection of colourful hijabs and an almost new wardrobe to complement my decision. Surprisingly, it was an easy transition. Maybe the 3-months ‘training period’ helped. Or maybe my doubts & apprehension were truly unfounded. I continued to listen to Goldfinger, my friends were surprised for about 2 minutes and we continued being friends, and no, I have never once had a heatstroke from being covered up.
But wearing the hijab did make people think I could now ‘speak’ for Islam. They correlated me wearing the hijab to a pious, God-fearing Islamic scholar, which I was not. At all. And I was completely unaware of this burden that was put on me. It was my mistake to not realize that I had now become more ‘visible’ since I had an Islamic symbol on my head whenever I was out. I should have been more discerning and realized that people were bound to make some sort of connection to wearing the hijab to piety.
I continued blogging as usual, posting pictures of my day and the food that I ate. One day, a comment came in and it read something to the effect of “I know you are now wearing the Muslim headgear and you look good in it! I was just wondering how come your old pictures without the hijab are still in your archives and men can still see them.” Her name was Kim, she was a mother of a toddler in Denmark and we had been following each other’s blog for a while now.
While I would usually reply to comments almost immediately, that comment was left unanswered for a WHOLE YEAR; simply because I had no idea. “Really, why did I leave those pictures on?” “Do I delete them now?” “But the pictures are a part of my history! My blogger friends know that I’ve changed and they’ve seen those pictures anyway!” “Is Allah angry at me?”
It was a simple, honest question and yet Kim had no idea what a turmoil she had started in my insides. I wondered if I was a hypocrite, a sinner, if I was going to be responsible for all these bloggers of different faiths to have a bad impression of Islam because I wasn’t the perfect Muslim.
Because of that one comment, I began my journey to learn more about my faith and why I believed in what I believed in. I had to find answers to the difficult questions that started appearing in my head.
I became a recluse for a year, convinced that death was coming the next day and that I had to expend all my efforts and my time in acquiring all the Islamic knowledge I could before I had to face God and account for the gift of youth and time that He had given me. I stopped listening to music, I didn’t meet up with friends, I filled my time with classes – Qur’anic exegesis, Islamic Jurisprudence, Arabic, you name it, I signed up for it.
My parents were worried about me. Where was that bubbly girl we used to know? What has she become? Although they were glad I was trying to become a better person, the truth was, I wasn’t becoming a better person. I had become nasty and grumpy and selfish. I didn’t want anyone to take my time away from God. Instead of applying the knowledge that I had learnt on myself, I used it as a yardstick to judge others.
I saw family outings and gatherings as heedless and time-wasting and shut myself off. Many tried to advise me but I was not ready to listen. “Islam is a religion of moderation.” “God created us in this world for a reason. You have worldly responsibilities too.” “You are changing much too fast. God does not need this from you.”
It was superb advice – wisdom of those who were older, and wiser, and more pious. But I was too far off. I was in a religious, overzealous state and I was heading straight for self-destruction. And self-destruct I did. I burned out.
I got sick of hearing about punishment in Hellfire. The more classes I attended, the more I realized I was never going to be a good enough Muslim because there was just so much to learn! My grades at school were falling because I didn’t have time to revise my work. The friends that I had pushed away could not relate to me anymore. Everything fell apart.
But the journey didn’t end there, of course. During the burn-out was when I began to sincerely seek God. I didn’t want to know about this ruling or that ruling. I wanted to know what He was like. I wanted to be in His Company and to find out Who He is.
And now, 7 years since that comment, I can finally say that I choose Islam. I love it, it makes sense to me and I’m happier than I’ve ever been. It’s unfortunate that Islam has been so misunderstood, not only by non-Muslims but those in the faith! I’m saddened that I had to be exposed to the fundamentalist, rigid interpretation of the Saudi brand of Islam (Wahhabism) at a time when I wanted to be closer to God.
But I’m grateful to have found the spiritual side of Islam too – the antidote to extremism and zealousness that has crippled many on their journey. Where the state of the heart is more important than how many cycles of prayer you have made. Where you put thought into your connection with God instead of performing mere rituals.
My prayer these days are no longer about acquiring all the Islamic knowledge in the world, but to be a grateful servant, to serve Him and His creation and to keep my heart clean.
Ameera Begum is the editor of Muzlimbuzz.sg, a chronic reader and a news junkie. Inspiration catches her at the most quotidian of moments. She was born and raised in Singapore and continues to work and live on the tiny island.