A lot of what I do had been set in motion when I was a young child.
My studies I take seriously because I had grown up knowing that I would be going to university. My parents are pretty much uneducated. Dad had the sort of childhood that made the significance of O-Levels difficult to comprehend, minutiae like that could go and fuck itself. My mother, she held on to her education (namely her timetables, the beautiful poems, the playing and the vibrant laughter), her memory of an education which lasted until the old age of thirteen.
My dad was a reader and mom would shove every Islamic non-fiction book she could catch sight of my way. Growing up, going to sleep was possibly my most difficult problem. I would often wake up in the middle of the night and be unable to go back to sleep for no apparent reason. Reading words that more often than not went over my head was a surefire cure.
Wearing the hijab: mom asked me if I wanted to wear a scarf around my head outside when I was eight years old. I had grown up on Islamic non-fic that went over my head. I said yes. I was surprised she had posed it as a question.
I went to a madrasa (the Arabic word for school, but which we Bengali folk used in reference to an educational institution that taught kids the Islamic Ways so the parents wouldn’t have to). My parents were satirical and self-aware. When I was ten years old they asked me if I wanted to learn how to memorise the Qur’an. I had read ages before about the benefits of being a hafiza – a protector of the words of Allah, of God – and wanted to nod a second-nature yes without giving this much thought. Unlike with the hijab, they both stopped me. Repeated that I would be attending a weekend school. Three hours every Saturday and Sunday. I would mainly spend my time memorising lines from the Qur’an, and the other times I would learn from Arabic language books for beginners and schools, and Islamic Studies books designed for faith schools, no matter how part-time the one I was to attend was.
Madrasa, unlike the hijab, cost quite a hefty amount to attend. This isn’t about money.
I said yes. I was surprised, and realised that my parents took this decision seriously. That this decision, they felt, would make or break me. Choosing to send their daughter to a madrasa, choosing to seriously pursue a life (or at least the five years these teachers were promising them) to such a large commitment. Knowing, finally, that the shape their vague ambitions for their beloved child had realised itself into such an honourable position made them hesitant. Made them hold their breath in awe. (I feel, a little, that perhaps they had felt a little badass).
I, too, felt awesome. Mum took me to one of the Indian-clothing shops that dot our street and bought me a beautiful blue-sequined black abaya that was about two sizes too large for me. Never mind, I would grow into it, like I would grow into my role as the first hafiza within mom’s extended-relative circle, inshaAllah.
Learning to read the Qur’an properly came easy to me, thanks be to Allah. The different curves of the mouth, the trapping of air to produce a certain full sound or flattening the tongue to make a flat sound, learning the different rules of Tajweed and the ways in which the Prophet (may peace be upon him) recited and pronounced the words of the Qur’an, this beautiful miraculous and beyond intelligent book of Arabic poetry claimed by Muhammad ibn Abdullah, one of the Quraish town’s family leaders’ many sons, to have been the word of God since 610 AD – this was all lovely. Still is very lovely.
From the age of ten to the age of sixteen I committed myself to this pursuit. Chasing the Qur’an, chasing my relationship with my Lord, chasing my elusive identity as a Muslim. The place shaped me, the one stability besides regular school when it came to the rough parts of early adolescence. The girls I spent my time with are lovely people I cannot even begin to understand despite my yearning to cherish and protect them. My teachers, Muslim women who originally came from the Middle East and moved bricks to Britain in the various ways and adventures that carried them to this particular shore, inspire me to keep with the “going to do shit” mentality now and always. I even landed my first paying job with these people.
Yet for a long time, trying to gain some sort of independence, trying to take control of my relationship with my Lord, I longed to be able to memorise the Qur’an on my own terms. I am now eighteen, and like when they got married and waited a long dry eight years before having me, my parents wait once more a long dry eight years for me to complete the project I had unduly commenced at the age of ten. I am looking forward to embracing the Qur’an once more.
People don’t usually get it. I cannot understand people myself, but this isn’t religious zeal. I don’t even know what I believe properly, and do not like having so many opinions about my somehow controversial Islamic non-fic upbringing colouring the way I pursue truth… and more than truth, peace. I know truth. I know truth as it is commonly known but not blatantly referred to: I know truth as short-term, ephemeral, in-the-moment. And the truth I feel now is that life has no real meaning that I can discern, and that faith is a wild and hairy jump I have already taken and am currently taken and where the fuck am I going to land. I barely know myself. Thank God. So in this time of great confusion, I cling.
I am clinging so damn hard.
It is not religious zeal. I’m afraid religious zeal didn’t ever exist for me, and was just a story I spun for myself out of the numerous books I’d read by scholars who also spun this story. Because it made sense, because it gave meaning. But who are you to give meaning? To try and piece together a narrative for your life? I believe there’s a God, there’s Allah, and as wild and hairy a belief that may be, I believe also (or maybe I am just lazy) that it is His lot to give my life meaning. Myself? I won’t bother with such a useless and impossible task. Religious zeal, then, was just an extension of a snobbish and insecurity-fed desire to prove people wrong about myself and my timidness, and to give me confidence over them, and to do something about myself that I can control. Intelligence was another false talent I liked to laud and show off because of how it kept me special and apart and on the goddamn fence. And now? Religious zeal is missing half of itself. These days zeal is harder to come by. I may feel passionate, but I am very unlikely to express this. That bridge burnt somewhere and some time ago.
I cling to memorisation because it is primarily nostalgic. It is a lovely and mundane and arbitrary and mindless home in a world of confusion that calls to me like a siren to think and explore and map and arrange into a cleverly elaborate world of meaning – but thinking like this hurts. I have thought through the confusion before and missed the mark. Many times. I do not intend to take that risk again. I do not see why I should do so. It is a game that I had bought into and am not enjoying anymore.
And because most of what I do had been set in motion when I was too young to embark on these journeys myself without an encouraging question from my parents allowing my never-hesitant affirmative answer, I owe it to them to finish these journeys. To finish my education and its controversies. To read always, and remember them and what they have and do not have, had and did not have. To finish this promise, this project, after eight years. For them.
To seek a way out of the game. For them.