“I don’t get it though!” I exclaimed to my two hijab-wearing girlfriends sitting opposite me, during a free period at college. “How can you say only Muslims go to heaven? Like, how can anybody claim that only one religion of people gets to go to heaven?”
“It’s just how it is though, Sabah. There’s not really much to understand.”
“Yeah but, imagine there’s someone who’s Muslim by name – but like, say they’re a killer, or a rapist, or a pedo. And then there’s like a God-fearing, kind-hearted little old lady who swears by the Bible or is like a Sikh or something. Are you telling me that God would condemn that person to hell just because they don’t call themselves a Muslim???”
The two of them gave each other a look – a look I’d seen many times before when similar religious debates had arisen between us. They appeared slightly confused and clearly exasperated by my constant questioning. Why couldn’t I just shut up and accept what I was told without all of this… all of this, noise. Life would be way simpler that way.
But that’s the one thing that we all knew. I was never one to shut up and just accept what I was being told to believe. Ever since I was a child, there were always questions, I always had questions– despite those questions being brushed off, ignored or being answered in what I always felt were unsatisfactory ways.
The thing is, I believed in a higher power, I always did. I believed in Allah. I believed in the Prophets. I fasted and prayed during Ramadan. I said Bismillah before I ate; I read Ayat-ul-Kursi three times every night before going to sleep; I automatically released an Alhamdulillah every time I sneezed. But there were still questions. There were always questions. And I just didn’t seem to be uncovering the answers that something deep inside of me was desperately craving.
Frozen sunbeams attempted to break their way through the icy winter air, as I laughed and talked my way down Wilmslow Road (aka Manchester’s Curry Mile), after college, with my ‘number 16 bus’ friends. I walked past curry house after curry house and shisha bar after shisha bar; quite caught up in the conversation I was having with my friend who lived a couple of streets away from me, while I rubbed together my poor hands that were burning with the harsh Manchester cold.
Every single day on my way home I walked past Rolex Books – an opulent-looking Islamic bookstore – but had never really been interested in going in. However, this day was different. As I walked past the store, something inside me felt compelled to go in. Maybe the answers I was seeking were in there? I propelled myself backwards, bidding farewell to my friend as he carried on walking ahead looking puzzled, and I quietly slipped into the store, delighted to be greeted by a rush of warm air.
I spent around an hour in the bookstore that day, taking my time to choose wisely how to best spend my £30 weekly EMA allowance, knowing that I would have to beg my mum for bus and lunch money for the rest of the week.
I left with a bag of new Islamic books and a new thirst for knowledge, hoping that these books would give me the answers that my soul was craving for. I couldn’t wait to get stuck in.
It was Saturday night and I was curled up on the sofa, snug in my blanket, a cup of tea resting on the window ledge next to me growing cold, while just beyond the window the wind whistled loudly outside.
“What’s that about?” my elder brother asked, throwing himself onto the sofa besides me while snatching the remote from the coffee table just in front of him.
Barely even looking up from my book, ‘The Spectacle of Death’, I spoke out loud, perhaps even not to him but more so to myself, “Did you know… that when we die, there’s like this black angel that comes to take us? It sounds so scary. And like, if you’ve been a sinful person, they say that your soul is ripped from your body and it’s so, so painful. Like, this book says, it’s like cotton wool being dragged over a rose bush covered in thorns…”
For someone that had spent their whole life questioning everything, I was suddenly actually believing the words I was reading. In this book, and the others I had bought earlier on in the week. They all suddenly made me feel so sinful, so ashamed of myself, so disobedient, so dirty. I felt like my whole life was wrong. I felt so afraid.
Every single book I had bought from Rolex to bring me some sense of comfort, did not make me feel comfortable at all – in fact, quite the opposite. I was FILLED with fear. I did not love Allah. I feared Allah. The books were shoving fear down my throat from every angle in words that made what they were saying so damn believable, and in a moment, I felt like I was back where I was in the months after my dad passed away.
I felt alone. Frightened. I felt like I couldn’t live how I wanted to live or be how I wanted to be. I felt guilty. I felt fearful. I felt sad. I felt like I couldn’t enjoy music anymore. Like I couldn’t be friends with boys anymore. That if I didn’t pray, I was the worst person in the world. And even when I did pray, I was so scared that I had done something wrong and that my prayer would not be accepted.
I felt confused and lost.
I felt unloved by the entity that had created me, put His breath into me and given me life.
And the worst thing was, at the age of 17, this is what I began to believe Islam was. A way of life, where there just wasn’t any actual living.
By Sabah Ismail
Read Part 1 here.
Read Part 2 here.