Over the last few years, I saw the harmful development of a society devoid of God and spiritual observance, and filled with surface-level gimmicks to help ‘heal’ the multitude of complexities inherent in every being. I saw an idea being born which presented an alternative way of living that told us that we know best; that we know more about how to service ourselves than the One who created us. This self-love discourse was taxing to the mind because what preceded the idea of Love, was the idea of the Self – leading to a generation of people who begin and end with ‘I’. And so, I found my religious submission slipping away and I succumbed to a secular-liberal lifestyle. The laissez-faire way of life that saw to the slow but deliberate breakdown of my religious observance. I gave in to my Self, to the detriment of myself.
Against this backdrop, I was going through my own internal spiritual battle. As cliché as it may be, when I first experienced the disconcerting feeling of internal religious turmoil and considered taking off my hijab, I found myself stuck between a rock and a hard place. The rock being the ever-consistent, ever-present, ever-comforting Deen that has always been familiar and has always been home. And the hard place; the individualistic society that refracts selfishness through a deceptive prism of self-love, growth, and acceptance; the society predicated on the idea of Man as sovereign. I found myself navigating this new terrain in which I was in a constant and heated battle with my nafs, attempting to justify the once unjustifiable. Therein I found myself torn between submission to Allah swt, the Lifegiver and The Creator, versus submission to my Self and my Desires.
The binary representation of Muslim women in the media, either as trailblazers on catwalks or oppressed submissives shackled behind the veil, further wore me down. I felt trapped by community, societal, and familial expectations, so turned to the very society that created these harmful depictions to find answers to issues of belonging, acceptance, and peace.
And answers it had; answers that told me I felt like a displaced social pariah because I was allowing “others” to dictate my actions and my emotions; answers that said I needed to break free from the “oppressive” hold that Islam had over me; answers that told me to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”. It was only when I looked deeper that I began to really understand the cognitive dissonance this presented to me as a Muslim woman. I struggled to navigate this new way of thinking that society presented me, the idea that I come first before anything else – that my choices come first, my lifestyle comes first, what makes me feel good comes first, and everything else comes second – including God.
During this internal religious turmoil, the posts I saw online regularly reinforced the way I was feeling and concurred this idea of how difficult religious observance is, especially when one is confronted with life-altering events. These posts and anecdotes unfortunately often ended with the person walking away from an Islamic practice, and romanticising a lifestyle that put God below man. Including me. I wrote about how difficult it was to be a Muslim woman – the semiotic and visual representation of Islam – and how caged I felt by everything around me. I asked my readers not to think I was somehow liberated for taking off my hijab, and that instead, I had given in to pressure from society. And when I did decide to do the one thing I knew I shouldn’t, I was applauded by so many; applauded for “taking back control of my body”; for “reclaiming my right to choose”.
On the other side, I was sent abusive vitriol from strange anonymous accounts occupying a dark space of the internet, damning me to hell for my wayward actions and lack of faith and resilience. Yet it was only my father (who if you follow me and my work will know is a deeply spiritual and startlingly wise man) that approached my decision in the correct way. He knew I was unhappy and he knew I was struggling, so he gave me a space to speak on my issues. He afforded me his time and his mind, and I am grateful for that. As I explained my decision to him, I knew within myself that I wanted him to accept what I was doing, I wanted him to tell me it’s fine, that my decision to actively go against Allah swt’s commands is acceptable, and that it doesn’t matter. But he didn’t. He didn’t praise my decision, nor did he condemn me for what I had chosen to do. What he did instead was ask me if I was happy now – the answer to which was no. And then he explained to me the following;
It is normal to feel unhappy at times and it is normal to struggle with this Deen. We are told that we came into this dunya as strangers, and we will leave as strangers. And this dunya will continue to be a prison for the believer and a paradise for the disbeliever; an enjoyment of delusion. This doesn’t mean that Islam is meant to be so restrictive that you cannot enjoy this dunya at all, for Allah swt loves to see His blessings on His believers. But there are limits; Islam is a religion of the middle ground. And ultimately, if it is happiness you seek, then rebellion against the One who created you, the One who knows the deep aches of your heart, and the One who can heal you, is not the way forward. When we go against the commands of Allah swt, our fitra becomes misaligned and our soul becomes uneasy. To go against Allah swt in times of crisis is the biggest own goal; if someone is causing you pain and relishes in you failing, then by turning away from Allah swt, you give them the ultimate satisfaction – you destroy yourself. This is why you remain unhappy even when you have undertaken a choice that you believe will help you. Turn back to Allah swt, take one step towards Him, and He will come running.
I had strayed so deeply from Islam that my heart bleeds when I think about it. When I think of taking my hijab off, when I think about indulging in unIslamic behaviours, when I think of my brazenness and arrogance in turning away from Allah swt and my hatred for not being accepted for what I was doing, I realised where I was going wrong. I thought people not accepting my behaviour was people not accepting me, but it was that my fitra was misaligned and craved acceptance from Allah swt.
It wasn’t until the death of my youngest brother Hussain, that I saw to some form of realignment. The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do is keep looking to the light, whilst being surrounded by darkness, and I concede that I have let the darkness engulf me many, many times.
Does My Head Look Big in This was one of the first books I read in which the protagonist was a Muslim girl who when confronted with struggle, buckled slightly but ultimately stood firm in her Islam. I was 13 years old when I read this book, and 15 years later I found myself coming back to it, trying to remind myself that there was a way back to Islam and I needed to find it.
As I have taken a step back to reflect on my life now, I recognise where I went wrong. When I turned to the Self as a means to deduce Islamic rulings, I got caught up in a vicious cycle that was self-serving and self-destructive. It is a cycle that many don’t understand because they haven’t spiralled down a rabbit hole in search of peace and found themselves completely submerged in the very things they vehemently oppose and speak out against. And I guess in a sense when this happens, life is teaching you a lesson in humility. Once upon a time, I couldn’t quite reconcile why people would turn to haraam – until I found a way to justify it to myself.
I never quite grasped how grief, pain, heartbreak – any trauma really – could turn someone away from Allah swt. It was only when my brother Hussain was murdered that I really understood how and why things like addiction to certain haraam actions can have you in a chokehold, unable to break free. And everything around you, all those struggling around you in real life and on social media, all seem to be saying that this haraam indulgence is okay – it is one step in your journey to healing.
But as an individual, you become completely destroyed spiritually because of your disobedience to Allah, completely destroyed physically because of the unhealthy nature of addiction itself, and completely destroyed mentally because all you are to the Ummah is a hopeless addict, a sinner, someone who needs to be condemned. It was only then that I understood how we as a community are utterly hopeless in facilitating spiritual, mental, and emotional healing – how ill-equipped we are in dealing with the very real pain that millions of us around the world hold in our hearts – and how ashamed we should be in our inability to provide a space for Muslims dealing with such issues without playing into either the glorification or shame game.
In a way, this conversation ends up being a double-edged sword – whilst we don’t want to encourage people to glorify sinning by publicising it, we also don’t want to dehumanise the lived realities that many of us face daily and brush these issues under the carpet. We need a place to talk, to discuss what we are going through, and find a way to heal in a way that pleases Allah swt. Very few remind us that obedience to Allah is the best form of self-service, self-love and self-care. It’s the foolproof way to heal and to secure your eternal abode.
Yet, there remains merit in letting people know we are not perfect because it humanises the struggle. My close friends know all about my trauma-related issues, the depths of my misdemeanours and shortcomings, and the torrential guilt that has come crashing down on me, a guilt that, for a short while, was nowhere to be found. And these friends and family members have proven to be a lifeline when I have not felt good enough, be that in a spiritual sense or otherwise. And sometimes you need that; sometimes you need your friends and family to just listen to you. To understand what you think can heal you and how it might take away, even momentarily, the all-encompassing pain you feel. And the truth for me is this: when our struggle leads to a sin, the last thing we want is for someone to tell us we are wrong and to rebuke us. This makes us feel trapped, misunderstood, unfairly judged, takes away our autonomy, and can trigger more indulgence in that behaviour. And as a society, we have concerns that are rooted in the fact that we are not being encouraged to be mindful, fearful, and loving of Allah swt.
We are pushed to serve ourselves and often forget that this life is a test. Why should we struggle when we can turn to unislamic practices that bring instant gratification? And why shouldn’t we talk about them and openly explain the rationale behind our sins? All that’s really happening is that we are sharing our journey. Anyone who tells us otherwise or doesn’t accept our actions, well, they’re just holier than thou closet sinners. But maybe it would serve us better to adapt our framework here, to not see sincere advice as judgment, but as concern. Because that is all I saw in the eyes of my parents and those who cared for me – concern for my dunya and for my akhirah.
What we need to understand is that submission and obedience to Allah swt is different to submission to insaan (humans). When we take the advice from loved ones about going astray, we aren’t bending to their will or allowing the community to dictate our actions (though I am not negating that this does happen in many instances). But now it seems like whenever someone calls to Islam, advises against unIslamic practices, attempts to encourage, and confidently disagrees with something at odds with Islam, they are condemning, judging, and virtue signaling. We also expect anyone who advises us to be absolutely perfect, and should they slip up at any point, we turn to the same shaming we accuse them off. It all sounds a bit too familiar, like an Orthodox Muslim being called “extreme” for wanting to abide by their religion or like condemnation of those Muslims who recognise that Islam has a set-criteria for halal and haraam; or even a bit like no religion is the new religion.
And lo and behold, once again we find ourselves playing into damaging narratives and discourse that push the “Good vs. Bad Muslim” narrative . The “Good” Muslims being the ones who confine religious practice to their homes, and openly engage and publicise unIslamic behaviours, whilst the “Bad” Muslim is the one who attempts to enjoin the good, dissuade from the bad, and brings Islam into every facet of their life. And in the same breath, it is concerning that we demand acceptance from Islamic scripture and adherents of scripture for our open acts of rebellion. Why do we do this? Why did I expect the entire Muslim community to accept my public acts of defiance?
Ali ibn Abi Talib spoke about open sin and open accountability – this is an Islamic position that attempts to deter people from creating fitaan (conflict) in society. This isn’t to say you go around condemning people for not sticking to an Islamic practice. This is not the way of Islam. It is not the way of Rasulullah. In Islam we advise, we encourage, we work together to better each other. If you sin, you sin. I sin. Every day I make a move that goes against Allah swt, but instead of denouncing and berating myself and others, I try now to look inwards at what I’m doing. Where do my desires stem from? What need of mine is not being met? Maybe the cure is right in front of me but because it does not bring instantaneous peace, I disregard it. Another symptom of a society predicated on instant gratification.
It’s difficult because we all struggle and we all fall short of the mark. But there are Islamic principles that we need to try our absolute best to abide by to avoid not just our own private sin, but the resultant sin we amass because of our public displays.
When I took off my hijab, I felt responsible for the messages I received where people said it helped them take theirs off. That’s not what I wanted to do, and now I carry the burden of their sin on my back too. It is nice to be accepted and have people say that our actions helped them with justifying their own actions; that the way we view ourselves and our choices has helped them to accept their own choices too. But in this case, choices that contravene the limits set by God are not choices we should encourage. Query this; what will we do when Allah swt asks us of our actions and why we felt so confident in leading astray His creation through glorifying defiance of His commands? I know I will have nothing to say.
The more I saw Muslim women removing their hijab and justifying their actions, the more I believed it was okay to do the same. It was a slow process, but it was effective. I recognise that those who publicly discuss their struggles help to remind us of our belonging; they help to remind us that no one can shut the doors of this faith on us; that Islam was sent to all of mankind, not just a select few; that Allah swt sees us and loves us regardless of what others may say about us and our actions. But speaking on difficulties is different to publicising immoral actions, and the erasure of Islamic principles and codes of conduct has resulted in us being unable to even address these topics for fear of being labelled as judgmental.
Do we hate so much being representatives of this Deen, that we would rather pander to the establishment and its framing of Good Muslim vs Bad Muslim by berating those amongst this Ummah who call us home? Are we really so submerged and deceived by this dunya that we recoil at nasiha and brandish everyone judgemental?
It is a bleak state that we find ourselves in as an Ummah, unable to enjoin the good and forbid the evil; unable to say ‘hey, you may do this and you may publicise it, but this contradicts the teachings of the Prophet saw and isn’t Islamically sound. What’s going on? What need is not being fulfilled? What does your heart seek? What can Islam to do help you?’ And part of the issue is that as a community we haven’t shown the holistic nature of Islam and its ability to address every single issue we are faced with. Because Islamic knowledge is at times so inaccessible, can we blame Muslims for turning away to find peace? If we showcase effectively Islam’s nature and applicability to all our problems, then when people turn to unislamic practices to heal, all we need do is redirect them to the Islamic way with hikmah and encouragement.
Veiling your sins, and veiling the sins of others is so very important. So why do we no longer veil our sins yet expect Allah swt to veil them on the Day of Reckoning? This is advice to myself first – to look at what I post online and address social media activity that breaches Allah swts rulings. Even as I write these words I am hyper-aware of my complicity in the very things I write against, and I aim to do better. There is also a valid argument that points to the fact that publicising something isn’t necessarily synonymous with glorifying it. But in the age of social media and direct access to impressionable young minds, it would be obtuse to assume that continual exposure has no impact. Many shows that we absorb now are hedonistic and debauched, and it would do well to ask ourselves why we no longer even flinch at such decadence.
What we must remember is this: when we publicise, we normalise. And that’s okay. So let’s normalise the struggle and the journey, not the defiance.
Afia Ahmed Chaudhry is a historian, writer. Her interests span social mobility, British Muslims, educational theory, pedagogy and curriculum development. She was recently published in the best-selling anthology It's Not About The Burqa, and has written extensively on British Muslims, Education, and ideology for an equitable society. She completed her undergraduate at SOAS, University of London, and later went on to study at King's College London and the UCL's Institute of Education. She is currently completing her DPhil in Education at the University of Oxford.