I have realized how vital a community can be.
It’s no mystery to me why people who immigrate to another country tend to band together, even risking isolation from the newly adopted culture. I understand the scariness of being surrounded by people who do not relate to who you are; where you come from, the languages you may speak, what you eat and how you dress. I have met immigrants who almost willingly push away their teenage children who assimilate, out of fear of loosing not only their cultural identity, but out of terror of being alone. One need not even be an immigrant to behave this way; teenagers are famous for abandoning the ‘self’ in order to belong to a group identity. And religious communities, of all faith traditions, promote community and group identity in order to reach out and bring in the lonely. Loneliness is a tough pill to swallow and most people will do just about anything to conform to some manner of preconceived group ideal in order to avoid it.
Most people realize this. I have known it all of my life, it seems. So it was no surprise to me that during my self imposed isolation from the broader local Muslim community that I would, from time to time, feel lonely. Because I got to the point where being in a gathering with Muslims made my physically sick, I actually looked forward to being lonely, if being lonely meant not having to deal with community politics or conservative religious agendas. This, of course, is not reserved for Muslims. I find people, especially groups with evangelical aims, to be terrifying. It comes from having grown up in the southern US; fundamentalist of all faiths are scary folk.
Over the past year I have gradually increased my community involvement. This has been for a variety of reasons, but in the end, I truly did miss the idea of ‘community’. Not because being alone is a bad thing, but because being part of a like minded group of people can be so satisfying, stimulating and just plain fun. I learned, from my time ‘off’ that being an active part of a community does not mean one has to abandon the ‘self’ or conform to broader group norms. In a community of Muslims, this is especially so. Time and again I have heard the maxim, ‘Islam is a deen for all time, people and places’. But by the time I walked away from the community, I no longer believed this to be true. Too many years of being surrounded by a conservative, patriarchal herd mentality killed this most beautiful of truths about the faith, in my mind.
What I learned about myself during my hiatus was that I have to be true to myself and to the person whom Allah brought to Islam in the first place. That does not mean adopting all my ‘bad old ways from the bad old days’ as my favourite sheikh likes to say. It means that I can be comfortable in my artsy and eccentric ways and not worry if I do not blend in with the broader Muslim community. There is no need to. Islam is diverse enough to embrace any and all people seeking the path to the Divine. So, seeking like minded people, I began to seek out groups who could nourish my soul and my yearning for community. I find great strength and spiritual calm when surrounded by sisters and brothers with whom I find commonalities; a desire to learn, a need to improve our current situation through social justice initiatives, love and acceptance for minorities, and general liberal ideals.
What I will always keep with me from my time away is the certain knowledge that there was a community out there for me to come back to when my healing time was over. I always knew, in the back of my mind, that there were groups and people I could be with, when I was sufficiently sound and healthy enough to reintegrate. Whatever that involvement were to look like, didn’t matter; it was the simple fact that the community was still out there, at some points thriving, at others struggling. Now, I try to be active with a few different groups on a regular basis and while I never stopped seeing friends, I make more of an active effort to attend small gatherings now, especially if I know everyone present or can be guaranteed of a safe space. **
Community is important. When scholars teach that Islam is a communal religion, they are not wrong. We can take strength and comfort in the presence of fellow believers. After all, these are people who understand our religious identity; those quirks and behaviours that may seem foreign to the broader population. And while isolating ourselves from the larger community of our cities is never a positive or productive idea, having the island of security that comes from having a small sea of people who, on some level, understand your general approach to life, is a peace inducing situation to be in. I may never again be active in the broader local Muslim community to the extent that I previously engaged in, but I will never again take a three year break from community gatherings and activities. Community, I have found, is simply too important to walk away from.
Until next time, wishing you all…
Love and Light.
**(There are an increasing number of local groups that honestly and diligently aim to provide safe space for Muslims to explore what it means to be part of this most wonderful of communities. One such group that i would recommend without pause is the New Muslim Circle at the UCalgary on thursday evenings at 6.45)