A God I Can Believe In
By: Nafeesa Alibhai
In my early teens, I was really into The Fray. You could say I was in my emo phase, after all I did wear the same toque for upwards of 9 months in a row. You might be right in saying that, but I also think that the dramatic lyrics of How to Save a Life and Break Even hit just right for a teenager with lots of emotions and nowhere she’s allowed to speak to them. One line in particular, “I’m still alive but I’m barely breathing… Just pray to a God that I don’t believe in…” has been residing in my thoughts to this day, much after I took off the toque. I’ve recently begun to understand why that is, and I’d like to share that with you today because I don’t think I’m alone in this.
Sujood, the practice of bowing or prostrating before god, has never really resonated with me. When I was first aware of being in Khane, a congregational space of worship attended by Ismaili Muslims, my Nani (maternal grandmother) would teach me to do the motions associated with prayers like “tobo tobo” and Sujood when the time was right. I didn’t understand it, but I wanted to make Nani proud, and I knew well enough at that point that not much good follows when you don’t follow the social cues. So I would bow, place my forehead to the carpet, but inside I was kind of just snickering to myself about all of the butts in the air, or wondering how people’s feet could get so cracked.
One day in Bait-ul Ilm, religious education classes, I learned the meaning behind the words recited before we bow: “Oh Allah, to you is my prostration and obedience.” I don’t think that ever sat quite right with me, along with other parts of the Du’a, but I liked going to Khane. My friends were there and collective recitation of prayers like tasbih and ginan made my chest tingle and calmed my thoughts. So I bowed, because that’s what people do.
When I was 16 years old, I was outed to my family. For those of you who don’t know what that means: my family learned something private about my sexuality, that I like girls, not boys, without me being ready to share that with them. They didn’t take it well, to put it simply, and as is typical in most Khoja* families and communities, soon enough, everybody knew. A lot of people who I then considered friends no longer wanted anything to do with me, especially in Khane. I stop getting as many opportunities to lead prayers, started getting more looks, and stopped liking Khane. I felt forced out, and to deal with that loss, I dismissed Ismailism in its entirety.
I thought it foolish to believe in God when we have science. Science is so much clearer, and consistently encourages questioning, which I didn’t find to be true in Khane. I was frustrated with God for making me this way (hello internalized homophobia) and exiling me for no longer hiding it. I felt there was no place for feminism in a religion that forces you to bow to and be obedient to a God we so often call “Him”. I was angry at the world, I was angry at men, and I refused to bow to a man any longer. During the last year and a half of highschool, I barely went to Khane. My family and I were not on great terms and we all hated fighting, so they didn’t push me to go as much as they had before.
I came to University in a different city, and I thought I’d be free to do whatever I wanted. On the first day, though, a literal stranger singled me out from a crowd and told me to come to campus Khane. When I asked how they knew to approach me, they said I had an Ismaili face. I was upset, then, that I couldn’t shed a part of my identity that had rejected me. I didn’t go to campus Khane for over four months, but then I was lured in by the promise of Raas, a type of dance. I love Raas, and after I got to play, I started going to Khane once a week, then twice a week, then every day I didn’t have class at the same time. I was open about my sexuality from the beginning because there were other queer folx there. It still wasn’t the most inclusive or welcoming place for someone like me, but it didn’t reject me outright, so I briefly convinced myself I was back on Sirat-al Mustaqeem (the path of Righteousness). In the end, I knew in my heart that something still didn’t feel right, though, and I was still only bowing because that’s what I was taught to do. I was praying to a God I didn’t believe in, so I stopped for almost another year.
Dodie’s cover of “God is a Woman” was the flintstone that ignited a series of questioning, exploration, and eventually, a wee bit of understanding. In my experience, men were loud and rough, gave orders but wouldn’t even consider my pleas, demanded obedience, but wouldn’t offer me the respect I or any woman deserved. God, on the other hand, or at least the one I wanted to believe in, was loving, thought equally of everyone, and took care of all of their “spiritual children”. God was nurturing, comforting, forgiving, and patient. God, if I wanted to believe she existed, shared many traits with women. Gender, however, is a construct. I wasn’t even sure I was a woman, so how could I say God was?
I associate all of those traits with femininity only because that’s all that the patriarchy allows women to be. God, as I choose to believe, is neither man nor woman. God is everywhere. God is an energy giving us life, teaching us to be earnest, forgiving us and guiding us home when we get lost. Alwaeza (someone similar to a preacher) Salima Versi told me once, and then again because I really needed to hear it, that God loves me. That they do not curse me because I am gay, that I belong in the Ismaili community even though many Khane Leaders and council members disagree. This is a God to whom I am happy to bow.
Sujood, though, is more than the act of bowing. We don’t do Sujood, we give it. I think “obedience” is a mistranslation. God doesn’t need us. We were not created for their entertainment or use. Why, then, would we renounce our free will to them? We are told to make good choices, not in obedience of any higher power, but because we know it’s the right thing to do. I choose instead to submit myself to God, to that vital and loving energy. Just as some touch their grandparents’ feet out of respect and in acknowledgement of the wisdom in them, I touch my forehead to the ground to greet God and give them my respect.
I could very well have stopped talking after that last sentence. It has a nice ring of finality to it, but there’s one more aspect of Sujood I’d like to address as someone captivated by the study of neuroscience. Bowing brings more blood to our heads, giving us the oxygen we need to engage in complex thought. It also, through a mechanism that’s been detailed beyond my understanding, reduces sympathetic, and increases parasympathetic nervous activation. This calms us down, brings our body to a place of tranquility. Our visual field is also made significantly smaller: we can only really see the ground beneath our eyes, that is if our eyes are even open. All of this combines, plus the inherent humility in prostration, brings us closer to god so we can believe ourselves when we say “Hello. I respect what you’re doing, and I will strive to live in your light.”
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