“Thus I continued from day to day, in such ecstasies of joy, thirsting for full sanctification, and more intimate communion with God; daily asking what should I render to him for all his benefits to such an hell deserving sinner; earnestly begging that God would find out some way for me , that I might be made instrumental in advancing his kingdom and interest in the world.”
–Memoirs of the Life of Mrs. Sarah Osborn (1814)
One would think that a 21st century Muslim convert and a 19th century revivalist Christian woman would have little in common. However, as I read this excerpt from the memoir of Sarah Osborn in preparation for my American civics discussion course, I could not help but be moved by her devotion. While our faiths were different our lives had been taken on a similar path. We were both women who suffered innumerable hardships only to be saved from a life of despair by the grace of God. Months earlier I had retaken my shahada after a lapse in faith that nearly ended in me committing suicide. Like Sarah I felt a gratitude that was outreached by Allah’s mercy and I wanted to spread the joy I was feeling. I remember sitting in class the next day eagerly anticipating for it to start. I had thoroughly enjoyed reading Sarah’s words and I wanted the class to hear my perspective.
Our usual TA was absent that day so the discussion was led by someone else. She opened the discussion by asking if we believed what Sarah wrote in another excerpt or if we thought she was just exaggerating.
“But Satan had still a desire to sift me as wheat. He assaulted me daily; but those words of the blessed Jesus were frequently applied for my support, ‘I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not.’ One night in particular, when watching with a dear friend, who was sick, Satan assaulted me in as furious a manner, seemingly, as believed the combat lasted, at least, two hours, as fierce as though I had talked with him face to face. He again ranked all my sins before my eyes, telling me it was impossible, notwithstanding my great hopes,for me ever to be saved. He was still sure of me and would not let me go. I should surely turn back again, and worse than ever.”
Everyone in the class unanimously agreed that she had been exaggerating in order to make an impact on her audience. And just like that, all the excitement I previously had evaporated, the words falling silent on my tongue. How could I, in all seriousness, tell my classmates that I not only believed her but fought the same battles with Iblees? I knew that they would dismiss me as they had dismissed Sarah. My classmates could never understand what it was like to have Shaitan whisper to you, enticing you to sin. They would not know what it was like to see past sins played before their eyes as if on a projection screen. To feel weighed down by the guilt of them, knowing that each one had left a stain upon their soul. I knew they could never believe me because I used to think as they did. Something else Sarah wrote came to my mind.
“Some would tell me I was turned fool, and distracted, when I said I have been a vile sinner, for everybody knew I had been a sober woman all my days: and yet I used to do such things too, as well as they: And what was the matter now? Sometimes they would say, “This fit will be over quickly.” But all such answers as these, of which I had great many, would serve to humble me yet more, and put me on pleading of preserving grace, that I might never bring dishonor upon the name of God. And indeed, all the trials I met with, which were various, had, through the abounding goodness of God, this effect, to quicken me yet more.”
This was an unfamiliar feeling for me. Never had I been so afraid to speak my mind. I am not one to be cowed down from whatever stance I take. The classroom was my space. This was a place where my voice was heard, where I could introduce new ideas. I felt that this was especially important since I was the only Muslim in the class as well as the only female student. I saw myself as someone who would stand by her beliefs. Yet, I remained silent, effectively cowed.
I stayed silent until we moved on to a different topic, but for the rest of the class I could only think of how fearful I felt of being rejected by my peers. I began to see a divide, one that could not be bridged. I thought that my classmates were deaf to Allah’s calling and they thought I believed in fairy tales.
This scene plays out every day in the lives of young Muslims like myself: sometimes in a lecture hall, other times in a study group, lunch break, or even at a party. A Muslim who is sure of themselves and sure of their faith will suddenly feel like a fish out of water when confronted with the doubts of their peers, friends, and even professors.
Thousands of freshmen enter college unprepared to effectively challenge and refute the doubts of an increasingly secular and anti-Muslim world. They go off secure in their religious beliefs and in their relationship with Allah but slowly, seemingly over the course of their first year in college, they began to see religion and Allah as flawed. Hijab becomes less important, as does praying, reading Quran, and abstaining from haram activities. A class in philosophy or theology results in an existential crisis while a gender studies class leads to doubts about Allah’s stance on the LGBT community. They find themselves at a loss for answers to questions they thought would never be asked.
All it takes is one little thread to unravel everything. After the doubt sets in comes the questions. At this point, many will seek the counsel of other Muslims, but find that no answer can really satisfy them. Feeling misunderstood, the Muslim student isolates his or herself or seeks out non-Muslims for comfort. It usually doesn’t take long after that before the student becomes an atheist. Perhaps they still believe in the existence of Allah but just can’t see Islam as relevant to today’s world. Some might follow parts of the religion but cut off anything they personally don’t agree with.
Their community is shocked, parents are distraught. They sent their child off to college to receive a degree, but instead find that their child has abandoned their faith. Things become worse when they discover that there is nothing their imam can do to resolve the situation. Eids and Ramadan are awkward times as the families struggle to adjust to their child’s new identity, which is usually a rebellious one. Many former Muslims feel a certain level of resentment towards Allah and become extremely vocal in their attempts to deter people away from Islam. One can find a class of former Muslims among the most zealous of Islamophobes.
But for some there remains a small ray of hope. Most of the Muslims I meet at some point have gone through a crisis of faith and have made it out of the storm. I know of a young Muslim mother, the same age as me, who struggled with hijab and reconciling her belief that Islam treated women unfairly based on what she had witnessed growing up. Now she wears hijab and has reminded me to keep faith in Allah when my life seems to fall apart at the seams. I know of another muslimah who became an atheist in college but now is in constant remembrance of Allah. I can’t count the number of times I have stumbled upon her doing dhikr or reciting the Quran. She is well on her way to becoming a student of knowledge. My own story is an example as well. As time went on I became less insecure in expressing my beliefs. I find myself unafraid to talk about Islam and what led me from being an atheist to a willing slave of Allah. And when I find myself falling into that dark place where doubt and hopelessness reside, I remind myself of the words Allah spoke to Prophet Muhammad when he was afraid that Allah had forsaken him.
“By the morning brightness and by the night when it is still. Thy Lord hath not forsaken thee nor does he hate thee. And the last shall be better for thee then the first. And thy Lord shall give and give unto thee and thou shalt be satisfied. Hath he not found thee an orphan and sheltered thee? And found thee astray and guided thee? And found you needy and enriched thee? So for the orphan oppress him not. And for the beggar repel him not. And for the bountiful grace of thy Lord proclaim it.”
— Qur’an, Sura Al-Duha