“I have felt at times that I didn’t have the right to exist. Almost everything I was taught about being a ‘good Muslim’ meant living in denial of myself.”
—from the journal of Umm Zakiyyah
“You have too much confidence in yourself,” a community “auntie” told me once, and from her condescending tone, I knew she meant it in the most insulting of terms. She couldn’t stomach the thought of a young “Black girl” feeling she had a right to her own mind and soul, when the woman herself (as she told me) had thrown her brain away in servitude to her sheikh, even when he was wrong.
Ironically, what inspired this particular insult was my simply saying to her that my goal is to obey Allah and the Prophet (peace be upon him), not to blindly follow a scholar or school of thought.
And she was livid. How dare I be so arrogant!
Little did I know, this was one of my first introductions to the toxic culture of religious elitism, which saw as a threat anyone who believed they had a right to their own mind and soul independent of sectarianism and toxic blind-following of scholars. It was also one of my first formal introductions to this culture’s self-serving definition of “adab,” a word that had no clear meaning, except that it could be used as a weapon to silence an “unimportant person” when he or she threatened the fragile egos of the men whom the sect (or cult) overpraised and sometimes worshipped.
Nevertheless, in my sincere ignorance during that time, I tried as hard as I could to be a “good Muslim” adhering to the elusive concept of “adab” even though I never could comprehend what these sects and cults meant by it. Yes, I knew what it meant in Islam, and I adhered to that definition to the best of my ability (and sometimes to the detriment of my emotional health, I was so stressed I was doing things wrong).
But it was never enough.
It took years of suffering and almost leaving Islam before I finally realized that all their calls to adab—which they framed as demands for me to keep changing how I said something—was really just a manifestation of their spiritual insecurities, prideful hearts, and feeling threatened by an “unimportant” Black girl daring to see herself as fully human, when they had yet to even give her permission to exist.
Be Careful of the Muslim Company You Keep
“A person is on the religion of his companions. Therefore, let every one of you carefully consider the company he keeps.” —Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him (Tirmidhi)
As I discuss in my book and video series: I Almost Left Islam: How I Reclaimed My Faith, there was a time that I was barely holding on to my emaan and feared I could no longer be Muslim, and by Allah’s mercy, I was able to reclaim my faith. However, it wasn’t until years after I had come back to some semblance of spiritual peace and love of Islam that I had this epiphany: The companions whom we are warned about influencing our religion (for better or worse) are not only the friends whom we consciously choose to have in our lives and personal spaces. They are also our husband (or wife), family, jobs, community, and even the Muslims and scholars we trust—especially if these are people we expose ourselves to on a regular basis.
In fact, the case regarding Muslims, scholars, and religious groups we trust can be much more serious than that of the close friends we confide in. This is because these religious people are our primary exposure to Islam, and we are literally upon their understanding of the religion because we have trusted them to show us (directly or indirectly) the very meaning of the religion itself. In this way, they are our companions in this world just as our close friends are our companions in this world. The only difference is that the Muslims we trust, as well as our favored religious leaders and groups, enjoy a greater level of trust regarding our spiritual understanding and practice.
This is no small matter.
I Felt Trapped and Resentful
Before I came to terms with the fact that I needed to make some serious changes in my life, mainly in my marriage, religious community, and the Muslims I trusted and worked with, I felt trapped and resentful of what I felt Islam (and Allah) required of me. I felt like a soulless object whose sole purpose on earth was to serve others while disappearing myself from existence, and I imagined that through this conscious non-existence, I would earn Paradise.
Today when I read these words, it’s hard to imagine that this shell of a person was myself. But I know exactly how I got there: From childhood, I had been surrounded by people (though sometimes well-meaning) who had emphasized my responsibility to serve others more than they emphasized my responsibility to my own emotional, mental, and spiritual health. And if I’m completely honest, I had made decisions in my personal and professional life that did not include my own needs and self-care as the highest priority—and these decisions included remaining in unhealthy relationships, business projects, and Muslim communities. In these toxic environments, I was continuously exposed to Muslims who put more emphasis on what I owed them and others than on my right and responsibility to self-care.
In some of these environments, if I made a mistake or did something wrong, I was publicly humiliated, mocked, and the error was constantly held over my head, often being brought up over and over again—sometimes even years after the fact—as proof of what a horrible person I was. In these toxic business relationships, I was treated as a commodity instead of a full human being. Leaders of organizations felt free to break agreements and contracts with me, while I was threatened with my contract being cancelled if I fell short on a single deadline. In each of these environments, Islam was claimed to be the highest priority, yet I was scoffed at if I reminded them of my own Islamic rights when they wronged me.
If I mentioned that Allah would give me my rights on the Day of Judgment, I was accused of having a hard, unforgiving heart while they boldly claimed they felt completely fine facing Allah with what they’d done. They sometimes said I was wrong for even bringing up Allah or the Day of Judgment for something so insignificant. Yet if I had even as much as a personal perspective that differed from theirs, they treated me as if I was angering Allah Himself by not having the same opinion that they did on the topic, even as the topic itself allowed for different views in Islam.
At times, these experiences left me feeling like Allah Himself was against me, even when I was being wronged. Thus, I felt trapped in these relationships and environments as I imagined I had to be patient with them “for the sake of Allah.” Because I was so often in emotional pain due to having to consistently meet the needs of others while my needs were constantly dismissed, trivialized, or denied, I began to feel worthless. Meanwhile, I imagined that this continuous self-sacrifice (which ignored my own needs and desires) was what Allah required of me on earth. Ultimately, I began to feel resentful of my religious existence. I felt as if I didn’t have the right to exist except to fulfill the demands and desires of others.
In Search of Self-Care
In this emotionally painful space, the concept of self-care did not even exist. However, given my mindset at the time, even if the concept of self-care did exist, I would have defined it as serving and caring for someone else while hoping to (through this servitude) secure for myself a place in Paradise.
Tragically, I wouldn’t learn the true meaning of self-care until I was desperately trying to hold on to my faith and emotional health. During this time, I was struggling to prevent myself from leaving Islam and taking my own life. It literally took this level of near self-destruction before I understood that my needs came first—or that I had valid needs at all.
Before this life-changing moment, I was so busy trying to be a good daughter, mother, wife, and community member that I didn’t even see that what I’d considered “sacrifice for the sake of Allah” was really self-destruction in the name of religion. Upon realizing my need to make some serious improvements in self-care, I penned these personal reflections in my journal, which I share in my book Pain. From the Journal of Umm Zakiyyah:
Suffering is not the same as sacrifice. Know yourself. Know your limits. Draw the line.
You cannot give of a self that does not exist. Thus, self-care and self-preservation must be essential to your life if you wish to truly give of yourself to others. You cannot give charity from wealth that does not encompass your possessions, and you cannot give from a spirit that does not encompass your being. So invest in your emotional, physical, and spiritual wealth. You can only spend from what you have.
It was through this self-validation, along with studying the Qur’an and prophetic tradition with new eyes, that I realized that I had the right to exist as a full, emotionally and spiritually healthy human being before I had any obligation to anyone else—even when they imagined I had a religious obligation to fulfill regarding their own needs and desires.
Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of twenty books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, His Other Wife and the self-help book for Muslim survivors of abuse: Reverencing the Wombs That Broke You. Her latest novel His Other Wife is now a short film.
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