Oh the script, that religious script,
the one handed to every student of books and classes,
who reads his lines carefully,
then takes the stage,
declaring what is right or wrong in the life of the
unfortunate souls who find themselves the unwitting
audience of their own lives.
—excerpt of PAIN. From the Journal of Umm Zakiyyah
I speak about my life’s deepest pain a lot, but let me tell you why: It is the gateway to our life’s deepest pleasures. Just as the closest you get to the Most High is in placing your head on the dirt of the earth, the closest you get to the deepest pleasures of life is in walking honestly and vulnerably through your pain.
Before I embarked on my healing journey, wherein I became honest about my emotional and spiritual wounding, I was living in the shadows of false piety and thinking it to be true faith. False piety is that sterile, rehearsed existence that so many of us learn in the religious books and classes that we imagine teach us all we need to know of spiritual life.
Don’t get me wrong. I realize the importance of books and classes, so I’m in no way suggesting that true piety is found in casting them off. What I’m saying is that the essence of true spirituality is the lived experience, not the book or class experience. In fact, by their very nature, books and classes can teach you nothing of experience, except the experience of a book or class itself. Yes, you can learn about others’ experiences through books and classes. But you can learn nothing of your own. Why? Because experience is its own teacher.
When we equate book and class learning with true spiritual knowledge, we get false piety. And then, tragically, we act out our spiritual lives as if reading from a script.
The Tragedy of False Piety
In false piety, empathy dies, so we fail to see, hear, and feel the human hearts of those in front of us. Instead, we observe their speech and behavior and respond according to what we’ve memorized from the book and class “script.” This is why it is so easy for us to declare that certain people have no love of Allah or Qur’an in their hearts, why it is so easy for us to speak so cruelly and dismissively about those who choose plural marriage, and why it is so easy for us to condemn divorce and praise the length of a marriage with no care or concern for what that relationship is doing to the human soul.
This is why it is so easy for us to openly criticize or mock a woman’s efforts in wearing hijab, why it is so easy for us to tell someone to give up a coveted life path or worldly enjoyment “for the sake of Allah” if it incites our spiritual doubt, and even why we can then walk away nonchalant, with not the slightest concern or feeling of accountability for how our tongue disrupted the very veins of someone’s personal and emotional life.
False piety wounds friendships, marriages, and even human hearts—sometimes irreparably.
False piety equates emotional impotence with patience, wherein showing no frustration or sadness in response to life’s gut-wrenching trials is the mark of the true believer. False piety equates suppressing your pain, smiling when you want to cry, and never speaking about what hurts you with the highest form of gratefulness. False piety equates the silencing of disagreement with anyone in authority—whether a parent, spiritual teacher, or religious scholar—with having adab and “showing respect.”
Heart Over Image
At the heart of false piety is the need to uphold a spiritual image over the need to live an authentic spiritual life. Thus, the biggest threat to false piety is the honest, sincere human heart.
Though I could not see it at the time, when I sank into the dark waters of spiritual crisis and almost left Islam, I was being unfettered from the doctrine of false piety so that I can begin, for the first time, to strive upon an authentic spiritual life. It was as if I was living the inherent negation that begins our testimony of faith, “Laa ilaaha illa Allah.” In this way, my spiritual crisis was the “Laa ilaaha…” of my shahaadah as a lived experience: I had to give up every definition of piety that I’d falsely equated with faith in Allah before I could come back to Him testifying, “…illa Allah.”
Now I know that vulnerability and honesty are at the heart of true faith, and that they form the very essence of all true love—of God, the self, and others.
So now, I am resting my head on the dirt of the earth and crying out to my Lord about the pain of my heart and soul so that I can draw closer to Him in this life and in the Hereafter, bi’idhnillaah.
Because I now know that a book or class cannot give me spiritual life. They can only point me in the right direction so that I can experience it for myself. Yes, I can recite from a prepared script and put on the face of false piety, walking in obligatory happiness and religiosity in front of people. But if your heart is hurting, your heart is hurting. And ignoring it will only make it hurt worse.
If there is anything my life has taught me, it is this: Pain demands to be addressed, and cries demand to be heard. So if we are denying our pain and muffling our cries—whether in the name of positivity, adab or gratefulness—we are not walking the path of faith, we are walking the path of denial. And denial will always be at odds with a healthy human heart.
Thus, if our books and classes teach us that denial and suppression are the essence of spiritual life and we subsequently embrace this as our expression of faith, pain itself will become our life path. Then our spiritual crisis will become a testimony to ourselves and the world that we have yet to learn the true meaning of faith.
Sadly, there are those who are so afraid of the life path of pain that they run from faith altogether imagining that this will erase from their lives the agony they’re suffering. (I almost chose this “easier” path myself). So they live in spiritual numbness while seeking happiness through worldly pleasures sans God, while never realizing that the “pain as a life path” that they’re running from was merely the gateway to life’s deepest pleasures and true faith.
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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