Thinking Out of the Box

Up until about age 13, I was a dedicated, but unquestioning, Muslim. Part of our daily ritual on school days was for my siblings and I to read the Quran together, side by side in our living room, along with my father, before we headed out for the day. As we all recited our individual passages, rocking back and forth to our own rhythmic chanting, the din gradually grew louder as we each had to keep raising the volume to hear ourselves above our neighbour :)

Besides reading the Quran, we would also perform ‘namaz,’ the daily practice of prayer, that I was by now accustomed to (after my initial inadvertent introduction at the tender age of four). We were ‘moderate’ practicing Muslims, so it was great if we could start the day with prayers. But it was a rare occasion, outside of the holy month of Ramadhan for my siblings and I to manage much more than that.

The Life of the Prophet Mohammad

3804873214_10715175af_zAt about this time, I also took it upon myself to start reading about the life of the Prophet Mohammad. I found a slim book on our bookshelf at home that looked digestible, and I would read it on an irregular basis on the weekends on my own. I wanted to know more about the Prophet who defined our religion. It was a fascinating journey.

To my young mind, trying to imagine a completely different age, culture, and land was a stretch and a compelling curiosity – the desserts of Arabia, the camels, the tribes, the warfare, and the complicated names and relationships that made up the Prophet’s story.

I learnt how the Prophet had been an orphan, and grew up in his uncle’s house; I read how he was terrified by his first visitation by the Angel Gabriel; that he married an older woman– a successful business woman whom he loved dearly–and that he died in his 60’s, after uniting Arabia under the umbrella of Islam.

I don’t remember too much detail of my initial reading, and I am revisiting the life of the Prophet through further reading now. To begin with, I’m starting with Lesley Hazleton’s book, After the Prophet, the Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split. When I’m done I’ll  share my thoughts about her book on this blog.

A Rogue Thought

However, there was one thing that stood out to me on my first reading. Numerous times throughout the book, it was clear that the Prophet Mohammad (just like any other spiritually realized individual, I imagine) had to convince his family, friends, associates, tribesmen and enemies of his authenticity.

Often met with doubt, fear, cynicism, rejection and hatred, he and his followers would need to allay these suspicions. What was the Prophet’s message? That there is no God but Allah, and that he was his messenger. But, not only that he was a messenger from God, but that he was the Last messenger, last in the line of succession of the Abrahamic religions.

There were different scenarios throughout the book where the Prophet Mohammad would engage with this challenge of conveying his message of Islam, both through peaceful means and political warfare.

One day, when I was reading such a passage, a stray thought went through my head. What if someone [who was a messenger from God] came today? Would I have the eyes to see them? Even thinking this thought shouldn’t have been valid, because a major part of the Prophet’s message was that he was the last prophet, so how could anyone else come after him? It wasn’t a legitimate line of thinking according to what I had read.

In trying to step into the shoes of the tribesmen of that time, I was trying to imagine how it would be to accept a stranger with a controversial message which went against all the spiritual traditions, doctrines and rituals of one’s forefathers. How much risk would it take to leap out of the old and into the new? How much faith would it take to embrace a new religion, and to stand firm against the inevitable backlash of one’s culture?

And, how would it be so different to do that today, compared to then?

Now that Islam has been established for over fourteen hundreds years, wouldn’t we face the same challenges to hear someone who appeared today, claiming they carried a message that went against the status quo?

Direct Contact

I think I shocked myself by own thought process. I was stunned at having ‘stepped out of the box.’  At that very moment, I felt as though a different and new possibility opened up in my own consciousness that wasn’t defined by what I was reading or being taught about Islam.

By bringing together what I was reading with my own life, the potent times of revelation in seventh century Arabia suddenly came to life in a much more immediate way. It was as if my free probing and questioning, and desire for connection was recognized on some cosmic level.

It seemed my brain, or mind had been opened up to the universe at large, and was now receptive to the whole expanse of the heavens, kind of like a radio receiver.

I knew something had changed for me at that moment. I had stepped beyond some boundary of limitation in my own thinking, and it was more than intellectual.  I think that’s when my own real spiritual seeking began, beyond the safety of known rules and boundaries.

Photo Credits: Rustam AliyevLouish Pixel, European Southern Observatory

My Isl@m by Amir Ahmad Nasr

I’ve just finished My Isl@m by Amir Ahmad Nasr. It was a riveting read and an important education.

I was particularly interested in reading Nasr’s story as I knew his journey traversed several different ‘world views’. He goes from an orthodox traditional upbringing, through adopting a modern outlook and love for evidence-based rationality, and then on to embracing a post-modern egalitarian appreciation of difference and freedom of speech.

In addition—both unusually and intriguingly for me—Nasr also strives to view Islam through an integral perspective, a philosophical lens that ‘transcends and includes’ all the aforementioned world views.

I find commonality and overlap with much of Nasr’s thinking, and some of his lines of questioning have saved me time and helped direct my own research! I am also putting together some of my key ‘takeaways’ from having read his book, that I will post separately, and which may be of help to others on similar paths of self-inquiry.

In Summary

Nasr was one of the key bloggers who helped catalyze the social media revolution in the Middle East that led to the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011. His story is intimate and personal, and completely takes you in. And his approach is rigorous and unrelenting, in wanting to arrive at some kind of philosophical, spiritual and cultural integrity in himself.

The book starts with his experience as a young Sudanese Muslim boy who loves the reverberating call of the azaan in his local mosque and diligently keeps prayer. It then chronicles his life as a troubled teenager grappling with the questions he’s been told not to entertain. Rebelling from the dominion of indoctrination, Nasr then emerges as an uncensored activist who fiercely questions, and rejects the dogma he was conditioned to believe.

His questioning takes him deep into the blogosphere, and traveling across continents, meeting all manner of thinkers—muslims, and non-muslims alike. And as his journey unfolds, he becomes more and more tightly knitted into the social media network of Muslim bloggers who propelled the drive for socio-political revolution across the Middle East.

It’s inspiring to read Nasr’s story as a first-hand and behind-the-scenes account of how the thirst for freedom bubbled up across the internet and out onto the streets of Tunisia, Egypt and further afield.

Finally, Nasr finds peace with his Islam. Not through any kind of intellectual resting, or coming to a final ‘right’ answer, but through his own thirst for ongoing inquiry, and love for the Eternal.

Book Trailer



Amir A. Nasr is the formerly anonymous sociopolitical blogger behind The Sudanese Thinker. He is the author of the searing memoir and banned book My Isl@m: How Fundamentalism Stole My Mind – And Doubt Freed My Soul, recommended by Foreign Policy among 25 books to read in 2013. He is also the founder of Assertive & Co. a content strategy consultancy. Amir has been featured in The New York Times, The Economist, and The Wall Street Journal, among many others, and has shared the stage with Nobel Peace Laureates, former presidents, and fellow entrepreneurs. He lives in the land of beavers and maple syrup, aka beloved Canada.


Read Amir Nasr’s blog, and visit his website. Since the publication of his book and the reinforced oppression and socio-political unrest following the Arab Spring, Nasr recently put up this new blog post on his site: Breaking the Silence, April 14th, 2015

On Reading the Koran – Lesley Hazelton

I’m currently (re)reading the Quran. Both reciting it in its original Arabic, and reading a full English translation (by Yusuf Ali).  As I outlined in my last post, I learnt how to recite the Quran from an early age, but, like many non-Arabic speaking Muslims, I’ve never read the full English translation for myself.

As Lesley Hazleton mentions in her talk below, the fact that so few people have read the entirety of the Quran in their own first language is one of the reasons why it’s so easy for fundamentalists and anti-Islamists alike, to quote—or misquote—the Quran, out of context.

This 10 minute TEDx presentation by Lesley Hazelton, “On Reading the Koran” (2010) is a beautiful talk about the subtlety she found in the passages, or ‘surah’ of the Quran.

Ms Hazelton, who refers to herself as a ‘tourist’ of the holy book  is hardly a novice when it comes to her knowledge of Islamic history. Indeed, it appears she is more well read than many self-identified Muslims:

A psychologist by training and Middle East reporter by experience, British-born Lesley Hazleton spent over ten years exploring the vast and often terrifying arena in which politics and religion, past and present, intersect. She’s written about the history of the Sunni/Shi’a split, as well as books on two of the Bible’s most compelling female figures: Mary and Jezebel.
Her latest book is The First Muslim, a new look at the life of Muhammad, the founder of Islam. In researching her book, she sat and read the full Koran again—exploring the beauty and subtlety in this often-misquoted holy book. As she says: “I’m always asking questions—not to find “answers,” but to see where the questions lead. Dead ends sometimes? That’s fine. New directions? Interesting. Great insights? Over-ambitious. A glimpse here and there? Perfect.”

Two Faces of Islam

Islam in Dictionary

Which Islam is the true Islam? This is obviously a very volatile question in these turbulent times, and is near impossible to answer.  The best conclusion is probably something along the lines of ‘it depends on your interpretation’.

However, even the freedom to explore different interpretations of Islam is highly contested by some (muslims), not recognizing that the absolutist stand in their own view is itself one of many possibilities. This is a hard conundrum, and—while not unique to Islam—is a big sticking point in the Muslim world today.

What I’m trying to do is unpack the different ways in which my early experience as a practicing Muslim defined my relationship to Islam. And how now, I wish to revisit, review, and ‘upgrade’ my 1980’s programming and potentially install a new evolved interpretation for 2015 and beyond :)

This aspiration itself flies in the face of not only orthodox muslim beliefs, but also more mainstream and moderate positions. Indeed, I can feel it pushing my own internal boundaries of what’s ‘allowed’.

The belief that the Quran is the word of God, and cannot be changed, runs deep in muslim hearts and minds. Fundamentalist expressions of such deep convictions continue to lead to much bloodshed today.

While I believe that the Quran was a spiritual revelation that the Prophet Mohammad communicated, what that means to me may be very different to what it means to the next Muslim. How these internal interpretations then go on to shape the values we live by is what’s important.

And these values are shaped at a very early age by our cultural framework. Indeed, the very human example of our parents, our teachers and religious community can create more of an impression on us than the tenets of any religion itself. This couldn’t have been more clearly exemplified by the two different teachers my siblings and I had to teach us how to recite the Quran.

The Two Mullanas

In the early 1980’s, after we had moved to our new home in greater London, my father sat me and my brothers down to teach us how to recite five tenets of Islam, our ‘kalmaai’. This is what we would recite for many years when performing ablutions to purify ourselves before standing in prayer.

It was clear this represented the end of one ‘era’ of our childhood, and we were entering a more ‘grown up’ phase.  The first tenet is the proclamation that “There is no God but Allah and the prophet Mohammad is his messenger”. To bear witness to this statement is the foundation of muslim identity.

A few years later, my mother ensured we learnt how to recite the Quran properly, in Arabic. Living out in the suburbs, away from any strong Muslim community, she hired a religious teacher, or ‘Mullana’ to come to our house and provide private tuition.

Innocence Lost

Photo credit: Tanti Ruwani

We would lay out a sheet on the living room floor and sit cross legged in a row, each reading out loud the passage we had learnt from our last lesson. Then one by one, we would move to the front of the room to recite our passage to our teacher, or ‘Moli Saab’. Every inflection is specific, and we had a grace period to learn how to enunciate the letters and words correctly.

I loved the sounds, and the melodic quality that I would sometimes manage to hold. But in time, we felt our teacher’s impatience, and his anger, when we would make mistakes. He would often screw up his face in disgust and bark his corrections at each of us as we took turns to recite the passages we had learnt.

I started having a dual association with reciting the Quran. While I willingly embraced the religious context, I also started to associate reciting the Quran with fear and harshness. This latter association only occurred around the tutoring, and was further reinforced when our teacher would sometimes bring other children who he was teaching along with him for our session.

I remember looking on with horror the first time he hit one of them. We were all young, but they were younger still. A boy, who couldn’t have been more than six or seven years old, and an even younger girl who was probably five at the most. They would be reduced to tears, but would dutifully keep reciting through their misery. I felt awful for them, and angry at him. I believe the day our mullana sent the little girl rolling across the floor, we protested to our mother and discontinued our tutoring with him.

Faith Restored

To continue our religious schooling, my parents found another teacher. He couldn’t have been more different. He was younger, he could have been in his early 30’s. He was gentle, sensitive, caring and intelligent. And above all, he wanted us to understand what we were reading.

I loved the fact that he started teaching us basic arabic grammar, sentence construction and tenses. He wanted us to have a foundation for a deeper and first hand understanding of the Quran. I, like many non-Arabic muslims have to read a translation of the Quran to understand what we are reciting. So I loved the more studious approach that accompanied the fulfilling melodic recitation itself.

I still remember him fondly, and was saddened when he could no longer teach us. I believe he fell ill, and sadly passed away well before his time. His gift to us was in demonstrating a tolerant, sensitive and educated relationship to Islam through his own embodied example.

A Matter of Interpretation

So, these two teachers must have interpreted the same religion, the same holy book in very different ways. And no doubt, the cultural and generational context they were each exposed to defined the framework of their interpretation.

What was most important to them? To dogmatically and unquestioningly recite the words correctly—at any cost—or to instill an appreciation for learning and understanding for oneself? I choose the latter, and I hope this practice of inquiry and self-inquiry gains greater momentum over more rigid and intolerant expressions of Islam.


Photo Credits: Firas, Tanti RuwaniBengin Ahmad


An Intimate Connection to God

When we’re born, I wonder how spiritually receptive we are prior to any religious conditioning. Is a spiritual connection to a larger universal Self an innate attribute of being human? One which almost immediately starts getting filtered through the cultural and religious framework that we’re born into?

I think so.

No matter which belief system we find ourselves absorbing by osmosis, very quickly our ‘unconditioned’ responses to life—to what’s inside us and outside of us—get molded to suit cultural norms. Do we lose touch with something in the dawning of our self-hood that we then spend the rest of our lives searching for?

I actually think I tasted this transition from an internalized connection to God to an externalized relationship with God very early on, as being a Muslim started to look like ‘something’.

An Abrupt Introduction

The first powerful imprint on my young mind in relationship to God must have been made when I was around four or five years old. We were still living in East London, and what happened was a deeply unsettling experience for me.

green prayer matOne day, I remember carefully opening the closed door to our large living room to see a spectacle I’d never seen before. My father was standing on a long coloured carpet and seemed to be performing an odd ritual that I watched intently through the slightly ajar door. Something about what he was doing made me feel uneasy—as if I was seeing a side to my father that I didn’t know. His hands clasped across his belly, bowing up and down, then kneeling, and putting his head to the ground.

It was too much for me, and I quickly closed the door and held my hands protectively over my own little chest. Somehow, I knew he was performing a ritual to connect with God. But I felt heartbroken because it seemed he was making a petition to some outside entity. It pained me. I didn’t want to relate to God outside of myself. I wanted my connection to remain inside, intimate.

And what made me sad, was suddenly knowing that some day, my parents would want me to perform the same ritual I saw my father carrying out. I felt my days were numbered. I don’t know how much of it is my own projection back in time now, but to my young self, it felt I was mourning an impending separation from God.

Later, I heard my parents talking about how I had walked in on my father doing ‘namaz.’ And they seemed pleased about it. It provided me with little comfort.

From what I recall, this may have been my first, albeit uninvited, introduction to what it meant to be born into a Muslim family.

“God is Closer to Man than His Own Jugular Vein”

In my first post I wrote how this teaching from the Quran, about God being closer than one’s jugular vein, struck a chord with me when I was very young. Could it be that the Quran was reaffirming what I somehow already knew to be true, but which only came to light in this moment of perceived ‘separation?’

And once that perceived separation was lodged in my mind, the allegiance to my inherited spiritual path was set in motion as the means to maintain the connection with God.

I think an intimate connection to God is and always has been there. Despite the retreat from Islam that I went through for much of my adult life, I believe this teaching in the Quran became recontextualized through my engagement with eastern teachings of non-dual consciousness: There is Only One, we are not separate, we are not separate from God.

It is with this conviction that I feel I can bring together my heritage of Islam with my journey through eastern teachings of meditation. They point to different aspects of the nature of God, and they both allow one to connect—intimately—with God.

(photo credit via flickr creative commons: puzzleyou)

Shaped by Two Cultures

How does one become a progressive Muslim? What are the ingredients for loving the religion you were born into, understanding it deeply for oneself, and having the freedom and faith to question it? What inner held beliefs, and outer manifestations of one’s character will help bring about the necessary evolution of Islam that I believe is sorely needed today?  Now, just past the age of 40, I’m circling back, and starting to embrace this inner and outer journey.  And I think the answer lies in part, at least for me, in understanding the mix and evolution of values, both East and West, that have shaped me.

Here’s how I started

I was born and raised in the UK as a practicing Muslim. My parents both grew up in the same town in India, and at the time of the partition their respective families moved to Pakistan. They later married. My father, ahead of his time, was the first of his family to leave Pakistan and move to England in the 1960’s. My mother followed soon after.

Young Aterah -photoboothWhen I was about five years old our family moved out of inner city London to the quiet suburbs. With that, our local community changed from a very mixed racial and religious environment, to an almost entirely caucasian neighbourhood. This, to my parents’ later regret in life, set me and my siblings on the path to be ‘Westernized.’

As far as we were aware, we were the sole Muslim family living in our small homogenous town back in the early 1980’s. The only other coloured girl in my class was Sikh, not Muslim. But that was a welcome comfort for both me and my parents to have someone I could relate to with some ‘sameness.’

A Taste of Racism

While I’ve been lucky to grow up with the liberal freedoms that the UK offered, moving to a white neighbourhood introduced the first, mild currents of racism that we experienced as a family, and it was the first time I felt like an outsider.  Early on, this was only really in relationship to colour, and not religion. We were the ‘Pakis.’

I can probably count on one hand the few memories I have of explicitly being on the receiving end of racist comments or actions, but as a family we were subject to our fences being kicked in on a regular basis for many years, and on one occasion having paint thrown all over my dad’s car, garage, front door and ground floor windows.

These relatively minor abuses essentially stopped when the teenagers who were responsible for them moved up and out of home. For a while, either me or my brothers used to sit ‘on guard’ in the evenings, on the stairways, looking out through the net curtains, to see if we could identify the thugs.

And, I’ll never forget the one time when my dad lost it, when we could hear the fences being kicked in, and he ran out of the house, barefoot, chasing the culprits down. My young brothers immediately ran out after him. I think it’s the closest we ever came to any violent confrontation, and I believe one of our neighbours may have come out to intercede on our behalf.  I think it’s the only time I actually remember screaming and crying with real fear for my family’s welfare.

But, that’s about it for the early days.

Most of our immediate neighbours were welcoming, and still look out for my parents today. For many years, we used to go out of our way to make sure we gave them Christmas gifts, even while we didn’t celebrate Christmas ourselves. We of course were very happy to receive the big boxes of chocolates we got in return for the wine, scotch, whiskey, Baileys, and other exotic bottles which only ever entered our house for the specific purpose of giving away as presents to our neighbours. As you can imagine, this bought us some good will :)

The Multicultural Experiment

My parents still live in the same town, and it’s still home. So while we were raised with the family and religious values of Pakistani Muslims, we were simultaneously immersed in Western culture, grew up with white English friends, and were imbibing Western values.

My parents tried their best to walk a fine line between these two primary influences. They supported our core identities as Muslims through their own example and a loving family environment, and were open and willing to let us benefit from the freedoms of Western society. At the same time they also drew the line when it came to secular social norms which came into conflict with their beliefs and values.

So my journey, started with their journey—of adapting to and integrating into English culture. They had the complex task as first generation immigrants of weaving together the values they brought with them, the elements of Western culture they appreciated and wanted their children to benefit from, and separating out those aspects they wanted to steer us away from. These two cultural currents mixed and informed each other in the melting pots of our young minds, and set the trajectory for who I am today.


Steve McIntosh on the Evolution of Islam

Soon after I seriously considered starting this blog, a fantastic white paper regarding the evolution of Islamic culture landed in my inbox, written by Steve McIntosh. Steve is the President and Director of the Institute for Cultural Evolution (ICE).

You can read the full paper here.

I have had the opportunity to meet Steve personally through my engagement with evolutionary spirituality, and am very pleased and grateful to see his thinking being applied to this area of cultural evolution.

On a personal note, Steve’s paper speaks directly to my own interest to find a deeper integration between the two powerful spiritual paths that have influenced my life—evolutionary enlightenment and Islam. Going from traditional Islam, which was still at odds with modernity, I was looking for something that didn’t negate the direct relationship to God, but that also spoke more directly to my postmodern cultural values. I found this in evolutionary enlightenment, and Steve’s paper speaks to this aspiration.

This is a unique paper which attempts to go beyond mainstream modes of thinking for addressing the virulent threads in Islam. Steve illuminates the dynamics between pre-modern, modern and postmodern cultural values which contribute to the complex expressions of Islam today. He further explains how “post-postmodern spirituality” goes beyond the postmodern secular aversion to monotheism at large, and embraces more contemporary interpretations of theistic religions which are more compatible with science:

“Evolutionary spirituality accordingly rediscovers and reaffirms the enduring truths of a loving Creator, but at a post-mythic, post-secular, and post-postmodern level wherein theistic notions of God can be better harmonized with science”

On reading (and re-reading) his paper, I feel he articulates and touches on so many important threads—the historical trajectory, the current crisis with Islam, and the potential for both Muslims and non-Muslims alike to create a more stable platform for Islam to evolve.

Importantly, Steve articulates the need for contemporary interpretations of Islam to make it more compatible with the positive values of modernity. I think he correctly points out that it is the center of gravity of the Muslim community at large in relationship to Western expressions of modernity, and not just the views of some isolated fundamentalists that are allowing the extreme acts of violence that we see on the news today.

I also particularly appreciate how he shows that it is not unheard of to witness contemporary interpretations of the teachings of Islam. This gives me hope! Not only was religious questioning and reinterpretation of the teachings of Islam the currency of its Golden Age, but as he points out, this is also ironically demonstrated by the very emergence of more fundamentalist interpretations today:

If Islam can ‘go backward’ in response to modernity, it can also find a way to go forward to a new era of peace and global cooperation’

I’m further inspired by this paper to help contemporary Islamic thought to go forward.

Since posting this review, Steve McIntosh was interviewed by Jeff Salzman on The Daily Evolver. Sample the following excerpt here (7min), and listen to the full interview below.

Listen to the full interview here (34min).

Returning to Islam

Where to start!? I’m setting up this blog, as part journal, of my own renewed exploration of Islam and, potentially a simple platform for dialogue with fellow muslims and non muslims who are interested in better understanding Islam as a world religion, its roots, its history, its trajectory, its current myriad manifestations, its cultural impact, and most importantly, its potential to evolve.

I grew up a Muslim in the UK, and its core has never really left me, even while I dived deeply into a different spiritual path for 20 years. Now coming out the other side of that, with a whole array of rich, positive and also negative experiences, I find that Islam still remains a touchstone for me. It still brings me home in the closest way to myself.

Why is that?

Besides the obvious, that its because that’s how I was raised, it’s most familiar, and I associate it with a loving environment growing up, it’s always been the unequivocal teaching that there is no intermediary between me and God that has given me an inner sense of independence and strength: “God is closer to ‘you’ than your own jugular vein.”

I remember thinking about this teaching when I was young. If God is closer to me than my own jugular vein, then ‘he’ is closer to me than my own mind and brain–he knows me better than I ‘think’ I do (I didn’t know the difference between arteries and veins at the time, but it had an impact!)

This belief as a Muslim that God is closer than close has been there from a young age, but it was through my engagement with meditation and eastern-derived teachings of enlightenment, that I found direct contact with the spiritual dimension and which carried me for 20 years.

Now, coming full circle, I feel drawn again to the essence of Islam, but with more experience and self-knowledge under my belt. And it feels like I’m just beginning a very important journey of my life.

On this blog, I want to explore premodern, modern, postmodern, and emerging ‘post-postmodern’ interpretations and expressions of Islam. I hope that my ongoing research will be useful for anyone also wanting to better understand the history, current faces and possible future iterations of Islam.

For my own personal journey, I want to come to a deeper integration in myself that will bring together the two spiritual paths that have brought me this far. And, most importantly, I want to discover, learn, express and share my own re-interpretation of Islam as an evolving Muslim woman in the 21st century.