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.