Religious identity is difficult and confusing, but valuable samueles

I identify as a Muslim, and despite the fluctuating relationship I have with my religion, it is undoubtedly a significant part of who I am. Having grown up in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, escaping my religious identity wasn’t really a choice. Even the times when I wanted to forget about the “burdens” and “obligations” of Islam, the adhan would be a reminder of the integral role it played in my country and society; the stillness of Ramadan, the festivity of Eid and the sense of community brought together by the Friday prayers was an inclusive force drawing everyone in. Of course, this makes it difficult for religious minorities to find a place for themselves, and, to a much lesser extent, it’s difficult for the lost and confused to completely fit in as well.

I have spent most of my life trying to find a balance between my Pakistani culture and the Western influences prevalent in any post-colonial society. With language, rituals, clothing and values, I seem to have been in a constant internal battle to try to find myself a set identity which I could claim. This identity has a significant aspect which I avoid discussing: religion. In particular, the religion I have always associated with, is Islam, and thus, in the any identity struggle, my relationship with Islam becomes prevalent. The Global political climate makes the discussion of anything Islam related uncomfortable and being from a country which accepts it as a national religion meant that I was defending both my country and my religion at every turn. This was regardless of my own relationship with the latter. That never mattered. To others, I was brown and called Khadija, which was enough.

Living in Pakistan, these confusions and struggles weren’t something I faced alone. It was an entire generation which felt the same as I did. We accept the intersection of culture and religion, and try coming to terms with the fact that our shifting dynamics with either or both have to be explored within the confines of our homes. It wasn’t acceptable to be confused about religion, because that would mean you were confused about your attachment to the state. The freedom to explore this part of our identity took place within the confines of houses, where the dichotomy of raging parties and Islamic values coexist. It wasn’t okay for anyone to have a fluctuating relationship with religion because that would mean that their “faith was weak”, but it seemed inevitable in a culture where western ideals were greatly valued.

“In Lahore I felt as though I could not discuss any possible deviation away from religion, and here it was the opposite”

Cambridge was, for me, viewed as a place of exploration. It was a medium through which all the restrictions I faced in Pakistan would disappear and I could finally choose my own position on the religious spectrum. With no restrictions on what I wore, where I went and who I chose to hang around with, it seemed like this epitome of freedom. Rather, it was a pseudo-freedom. The visible discomfort people around me felt if I brought up the topic of Islam, as if I would automatically become intolerable of their lifestyle, made me realise that Cambridge wasn’t so different from Lahore. In Lahore I felt as though I could not discuss any possible deviation away from religion, and here it was the opposite: I could not discuss the possibility of be growing closer to it. My fluctuating relationship with Islam had no place in this society.


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This isn’t to disregard the amazing support systems that are available for those who feel similarly, such as religious societies. However, my struggle was about trying to figure out which way I leaned towards, as though being in the middle of the religious and non-religious spectrum wasn’t acceptable. After accepting the many conflicting and diasporic identities that form the person I am today, this wasn’t much different. But unlike the others which still seemed to find a place in some society, my religious identity was either “too Muslim” or “not Muslim enough”. From not being able to explore and shift the dynamics of my interaction with Islam in Pakistan, it became more that I was uncomfortable in doing so in Cambridge.

Religion for me has always been something that lies on a spectrum, and choosing which position one takes on that spectrum is an important individual right. Despite it being a confusing, and even difficult journey, I have begun to appreciate my complex relationship with Islam, because it is that very complexity which makes it my own. Through living in both, Lahore and Cambridge, the dichotomy of the two places is reflected in my individuality, and it is through 18 years of apologising or justifying it that I have come to learn one extremely important lesson; regardless of whether or not my country lays claims on Islam, my relationship with it is my own. The fluctuations and shifts that I experience are merely part of the exploration and necessary to my own development. My religion is my own and whether I fit into the conventional mould of a Muslim has begun to matter less and less to me, because the spiritual journey I take, I will have to take alone.

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