I believe that being a Muslim is a tremendous blessing. It gives me a sense of belonging, a sense of security and a sense that there is a greater being in this universe that is looking out for me. Whatever may happen to me, while i'm alive or dead, i have little to worry and much to look forward to.
Well, of course, unless, the immortal words of Rowan Atkinson playing the Devil welcoming Christians to Hell happen to be true: "I'm sorry, but the Jews were right". :)
I also believe that being a Muslim has given a lot of power ("power" being the ability to make someone do something they otherwise wouldn't) to others over me. Who are these people? Simply put, those who i believe are "better Muslims" than me (and that's a LOT of people).
Its the bane and fear of many Muslims: the branding of being a "bad Muslim". Probably one of the most terrible things that could ever happen to a Muslim, and certainly something that strikes fear into many; so much so that they will go out of their way to ensure that that label never falls on them. Look at the Malay politicians; they are absolutely petrified of being branded "unIslamic". In the Malay dominated politics that is Malaysia, such a branding, if it sticks, spells the end of a political career. Why? Because people care, and they who are the electorate share the same fear.
When i was younger, i used to ask my Malay relatives about God. I asked them if anyone had seen Him (give me a break, i was 6 or 7 at the time), i asked them what He had done for them, and why should we believe in God. I remember that some of my questions forced them into corners, and, in the end, they would resort to saying that its all a matter of faith. If you believe, truly believe in God then you wouldn't have to ask these questions. As you can imagine, that statement shut me up quite quickly.
The underlying tone of such a rebuff is clear: if you ask too many questions that no one has the answers for then you clearly don't believe in God; if you did believe, you wouldn't have to ask. And that's a terrible doubt to put in the mind of a Muslim - should i keep quiet because my faith is in question? How far do i or can i go before i cross the line into the realm of the Un-Faithful? It was and still is a frightening thought for me, and i suspect for many a Muslim too. And its this fear of going too far that gives power to those who would know how to exploit it.
Studying in the International Islamic University Malaysia, i was surrounded by pious Muslims with their beards, long white jubahs (men) and great big headscarves, and thick-clothed women that some would jokingly call "walking tents" (i never indulged in such name calling, and i only repeat it here to provide a visual simile of meaning). Being in this environment made me feel insecure religiously, and it was often an uncomfortable feeling to be stared at by one these people, as though some great sin has been perpetuated by myself (e.g. sitting with a member of the opposite sex in the canteen is considered sinful in IIUM).
I used to think that i could shake the feeling off, that these people had no power over me, no reason for me to fear them, or to be made to feel guilty. But even after 6 years there, i don't think its something that can be shaken. Simply because, its not them who held the power over me, but it was my own conscience that troubled me. And therein lies one of the most powerful, enduring traits of religion. Without the ability to influence the human conscience, religions wouldn't last long. If people didn't feel beholden to something, they would abandon it the moment it conflicted with their personal self-interest.
Is this a bad thing, the way religion has control over our minds, the way we think, the extension of our actions?
I believe that all human action requires regulation and religion provides that order, a guide to follow. But many religions use the element of fear to achieve that regulation, and this troubles me. Christianity had the Inquisition, a Muslim can be legally executed for abandoning the faith. I'm no expert in Judaism or Buddhism, but it seems logical that some form of reward will be with-held from those who do not believe. If there wasn't, these religions would have passed from human memory a long time ago.
Or maybe i'm looking at this completely wrong. There must be a reason to not be fearful of the belief that is supposed to save you from eternal damnation. Or maybe that's the reason the fear exists - because it holds the key to my salvation and to believe in that also means to believe that it can be taken away.
At the end of the day, its all about faith. Its all about believing. You either do or you don't. You can either allow the fear to rule you or you won't. I've asked too many questions tonight.