In my last post, I mentioned how feelings of insecurity and inadequacy about being Muslim have led me to struggle fiercely with salat. Salat is this elusive thing for me: sometimes I have it and I feel good about it, other times I cannot bear to think about it, other times I just feel guilty about it. In that respect, it is always on my mind. Perhaps that is also the reason why I feel exhausted by it, even when I am not even making my prayers. I have had a few periods where I was committed to salat, but the majority of the time I am engaged in a tug of war with it. Often times, I do not talk about this struggle, as it is the biggest source of my insecurity and feelings of inadequacy, and I am so uncomfortable admitting weakness.
I have spent a lot of time thinking about salat and trying to figure out the root of my struggles. In the beginning, when I first reverted, I went from 0 to 5 prayers a day immediately. I kept it up for a week or two, but it petered out. Later, when I tried to figure out my emotions about it, I realized that transitioning so quickly made me feel fanatical. I was adding this foreign act into my life, and it was taking over my day, and I felt unsteady. I heard the voice in my head asking if this was really something I was going to do – could do – five times a day for the rest of my life. For several months my salat was sporadic. I might pray fajr before I got started with work for the day, and maybe ‘isha before I went to sleep. But by no means was I consistent. I felt really out of place with salat, and even after I had all of the prayers and surahs memorized, I felt like I had no idea what I was doing.
I recognized when I was making excuses for not being able to make salat, and also recognized how weak my excuses were. “I have work,” I would think. Except nothing is ever so pressing that it cannot be paused for 10 minutes. Yet, I found myself so engrossed in my laptop and watching my prayer notifications flash and fade throughout the day. Even though half of the time I am frustrated with the work I am doing, or mindlessly scrolling through social media to procrastinate that work, I felt it was ‘too important’. “I do not want to do wudu,” I thought. It felt like such a burden to perform wudu, to get my hair wet, to wash my face, that I avoided doing it. “There is no time,” I would reason, even though salat only requires a small amount of time, and it is a minuscule offering for the gift and opportunity to live through each day. I hated that even upon realizing how lame my excuses were that I still could not overcome my mental and physical obstacles to salat. It weighed on me and continues to, heavily.
Eventually, the specific excuses died away, as with time I fully rationalized that they were flimsy. Eventually, I realized my issue with salat was that most of the time, I just did not want to do it. It took longer to figure out the “Why?” for that.
More recently, I have been able to get to the root of my issues and salat. It has not been a pleasant process. My apparent inability to do the basic thing that is required of all Muslims stings me every time I think about it. As a perfectionist, I often chastize myself for not being ‘better’ at being Muslim. I look at my salat struggles as a deep blemish on an imperfect fruit. It adds insult to injury.
It has become an unfortunate self-fulfilling prophecy. I feel inadequate and insecure about my reticence toward salat, and that metastasizes as me feeling like a ‘bad’ Muslim. When I feel like a ‘bad’ Muslim, I see no point in performing salat. “What is the point,” I think, “of doing this if I am no good in the first place?”
It seems so simple, honestly, written out. But dealing with the devil in the dark recesses of your mind and soul is terribly complex.
But in coming to terms that it was a question of insecurity, and the inverse – a lack of confidence – revealed a lot to me about my mindset and what it means for my relationship with Islam. I have been aware that, as a compulsive perfectionist, I tend to shy away from tasks or activities I feel I will not be able to succeed at. I avoid situations where I might be setting myself up for failure, or looking weak, or seeming confused. And Islam has become a massive hydra of exactly that: activities and tasks that I am not sure I am going to be good at.
In February, I was consistent with my salat for an entire month, even making up prayers when I was traveling. And at the time, I do remember feeling incredibly connected to Islam and secure in my faith. I am not sure why after February things fell apart. Perhaps it is getting out of the habit for a week every month that does me in. I thrive on routine but interruptions set me way back. Perhaps I got scared to commit. Perhaps I did not trust myself to keep it up for the rest of my life, and I did not want to set myself up for failure. Perhaps I felt an absence of God’s love and support at the end of the month and I stopped.
That aspect – feeling God’s love and support – brings up a tangential issue. Rationally I understand the God I was raised with in the Christian tradition is the same god as Allah. But I still see them as different sides of the same coin, which may be fair seeing as how differently each doctrine conceptualizes God’s power and relationship with followers. In the Christian tradition, there is a profound emphasis on God’s never-ending love and compassion. You are already saved; you are already forgiven. The conversation was always positive. (I recognize that this may have been different if I was raised in a denomination that emphasized the ‘fire and brimstone’ a little more.) But with Islam, despite the emphasis on Allah being the Most-Merciful and the Most-Compassionate, I still feel like there is a fear and punishment element that was not there in Christianity. And I do not respond well to it. This is partially where I feel the futility of my salat the most: “If I am probably already going to hell because of my inconsistency or inadequacy with being Muslim, why bother?”
I have spoken with my Muslim friends about the fear and punishment element, and they confirm there is a greater emphasis on the wrath Allah could rain down on those who disbelieve or go against the religion. They were raised knowing full well what terrible thing awaited them if they did not meet their religious obligations. I do not remember hearing or reading much about Hell when I was going to church, but it is a frequent topic of conversation in Islam. While I absolutely love the duality and balance of Islam – I think it is more practical and realistic and beautiful – I do struggle with feeling like I am compelled to do something because there is an ‘or else’ attached to it.
All of this is not to say I have completely ‘given up’ on Islam because it is hard. Islam is constantly pushing me out of my comfort zone. I am learning, slowly but surely, how to get over my desire to be good at everything and appear in control and live with uncertainty or doubt or the ubiquitous ‘I have no idea what I am doing’. But to be fair, much of that is still at the surface level, and while I have been able to overcome fears about going to masjid or talking about it with people I am close to, what is far below the surface has been much harder to deal with.
That is where salat is for me – leagues under the surface. Even before reverting, I looked to Islam in awe as its adherents were so committed to be prostrating before God five times a day. That commitment was absent in my experience growing up Christian. In fact, it was the opposite: my family and friends would joke about the ‘Christmas and Easter’ Christians who went to church twice a year for the major holidays. Even then, the most religious people I knew maybe went to church once a week. So I saw Muslims as what religious people should be – demonstrating their strong relationship with God day in and day out, no matter the time or the place, forgetting about worldly responsibilities or distractions for a few minutes in order to observe something more meaningful. It was a powerful and beautiful example and it always captivated me. When I saw Muslims praying, I saw their ability to transcend the trivialities of everyday life and attach themselves to something greater and more meaningful. It also looked like an intense dedication; every time I saw Muslims praying I appreciated it for what it was, but also because I wondered if it was something I had the capacity to do in my own relationship with God. Salat was how I thought religion, and a relationship with God, ought to be.
So salat, in my eyes, was always the *difference* about Islam. Over time I have come to appreciate other aspects of Islam that make it unique, like the Qur’an, and Ramadan, but salat is the original distinguishing factor. For better or worse, I view salat as the thing that makes or breaks whether you are a true Muslim. It seemed like to me, especially of the Muslims I was coming across on social media, that the difference between being a ‘cultural’ Muslim and ‘the real deal’ was whether the obligation of salat was honored. The more pious Muslims made their daily prayers a priority, no matter what. I considered performing salat the mark of legitimacy. I say for better or for worse because this perspective has indeed contributed to my own issues with salat: my many roadblocks to salat make me feel as if I’m illegitimate, which then makes me wonder if my salat is futile.
I am not sure why salat and I have such trouble. Sometimes, it is because salat is a grounding action, anchoring, and sometimes I do not feel like I want to be tethered to anything. Sometimes, I feel like I need to have the freedom and flexibility and not be weighed down. I recognize, however, the contradiction in this: the stress of my life at this moment, mostly due to a frustrating and unpredictable work situation, should cause me to seek out anything that brings stability to my life.
So that excuse, like many others that came before, does not really hold itself up. The deeper roadblock and the one that has taken me nearly nine months to figure out is the lack of a positive and confident mindset with regard to being Muslim. I know I need to go easier on myself: there are a lot of factors that contribute to my inability to be the kind of Muslim I would like to be right now. Certainly, others have done more with less, but all things considered, I do not have a lot of work with. Inshallah there will come a time and circumstances in the near future that allow me to live more authentically as a Muslim, but for now, I have to make peace with the unideal.
The mindset issue, after some deep introspection, seems to be the culprit. I questioned why I have no trouble with fasting for Ramadan, a month-long commitment some might argue is on par with salat. I have reasoned that with Ramadan, I can still generally be myself with only a few minor adjustments, and still fulfill my religious duty. Salat, on the other hands, feels more like a radical change to me. For whatever reason, during Ramadan I am always in a positive mood, whereas with salat, one has to be in a concentrated, positive headspace about Islam and being Muslim, five times a day. Simply put, I just do not have that level of good feelings on a daily basis.
Sometimes I wonder how necessary feeling “good” is to do salat. I am sure there are many people who are still able to do it even when they are having an off day or some kind of existential crisis. But salat has also made me feel worse about my inadequacies as a Muslim: because it does not come naturally to me, or because it feels like a distraction or burden itself, I view it as something that points out, glaringly, my shortcomings. So I avoid it.
This is all 100% the wrong way to handle these issues but I am not entirely sure how to navigate toward handling them better. Inspirational YouTube videos from prominent sheikhs touch on the importance of salat, or the beauty of it, or give advice to new converts, or teach them how to do prayers, but there is no advice for a person in my situation: I want to pray, I know how, but a mess of insecurity is holding me back. This is another place where being a revert can be incredibly isolating; I have yet to find anyone else struggling in the same way I am or talk to someone who really *gets it*.
Yet I am confident at some point these issues will fade away. I have mentioned a lot of my inner tumult is a product of stress related to my job, and I am certain with a new one a lot of this anxiety will quickly cease to exist. I need to be patient. I need to do my best and be okay with that. Still, salat and my struggles with it are on my mind day in and day out. I wanted to write about it to be more transparent about the nature of things I am working through. Part of working through this insecurity and feelings of not being a ‘good’ Muslim are rooted in me, for various reasons, not having a strong attachment to Islam, and I believe one of the most constructive ways for me to work past that is to really come to terms with my roadblocks and be open about them. I am reminded of a quote my grandfather lived by: “If you can get it out in the open, you can deal with it.” So that is what I am trying to do.
Note: I would love to hear from you if you are reading this and have been in my shoes or have some words of advice!