Recently, I watched a documentary by the well-known photographer Peter Sanders on the “art of integration”. It documented the lives of British Muslims, and how they came to live in the UK without compromising the values of their faith, but still leading integrated lives, supporting their community in growth and prospering whilst containing a mixed cultural, faith-based and also personal identity.
A line in the programme struck me particularly when Peter said:
“Islam is like a crystal clear river of pure, sweet, cool water, when it runs over something yellow, the water becomes yellow, when it runs over something brown, the water becomes brown, but Islam itself is clear”
This really struck a chord with me. For many years, like many other Muslims, I have struggled to find a comfortable space where my identities comfortably merged together. Where the colours of my faith that I felt inside me made a structured pallet outside of me in which others could know who I was and also could be a way in which I was accurately presenting myself to the outside world. So much of me was British, but equally so much of my identity was Pakistani: the food, the language I spoke at home, my friends, the music I listened to… And at the same time all of this was intertwined with my faith. My prayers were in Arabic, I read the English translations, I read Urdu and Persian poetry, I studied English literature, my dress code was a mix of everything and anything I felt that day (which was quite often British) that at times, and even now, I felt confused as to what my culture and consequently my identity was.
But do we need a culture? I think we create a culture. There is something inside of us that is so desperate to fit the mould, but something so equally inside of us desperate to break it, that we end up as fragmented pieces of a hollow shell, longing to be filled with some kind of light, or rhetoric, striving to be whole again.
On my journey as a Muslim, I have realised that it was important not to think about myself as a single entity. I had to come to terms with accepting that I was many things. In an age where we fiercely label people in order to understand them better in our own terms and within our own cultural boundaries, we often don’t see the essence of a human being. The essence is that we all hold principles, values and follow some kind of moral and ethical code. If we could see this inside of each other, far beyond the cultural garments we adorn ourselves with, we can create a culture of self-acceptance, and acceptance of others.
I have figured out a few things on the way, though. I am happy to be a Muslim and this is through teaching from both of my upbringings, British and Pakistani, so I owe to both of them. I can be British in my way of speaking, my mannerisms and behaviours, and I can be Pakistani in my passion, my love for colour and richness. Yet I can be both in my love for words, chasing words, using words for water and as an elixir for life, letting them run through me, quranically, poetically, or slang, song, rhyme, Urdu, English, Arabic, Farsi, Turkish and everything in between… Much like a river that is clear, pure and sweet. For me, this is my Islam and I have been taught to take the goodness and the richness out of everything I have been given.
I can comfortably (now, that I am older, somewhat more mature and slightly wiser) merge the two when I feel that is necessary, and also let go of one side of me when I feel is necessary. I believe multiple cultures and identities do leave you fragmented and vulnerable, but as Leonard Cohen says:
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in