Striving for faith
by Abubakr Ali
May 22nd, 2023
My clearest memories of Friday prayers are of me standing upright, my white jelaybiya 1 hanging loosely off my small frame, shoulders hunched, barely reaching the waists of the worshippers towering on either side of me. I would peer to my left and to my right, fixing my posture and mimicking the way they folded their palms, one over the other. In position, my head bent, eyes looking at the floor, my mind would wander. I would trace the intricate patterns on the prayer mats. Shutting one eye as the other followed the flowing filigree that decorated them. In the background the imam droned on, his words an incomprehensible monotone. Soon bored of endless patterns on rugs I looked at feet instead. Flat, big toed feet, stretched wide on mats. Slim long feet with toes similarly extruded, their nails hunched and misshapen. Rows upon rows of feet, dark and light skinned, scarred and manicured, their owners’ faces obscured. Feet that were ashen, skin cracking, others smooth and refined. This was my community, these were the men who worshiped the same God I did. I knew nothing about them yet their feet, uncovered, exposed, hinted at the different nature of their lives. My evolving notions of faith had (absurdly enough) been shaped by this imagery.
Traditional Sudanese Garb worn by men in Sudan and Egypt.
A colloquial way of address in India, usually expresses a certain degree of familiarity
A colloquial way of address in India, usually expresses a certain degree of familiarity
I knew nothing about them yet their feet, uncovered, exposed, hinted at the different nature of their lives.
“HISTORY OF FAITH”
Faith has been both a guiding and driving force throughout our long history on this planet. While the earliest existence of homosapiens dates back 300,000 years, calendars around the world are dated starting with the supposed birth of a religious figure. A conscious choice that sought to anoint the birth of Christ as the beginning of time. In majority Muslim countries, like where I am from, the first year on the Hijri calendar is tied to the pilgrimage of yet another Prophet.
Not only has faith and in this specific case Abrahamic religions shaped our notion of time It has directly influenced or inspired human civilizations since time immemorial. We are born with the propensity and the necessity to bestow faith upon specific entities. Indeed, to believe in something is uniquely human. The form, characteristics, motivations, and necessities of these beliefs are varied but their effect is similar. For many years, organized religion, monotheistic and polytheistic, has dominated what constitutes the formalization of faith. This has shaped not just human culture but our actual living landscapes, chopping them up into hard-fought imaginary zones. Missionaries, the prototypical proselytizers and original colonizers, first subjugated the peoples in the global South under the banner of “spreading the faith”. When they were finally kicked out, their zealotry had etched real borders between peoples that once coexisted in relative peace.
HOW FAITH HAS CHANGED THROUGH TIME + FAITH IN THE PRESENT
While traditional faiths retain considerable influence in the spiritual lives of many, in a rapidly shrinking world, these faiths jostle to maintain a foothold in our hearts. This competition for the literal hearts and minds of followers has traveled from the pulpits of churches and mihrabs of mosques to the comment sections of YouTube videos and the chatrooms rooms of Clubhouse. Morphing, in the process, into the form required to win people over. Within that transformation, the notion of faith itself has changed.
It may be useful here to expand our understanding of faith beyond organized religion. We have not only changed the nature of our faiths but also the requirement that one must adhere to a singular set of beliefs. Abrahamic faiths, the most successful (success here means acquiring the largest following not necessarily guaranteeing salvation) made extensive use of prescriptive practice to maintain faith. Whether it was the 10 Commandments leaning heavily on the very forward “Thou shalt not…”. Or the Five pillars of Islam that, expediently, listed the 5 specific “Thou Shall…” s a Muslim must undertake to go to heaven. This is of course a simplification; as these faiths splintered into multiple sects, their prescriptions were open to interpretation and in some cases “reformation”. Mostly this was done in a bid to update these sets of laws to fit better with the current times. In our “modern” world this prescriptive model does not fare so well. A collective improvement in our quality of life has brought urgency to the fulfillment of a very specific human need: happiness. In the pursuit of happiness, the prescriptive model falls woefully short. This prompts a deeper introspection into what faith does for us as groups and individuals in the present time.
Whether you believe in God, the algorithm or your fitness routine we have struggled to solidify our faith.
WHAT FAITH MEANS TO US
Faith is the conduit that connects us to the outside world, it is seldom an individualistic endeavor. The act of having faith, and further yet, practicing it, leans heavily on the behavior of our peers. For a faith that lacks believers wavers, its rituals, without the thrill of the collective injected into it, are often ill-observed. Faith can also do the opposite and isolate us completely from our immediate context. Not only does this occur in practice, contemplation, meditation or prayer but also in conflict. The same factors that create community from shared faith, like-mindedness and adherence to specific tenets, can also create conflict and estrangement for those who are incapable of submitting sufficiently to the beliefs held by the group.
All this can be felt on a personal level for each of us. For those raised with organized religion, the idea of community is squarely built on the foundation of shared religion, a phenomenon that anchors and defines societies of the majority (colonized) world. For those raised outside the all-encompassing doctrine of organized religion, community may come through different means.
Whether you believe in God, the algorithm or your fitness routine we have all struggled to solidify our faith. We buttress it with practice and ritual, drawing strength from the constant repetition, seeking refuge in the monotony of action, hoping it would drown our doubts. A soft prayer uttered under one's breath or a sign made reflexively remain as expressions of faith that have become programmed into how we express ourselves daily. In all these examples we seek certainty of outcome. For gym rats and coders this is achievable in the short term. Yet as our bodies age or the data sets evolve that certainty becomes less…certain. God on the other hand provides little in the form of short-term certainty, what is provided is a form of deductive certainty, “If all these people are here to worship this God, He probably exists…right?”
The struggle to affirm one’s individuality whilst adhering to our faith manifests in how we approach everyday challenges. This constant threshold between the person and the collective is where growth occurs. The tension/threshold/chasm is constantly expanding and contracting. You simultaneously or periodically grow closer or further away from the community with whom you share so much, most of which stems from a common religion/faith. These differences/chasms/contractions are not final, neither do they end with your lifetime.
This age-old tension, between self and other, played out on the medium of faith has traveled into our current times. As pieces of our being are splintered and bastardized to fit into digital spaces, our faiths have struggled to follow. Faith, in its many forms, remains a deeply personal aspect of our mental makeup and heavily influences how we see the world. You express your faith in the only ways you know how, be it violence and threats or preaching and proselytizing. This is both a repudiation of the challenges the world has thrown at your fragile beliefs and also a cry for help, as you fiercely guard pillars of your identity from relentless persecution. Oscillating between perpetually offensive extremes, internet culture spares little room for an exchange and recognition of beliefs.
“WHAT DOES FAITH LOOK LIKE NOW - WHAT DOES IT DO FOR US”
To be oneself is to always test the boundaries of your beliefs to push back on the limitations imposed by the community. Where, then, is common ground to be found between a modern existence and faith? How does one balance the compromise of existence with the need to have faith, to practice it and to express it. Faith is not an afterthought, or a post rationalization of our actions, it is the impetus that guides our actions upon this world. While we work to curb its influence on everyday decisions we might possibly benefit instead from examining its source, finding better ways to bring expressions of faith to our context. Perhaps a path can be found through a collective compassion, one that parses the nuances of individual faiths and allows space for the flourishing of different beliefs. Perhaps the path can include atheism as a strain of faith? Perhaps understanding of the importance of faith in/as the composition of one's being is both, intersectional and transgressive.