Swept into this years electoral politics--and now devastated by Trump's landslide this past Tuesday--it is easy to lose sight of actual faith. These are times that easily shore up religious identity: the far right attacks one because of it. The secular left, bless them, defends one's right to it. But the truth is, beyond the staunch belief that no one should ever be persecuted because of it, I am not overly interested in religious identity. Faith is what actually drives me, defines me, returns me.
Faith is what I could not ever disavow, and what I have no choice but to assert. I looked up the definition of faith, hoping to find a template for describing what it is, exactly. But that was a mistake. Faith is so much more than a "strong belief in the doctrines of religion" to any person of faith.
So, I want to tell you about my faith. Partly so that you can decide if this is the stuff over which you'd like to see your Muslim neighbors and school children persecuted and harassed. Partly to suggest to you that 1.6 billion Muslims are engaged in something far less nefarious than either the American far right or ISIS would have you believe. And partly by way of introduction. It is a useful sort of introduction for this moment in America, because while each of us, in the deep intimacy of faith, is entirely unique, I also believe that faith, broadly defined, is the choir in which we all sing.
Faith was that thing that was waiting when I had nothing and no one else. It was the last hope for the most humble version of myself. Faith was for me that ultimate act of surrender, the moment in which I acknowledged that my assessments and desires were not only not the best guide for my life, but among the worst possible guides. I came to faith the way that many do, by creating unmitigated disaster in my life. And at that point of absolute ruin, felt the potential lightness of what remained.
It's hard to describe faith without sounding trite. Which, I guess, is why it's so easy to loose track of this inexplicable thing. For me, the only way to invite you in without losing the essence entirely is to tell you it through stories. Here is one:
Lately, my preschool aged daughter can't grasp that more of a good thing--sugar, an adventure, a long happy playdate--is not necessarily better. And her insistence on more is, like her personality, intense, urgent, dramatic. A few weeks ago at dinner, I asked her why she's been getting so angry, so often. She said earnestly, "I don't know, Mama." So I took the opportunity to introduce an idea that has shaped me deeply. I told her about her nafs: ego, but in its untrained form, more like egoic excess or base desires. The nafs is a good, an important part of ourselves, I told her. It is important to know what we want, what we like, what brings us pleasure and what makes us angry. But this part of ourselves is not in charge, and should not be in charge. The nafs gives us information about ourselves, but it should not decide what to do with that information.
The untrained nafs always wants more, and it's okay for her to communicate that, but her job is to grow the part of herself that can listen to reason, and eventually, learn to make good choices for herself. And so, lots of times when my daughter is about to lose it over one more jelly bean or another walk around the pond, she gets to decide, can she put her overactive nafs into an internal time out? Will she rally her better self quickly and do what needs to be done? Or will she need a quiet spot to do that in?
The idea of the nafs allows me to address my sweet daughter in moments that are not at all sweetness. It allows me to separate out that part of her that is driving the tantrum and talk to her about it. It gives me a way to help her put her better self in charge by asking her to take charge of her nafs.
Today, while we walked back from a visit to the duck pond with friends, she asked if we could all go home together--just a little more, her nafs demanded, though more quietly now than a few weeks before in the same situation. I reminded her that it was time to be grateful for our lovely day together with friends and head home to our separate houses. She quietly asked, "But Mama, Leah really wants to keep playing, too." "Everyone has a nafs, honey. Everyone has a voice that tells them that more is better. And everyone needs to learn to be in charge of that voice." "Oooooh." Eyes wide, my daughter was pensive for the rest of the walk back to the car.
This is my Islam, this is my surrender. This is what it means to me to be a person of faith: to strive to understand the nature of myself as a human, and to strive to understand the nature of the world around me. To be in humble service wherever I can. And to steward what is my part firmly, gently when possible, as best as I can. Is there a place for my faith in America today?