I was a religious kid in a pseudo-religious liberal household -- a rare breed. The notion of a wrathful God that was being instilled in my mind and re-affirmed every Friday sermon was steering me away from the path, followed by a deep sense of frustration.
As a child, I fell in love with that merciful God who was closer to my jugular vein -- Wow! How's that even possible, I often wondered -- and that He loves me more than my mother.
The curiosity increased as I grew older, but the mullah always had a "thou shall never question" in response to my curiosities, in firm tone.
I'll leave my story of finding God in New York as a student going to an ivy-league school, studying philosophy of religion and what followed for another occasion, and focus on my experience of teaching the un-cool subject that many students dread: Islamiyat.
It's important for me to write this piece because the students I taught last spring at Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology (Szabist), a private university in Karachi, Pakistan, were no different than the young Fahad, who was seeking answers to existential questions like, "What is the purpose of my creation?" "Where to am I going?" and so on and so forth.
The youth wants to understand Islam. But their curiosity is often misunderstood as lack of faith.
I don't blame them; they are confused because they see people burning tress in the name of the last messenger (upon him, peace); they read preposterous fatwas limiting women's freedom; and more recently, the news story of Saudi moral police ousting men from a public event because of being too handsome. Yes, too handsome.
What are they supposed to make of Islam from all this? Their questions are all valid; but the Islamic Studies they study doesn't go beyond the five tenants coupled with the usual basket of ahadith (sayings of the prophet), leaving the youth dismayed and somewhat apologetic for being Muslim.
In inculcating Islamic morals, we tend to force the laundry list of dos and don'ts. I often pose this question to my students: "Is our relationship to our mother limited to prohibitions?"
Some said "no," others defensively explained why a mother does that.
What most of the teachers fail to recognize is that religion is a matter of sentiment.
Rouhan Siddiqui, 21, told me that my lectures were "productive, unlike most Islamiyat courses, because we discussed issues rather than you dictating us what you think."
On the first day of the class, my students were flustered seeing a man wearing a pin-stripe suit, who speaks English with a fusion of American and British accents. For them, I was a cognitive dissonance, only because I didn't fit into the stereotypical image of an Islamiyat teacher.
"Whenever you hear of Islamic Studies you expect a mullah with a beard [teaching the course]" said Saad Memom, 23, a first year Media Sciences student at Szabist. "So seeing you as the teacher was quite shocking but a relief."
The thing is that most of us who're born into a Muslim family follow some version of Islam, by default. To sow the seed of love for the Creator and hence the creation, one has to lay the foundation of religion. And for that, there is really no need to debunk other religions or other Islamic sects or even atheistic views. Just talk Islam -- minus the prefix!
There is a known Sufi proverb that I often mentioned in class: "There are as many ways to God as the souls in the universe."
The trouble is that we want to impose our version of the faith that is, often times, drenched with cultural myths.
Marium Lathia, 20, another Szabist students said that the lectures "gave us food for thought and made us eager to know more about our religion." She added: "It guided us towards the right direction because it gave us a vast horizon as to how to think, perceive, and interpret."
While at Columbia University, majoring in philosophy of religion, I studied Islam with academics from whom the Quran as a set of cold facts. I then studied with traditional scholars who drank deeply from the verses of the Quran in search for truth.
For some students, like Amna Tariq, 19, the class assignment "was the first time I actually opened the translation of the Quran."
I have realized that if you speak from the heart it will enter the heart.
"I find peace of mind in religion now," said Ali Nouman, 20.
And since all the grades were posted, I believe, or at least I hope, that the students gave truthful feedback.
I feel there is a dire need for reform in Islamic Studies syllabus, so that it equips the youth to think for themselves and understand the true message of the faith.