Religion and Our Journeys
Chapter 5 | Writer's Commentary
“But I have no time for such things; and the reason, my friend, is this. I am still unable, as the Delphic inscription orders, to know myself; and it really seems to be ridiculous to look into other things before I have understood that.”
Alright folks we’re getting very close to the midpoint and the climax of the first part of the story. The next few chapters (5,6 and 7) are mostly based on my own experiences with a sprinkle of drama for good measure. So we’re about to get personal.
Maskat just had a major experience with the dad beating in chapter 4, and chapter 5 is an important transition out of that and into the strange world of his school, Stone Wall Academy, in Chapter 6.
This chapter is all about the expectations parents have of their boys and girls in Lamu (and in traditional Muslim households all over the world). In this chapter, I wanted to involve actual verses of the Qur’an to amplify that effect. Let me know how all that lands for you.
In case you are just joining us, or haven’t had a chance to read at all yet. I have created an Index Page here with all the chapters and audio episodes that were published so far.
So….Religion! That thing that defined so much of our history and continues to shape the world whether we believe in it or not.
I grew up Muslim and spent most of my twenties rebelling against it. When I was 17, it occurred to me that I can stop praying and fasting. It was liberating to do things differently, and being free of these shackles was an exciting endeavor.
I carpooled to university with a friend who I got along with really well until we started taking positions that were on opposing sides of the spectrum. He started finding solace in religion, and I found my inner peace in challenging it. At that point in my life, religion was the reason why the world was so messed up, and defying it made me feel like I was unique.
I armed myself with as much knowledge, facts, and philosophy as I can to beat my equally intellectual carpooling opponent. We debated religion for a whole year on the way to and back from college. By the end of the year, our arguments had become stale, and so had our friendship.
He would always corner me with the same sentence which annoyed me so much. He would say “If I am right, then I’ll go to heaven and you will burn in hell. But if you are right, then nothing will happen after we die. So I have nothing to lose.” His logic was the reason I despised religion: It used fear to keep us in line. “I won’t believe in a God that won’t allow me to use the brains he gave me.” I would say.
Neither of us would be satisfied, and in the end, we agreed to disagree (and stop hanging out with each other). My relationship with my parents suffered as well because in the same way, that I labeled religion as sorta evil, I labeled my parents as “people who did not understand me”. I didn’t realize yet, that like me, they are just people trying to figure out this life thing.
In my early-mid twenties, most of my friends were atheists/agnostics. At first, I was enamored by those who were “militant atheists” and how refreshing their arguments were. As long as I was going against my upbringing, and challenging my status quo, I was on an exciting path.
I was very interested in studying the philosophy of death, because of how intertwined that was with me proving that religion is a mere fairytale. In my exploration of death, a friend of mine gifted me Phaedrus, which is one of my favorite books from the ancient Greek philosophers. It is written by Plato and details the last few hours of the life of Socrates before he was sentenced to death by the religious state and ordered to drink the infamous hemlock.
Although these philosophers were up against religion, Phaedrus showed me a new side to Socrates/Plato which really allowed me for the first time to take a break from trying to prove myself right to the world.
One passage reads:
“If anyone comes to the gates of poetry and expects to become an adequate poet by acquiring expert knowledge of the subject without the Muses' madness, he will fail, and his self-controlled verses will be eclipsed by the poetry of men who have been driven out of their minds.”
― Plato, Phaedrus
What is this madness they speak of? And where can I find it? Plato gives us a bit of a clue.
“Madness, provided it comes as the gift of heaven, is the channel by which we receive the greatest blessings . . . So, according to the evidence provided by our ancestors, madness is a nobler thing than sober sense . . . madness comes from God, whereas sober sense is merely human.”
― Plato, Phaedrus
The monologue goes on to talk about much more bizarre topics, but the one that stuck with me the most was Socrates’ surprisingly strong belief in reincarnation. He described how, although he was about to die, he would continue living forever. Of course, Socrates believed that only philosophers would survive death into a better state. Others who did not use reason would be cats or dogs.
Now that is a little biased, Socrates. But what struck me was his argument for why reincarnation exists.
He says we would not know darkness if there was no light. Truth if there were no lies, and fairness if there was no injustice. And so, just like how the day and night keep following each other in an endless cycle, life and death surely come from one another.
We know that life leads to death, he posed, so then death would also lead to life.
The way I translated it into religion is this: By being an atheist, I am simply the same as a religious extremist. One comes from the other, and they are both sides to the same coin.
My philosophical heroes had started to look like ordinary humans with defects and struggles, and what was worse, Phaedrus was actually giving a lot of credit to the mystics and religion. Fuck.
The Hero’s Journey
Many years after that, I was first introduced to another book, that essentially made me want to write my own, and is really why I am here writing this today: A Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell.
Mr. Campbell was also largely inspired by Carl Jung, and he was a “mythologist”, having studied religions and tribes all over the world as a profession. What he writes about is that the symbols, myths, and hero stories we hear in Buddha, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, and many others, move us for the same reasons as Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, and Indiana Jones do.
These stories provide inherent and true wisdom, that is only unlocked for those who are willing to look beyond the metaphor.
You have the three great Western religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – and because the three of them have different names for the same biblical god, they can’t get on together. They are stuck with their metaphor and don’t realize its reference. They haven’t allowed the circle that surrounds them to open. It is a closed circle. Each group says, ‘We are the chosen group, and we have God.’
And that’s when I realized, my carpooling friend and I were stuck in the same trap. We both took the metaphors of religion literally, him wanting to believe them, and myself trying to disprove them.
These symbols, I realized, are not to be debated. They are meant to provide a wide range of age-old wisdom which is meant to inspire depending on which stage you are in life.
It is when we take these religious metaphors to attempt to prove ourselves right or use “self-controlled verses” such as what Plato said, that is really where we get into trouble.
Campbell depicted the hero’s journey, on which we are all voyaging. While our pitstops are different, all of us, including our prophets and favorite protagonists, go through the same cycle.
This is the same formula that I have used to create Maskat’s world and story. The 11 chapters that I published will take us to the “crossing of the threshold” stage below.
I am currently writing Part II, which will take Maskat across the world and into the “belly of the whale”.
The role of religion, movies, theater, and novels alike, is to provide us with anecdotes and metaphors that help us along the way, in our own unique interpretations of them.
In debating religion so fiercely, I had been missing the point. In trying to defy my culture, I had become a cold, hard, enemy of my own self. My war with the outer world only ceased to exist, when I stopped fighting my own upbringing.
I still do not abide by Islam, but I now see it as a black box of stories, some of which can help me. Just characters in a movie, I do not relate to all of them, but some can be really relatable! The others are there to complete the story and enhance the drama, to keep me engaged with the precious truths which lie beneath the surface of the story.
I am not religious, but I am slightly envious of those who are.
Enter My Mother-In-Law
I am married to a wondrously spiritual woman, who was born to a Finnish Christian mother, and an Egyptian Muslim father. My mother-in-law had converted to Islam after marriage, and in it found the ultimate form of freedom and salvation.
From a hero’s journey perspective, Islam drove her transformation, while in my story, it was the “status-quo” that I had to steer away from to find the truth. Neither of us is wrong, we are simply living in two different movies.
Ten years ago, I would’ve tried to convince her that Islam is wrong (and that I am right). Today, I am incredibly inspired by her resilience and her devotion. Where I would have seen an opponent to my ideology, I now see someone with qualities that I want to learn, for reasons of my own.
That idea gives me a lot of freedom. By remembering that my journey is mine and mine alone, I suddenly do not need to fight with anyone. When my internal war with the issue was over, so was my external one. That’s not to say that my internal wrestling is over, but it is directed to more worthy fights that involve knowing myself versus proving that I am right.
To those of you who realize the pattern by now, next Sunday I will be posting a new episode of the Gumpcast that tackles Chapter 5’s main theme: Religion and genders.
I could not possibly have a more exciting guest than Sherin, my wife. Other than the incredible story of her parents who overcame religion to give her and her sisters a great life, she is a mindfulness self-compassion speaker and provides workshops on the subject.
I am very excited to bring some of her explorations straight to your inbox next Sunday.
Stay tuned, and thanks for all the love you guys give me to keep my fuel burning as Maskat continues his strange journey to connect with others and understand himself.