This is a guest post by Aminata Diop, a published writer who focuses here on observations of women in Senegalese society. The pictures and captions were added by myself.
It started with an act of apostasy. I was about fifteen and spending the summer in Paris where I had just undergone a major surgery that came to change my health and life positively and for the long run. By all means, I had every reason to be thankful, and expressed my gratitude to the Almighty by respecting my daily five prayers as prescribed in the five pillars of Islam. Yet, on that odd summer afternoon, as I began my zuhr prayer (the 2nd prayer of the day for Muslims), facing the qiblah, reciting verses of truth, flickers of sunrays resting on the prayer rug, a troubling thought hit me like an avalanche.
“Who are you praying to?”
I tried to fight it. The question repeated itself in my head like an outside voice as I kept kneeling, bending, and reciting.
“I’m praying to God.”
“What is that? Who is that? Where is that?” the voice in my head replied. Part of me felt possessed, another defied by the questions I was unable to answer. Still, I kept on with the prayer, concentrating on the wooden closet in front of me to rid me of these thoughts. It worked and the questions dissipated as I bent again and knelt once more, but when I rose from the sun-drenched floor, the closet now had the appeal of a statue, the room was a shrine and it was as though I was committing an act that was contrary to my religion’s principles. The voice returned right then and gave me an answer.
“You cannot serve or praise what you don’t know,” and it rang true. But the act that followed – stopping mid-prayer, taking off my shawl, folding the prayer rug and leaving the room – that felt as liberating as it was gut-wrenching. Little did I know that this was the beginning of my journey to finding God.
In my opinion, it is out of the ordinary for a teenager to have such radical awakenings and to follow their “truth”, but in retrospect, this event was also the result of a violent clash of civilizations taking place within. I am a Senegalese woman, born and raised in an African country for the first fourteen years of my life. I grew up going to French school five days of the week and attending Quranic school on the weekends. I went home from school to African parents, with African values imbued in me as an integral part of my identity. We celebrated Eid, we also received gifts on Christmas, and on the Muslim New Year, children would dress up at night in costumes and go from door to door in neighborhoods to ask amused adults for money. In the summer, when school was over, I remember going to campfires at night with friends to listen to Senegalese fables that taught me right from wrong through the lens of storytelling. Then at the age of thirteen, my dad won the green-card lottery and the next year we flew to the USA to have a taste of the American Dream. I fell in love with the American culture and learned to speak English quite fast. When I returned to Senegal a year and a half or two later, I went to a bilingual school with a lot of American professors and Senegalese French-speaking ones. By the age of fifteen, I had two Western civilizations, one African civilization, and a Middle Eastern one all brewing through my veins.
When I returned to Senegal after my prayer crisis in Paris, observing my parents and my environment, witnessing events that were so “timely” and seeing people’s prayers answers convinced me that there was at least the possibility of a higher power. Perhaps one’s awareness of its presence worked like phone service: either you were connected or you weren’t. This didn’t mean the service wasn’t available. As for me, I just did not know how to re-connect with my faith. I was agnostic with a strong desire to believe. I even started praying again on occasion, to ask God – if He/She/It was really there – to manifest that presence.
Three years passed by. Then on yet another odd afternoon, the whole family was gathered around a large bowl of delicious Senegalese food to have lunch, when my older brother looked at the rice, paused and said, “This is God, and you are God, and this person is God and All is God.” Everyone was appalled. Some got up to leave. Others cursed. I found it amusing and disturbing. He kept on uttering those words as though he was in a trance and I found myself thinking he had lost his marbles. When I confronted him about his lunacy, he leaned close to my ear and whispered “Who are you praying to when you kneel? What is that? Who is that? Where is that?”
God was answering. I immediately asked my brother to tell me where he got these questions from and he consequently put me in touch with a Sufi brotherhood – the Fayda Tijanniya. When I met the spiritual guide, a lady I could identify with (she was an African woman, former government official and published author, who had extensive travelling experiences and who was a practicing Muslim), everything fell into place. All this time, I just needed a connection, someone who understood the feeling of having multiple cultures define you all at once. This fantastic woman never judged me and when I expressed my interest in seeking the truth, she only asked me to follow the prescriptions of my religion and to ask for answers directly to the higher power. She challenged me to wonder about that higher power and the concept of Unicity (Tawhid).
After a full week of returning to my religious practice in a way that was acceptable, all the while heavily meditating about Allah and about the purpose of our existence, my theory of everything became clear: there is not one thing on earth that exists without the will and action of One force. I fell in love with the Oneness of things, how everybody on an atomic level, on a spiritual level, on an environmental level, is connected. And how every single creation serves a purpose. This is a feeling that’s been steadily reinforced in the past eight years since I’ve found God. I know God to be Al-Wadud, the All-Loving, the One who Loves you (flaws and all) and who Loves all of creation. He is the only One who has any and every form of power – from the heartbeats to the heart breaks, from the breeze to the thunder – it is One. It is how we serve this knowledge that matters.
Today, I identify as a Pan-African Muslim woman. I proudly carry within and around me untold histories of triumphant and trampled souls, but in all this I know that I would not be able to tell them without accepting that these were all pre-written for me to read and understand by a Force that Itself is still so complex to understand but that is there if you dare ask the right questions. The answers will unfold in a timely manner and it will feel liberating and true.
Every night I pray God to be a better servant, aware of her servitude and of the love He has for me, and I pray that I act upon it. I ask Him to forgive me for the sins that I know of and that I don’t know of. I ask God to Be my one and only Protector, Guide and Healer; to be my heart, mind, body and soul. I do this and I feel a presence, then I lose myself in it, and I can almost never make the difference between you or me, or him or it and some call that heresy, and some call it ihsan, but a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
The sweet fragrance of peace.
Ammar is on a journey to explore Islam in different countries around the world. He wants to show that Islam is a faith not exclusive to a single ethnicity. He hopes that these stories become part of the conversation about tolerance and acceptance in America.
For more information, visit our page about this journey.