Imam Khalid Latif is blogging his reflections during the month of Ramadan, featured daily on HuffPost Religion. For a complete record of his previous posts, click over to the Islamic Center at New York University or visit his author page, and to follow along with the rest of his reflections, sign up for an author e-mail alert above, visit his Facebook page or follow him on Twitter.
As practitioners of an organized faith, most of us want to know if we are on the right track or not. Our minds already assume pain to go hand-in-hand with punishment and happiness with reward. Denial of things that we want factors into our minds as indication that we are doing something wrong while the opposite indicates we are doing right. In trying to figure it out, we turn to the world around us for definitive answers and it seems like there is always someone ready to speak on behalf of God. They let us know why something happened, or did not the happen, the way that it did, even though most, actually don't have any idea, but for some reason still respond as if they do.
The first time I was asked the question of, "Why did God let this happen?" was about seven years ago when I was 22. A young woman that I had known for some time had walked into my office and asked if she could speak to me in confidence. I told her what I tell most everyone, that what we discuss will stay between us. She proceeded to narrate a life experience that she hadn't shared with anyone for more than a decade and a half. As a child, she had consistently been molested by a family friend for a period of three years or so starting at the age of five. As she spoke, she cried and trembled as years of emotion, anguish, confusion and anger was let out into a world that had hurt her. My mind flashed back to lecture after lecture and sermon after sermon in which I had heard the importance of being patient in the face of tests, and how faith would increase through our trust in God. So at 22, I said to this young woman what I thought I was "supposed" to say, what I had heard most say, and what was probably the dumbest thing to say -- "This is a test from God." Her response, "Why would God test a 5-year old?" I had no idea.
At 29 what I have come to realize is that there are a lot of things that we as people of faith don't know the answers to, and we shouldn't pretend as if we do. Whether we are in an authoritative position or not, we cause a lot of damage to each other's well being by making claims of certainty in arenas where we are not qualified to give such answers. This happens usually when we are asked the question of, "Why?"
As this young woman and I continued to talk, I shuddered at the reality that surrounded me. Here I had a person in front of me who trusted me enough to open up and share an experience that she had never shared with anyone before and my response to her would potentially impact whether or not she would ever speak about it again. I got lucky that I was given a second chance -- in many instances it wouldn't happen. We then had a conversation that spoke to the reality of her situation and in that I tried my best to understand what my role was in the process. I would not share the details here because I don't think we can apply black and white principles to how we approach counseling. This girl was an individual with her own life experiences and she, just like anyone else, deserved specific attention on how to live within the reality of her life. I needed to listen before responding, and my response needed to indicate that I had listened and that I would help her through the process. I could not justify my passivity with an answer of why things happened the way that they happened; that was more for me to feel OK with not helping as much as I could, as opposed to it being for her to reach her potential best.
Since that time, I've probably sat and spoken with thousands of people from all the world. In listening to them and hearing about their lives, I've benefited greatly in that it's helped me to understand Islam in a very different way then I did growing up. In my understanding, Islam is about reality. It's about being attuned to your given reality as well as the realities of those that are around you to such an extent that you don't see your reality as the only one that exists. How can I really help someone if I don't even know where they are coming from, but I just assume that I do?
Humility can exist in a lot of different forms, as can arrogance. It's not OK to pretend that we know the answers to questions that are not for us to know the answers to. I'll never really be able to tell that girl why, in the grander scheme of things, she was molested as a child. My role is to help her reach her potential best, despite what she had gone through. This would not come from simply saying, "This is a test from God so be patient" or something like that. We have turned many hearts away from God by answering questions on His behalf in ways that make no sense.
If you find yourself in a place where you are wrestling with this question of "Why" as well as other questions about life, it's important that you turn to the right people for advice and support. These people may or may not be a religious figure. What is important is that he or she is someone who knows you, understands you and where you are coming from. He or she should also not be making decisions for you, but should help you regain the confidence to make decisions for yourself. This is the role the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, played for his companions. He understood their strengths and weaknesses, he did not fault them for their struggles, and he stood with them throughout the process. He let them be people and respond in human ways to their given realities, all the while showing compassion, understanding and mercy.
I gave a lecture on this subject with my good friend Haroon Moghul in Houston, and many who are going through such a situation have found this helpful.
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