I consider myself lucky in that I’ve never had to seriously question who I am or the basis of my beliefs. I was brought up in an Indian-American Muslim household, and one that blends those three sometimes different lifestyles quite well. I went to Sunday School for almost 12 years, and I was able to understand not just the history of Islam and the verses in the Quran, but why Islam makes sense for me. And because of that, I’ve always felt that my faith was a defining factor in my identity, and one that I am proud of.
Before I continue, I want to clarify something. I believe there is a difference between spirituality and religion. If you are religious, you go through the motions of your religion and practice with other people of the same faith in an organized matter. Spirituality, however, is more abstract. You may think of John Lennon, who sought to better himself and find his purpose in life through introspective activities. Just being religious isn’t sufficient, because without spirituality, it’s hollow and can turn into a catalyst for extremism and hatred. Life without the drive to better yourself and find your purpose is meaningless. Regardless of your religion or how often you practice, spirituality is a driving force of positivity.
The distinction between these concepts is one we understand but aren’t consciously aware of, and it dictates many of our interactions with others on a day to day basis. Partially because of the current political atmosphere, people my age tend to equate being upfront about your religion to being conservative, which then translates to being perceived as close-minded and older. A study at National Geographic found that the world’s newest major religion is actually no religion at all (National Geographic). That’s not to say liberals are right, nor is it to say that they’re conversely more open-minded than conservatives. As a general point, however, most people my age believe that they can look beyond religion and see the world from an almost “anti-faith” perspective: one that presents its case through a series of proofs and not beliefs.
Despite the growing reservations about the actual practice of religion, millennials are becoming more and more spiritual— though labeling it as anything but. Meditation, mindfulness, and “finding yourself” are all manifestations of spirituality. While older generations anchor themselves with routine practice and their faith, we do the same with abstract concepts relating to self-improvement. The thing we must acknowledge, however, is that neither of these two interpretations of faith are better than one another.
While I appreciate my Sunday School for teaching me about going through the motions of religion and understanding the rules and principles behind Islam, I also owe them for exposing me to altruism— the spiritual aspects of helping others, and being a part of a community. When we pray as a community, we stand shoulder to shoulder, taking on the responsibility of everyone else in the congregation to help one another. Through my religious education, I’ve learned the importance of going out of your way to help other people in need, to donate to charity, to be a part of philanthropic organizations, and to contribute to your family, community, country, and world’s united progression.
I, just like so many of my peers, equated age with conservatism, and conservatism with religion. A recent event, however, made me quickly aware that the reality was not so. A couple of weeks ago, my mother came back, raving about a presentation she attended at my school about a woman who talked about the effects of spirituality on a child’s brain. My first question to my mum was “was she old?”. Inadvertently, I had assumed that the only person who would need to justify the legitimacy of religion or faith would be old or conservative. Lisa Miller, a specialist in the connections between spirituality and psychology, is none of those things.
In Miller’s book, The Spiritual Child, she discusses the effects of having faith on a child’s brain. It completely debunks the notion that science and religion are mutually exclusive. Through her extensive research, she found that spirituality, and the belief that there is a higher being, fosters incredibly positive lives— it leads to 60% less depression and anxiety in teenagers, and being 40% less likely to use and/or abuse drugs.
What I’m realizing now is that when we have faith that there is a force beyond what we can control, something that we believe has our best interests at heart, we tend to be more resilient— we know that whatever life throws at us isn’t the end of the world. We become less anxious and depressed when life doesn't go our way, and are able to see the bigger picture. When I’m getting a math test back, I instinctively start praying. When our family is going through tough times, when we were sitting next to my grandfather while he was hospitalized, we prayed unrelentingly. It’s the trust we put in someone beyond us to help that gives me confidence in myself and pride in my identity not only as an Indian-American, but also as a practicing Muslim.
When I go through the motions of namaaz, I do my own form of yoga. When I clear my mind of everything but the verses I recite, I practice mindfulness. When I get up to pray and stay up late to do the same, my established routine makes me more centered, grounded, and self-assured. And throughout the rest of the day, I’m able to put my spiritual practice to good use and make myself the best Muslim Indian-American I can possibly be.