Cancer took my grandmother when I was 17-years-old. Actually God did. At the time, I was a high school social butterfly, fully immersed in the world and all its distractions, but within a year of my grandmother’s death, I underwent a metamorphosis.
My grandmother’s health began to fail in 2011 and within six months she was a husk of her former active, engaged self. As I watched her steep decline, I felt acutely aware of my own mortality. If I received a fatal diagnosis today, how would I feel about my 17 short years on this earth? The sadness of leaving my parents and siblings and of never sharing in their milestones and their trials aside, a more frightening question plagued me. If I died today, would I go to heaven or hell?
I would toss in bed late at night, recounting all my various shortcomings; my sins flooded my mind like an angry body of water exploding through a collapsing dam. I thought about all the times I had argued with my parents, not even because I believed I was right but out of a stubborn desire to assert my independence. I felt embarrassed remembering the events I had gone to wearing clothes that revealed more than my religion allowed, but determined, nonetheless, to be seen as trendy and pretty. Most of all, I regretted all the times I had neglected my daily prayers.
It was around that time that I decided to wear hijab. Anxious at the prospect of so dramatically changing my appearance and of wearing such an overt and contentious symbol of religiosity, I had prayed istikhara, the prayer of guidance, the night before. I awoke the next morning, quickly dressed, grabbed one of my mother’s hijabs from her closet, wrapped it around my head and walked out the door, all without a second thought.
At this point I was a popular senior, active in several extracurricular activities and with a large cohort of friends. That day I also became one of two girls in my 2,000-student high school to don a headscarf. I remember hearing curious, confused whispers as I walked down the halls, and even catching a snide comment or two, but I felt like a queen. I experienced the sweet taste of faith that day. When I returned home in the afternoon, I prostrated on the prayer rug, and allowed the tears to fall. The water droplets hit the rug one after another, a salty rain of submission.
A year later, my life had completely changed. I had pulled away from my typical teenage hobbies—T.V., music and co-ed parties— dismissing them as a waste of time, and reoriented my life towards Allah. My large group of friends had slowly scattered when they saw I was no longer the same person and I now spent time with four Muslim girls who made their faith their focus. We attended weekly halaqas (learning circles) at our little Iowa City mosque and prayed together. It was around that time that I decided to wear niqab, the face veil. I didn’t believe it was a religious obligation, but I felt that by reaching the highest level of modesty possible, I would also reach closer to Allah.
I was content for some time. Until I was not. In fact, I began to feel deeply cloistered and unhappy. Fear, rather than hope, sat at the center of my faith. I was in constant dread of disobeying or displeasing God. I would wake up every morning relieved that Allah hadn’t taken my soul yet, because I wasn’t ready to face Him. No matter how much I prayed, how much Qur’an I memorized, how kind I was to my parents, or how much I covered my body, I never felt as though it was Heaven was in reach. Some nights my anxiety would manifest itself in uncontrollable shivers under my heavy blanket.
A year passed. I slowly began to admit to myself that wearing a face veil wasn’t an appropriate measurement of my righteousness. It was simply a piece of cloth that fell over my features, leaving my heart and mind unchanged. For many women, the niqab does bring them closer to God, but for me, it backfired. It began to strangle me and caused me to fixate on Hell and sin, rather than trust in Allah’s mercy. So that’s what I did. I lifted the face veil, kept my hijab and began to trust my Creator. And I found my happy medium.
Veronica Shofttall wrote in her poem “After a While:” “After a while you learn that even sunshine burns if you get too much, so plant your own garden and decorate your own soul, instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers.”
Trust. Supplication. Patience. These are my keys to happiness in Islam.
Rana Moustafa is an Egyptian-American journalist. She is a graduate student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She enjoys creative writing and health journalism.