When it comes to questions of identity, we are often at war with ourselves when it comes to defining who we are. In this piece, Madeehah talks about her experience of Hajj and how this not only transformed her outlook on her own identity, but how as Muslims we must ask ‘The Right Question’.
There exists a generation of young Muslims adrift in the UK, searching for their true identity. A vague mix up of their ancestral heritage and the place where they learnt to walk, talk, and survive everyday life: the streets of Britain. Throw in some cultural and religious practices and you have a perfect recipe for an identity crisis.
“I’ve become comfortable with the idea that I won’t ever find an exact place or group of people that I am entirely myself with.”
I am from such a generation myself. With over two decades of trying to ‘fit in’, I’ve become comfortable with the idea that I won’t ever find an exact place or group of people I am entirely myself with. There always seems to be something that makes me feel a little bit on the outside with any group of friends. Perhaps it’s the result of trying to stitch together those different identities that I spent so many years struggling to understand.
Just recently I had returned from a visit to Makkah, one of the most sacred places in Islam, and it is here I found myself somehow at peace with my warring inner self. Millions of Muslims flock to visit the Ka’bah, a stone building set within the Grand Mosque, and every day there will always be people circling the Ka’bah in an act of worship. However, if it had not been for the religious significance of Makkah, there would be slight chance I would ever have visited the country.
The landscape, for starters, is a blistering hot desert with rocky mountains punctuating the dusty horizon. The heat is pure and intense, without a hint of water in the air. It was so hot that my eyes would burn whenever we stepped out of our air conditioned hotel, the heat having evaporated the moisture from my eyes. Even equipping ourselves with trusty umbrellas, sunglasses, and several water bottles could not take away this extreme discomfort. It wasn’t a tropical holiday—this was the desert. This climate took me beyond my comfort zone, but it wasn’t the only thing to do so.
“I still remember walking next to an older lady from a South Asian country that happily bit into an apple and spat out the parts she didn’t want to eat on to the street.”
The people are very different to what I am used to from home. Makkah attracts Muslims from every single crevice and corner of the globe, from every social background and standing. Not everyone understands the same manners and etiquettes as a Brit from London. I still remember walking next to an older lady from a South Asian country who happily bit into an apple and spat out the parts she didn’t want to eat on to the street. Men would barge past you if you were a small woman, and wouldn’t even think to look back. People pushing wheelchairs would be in such a rush themselves that they wouldn’t bother to realise your toes were less than a hairbreadth away from the wheel—and they will still ram the metal contraption into your foot.
I found so many times I wanted to complain about how other people had a ‘lack of manners’ that after the first dozen times, I gave up. This arid desert and the coarse nature of people had won against me—I couldn’t care less if another lady shoved me to the side to get in front of the queue. I lost the sense of bothering with other people and, as a result, began to focus on myself.
So how does this fit into the idea of ‘identity’?
We are always searching for a definition of our own selves, this tricky thing that evaded me over the years. I wrestled with this concept, this thing that made me feel like a white person in family gatherings and yet like a lost brown girl amongst my school peers. This idea made me question the scarf I tie around my head, the reason I make an effort to pray five times a day, regardless of where I am. It’s a pesky thing we humans pine for, a reason to belong to a community, a justification of how we fit into this strange world.
“Perhaps I no longer felt foreign in a strange land because everyone was a foreigner in this unforgiving desert. I was a part of them, and they me.”
And yet, in this bustling city of Makkah, I found myself suddenly no longer struggling with this. Constantly being in a sea of other human beings, other toiling creatures that pine for an ethereal something, identity slowly filtered out. It didn’t matter anymore. Perhaps I no longer felt foreign in a strange land because everyone was a foreigner in this unforgiving desert. I was a part of them, and they me. We were all the same; somehow our different cultures, languages, and experiences merged into the one identity of just being.
“Perhaps life isn’t the search for who we are—something we cannot always change—but the pursuit of what we can achieve with the time we have.”
As all these thoughts overlapped inside me, the idea of searching for who I am became buried underneath. It wasn’t the most important question I needed to ask myself—rather, where am I going? Perhaps life isn’t the search for who we are—something we cannot always change—but the pursuit of what we can achieve with the time we have. In that, we can celebrate something deeper than what is on the surface, such as our successes and perceived failures, and from these we can cultivate our truest sense of self, character, and identity.
Madeehah is a pharmacist from London, though her lifelong dream would be to write an endless amount of books to entertain younger readers, particularly those who are not represented by mainstream media. You can find her lurking about on Twitter at @madeehahwrites