One of the reasons that I love reading so much is how much it teaches me. Poetry helps me to better empathise with other people’s pain and hardships. Literary fiction in all its forms gives me glimpses into an array of cultures, socio-political experiences, and multitudes of identities that make up the construct of individualism. Science-fiction helps me to better comprehend our current place in the world and the plethora of potential for our growth as an intelligent, technologically obsessed race. Then there is fantasy, a genre that pushes the confines of comfort zones to show us the dynamic differences in our idealism, political preferences, and even the various ways that communities partake in religion or choose to forsake it entirely. Out of the myriad of reasons that I adore The Daevabad books by S.A. Chakraborty, this is the element that I appreciate the most: the lessons on what faith means on a deeply personal level.
My personal relationship with Islam has always been quite complex, especially during my younger years from mid-adolescence to my late twenties. As a child, I was incredibly fascinated by the notion of a greater power who had created the vast world around me. I attended Sunday school and received lessons on the history of how Islam became established and the correct way to practise Salat or namaz, and how every choice I made would eventually impact my ability to get into Paradise after I died. With childlike curiosity comes the need to ask questions, and that is when I started to feel a humongous disconnect myself and Islam.
Because I was never allowed to properly learn and understand the true essence of religion, I became completely disenfranchised by it; not only from Islam, but from all organised religions.
Growing up, asking questions—particularly as a biologically born female—was viewed as a means of leaving the religion and venturing into hypocritical territory, or becoming a munafiq. Rather than viewing these inquiries as an attempt at deepening my relationship with Islam, and thus Allah (SWT), they were received with fear and astonishment. Because I was never allowed to properly learn and understand the true essence of religion, I became completely disenfranchised by it; not only from Islam, but from all organised faiths.
Religion can be a profoundly intimidating entity. There is this terrible anxiety of doing it wrong, of messing up the rituals or falling so far out of its confines that regardless of having a good heart and spirit, a person becomes mortified of going to Hell—or some variation thereof—in the afterlife. The rigid black and white dynamics that are presented to us as children can have a significant impact on how we come to perceive the very concept of faith and a Higher Being, as well as how we shall live whilst our futures progress. In my case, I did not feel that I could embrace an omniscient, omnipresent entity if the simple act of acquiring knowledge was viewed as a grave sin. As a rather inquisitive child and teenager, it felt completely illogical and immoral to me to go to Hell for wanting to build a more meaningful connection with said Great Entity.
About five to six years ago, when I reached the darkest and lowest point in my life due to severe trauma, I needed hope. I needed to believe that there was something more to life than the turmoil that I was undergoing. A friend that I had met—whom I had shared many philosophical debates with in regard to religion (she was a Pentecostal Christian Pastor) and how I struggled with accepting Islam—suggested that I should look into my cultural faith again as an adult. After explaining to her what my childhood was like and why I was sceptical about doing research on the topic, she kept urging me to give it a try. Now that I was an adult, my situation and understanding were vastly different, and there were newer more contemporary resources available to me presently that did not exist twenty years ago. These were the arguments she made that eventually convinced me to give it a try.
My ignorance was a slap to the face, leaving me feeling enraged and deeply saddened, yet surprisingly inspired.
During this period, I was also learning about the We Need Diverse Books® movement and getting more involved in the literary world as a book reviewer. This work led me to interacting with fellow Muslim members of the bibliophilic community who helped to guide me with my research. They provided suggestions on reading materials that centred solely on feminism in Islam and the fundamental aspects of the faith that acknowledged respecting women rather than oppressing them. Resources that highlighted how asking questions is actually encouraged—something that I did not believe existed, or could exist within the confines of what I learned as a kid (the coexistence of feminism and Islam). My ignorance was a slap to the face, leaving me feeling enraged and deeply saddened, yet surprisingly inspired. I spent the better part of two years extensively studying Islam from the fresh lens of intersectionality; something that I still do passionately to this day, and something I suspect I shall keep doing until my demise. It turned out my former-Pastor mate was right after all. This excursion into study had drastically changed my life and helped me to build that connection with Islam that I had always yearned for yet felt was completely beyond my reach due to my identity.
I’ve shared this backstory to provide relative context so that I may talk about how The Daevabad Trilogy has taught me extremely cornerstone lessons on what it means to be a person of faith. Regardless of one’s religion, (although I use Islam here because that is where my experience lies) there are three unique guidelines to always keep in mind when practising. These guidelines have helped me to become more open-minded and self-aware about my place within my religions (Islam and Buddhism) and how it does not have to be a shackle of absolutism. Instead it can be the key to finding and embracing one’s own sense of individualism.
Lessons #1: No Religion is Perfect
Saying this sentence out loud feels akin to a “No duh” situation; it is a simple statement of common sense. However, there is nothing common or simple about it. No religion is perfect.
No matter how much we want it to be, or how much we believe them to be, they are not infallible. The core precepts of every faith may have at one time or another been a doctrine of flawlessness, most likely when they first came into existence. However, since religion is passed from human to human over the limitlessness of time and space, and humans are decidedly flawed, thus religion is quite flawed, and can never be a perfect institution.
In the books, we watch as Ghassan uses religion to control and oppress the people of Daevabad. Those who practise a separate creed than him are constantly beaten down and persecuted in a brutal fashion. Likewise, practitioners of the same faith are given rights and privileges that many do not even deserve (i.e.: heinous criminals). Even so, there are boundaries that come with these said freedoms.
The basic foundations of both faiths are vehemently against these acts, yet somehow they have been weaponised in support of the very acts they condemn.
Furthermore, in real life, especially in the modern era, religion is wielded like a bastard sword to uphold varying degrees of poisonous political agendas. People who hold great positions of power utilise organised faiths as a tool to maintain absolute authority rather than to use it as a source of compassion, understanding, acceptance, equity, and non-judgemental perceptions. In America, for example, Christianity is used to villainise non-Christians, LGTBQIA+ communities, and to remove reproductive rights. In many Southwest and Western Asian countries, Islam is used for extremist propaganda and the severe domination of non-male communities. Even though basic foundations of both these Judaic faiths are vehemently against these acts that are being committed, the principles are still being weaponised in support of such abhorrent exploitations.
I do not believe that any organised spiritual community should be viewed and accepted with blind faith, more so when it stems from wilful ignorance. It is far more important to understand why the established rules and conventions exist in the first place, as it pertains to said specific faith, and what it means to a person on an individualistic level. To properly understand the core essence of any religion one must have the desire to study it and educate themselves on it to better gauge where their morals and values shall land if they so choose to adhere to said spiritual beliefs.
When Alizayd finally started to question the lessons he learned as a child and how it impacted the people of Daevabad, and people he cared deeply for, such as Nahri, he started to recognise the differences between right and wrong as they existed in reality, not as they had been manipulatively fed to him. Everything he believed was a sin turned out to be nothing more than the musings of a tyrant that sought absolute power over people he feared. This helped Ali grow as a person while developing a deeper connection to his beliefs and garnering respect for his willingness to accept, learn, and acknowledge that things are rarely as they appear to be upon face value.
Lesson #2: It is Okay to Ask Questions About What You Are Taught
This brings me to the second lesson learned: asking questions is more than okay and, more often than not, it is extremely necessary!
Because no religion is flawless and everyone has their own intimate interpretation of the belief system(s), it is supremely crucial to ask questions about things that we ultimately do not understand or feel uncertain and anxious about. Asking questions helps to craft a more spiritually affecting connection with one’s faith, which can then positively influence us in other avenues of our existence. Being curious is not a crime nor an act of choosing disenfranchisement.
Being curious is not a crime or a symbol of choosing disenfranchisement.
When I perform namaz now, my heart feels calmer and more connected with the act. There is no overwhelming confusion or tension that makes me feel like I am doing something incorrectly. I no longer feel like an imposter. The experience is meditative and has become a gigantic practise of self-care, one that I look forward to throughout my day. This is my own personal experience, of course, but I never would have developed this relationship if I never asked questions that weight upon my mind and heart.
Darayavahoush and Alizayd are great examples from the book series that exemplify this. In the events that take place in the third book, Dara comes to recognise that was taught to him did not sync with the actions and behaviours that completely enveloped him. Using that discomfort and sense of being lost, he started asking questions. This led to him witnessing a whole new side of the war that he was dragged straight into the middle of. He viewed the shades of grey within the obtusely harsh blacks and whites that moulded the core of his belief system. Those questions eventually led to his desire in wanting to pursue different path, a path that was filled with compassion and a desire for justice as well as redemption and peace.
As I mentioned above, Alizayd starts to understand that everything he was taught was founded on lies and then he ventures forth to uncover what is true and what is not. In the aftermath of acquiring the knowledge he sought, he was able to grow into the best version of himself. One who was far more open-minded and empathetic; someone more willing to admit to his wrongs and to learn from them.
Lesson #3: Religion Does Not Have to Suppress Individualism!
This brings me to my last lesson learned: religions do no need to stifle or suppress our desires to be unique and individualistic within our communities, or even within ourselves. I fought this battle my entire life because I was taught from a young age that being religious meant that I had to live by a particular cookie-cutter mould of what it meant to be Muslim. Being a trans Nonbinary Queer Muslim who enjoys body piercings and being an unattached cat human was never a possibility in my future from my childhood gaze. Even the simple act of choosing to wear a hijab was frowned upon in my household as the perception was that wearing a hijab meant I was being subjugated, and it would also diminish opportunities for me in my future; opportunities my immigrant parents worked very hard to attain and make possible.
Individualism is what helps a religion to thrive. It nourishes the very foundations of faith to help it blossom and evolve with its people over spans of time and space
Individualism is what helps a religion to thrive. It nourishes the very foundations of faith to help it blossom and evolve within its people over spans of time and space, while also allowing a diverse myriad of folx to visualise and experience perspectives of faith—and the very essence of faith—that they may have never even believed possible. For me, it was finding intersectional feminism within a belief structure that was only every used to repress my dangerous curiosity as a child, more so where conservative and rigid gender roles were concerned.
Dara uses his knowledge and ultimate freedom to carve out a life for himself that gave him meaning beyond the fetters of torturous slavery and mass murder. He sought redemption by bringing peace and value to his people, while also learning to build a reflection of himself that was not tainted by the opinions and shards of others around him. Alizayd uses his newfound knowledge and experiences to bring about an era of peace and co-existence among groups of people who have only always known blood and death, thus finding a path for himself that was unique to his own beliefs and independence rather than what was expected of him by others.
Religion is supremely complicated. Choosing to be religious or partaking in a specific faith-based belief system can be incredibly perplexing. Choosing to not believe in anything at all can also be equally arduous. There is rarely a right or wrong answer when it comes to these things because of how profoundly intimate and private they are to a specific individual. Learning to see the multi-dimensional aspects of faith was something I always understood logically in the back of my mind, but ultimately it was a project that I needed to work on so that I could comprehend it on a further intricate level. Being able to read The Daevabad Trilogy helped me on this journey in outstanding ways.
Seeing the multidimensional levels that paint the everyday lives of communities from across the globe, how their unique ethnic cultures or experiences growing up helped to shape certain connections and knowledge they have of higher beings is remarkable to me. It is something that should be respected, even if they differ from what is familiar and right to us. The Daevabad Trilogy has shown me that it is not our place to cast judgements and to act so volatilely against things we do not understand or necessarily agree with. Our job is to harbour compassion and kindness with an open-mind and open heart. Everything else is strictly between an individual and their maker(s) and is none of our damn businesses.
The point of this discussion is not to convert visitors to be more religious or to force people into accepting that their choice to not associate with religion is wrong because it’s not wrong. It’s personal and private and their own. My goals are quite contrary. My first goal was to celebrate an aspect of one of my favourite fantasy book serials that made it such a compulsory read within the genre for me as a bibliophile. The second was to show people that no matter where they are on the spectrum of believing or not believing, there is no right or wrong way to do it, to live. The best way is to practise what feels comfortable, safe, and square within a person without causing harm to others. No one else matters. Outsiders’ opinions should not define your own individuality. Life is short and the greatest way to make the most of it is to put faith in yourself and follow the path that feels right to you, with compassion and unbiases.