I live in a proudly non-secular Asian country. Here, our religion is an integral part of our identity. It is something people would bring up in a casual conversation, something your future employer would ask you during an interview, and something you’d have to write on your college application form. Under no circumstances should you forget it, for it should dictate many your choices in life: what you wear, whom you date (and marry), and whether or not running for office is a wise decision.
Here, you have the right to choose your own religion, and it’s a right protected by the constitution. Most of us have one since birth, of course. Our parents chose a religion for us, and we follow what they teach us until we are old enough to question them or convert into another for the sake of love. I am no exception. My parents chose one for me when I was born, and it’s the one written on every identification I have. But however hard the world tries to bind me into one, I would always live with two.
My mother is a Muslim. She never misses a prayer, and her faith to God is palpable. She used to read me stories of the prophets when I couldn’t sleep, and although she’s not terribly strict about modesty in her—or her daughters’—outfits, she makes sure nobody leaves the house with half their breasts on display. Through my mother’s faith that I was introduced to God, and regardless of what people might say, Islam is a beautiful religion of pure devotion.
On the other side is my father. He’s not the religious kind, I suppose, though he could be if he had tried. Born and raised Catholic, he sent his daughters through one of the best Catholic school in the country. As a result, my sister and me were involved in Church activities and procession, and at one point we both served as members of the school’s church choir. Catholicism, too, is a beautiful religion, and its teachings of love and kindness has brought me to love God.
Here, people of different religions don’t usually get married. Sometimes I struggle to understand why myself, but I was told that faith can be a strong foundation for marriage, for it offers the couple common ground in spite of their differences. Finding common ground was never my parents’ forte, and their incompatible depth of faith did not help the case. However, they wanted nothing more than to create that stable foundation for their daughters.
My father has always been relentlessly supportive towards us, and believed that one day we would grow to become fiercely independent women capable to make a decision of this gravity, if not more. My mother, on the other hand, wanted us to find security in the religion that was chosen for us. After my sister went to college and decided she will choose a religion for herself, I was—in a way—my mother’s last hope, and she wanted me to find strength in what she has chosen for me.
Though it was apparent how much she wanted me to embrace her faith, my mother was single handedly responsible for bringing me to understand how similar her and her husband’s religion was, and the differences only matter when God ceases to exist. She was the one who first introduced me to Jesus. She had never failed, not even once, to mention Him as one of the prophets in Islam. “God speaks only one language,” she used to say, “But mankind speaks many.”
I was raised to believe that we all pray to the same God. As true as this might be, I can’t avoid the fact that I live in a country determined to have me choose one single way to pray. I can sit in the front row of the church every Sunday or recite the first prayer my mother had taught me—Al-Fatiha—every night before bed, but doing both will be frowned upon. I have lost count of the number of people that have asked me whether I’m a Muslim or a Catholic. As a young girl, the look I get when I say my parents try their best to include me in both confused me, if not scared me. It was almost like only one language can be assigned to one person, and to them, the fact that I am bilingual is appalling.
The problem with growing up bilingual is that you are either incredibly fluent in one and have no acceptable comprehension of the other or you have average proficiency of both. I tend to identify with the latter, but I’d be lying if I said I never tried to be well versed in both. That has been proven challenging, however, when people around you demand that you speak in one, and refuse to understand why you speak in two. Both are in my blood, I always say. I cannot extract one in favor of the other. But people fear what they don’t understand, and so I remain a foreigner.
If I had been taught one religion since birth, the decision would’ve been simple. But I wasn’t. My parents refused to put their beliefs before knowledge, and knowledge is what they gave me. I was given the freedom to make my own judgments and build my own truth, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Let me put it this way: My whole life I have seen with both eyes wide open in an ocean of people with their hands over one eye. Some things they only see partially when they do not turn their heads, and they rarely ever do. It seems like I cannot be understood on this unless I scream out, from the highest peak of the mountains, that I never wish, in any lifetime, to see less than I should.
For years I’ve questioned my ways. Am I a horrible person because I will not choose one single way to praise Him? Should I choose neither and stay uncommitted for the rest of my life? No rules, no customs, no restrictions. It’s simple. Yet, I immediately saw the flaw in my own thought. I have never felt restricted by any of them. If anything, they liberated me of doubts and fear against the things I do not have control over. After all, religions are homes and houses of the believers.
A few years ago, I made the blessed decision of reading Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. For the first time in my life, I did not feel alone in my journey. My fate was sealed within a sentence in chapter 23, in which the pandit pointed out his concerns about Pi’s practice of several religions. Answering him, Pi narrated:
“Bapu Gandhi said, ‘All religions are true.’ I just want to love God,” I blurted out, and looked down, red in the face.
Oh, Pi. You’ve absolutely no reason to be ashamed.
Two years ago, I went to my first midnight Christmas Eve mass. I was determined to choose, finally, once and for all. As the bell rang and the choir started singing, it felt like someone had woken me up from a long dream. It was one of the most defining moments of my life. Why was I trying so hard to conform into one religion when I recite the Al-Fatiha when I am fearful and make the sign of the cross when I am incredibly thankful?
Contrary to what people have been telling me, believing in both does not cancel out one or the other. This whole time people only wanted a proof of my faith. They want to see me accept the Holy Communion or go on Hajj, and only then will they stop asking questions. But my faith transcends the religions I was taught. Without Islam, I may never have known God, and without Catholicism, I may have never grown to love Him. One can never know nor love God completely—and so I shall continue to learn.