I believe in the unseen. I don’t believe that whatever you see in the world is all there is. That’s the core of what I believe. So the concept of God for me doesn’t have a shape, or a definition, or a set of descriptors that I can just put one after each other and then define that thing that I believe in. What I do believe is that there is one thing in the world: everything that has the quality of being is basically the same thing. And that sameness, that being, is just one. That is what I believe, that there is one, and nothing else.
I remember when I was a kid, for some reason there was this seed planted in my head, that there is one thing, that is infinite, and I used to go round and round in my room, and think about infiniteness. And I would pass out, and fall down. I remember that I would start from what I see, and then trying to have a bigger image, out of my room, imagining the house, and then the city, and then the country, and then the planet, and then everything I knew about things that are out there, other planets, the whole solar system, and continuing, and then I remember being able to see, or imagine the vastness.
A more concrete thing that I remember is that my grandmother didn’t know how to read. She only knew how to read Koran. So she had this very narrow book, with some verses in it, and I couldn’t wait until I would be able to read them. This story was very simple, it started like: ‘In the name of God, the most merciful, the most giving’. And the first time I read them, I remember how that was the best story I had ever read. So I think I was interested from the beginning because it was always about stories, and I really like literature.
It’s always literature. It’s always other people. Being a Persian, you just know a lot of great poets. Like Rumi, who everybody knows, and Hafez, who was the love of Goethe, the German poet. I think literature always amazed me because anything I read, I felt they are talking about the same thing. I have not ever seen a great work of literature where the writer or poet hasn’t been a believer. It always strikes me: how is it that such an amazing talented, creative, smart person is talking about such simple things as not having anything of their own, but being given all this, and that they are just like an instrument through which all this wisdom travels. So, what exemplifies to me what religion could be, is always the lives of these people, who I admire for other reasons than their religious beliefs, but it always comes down to that they kind of feel that they are indebted to religion. That makes me think a lot. Like our greatest scientists, they are all believers. So that exemplifies for me what religion is for. It is building humans.
I think everybody has three basic questions: How did I come here? What would happen to me when I die? And what am I supposed to do with the time that I’m here? I haven’t met a person who hasn’t asked these questions to themselves, at some point in their lives. Some people may let it go, but I couldn’t, and so I kept trying to figure out what it is. You read books, you meet people, you live your life, and then, eventually I comes down to, either, there is no answer, or the most satisfactory answer, that is not contradictory, that doesn’t come to an end, for me is religion. The idea of the oneness, that believing really is about believing in what cannot be seen, answers those questions. Religion answers those questions.
If you say religion has a name, and a set of instructions, and that is what it is, I don’t think that is necessary for me. On the other side, I am Iranian, so I am a Muslim, I am born a Muslim. And I still am a Muslim. I say that because I think there is no point in saying no, I am not a Muslim. But I am also Christian, and I am also Jew, because I believe that religion is one. There are not multiple religions, that doesn’t make sense. Ibrahim is the forefather of all the prophets that we know. In Koran when you read about Ibrahim, Ibrahim is being described as a Muslim, so Islam cannot be defined by what Prophet Mohammad brought. Because thousands of years before that Ibrahim was described as a Muslim. That’s why I am interested more in the core of what is religion. Everybody is born with religion, which you might call the spirituality dimension. When Islam talks about religion, it puts a lot of attention in the inner dimension, that everybody can conceive and perceive for themselves. So in that sense, I wouldn’t identify with a name. I would say that I’m a Muslim because that’s the point of connection when people start talking about it. We need words. But: I’m a Christian, I’m a Jew. I’m any other thing that has the same quality and defines that one being.
I think that religion is a school in which you graduate from level to level. Say, you assume there is a God. In that I never doubt. But in the way that I practice religion, I think it is a renewal every day. You cannot decide one day, I believe, and then go and live your life. Because life is challenging. So what does it mean to really believe? Like every day, if you’re always thinking about money, or have the fear what would happen to me in this life, and how do I make friends…all the decisions that you’re making, how do you reconcile that with your belief that the actual power is not in the hand of individuals but that you’re part of a system that is moving and that you have a place in? It’s very challenging.
There’s been a lot of times in my life that I felt that I have to cover my hair, for example, to be ready to receive more. And I still do think this. It’s a debate for me that really leads me to the experience of meaning. And the way I try to answer these questions is to delve deeper into the meaning of belief. What does it mean to believe? Where am I living? What is the context of my time? What is serving me and why? Who are around me? How would they perceive my decisions? What matters most? Islam is equated much more with wisdom than with fantasy. So the reason you do things is because they help you to become who you are supposed to be. You don’t do it to please God. That’s the end result, but it also serves you.
I remember my dad had strict rules about us not practicing the religion. Going through the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and seeing religion becoming mainstream, it loses it independence, so we were strictly prohibited from fasting, or praying, because it would make him upset. I started praying because I liked it, but then I stopped praying because I liked my dad more. And I didn’t really know what praying is, it probably took me fifteen years to realise that praying is actually very interesting. You hear about how other people do it, in other cultures, how is it developed, and then you try to create your own model of prayer and when you look at another model, you see how similar they are. It’s like you reinvented the wheel.
I am have been very silent about me being a Muslim. Just because I didn’t feel like it is something that I should talk about. Only recently have I started talking about it. And I think there is a lot of social reason for why I have chosen to say, ‘yeah I am a Muslim’, ‘yeah, I read Koran’, very casually. Because it is very surprising for people to see that I a normal person might read Koran, and might not look scary. Living here, I sometimes feel like it’s good that people just name things, to break the stigma, to break the fear.
I believe that there is no one in the world that doesn’t know what is good and what is bad. But when you immerse yourself in these ideas on a daily basis, you tend to talk about them a lot more. And one of the challenges with talking about good and bad is that people would see you as somebody who knows better than them, and who is trying to judge them, or tell them what to do. But at the same time you’re trying to develop your own capacity to be a good person, and one of the ways to build capacity is by talking about it. But having a strong opinion of what is good and bad usually is challenging. Even if I weren’t religious I would talk about these things, but now that I also sprinkle these names here and there it becomes more challenging. A lot of people dismiss you. Unless you tell them what other things you are, then it’s suddenly: oh, she is actually a scientist and a Muslim, and a woman. But I feel that stereotyping people because of their religion is real, and it shouldn’t be like that. Because we have fanatics of many kinds. It is not just religion, you also have scientists who are fanatics. It’s just human nature to identify with certain things as your ego.