Most contemporary Muslims face a complex and ongoing struggle to reconcile their faith in God with the many different aspects of their lives in the modern world. And for reverts, it is an especially important fight as we navigate the complexities of life and the newness of the religion while remaining true to our beliefs. In the last few years, I have constantly searched for media representation of Muslims, and found most of them represented as extremists, jihadists and terrorists. On the other hand, the few who are out of this frame are extremely pious. So in 2020, when my friend recommended the show “Ramy”, I was elated to finally see one of the most honest depictions of Muslims in this time and age.
I took my shahada and became a Muslim on 9 December 2019 in a mosque in Hurlingham. This was a whole new world for me and I struggled doing everything that was obligatory and abandoning anything that was haraam. The pandemic hit in March 2020 and everything got worse. Prior to quarantine, I had been surrounded by so much love and support. So when the community that kept me above water collapsed, it really hit hard.
At this point, I had been Muslim for only three months. And now, there was no kinship like the one I had in school. Some mornings I’d meet with my classmates and have a discussion about Islamic teachings or make wudhu and pray together.
Obviously, no one in my family was going to pray fajr with me at 5 a.m. or eat with me at iftar because we had different beliefs and identities. And when we started leaving the house once in a while, I kept being reminded about this whenever I wore a hijab or an abaya. People would get shocked and ask so many questions when I gave them my very African and Christian name. It got really tiring trying to explain to them that I was very much both Muslim and Kikuyu. At some point I started lying that my mum was Somali just to get that out of the way.
For a long time, it felt like I had betrayed my past self and the people around me by not choosing what they had taught me all my life. There was that cold feeling of not really belonging anywhere. Being too new for this recent thing and being too much of a mutineer for the other thing yet consequently falling short in both.
Ramy struggles with his identity throughout the show. He’s a first generation Egyptian-American who practises Islam. For Ramy, it’s hard to sit between his Muslim identity and his national or cultural identity. At some point, he goes to visit his family in Egypt with the goal of immersing himself in his religion and his culture, but finds that the people at home like his cousin, Shadi, are Americanised and aren’t really bothered to rush to the mosque to pray after the adhan is called. This reminded me that identity is a very layered concept and we can exist in various intersections of it – that I can stay true to my heritage if I do so deliberately but also simultaneously be identifiable with my religion for the sake of Allah.
The show also brings out the transparency and vulnerability of a flawed Muslim in a way I haven’t seen depicted before. Ramy tries to fill the void in his heart with sex and pornography. We might not all use the same mechanisms but most of us have something we’re struggling to fill the emptiness within. And for me, it was easier to be inspired by someone who also falls short but is always striving to be better than being inspired by an extremely devout believer. It affirms the fact that we don’t have to be perfect and God doesn’t expect us to be.
I know the word jihad has been misconstrued by the media but it actually means “struggle” or “exertion”. And there’s different types of jihad: the holy war to defend Islam; the struggle to build a good Muslim in society; and the believer’s internal struggle to live out the Muslim faith as strictly as possible. The last one is primarily the one that every believer goes through. Allah stresses this in Surah Al Ankabut verse 29 where He asks “Do people think they will be left alone after saying ‘we believe’ without being put to the test?”
Truthfully, I’m not the best Muslim.
I’ve heard a lot of people say that reverts are more adherent to Islamic principles. We chose the religion on our own accord so we have to be more adherent.
But I remind myself that cultivating the self-discipline to be a good Muslim is an everyday thing. I try to always remember the words of Shaykh Ibn Taymiyyah, “Verily, I constantly renew my Islam until this very day, as up to now, I do not consider myself to have ever been a good Muslim”.
So yes, I don’t always pray five times a day. I try to read the Quran daily but forget sometimes. I don’t have a halal diet and sometimes I wear the hijab only on the commute. But I always try to do my best or make the intention to, continuously reminding myself that Allah says “Come to me walking, I’ll come to you running”.
Furthermore, the beauty of Islam is that the reward is dependent on the sincerity of our trying and not in the attainment of the result. The intention behind the deed is acknowledged by God, regardless.
Media representation of Muslims is plagued with sensationalism. Muslims are depicted as incredibly pious believers or radicalised monsters. Ramy is a show where the lives of ordinary Muslims are displayed. They manage to display the struggle with their beliefs and identities, their lack of self-discipline and most importantly, their desire and eagerness to do better. It might be uncomfortable at first but to help ourselves, our brothers and our sisters in the ummah, we need to start having these conversations more openly.