I’ve been pretty open about my faith on this blog and while I don’t owe anyone any sort of explanation, I do realize that science and faith aren’t often seen on the same side of the equation. And while I respect peoples’ right to believe whatever they choose to believe, I thought I’d take a shot at explaining why my faith is so important to me and how it got to be that way.
“The wound is the place the Light enters you.” – Rumi
As many stories of ‘finding yourself’ begin, mine also starts at when I was lost and in a state of extreme despair. I grew up in a practicing Muslim family. My parents moved to the U.S. from Pakistan, where the official religion of the country is Islam. The vast majority of the people my parents grew up with were all Muslim. They never questioned Islam as a way of life because it’s all they ever knew. It was ingrained into every fiber of their being.
I’ve spent the majority of my life living in the United States so I had a lot of exposure to different faiths and ideologies throughout my childhood. I went to Islamic sunday school every weekend and it was just as much a part of my life as grade school but most of my teachers there had also grown up in Muslim majority countries. I remember, early on, the constant battle I would have between wanting to fit in and ‘obeying my parents.’ And that’s exactly what practicing Islam felt like: obeying my parents. I never felt a spiritual connection to God. I did not understand the significance behind any of my actions as a practicing Muslim because my parents and my teachers never addressed that part of faith because to them, Islam was just as true gravity. They were never taught the why of Islam because when they were growing up, no one asked that question.
One year Ramadan took place between the summer after I graduated high school and was starting college. It was the first summer I had truly had off without the stresses of taking summer school to ‘get ahead’ and SAT prep classes. On a whim, I attended a lecture by Ustadha Eiman Sidky at the local masjid and nothing was ever the same. Those of you who have had the pleasure of hearing this wonderful woman speak will understand what I mean when I say that she embodies everything I strive to be. The lecture was about the women of the time of the Prophet Muhammed and their role in the spread of Islam. Something about hearing the role of a group of people I identified with, Muslim women, making real change from another Muslim woman just set something off. I decided that I’d had enough of just accepting Islam as truth and mindlessly going through the actions of practicing this religion. I spent the rest of Ramadan reading the English translation of the Qur’an for the first time and really trying to understand what God was asking of me. At the time, the Imam (leader) of the masjid was a young man who grew up in the U.S. and understood the struggles of first generation in this country. He helped make our house of worship a safe space for those who may not have previously felt comfortable or welcome. I listened to lectures on YouTube by Imam Khalid Latif, the Imam at the Islamic Center at NYU and he answered so many of the questions I had throughout my life about this faith that I was taught to practice but couldn’t get myself to love. While I was suffering, the Light entered me. And the Light was Islam.
The summer passed and since then Islam has been the foundation of my existence. I won’t oversimplify this and say that everything has been peachy and wonderful since then but I do know that I am who I am because of what I believe. There are days, and sometimes months, when I still feel lost and angry with God for the millions and millions of injustices in this world. But I do know that I am so much better for having found true faith. I do know that I try to fight every day against some of these injustices because that is the way of my beloved Prophet.
“If you have an innate ability to be a good listener, then be willing to listen, whether a person is close to you or not. And if you aren’t meant to be a counselor, then find out what you are good at and give that back to the community. When you don’t, the rest of us lose out on the blessing that is uniquely you.”
— Imam Khalid Latif
In my opinion, the best way to choose a career/life mission is to find the injustice that makes you the angriest and fight like hell to make it disappear. For me, it’s injustices in health care. And I’m fighting the fight. That’s why I spent the majority of my undergraduate career balancing studying organic chemistry (or some other archaic subject) and shifts at the hospital. Why I spent three months studying for the MCAT. Why my last summer in college, I was not just falling in love with my wonderful husband but answering hundreds of questions on medical school applications so that just one program would take a chance on me. Why I’ve gone through everything I’ve detailed in all my other posts regarding medical school.
My faith and the responsibility I feel to heal God’s people is why I will continue to go through everything I need to do in order to be the best person and physician I can be. Why I will study through the next five blocks and spend another couple months studying for step one. Why I’m spending my summer attempting to improve the curriculum for incoming generations of physicians. Why I’m working on a research project to improve the health care available to patients with disabilities. Why I will always do my best to be an advocate for my patients. How I plan to avoid burnout and never become that jaded physician I hated as an undergrad.
Many people enter the field of medicine to “save lives” and that often becomes much harder with all the bureaucracy associated with the field. Having empathic relationships with patients takes effort and also puts the physician themselves at risk for getting hurt in the case of a bad outcome, especially when the physician feels responsible for the patient’s life. As a Muslim physician, I know life is not mine to save or take, it’s whatever God has willed. Of course this doesn’t mean that I won’t do my best to be knowledgeable to prevent bad outcomes, but at the end of the day I know that everything will happen as it’s written. And after I’ve tried all other medical interventions, instead of feeling like there’s nothing else I can do, I can pray for my patients and literally converse with God and ask that He do whatever is best.
And no, I’m not claiming that in order to be a compassionate person or physician, one needs to prescribe to some religion or spiritual ideology. But what I am saying is that I need Islam in order for me to be my best self. In order for me to remain compassionate and empathic towards my patients when it feels impossible. In order for me to put in all the hours and tears and thousands of pages of notes to become a physician.
I will not pretend that I have all the answers because I most definitely do not. I’m not ignorant to the fact that if God is All-Mighty then He has the power to create a world without injustice. A world where all my patients simply grow old in peace and die in their sleep without any pain. A world where insurance companies don’t prevent our patients from getting the health care they need and deserve. Where I will not have to create an escape plan with my patient who is a victim of domestic abuse. Where children do not die of horrible diseases before their time and leave parents broken beyond belief.
I am still angry and I don’t know why a world like this exists if God could’ve made it perfect. But what I do know is that I’ve been privileged in many ways and given so many opportunities to make the world better and more just in whatever way I can. And I do believe, wholeheartedly, that I was given these opportunities and privileges to help God’s people. And insha’Allah (God willing) that’s exactly what I intend to do.