In Makkah, everyone is a believer. You would call it ‘Mecca’, probably, softening the rough edges of the k’s into c’s, taking the harshness out of the pronunciation. But to me, it is Makkah, and the guttural sound of the word echoes the desperate, almost primal faith that surrounds the city.
From as early as I can remember, Makkah was a word uttered with reverence in my household. Each evening, we would gather for maghrib prayers, turning our mats to face where we approximated Makkah to be before prostrating ourselves before Allah. My father had a small, special green compass that told us where Makkah was in relation to our house, and each time we moved it would be the first thing he did – taking the compass out to plot the direction to the holiest place on earth for any muslim.
At Makkah, I knew even as a child, the Kaabah had been built. I never completely understood why the stark, black cube-shaped building was so important, but it was referred to on-and-off as the ‘house of god’ by my parents, so I took this in the most literal sense as being the place where I would find the elusive character of Allah. As a small child, I remember watching The Lion King in a cinema, and the scene where Mufasa’s ghost speaks to his son Simba resonated with me deeply.
For me, Allah was a ghostly lion in the sky, phosphorescent and starry. I wanted to find him badly.
I was eleven when I finally set foot in Makkah, Saudi Arabia in 2000. We arrived in the night, and the first thing we did was visit the Masjid al-Haram, the mosque within which lies the Kaabah. I remember the cool marble walls, and the scent of incense. I remember a sweet soft-drink that my father bought us all after we prayed, and the way the streets stayed lit up and alive well into the night. That first night, walking through the mosque felt surreal – I had difficulty believing that we were actually in the holiest place on earth, metres away from the house of god. By this time, I knew Allah was no Mufasa, but my curiosity remained unflinching and all-consuming.
It was Ramadan when we visited, and even as a child I had to fast from sunrise to sunset. In Australia, my parents never made us fast – sometimes we would do a half-day of fasting, my sisters and I clutching our stomachs and gazing sullenly at the pantry until midday when mum would give us each a date to break our fast with, and hide her amusement at our relief.
But in Makkah, there was no food or water anywhere during Ramadan until sunset. Then, at the Masjid, dates would be passed between groups of strangers, cups of the strange-tasting holy water would be gulped from, and every night, my father would buy us a special icecream from the street vendor outside.
Before Makkah, I never felt holy. Allah was a character in a narrative I had been taught to accept, but praying was a chore and reading the Quran in Arabic was a task I attacked with little gusto.
My parents had stoically kept our Islamic education as a priority in Australia. When other children were watching The Simpsons with their dinner, we would be sitting in front of our Quran chapters, my father reading aloud softly, incense filling the room. For several months when I was seven, my parents hired a young, strict Arabic man from our local mosque to teach us Quran. I hated Brother Mohammed, and his stiff manner, his sharp admonitions when I stumbled over my pronunciation. I remember having just learnt a range of swearwords at my slightly rough primary school, and I would emphasise certain syllables while reading to express my frustration – fu-Q, fa-k.
In Makkah, everything changed. I would wake to the melodic sound of the call to prayer, a sound that I eagerly awaited each of the five times it rang out daily. The men who sounded the call had voices sweeter than any singer I had ever heard, and the city would pause when the first words spilled out of the huge speakers at the Masjid, everyone readying themselves for prostration.
At the Masjid itself, the atmosphere was one of quiet deliberation. What had before seemed tedious and boring took on a new light for me. I read the Quran carefully, understanding nothing of the Arabic but enjoying the new musical quality I found in the words. Fasting didn’t worry me, and food became a thing I thought of only in the moments before I finally consumed it.
Allah was everywhere. In the words written high on buildings, in the prayers that anchored our days, in the ground and the sky and the air. Allah was everything.
For those three weeks in Makkah, I really believed.
In Australia, in 2004, things were slipping. My father had come back from his solo pilgrimage to Makkah that year with a translated version of the Quran, a loving inscription scrawled inside.
It was the first time I read the Quran in English, and it became the last time I would read it at all.
In the evenings, in the lull between prayer and dinner, we would sit in the lounge room in our hijabs and burqas to our nightly ritual of prayer and reading.
That year, I battled through chapters of the Quran with increasing anxiety. The words I now understood grated against my slowly growing knowledge of feminism, and my ever present liberal belief in the rights of others to believe whatever they chose.
Much of the Quran was intriguing and complex, but the overwhelming message I read was that disbelievers would burn in hell – and that the rights of women were inherently bound to the will of men.
I don’t claim that Muslim women are victims. I certainly don’t claim that all Muslim women are unwittingly endorsing their own oppression. Religion is complex, and it’s beyond the scope of my knowledge to understand or appreciate the depth of belief that other people have for something I can’t place my faith in anymore. But what I read did not feel right to me, and the not-rightness soon became unbearable.
When I finally confessed to my father that I no longer believed in Islam, it was on a warm summer night in 2008, during one of the most harrowing years of my life.
Nothing had gone to plan that year. At 18, I was feeling disillusioned, exhausted, but mostly cornered. It was Ramadan, and the pressure for me to fast, to pray, to go to the mosque was becoming unavoidable. That night, my mother and sisters went to break their fast at a friend’s house and I stayed at home with my father. I was sitting on our balcony outside, watching the sky grow gradually darker. There was a light wind, and I remember feeling a growing sense of anxiety unfurling in my stomach.
As I sat there, I started to cry silently, and as I cried the anxiety settled into a solid feeling of certainty – a sense of inevitability. I stood and went inside, walking to where my father was reading at the dining table.
He looked up with a smile that soon turned to concern. I sat, and I told him everything; how I had been feeling so alone, how I knew that I couldn’t believe what he believed. I told him it was hard, but I knew it was true, though I was so scared of hurting him and my mother.
My father was stunned, but supportive. Looking back, I think he thought (as parents often do) that this crisis of faith would pass. He told me to let go of the anxiety I was feeling, and that it would all become clearer with time.
I expected to feel relief after my confession, but that relief never came.
For years, a niggling sense of unease dogged my every move. Each step I took outside the laws and tenets of Islam felt like another lunge towards an unknown abyss. Every consequence I had ever feared, every reward I was taught to expect had fallen away. If there was no God, what was the point? If Allah was not watching over me, was I completely alone?
What if Allah did exist? What had I done by choosing not to believe? Who was I? How could I still be alive, still achieving, still happy on some days, when I had committed the ultimate crime of disbelieving?
Choosing not to believe is a bigger act of faith than any other I have ever experienced. Choosing to put my faith in myself, in our society, in the people I love, in right over wrong and with no promise of reward in the afterlife – none of it has been easy.
The thing that I find the hardest to articulate is that belief never truly disappears. Allah is still always with me, present in the very fact of His absence. I no longer believe in Islam, or Allah as a God. But when I think of Him, it is as a symbol of my yearning for better things, for a return to that sense of completion I only felt when I was in Makkah.
The faith I learnt there never left – it was simply reformed into a belief that has never been committed to text, never been taught to me by others.
I believe in humanity, in science, in love and truth. I believe we are all believers, in a way.
Image: Camera Eye