Ever since I can remember, I have been searching for the meaning of life itself.
Why am I here?
… What is my purpose?
Constantly reflecting on these questions made me different from other children: I was introspective and inquisitive; I asked questions all the time — my favorite one was, “Why?” It seemed that my grandfather’s words often echoed in my ears, “God does not create people just to fill up space on the earth.”
It was only recently that I understood the impact this statement had on me. I needed to understand; if no one was here to “take up space” then why was I here? This longing for purpose ignited within me the desire to find my place and my purpose in the universe, the bigger picture.
I remember actively surveying the world around me and desperately trying to understand why the world was the way it was; why people believed what they did, and what made them do the things that they did.
I started my search from within, and slowly began to explore the answers of those around me. Perhaps someone I knew had the answer. While a family who cared surrounded me, there were others who scared me and hurt me with their words and actions.
Sometimes, people do not realize that words are as powerful as weapons, especially in the life of a child. From my perspective, I had many daggers that pierced my heart; some of which healed and others which simply faded away, blocked off by a mind that sought protection from the evils of reality.
In many ways I became a victim, but in many other ways I became a survivor. There was always one thing that I was sure of, that I never wanted it to happen to anyone else. I never really became angry, but I did get frustrated.
My circumstances motivated me even more to understand why people did the things that they did. As I continued to observe people’s words and actions, my overwhelming confusion about people propelled me to embark upon a spiritual journey at a very young age.
I was ten at the time, and my quest for purpose continued. Can purpose be drawn from a single source? I believe so, but when it comes from other people, a cause, a feeling, it may not always last. Take for example the person who invests in a cause because of a loved one, or because of a desire, or because of a need to feel good, or because of something they see.
Purpose then, can be relative, and can waiver with circumstances and environmental factors, changing feelings, or even upon being challenged by others. However, I have found that purpose drawn from a divine source, within clearly defined parameters and with a clear understanding of personal accountability to the Creator outlasts the lives of the very people themselves.
Having been brought up in a Hindu-Christian family, I was exposed to more ways of seeing the world than the average child. I went to a Hindu elementary school and a Catholic secondary school. As I navigated the turbulent waters of religion and various ways of looking at the world, I felt that I had finally found a key, an answer; one that showed me why I was here on this earth, while providing me with the necessary energy and a framework to fulfill my purpose.
The framework explained that the aspects of my daily life were worship, and it was all based on an independent relationship with God. The framework was one that called for personal accountability, of knowing that God wanted us to be leaders, of knowing that anything done other than for the sake of God would be useless to us.
Acts done for fame, recognition, or even to feel good, would never really last. They may bring benefits to us in this life, but would have no worth in the next. Instead, as I understood it, God was calling us to elevate ourselves, to know that our actions would be judged, not by the results but by our intentions, and that even when people don’t see, God always does.
At the age of 11, I became a Muslim. At the time, it was not an easy choice as I feared my family’s reaction. They would have accepted a lot from me, but not Islam. I was “smart” and a shining example. I had all the potential, and I would be wasting it all in their eyes if I became a Muslim.
As many parents worry today, my mother was scared that I would become some type of militant who would kill people in the name of Allah. It took seven years of silent struggle to eventually let them know I had made this choice. It was a hard pill for them to swallow, but they eventually did.
As I reflect on it now, I realize that it is more difficult to be a Muslim today, it has become worse: Being a Muslim today is like wearing a label that says “enemy”. But every time I stop to think about why I made this choice, it only allows me to become stronger and more convinced that I have truly understood why I was created and what my purpose is. It has strengthened my resolve to “live and die” for the sake of God.
What I understood then as my purpose, I have only come to fully understand today. My purpose in this life is to worship the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth. Yet worship in this sense does not apply to rituals alone.
Worship applies to a holistic desire to live in a way pleasing to the one who created us, to understand that if we expect His mercy, then we should show mercy. To realize that as we give love to others, so too shall love come to us, and as we pray for others, the angels themselves will pray for us.
I believe, in a very real sense, that God put me on this earth to fulfill a divine mission: To stand up for truth and justice for all people, regardless superficial differences, whether they are Muslim or Jews, black or white, rich or poor; to be a beacon of light and compassion to the poor and disenfranchised; to be a pillar of hope and empowerment to those who have lost hope and have lost their way on this journey we call life.
It is one of compassion and hope, not one of pretentiousness and judgment: A purpose where I am not fooled by illusions of grandeur, praise or flattery, nor an existence in which I am in need of my work to be recognized.
What I have found is a special and intimate relationship with God, which lays out a holistic way to live my life. It tells me that I am to strive to be the best of creation by looking after all of creation, by enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong.
This means that I must always stand up and speak the truth, regardless of the consequences. It also means that to be the best that I am able to be, I must protect life and ensure that people are not being oppressed in any way. It means that I must be an ambassador of mercy, as this is the hallmark of Islam. I know that all of my actions are done solely for the pleasure of God.
I committed my life to God (my living) and if I die while I am walking along this path, then I die for His sake (not as sensationally portrayed in the media today). But knowing this to be my mission was not enough.
I studied the example of Muhammad, Prophet of Islam. I read of a man who led a group of people who changed humanity for all time. He was illiterate, and although he was a powerful leader, he never once slept at night if he had money left in his possession: He would go out immediately and distribute it to the poor.
I saw a man who, despite being a leader, slept on leaves on a mud floor, refusing to let the distractions of the world compete for his attention. He remained committed to his purpose. I saw someone who conquered a city in a war but spilled not even a drop of blood, and then forgave the very enemies who had tormented him for years.
Then I continued to look at other prophets of Islam — Jesus, Moses, Abraham — and a significant number of people spoken of with high regard of the Qur’an.
I looked at Asiya (wife of Pharaoh), Mary (mother of Jesus), and then I looked at contemporary leaders from whom I draw inspiration — Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Zaynab al-Ghazali, and many others. Looking at their lives, I understood that they were all special individuals who understood something about living. It was not simply about service, but rather it was about change. It was about transforming the world that they lived in. Each person stood up for the truth. They held the reigns of peace in troubled waters and they worked to achieve a moral victory in the world. I spent many years thereafter, struggling to understand what I was supposed to do with my life.
I tried my best to fulfill this purpose by being involved in my surrounding community; I became actively involved in social services and youth work, looking after many of the disenfranchised. I was sure that I wanted to help people and I was not going to sit idly by and allow anyone hurt anyone else. I still very painfully remembered the wounds of the battles I faced, and I did not want others to suffer a similar fate.
Then one day, after much thought and a few gentle pushes from friends who saw in me more than I saw at the time, I realized one of the best ways to achieve my purpose. How could I enjoin the right, forbid the wrong, be a beacon of mercy, stand up for truth and justice, push myself even more to make a change and transform our world?
How could l leave my impact on the world, like the stars that shine brightly? It was as if a veil had been lifted.
A new realization was born in my heart — I had to become a teacher. It was a natural extension of what I had embraced as my purpose, and its impact would be immeasurable. In Islam it is called sadaqah jariyah — an act of charity that continues to bring you benefit after your death.
This would be the way I could transform the world — one life at a time. Each child that I taught would carry a flame from my candle and use it to light torches elsewhere. As I realized this, I knew that I did not want to work teaching just any kids. I wanted to go to specific areas and target the kids who did not have the same advantages as others, kids who were seen as being “tough,” the children who would be labeled “at risk”. I wanted them to know that despite all the obstacles that life had meted out to them, there was someone in their corner.
I would be the one who could look past their images and reputations and look into their eyes, see their hearts, and know the true inner person — the one that exists beneath all the layers. I was the one who would push them to be all that they could be and the one who was willing to walk the extra mile to help them see it in themselves. I wanted to give them the tools that would empower them to be successful, by challenging them and encouraging them to become critical thinkers and to learn how to advocate for themselves.
I committed myself to finding ways to empower our children by creating an equitable and inclusive environment. On the last day of my first practicum class, my students surprised me by recording a version of “Lean on Me,” a song that I had been trying to teach them. The school was in one of the “tougher” neighborhoods of Toronto, characterized by poverty and crime.
I had been teaching the song to illustrate how music could be a form of resistance and had talked about the civil rights movement in North America. That day, they also gave me a book of poetry they had written for me. As we spent our last minutes together, the tears flowed from my eyes and from theirs, and I knew that I had found my vocation. In my heart, I knew it was my “calling,” this was my purpose as defined by God, and it was set out within the framework of education.
Knowing and understanding this was empowering. It forced me to look back on my own education and reflect on what made it beneficial — the teachers who cared, and what was difficult — and on the times I felt marginalized from everyone else.
It forced me to continue to focus on equity and helping students to see their lives reflected in the curriculum they were studying. Regardless of their background and whatever their belief system, they belonged, their voices mattered, and their teacher cared. I continued to learn and studied the types of programming and strategies that would benefit such children.