Recently people have commented on my labeling, whether it’s about another (“Byron Katie is a Sufi”!) or about myself as a Muslim. “Why label yourself?” they’ve asked. “Why put yourself into a category?” I asked myself these questions. Why do I label myself and others? In the case of others, I do agree that as kind, generous, or flattering as my label may be, perhaps the other person would not see it that way. But in the case of myself, do I not have the right to label myself if I want to? Especially if that “label” is what I consider an apt word or phrase to describe me?
Let’s not kid ourselves—we all label things, all the time. We make judgments, whether snap or considered, at every moment in our lives. Our oral and written language acts as a medium (not the only vehicle, but a common one) to convey our judgments to others. Language itself is a system of labels, one might say. Whether the system is adequate to the task is another matter, but for now it’s all we’ve got. We use words that most closely convey our feelings; the more words we have at our command, the easier that job might be.
In my case, “Muslim” is the closest word I have to describe where the epiphany I had on February 22, 2010 left me. It was a profound experience—unlooked for, unrepeatable, indescribable—and the closest words to describe it are “I am now a Muslim,” and these words devolved from the context of my study. You know I have devoted my life to the English language in one way or another; I choose my words carefully, and I choose “Muslim” as the best way to describe myself generally, and “Sufi” to describe myself to those who understand the mystical nature of that branch of Islam. (Sufism, particularly among orthodox Muslims, is more misunderstood than “Islam” or “Muslim” is to an American, I’ve realized.)
To deny my label does, in a way, deny that I had the experience. And I did have the experience. For too many years I kept silent about many life events because I was afraid of offending people, or hurting their feelings, or causing them worry; cancer resulted, and while I am grateful for the deep and manifold blessings that dis-ease has left in its wake, I would prefer not to go through it all again.
Islam has been instrumental (as has Byron Katie!) in revealing my new serene, almost-fearless self; it has created my far less judgmental self, too. I believe that whatever helps a person to enjoy life fearlessly, live and love abundantly, and accept love unconditionally is his or her path. Some people were blessed with an innate ability to enjoy life without the aid of a religious or spiritual belief, but I was not one of those people.
Being a Muslim has brought me great freedom and personal peace, and I express my gratitude by being honest about where these gifts originated. Perhaps others are uncomfortable with their personal definitions of Islam, and that’s why they would prefer not hearing mine. I, however, am very comfortable indeed with my terms. Familiarity can breed a sense of comfort (not just contempt), or a sense of understanding. When people ask me what I do, for example, I say I’m a teacher. To date, no one has said, “Gosh, Jen, don’t label yourself that way! It’s so restricting,” probably because people have a pretty good idea of what a teacher is. I suspect the term “Muslim” has not reached that state of comprehension.
At the end of the day, words can only be understood in the context of our own experience. We cannot see what we do not believe, and we cannot define that of which we have no knowledge. And even though we may have had the experience, our language often still fails us, because no written language is rich enough to encompass the depth and breadth of human experience.
You might not have a label, and I’m fine with that. You may hate my label, but I’m okay with that, too. My goal is not to label you, though of course you may surely label yourself if you’d like, with no dispute from me. I’m cooler with that than I have ever been, now that ana muslima.