The first time I went to Islamic school, at five years old, I cried and cried. I didn’t want my father to leave me alone, so he started attending religious study classes. Every Sunday, in a small room in the depth of the mosque, surrounded by hundreds of old books, I sat for hours, attempting to memorize chapters of the Qur’an in Arabic. My memory is dim, but I remember staring at the bookshelves around me and fidgeting on the worn carpet, lined so that people could stand shoulder-to-shoulder in prayer. The lightbulbs poorly lit the rooms and the scent of fragrant oils worn by congregants lingered in the air.
It was difficult for me to remember sentences I did not understand, and over time I tried less to memorize the surahs (chapters), and instead engaged with the concepts embedded in the stories: governance, spirituality, and conflict. Eventually, my father became the principal of the school (co-led with another Pakistani auntie), and when I was twelve I was given the responsibility of teaching Islamic studies—the theory and philosophy of the religion—to the younger ones.
I taught the same thing I learned in school and at home: that Islam is the way of peace. The word Muslim means one who submits, an invitation to follow a path oriented toward easing others’ hardship by striving toward justice. The practice of Islam can be simply expressed in five pillars:
Allah is the one true Creator and the true messenger is the prophet Muhammad (PBUH—peace be upon him), an example of a righteous life in his time. Worshipping idols is forbidden.
Prayer, or salat, is expressed through an embodied series of prostrations and recitations timed with phases of the sun, and paired with ritual ablution of one’s body. Salat can happen wherever there is space for a small rug—but because blessings multiply when we gather, it is often better in community.
Zakat—an obligatory offering to the community, based on one’s capacity to give. The word Zakat literally means “that which purifies,” and is a way for Muslims to cycle material resources toward those with less. Zakat is how charity is incorporated into our spiritual practice.
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A fast from food, drink, and sex for the entire lunar month of Ramadan, from dawn (no, not sunrise) to sunset. Not everyone can choose not to eat, so we nourish our spiritual body more than our physical one. This precious time makes space for Muslims to realign, repair, and reflect.
A pilgrimage (for those who are able) to the Ka’aba, in Mecca. Islamic tradition continues and culminates the Abrahamic arc, expressed in part by the devotional act of visiting the origin of that sacred, archetypal story. Millions around the world save up their entire lives to go.
I used to joke that I was politically socialized without my consent. I don’t think it’s funny anymore, because I’ve learned how many others, like me, were forcibly, often violently, introduced to the way things are over here (in America, that is).
I watched 9/11 on TV in my 6th-grade classroom, and two years later I was marching with my family in protests against the so-called War on Terror. My parents left their respective countries to escape political and economic turmoil, and were ready to use the privilege of our citizenship to fight for justice in what thinks itself to be the most powerful country in the world. I went from dreading Sunday school to attending with pride, taking responsibility for its role in my commitment to a more peaceful world.
I’ve learned how many others, like me, were forcibly, often violently, introduced to the way things are over here (in America, that is).
In the early 2000s my family, devout but not dogmatic, moved to a more politically active and progressive mosque with a Palestinian Sunni president and an Iraqi Shi’a Imam—a sign of unity in the age of the PATRIOT Act. I participated in interfaith dialogues with youth of Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Bahai, Buddhist, and Universalist congregations, and represented my community to the media. There was a personal cost to this visibility: Once I was verbally assaulted in public, and another time my high school intercepted a written threat sent to me. Learning about the world through the lens of this disillusionment and harassment made me agitated and angsty, increasingly disappointed with how America used my religious identity to justify surveillance, dehumanization, and occupation.
I swore I wouldn’t let “radical Islamism” dominate the narrative, and I continued identifying as Muslim to make a political statement. At the same time, I became skeptical about the faith, unsure of how people so supposedly in awe of the eternal mercy of Creation somehow also concluded that queerness is sinful. As I got older, I also realized that my opportunities came in part from my parents’ positionality as educated immigrants in a settler colonial state that has waged violence since before its inception, and I viciously shamed myself for this privilege. I became consumed with these contradictions, and by the time I was sixteen, I was depressed and numb.
I responded to this dissonance by entering a phase of deep existential inquiry and experimentation. I started studying debate to understand the language of the political system, channeling my angst into curiosity and my disillusionment into activism. I had a drive for academic achievement that came in part (or perhaps in spite of) my parents’ insistence that education was the key to success. My mother, who was traumatized by the cocaine wars which reached the lives of her family and friends in Colombia, also internalized the belief that opportunity came to people who kept away from drugs, and tried to instill that commitment in us. Meanwhile, I tried every substance I could get my hands on.
Most Muslims interpret verse 4:43 of the Qur’an to mean that alcohol and other intoxicants are prohibited. When I first heard this as a child, it was framed as an obligation to avoid substances that “curtained the mind.” As a teenager, I interpreted the verse to mean that as long as I was expanding my mind, not fogging it, I was in the clear. Yet my proximity to people using drugs quickly made it obvious that the cycle of chugging, snorting, smoking, injecting, parachuting, whatever I was doing, could overtake me—as it quickly, or sometimes agonizingly slowly, overtook some others. Then, one night in high school, I ate some mushrooms and swallowed a pressed ecstasy pill. I was seeking something spiritual, above all, but the experience was also just another to cross off my list.
This first visionary experience led me to reimagine my relationship to my increasingly distant faith, staying in touch with aspects of it that made sense, and separating myself from aspects of it that I doubted. Even in my most secular and rebellious phases, I curiously chose to keep observing Ramadan. To stave off addiction, I promised myself that I would always take Ramadan to practice reflection and self-discipline (after learning the hard way that you can’t get too fucked up the night before a 16-hour dry fast). So I kept tripping, and kept fasting. As I defiantly, and at times recklessly, continued exploring my own path of spiritual and celebratory practices and altered states, my mother became horrified and fed up by my increasingly chaotic behavior, good grades notwithstanding. I was surely responding to other pressures. My mother had skin cancer, and it worsened over time. Hoping that my deviance could be put to good use, I tried to convince her of cannabis’ medicinal benefits. Despite my best efforts, the combination of my insolence and her deterioration caused eruptive sadness, anger, and helplessness in us both. We began repairing our relationship in the final six months of her life, while I was serving as her primary caretaker.
Even in my most secular and rebellious phases, I curiously chose to keep observing Ramadan.
We did not fully reconcile during that time, but when she died, her service was the biggest one that our mosque had ever hosted.
Two years after my mother passed away, three generations of my family sat in ceremony together. By that point, I had been exploring my mind for ten years, and had long awaited an opportunity to convene with yagé—the DMT- containing plant brew prepared by the Indigenous people in parts of the Colombian Amazon, that in other places is known as ayahuasca.
Read: What is Ayahuasca?
However, never in my wildest dreams or nightmares could I have imagined my first experience happening while sitting next to my grandmother, processing the grief of my mother’s—her daughter’s—death. I spent most of the night starting to combobulate the disparate parts of my life that I had spent the last decade compartmentalizing.
In the years after her death, I became aware of the significance of my mother’s mestiza roots, and my Indigenous heritage, and realized that for my whole life I had been reconstructing practices from what felt like a distantly interrupted ancestry, ruptured by colonial casteism. In my continued practice with plant medicines and altered states since then, touching upon the earth- and moon-based practices that precede Christianity and Islam, I have embraced a more nuanced spiritual cosmology that honors my whole identity. I came to terms with the reality that some of my ancestors were settlers and colonizers, and others were genocided and enslaved. I realized that the way of peace is one that leads us back toward the earth and to each other.
Through this process I have realized that my youthful indiscretions were more than just numbing escapism and hedonistic celebration, that they also came from a craving for deep intergenerational healing. My father knew that I struggled with the daily salat all my life, yet over the years he had seen me develop an embodied ritual practice of yoga, breathwork, and dance. Surely he saw that whatever was happening with me, my mind and spirit were not being curtained. When I told him that ayahuasca taught me how to pray, I think he finally understood what was going on all along.
I have learned that initiation comes with accountability, that a dieta is not so unlike a fast, and that there is deep wisdom in the practice of intentional abstention and commitment of all kinds. As I’ve continued my understanding of the energetic and financial ecosystem that determines resource distribution, Zakat has informed my understanding of cultivating an ethos of mutual aid, networks of care, and reciprocity that allows all people—and the planet—to benefit. Although some Muslims might consider maintaining altars a form of idolatry, it is through the practice of building such archetypal landscapes that I have been most able to contact spirit. It feels synchronous, not blasphemous. And, even in my most annihilated moments, I never let go of the simple assertion that Allah is everything, and in everything.
This foundation of a way of peace, layered with cosmic visionary experiences, has shown me that mysticism is more than just a peak state. Rather, it is an art that can be cultivated through being in relation. In a way, it is a submission to the diligent and gentle tempo of ordinary life, from being with the land, to cooking its bounty, to nourishing, to celebrating, to praying, to mourning. People chasing peak experiences seem to miss this part, bypassing the daily practice of integrating and weaving the wisdom gleaned from our higher selves into the tapestry of our lives, our families, and our communities.
In 2005, I stumbled upon the vaults on Erowid.org, which led me to the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) —the nonprofit I now work for as an attorney and educator. Somewhere I read MAPS founder Rick Doblin’s assertion that “mysticism is the antidote to fundamentalism.” I remember being struck by his statement, informed by his family’s experience as Jews persecuted in Europe, and how artfully it touched on the paradox of consciousness I experienced as a young person, struggling with the relationship between faith, belief, and violence.
Read: The Ayahuasca Privilege
For years, I believed that society had evolved beyond the need for religion. I used to doubt that Islam, or any institutionalized religion or nationalist ideology that is sometimes spread by and infested with violence, could offer anything to the world today. After years of reflecting upon the contribution of the Abrahamic arc to the world of the future, I have come to the conclusion that the “people of the Book” must strive to show up in solidarity with all people suffering under the violence of imposed colonial borders and the manifest destiny of imperial domination.
Now I ask: What benefit is there to claiming to have a spiritual practice, if it does not bring me into solidarity and alignment with the movements to free oppressed peoples around the world? For all the attention given to fundamentalism and radicalism, the corrosive social conditions leading to their eruption are often ignored. These concepts derive their power from an invisibilized status quo. For example terrorism, the spectre alongside Guantanamo that haunted my teenage transformation, is defined as the unlawful use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims. The word “unlawful” is doing a lot of work in that sentence, as if the lawful violence waged on behalf of the United States is not terror. Prophetic social critic Ayesha Siddiqui once said that, “Every border implies the violence of its maintenance.” That quote has led me to reflect: How do we create a world without borders or violence, where all have access to water, to food, to shelter, and to community? If it makes me radical to imagine such a future, then maybe I’m not the one in a death cult.
Over the last 20 years, I’ve watched the dissonance needed to maintain American exceptionalism metastasize into a cultural rupture—the most virulent shadows of our culture have started to implode, attempting to take the rest of the host down with it. We can call it white nationalism, or hate crimes, or terrorism, or whatever we want, but any label can obscure the challenge of understanding how to shift out of the toxic dynamics American culture finds itself in. The violence emerging and ever-present is a predictable outcome of repeated, un-integrated, and culturally misappropriated history and experiences—and obviously I’m not just talking about psychedelic ones.
Psychedelics alone cannot save our society. Psychedelics are powerful, certainly, but the context in which they are experienced is often a bigger factor in the outcome than the substance itself. In other words, tripping is not sufficient to emancipate us. There is a reason that the mechanics of ceremony and psychedelic space-holding are so carefully stewarded and hidden from uncaring outsiders. The arrogance that comes with lack of respect, when expressed without accountability and driven by a fixation to consume, perpetuates the same violence of domination psychedelics supposedly heal. If we have any hope to create the peaceful borderless future of our dreams, we must acknowledge that reality head-on.
My psychedelic experiences have helped me bring compassion to myself and my complex lineages, oriented me toward growth, and given me tools to be in relationship with the earth and all beings. Eighteen years after my first Ramadan, and fifteen years after the first time I tried expanding my mind, I still fast, and I still “do drugs,” whatever that means. I entered this year’s holy month praying for alignment with all my relations.
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