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Al-Salem '17: Turquoise faith

I rarely like to make a big to-do about religion because I feel like it is a very private, personal thing. But I have recently begun noticing that religion is often pitted against academia and intelligence, as if the two cannot exist together. I wanted to take the chance as a columnist to write a two-part story sharing my personal opinion about that offensive claim — one that starts with a background on my own religious history.

My relationship with religion has been tumultuous to say the least. Up until 11th grade, I was undoubtedly Muslim. I prayed five times a day (even the early dawn ones), and my beliefs were unquestioned. But in my junior year of high school, personal incidents occurred that left me on the brink of atheism — I had never been so estranged from religion before. At first, it was the weirdest thing. I transitioned from not praying and feeling guilty about it to not praying and not even realizing it.

Senior year, I took a trip with my then-recently widowed aunt who had constantly been sabah-ing — a verb I do not know how to translate into English, but it’s essentially the Muslim version of rosary beads, where you praise God in some way each time you get through a bead. My aunt had an electronic one, which was worn like a ring. You press the button, and it tallies up how many times you’ve expressed praise throughout the day.        

She was always pressing at that button, and I could see her muttering the stanzas over and over. It made sense to me, really. Her husband had recently passed away, and she was a mother of two — one who was on the way at the time and is now a baby girl! — so I understood why she completely dedicated herself to God at a time like that. I asked her how she could be so strong in the face of such tragedy because, if that had happened to me, I wouldn’t have been able to survive. She replied that my family and her friends’ being there for her helped, but the main thing that kept her from thinking cynical thoughts, like “why me” or “I can’t do this,” was the sabah-ing. She said it was like pressing the injection for morphine, as if every time she pressed it a dull calm would soothe her. She said she would not have been able to cope with the situation without it.

This hit home for me like nothing ever has before. At the time, I was an 18-year-old preparing for college, and I was terrified about everything that meant. I was stressed about everything under the moon, and though it wasn’t the first time someone mentioned how tasbeeh — the nominal form of sabah-ing — had helped them, it only really struck me when my aunt said it. Could the power of faith really get you through the misery of a dead husband? And if so, I thought, shouldn’t I at least try putting my heart into my faith to see if it could get me through this year?

So when I got back from my trip with her, I asked my mother for one of those tallying rings, and of course at the time I chose an obnoxiously bright turquoise one because, hey, I was still a punk-ass teenager. In the beginning, trying to reconnect with my faith was odd. I started praying the five prayers, only because I knew it wouldn’t work if I were only pressing a button. Intentions matter, too. For the first couple of days, I just felt … quiet, like I didn’t have anything to say. I don’t know if this was due to the fact that I was constantly sabah-ing in my head or because I didn’t find anything worth commenting on.

But the feeling of calm still hadn’t come to me. I know it’s not magic — it doesn’t work immediately — but then, I started spending a lot more time talking to God, asking him to make everything all right. Most of the time, I cried during these prayers because an overwhelming sensation of “I’m so, so sorry” would overcome me. I don’t know how to explain it, but it felt like asking someone for something you didn’t deserve, while still knowing that they’d be kind enough to give it to you. And so in the beginning, man, I was a cry baby, especially during the nights when I spent the longest speaking to him.

Somewhere along the line, I began to see things differently. It wasn’t necessarily my mood or situation that had changed — just my perception of it. It was okay if that person said something hurtful or this person rubbed me the wrong way. Little, small blessings began to appear, and I know I wouldn’t have considered them blessings before. Even though it was just all in my head, it was like my heart had expanded to understand things differently.

When the time to move to college rolled around, I had grown to be very confident about my faith. There was a calm permeating everything that I came to rely on, and by the end of senior year, religion had become a personal, emotional feeling. It supported me through anxiety over the change that dawned ahead. By the time I got to college, where most people believed a Western education would “shake” my beliefs, I found that I had actually grown to believe in Islam in a more intellectual way.

Sara Al-Salem ’17 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and other op-eds to


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