Updated: May 3, 2020
I have always been a big believer in signs, in the idea that God/the powers that be/the universe/whatever point us in particular directions and provide us with instances of clarity and vision in the chaos that is our day-to-day lives. When I was young, I was convinced that these signs were quite literal - that I would ask Allah a question and an answer would be provided, like a billboard along the road of life, just for me. As I grew older, I came to understand that life is not so clear, and signs are not always so obvious. And my philosophy on signs has changed a lot.
I still believe, at a fundamental level, that Allah answers our prayers. I believe that Allah hears us and responds. In fact that is one of the names of Allah (and today’s snowflake) - al-Mujib, the one who answers. But I also believe that the response isn’t always the one we’re looking for, and that signs are often what we make of them, rather than objective indicators of a path or direction.
The best examples I have of this are also the moments in which making a decision has been the hardest. Like in 2006, when I finally got into the graduate program I had been dreaming about for basically my whole life, only to find it wasn’t a good fit. I was miserably homesick and nothing felt right and I just bring myself to say so. And then I found bedbugs in my teeny tiny little central London flat, and that was it. For me, that was the sign. And people thought I was absolutely out of my mind - many still do when I tell this story, and maybe you do as you read it. But I knew then, and I still know now, that those bed bugs were an answered prayer. In the one of the hardest (and grossest!) ways possible, but an answer nonetheless, a flashing neon sign, a push to make me do the thing I knew I needed to do.
And this has been the pattern in my life - that I pray, I ask for things, and they come, but never ever in the way I think they should. “Man plans and God laughs” as they say. And let me tell you, Allah has one hell of a sense of humour. Or, as Joey Potter once said in Dawson’s Creek, “dreams come true, not free.” I asked for stability and an easing of financial strain, and Allah sends a pandemic that locks me down at home but lets me keep all four of my jobs and do even more with each. And I’m not saying the pandemic is a good thing or minimizing the terrible impact it has had, and I’m certainly not making the incredibly egotistical claim that it is about me at all really. It’s just the meaning I’ve made from it.
But that’s the point. The signs we see, the answers we get, the way in which we see Rahma in our lives or God’s will at work in our world - it is entirely a product of how we make meaning for ourselves. There isn’t an ultimate, absolute meaning we will all agree on. Bed bugs mean very different things to other people than they did for me 14 years ago. They meant very different things for other people in my life even in that same moment. But the meaning I made out of it at that moment was the way in which my prayers were answered, the way in which Allah spoke to me through my own intuition and understanding.
I know this is circular logic for many people and that it may seem like I’m making meaning where none actually exists. But that’s the whole point I think. We as human beings never really have access to ultimate truth. We will never know with certainty if the way in which we understand the workings of the world around us are actually true and valid in a metaphysical sense. All we can do is make the meaning we can, using the resources we have. And for me, that has always meant faith and psychology and science and truth mingle together in beautiful and unexpected ways, a perspective that I always found to be best articulated by Victor Frankl, in Man’s Search for Meaning:
“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”