Press coverage of Islam, negative or otherwise, is nothing new. I myself have written plenty of blog posts extoling the virtues of this faith, but I have also written a blog post or two where I have also been somewhat critical of Islam. For some 1,400 years this religion (a religion that is at least theologically peaceful) has been stereotyped, typecasted, loved, hated, dehumanised, chastised, scapegoated, attacked, demonised, praised, and lauded, all in equal measure and from all quarters.
Whilst Muslims feel that we are more than just beheadings, bombings, beards, burkas, biryani, and bad breath, if you look at the way Islam is currently being reported in the media it is easy to see that the narrative, the agenda, the context, the framework, call it what you will, that is being set is focused on several key pockets of interest.
One such area is the modernisation of Islam, specifically the culture and lifestyle of Muslims. Examples of this include the progress in modernity shown by Saudi Arabia when it opened its first cinema earlier this year, with Marvel’s Black Panther the first movie to be shown in the Kingdom for well over a generation. Women are also allowed to drive now, and the Kingdom is hoping to open up theme parks to rival those of Disney. These changes maybe more financially driven than they are religiously driven, but they are deemed to be progressive changes nonetheless.
Another pocket of interest is the reformation of Islam, a viewpoint championed recently by the French government. In certain French circles calls have been made asking that “the verses of the Quran calling for murder and punishment of Jews, Christians, and nonbelievers be struck to obsolescence by religious authorities.” Good luck with that.
France also has a long history of trying to create a brand of Islam particular to itself, one that “conforms to national values, notably secularism, and is immune to the radical interpretations that have gained a footing in certain parts of the Muslim world.” Basically, the French would like Islam to move along the social and cultural spectrum, sliding along the scale from the religious end to the more secular end.
France is perhaps the best of many examples where the lines around Islam and its place in western democratic societies are constantly being redrawn due various ongoing debates. Such is the intensity of these debates that a recent New Statesman article declared that in France, and indeed in many other countries as well, “Islam…has become the secularists’ favourite topic of discussion.” The same article went on to describe the trials and tribulations of 19 year old university student Maryam Pougetoux and the ridiculous hypocrisy she faces from French society for simply wanting to wear a hijab:
Whatever they wear – and whether or not it is their choice – Muslim women in France find themselves in the middle of a secularism debate they have no voice in. They are guilty by association: it is assumed that their hijab is a sign of their adherence to conservative societal values preached by a strict vision of Islam, values that many in France see as incompatible with French secular society. The religious indicator overrules individuality…Pougetoux summed up the Catch-22 situation French Muslim women find themselves in: “If we stay at home, they say we are submissive. If we speak up, if we take action, they say that we are not allowed to do so.” – Pauline Bock, May 2018, from the New Statesman article The Outrage Over A Hijab Reveals The Hypocrisy Of French Secularism
Likewise critics and proponents of Islam, such as Ayaan Hirshi Ali, Reza Aslan, and Irshad Manji, have for many years been calling for a reformation, which is another area of media interest. However, reforming Islam maybe a little more complicated than most people realise, plus we may already be in the middle of such an exercise anyway, as noted by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf:
In Saudi Arabia two hundred years ago, a movement emerged which was a puritanical movement which was a radical departure, it was more of a protestant movement against a kind of Catholic Islam. It was more of a protest movement against a traditional Islam. People say Islam needs a reformation; this is what we’re witnessing. People that say Islam needs a reformation don’t know how bloody the Western Reformation was and how horrible it was and how it fragmented Western culture, and because of it, secularism arose as a treatment…The truth is that secularism has a history that actually outdoes religion in its severity and barbarity. I mean, nobody has been as bloody as the secular ideologues, Stalin and Hitler. – Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, from an interview in The Cairo Review, Fall 2015
Sexuality within Islam is also prominent in the news. Recent examples include new pro-transgender laws in Pakistan and the #MosqueMeToo movement, created by the formidable Mona Eltahawy, which continues to gain further prominence. The issue of female genital mutilation is also still widely discussed, with some suggesting that this hideous cultural practice is part of Islam (it most definitely is not).
Another area of media interest seems to be focused on people leaving Islam. Ex-Muslims like Ayaan Hirshi Ali make regular appearances in the media, and there are many groups supporting ex-Muslims such as the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain and the Ex-Muslims of North America. Many of these groups are quite vocal and organised in drawing others to join them. They are also unfortunately subject to a great deal of unwanted harassment and intimidation, even death threats, for obvious and expected reasons. Here is a short video providing further details about the group Ex-Muslims of North America:
This particular topic of people leaving the faith is of personal interest to me as I have a close relative who essentially left Islam to become an atheist several years ago, and more recently the sister of a close friend converted from Islam to Christianity. Certain events in her life pushed her to study her religion in more detail above and beyond the simplistic notions of Islam her parents had told her, mainly to clarify what others were saying to her and, for whatever reason, Islam was found wanting.
The sister and I have spoken for several hours, and we have covered many topics. She has questioned various Qur’anic verses, ahadith, YouTube clips, etc. I have tried my best to provide answers. However, unhappy with the counter arguments I have presented, she has essentially decided to leave Islam and it seems she is heading towards Christianity. Not only that but she is now a vocal critic of her former faith. I guess for me the frustrating thing was that, despite knowing and feeling with all of my heart and mind that Islam is the right path, despite being able to convince myself of this glorious realisation, I failed miserably in trying to convince someone else.
Islamic tradition has many examples of individuals who have great changes in their personal faith. Umar, one of the four rightly guided caliphs, drastically changed from someone who wanted to kill the Prophet to someone who wanted to protect the Prophet with his own life. The Prophet Moses went from being a prominent member of the Egyptian royal household to the one who caused its downfall. And even Satan himself went from the highest to the lowest, from being the most devoted of God’s creation at that time, to the most disobedient. Despite knowing this, it is still weird to see someone you know change from believing in Islam to be the right path, to someone who is now so openly negative about it.
So how do you handle such a situation? How does one react? Two logical options seem clear to me. One option is to be aggressively critical of her newly chosen faith. Whilst I could indeed criticise Christianity, I find such an indifferent approach to be futile and backward. It makes no sense to me to nit-pick religious texts of other faiths just to score theological points. Such debates usually end in tit-for-tat escalations with angry words being exchanged, and you end up with no clear winners and everyone else a loser. I have yet to win an argument by shouting. Does the truth need to be shouted?
Having said that, one should be careful of criticising other faiths because people often fail to realise the criticisms one can make of another faith, those same criticisms can be made of your own. Accusing another faith of circular reasoning, desiring world domination, being unable to conclusively prove your holy book is the word of God, etc, are accusations that could easily be made of your own faith. You just may not be able see it due to your unconscious bias, which is why it is so easy to not only make your own Kool-Aid but to then unknowingly overdose on it.
I have also noticed that the modern world has seen an increased atomisation and individualisation of us all, and this has resulted in increasing clashes between personal freedoms and religious norms. A good example of this is a recent legal case involving Chavie Weisberger, a 35 year old ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman who declared she is essentially a secular lesbian. Weisberger had to go through the wringer in court just to get custody of her kids. At first the court said she had to pretend to be ultra-Orthodox just be around her children, even though she was no longer religious, in order to spend unsupervised time with them. This decision was later overturned on appeal. I have no doubt that we are likely to see more and more of these clashes of individual liberties versus religious tradition.
One can add to this the reality that the internet is so vast that you can easily take a faith and paint it in a brilliantly glowing light or a darkly negative one. Such is the fluid nature of faith that there always has been and always will be a movement of people from one religion to another. So there is no wonder that people can become frustrated and confused when trying to learn about a particular faith. The old adage of doubting your doubts before you doubt your faith seems less and less applicable these days. And this is why I guess for every Muhammad Ali there is a Salman Rushdie.
And never mind different religions disagreeing with each other, even within religions plenty of disagreements exist. The Republican politician Mitt Romney recently spoke out against the controversial evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress, who delivered a prayer at the opening of the American embassy in Jerusalem in May 2018. Romney tweeted the following harsh words:
Christianity has Catholics and Protestants, Islam has Sunnis and Shias, Hindus have their castes, and pretty much every religion has liberals, secularists, reformers, and progressives in one corner, and the stony-faced orthodoxy in the opposite corner. Islam alone has over 70 sects, each covering differing areas of belief and theology. And this is why I guess for every Malala there is an Osama.
You can actually go further and say that the whole debate about religion is even more nuanced than that. There will be Muslims looking at me and, from their religious perspective, some will say I am too extreme and I need to calm down a wee bit, others will say I am too liberal and I need to be more serious, and I have no doubt that others still (here’s looking at you ISIS) will say I don’t even qualify as a Muslim because I live the west and partake in democratic processes.
The other logical option I could take in responding to the sister is to be more empathetic. In Islam there is a verse of the Quran (chapter 109, verse 6) that translates as (according to the Sahih International translation) “For you is your religion, and for me is my religion.” It took me a long time to appreciate that this short verse is actually a mercy from Allah. Rather than argue with others over cherry-picked religious texts that we will invariably be taken out of context (since when have I been a Biblical or Qur’anic scholar?!), I feel it is best to let people be, whether they are from the same faith or outwith. For at the end of the day it does come down to faith, peace, happiness, and contentment, and whichever religion can provide you that, then that is the one you should follow. It seems therefore that context, along with personal circumstance, is everything.
I briefly mentioned the situation of my friend’s sister on a Muslim forum website. From the responses given it was clear that this phenomena of people leaving Islam is more common than I first realised. I was also surprised by the varied suggestions and comments:
It doesn’t matter if people are born as Muslim. The journey to God Almighty is a deeply personal one and what is crystal clear to one individual is a point of contention for another. Any person seeking the truth will travel to the furthest corners of the universe in order to find it…Religious commitment is heavily influenced by personal experience, opportunities (or the lack of), personality, age, upbringing, social experiences and so forth…
Acknowledging what the sister feels is critical here. I appreciate there is an arsenal of hadith commentary, YouTube clips and soundbites we can share, but let’s not forget that what she is feeling is sadly common today. Whether her sentiments are a reflection of the confusion of our times or simply the stupid behaviour of other Muslims that she has been subject to, it is worthwhile adopting empathy as a first port of call. I have met many Muslims who feel this way. I even recall Shaykh Hamza Yusuf commenting that he knows people whose children have opened up classical Islamic texts and read ahadith on stoning someone to death or other punishments that are now outdated, and they have simply left the Deen because they were so disgusted with rulings that were at odds with the environment they have grown up in…
This is a time of trial and tribulation, and the tests are coming thick and fast. Sometimes you think you believe, but then something happens which shakes your foundation and makes you think otherwise…
All you can do is offer support, provide avenues for her to get answers if she really wants them, give her time, and be careful not to overwhelm her. You cannot convince someone unless they are open to being convinced. If I really wanted answers for myself, I wouldn’t try to find them from watching videos of ex-Muslims…
I also came across the following quote from a recent article I read. The globe-trotting photographer Lynsey Addario has travelled the world and has encountered many different cultures and peoples, especially across the Muslim world. She was recently featured in an online National Geographic article where she was asked about her spiritual upbringing. This was her rather interesting response:
I was raised Italian Catholic, with the tradition of going to church every Sunday, before a big family lunch at one of my grandmothers’, and religion classes on Tuesday afternoons. But as I grew into a young woman, I identified less with Catholicism, and learned to appreciate different aspects of different faiths. I am a spiritual person, and I have great respect for all different religions, but I personally no longer go to church every Sunday. It’s interesting, because I have been photographing in relatively dangerous places for a long time now, and have spent a great deal of time with people from different faiths. I often receive messages or emails or calls from friends around the world, saying that they are praying for me—whether Christian or Catholic or Muslim. My grandmother, who is 104, always prays to Saint Ann for me, and my close friend Lubna, who lives in Saudi, will literally go to Mecca to pray for me when I have gone to Syria in the past. I love and respect that about faith, that everyone has his or her beliefs which carry them through difficult times. – Lynsey Addario, 17 Apr 2018, from the National Geographic article Why This Photographer Set Out To Break Muslim Stereotypes
Despite our lengthy conversations neither the sister nor I really brought anything new to the theological table. Essentially we were rehashing centuries old arguments such as the reality of shariah law, the status of women in Islam, the authenticity of the Qur’an, the psychological state of the Prophet, the age of his wife Aisha when she was married, and more of the same old. What we were really doing, with all our to-ing and fro-ing, was confirming the spiritual path we had already decided to travel upon in our hearts and minds.
However, I realised there was another thing we were doing. I think in some weirdly ironic way we have not just confirmed but also strengthened each other’s faith. By questioning Islam in the way the sister did, she forced me to re-evaluate my relationship with Islam. That re-evaluation has only increased my belief in Islam and I honestly feel I am on the right path. And by perhaps not being able to answer all her questions to her satisfaction, I may have inadvertently strengthened her commitment to the new spiritual path she now seems to be undertaking. And at the end of the day is that not what faith is all about? An educated and sincere leap into the great unknown?
My cousin and the sister are in some ways more active with their faith than some Muslims currently are. Many Muslims are far too complacent, which leads to indifference towards Allah, which is indeed a slow spiritual death. One should always remember that the opposite of love is not hate, it is complacency. So in their own way questioning their faith is a good thing because they are at least interacting with it, rather than just being comfortably self-righteous. You could even argue that their words, deeds, and actions are more in alignment than those of many so-called practicing Muslims.
Going back to the pocket of interest that involves ex-Muslims, I came across an article from the New Statesman that openly spoke of people leaving Islam for various reasons. Whilst I agree with some of the points made in the article there are plenty of other points that perhaps could do with further discussion, especially in the presence of a learned Qur’anic scholar. Presented below are selected quotes from the article which, as always, is well worth reading in full.
Finally, to all fellow truth seekers out there, be you monotheist (like Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, and Christians), polytheist (like Hindus, Shintoists, and Zoroastrians), atheist (like Kumail Nanjiani, Steven Pinker, and Stephen Hawking), agnostic (like Neil Gaiman, Edward Said, and Charlie Chaplin), anti-theist (like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris, aka the famous ‘Four Horsemen of Atheism’), or whatever your belief, whatever your faith, may you be brave enough to take the steps you need to take, and I wish you all the best on your own personal spiritual journey. See you on the other side!
What I Learned When I Spoke To The People Who Chose To Leave Islam
Fiyaz Mughal, 09 May 2018, newstatesman.com
As a Muslim, I believe that we need to face up to the fact faith can become rigid and interfering.
Faith gives comfort, solace and reflection to many. But the Islam practised by many Muslims in the UK is not one of reflection, but of ritual without understanding. It is about punishment, pain and barriers, rather than enlightenment, openness and the nurturing of creative thought. The Wahabbist-Salafism that has so infected Islam over the last 100 years has done so because of petrodollars from Saudi Arabia’s coffers. These petrodollars have stifled and throttled the natural development of Islam in modernity, choke-holding it and keeping it in the medieval period that Wahabbi-Salafists want as a means of control.
This rigidity reflects itself in various ways. I find Muslims half my age, angry and disaffected that the world hates them. I find Islamist groups in the UK that try and defend some of the more unsavoury and vile practices around elements like apostasy in Islam where punishment through with-holding access to children, inheritance rights and at the extreme end, the threat of execution, is a way to ‘redeem’ and ‘reclaim’ someone who just does not believe. I find Muslims in the UK unable to historically challenge child marriage and even re-affirming child marriage because it is somehow Islamic to betroth someone at childhood, as if we live in the 12th century.
Then, sadly, I also find the defensive brigade. These include those who push away difficult issues such as punishment for apostasy, the place of Jews, Christians and other faiths in Muslim majority countries and even the history of the Arabian peninsula before Islam. I simply don’t buy into the age of the “Jahaliyya” –that dismissal of the period of Arabian history before the advent of Islam as the “age of Ignorance”. Ask the vast majority of British Muslims what history and culture existed in that period, and they will be unable to describe any detail, apart from the fact that it was idolatrous, tribal and “ignorant” of the word of God. Indeed, much of the physical evidence of that history has been wantonly destroyed. This is isn’t religion – it’s religious propaganda.
In the end, Islam does not stand alone. To many Muslims, it may be the word of God, but in thinking this, they deny the fact that faith is a lived experience and the faith that they follow has been shaped by human lives who have gone before. Islam has also been shaped by those who leave it and this happened early on in the formation of an Islamic community in seventh century Arabia. To deny that, is to deny Islam’s history.