A story about breaking free from institutional religion.
The Instagram photo taken on my 18th birthday which got me in a lot of shit.
The everyday slights, indignities, put downs and insults that people of colour, women, LGBT populations or those who are marginalized experiences in their day-to-day interactions with people.
I was looking through a journal I kept back in 2015, and one of the things I attempted to write and share with you were some thoughts about leaving Islam, the religion I was raised and identified with for seventeen years. It remains a sensitive issue in the circles I’m involved with, but at the time it was far more sensitive than now — if I were to share what I wrote back then I fear I would’ve received so much animosity considering I was still in the ‘transitional period’ of leaving Islam. I still anticipate negative responses to this, but when have I ever compromised myself due to an inevitable distaste of my individuality?
A lot of the thoughts I had weren’t entirely rational. Instead, they stemmed from frustration, anger and sadness out of my inability to change my environment at the time. Considering it’s been a couple of years since, I’ve managed to ‘rebuild’ my views on theism, spirituality, morality and personal identity.
To give me closure on this issue, as well as shine some light on a personal and overlooked process of abandoning religion, I’ll be sharing my thoughts when I experienced such a radical change in my beliefs. First, my identity as a Muslim, then during the process of leaving Islam and finally, where I am today.
To clarify, I do not intend on offending anyone or encouraging current religious people to drop their beliefs. I will leave aside philosophical arguments which persuaded me to leave religion since my intention is not to persuade anyone to my beliefs. Instead, I’m going to keep it brief, concise and introspective.
Islam was a very big part of my life growing up. One of my truest aims in life was to become a pious individual and closer to God. This was very much caused and encouraged by my family — since the age of 4, I went to a local neighbour’s house to practice Arabic by reciting the Qu’raan every day after school. I was 6 when I completed reading the Qu’raan in Arabic, and up until 15, this would continue in the form of memorising Qu’raanic passages. The Mosque was just as much my school.
Like many religions, Islam offers a purpose in your life — a community, a common belief and set of interests, and a moral code to abide by. I prayed regularly and fasted all Ramadans consecutively from the age of 7 without fail (as well as attending the Friday prayers during school lunch).
Even to this day, I can still read Arabic and recite some verses of the Qu’raan off by heart. I felt a true connection with God, and even though I was relatively private about my faith, I was very much attached and enthusiastic about my religious identity.
I was often jokingly referred to as an Imaam several times because of my expansive Islamic knowledge in my family, and I was constantly seeking, reading for answers to progress my spiritual guidance. I didn’t look at Islam as an institutional religion, but a lifestyle of purity — it has some beautiful aspects to it, as many religions do.
It considers respect, meditation, personal hygiene, and love for your fellow people as cardinal virtues, and these are things I still consider today as fundamental. At the time, however, I thought the only ‘true’ way of achieving these virtues was through practising Islam because I didn’t think it was possible to leave.
That being said, there was a lot about my experience being a Muslim I consciously wasn’t happy with. Initially, I was hardly ever in disagreement with the ideology, but more so with certain individuals who identified themselves as Muslim. Though I understand that it’s unfair to judge the car by the driver (meaning it’s unfair to criticise an ideology by judging the person who claims to practice it), I was very opposed to Islam’s (and generally, all religions) stance on homosexuality, differing treatments of men and women and religious extremism.
Of course, there are intricacies within religion’s true stance on these topics but I wasn’t happy — especially with how I felt that some Muslims I knew and even Muslim scholars seemed to advocate hatred towards LGBT people (but not ALL Muslims by any means).
As for more personal objections — my particular sect of Islam did not look fondly on music, and as music is one of my primary interests and very important to me, my two beliefs conflicted heavily with each other, preventing me from choosing to study music at college. I regret that to this day.
The moment my suspicions and doubts about religion began to erupt was rather ironic. I was very eager to learn a lot more about Islam as I grew older, as my awareness of the world and life expanded and naturally, so does the desire to search for answers. At 16, I decided to read the Qu’raan in English. At first, I was blown away by some of the beautiful verses within the Qu’raan.
Because it was originally written in Arabic, it’s worth mentioning there exist a myriad of translation issues (as with any translated texts) and some may dispute that reading the Qu’raan in English is far from its original form. But throughout reading the Qu’raan, some verses inundated heavy doubts within my mind.
It seemed like this so-called ‘religion of peace', which I was told throughout my childhood, condemned those who had a differing opinion on fundamental life problems and questions.
Several times the Qu’raan mentions Kafir (disbelievers) and how their fate is in hell. As well as this, a lot of the arguments used to justify certain actions were groundless and I feel this is a recurring theme in any religious scripture. It’s along the lines of:
“Do X because God says so. And if you don’t do X, you will go to hell” — a familiar narrative.
I recall the moments I came across these verses as the moments I felt my entire being, background and belief system shatter to minuscule pieces as I had never really considered that it was possible to doubt Islam, let alone entertain the idea of leaving it! Islam was my life, my purpose, the source of all knowledge given to me by people I had looked up to from the beginning of my life.
To describe that instantaneous moment where I thought it was all wrong was encountering evidence that could shatter my entire being.
At first, I thought I was insane, and continued to remain a pious individual on the exterior, advocating my religion irrespective of these doubts. But it was strange, not to mention incredibly fearsome, to consider that Allah, this god to who I believed wholeheartedly and owed my entire existence, could be false.
Now instead of dropping my beliefs right away, I had an overwhelming desire to remain a Muslim and this is something many assume did not occur.
I had endless conversations with my Muslim friends, presenting earnest questions of doubt: “how can there be a god if I’m unable to perceive him with my senses?” and “why can’t there be female imams?”, as well as my strongest objection, “is it truly the mark of an altruistic, all-loving god to allow a hell to even exist?”.
I even went to an Imam and spoke to him about my lack of faith, but his answers were exactly the things I had thought he’d say. To this day, I still haven’t received answers to these questions which satisfy my doubts.
During the time, many got the impression that I was on the verge of becoming a Kafir (non-believer) and rather than settle my existential and religious doubts, they would rather cease contact with me to preserve their beliefs.
I don’t blame this course of action, nor does it confuse me — a small number of Muslims view Islam as an ideology, a system of beliefs, whereas the majority view it as an integral part of their identity and culture. This is something not exclusive to religious people, but to human beings — we are all somewhat irrationally afraid of losing our identities and can become incredibly defensive when someone presents what we perceive as an attack on who we are. I was also afraid; hence why I continued looking for answers to avoid being ostracised and alienated by my community.
However, I could feel my religious identity slip between my fingers every day and considering many Muslims would rather not discuss these questions, my strategy was to remain silent about them whenever I was surrounded by my family, whenever I had to go to the mosque, and whenever I was around my Muslim friends. This became the start of a “double life” if you will — an internal rebellion that resulted in an identity crisis.
One of my friends at the time said that if I did not believe an Ayaat (sentence) in the Qu’raan, then I would be considered a Kafir. I believe that was the definitive moment where I thought to myself: “Ok. I guess I’m no longer part of this then.”
I did something incredibly ballsy — that was, confront my parents and essentially ‘come out as non-Muslim’. Looking back, it probably wasn’t my best career move and even during writing an introspective piece like this, I am incredibly hesitant to describe the events and the things that were said.
Nevertheless, this was a very memorable day in terms of making the first move in becoming openly non-religious, the consequences of which were nothing short of devastating — leaving home and ceasing contact with my family for a year. But surely, what did I expect?
Most of this took place during my final year of college. I was diagnosed with anti-psychotics, my first long-term relationship had seen an end, my family relations were strenuous, and I had no desire to attend college because of how overwhelmed and exhausted I felt daily.
It is safe to say I was depressed — though I was always hesitant to be so defeatist and declare it since I feared it to be seen by others as a sign of weakness or proof that I was on the 'wrong path'. I had flunked my exams at the time because I saw no feasible way that I could attend university, due to my huge lack of attendance, revision, enthusiasm and foresight for the future. Life was dark, and amid this darkness, the only light was finding myself. It was a long time before that happened.
The summer of 2015 before university, was fun, but looking back, it was a series of desperately miserable scenes. I lost two jobs consecutively because I wasn’t very good at them, and I spent most of my days escaping my circumstances through whichever means possible.
This manifested itself into heavy drug use, which acted as a great mechanism to run away from my problems and for the shortest, most temporal time, believe everything was beautiful and right with the world. Only two months ago (July 2017), have I gone sober from a continuous run of drug abuse to conceal my emotions and allow them to remain repressed and dance decadently with my psyche.
Results day came around, and I was shocked to discover that I had been accepted into university. I had not intended to go, since I had already accepted that I won’t get in due to my lack of engagement with the college. So this came, as you can imagine, serendipitously.
I decided to go and study philosophy for three years quite spontaneously, and how cliché. A young man who left religion took the opportunity to move cities and embark on some spiritual journey to study philosophy. All “indie coming-of-age movie moments” aside, I am eternally grateful for the opportunity, since the other road would only perpetuate the darkness I had already seen in my life.
University has been educational in two different ways; one, because of the course content and learning so much about Western philosophical schools of thought and understanding how to accentuate critical and independent reasoning, but the second has been a personal development in understanding myself, people, and approaching newer, compatible beliefs.
I was away from my hometown in Nottingham, and so I thought, away from anything or anyone that could hurt me viscerally. Muslims wouldn’t be able to harass me, my family were long gone, and I could experience the totality of the freedom I felt denied my whole life.
Throughout my first year, I was insecure and in denial about the past that I had, seeking to reinvent my identity by denying the foundations of who I was. For a time, it worked.
I had been so used to repressing my emotions, thoughts and beliefs that it became second nature to me. The only time I would reveal myself to others, was when I was wasted away in endless piles of drugs.
I could so effortlessly become a host of debauchery and implore my friends both former and new to travel the depths of our minds, pretending the chemical reactions our brains endured were genuine and true feelings. It was charmingly simple to create picturesque moments, to turn the suffering of life into an artistic ideal. We feel pity for those who are self-destructive but become so ignorant to the fact they unintentionally follow through with their capacity to destroy others.
A few hundred acid trips and speed comedowns later, I started to understand and come to terms with the person I was. I wasn’t happy.
I was emotionally repressed and my paranoia would sabotage friendships and relationships. I missed my family. I missed my sister. I don’t want to be a druggie. I never did. Everyone at university seems so happy. I’m so out of my depth. I can’t tell them who I am, or my past, because I’m worried I’ll be, yet again, a burden on their lives. So I’ll carry on, spending my days alone and fucked.
But on my 19th birthday, I felt as if I finally became a man. I regulated my drug use and eventually gave it up entirely. I started reading, producing music and kept working on myself to become a better person. With the help of studying philosophy, I gained a newer, more authentic understanding of the world and myself.
It’s been a very intense few years, and I’ve been holding off writing and posting this because I wanted to find the best way to express the things I’ve experienced. I have left aside a lot of things that are personal, and downright traumatic. But if I were to conclude this story with a fable, I’d say forgiveness and love are always the truest and noblest virtues.
I am aware there is some irony in saying that — after discussing apostasy, I shamelessly sell the two things omnipresent in all religions! But it’s true.
There comes a point where you have been done wrong in your life so you experience suffering so uniquely twisted, that you can’t help but feel sorry for yourself. But you must come off it eventually. Allow yourself to feel the pain you carry, for sure, but never let that become a justification for your self-destruction and capacity to move on.
People are stuck in this endless cycle of feeling sorry for themselves. At what point do they resolve this, and forgive? For that reason, I don’t write this to seek comfort, pity, sympathy or solace, but to give myself closure and to shamelessly own my identity as a minority among minorities. You hear so many stories about coming out gay, but hardly ever any about coming out ex-Muslim. Most people don’t even acknowledge that’s a thing since it's so obscure. I sure as hell didn’t.
I don’t think I will ever be a Muslim again and will, as I still today, face discrimination for being a traitor of sorts. But, as I had known from the start yet learned towards the end, I am only betraying myself if I deny my true self. To all Muslims reading this, I have no intentions to attack you or discredit Islam. The only thing I offer, and will always offer, is love and respect for the Muslim community for making me who I was, and am today.