To Be A Muslim In The 21st Century
Pushing for a progressive Islam for Muslims in the future.
Years after publicly declaring my separation from the Islamic faith, I never thought I would be writing this. Then again, I never anticipated that I would write and share the original controversial article for everyone to read, eventually becoming a talking point for many in and out of my general community.
Since I began sharing my journey about my religious beliefs, and the eventual lack thereof, I thought it would be pertinent to share what my current attitudes are regarding Islam.
After all, everything I have said was once true, and one of the defining traits of Leaving Islam is indeed, the authentic, raw expression of such personal and emotional turmoil at a certain time in my life. It is with this very sentiment, that I feel I must finish what I have started.
I no longer consider myself to be an ex-Muslim. In fact, I feel more attached to my Muslim identity than I ever have previously, but not returning to conventional Islam in the way one might expect.
Two years ago, I posted an article on Medium which suddenly blew up. I had hundreds of comments, shares, and personal messages from others telling me about their experiences in apostasy (leaving religion). I remember this being a comforting feeling as I often thought my experience leaving religion was solitary, since I was the only one I knew at the time going through a crisis of faith.
It remains a story fundamentally about the disillusionment of any religion and becoming a free-thinker, rather than necessarily a story about leaving Islam — which is surprisingly rarely discussed in the public domain, and perhaps the reason it received the attention it did.
Admittedly, I received criticism from other Muslims, but it was to be expected. Some of them, in fact, expressed regret when discovering that my friends ditched me to protect their beliefs, over trying to aid my legitimate grievances about the religion. Some Muslims tried to ‘revert’ me back to the religion, and settle the doubts that I had briefly touched on in the article, but I had told them the opportunity had since passed.
My crisis of faith was at 16 years old, whilst I wrote the article when I was 20, approaching the end of studying my philosophy degree, and enjoying the prospect of appreciating a whole set of distinct beliefs and ways of thinking, fundamentally developing a belief system that satisfies my unique spiritual thirst.
Despite the praise I received for the article, upon reflection, I must concede several mistakes.
I never claimed my belief in Islam was from a Sunni background, and that the version of Islam I was following may very well be a distinct version from the kind another Muslim follows. My scrutiny of faith, as a whole, was unfair on the premise that my negative experiences of Islam were mostly developed by the particular Mosques I was following, the things I was told from authoritative Muslims figures within my life, and the particular doctrines I thought were universal for all Muslims.
In other words, I thought that every Muslim must think the same, hold exactly the same values, and that Islam is the same for every Muslim who follows it.
Attentive readers may recall that I believed this due to a particular occasion when I came to my pious friends with doubts about Islam. He claimed if I disagreed with only one sentence of the Qu’ran, then I was a Kafir (unbeliever).
Here was the defining moment where I began to feel separated from the Islamic community. I was lead to believe that my criticism of the religion was forbidden, my individual beliefs and opinions were irrelevant, and I simply couldn’t support any faith or school of thought discouraged criticism. It wasn’t consistent with my personal held policy of continuous skepticism. Therefore, this ‘traditional conception’ of Islam had to go.
I later realised there is nothing to say that being a Muslim is a binary matter, and such attitudes claiming you are unable to question or criticise established traditions and conventions among Muslims, are a key factor in why the growth and evolution of the religion of Islam is notably stunted, particularly compared to other religious communities.
It is a complete assumption among Muslims that scrutiny of their faith is fearsome and forbidden, as is adopting a more progressive, tolerant and liberal understanding over a fundamentalist, orthodox one. But there is absolutely nothing to suggest your faith is lacking if you have doubts.
The preservation of religions in the West, like Christianity, have prevailed mostly because of its ability to be compatible with differing beliefs, tolerating different communities, and integrate with the changing of the seasons. We live in a different world.
It is not unusual to encounter a devout Christian who tolerates (or even a member of) the LGBT+ community. Nor is it unordinary to meet a Jewish individual who no longer adheres to a strict Kosher diet, or a Hindu who protests to an alcoholic drink.
But it is, particularly in my experience, unusual to meet a Muslim claiming to be a Muslim who is proudly gay, a Muslim who doesn’t believe in black magic, thinks it is permissible to not wear a hijab, or a Muslim that can openly accept criticism of her faith, and concede that some verses in the Qu’raan might be outdated, or the Prophet Muhammad may be an imperfect man.
Make no mistake; these Muslims certainly exist. They are silent out of fear of being scrutinised.
This was something that became apparent to me when being open about my Ex-Muslim identity, and encountering many who secretly agreed with many of my problems, but still described themselves as Muslim.
This was because they either they agreed with core Muslim values, still believed in Allah, or because they feared having their doubts out in the open for everyone to see.
Clearly many Muslims agreed that in the Ummah (Islamic community) agree there are genuine needs for gender reform, revised attitudes towards accepting minority Muslims in our community, and an open and frank conversation about these issues in a world where the Muslim identity is in a crisis, particularly in the West.
One of the merits of Islam, and indeed the reason why many convert the religion, is the faithfulness of the community towards the religion and its traditions. Even in the 21st century, you will find devout, practising Muslims who pray five times a day and practice the religion to the best of their knowledge and ability, like Prophet Muhammad did.
I have met people from other religions praising Muslims for not giving into the secularity of the Western world, and upholding values that our modern society could in fact benefit from — such as the abstinence from alcohol, and giving 10% of one’s wages to charity (zakat).
But this is a double-edged sword, as it is this very adherence to tradition that often gives Muslims a negative reputation for being unable to adapt to the modern day, and continuously struggle with upholding their religious values in a world that is constantly changing, and a society that is becoming more inclusive of distinct beliefs and individuals than ever before.
Crucially, I believe there are a couple of reasons why Muslims adhere to their faith stronger than other religions:
Firstly, Islam is a newer religion compared to others and claims to be the final one, seeing other monotheistic religions as valid, but gradually distorted overtime — giving the impression that this ‘true word of God’ is the final message. So why would Muslims find much credence with previous monotheistic religions when they are guaranteed reliability?
Secondly, Islam also faces a lot of criticism in the modern day, particularly from Western media and ‘Alt-Right’ groups claiming it to be entirely incompatible with Western values. This includes those who find the thought of eating Halal meat cruel and harrowing whilst enjoying their bacon sandwich, preaching that Shariah law has no other end but the destruction of Western democracy.
So if their faith is threatened, in a society where Muslims are a minority, they will cling onto their Muslim identity and Islamic ideology further.
Islamophobia is a new, global, and very real experience which Muslims in the 21st century face, and preserving the ostensibly positive values Islam has to offer, remains one of the only forms of rebellion they have.
After all, to lose their faith and give into bigots with heinous views would be admitting defeat, and the struggle of being a Muslim minority is the very same the Prophet faced when he was originally spreading his revelation in Makkah.
Muslims follow suit in this regard, refusing to give into uninformed cynics, but as honourable as this appears, it also means they often neglect a very necessary conversation about Muslim identity in Western culture.
A good while after denouncing my faith and identity as a Muslim, my perception of Islam pivotally changed after doing some research into Islamic philosophy and history. I had always thought that since its conception, Islam and the Qu’raan had never changed or progressed from the time of Prophet Muhammad, as this is a sentiment I hear relentlessly from Muslims.
Little did I know that Islam has enjoyed a rich history of progression throughout its years, particularly during the Islamic Golden Age. I was stunned to learn that major developments in knowledge, such as Algebra, Chemistry, Music, Optics, Medicine and Philosophy, had occurred during this time period, and are achievements credited towards Muslims!
It is a whole new world I had never learned or encountered, despite being a Muslim most of my life. I had constantly heard about the stories of Muhammad and other prophets during Jummah (Friday) prayer, but very little about the genius Muslims of our day, experimenting and soon innovating things we still have today, such as hospitals, universities, and lenses.
My degrees are in philosophy, so it was a matter of time before I encountered Islamic Philosophy during the Golden Age, which in my four years of studying Western philosophies, I had never heard of before. The most seminal of them for me being Averroes (Ibn Rushd).
Averroes was an Islamic philosopher greatly inspired by the works of Aristotle. He fundamentally believed that upholding an Islamic faith can be compatible with philosophical reasoning, and in some circumstances, living in accordance to reason should prioritised over following scripture for the sake of tradition.
He believed this so vehemently, that Averroes held that one could actually become a better Muslim by reasoning intellectually, since their knowledge of Allah is heightened when interpreting the Qu’raan, and the Prophet’s life as allegories towards deeper and greater understandings of the universe.
To take the Qu’raan literally was to neglect an essential part of understanding Islam and being a strong Muslim, and that was reasoning independently and intellectually.
Many take Averroes to be one of the first Islamic thinkers to promote secular thought, which as you can imagine, received a lot of criticism and controversy at the time. These ideas still cause controversy today!
His contribution to philosophy, in effect, were to defend the longevity of Islamic philosophy against thinkers such as Al-Ghazali, who believed that certain Muslim thinkers at the time held Greek wisdom so much so the essence of Islam was under threat.
Though considered a very notable Islamic philosopher himself, he was concerned that Islamic philosophy integrating with Western values necessarily sacrificed the essence of Islam, demoting actions and ideas which were not discussed during the time of the Prophet, as ‘Bidah’ (innovation). The Catholic equivalent of this term would be ‘heresy’.
Al-Ghazali’s influence is one reason why many branches of Sunni Islam adhere strictly to faith, dismissing innovations and developments to the religion as Bidah — which is considered to be a grave sin.
Here lies one compelling reason why many Muslims so strictly adhere to the religious practices and traditions, even to the extent of closely following the same example of Prophet Muhammad himself. They fear blasphemy.
Salafism, a movement within Sunni Islam, is mostly concerned with restoring the purest form of Islam, and avoiding all kinds of Bidah, anything that is not concerned directly in the Qu’raan or the prophet’s life.
It is essentially this thought process that led me to believe I wasn’t Muslim. Where I disagreed with some parts of the Qu’raan, or actions of Prophet Muhammad, I increasingly thought I was unable to identify myself as Muslim, since my beliefs were not in exact accordance of the original scripture.
But I was ignorant to the fact this was only one, of many different sects, perspectives and philosophies within Islam. I learned by researching into the history post-Muhammad, that Islam is a pluralistic concept that encompasses a wide range of different beliefs, from Sunni to Shia, and all the sects inclusive of it.
If Islam is exactly the same for everyone, then everyone in the Ummah would agree on exactly the same things. Since there are so many different sects of Islam, this is clearly not the case. There are disagreements even within the same sect of Islam, so it certainly isn’t the case!
What fundamentally unifies Muslims despite these differences? It is Tawheed, the belief in one God, that remains the core essence of Islamic belief.
One could go further to say it is only this condition which needs to be satisfied in order for one to be considered a Muslim at the very least, if it is the unanimously considered to be the core of Islamic belief regardless of sect, nationality, and belief system.
I think the greatest innovations in the Islamic Golden Age occurred mostly because it wasn’t seen as a bad thing to deviate from orthodox traditions, and experiment with new types of knowledge and ethics. Bidah was not considered a sin, and by resisting orthodoxy, what encompasses Islam and what a Muslim could be, can blossom into beautiful achievements of humanity.
My identity of being a Muslim returned from finding out about Averroes, and understanding that being a Muslim is a pluralistic concept. You do not need to strictly follow all beliefs from an Imaam about homophobia, or your family about whether celebrating the Prophet’s birthday is permissible.
You are called to use your own wisdom and determine what you believe in, as every one else is just as clueless to you. Only Allah, the highest wisdom above human comprehension, knows best.
The moment Muhammad found Gabriel, it is plausible to suppose the revelation could have become distorted, because we must remember that human comprehension is limited compared to that of divine knowledge.
Recall the prophet was revealed the revelation when he was illiterate, meaning the Qu’raan was written by those hearing the prophet speak word-by-mouth, as well as the very accepted fact that the Qu’raan is not compiled in chronological order, and that the Qu’raan is an ancient document. I believe we can logically accept the possibility of flaws with our human understanding of revelation.
This might seem like a new and fresh perspective, but this very sentiment is one I borrow from Nasr Abu Zayd:
“The [Qur’anic] text changed from the very first moment — that is, when the Prophet recited it at the moment of its revelation — from its existence as a divine text, and became something understandable, a human text, because it changed from revelation to interpretation. The Prophet’s understanding of the text is one of the first phases of movement resulting from the text’s connection with the human intellect.” (source)
This isn’t to say that we disregard the entire Qu’raan as potentially incorrect — rather, we can understand it as a close interpretation of the divine knowledge we can only truly understand within our souls, and not through relentless blind faith.
Some Muslims genuinely think the Prophet was completely perfect. I believe this is Shirk — a grave sin where anyone or anything is worshipped or praise to the same extent of Allah. It is the anthesis of Tawheed, the core principle of Islam. Only God is completely perfect, and only God is able to know best.
I believe my personal identity as a Muslim today is fundamentally a cultural one; the practices and moralities I was raised with, my way of thinking, my altruism, my personal hygiene habits, my belief in God (which admittedly never went), and my agreement with many Muslim principles. The way I say ‘Inshallah’ (if Allah wills it) rather than saying hopefully, the way I still say ‘Salaam’ to everyone in recognition of the most beautiful fact about Islam:
That every single person is equal in the eyes of a higher power, regardless of gender, race, class, morality and sect.
It is a way of life that, which followed, can bring lasting contentment compared to the relentless use-and-abuse culture we are accustomed to in the West. Virtues like fasting during Ramadan have contributed significantly towards my discipline and self-control. If I wasn’t raised a Muslim, perhaps I wouldn’t have much discipline later in life when quitting drugs.
Others, like praying fives times a day, encourage regular meditation and reflection to humble one’s ego, becoming wary of falling into temptation.
It isn’t so much looking at the religious and spiritual benefits of religion per se. What is often overlooked are the secular benefits which we could gain in an age where nihilism, depression, and isolation pervades us.
To refrain from instinctively becoming a slave to our animalistic desires, to put ourselves aside for a greater purpose than ourselves, and to live an honourable moral life, are things the West could learn from religions like Islam.
But at the same time, I believe Islam could learn from the West.
There is nothing to say these have to be mutually exclusive philosophies. As exemplified from the majority of Muslims living in the West, Muslims are able to live harmoniously with others and entertain Western values of democracy, free speech, and be an individual with independent reasoning, whilst still practising Islamic values.
It is perfectly possible (and I believe crucial), for all people including Muslims to question vigorously what they believe, and if they find their opinions are at odds with original scripture, to understand this does not necessarily threaten their core Islamic identity like it did mine.
I am in agreement with a wide range of different concepts and practices from other religions, cultures and philosophies — I meditate rather than necessarily praying five times a day, I believe in Karma, I am still fundamentally an existentialist, believing you, and only you, can define your own purpose, and should never be restricted by artificially imposed limitations.
I still vehemently disagree with homophobia, sexism, and intolerance to other faiths, but I feel it is appropriate and mature to realise that certain passages and practices in Islam (or indeed any orthodox religion) are borrowed from a particular contextual time in history.
It is worthwhile viewing particular passages in the Quran as a cultural artefact, a view many Muslims agree with, or others as a general guide to being a good person, rather than having to step right-foot in the toilet, recounting a particular prayer for the occasion.
Passages regarding the killing of unbelievers is often contextually justified by the fact that Muhammad was leading a war against others who were out to persecute him. If practised literally today, we would not be far from the ideologies and practices of ISIS and al-Qaeda — the very image most Muslims (considered ‘moderates’) are actively attempting to convince the world away from.
Clearly, integrating desirable Islamic practices into the modern day, whilst criticising parts of the ideology we no longer agree with, is a healthy and necessary part of moving forward and allowing Islam to evolve. Whilst remembering that fundamentally, the principles of being a good, honourable, humble person, is more important than following small intricate details and practices of religion.
With this in mind, some may wonder, why must I insist on calling myself a Muslim?
Is it not enough to just call myself an Ex-Muslim, or an existentialist, a heretic, a madman, and call it a day?
I am demonstrating to many who have preconceived notions of what a Muslim is that we no longer have to necessarily subscribe to the same points of views, or be the same person. We can become, and often are, free-thinking individuals in agreement with Western values, courageous enough to criticise the orthodoxy of our religion, and still be Muslims. Like Averroes.
The rise of Islamophobia in the modern day threatens my community, my family, and my livelihood. I could say I am an ex-Muslim, but I feel this is “whitewashing” my identity. Where I must entirely betray my ancestral history for the sake of wanting to identify with secular beliefs. It does not have to be that way. It is not black-and-white. It is not binary.
You can be a Muslim, and think and be whoever you want.
The Western world is too concerned with categorisation, and thinks that a gay person must be a certain way, a Black person must act a certain way, and a Muslim must think a certain way. I want to demonstrate that it doesn’t have to be like this, and we have a rich history inundated with innovation and greatness.
In times where scathing attacks unfairly prosecute Muslims as terrorists, where mothers receive abuse for wearing headscarves, Muslim families falling apart due to misunderstandings of religion, or other Muslims being killed in Kashmir or China, I will proudly claim my Muslim identity in a world where we are becoming more and more hated, during a systematic genocide of Muslims.
Everyone already has their own opinions within Islam, and you don’t have to necessarily believe what an Imam believes.
I feel the crucial message is to remember they are as infallible as every other human compared to Allah, and as long you are consistent with believing there is one omniscient God, you can be called a Muslim. The rest, to some degree, everyone makes up.
It is important we also recognise and include gay Muslims, Muslims from other sects and cultures, and Ex-Muslims in our community. Our prosecution and shunning of those who think and live differently from us, especially when they were once (or are) part of our community, needs to stop if we expect things to get better as an Ummah.
Famously, a study by the Guardian 10 years ago revealed Muslims in Britain have a 0% tolerance of homosexuality. Sure, this could be criticised as outdated, but it is also not a surprise to Muslims reading this, knowing of many LGBT+ Muslims estranged from their families and in regular receipt of death threats, which is contemptible, deplorable, and one of many examples where many criticisms of Islam refusing to integrate the West arise from.
How are we able to criticise Islamophobes for the persecution of Muslims, when we persecute our own kind? It is sheer hypocrisy, which Islam is the most distasteful of.
The voices of Ex-Muslims I will always hear loud and clear. We believe in many of the same things in regards to freedom of thought, expression and beliefs. But rather than exclude myself in that category and describe myself as an Ex-Muslim, I feel taking a more proactive and vocal position is the only way I can make a greater impact for the Muslim community as a whole.
From now on, I will be a voice in advocating freedom of thought within Islam, and comment on Muslim issues like Islamophobia, British Muslim problems, and other contemporary issues, as I feel compelled to write comprehensively about a subject hitting so close to home.
It is a core part of my identity which makes me feel comfortable, knowing I belong to a community, whilst also knowing this does not necessitate a commitment to one particular set of beliefs. I am free, and being a Muslim means I can think whatever I want.
Some will criticise this article as Bidah and will perceive me as a heretic causing unnecessary innovations into Islam, and I understand their criticisms.
But I vividly see a vision of Islam integrating into the West, and doing away with outdated and morally ambiguous practices. It is already happening.
We already ‘innovate’ when we refuse to practice some actions in the Qu’raan. Slavery may have been culturally appropriate at the time, but something completely contestable in the modern day.
Many will think that I am a ‘fake Muslim’, incredulous to core Islamic beliefs, confused about my identity, or a Muslim out of convenience. But my purpose is to reach out to those who feel estranged about their Muslim identities in the modern day, like myself a few years ago, to know it does not necessitate sacrificing this identity for the sake of wanting to believe other things.
I suppose if I was to put a name on what I am, I would be a ‘Progressive/Cultural Muslim’.
Finally, I would like to reiterate I am not the first to say this.
Many thinkers and Muslim philosophers in the golden age had already thought many of these things. As Muslims, we could learn a lot more from our histories and revere in our past achievements.
I hope this marks a new beginning of many necessary conversations about contemporary Muslim issues in the West. After all is said and done, only Allah knows best.