“Last week was Eid ul Fitr, the muslim day of celebration that marks the end of Ramadan. I should have been happy but I couldn’t find it in me. How can I celebrate being muslim when so much ignorance, barbarity and pain takes place in my name? Being muslim no longer fills me with serenity, only shame.”
Journal entry, August 2014
In my previous post I owned up to the deep disquiet I’ve been feeling about my faith; how I suppressed it, and how I tried to recapture my earlier conviction through reading and research.
Ironically, my quest only unearthed more reasons to hold it in question. This wasn’t a dip in devotion – it was a derailment.
The world’s first islamophobic muslim?
Again and again I reminded myself not to judge Islam by the conduct of its adherents but something was turning deep inside me. The unceasing barbarity of beheadings, habitual stoning and severe subjugation of women made me question myself and my beliefs, and the doubts I was secretly wrestling with caused me to feel apart from other Muslims, the differing views we held over things like veiling, music and gender segregation increasingly seemed part of a greater, more sinister, whole.
I worried I was letting prejudice colour my thinking but was powerless to stop my rising blood pressure every time I read about another honour killing, child bride or hostage beheading, or the disdain that soured my heart on hearing their Quran-backed justifications. It is Islam, rightly or wrongly, that serves as the ideological and religious source of the greatest atrocities being committed in the world today. How in a ‘religion of peace’ 1.6 billion strong could such crimes continue?
Untangling the mess
Mired in conflict and confusion, clarity came from an unexpected quarter. It was Karen Armstrong, whose biography of Muhammad I’d hungrily devoured in my early days as a convert, that helped me sort through my tangled thoughts. In “The Spiral Staircase” her autobiographical account of disenchantment with and eventual departure from the Catholic faith, she gave expression to the amorphous thoughts swirling in my own head.
It was a relief to hear someone in a different situation had the same questions, the same misgivings and disappointments. It helped me separate my questions from their controversial context, the equivalent of finding a piece of driftwood to cling to in a pitching, roiling sea.
For a long time I had told myself (and anyone else who would listen) that those who kill and maim with bombs and draconian customs weren’t real Muslims (no doubt they’d think the same of me), that their interpretation of the Qur’an was counter to what Islam is about, and I wholeheartedly believed it.
I’d explain how Islamic extremists twist the Quran to fit their agenda. ‘It needs to be understood in context’ I’d assert, ‘you cannot simply lift sentences out and apply them to whatever you choose.’ But when I came to re-examine my own beliefs I realized they didn’t stack up.
When you read the Quran, one of the striking things about it is its lack of context – there’s not much to anchor the text historically and it flips from one subject to another and back again. I still remember my disappointment when I failed to find anything in it that brought me to reverential tears as it has often been claimed to do for others.
The search for truth
To discover the context, Muslims say, you have to read the Qur’an in conjunction with the ahadith – the collections of Muhammad’s words and deeds that form the foundation of Sharia law and Islamic practice, graded for veracity by the reliability of their chain of transmission.
But I had rejected this avenue long before. Given the well-documented Muslim tendency to forge stories about Muhammad that supported political positions or religious practices of the time, coupled with the late emergence of the hadith collections relative to the time Muhammad was supposed to have lived, it’s impossible to regard them as reliable.
Without the ahadith, which fill volumes and volumes of books, Islam is pared down considerably. I had just the Qur’an to go by. ‘No matter’, I thought, ‘I’ll just stick to the parts that are unequivocally clear, the parts that reflect the essence of Islam.’ If only it were that simple…
The search for understanding
Muslims claim the Quran exists today exactly as it was revealed to Muhammad: the original, untampered word of Allah. Reading a translation doesn’t count as reading the Qur’an – they believe the linguistic interpretation involved in the act of translation alters its meaning. So my efforts to understand its content in this way were considered erroneous; Arabic recitation, irrespective of comprehension, was more important.
It seemed absurd that – ablutions completed, hair tucked out of sight – I’d take down my silk-swathed Qur’an from atop the wardrobe to painstakingly mouth syllables that held no meaning for me and this was somehow better than poring over my Yusuf Ali translation in my PJ’s on a weekend morning, underlining passages and scribbling notes in the margins, and deepening my understanding.
And for something so insistently Arabic, there are a lot of non-Arabic elements – not only from the Bible and Torah, but various historical religious manuscripts and Jewish apocryphal and rabbinic literature. There are words that not only are not Arabic, but have no meaning in any known language. Muslims have generally agreed on their meaning, but it’s an agreement based on convention not linguistic analysis; and in some cases they can’t agree at all. For all the mistrust of translations, no one seems concerned that even the Arabic is uncertain.
Your guess is as good as mine
Perhaps the greatest indictment to a Qur’an unchanged by man is the ambiguity of the earliest manuscripts. The Arabic alphabet consists of twenty-eight letters, twenty-two of which rely on dots known as diacritical marks to distinguish them from at least one other letter, as you can see below:
One symbol could be three different letters: ba (ب) with a dot under it, ta (ت) with two dots above it, and tha (ث) with three dots above it; nun (ن) is also pretty similar. Diacritical marks are essential to understanding Arabic, but most are missing from the earliest manuscripts of the Quran, so the word of God has since been subject to extensive human guesswork.
That, and googling ‘contradictions in the Quran’, were the straws that broke the camel’s back. I never thought I’d be leaving Islam, but staying makes me feel like a fraud.
When is a muslim not a muslim?
Laying aside the fact that ‘unequivocally clear’ Quranic text is scarce, to what degree can I cherrypick a belief system and still call myself an adherent? Surely by taking only the parts I chose and reassembling them into a different whole, I was creating something new – it may be ‘based upon’ but it is not ‘actual’. And who’s to say that the sections I cherrypicked are any more or less intrinsic than the ones those Islamic extremists are acting upon?
Continuing to identify as muslim feels like a deceit when I refute so much of the accepted dogma. There’s no room to breathe in a religion that won’t accept criticism, and clings relentlessly to the practices and beliefs of a 7th century desert society, and in doing so makes a mockery of their own assertion that the Qur’an is a guidance for all time. Polls by the Pew Research Center indicate that in many Muslim countries, the population is overwhelmingly in favor of veiling for women, the death penalty for leaving Islam and stoning as punishment for adultery; anti-Semitism is rampant. Islam is becoming the antithesis of what I thought it stood for.
So goodbye Islam, it’s been educative and interesting but this is where we part as I continue my journey on a path you can’t follow.
Next week: Living with the fallout… Leaving Islam – The Hangover