Leaving Islam – irreconcilable differences

Sunset through a scalloped archway
Sunset viewed through a scalloped archway

“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.



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?



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.



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…



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.



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.



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 favour of veiling for women, the death penalty for leaving Islam and stoning as a 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

By Aisha Ashraf

An autistic Irish immigrant in a cross-cultural marriage, Aisha Ashraf is the archetypal outlander, writing to root herself through place and perspective. Published in The Rumpus, The Maine Review, River Teeth, HuffPost and elsewhere, her work explores the legacy of trauma, the nature of being an outsider and the narrow confines of belonging. She currently lives in Canada.


  1. I’m sorry it’s come to this. I’m hurting for you. As a woman. As a human who is struggling to find somewhere to hang her hope and her beliefs. I’m not Muslim; I’m Catholic. But am I really? When I got divorced from my first husband, I forsook a promise to God to be faithful through better or worse. A priest gave me the option of an annulment. He said I was completely justified. I refused. I didn’t think a fee and a blessing from a cloth’d man would make a difference in God’s eyes. So I walked away from a sacrament, and knew that in doing so I was publicly renouncing my faith. Even though I wasn’t. But because I wouldn’t pay a fee to get an annulment, my religion would see me as such. I had to dig deep, but I know what I believe, what I’m made of, and how to pray each night before falling asleep. And in the end, that is worth so much more than a public demonstration of my religion. I wish you peace of mind and moments of quiet and peaceful prayer.

    1. its not you who leaves islam its GOD who chooses you to leave as he knows ur heart better then you just like he chooses who comes to islam he chooses who leaves islam so its unfortunate if he rejected u from islam

      1. No. Religion rejects logical thought and rational approach. It suppresses individuality and the ability to think beyond the confines it gives yotenants ripture.

        God didn’t reject anyone. You can’t be rejected by a concept. Islam didn’t reject anyone. A Religion is just a book of thoughts.

        The only rejection is your unconscious mind rejecting the fallacies and inconsistencies that your rational and logical thoughts know to be false.

        Welcome to your awakening.
        God is nothing more than a name given to inherent humanity we all share, the energy and emotion you feel when you’re with a crowd of like minded people who share the same motivation – sports events, with your fellow supporters, or a big family get together, or sharing in a tragedy like the Sydney siege.

        The divinity and story is all a creation of men FOR men. It’s purpose was likely to gain a following, to achieve a political or personal goal. Control is power.
        If you control everyone, you have total power.

        Religion is a tool. It can destroy as easily, if not more, as build. But it’s very nature demands you sacrifice your own identity to follow the tenants of said religion.

        It’s a great theological discussion.

        But living your life for an imaginary concept is a waste of your energy and intellect.

        That’s my belief.

        You want God?

        God is you. And me. And everyone else. Not some invisible wizard of infinite perfection and wisdom.

        Does this strike you as a creation an infinitely perfect and wise creator would permit, with the diseases, extreme weather phenomena, deformed and stillborn babies, and religious nutters trying to burn down the world in its name?

        Would a benign and loving god sit back and do nothing yet condemn those who don’t believe in him/her/it?

        Would they allow their divine word to be corrupted? Would they not know that their prophet/s were going to corrupt the word?

        There’s no perfection or wisdom or freedom in this God.. So even if it existed, it’s still not worthy of worship.

        Just live a good life, treat people well, be respectful and helpful where you can, but don’t allow yourself or others to be oppressed.

        Freedom is the right of all, and the best freedom will be the freedom from religion. Because its corrupt and untrue.

        Good luck with your journey.

  2. I wish we were closer. You, me, a large brew and a trip to the waffle house (or Simmons, or the Pudding Stop – which is worth flying back over for, believe me) – my admiration of you grows again but I also really want to give you a hug. I wish you peace my darling, wherever it comes from x

  3. I could have written this as your journey sounds like my own as the gap between what I believed to be true and what eventually became reality as I researched to learn more about my faith. I started out wanting to know more in order to have deeper faith but instead I educated myself out of faith. The perils of always wanting to know just a little bit more I suppose. An excellent post. Thanks for sharing.

  4. I looks like you have been wrestling with your faith and religious choices, it is not easy for you I see, I respect your point of view and how difficult it must be to challenge what comes so naturally for you. I wish you all the luck with your new found journey 🙂

  5. Q. If i’m correct your husband Is a muslim how did he take this will your kids remain muslim or follow your path.

  6. Wow. This was a fascinating read, Aisha. Informative and emotive. I have great respect for your intelligence and the obvious care you’ve taken while analysing your faith. I wish you well on your journey. X

  7. Very interesting read. My struggle with religion (most of them, not just Islam) as a concept is the things done under its name. Which is a shame, as often the underlying values can be just general nice ones to live by, but they get corrupted and used for violence and subjugation.

  8. “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”

    That is precisely what makes this religion valid. It does not change because somehow the West’s values (and consequently global values) have changed in the last hundred years and will continue to change. It does not change because of our whims, our abstractions, the latest gender theories and so on. It is also innacurate to reduce the islamic way to the practices and beliefs of a 7th century desert society since that way of life was considered revolutionary for that very same desert society.

  9. Just wanted to post to express my support and admiration for you. There are so many aspects of Islam that make it hard to leave the faith and think freely. The fact that you did takes incredible courage and strength of mind and spirit. Know that you’re not alone, even if it can feel that way.

  10. Thank you, good piece. Interesting to see that Islam looks – to you – exactly the same from the inside as it does to me from the outside

  11. If you are like me you can pick and choose what is good about Islam and what is not. I do not believe in accepting the words of a warlord written thousands of years ago as any kind of guide for life in the Western world. But I can discern for myself what makes sense and what doesn’t. Fundamentalism is backwards and we must push forward. These days I find greater spiritual comfort in learning about science than I do in Qur’an.

  12. This must have been a hard decision for you. No one takes the decision to leave their faith lightly, especially one you chose rather than were born into. I hope it gives you some peace x

  13. The anon comments asking your husband’s point of view suggest they have barely read your post. The whole underpinning of Islam is the rejection of women’s status in society, it’s patriarchy in the extreme, and very unpalatable it is too in this day and age. Her husband’s opinion is relevant in terms of their private family but has nothing to do with Aisha’s personal beliefs. Every human being has the right to evaluate and form their own beliefs, or lack of. What a brave and honest series of posts, educated, insightful and poignant. I’m following your journey – and it’s sad but interesting that others are quick to condemn. For me, that speaks volumes about the unpleasant, oppressive and mysoginistic religion that is Islam.

  14. Very well argued piece. I’ve always contended that humans create their gods in their own image with their own character. The authoritarian character structure is deeply embedded in class dominated society. When one combines dogmatic thinking with faith, the sparks will fly, as most people in the world won’t conform to your idee fixe and trying to put them into this ‘perfection’ only leads to violence of one sort another. Dominance and submission are the leitmotif of political power in the hierarchical, class dominated societies humans have socially constructed since the agricultural revolution circa 8,000 BC. It’s time we changed those social relations. It’s time to create a free association of producers with equal political power between all men and women.

  15. Any rational thinking person, like you Aisha, will always discover their own path eventually even though outside pressure may have derailed them temporarily along the way. You write this so transparently, from the heart and beautifully. If you don’t already know them it’s well worth reading Christopher Hitchens (dec’d) Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. Known as the 4 horsemen here’s a video of the 4 together in debate http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n7IHU28aR2E . Enjoy. James

    1. What happens if these 4 horsemen with their obviously limited rational thinking capabilities are totally wrong?
      What happens if Day of Judgment becomes a true fact… It will be very interesting to see what happens to this 4 horsemen on the Day of Judgment. Anyway I agree with you. U choose your own path and dig your own funeral. Gd luck brother on your journey in this life and the hereafter.

  16. To be easily affected by other’s Muslims action clearly shows that you have not understood the Religion from the perspective of the Quran itself. I’m a convert myself; from Hinduism to Islam. After reading the Quran, it became super clear to me who is the BOSS! And the Creator is super clear in His message. No ambiguity in the Quran. So looking at it, its clear to me you are lost because of your attention to noise of the outside world. There are criminals in all religions.. so why are you focusing on this people. Focus your attention in understanding & learning the message in the Quran. The message is very clear to me… so what’s your confusion?

      1. haha… another blind duck asking me to open my mind. Its time for you to read the Quran and be open to the clear message from the Creator. Because we all are going to be judged on the Day of Judgment for our actions. So my answer to you… my mind is very clear and open to hear the message from the Creator. But are you open to hear the clear message from Him?

        1. The fact that you can’t see the bigotry in your statement shows the cult like behaviour that leads to ISIS you might want to google how to de-cult your mind. Your Day of Judgement fear mongering and those of your ilk have been responsible for most of the destruction, rape and slavery on this world.

  17. Please ignore the commentators who aren’t accepting of the direction of your life and the decision you have taken. They frequently tend to troll and pass judgement on people who leave their faith which is NONE of their business little realizing their inability to deal with people becoming faithless/leaving Islam is a reflection of their own insecurity and the religion’s inadequacy rather than the person/blog they troll and their self-righteous defensiveness is more off-putting and reactionary than helpful to their cause.

  18. What comes across is that this is a decision you have thought seriously about and not taken lightly. I admire you for writing such an honest post.

  19. Blessings to you as you struggle honestly. There will always be aggressive Muslims, Christians, atheists, new age practitioners, etc. etc., trying to tell you (in the comments section on a blog, no less!) what is best, rather than just listening and respecting. Wishing you grace, peace, and love on your journey, as you continue to seek and explore. As a fellow traveller, I just wish you the very best.

  20. Following hinduism gives maximum freedom. No rules. Every 1 of us has a god in ourselves. As long as we are doing good. Live n let live is the moto. Do ur own stuff without troubling others. Do not enforce. Oldest way of living. B4 Christ n mohammed even came by. Hinduism existed and encouraged buddhism n other religions only cos its yhe freedom 1 enjoys in this religion.

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