Leaving Islam – the hangover

A vintage old bird cage shaped like a human head
Image courtesy of shutterstock.com

After I shared my last post, I shut my laptop and looked for distraction from my pounding heartbeat. Part of me felt lighter; relieved to have reached a decision after months of turmoil. I felt more empowered than I had for a long time under the weight of muslim expectancy. But another part tensely anticipated the fallout. I knew the vulnerability implicit in making my decision public and hoped I wouldn’t regret my stubborn commitment to transparency and truth.



Apostasy is a sin in Islam. The Qur’an threatens eternal torture and damnation for Muslims who leave the faith, but the four leading classical schools of Islamic law – Shafi, Hanbali, Maliki and Hanafi – go even further, stipulating that the punishment for unrepentant apostasy is death as is the case in Afghanistan, Comoros, Iran, Mauritania, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen. Apostasy is also illegal in Jordan, Kuwait, Malaysia, the Maldives, Qatar and Oman. Despite freedom to chose (or leave) a religion being enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 18) apostasy still carries a huge stigma among muslims, even in the West.



‘So what are you now you’re not a muslim?’ my husband asked, his casual tone masking an underlying seriousness.
‘You read it? Whadidjya think?’
‘You could have told me before you published it. What if I’d heard through a third person?’

I’d picked his brain on living with a dichotomy of faith a lot recently, trying to learn what kept his strong and unwavering, struggling to understand how someone with a similarly unconventional perspective of Islam could live the double life of what he was understood to be and what he understood himself to be. We’d spoken in pockets of quiet afforded by the children playing in another room, and in the anonymity of darkness when sleep was elusive. So consumed had I been by the funeral pyre of my belief I’d failed to realize it was not a conflagration visible from afar. I hadn’t told him because I thought he knew.



I stayed away from the laptop all weekend and on Monday logged on with a thudding heart. It says a lot about Muslims that I was so prepared for a vitriolic response. Aside from an odd preoccupation (from male or anon commenters) with what my husband thought, the reaction I found most surprising was the number of people who asked what I am now, as though the very idea of independent thought distinct from any group or collective was unthinkable. Must I take another label?

Later, on the school-run, as I absently scanned my surroundings for signs of random jihadis – conscious I could be someone’s ticket to Jannah (paradise) – I reasoned I’m luckier than most, and I have Muslims to thank for this. Had race not trumped religion and secured my in-laws’ dismissal of me already I’d stand to lose a lot more right now. As things are, my departure caused little more than a ripple of righteous gloating on social media, and silence from the handful of Muslims I was in contact with. There are those who see this as vindication of their misgivings (‘told you she wasn’t a real muslim’) and it’s that strengthening of prejudice that causes me the most regret.

K believes it’s easier to make a difference from within, that by leaving Islam I’ve given my detractors exactly what they wanted, and while I know he’s right I also know how corrosive living a lie can be. You can defend yourself from external threats but not from the acid of self-hate destroying you from within. There’s no room for questions or variance in expression of belief in Islam – to be true to myself I must step out.



I recognize that what I lived and experienced under the stewardship of Islam gave me the ability to understand things as I do now – to deny that would be like a traveller denying the map that brought him to his destination. Without this experience, I’d probably be talking like Ben Affleck. Not so long ago it was me arguing that Quranic references to sectarianism, slaughter and misogyny were just contextual backdrop to a peaceful religion, but no matter how you explain it there are two irrefutable facts:


  1. Those words exist as part of a codified religion, and

  2. People are acting on them in observance of that religion.


That material needs to be addressed.

To deny that it has any part in Islam is to deny the experiences of those affected by it. To deny abused women, child brides, religious minorities, homosexuals, western journalists, and all those murdered for ‘honour’ a voice. Too often we’re told ‘you can’t judge Islam by the behaviour of muslims’, but I’ve come to realise you do need to judge a religion by those who speak and act on its behalf. The dialogue is just as open to co-believers to hold false claimants to account. If they are the majority why don’t they take the floor?



Apparently my curiosity and desire to understand means I’ve missed the whole point – I’m supposed to overlook the detail and embrace the bigger picture. And while I get that it’s not about praying five times a day without fail and re-doing your wudu (ablutions) if you fart, there are others out there for whom it is all about the detail. And this, I’m told, is faith. I guess I’m concerned with the wrong details…

Offering up your autonomy to unquestioningly follow a mass prescribed game plan is not illustrative of an open mind, it’s an abdication of responsibility masquerading as a comforting hand on the shoulder. You don’t gain any control with your prayers and your good deeds – you simply give away your ability to trust yourself. You position yourself to become the person who will carry a gun into an elementary school or who is wearing a bomb underneath their business suit. You become the perfect pawn.


In believing without question you’re not being fooled – you ARE the fool.

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. SO many familiar feelings here. I was AWOL last week (sorry) but also wondered how your husband was feeling about all this… When I “defected” from the tradition I was raised in, I struggled with my religious identity (still do) and did feel that I needed another one to replace the old. I love your quote “the very idea of independent thought distinct from any group or collective was unthinkable.” That was accurate for me. I truly wanted to “just be” but seemed lost without an answer to the question, “What do you believe?” (which, though seldom asked in person, was asked of me, in my head, by me incessantly!). I admire you for being able to “just be”. Well done. And thanks, as always, for sharing!

  2. I must admit I’m guilty of not thinking for the the most part about religion. I’m a non-believer when it comes to any types of religion so it rarely crosses my mind. When I see wars raging on the tv in the name of religion it shuts the concept off even further to me.
    Interesting to read about your thoughts Aisha x

    1. I’m not a believer either. I do find these reflections interesting though. I wonder how many believers have similar feelings about the dogmas they’ve been brought up with.

  3. Just wanted to say, don’t be too hard on yourself. As I’m sure you’re aware, no two people’s view on any religion seems to be the same and it’s wonderful that you’ve been brave enough to reach a decision. i read ‘The Infidel’ a few months ago and it was really eye opening. I love your writing style. Keep it up.

  4. This sounds as though it must have been a very brave step for you. I’m not religious, but I know that faith often provides people with a community as well as belief. To step outside that community must have been a very difficult decision.

  5. My initial thoughts are “are you happy?”. That would be my only concern. It is not for me to judge you. As a non-practicing Catholic, I have looked into removing myself from the church, but it is not that easy for me. Thus I motor along, knowing I do believe in a God, but not what Roman Catholic’s preach. I am happy and to me, that is all that matters. I wish you well Aisha.

  6. I am not surprised by your confusion. Being born in a Muslim family, I have been through these phases as well. I have always been very unsettled by the violence, child brides, abuse towards women, shunning other religions and unreasonable dress codes. In my late teens I chose to be an atheist while I worked things out in an objective way and find a place where I can be at peace with myself. I chose to remain a Muslim after a lot of soul searching. I know that Islam itself does not teach these negative things. It is just a normal religion teaching the greater good of an all encompassing God. And that is all I need from this religion. It is just a pity that so many Muslims are so darn bigoted. And worse: violent, abusive. But I also know that not only Muslims are that. They are other religions in the world who would fit that description. I also think that spirituality is a personal thing. You do not have to attach yourself to any ideology or religion or group to be something or to be spiritual. Everyone should be free to choose what makes them happy or comfortable. So I must say I really do not understand your need to justify this so much. It is like you are looking for others to approve this. But if you are at peace with it, then be happy with it. And what the heck what others think. Be strong in the choices that feel right to you. I don’t give a damn that others think I am a Muslim and by that definition I must be living under the thumb of my husband ( who is a great guy btw) and have a violent streak somewhere. Cheers to you.

  7. Don’t be too harsh on yourself. My thoughts on religion are way too deep for a blog comment, but it should be personal and unique to everyone, and you feeling that is perfectly acceptable!

  8. Congratulations on your life changing decision.
    I went through worse being a Muslim man in a Muslim majority society and married to a devout Muslim wife. I still have not told her or my kids except the little clues I am sure they get about my leaving from my lack of praying. I love my family so much, they are the best thing in my life. I can’t tell them because it will hurt them, and some of them may be irrational about it based on the teachings of Islam. I wish they would accept me for what I am for I can’t imagine myself going back. I have researched and known so much about Islam that I can’t live a day in it. All the call to violence, violence, misogyny, bigotry, and the lack of freedom to think rationally made me leave. The day I left I felt a huge weight lifted off my chest, the freedom to love all for what they are feels so great. I now enjoy the ability to think, love all, question everything and rationalize to the best of my ability. I really love this life and can’t exchange it for any religious one based on no evidence whatsoever. I hope one day I will be free to tell my most love ones and they will accept me for one I am. For I will always love them no matter what they are.

  9. It has been such a major decision for you, and one that you have so clearly given great thought to. Inevitably it is bound to take some getting used to, both for yourself and those around you. I hope you find happiness, for that to me is the true meaning of life – heaven is here and now, treasure and respect the life you have and those you share it with – thats all the religion I need!

  10. People want to be able to label everything and everyone, it keeps the world organized and non-threatening. And change, in any way, is always threatening. So there is a need in humans to stop the change.
    We have been culturally instructed to allow the change but it still threatens us. So it’s OK to leave one religion but you need to choose a way to think and believe, so you become non-threatening again.
    Besides that, hooray for thinking for yourself 🙂 Seek the truth and try to be open to what your heart tells to you, and just be yourself, not a label!

  11. Interesting that you found Islam restricting your thoughts; while I found Islam to be liberating.

    I was born in a Muslim family but in my teenage years became agnostic. Then on finding out about different faiths and my interest in science & finally reading the Prophets biography made me turn back.
    Although, would you not agree the reason for you to leave Islam seems to be the need to be with the majority, to follow the current dominant ideology of Secular Atheism?

    It is also true that Islam is very restricting in certain ways – If I did not believe and thought of my self as a bio-mass that has come together by coincidence then I would not be restricted by ethics, society or morality. I would want to make the most of my time here. After all murder, rape, robbery and all, to me would be an ends to means and quite justified.

    Who states all that is bad? I would not replace Allah with another god called ‘society’ or ‘majority’.
    Thus, Islam liberates me from taking these limited creatures as my god to a being who is beyound perception and directs my thinking in a far better franework.

    1. There are some beautiful ‘bio-masses’ out there and some terribly nasty Muslim believers who are using murder, rape robbery et al on a daily basis. Excuse me but your thinking is at best muddled. I suspect you believe what you want to believe, read what you want to read and act the way you like to act.

  12. This no doubt was a big decision for you and I do believe that people are allowed to follow whatever path they choose without fear of redemption. I do not say I am part of one religion but do believe in spirituality. Whatever is best for you is your decision and yours alone. well done lady x

  13. Religion in general is man made, in my opinion….. sort of. It amazes me the lengths people will go to in following their chosen form of it. That being said something always catches me, the intelligence we possess does not seem natural, that this level of intelligence has evolved from pond sludge is a stretch to put it mildly. Something has influenced all races and cultures of people, enough to engrain this religious mindset on most of us to the present day, even while literally creating artificial life, prolonging life, learning exactly the physical properties new life needs to flourish, even capturing the exact moment in which life begins. Still, magic! What keeps our hearts beating, what affords us the power to think, invent, create, ponder…..We are beyond just our body, we are more our soul than our present physical state, to me it would seem anyway. We at present are just too intelligent to take at face value religion as it is taught to us, to see all religious authority break their own rules, Catholic priests perpetually raping young boys, guilting you into parting with your money and then using that for their personal excess. Muslims especially twisting their Quran to suit their particular perversions , instituting draconian laws, forcing archaic practices on their followers and using fear and intimidation to keep people in line and not waiver from their authority. More people have died (and suffered) in the name of religion than from anything else in the history of human existence. Look beyond all that and you get back to your soul, your voice in your head, the real you. Fuck religion……it is for fools, sheep…..maybe when we die we get to figure it out, but there is no way any other person no matter how divine they claim to be will know these things, if they do they are liars, truly dangerous, manipulative, evil people. That, or at best they are so mesmerized by the theory of their chosen version of religion they feel compelled to preach it to you….. No better than the purposely manipulative in the end although admittedly far better intentioned…. Religion will be inevitably left to the lesser intelligent masses to follow, anyone with a more superior intellect will raise too many red flags with it even though they realize something beyond our grasp is probably at work, or the possibility that we actually could have evolved to this present level of intelligence all by our little selves…

    1. Lance, have you read Christopher Hitchens “God is not great – how religion poisons everything”? I think you share a few opinions. One of Hitchens quotes that always sticks in my head is this:

      “The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: We stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.”

      Or, as Douglas Adams so succinctly put it, ““Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”

  14. Hello Aisha. I’ve arrived here today, from Lindsay de Feliz’s blog (“Saucepans”). Yours is a very interesting – and extraordinary – blog. I’m a devout heathen (and a very old one!), so I find it hard to relate to “believers” of any kind. It’s far too early for me to have any useful comment to make, so I’ll just lurk a while, if that’s OK. Meanwhile, I wish you well, in all aspects of your life.

    1. Welcome Gordon, great to see you here.
      Your comment about being a devout heathen and finding it hard to relate to “believers” reminded me how it was my difficulty relating to my fellow muslims that really forced me to question my faith – naively I thought faith was supposed to unite, not pit followers against one another.
      I’ve come across your writing before on Expat Focus and have read a little of your highly informative blog about life in Cayman so I’m thrilled to have you ‘lurking’ 😉

  15. Hi, Aisha, I, too, have Lindsay to thank for knowing about your blog. With regard to your leaving Islam, that’s YOUR business and no one else has the right to criticize your decision. Anyone that calls you friend should abide by your decision and just be supportive of you.
    Lastly, I’d like to know what you mean by talking like Ben Affleck.

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