Letter to an agnostic

I understand and can empathise with almost everything you have said, as someone who went through a similar period of searching at around the same age as you. There are clear parallels between your experience and mine: the period of agnosticism, the concerns about being true to yourself, being open-minded and determined to read different perspectives, the insistence on reading polemics despite yourself, the obsession with religion and finding answers… it all rings true.

Rather than putting myself back into that moment, however, I think it would be much more beneficial to provide insight from where I stand now, after almost eighteen years walking this path. It is important to recognise that faith is an ongoing project and that a testimony of faith is only the beginning of something. So while I first uttered my shahada at the age of 21 during my second year at university, there have been many renewals, periods of stagnation and changes of direction over the years since then. This is natural.

I appreciate that what follows may not answer the specific question you asked: why did I become Muslim and what made me certain? But I hope that by taking some of what you have written as a starting point I can provide something more helpful.

Growing up, having doubts

We need to understand that not everything that we are taught is in fact Islam, in the sense of what the Prophet brought. A lot of people who think they are rejecting Islam are actually rejecting an incorrect notion of it: in fact, in doing so, they may be moving closer to Islam in its true sense. There are things that Muslims preach which go against the teachings of Islam; if a non-Muslim rejects these ideas, it could actually make them the real Muslim.

Muslims are often quick to throw out the entire intellectual heritage of Islam, simply because it falls outside the realm of their experience or imagination. We may be taught that we are on true Islam and that all other practice is deviation at best, but we should be very careful about rejecting an entire tradition because of our encounter with one aspect of it. Could there be a problem with a particular understanding, interpretation or practice of Islam, rather than with Islam as a whole?

You have to have the right information, and then you have to practice it: this is very difficult. Even very learned people can go against the teachings of Islam. Indeed, sometimes scholars become idols in themselves, and stand in the way of us truly understanding Islam. Historically we have had a lot of problems as Muslims. When things are not properly understood it creates a lot of unrest and people find that they are not at peace with themselves.

Islam is from the root word salima which contains two meanings: safety and health. Hence Islam in its essence is the way to be safe and healthy, physically as well as spiritually. A Muslim is a person who aspires to the ideals of Islam. Hence a true Muslim is the one who struggles to tread the path of safety and health at all times. This requires useful knowledge and good practice within one’s ability.

It is normal at a younger age to have doubts, but you have to keep your feet on the ground. We all have a lot of questions. You cannot be asked to believe in something which is not clear to you. Some things that we are taught are clearly a part of Islam, some things may be or are probably part of Islam, and some things are definitely not part of Islam, neither in law nor belief.

The best approach is to list each of the problems you have and then address them one by one. You may not find the answer immediately – indeed it may take years – but this is the nature of the search for truth. You have to have to have patience with yourself: it is not like a take away meal, or a fruit you pick from a tree. It can take many years to discover a satisfactory answer to your questions. “And God loves those who are patient.”

Arguments against Islam

Some of the arguments against what is said to be Islam have merit, some do not: it’s a mixed field, made up of all kinds of players from the very political to the devoutly religious. Some arguments when taken out of their historical context can seem persuasive, but others simply prey on ignorance. At the same time, Muslim refutations are often very weak.

I have probably spent more time than most, both before my shahada and since, reading polemics against Islam in my pursuit of the truth. Sometimes, before getting too involved in the argument, it’s necessary to ask questions about those promulgating it. For example there are some critics of Islam which present themselves as being pacifist or opposed to political violence, who on further investigation are found to advocate war against Muslim countries. Similarly, there are missionary organisations which hold Islam to a much higher burden of proof than they apply to themselves.

One polemical website, for example, is maintained by a group of evangelical Protestant Christians who give themselves the privilege of leapfrogging Christian history and presenting themselves as true first-century believers who follow the Bible alone. As a result, they allow themselves to ignore two thousand years of Christian scholarship, all whilst trawling through classical Muslim works to reveal the unpalatable views of Muslim scholars. The doctrinal excesses and crimes of the Roman Catholic, Orthodox or early Protestant churches are nothing to do with them, they claim, making what Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas or George Whitefield had to say on the same subjects irrelevant.

We have to always look at claims in their proper historical context – and this applies both to Muslim and non-Muslims. When we put things in the proper order, they begin to make a lot more sense.

On the question of slavery, for example, we know that this repugnant phenomenon had already existed for thousands of years when the Prophet began preaching the message of Islam, so we can be certain that he did not initiate it. Slavery was rampant and part of the fabric of society at the time, so it was not possible to abolish it overnight. However we do know that from day one, the Prophet freed slaves: consider the example of Zaid. From the texts we know that he had freed slaves; according to the customs of the time he was often given slaves as a gift, which he accepted, but he always freed them. The Quran itself emphasises the freeing of slaves: either you free them with no ransom or you free them with ransom. It only provides these two options; there is no third option about holding onto them.

It is true that rules pertaining to keeping slaves are detailed in Hanbali and Shafi fiqh, but we should challenge the notion that this means that it is theologically justified. Considering the historical milieu, could we not equally conclude that these were legal rulings arrived at to justify contemporary practices? We know that after the death of the Prophet and the demise of the Rashidun Caliphate, those who had opposed the Prophet’s mission throughout his life took over. These people reversed many of his reforms and began taking slaves again, even from amongst the Muslims. In time they institutionalised many ideas that are contrary to the spirit of Islam, including hereditary leadership, slavery and diminishing the authority of the Quran.

What we must understand is that Muslims can do things that Islam prohibits. The policies of Muslims can be good or bad; criminals are criminals regardless of the labels you give them. The scholarship we have inherited did not develop in a vacuum, untouched by politics and culture. This is equally true of all groups. Slavery was only abolished in the UK in 1833 and in the US as late as 1865; before this, those with vested interests in the trade also promoted theological justification for the practice. Using religion as a cover for suspect practices is very common in all communities and traditions. Much deplored political interference in matters of faith did not begin only in the current era or in response to European imperialism.

Reading different scholars and counter arguments

When I was searching, I also wanted others to convince me. I used to lament that neither Muslims nor Christians would reach out to me or answer my questions. For a while I was going to Church, but I was dissatisfied with the simplistic answers to my enquiries. I would ask questions of religious people, but did not find their responses convincing. When I had questions about Islam, I would be referred to a Christian expert on Islam. When his answers did not persuade me, I would befriend Muslim students at university, intent on them responding to my queries. Rarely was anyone truly able to answer my questions. Like you, I was dumbfounded by this at the time.

Nowadays I take a more magnanimous view, for I recognise that most people are not concerned about this idea we call truth. Most people are satisfied with whatever they find themselves on and do not feel the need to confirm that it is correct and true. This is as much true of Muslim communities as anyone else. Whether we call ourselves Traditionalist, Salafi, Hanafi, Hanbali, Sunni, Shia… we each revel in what we think we have, and reject everything else, even if we don’t know why.

Therefore we have to accept that the journey we are on is somewhat personal. University is good for getting a job, but the personal pursuit of truth is something you have to search for yourself. The Quran repeatedly mentions using the intellect; sometimes you have to use your mind to reach truths that you cannot find out there. In Muslim circles we are not often told this; in fact we are often discouraged from thinking altogether. Scholars have been made like Rabbis and Priests, as an authority on everything. However the Quran is against this idea. “They have taken their scholars and monks as lords besides Allah…”

This is not an argument against sitting at the feet of the learned, but about building and maintaining the right relationship with them. Scholars are often not treated as normal people who have specialised in a field of learning, but as legendary beings, giants and celebrities bigger than the dimensions which contain them. Years of pious folklore turn them into mythic creatures who can never err or suffer the human ailments which afflict the rest of us. Of course we should learn from those who know better — as in any other field of human endeavour — but it is important to put the references of Islam in the right order.

  1. The Quran: The Arabic version is agreed upon by all Muslims. The understanding of it is not always agreed upon. A translation is an understanding of the original text.
  2. The Sayings attributed to the Prophet. There are many collections usually called books of hadith. A saying is taken only if it is not contradicted by something stronger. Similarly that which is taken from its understanding is not always agreed upon.
  3. The Intellect. This is highly encouraged by the Quran and it is something common to all mankind.
  4. The sciences of the day. The Quran 35:27-28 uses the word ulama for those who study the human being and/or that which surrounds them.

Arguments for or against Islam are all interpretations. Some are stronger than others. Some may appear to be true, but are based on unsound assumptions. Some may true based on the information available, but that information may be incomplete or incorrect. There are many factors to weigh in.

Pretence, family pressures and labels

As an agnostic, this was a big concern of mine. As my entire family is very religious, I was scared to make my atheism and agnosticism known. Yet on the other hand I hated attending church services because I felt like a hypocrite. I later realised that this feeling was in fact an innate acknowledgement that I was accountable before God, for otherwise that sense of hypocrisy would not have bothered me.

My advice would be to not rush into anything. It is still very early days and there is still much to learn and discover. I do appreciate the urgency you feel — when I was young I felt exactly the same. I was also given the advice that I am giving you now, but I was too impatient to pay heed. Instead I jeopardised my studies with my obsession with these questions in my first and second years at university, and yet here I am 18 years later still asking questions, determined to get to the bottom of things. This is natural.

If you find yourself veering towards atheism or agnosticism, you’ll be aware that there is no urgency to believe in either position. Nothingness does not require a testimony of faith, or commitment to a way of living. If you feel a hypocrite while uttering words you do not believe in, you might write it off as the reverberations of your soul. Or you might sense that something deeper is at play.

Slow down and take your time. Recall how the Prophet, when dissatisfied with the answers of his people to the questions of life, ascended Mount Hira to sit alone in meditation to ponder and reflect. Islam is truly not how it is portrayed by those doing dawah on YouTube: it is a path you have to struggle to find. Use this time away from home to ponder and reflect on life, the universe and everything, free of the pressures of dogmatism and so-called orthodoxy.

Don’t worry what other people might think. We are individually accountable for our actions and beliefs. The community always has labels for people who arrive at different conclusions. Many people who reject some of the orthodox inheritance and try to retrace true prophetic Islam are labelled as modernists or deviants or heretics. The challenge is to be true to ourselves, to be open-minded and not be bullied by others, however hard that undoubtedly is. I am well aware that the ideas I write about on my blog are unacceptable even to close friends of mine. Sometimes you have to be selective in who you discuss these ideas with.

Look at yourself — do not worry what others think. Hold back, take your time, have sabr.

The appeal of atheism

I’m not sure that you can describe atheism as being simple, because all it refers to is a denial of the existence of God. It is not a belief or framework of any sort and proves nothing on its own; it is purely the opposite of theism. Far from being simple, once you have set out on your own as an independent collection of molecules with thoughts driven purely by chemical reactions, you must decide how you will live: whether you will obey laws and what those laws should be, whether you should interact with others, create your own philosophy or break with communal expectations altogether. I can’t describe my own period of atheism as anything but depressing, but then I was a glum teenager at the time.

The tenacity of faith

When it comes to practice, we are only required to pray the five prayers and fast one month of the year; anything more is optional. Remember that prayer, fasting and pilgrimage are not goals in themselves, but necessary vehicles to higher goals.

On the contrary we are asked to sit and reflect for a long time: “Those who remember Allah while standing or sitting or lying on their sides and give thought to the creation of the heavens and the earth, saying, ‘Our Lord, You did not create this aimlessly; exalted are You!’”

God does not compel a soul beyond what it is able to do. You will not be judged for what you do not know; God will judge you by your level, not someone else’s. Perhaps the key to more certainty is to spend more time reflecting and pondering on the beauty of creation: to go for walks in the hills or by the river. As you are at university and have access to a well-stocked library, it is also a good opportunity to delve into history.

As I have already mentioned, some of what is stated as Islam is clear cut and factual. For example, there are five things that make up belief: from the Quran it is clear that the universe has a creator called Allah; that there are unseen creatures called angels; that there were Prophets and Messengers; that Books were revealed to those Messengers; and that there will be a Day of Judgement.

Other certainties are that the core mission of all Prophets was for people to uphold justice, not to convert everyone; that prayers, fasting and pilgrimage are not goals in themselves but are necessary vehicles to higher goals; that individual responsibility rests within their ability.

Some of what is stated as Islam is probable. For example, from the Quran it is not clear if there are other creatures on other planets, though when reading you get the feeling that this is the case. Similarly, it is probable that before Adam there were no other human-like creatures.

However some of what is stated as Islam is not true or is at least disputed. Examples are that a woman can be pregnant for more than a year; that he waged war against people who did not wage war against him; that he enshrined slavery; or that everyone in Arabia became Muslim at the time of the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.

When we separate out what is clear cut and factual from what is not true or disputed, many of the contentious obstacles to belief disappear. I believe that the biggest obstacle people face when it comes to belief is not the Quran, but other sources which have been allowed to contradict and undermine it. Saying that something is true because it is found in our books or is old is a problematic approach. It could be true, but it might not be: we have to evaluate things and challenge suspect ideas.

The idea that a person who has tried hard to believe is punished is not from the Quran. Rather the Quran talks about being held accountable according to your level or ability. That doesn’t mean it is easy. The Quran asks, “Do the people think that they will be left to say, ‘We believe’ and they will not be tested?”

You need to take one thing at a time. You cannot be certain about absolutely everything. You have to experience things for what they are. See things with your heart and you will become certain; if you only see with your eye, you will not become certain. Take one issue at a time.

Certainty

Like you, I used to say, “I have to believe with absolute certainty.” And indeed, in my early days as a Muslim when simplistic apologetics appeared persuasive, I would talk of my faith being about conviction and certainty. But the reality is that faith is at root about belief, trust and hope, for we are dealing with the unseen: we cannot see our Creator, nor can we physically experience events that occurred in the past or that will happen in the future.

Of course, the work of scientists and historians show that it is quite possible to develop a level of certainty in the unseen based on signs, experiences or historical evidences. We might point to James Clerk Maxwell’s theories on the existence of radio waves towards the end of the nineteenth century, which set the stage for Heinrich Hertz to actually demonstrate their existence experimentally. This is the root of the scientific endeavour.

The Quran invites us to come to belief on the basis of evidences on the horizons and within ourselves. I reflected on this the other day when attending a hospital appointment, where the surgeon sketched out the inner workings of the ear: we take our hearing for granted, but it is a phenomenal piece of engineering when you’re faced with the mechanics that translate sound waves into signals that our brains can understand. The same is true of our eyes or taste buds.

When I reflect on my ability to see, hear, smell, taste and perceive the world around me, my belief in God is unshakable. Or when I reflect on the numerous preconditions for life that came into being to enable me to sit here and write all of this, I am utterly awestruck: that the sun came into being, and that a planet capable of sustaining life orbited it, with a gravitational pull and atmosphere that would enable strings of amino acids to come together, let alone complex life forms. To me our very existence is mind-blowing; on the level of probabilities alone it breaks mathematics itself.

God does not unveil Himself before us, but asks us to explore and ponder deeply on the heavens and earth, on natural phenomenon, on our own existence and on signs within ourselves. So this is what we should do. It is worth reflecting on that fact the Quran uses the word ulama for those who study the human being and the world around us: it indicates the importance of these areas of study.

This is perhaps the verse that most touched me at the age of 21 and to this day: “Have not the unbelievers then beheld that the heavens and the earth were a mass all sewn up, then We unstitched them and of water fashioned every living thing? Will they not believe?”

The other concerned the resurrection on the Day of Judgement: “Does man think that We will not reassemble his bones? Yes, We are even able proportion his fingertips.”

Small signs, perhaps, but they were capable of reigniting a tiny flame of faith in the existence of God and revelation that would lead me on for two decades to come.

The road ahead

Yours is a personal journey, and one that only you can walk. It can be a lonely road, even in the company of Muslims. Some of the ideas I have discussed here, I would have shunned five years ago. Some of the ideas I wrote about ten years ago, I no longer hold to today. This is the nature of the journey of faith. Our experiences and the knowledge we accumulate change us. I sincerely believe you must have patience. When I read your email I saw an echo of my search for meaning and truth at university almost two decades ago; it spoke of sincerity and that inner driving force some of us find we have. God willing, you will find your way, even if it is not along the path you were expecting.

May the Most Merciful guide us all.

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